Christmas in July

Pacific Crest Trail
Trees near Little Jimmy on the PCT

I ran 60 miles this week.

60 miles a week is not that much, not at least compared to two years ago, but it’s a lot coming off of a bunch of nothing, which is more or less where my running has been these past few months. The year started out slow, with low mileage (but speed work), and quickly disintegrated with a couple of bad falls, the first resulting in a dislocated toe and a DNF at Zane Grey, and the second, a week later, resulting in a broken collarbone, at which point I pulled the plug on the rest of my season, which was to include Jemez Mountain 50, Beaverhead 100K, Fatdog 70m, and Mountain Lakes 100m.

This week’s 60 miles took a long time. My runs these days are more like hikes punctuated by little bursts of jogging. I could go faster, I’m sure, but I seem to have lost the stomach for pushing myself. 21 mountain miles with 5,500 feet of climbing takes a leisurely 6 hours these days.

Climbing out of the rut.

Alcoholics are the kind of people who, when they find themselves in a rut, they furnish it.

I finally quit the job that had literally brought me past the breaking point. The recent fractures after falls were the direct result of running while distracted to the point of anger and anxiety. It had stopped being acceptable years ago, but as a sober friend puts it: “We’re the kind of people who, when we find ourselves in a rut, we furnish it.”

The amount of time sober does not seem to be a big factor here. With twenty plus years since my last mind-altering-substance (which was probably a beer), I still have a real capacity for better-the-devil-you-know.

The situation at work had long surpassed unacceptable and become completely untenable. Last straws came and went; it seems I have the alcoholic’s almost-but-not-quite infinite capacity to draw line after line after line in the sand and just back off when it is inevitably crossed. For this very reason, my resignation took everyone by surprise, except, perhaps, me.

How running makes us human.

In his book Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human, University of Kent researcher Vybarr Cregan-Reid reminds us that the history of running (and his history is much the same as that posited by Chris McDougal in Born to Run) and human evolution itself suggest that long distance running, slow, far, and patiently, is a fundamental part of what makes us human.

“Running is not just a sport. It reconnects us to our bodies and the places in which we live, breaking down our increasingly structured and demanding lives. It allows us to feel the world beneath our feet, lifts the spirit, lets our minds out to play, and helps us to slip away from the demands of the modern world.”

Cregan-Reid is not a fan of machinery or gadgetry. He doesn’t much care for running as a sport, and he’s not at all into data-driven-to-distraction Strava, segment PR, heart-rate-monitoring running. In an interview with National Geographic, he says:

“One of the things I love about running is that I don’t do it to get fit. Getting fit is a byproduct. What I like is time offline so I like my runs to be really relaxing, not frenetic. As soon as I am counting the time in which I’ve done the last mile, or checking to see how many steps I’ve done, it starts to be less relaxing. Nobody checks their calorie burn after an hour’s meditation. And for me, running is more like meditation than it is like keep fit.”

Lady Bugs on the Gabrielino Trail
Lady Bugs on the Gabrielino Trail

Trees in a busy city will actually reduce crime!

In a 2001 study in one Chicago public housing development, there were dramatically fewer occurrences of crime against both people and property in apartment buildings surrounded by trees and greenery than in nearby identical apartments that were surrounded by barren land.

From the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois: “In a 2001 study in one Chicago public housing development, there were dramatically fewer occurrences of crime against both people and property in apartment buildings surrounded by trees and greenery than in nearby identical apartments that were surrounded by barren land. In fact, compared with buildings that had little or no vegetation, buildings with high levels of greenery had 48 percent fewer property crimes and 56 percent fewer violent crimes. Even modest amounts of greenery were associated with lower crime rates. The greener the surroundings, the fewer the number of crimes that occurred.

Greenery lowers crime through several mechanisms. First, greenery helps people to relax and renew, reducing aggression. Second, green spaces bring people together outdoors, increasing surveillance and discouraging criminals. Relatedly, the green and groomed appearance of an apartment building is a cue to criminals that owners and residents care about a property and watch over it and each other.”

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.

Outside Magazine writer Florence Williams has written a book titled The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative”.

In an interview with National Geographic, Williams says “Our sensory system evolved in the natural world and when we’re in those spaces, our brains become relaxed because these are things that we were designed to look at, hear and to smell. Miyazaki is one of the researchers who are trying to quantify this kind of mystical experience by measuring people’s heart rates, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. They have made some amazing discoveries. For instance, our immune cells, or ‘natural killer cells,’ which fight cancer, increase in forests. As a result, Japan now has 48 therapy trails. The forest service is taking this seriously, as a public health benefit.”

Here in the United States where not only are corporations people too, but they are more important people than you or I, there’s not much interest in things like therapy trails. Even if they could figure out a way to monetize the health benefit, the immediate monetary gain is nowhere near as great as selling off the public land to oil companies. Under the leadership of Congressman Jason Chaffetz (who has thankfully retired from Congress to join the Fox News team) Utah has become ground zero for this. The Outdoor Gear Show, which has been taking place in Salt lake City for the past 20 years, is leaving for Denver, in protest.

I can happily attest to the health benefits of nature. Mid July, camping up at Little Molas Lake above Silverton, Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains, I slept blissfully every night, even though a sleeping bag and pad are nowhere near as comfortable as my bed at home. I slept blissfully because there were no helicopters flying overhead, or fighting or partying neighbors. There were no cars speeding by, no one setting off fireworks, no police, ambulance or firetruck sirens. There was just quiet. My sleep was pure, uninterrupted, and I woke up feeling refreshed. In Los Angeles my sleep is distracted, there’s always an ear tuned to any danger that might be in that noise, and usually I wake up feeling tired and obligated.

In a TEDx talk, Williams talks about the same experience, upon moving to Washington DC from Boulder Colorado.

“When I moved for my husbands job from Boulder Colorado to Washington, DC, I wasn’t too happy about it. But I was still surprised at how swiftly my sense of well being plummeted. I got depressed, I felt anxious, I was irritable, my brain felt sluggish and dull. I had to get used to new sounds, like overhead aircraft all the time, helicopters, the ubiquitous leaf blowers…”

These past few weeks, my level of stress has abated. It’s nowhere near gone, but it’s lowered enough to be manageable. I still hear the sirens and the helicopters and the leaf blowers and the aggressive neighbors, but I have my escape back. I no longer find myself replaying work conversations while running (or hiking) a trail in the mountains. I can (and do) carve out a few hours a day, and that I’ve gotten slower is not such a big deal any more – it just means I have more time in the mountains, away from it all.

Well…not always away. On Saturday ended up on the top of Mt. Islip. There was a small group of haggard looking biker/hippie types gathered on top of the concrete slab that was once the foundation of…something. This was their conversation:

hippie lady: I was hiking and I felt a presence and then I realized it was you guys. Your presence was hiking with me.
hippie guy 1: My sister’s husband was really into dragon flies. And then he had an untimely demise. And when they were burying him after his untimely demise, lo and behold, a huge swarm of dragon flies appeared.
hippie guy 2: We have mystical powers when we cross to the other realm.
hippie guy 1: I think earth is in a vortex.
hippie guy 3: I’m going to miss you guys when I move to Utah. I can call on you for conversation all the time, but in Utah I can’t call on anyone.
hippie guy 2: You could call on God.
hippie guy 3: That’s true.

Hut on Mt. Islip Summit
Hut on Mt. Islip Summit

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