Cast your mind back to your school cross-country days.
For me, those cursed words still invoke chilling memories of trembling, skinny legs, freezing cold hands tucked as far into my thin sleeves as possible to stave off hypothermia, already glistening with the damp remains of a runny nose now red and sore with irritation, and deadly, steep mud slides in cheap trainers without grip or perhaps in canvas hockey boots that always pinched around the toes. I agonised over the dreaded hill climbs. Finding it hard to breathe. Wishing the idea of running just didn’t exist at all. It was always on a Thursday.
Getting excited about going running on cross-country day just never happened. It was always cold, for a start. And I was always at the back, shivering. At some point the thought entered my head that I wasn’t a runner. I certainly wasn’t built for cross-country. I hated being cold.
I hated Thursdays.
As the years passed and the need to subject myself and my peers to the frigid torment decreased, the very thought that I would never have to set foot on a cross-country field again, nor enter into such a concept, was just one of the highlights of ageing.
I’d done my bit for human nature, and survived the ordeal. Thank you. If you have too, then take a bow. You’ve cleared the style into the field of cross-country-free days. We can all move on with life.
If your experience of running on anything that wasn’t track or pavement was nothing like this, then you’re one lucky individual. Perhaps you still run. Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps you’re secretly wishing there was a cross-country race for the Olympics rather than that softer cop-out called ‘track’. After all, you’re not even guaranteed dirty trainers in the steeplechase.
Hopefully you’ll be reading this and realising that a grin is spread across my cheeky jowls as I highlight the start of my running experience. If not, then I may have painted the picture of your all-too-vivid nightmare, but I’m not going to apologise. Instead, let’s turn that image into one of the many experiences which were just the beginning of the modern human’s fitness and exercise story, an image that we all need to accept and recognise as potentially the start of our running with fight journey.
While running across fields may no longer be a haunting and scary idea because we were once forced to do it or face detention, there are many who still see the idea of hill climbs, mud slides, cold starts, being out-of-breath and being left behind by other scary runners as a reason not to embrace what we are mechanically, physiologically and anthropologically destined for: running in the wild.
No, really. Have you forgotten your wild youthful days, at pre-school? You ran around without a cursory glance as to who was watching, as to whether your skirt was still tucked into your knickers, and sometimes even your shoelaces were untied. All that mattered was that feeling of freedom, you were free to run, sometimes with arms out wide whilst pretending to be an aeroplane. Do you recall calling out loud, making animal noises and running about as if you were one? There is a lot to be treasured from that infantile display of carefree serenity. It’s perhaps where many of us went wrong: forgetting our inner freedom and joy.
But, and I say this without a shred of jest, did you know that the road to get back there again is right in front of you?
So here’s an idea.
I challenge you to step outside. Step off that treadmill. Put down those gardening tools. Take off those marigolds. Slip a bookmark into that page, and just put it down on the floor. Step away from the fridge.
Put on your pumps. Pull up your podium pants. Pull on your pullover. (Knickers, bra and socks are optional)
And step outside.
Transport yourself—I’d be impressed with teleportation, but getting in your car or on your bike may be necessary—somewhere that you can hear the birds louder than the drone of industry or traffic. Where you can smell the foliage, the trees, the flowers because you are allowing your olfactory senses to come back to life. Where you can feel the wind ruffle your hair like a whisper of dares, and if you are being kissed with raindrops on your forehead as you gaze up to the treetops or the clouds surrounding you, take each one as a sign that you are alive, and that you are meant to be.
This is the closest you can get to simply being; putting yourself at the foot of Mother Nature and accepting the challenge to run wild and run free, celebrating her beautiful, winding hills and her meadows of colour and charm. Remembering that life exists outside of all that which society is dictating. That life outside of your daily walls will fill your lungs with air that is meant for living!
And with a deep breath in, sucking in that life force, now breathe out, and just go. Let yourself go. If that song from Frozen comes to mind, well, sing it. Heck, sing it out loud! Let the arms come out and make believe you’re an aeroplane once more—N.B. doing so whilst heading downhill adds to the effect—as the air rushes past your aerodynamically graceful shape. And if you get to that uphill, do you need to run? No, do as you please, you are wild, you just need to go. As with every part of your road ahead, you don’t need to go fast, you just need to go. Just keep going.
Now, there’s an added challenge that you can administer to this attempt at running wild, it is to think about what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, invoking, touching. Can you focus on just the colour pink? Or the colour yellow? Can you identify the sounds of that bird and recall it with a whistle? Did you see the butterfly, the bumble bee, the spider’s web, and did you inspect their habitat? What are they doing? Can you keep this up: this running wild, to no tunes warbling in your eardrums, to no gossip stories drawing you away from your present, just to your own awareness of your environment, your homeland, to its history, and to the sounds and smells of life around you? Can you do that? Can you feel that?
If you could do this for fifteen minutes, half an hour, one hour, three hours…what do you think would happen? How do you think you would feel? Will you realise that you are a trail runner, a cross-country runner, a fell-runner, running wild and free, and that you are creating your very own mindful adventure?
As therapies go for my Bipolar Disorder, this is my personal favourite: creating mindful adventures, recording them for my own pleasure, and referring back to them when I hit a wall, when I feel overwhelmed by the intensity of all that society expects from me, or when I simply stall in my ability to get out of bed and get moving again. These little snapshots of the world are my album of life where I am wild, free, and simply being.
And where I remind myself: I am enough.
How do you reconnect with yourself to nurture your mental health? Have you tried to get running again but struggled for motivation because you felt hampered in some way? What do you think you need to help you step onto the trails and experience running, without modern accessories—no, really, even running without a watch? Where do you train? Do you feel that you need more access to running support in your area or online?
Share your sentiments and comments below, let’s see if we can flush out some of those running ghouls from your beautiful mind.