08/31/2011 08:15 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2011

Giving Up On A Run, What I Got In Return

Last week I set out with my partner to do a 20-mile trail run in the South Yuba River canyon, from Little Washington to Purdon Crossing. There would be some elevation gain -- okay, 6,000 feet to be exact -- but we took the optimist's path, and set that detail aside. True, we arrived late to the trailhead (okay, noon on a blazing, 95-degrees-in-the-shade day and oh yes, there was quite a bit of non-shade on the trail). And between us we only had three liters of water. You wouldn't be wrong in thinking that we had taken our optimistic thinking too far, perhaps even into the realm of trail running for dummies.

Now when I have a goal in mind, I can get a little dogged (like, canine-sinking-his-teeth-into-a-toy-to-never-let-go dogged). Not to mention that we had cars parked at each end of the hike, so the exigencies of transportation created an added incentive. I wanted to finish.

By mile six things looked less than promising. The map was studied. The words "campsite" and "road" at one of the trail junctions flashed like Times Square billboards...more than eight miles further along. Running became run-hike-run, which became run-hike-hike-hike-run, and then hike. I wondered (however fleetingly so, it is not to my credit) about the appropriateness of leaving one's running-partner-in-extremis by the side of a road, and running the last five miles alone, just so I could "finish."

When we reached the road, at just over four hours and 30 minutes into the progressively slowing run-hike, I knew we were finished, and that what we'd done was more than enough. It was then, when I dropped my 20-miler chew toy, that I found the balance in the day.

The road was un-trafficked, in an area that brought to mind Deliverance (cue the banjo!), as unfair as that comparison likely is to the actual residents. We passed a couple of roads (or driveways?) leading off into the dense and uninviting woods. The next house, set back in the woods, was at least visible. At the gate, a tiny rock was painted with the words "inquire about our guest cabin." Was the cabin referred to the structure with the tin sheet roof and the caving-in walls, set some 25 feet from what seemed to be the house proper? Was there even a door on the cabin? Was the sign ironic?

And how about the large dog cage, empty of dog? I imagined a menacing one called it home. Already I was picturing big teeth, saliva dripping from the bottom of the dog's chin as it prepared to attack. I walked down the drive toward the house with trepidation. No dog. Just two little cats, heads popping up and then bounding away, tails pointed skyward. I knocked on the rickety screen door. A woman in her mid-fifties answered with a friendly smile. She offered her phone -- a landline -- to call into Nevada City, the nearest town, for a taxi. The area was off the mobile phone grid, naturally. She went back to cutting hearts out of a spot-patterned bed sheet. Still a bit worried, I asked after the dog, who was no longer, she told me. I breathed an internal sigh of relief.

But there was the pig. I had time. The taxi we'd called wouldn't arrive for at least half an hour. The women led me into her bedroom, adjacent to the kitchen where I'd come in, there, lounging and snorting at the end of her bed, on her own crib mattress (complete with sheets and extra bolster pillows) was Ruby, a 160-pound Vietnamese pot belly pig. Seventeen years old, arthritic and ailing, Ruby was a former service pig. She had visited hospices, hospitals and schools in her prime and had sported the pig-fashions of the day. I crouched down to pet and chat with Ruby. I looked at her baby book, which included a younger Ruby in a Sugar Plum Fairy outfit.
Inside myself, I felt a fresh flow of energy, as my internal rhythm re-calibrated from the truncated exertion of the run to this new, unlooked for experience, finding the adjusted harmony in the day.

In addition to the introduction to Ruby, the woman offered me stories: that retired miners liked to spend the summer at the nearby campground panning for gold in the South Yuba River, the very area which was the source, as she told me, of the wealth that had built San Francisco; that raising organic, pastured chickens to lay Omega-3 enriched eggs is hard work, best done by the young; that pig rescue organizations have a job on their hands (pigs start breeding at four months and are essentially as prodigious in their procreation as rabbits, much to the shock of casual pigs-for-pets owners); that her area (though not she herself) was the supplier of most medical marijuana to the Sacramento area, hence the unwelcoming cast to most of the properties around.

When the taxi arrived, 45 minutes later, the driver parched and unimpressed by the condition of the road, I was sorry to leave; and not sorry at all to have not finished the run. Despite my dust-caked legs and the twigs in my hair, I felt clean and refreshed. A day I might have viewed as a failure had been an unprecedented success.

We didn't force the run. Like water encountering an obstacle, we flowed around the challenges, finding the most natural course for that day.

The felt experience of that South Yuba day was like I was back on my slackline (like a tightrope -- follow the link to see what I mean), which I've been playing with, and perhaps it was the familiarity of the sensation that made meeting Ruby possible.

I've been practicing walking backwards on the slackline, also turning around, though I'm hardly beyond beginner in the forward walking department. What I've noticed in all of my efforts, is that I can literally feel, physically, in my body, how getting frustrated foils my intent, how I can only execute a maneuver once I let go of the angst-y need to succeed.

One more vivid example of that physical-mental feeling in action happened one day as I rode my mountain bike home from the grove where I usually slackline. The ride is not particularly technical, but then I'm low-skill mountain biker. There's one particular rock, maybe the size of a cushy, upholstered footstool, that's been menacing me since forever (okay, for the past three summers). The trail winds around the rock in a sharp-ish turn, flanked by thick tie-your-bike-up mountain shrubbery. I have always balked at the last minute, and put a steadying foot down. But this one day, as I approached my rock-nemesis, I was feeling a nice post-slackline calm. What was the worst? A tumble in the bushes? A chain ring in my calf? Been there. Done that. I glanced at the rock and it seemed to soften, the path seemed to widen, and around I went, and have done ever since. No force. Just flow.

To me that experience feels like slowing down my energy, by which I don't mean sapping or diminishing my energy, rather I mean gathering my energy inward, moving toward my center, my place of balance, a state which can never be achieved through pushy frustration.
And that physical feeling, practiced over and over, gets in some sense dialed in at a cellular level, and slowly, slowly translates into life itself.

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