running downhill

I took this image about 1000 feet above the valley floor, perched on a rock just off a trail. Like most photos I take on the trail, it was more impressive in person than in the picture I captured, both in terms of its vividness and the loftiness of the perch. From here, I’m looking down at work, home is just a blur amongst other blurs, and the horizon offers a state line. I was at roughly mile 8, the literal peak of this 12 mile run.


In spite of the photo and the contours and even the map traced out by the breadcrumbs of a GPS tracker on my phone, what I don’t have is what I actually see on the run. On this particular day, I’d brought headphones and had the high standard to listen to Rachmaninoff piano concertos* as I paced myself. But the headphones inadvertently fell out somewhere during mile 2, and I decided not to even bother. It was a good decision; I never missed the orchestra. In total, I’d climb and lose about 2000 feet of elevation. I clambered over rocks and ducked under trees. I faced the wind out of the canyon at mile 3 that drove rain into my face. I sloshed through a slurry of mud on an exposed slope. I felt great.

Besides the miles, it’s the contour that appeals to my senses. I know that when I first started the routine of running every goddamfuckingsonofabitch step was effort on level pavement. But as weeks passed it got easier, little by little, and then I started paying attention to the long road that stretched into the horizon. And that could be worse — staring off into a distance that was one street lamp followed by one stop sign followed by another street lamp followed by another stop sign followed by another … It gets demoralizing just to type it. But it still got easier, and I learned to understand pace, patience, and perspective.

But then I discovered trails and hills. And now, pacing down hills is something that I’m told I’m good at (by others I’m running with, who are in the same pseudo-athletic category that I fit in, so take it with a grain of salt). It’s that curving downhill (see above, miles 8 through 10, for example) through the trees that hug the trail, a series of rocks and banks that form the turns. For whatever reason, my feet seem to realize that the less amount of time they spend in contact with the ground, the better my odds of navigating the course. What this turns into is a sort of exhilarating dive down the mountain, and recently, when on one of these sequences of banks, I realized how I could solve my problem of not being able to describe what I actually see on my run.

It might help to know that I was probably listening to AC/DC, Back in Black, when this came to me.

My downhill plunge point-of-view is pretty much just like Iron Man’s heads-up-display in the first person. Identifying objects as threats or assets, small but bright translucent indicators circle them. Downhill, there is only feet and terrain. There’s no room for anything else. Quickly and smoothly, rock after root after stick — panic-oh-wait-it’s-not-a-rattlesnake — they all go by as my feet let them skip underneath.


Yes, it’s pretty much exactly like that. But it’s also something else.

Recently, The Oatmeal created this genius piece on running and the motivation for it. It’s enjoyable and worthwhile, and while many people seem to particularly identify with the part about “The Blerch,” I was myself especially moved by the last section that describes “The Void.” This, in a strange way, connects to my own Iron Man H.U.D. imagery. (You might not feel that same connection; and I’m okay with that.) The last few lines of the comic make total sense to me on those downhill stretches, even as I’m plucking the words out of context:

Forget the why.
You are in a raging forest
full of beauty and agony and
magical grapey beverages and
lightning storms and demon bees.
This is better than the why.

That’s what it’s like to run down the mountain through the trees. But, also, as Iron Man. It’s fantastically spectacular.


*I won’t pretend that I am always listening to piano concertos on runs, but Rachmaninoff’s #2 or #3 are inspiring to me and really great to run to. But so is Dave Matthews, Frank Turner, or Ben Folds.


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