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off the trail

July 11, 2011

[Welcome to the latest installment of Chasing Maybes, a self-imposed challenge to live beyond my comfortable edges.  Join me on my experiential ramble through Trivial Pursuit categories.  I’m working my way through July, chasing adventures related to Geography. ]

It recently occurred to me that I’ve become increasingly lazy in my running routine (if that sounds like an oxymoron, just stay with me).  We are fortunate enough to live running distance from the Tobacco Trail, an impressive 22 miles of shaded, mostly flat, beautiful running space.  The trail is a phenomenal resource, but I’ve relied on it so heavily in recent years that I’ve neglected to explore other running routes in our area.  Not only has running the same route likely removed some of the physical challenge from my runs, it has also eliminated the mental challenge — I’m able to turn off my brain entirely while running because I know the only directional move I’ll make is to turn around and run the opposite way once I hit my landmark.  This is running laziness.

We will move in two (ack!) weeks to an entirely new environment.  I’ll need to discover running routes and — more importantly — find my way around a city I last lived in over eleven years ago.  Orienteering inabilities aside, I need to get my directional brain in shape, as much as I detest the idea, because I’ve been relying on my car’s GPS system in the same way I’ve relied on the Tobacco Trail.  I type in an address, I follow the lovely female voice’s directions, and I magically end up where I am supposed to be without ever attending to how I arrived there.  This unconsciousness is, again, laziness.

To be fair, my reliance on a GPS is not just laziness.  It is also a functional habit born of countless failures to arrive at the right place at the right time, and the subsequent gnawing anxiety that these failures produce.  An example:  years ago, when my husband and I were first married, I went on an early morning weekday run with a group of runners far faster than I.  I became separated from them and got so lost that the only way I knew to find my way back involved running on a highway’s frontage road (I do not, by the way, recommend this practice).  It was also, coincidentally, my very first day at a new job.  I barely skidded into my new office on time, still sweating from my 3 minute post-highway-sprint shower.  Not a great way to start the day.

At any rate, I know myself well enough to understand that I am an experiential learner.  I may not have any innate directional ability, but if I want to understand my surroundings I need to practice attending to them.

For me, running has been a way to intimately understand an area — to observe its trees, its inhabitants, its street signs — so, last weekend, I set off to explore uncharted running territory by finding a six and a half mile route online.  I was familiar with the starting and ending point of the loop (a bike path in Chapel Hill near an upscale neighborhood) so I knew it would be a safe entry into this project.  The route also boasted enough turns, hills, and unfamiliar territory to demand my full mental participation in the run.  Plus, I figured six and a half miles wasn’t a long enough distance to get irreparably lost.

these were my route directions folded in half; there were twice as many turns as shown on this sweaty little paper

It was a cloying, thunderstormy morning when I began my run — overcast and almost Houston-humid.  The route began and ended on a bike path, allowing me to park at the UNC Wellness Center.

After a very short stretch of bike path, though, I entered the stately Chapel Hill neighborhood where I would spend the vast majority of my run.  I ran alongside such beautifully manicured homes that I almost didn’t notice how many hills my route sported.  My focus, for the first time in many runs, remained largely on my immediate environment — “Ooops!  Here comes a car!”  “Do I turn right or left at this next street?”  “Is that dog on a leash?” — which enriched the experience for me.  While I had a few stream of consciousness departures (1. as I ran along a golf course with thunder clouds threatening above me, I thought of my childhood friend Mary Katherine whose father was struck by lightning and killed while golfing — I wondered where and how she is as an adult;  2.  as I passed Kilkenny Street, I thought fondly of a family trip we took to that selfsame city a few years ago… I thought of my sister, Steve, and I stuffed in the backseat of our rented Passat as we tooled through Irish county roads), for the most part I remained mentally present for the run.  After six and a half hilly miles, I was relieved to find myself, having faithfully followed each turn on my damp little paper, back where I began at the UNC Wellness Center.

Not getting lost was almost a surprise.  It was definitely a victory.

Several years ago, Steve gave me a map of the United States framed in a shadow box, along with a box of pins, to mark all of the places I’ve run around the country.

I know you can't really see it, but it is there -- I promise.

It’s been both a challenge and a gift to track my runs and, while our travel has slowed considerably since our children arrived, I want to keep adding pins as I add years.  More than anything, I love that Steve wants this for me.

I can’t add another pin for it, but with no highway running and no gnawing anxiety, I’ll count my first intentional off-the-trail run a success.  I’ll keep you posted on the many more to come.

Whatever trail you follow — or don’t follow — today, I hope it leads to something great.  Thanks, as always, for showing up.

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