Categories: AJW's Taproom

Running From Despair

In the opening of his seminal poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry writes:

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great
heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things…”

Berry’s timeless elegy to wilderness is one of serenity and hope. For him, a lifelong farmer and husband of the land, the wilderness provides a place where he can seek solace in the midst of the despair of the world and, in the end, ultimately be made free.

I returned to Berry’s comforting words earlier this week as I struggled with the despair in my own heart. As a person who endeavors to see the world through positive and optimistic eyes, I was struck that my typically glass-half-full world view had been brought down by the events of the past few weeks. Turning back to Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” I knew where I had to go.

I had to go running.

After a particularly restless night’s sleep filled with disjointed dreams and fitful tossings, I crawled out of bed at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning and stumbled through my house. Over my morning coffee, I eschewed my usual perusal of the previous day’s news and instead turned to poetry, ultimately arriving at Berry’s classic. After several readings, I drained my coffee, laced up my shoes, and headed out into the early morning darkness.

As I settled into my run, the streets of my sleepy Southern town were silent, amplifying every footfall as I made my way over to our local park. A few lights were on in some of the small cozy houses that line the park as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, and brothers and sisters were stirring about, starting their days. A pair of runners came toward me in the opposite direction and we exchanged barely intelligible “good mornings” and moved on. I briefly wondered if they, too, were facing their own despairs on the run, given world events of late.

On the first big hill of my route, I put my head down and instinctively punched it hard, for no particular conscious reason. I just felt the urge to run hard, to feel a little grinding in my legs and burning in my lungs, perhaps as penance for having such a good life or possibly just a primal urge to feel a little bit of my own pain knowing that so many others in this moment were experiencing theirs. I caught my breath on the subsequent descent and then pushed again on the next uphill, and the next, and the next. It felt surprisingly good to deeply breathe in the cold early morning air and taste a bit of blood in the back of my throat. It felt strangely comforting to feel my leg muscles tensing with the ache of a harder-than-normal effort. And it felt positively liberating to let my mind focus clearly and exclusively on the task at hand, forgetting, for a few brief moments, everything else.

The despair I harbor with the current state of affairs will, of course, not go away during the course of one simple Wednesday-morning run. But what that simple run can do is bring balance and perspective as well as a place where I can be at rest, even if it is a paradoxically restless state of rest. Running doesn’t necessarily provide any answers to some of our deepest problems, but it does indiscriminately provide a special opening for questions. This past Wednesday, the questions emerged out of a spontaneous desire to push hard, experience pain, and drive through. Next week, the circumstances may be different but the opportunity will be the same. If running has taught me one thing over these last 27 years, it is that each time I lace up my shoes and head out for a run, I am renewed, and in that renewal I can find peace, if even for a few fleeting, hopeful moments.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Wendell Berry’s home state of Kentucky. Country Boy Brewing in Lexington makes a classic, throwback-style American Brown Ale called Shotgun Wedding. Weighing in at a mellow 5.3% ABV, Shotgun Wedding is aged on vanilla beans with just a hint of sweetness and soft earthiness. A great beer for tailgates or fall camping trips.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you used your daily run to help cope with the tragedies and violence which have occurred around the world in the last few weeks?
  • If so, what was the coping-while-running process like for you? What did you think about? How did you feel? Can you translate the experience to words that we can all share?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

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  • I don't think a truer word was spoken. I have found ever since running that the worlds issues and the anger towards others with ignorant has been lessening with every step. It has even helped clearing my mind for arguments or to comprehend what is going on in the world right now. Great Read!

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  • Never let anyone tell you that you can't out run your problems. I deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, a deployment that was tough and resulted in losses. I came home with issues.... I deployed again in 2010 and added a few more experiences to complicate my life. I used to be a fairly competitive runner but stopped competing years ago and just ran to fulfill my military requirements. In 2011 my world was unraveling, I was angry, I was a jerk to my family, I wasn't/couldn't sleeping and my wife gave me the fix yourself or we're done ultimatum. I started running. I got hooked up with a group of ultra runners and somehow they convinced me that I should do an Ultra. I did three that Summer and finally somewhere around mile 45 of the VT 50, my mind and body depleted, I had the moment.... tears, release and freedom. I left those issues at mile 45, forgave myself and decided to fix myself. You can outrun your problems, you just have to run far enough!

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    • Thanks for sharing Jason. Also, I know this gets said often, but I sincerely mean it: grateful for your service. Happy running to you.

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  • “You’re always running from your troubles and adversity,” she said. “You need to learn to stand and face them.”

    “I’m running so that I can face them.”

    “Running is too solitary,” he told me. “In times of crisis we need to join together as one.”

    “You’re confusing proximity and solidarity.”

    “Running never solved the world’s problems, you know,” they said.

    “Maybe not yet, but that’s no excuse not to try.”

    Some people get it. Others don’t. In times like these I am grateful for the community of runners, my tribe. In our own way we are changing the world for the better.

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  • AJW, I've been a long time irunfar fan/reader but until now, never commented on posts. I completely get where you're coming from. Running has long been my solice and my place to go to regroup and reset. I love the trails and being close to nature, it brings a sense of being part of something bigger, a connection to something spiritual and yet very human, in the here and now. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on running and life.

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  • Lost my mother on Monday in a car crash. This is exactly what I needed this morning. Thank you.

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    • My condolences Kevin. My father died suddenly 3 months ago and my wife and I flew from my home in Toronto to Southeast Spain where my parents live that night to be with my mother. It is one of the worst experiences I've ever had but going for a run on the trails where they lived seemed calming somehow and walking his little dog twice a day on those same trails was therapy for human and canine alike. I hope you can find some solace.

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    • I am only a stranger on the internet, but my sincere condolences.

      Running kept me sane under similar challenging circumstances. I hope you find some comfort on the roads and trails.

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  • Wendell Berry is a refuge for me. He seems to understand the connection between all things and he conveys it well! So, like you, I go with his words as I run. Running renews me. Many times in my life, running has saved me from the negative effects of despair, sorrow, grief, depression, loss, anger, and so on. Don't get me wrong, I still experienced these things, but running helped cure the suffering that might have accompanied them. One our HURT mottos is, "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional". Today, I seek "good news". It's out there. I just have to run towards it.

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  • AJW - this is what I posted on Tuesday to our local trail running group. Looking back, it's more negative than what I was hoping for, but similar to today's Taproom article, I knew a run would offer some reprieve, if only for an hour...."Man, social media can be a real drag sometimes. After recent events, so much noise from people I agree and don’t agree with. So tomorrow I’m going for a run, and instead of cursing at people, I’ll curse at that damn hill I know that’s coming up, and that shitty sandy section and that pain in the ass rocky section. And when I’m done, I’ll be ready to start the day...and ignore the people."

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Published by
Andy Jones-Wilkins

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