Beauty on the Run

An essay about how the specific act of running helps us to see nature’s beauty.

By on January 30, 2020 | Comments

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
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 [email protected].