Finding Joy on a Winter Trail

Ah, the offseason.  It’s a time to let the body recover from the previous months, to hit the restart button, and to enjoy being active without the rigors of in-season training.  I always have big plans in the offseason — plans to make me a better athlete and a more well-rounded person.  Plans like changing my swim stroke and learning to touch my toes and picking up French and reading up on worldly affairs.  However, I can count on one hand the number of times I actually followed through with any of those plans.

For years now, I’ve been saying that I wanted to start trail running in the offseason, but I never actually did anything to make that wish a reality.  But shortly after my 2015 triathlon season ended, I learned that a group of runners from Edge Athlete Lounge (my training/recovery facility in Chicago) was beginning their season of trail running.  I looked at is as a perfect excuse to give it a try, and went on my first trail run with Edge in late October.  I quickly fell in love with the challenge of the different terrain, the serenity of being in the woods, and the company I got to share it with…so much so that it has since become a Sunday morning ritual.  Each week, we meet at Edge before dawn, and pile into Brian’s Jeep Wagoneer like a 1970s family embarking on a road trip.  From there we head out to Palos Hills, located just 30 minutes outside the city, but home to miles of forest preserves and a web of trails that makes it feels like an entirely different world.  It’s a time to log fun miles, connect with nature, and share time with some seriously awesome people.

12510404_1719305654965257_5338089983129365219_nThese Sunday runs quickly became my favorite part of my week.  So a couple weeks ago, when the first major snowfall finally hit Chicagoland, I was left with a pretty serious dilemma.  I had told myself that as soon as it snowed, my trail run days would be over.  Running on ice is risky business as it is, but doing it with a prosthetic that can’t actually feel the ground…that’s just plain crazy.  But there was this little voice inside of me that was telling me otherwise.  It was the part of me that had become so smitten with the trails over the previous months.  “But you love it out there,” the voice said. “You can’t stop going just because there’s a little snow.”

And so, I started to research how I could make my blade winterproof.  I found that the easiest and most effective way of getting traction on ice was by inserting standard sheet metal screws into the soles of your shoes.  So that Saturday night, I got a pack of screws, drilled them into my blade and my right running shoe, and went to bed hoping that this crazy scheme would actually work.
As the Wagoneer entered the forest preserve parking lot that Sunday morning and I saw the sheets of chunky ice that we would be dealing with, I had a brief moment where I questioned why I had even come (when your entire life is based on the fact that you have one leg that works really well, putting yourself in a position that puts that one leg in jeopardy is all the more scary).  Those first few steps were nothing short of terrifying, but once I realized that those screws were actually going to support me, I dove right in.  The conditions that day were seriously treacherous, but my legs handled it better than I ever could have hoped.  I finished that run prouder than I’d been in a long time.  Not because I had run very far or very fast, but because I had done something that I’d always thought was impossible.
487531_1719305661631923_8031562876036984498_n This last Sunday, our group hit the trails once again.  It had snowed several inches over the course of the week, and the ruddy patches of ice that were there the previous Sunday were now covered by a layer of pristine powder.   Within the first few minutes on the trail, I knew that this was going to be a run that I would not soon forget.  I was finally feeling comfortable on the terrain, and for the first time, I was actually able to look up from my feet and take everything in. And man, was there a lot to take in.  Like the fresh powder atop the trees that appeared as though they came straight out of a storybook.  Like how the sun hit the snow and created a breathtaking glow on the landscape beneath it.  Like how the only footprints in front of us were those of a coyote and a deer — the trail otherwise untouched by human life.  I felt the cold bitter air as it filled my lungs; felt the hairs in my nostrils freeze as I inhaled the crispness.  I was breathing at a rate that would have been perceived as difficult if I were on the road, but feeling so light and effortless in my movements that the challenge did not even cross my mind.  As I tore through six inches of snow, I smiled wondering how in the world this was really happening. And as I threw myself down the descents, I couldn’t help but feel like a little kid.  An 8-year old version of myself, bustling with energy, without a fear in the world, whose only concern was how I never wanted it to end.

On the car ride back to the city, I found myself thinking about the last time I felt that way on a run.  I could think of only two other occasions.  The first was in a hallway at Scheck & Siress Prosthetics on a winter afternoon in 2011, when I broke into a run for the first time in eight years.  The second was two years later, when I ran my first marathon in Chicago, a race so fun that I smiled for five hours straight.  All three experiences shared a common feeling that I could not quite articulate until I was finally able to put my finger on it.  It was pure, unadulterated joy.

Joy, I have learned, is different from happiness.  While happiness is a general state of being, joy is fleeting.  It’s an emotion so raw and so rare, that many of us may not even remember what it feels like.  Joy is a sensation so intense that you feel it in every ounce of your body.  It’s that feeling of wanting to bust at the seams with elation.  In a world that emphasizes that happiness is the only thing we need, joy is something that we rarely allow ourselves to experience.  But why?  Why is a concept so simple one that is so difficult to achieve?

IMG_2784I think it has something to do with entering uncharted territory – with experiencing something that we never have before.  This would explain why as kids, those moments of joy are so frequent.  As adults who fall into life’s routine and rarely have the opportunity to experience something novel, joy is finding that novelty and allowing ourselves the time to cherish it.  My first-ever run through a snow-covered forest was like a kid playing in snow for the first time.  Laying down the footprints on a trail not yet touched by another human was like navigating the world through the adventurous eyes of a child.

Or maybe it’s not so much doing something that we have never done before as it is doing something that we didn’t think we could do.  Perhaps joy is what happens when we take something that scares the hell out of us, look it in the eye, and decide to pursue it anyway.  It’s experiencing the feeling of flight after eight years of thinking that my feet would always be planted on the ground.  It’s running 26.2 miles after thinking that I wasn’t even capable of running a quarter of that distance.  It’s tearing down a snowy hill after a lifetime of thinking that winter running was synonymous with the treadmill.  Perhaps joy is looking our fears in the face, overcoming them, and coming out feeling as though we have conquered the world.

The last couple of months have been one of the most difficult periods in my athletic career so far.  Without getting into the details, I’ll just say that my motivation — the one thing I have always had in abundance — was all but gone.  Training has always been something that made me happy, but in those two months, it was something I dreaded.  During that time, my Sunday morning trail runs were what gave me light.  They were the one time of the week where I was enjoying what I was doing.  They made me excited about training again.  They made me reclaim the happiness I had lost.  They made me fall in love with running all over again.  And this Sunday, it culminated with gift I have only experienced a handful of times in my adult life — a nonstop hour’s worth of pure joy.

As I head into the biggest year of my life thus far, I am sure there are going to be more difficult times ahead.  Times where my motivation is missing, times were dread ensues, times where I question my love for the sport.  But when those times come, I will remember that day on the trails, remember the joy that I felt, and remember why I do what I do.  Those moments of joy, fleeting as they may be, are the moments we fight for, and the moments that make life worth living.

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