Beauty on the Run

Recently, while teaching at a workshop called Writing from the Mountains, I got a question familiar to all backcountry runners. An older hiker, with thousands of miles on his boots and a well-developed sense of adventure, listened to me enthuse about the pleasures of running a favorite mountain circuit on the ridges above us. Then, in a quiet though pointed voice, he asked, “Why hurry through such a landscape? You miss all the beauty.”

There it was—a recurring question, and a divide between backcountry footfolk, where you wouldn’t expect one. My workshop point was a linkage between sentence- and ridge-rhythm. Assessing something as broad as beauty seemed beyond the scope of this close consideration of words. Intent on not having the discussion sidetracked, I answered with the sort of rote response that breaks engagement. “It’s just another way to be out there,” I said, and our talk shifted back to finding the foot-rhythms of a sentence.

But this time, the question stayed with me, much as a burr adheres to your pant leg after you surge through a brushy patch of trail. There it still was, well lodged; I’d have to sit down and spend some time to get it out.

So what about trail running and beauty? Does a running habit turn our trails and crags into a blur passed through and by? Do we return with our selves expanded a little or a lot by close encounters with beauty? Or are we simply back from a different type of workout space?

When lucky, I run on the glacial leavings of our eastern mountains, where all that ice-grinding has split, jumbled, and sometimes sharpened a wild geometry of rock. Even on a day when purveyors of a postcard world are out snapping up blue-sky, long-ridge photos, I need to pay close attention… to what’s under my feet, to the puzzle just ahead. If I look “out there,” I fall down here.

So, okay—ho, then hum. We’ve all been there. Running is good for appreciating rocks. Not much of a closer for my imagined argument with the old foot-ambler—his contemplative appraisal and sometimes merger with the outback world versus my hurried reading of rocks and the gaps between them. I needed to look more deeply.

We do, of course, take breaks when we run. Breaks for water and fuel, breaks to re-tie shoes and adjust socks, breaks to mull the way. That faint track bearing away to the left? People trail, animal trail, mis-trail? And then there are the made-it-up breaks, as in I finally made it up this climb. Instead of stubbing in toes, looking at dirt and rock, we see first an easing of angled ground and a fringe of sky through the trees, and then… finally… we look out over the stretched hide of all that land. All this says, “Hey… Hey! Look away,” and we do.

But the sound of chuffed air, the paused running clock, the day’s plan, all curtail such a break. It is always time to move on. Still, a break reminds that there is beauty near and far up here, and once seeded in mind, beauty begins to root. For the runner, I think it roots differently; beauty roots in rhythm.

Rhythm is not a given. On any run, it must be won. But when you slip into it, when it envelopes you like a snug shirt, much of a run’s fierceness of focus eases. The heavy work, the squint-eyed concentration, the goading of will simply vanish. You—some whole you—float, trailing a light patter of footfall. For me, this gift arrives most often on a ridgeline, a narrow, turny way where you are part land- and part sky-creature.

Then your run tends to song, your quick steps a subtle percussion, the whole composition paean to the ridge. Are you singing the ridge, or is it singing you? Both… perhaps.

I’ve had enough of these ridge-songs to know their promise, their possibility. When they don’t happen, I pound along, I get home.

I also run to celebrate the animal(s)… in me, and out there. Over the years, I’ve run sometimes with dogs. Not every canine is suited to ridge-running, but for a good while, we had a mongrel who clearly harbored some husky genes, and who was light-of-paw. As long as the day was cool, Sherlock could run and run. Having quick feet meant he wanted out in front of his blocky HC (human companion). I was happy to be the wheel-dog in our toothy train, and sometimes, when spirit and effort aligned, I found myself going canid—my breathing settled, my eyes sharpened; a witness might even have described my gait as “loping.”

There, out there, with my eyes set like Sherlock’s, my feet quiet and sure, I was; perhaps it lasted until we came down off the ridge. On such days, I called us both “good boys.”

Ridge-running has also brought me one more passage into beauty, a dreamscape of sorts. Some decades ago, I developed a mountain habit that endures today: on some peak or knob, I like to lie down, look skyward, and drift into a nap. I even have an LKNT (longest known nap time) for this. Mountain-sleep spawns (sometimes) mountain-dreams, and whenever I awaken, sit up, and look out, I feel changed. It is as if I’ve been given preview to a mountain afterlife.

That day’s immediate life must resume, of course, and, after brushing off and rebalancing, I set out again, (if lucky, with dog). But it’s clear I’m infused with a sense of sky and land that I can’t find in any other way; I am a different being.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How do you ‘see’ beauty when you run? Can you ever feel it in the rhythm of your movement?
  • Is there something about running that allows you to better see and feel more beauty than other ways of moving through nature?
Sandy Stott

lives and runs in Brunswick, Maine, where he chairs the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications and has a book, 'Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains', which published in April of 2018, is now in its second printing, and was selected by Outside Online as one of its best books for Spring of 2018. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com.

There are 14 comments

  1. John Drew

    Rhythm is no doubt essential to the experience of beauty for me on the trail. I am open to beauty when I’m in a good running rhythm in a way that I’m not otherwise. When I was younger and more speed-focused, maybe I sacrificed some appreciation of where I was when in a rush to get a route done. But I’ve always preferred step rate to be close to heart rate…that’s when the trail feels best, and that’s a beautiful thing. Thank you Sandy for another great post!

  2. Deserae

    On the best days I feel like I’m part of the beauty. Even if I’m not focusing on one specific view I feel like I’m absorbing our all in. I think patt of it is being in that rhythm with your natural surroundings. Great piece.

  3. Andy M

    Beautifully crafted and well said, Sandy. “Are you singing the ridge, or is it singing you?” Both, for sure, and in perfect harmony.

    And, the snappy answer when asked “Why run instead of walk?”: I get to see all the beauty in half the time.

    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks, Andy. Or, in my case, perhaps a little more than half the time…but your point holds. Here’s to the day’s song.

  4. Kimberly Churdar

    There’s definitely a fine balance. I come from a hiking background, but thoroughly enjoyed trail running when I was able, and hope to again sometime in a little of a distant future. I had a recent knee replacement so at the time, I can not currently run, and was very limited in the two years prior due to the knee issues. Because of this I have definitely learned to appreciate my surroundings more. Although when you are training for races, you have to envelope different trainings into your schedule. If you’re running somewhere repetitive save those for your faster training runs, if you’re running somewhere new maybe take the time to enjoy your surroundings just a little more than you normally would think to.

  5. Sandy Stott

    I like the sense of taking what the day and your capabilities offer, Kimberly. Here’s to your ongoing recovery and the places your new knee will take you.

  6. B

    Great piece, thank you.

    I got some perspective on the run v hike question when I ran the Lost Coast trail a couple years back. There were many hikers on the route, most taking 3-5 days to do what our band of adventurers did between sunrise and dinner time. As the day wore on there was a change in the people we passed. The now multi-day hikers grew, apparently, calmer, slower and relaxed in the environment. They were free of the tension and excitement we’d seen from hikers in the early hours. On the final stretch I came up upon a man signing softly to himself, wrapped up in the (presumed) solitude. Yet as the end of the route got closer I was becoming more excited, elated at approaching the completion of an ambitious goal and filled with steely resolve as I suffered through the final beach miles on aching, complaining legs. It was clear we all had valuable but very different experiences.

    As for appreciating nature, timelapse film can provide a novel perspective on patterns and phenomena that are hard to appreciate when viewed at regular speed. A 90 min jaunt on my regular trails leaves me with not just an appreciation of a single eucalyptus filled gorge, but a broader experience with the entire region. In a single run I can experience landscapes from wet valleys with redwoods to dry ridges of aromatic chaparral and views from the hot inland reservoirs to the cool misty golden gate bridge on the other horizon and all the transitions in between. It’s an enormous experience in 90 minutes that could take a day(s) at a slower pace… Although it doe lack some detail.

    Why run or hike when you can do both?

    1. Sandy Stott

      I enjoyed your comparison from the Lost Coast; they rang true for me. And the image of the walker singing softly to self is a keeper. Yes, running surely does get a lot of experience and land into a small envelope of time, even as it may blur some impressions…which leads to your final question — given time and legs, both sounds just right. Thanks.

  7. Kyle

    I was recently thinking when I was out on a long trail run, that the feelings and emotions that particular landscapes emit are different if I had reached them running vs hiking/walking. Running seems to make those destinations more sacred and valued than if I had walked there. I do not think that we are missing out on beauty by traveling through space at a faster rate of speed. As runners, we know that the physical act of going faster adds to the aura of where we are. By going slower you can definitely “see” more, that is be able to take in more of the nuances of the landscapes. But by running I think we “feel” more.

    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks, Kyle. The varied experiences you propose suggest also that moving at different speeds gets you to different places. Here’s to being in motion in all sorts of footways.

  8. Brad

    I think that the question you were asked (haven’t we all?) assumes a false dichotomy. There are no fewer ways to experience beauty as there are expressions of it. Moving slowly doesn’t guarantee one experiences more beauty. Moving swiftly doesn’t mean that you will miss it entirely. As mentioned in the article, the nature of the movement itself creates another level of engagement, with ourselves, our nature, the landscape, the ecosystem. In fact, the act of flowing with natural terrain can create beauty. In any case, what we get out of our time outdoors is ours. It doesn’t need to appeal to anyone else to be vital, transformative and beautiful to us.

    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks, Brad. As if to ratify your comment, I had some time on snowshoes the other day (they truly are the slowest shoes), and yet there was rhythm and flow there too. Here’s to the day’s trail.

Post Your Thoughts