The following words were written after a rainy trail run on Taylor Mountain, a 2.4 mile ascent gaining 1152 feet to the summit. It is a run I like to do weekly on Tuesday mornings. The time I began running it coincided with my divorce. In fact the first ascent I made was the morning after I’d filed the paperwork at the county courthouse. Each time I do this run I think about how it is the perfect metaphor for the challenges we each face in life.
I sat in the warm cab as the rain beat down on the windshield. A hot cup of coffee sat in the console and I knew my work colleagues were either still in bed or just getting up. I was at the trail head, it was 5:45 am, nearly 2 hours before official sunrise, and I had 2.4 miles of vertical trail I would cover twice taunting me to come out and meet it’s challenge.
As I exited the truck and shrugged into my hard shell rain coat in the downpour, I briefly questioned why I was putting myself through this. Before I could talk myself out of it my feet began pulling me up the mountain. Truth was I didn’t have to be out here. No one was depending on me to go out in the storm and perform some heroic measure. But it was the vision of what lay ahead that drew me up the mountain.
Despite the knowledge that I was going to be cold, wet, muddy and tired, I knew this was an investment in my future. Fourteen weeks away from a trail race with 300 other hardy souls, Eight months from a high mountain elk hunt that would test my lungs and legs and extract a hefty sum from my fitness bank account. Today was about making a deposit in that account. The deposit slip would detail the sum of vertical ascent, viscious weather, missteps and mudslides. Like pennies, nickles and dimes, they added up to a paltry sum at the moment, but I was depending on frequent deposits in the upcoming days, and the compounding interest of early saving to be my solution when the mountain and its four footed collection agents handed me the bill.
As I picked up my stride and found my pace with the wind pelting me with raindrops, I thought how this climb seemed to mirror my last year in its challenge. Not happy to sit idle out of the weather in a 20 year marriage, I kicked open the door and took on the elements and rooted rocky trail that is divorce proceedings. At first the residual warmth from my stored up heat kept me comfortable, but that faded with time. The effort of propelling myself forward though kicked up my internal furnace, and as the chill of the first mile crept in, my internal core pushed back the cold.
While the dark was daunting, my headlamp cut through to illuminate the trail ahead. Just far enough to plan my next few strides. Some puddles and rocks showed in the meager light, but others became only obvious under my feet, requiring a path adjustment and a shortening of stride. Much the same way that letters from opposing lawyers, court orders, and legal bills were obstacles in my path. I continued onward as the trail steepened and became rougher. I looked ahead and saw the trail flattened as it passed through a grove of oaks. I imagined the trees would provide some relief from the wind and rain, and my stride lengthened as I entered the cover of the forest. But the trees merely concentrated the precipitation into big soggy drops that found their way down my collar and challenged the heat from my core. What I thought was a haven from the storm was merely a different challenge to my resolve. Shocking at first, the drops mingled with my sweat and equalized the temperature and I soon relished the cool dampness.
“Relentless Forward Progress” I told myself. “As long as you are moving forward, you are making progress. The summit will still be there, whether you are walking or running.” I let my breath become ragged gasps, reminding me to moderate my pace on the steep pitches and pick it up on the more level sections. Pitches and benches, ruts, rocks, roots, and down branches. Each step was challenged, then rewarded with progress. Even the slick muddy section took away progress as a foothold gaveway but my fingers grabbed the turf and pulled me back to my feet. Rocks that were once obstacles became footholds as I scaled the steepest and most treacherous section.
Once I’d reached the bench the narrow singletrack that skirted the hillside gave me firmer traction and I picked up pace despite the rain clouds and fog that obscured the trail ahead. This was the final pitch that would take me to the summit, a quarter mile of treacherous trail that came to a stop at a bench at the summit. There a rock cairn greeted me. A sign that others had been here before me, and the stack of igneous stones stood as testament that I was following a path blazed by many before me. I could ascend no higher.
As the wind drove the rain into my exposed skin there at the summit and my heat rose out of my scalp as steam, I shouted to the gods of weather, light, fog and darkness to let them know I’d penetrated their defenses. That they could not hold me back, like so many other home snug in their beds who wouldn’t even challenge their reign. For a brief moment the wind and rain surged in defiance then slackened as if to acknowledge my claim.
As I began my descent, I knew that the same trail sections that challenged my climb lay in wait to trip me or slip my feet out from under me, and my vigilance was heightened. My destination was the trail head below, and I had to negotiate those sections with care. Where I’d slipped climbing up before, my feet quickly went out from under me and I slid on my hip, negotiating the rocks as I slid. Like the new relationship that took me by surprise, I was getting where I was going faster than I’d intended. Despite the startling fall, I steered my way to my feet, and continued the descent, each time falling, sustaining a minor scrape, but continuing down the path to the ultimate goal.
Below, coming up the trail I could see headlamps bobbing, my fellow runners following the path I’d left. Their mountains were different, and they negotiated the obstacles in different manners and at different paces than I did. But we recognized the kinship in each other and greeted one another as brothers and sisters in arms. Nods, grunts, smiles and hand gestures were exchanged as we each continued along our respective paths. It wouldn’t be the first or last time we crossed paths in life and some meetings would be marked with a hug or handshake. And each time we met, we gave a little bit of ourselves and collected some from the other. Another Karmic exchange of goodwill.
As I dropped below the clouds, I didn’t seem to feel the wind and rain any more. Perhaps I’d become immune to it, or it had actually lessened. Morning twilight, muted by the iron grey sky, illuminated the trail slightly and my pace quickened as the trail smoothed and widened. I could see my finish ahead as I kicked up my pace and lengthened my stride. On the final flat section I found more endurance and sprinted to the gate, jubilant in the effort and result.
I’d done what I’d come here to do. To conquer the weather, the trail, the dark and the elevation. As I reached in my pocket I could almost feel the jingle of the coin of conditioning I’d collected, while the currency of confidence filled my other hip pocket. A few brief moments later savoring the hot shower with my warm comforting cup of coffee, I washed the mud of the mountain off my legs and watched my worries and troubles go down the drain. I emerged cleaned and happy and entered life with the rest of my colleagues though the door that morning with a spring in my step. Because I had conquered the mountain this morning. And they never knew what they missed…