Poems from the Trail

[Editor’s Note: Welcome to March’s iRunFar’s Community Voices column! This month, we share the poetry of Leah Atherton, a linguist, poet, and runner currently based in Birmingham, England. She can usually be found getting muddy and/or wording about in pretty places. Find her on Instagram at @poet_on_the_run. Each month in 2019, we are showcasing the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport in creative and innovative ways. Read more about the concept in our launch article. We invite you to submit your work for consideration!]


Let’s dance, you and me.
Leave the straight lines and the rules in the parking lot
and dare the wind to play catch up.

We’ll barrel our way down root-choked paths
and take corners too tight for our talent;
slog up climbs like we’re chasing redemption on every hilltop

And swear we find hope along every single-track we follow
where unanswered prayers make voltage pylons of our bones
and our legs start to buzz with pent up wire and static.

Let’s fly into the wind until the rain makes our faces numb
and we will laugh and let the ice melt baptise the wrong out of our pasts
stamp out the stories as Morse code in the shale

We’ll scrape ourselves raw and scoop ourselves out;
turn valleys into confessionals, thermos tea into communion wine
and make jack-o-lanterns of our haunted hearts to light our return.

You and I know that a house of healing
doesn’t need four walls or a roof when you have your feet in the cloud,
this thorn-scrape-peat-stain-hunt-grin cathedral of shadows and light

Come on let’s stand, you and me, on the shoulders of giants,
leave behind pieces of questions beat out on hillsides
so far apart only God can read them without skipping a line

Recited out by stubborn feet and tempest wills
we’ll follow the music over moor and fell, read answers in contours;
code-lines so far apart maybe God was the one who left them there

Let’s dance to the rhythm and drum and the reckless reels
of a landscape that sings to us in a language unwritten
until maybe, at last, we will follow the wild song back.


Here is a trailside reading of ‘Sunday’ by Leah:


Maybe a Day Later

You follow the rules of Leave No Trace
better than anyone I know.

Determined to prevent damage
there is nothing to show that you were here

But an indentation where you stood;
so many soft footprints on my mind.


And All at Once

The finger posts end, and I am spat into the streets of a nowhere town the decade forgot.

It is bank holiday Sunday and the streets heave, filled with soft pale bodies that smell of sunblock and ice cream, accents that do not belong here jarring in alleyways.

Behind me somewhere are the lonely miles of gorse and grass-choked trails that led me here, only a turn or two ago but evaporating before I can grasp the details. It feels more dream, less memory; odd moments sticking but the order jumbled.

Gone is the ever-present rush of water, drowned under car stereos and wine-soaked bravado. Everyone is shouting at once and my head is a hollow drum the noise inhabits.

From a run-down arcade, a jumble of tinny sounding game jingles spill onto the pavement where men in scuffed trainers prop open the door to smoke. They eye me for a second; frown; go back to ignoring my presence.

I make my way through the clutter dodging plastic buckets and spades, caught in the in-between, when a Brummie drawl cuts through the din and I am momentarily displaced, realities forked.

In one, I am passing through the Bullring on my way home. I am tired from a day at work, and upset with my boss. I am concrete here. A weary kind of permanent.

In the other, there is nowhere I am going back to. I am a tumbleweed traveller passing through, noted more as negative space than nuisance.

My thoughts taste too loud.

There, the other me shouts too much. She is full and the fullness spills out, all belly laugh and tart contradiction.

Here, I am a hermit crab with no shell to crawl into.
I think I had one, once. Before. But now I am scraped down by the path; as much a part of it as it is of me. It feels like wildness.
Like simultaneously traversing and becoming.

In the other universe, the other me boils the kettle and uses cooking tongs to get the pasta down from a high shelf.
The man whose jumper she has borrowed will be home soon and a country album is playing with the volume turned up high.
There is realness in this. A steady grounding that does not demand.

In this, I know I am here by the rasp of my rucksack against the open welts on my back. The pain has tuned out from all-consuming to a white noise, the kind I have to concentrate to notice again. Dust and grit cling to my legs, and there is no jumper to borrow. The pasta for dinner is a Tesco meal deal eaten alone by the harbour.

I do not remember the last time I had a conversation. Or showered.

Around me, tourists argue and take selfies while the gulls eye their chips.

They do not see me leave.

Within moments the cacophony fades and I am present. Soft ground, cool breeze, raw back. Familiar and known. I nestle my tent beneath the boughs of a hedge and listen to the crows from the cocoon of my sleeping bag.

In the morning, there will be no trace left that I was here.

In the other place, that me curls onto the chest of the man whose jumper she still wears. There is something on the TV, but it is less there than she is. She falls asleep in the middle of the episode, and cannot imagine being anywhere else.

And not for the first time, I am unsure which of us is real.


Trail Magic

They say that salt water is a great purifier
So I will run to the sea
Turn my bones to salt in the river of my steps
Ask to return to something bigger than I am.

Let me arrive undone from pretences,
Shedding my layers of regret, of doubt;
Let me arrive naked as will and saltwater skin
Because what is prayer, really,
If not stripping down what is pretty
To show what is real, honest as bone

And I never knew before that there was such grace
In emptying like this
In hollowing out like this
Becoming paper lantern like this –

Let me burn like the wick of me is sage brush
And will never run out
Let me burn so bright that my demons
Turn shadow puppet
On the outside of my skin

Let the smoke speak the things
I was never brave enough to say out loud
But here, let me find that there is nothing
Salt water cannot cure,
Stamped out plain on the earth;
Preserving for future but drawing the poison out
Like this;

Here, let me find answers to the questions
I could only ask in salt
Let the ocean show me another word for mercy
Let me find a forgiveness that tastes
Like sage and saltwater and ash,

But here, now, before the endless sea,
I am a burning river

And the waves are leading me home.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Have you written poetry while on the trail? Or has something from the trail inspired you to create a poem? Leave a comment if you’d like to share yours.

Photo: Leah Atherton

There are 4 comments

  1. Owen

    Loving the Community Voices column! Throughly enjoyed these poems and while I probably shouldn’t pick out a solitary line from a fluid and dynamic piece, the imagery of “my thoughts taste too loud“ definitely made me smile.

    1. Leah

      Thank you so much Owen – I’m really glad you enjoyed them and it’s nice knowing somebody else gets the brain weirdness. This said, maybe it was just being around all those fish and chip places. Happy trails!

  2. Karen

    Be Still

    l will not be discouraged by your perfect indifference
    Warming to you as I go
    Across the quiet expanse of snow and ice

    Where are we headed today
    Down a well worn path to the past
    To uncover and examine again some old wound

    Or blazing new trail
    Toward a blinding and glittery horizon
    With all the unbroken promises and dreams

    No, child
    Stop with your fretting and questioning and dark and hopeful imaginings
    Be still

    Look how the sun dances through the trees
    The many species of clouds in the sky
    Listen to the wind and the songs of the hemlocks
    Observe the tracks of four footed travelers
    Who, in their wanderings, worry not where they have been or where they are going

    Can you understand now?
    Do you see?

    Lay down the maps and the compass and the plans
    There is no secret still held or puzzle to reckon

    This, right here, right now, is all you really have
    And one day, when the struggle and thrashing about cease
    You will come to know
    It has always been
    More than enough

    1. Leah

      Hi Karen – thank you so much for sharing that!

      “Down a well worn path to the past
      To uncover and examine again some old wound
      Or blazing new trail
      Toward a blinding and glittery horizon
      With all the unbroken promises and dreams”

      Well that was an ‘ooff’ moment right there. Gorgeous!

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