Tuesday, October 20, 2020

A New Season of Running

I've been running for over a decade, but I'm still learning things. My latest lesson comes in the form of seasons. I've known about race season for years now, but as we transition from summer to fall after months of canceled races, I've found my running seasons look different than they have in the past.

I have been in a season of limitation. It was a necessary mindset for the time being, but now I'm ready to enter into a new season of expansion and rebuilding.

Survival & Excuses

Last spring, when news of Covid was new and especially terrifying, I think we all entered some sort of survival-mode. I know I did.

From April to early September, the vast majority of my runs didn't exceed two miles, and from April to July that was pretty much by design. The stress of selling our house, moving, working from home, quarantining, moving again, and basically facing the great unknown that was life this spring thinned out my stamina. At the time, running was solely an outlet for my stress, with no goals or expectations in mind. It was about survival. It was about staying sane.

Short & inconsistent. Just doing what I could.

My energy for performance was minimal, and that's fine. It's normal. I know myself well enough to know that when I'm dealing with a lot of stress, setting running goals is a sure way to burn out.

Eventually, though, the rough waters of uncertainty receded, and life found some kind of stability. Our move complete, I settled into a routine. I could finally breathe again.

When some semblance of normalcy returned sometime in August, the limits I had set became an obstacle, and excuses followed. The elevation. The hills. The cold air and my sad little asthmatic lungs. These excuses are valid in that they are real, but my response to them was unfair to myself. 

Rather than acknowledging the excuses and working through them, I let myself give in to them and get comfortable where I was. Eventually, that comfort started to make me sad.

I began to believe I couldn't increase my mileage again. I began to believe these self-imposed restrictions were part of my new normal.

Resetting & Rebuilding

At this point in my running journey, I have no real desire to beat my old speed or distance PRs. My experience with compartment syndrome and recovery changed my outlook on running. Now I run purely for enjoyment, and I've let go of comparing myself to others or even to my past self. I haven't let go of improvement and growth, but the drive to meet specific goals just isn't there anymore.

If I were truly happy to run no more than two miles at a time for the rest of my life, that would be fine, but I began to miss my stamina. I began to miss longer runs. I began to miss feeling strong - feeling able to do more. I hated feeling like "two miles" had become a brick wall and every run longer than that was a challenge.

I pushed myself to 3.5 miles on this run and felt an absolute rush. I hadn't felt this good in a long time.

Coming to this realization, I worried that maybe I had held back for too long, and would never experience growth in running again. (Just the other day, as I struggled up a hill around mile three of my run, I said to Matt, with wry amusement, "Remember when I used to run marathons?")

So, I have this virtual 12k I'm excited about. I'm already late in completing it, but I've at least started building some mileage. When I completed my 5-miler last Monday, it was the longest I'd run since early March, when I ran six miles with a friend. My knees and quads really felt it.

This week, I ran another five. I was tempted to stop halfway through because the first lap was tough, but after a break to ditch my vest and use my inhaler, I found the second lap felt much easier and I finished feeling proud of what I'd accomplished.

The first run was fully flat and sunny toward the end; the second was a little hillier and super rainy.

I'm remembering that my body can do a lot more when I bother to put in the effort. What a no-brainer, huh? There's a mentality among athletes that you should push yourself to the point of punishment, and I find that mindset to be dangerous, but there is a healthy way to challenge yourself, and I am remembering how to do that and why I enjoy it.

I had forgotten the sense of accomplishment and confidence that comes after completing a difficult run. I had forgotten the little muscle tingles and aches after the cool down, and the way your body reminds you that you've done something tough.

I realize that I had kind of resigned myself to no longer being a distance runner, but now I know I was just taking a break and I can take on challenges again if and when I want to.

Super happy!

I am still happy to run for the joy of it, but maybe pushing limits can be part of the joy once in awhile.

ABK

Friday, October 9, 2020

In Which I Explore my Childhood Wish to Live in a Hollowed Out Tree

When I was in 4th or 5th grade, there were two extremely popular books about kids learning to live in the wilderness. One was Hatchet, which is about a boy who survives a plane crash and has to stay alive until rescuers come.


I had no idea when I first read MSotM that it was the less well-known of these two fairly similar books. I always preferred it, but as an adult I've found fewer people know of it than Hatchet. When I explain its premise, they may vaguely remember it.

MSotM got under my skin, though. It stuck with me. It follows Sam, a preteen who chooses to leave his nice suburban home* and go live in the woods for some reason. I'm not clear on why, exactly, but I remember that he hollows out a dead tree to live in and trains a falcon to be his friend.

I wanted to be Sam.

As I got older, my obsession with Sam and his hollowed out tree faded, but never entirely died out. I always felt a pull in my gut leading me to mountains and forests. I always felt the most relaxed, inspired, and joyful surrounded by trees, but to say a favorite book from childhood planted that seed never dawned on me.

Until the other day, when we went hiking at Barclay Lake.

The Hike

Matt and I chose to hike Barclay Lake because the weather was bad. Okay, bad may be unfair, but it was certainly subpar. With a high of 59° and overcast skies, we didn't want to waste a two-hour drive to see a view that would probably be obscured by clouds. Instead, we chose a hike with a lake destination; lake views can't be ruined by cloud cover.
And honestly, the clouds ended up adding to the ambience.
As usual, we got a late start, arriving at the trailhead around 2:30pm. There were only a few cars there; by the end of the hike we'd have the entire place to ourselves. That's one perk of starting late!
The trail was eerily quiet. When we parked, we were shocked to hear no traffic, no birdsong, no animals. It's the quietest we've ever heard a trail, and it stayed that way the entire time, broken up only once or twice by the gentlest trickle of running water.
This hike was pure joy from the beginning. The trail is my favorite kind: extremely rocky but not very steep. In fact, as far as elevation goes, you don't gain much, but the terrain is interesting and challenging.
The trees along this hike are densely packed the entire way.
I found myself stopping multiple times to just stare at the path ahead, at the way the roots wove up out of the dirt, the way the rocks jutted, the beautiful aesthetic of the jumbled earth leading us deeper into the trees...I could not explain to Matt the visceral impact of these views - I almost felt choked up! - and I can't explain it now. But just know, there was something so satisfyingly beautiful about this hike, like it struck a chord and reverberated on the same frequency as my soul.
Anyway.

We noticed early on that there were tons of huge rocks and giant stumps along the way, and that these landmarks often formed caves of some sort. I ventured into a couple of the more open, shallower ones, something in my lizard-brain attracted to the space without knowing why. 
My Side of the Mountain floated up in my mind, unearthed by the sight of dozens of huge hollow stumps, and I mentioned it to Matt, thinking very little of it.
Because we stopped frequently to ogle the views, the trip to the lake took about 90 minutes. Our watches disagreed on the final distance, as did all the reviews we read beforehand, but it was probably around two miles to our destination.
We left the trail and wound through heavy trees toward the lake, and the beach that opened up before us was unexpected and breathtaking.
The downed trees that lay along the shore were bone-white and weathered smooth. They reminded me of the elephant graveyard in The Lion King; the eerie stillness of the lake and the clouds wreathing the mountain peaks above us added to the atmosphere.
After taking photos and basking in this very different vista after hours of trees-trees-trees, Matt and I set up our new hammock and ate the snacks we had brought along for exactly this purpose. 
All told, the hike to Barclay Lake was perfect - lighthearted and low-stress, just the best kind of hike I could ask for.

Cave Dwelling

Laying quietly in the hammock under the silent trees did something to me. My brain turned off, and at the same time my childhood wish to live in the forest and be one with nature was reawakenedAs we began the return trip, the "caves" we'd been passing suddenly felt magnetic. I wanted to get in the caves. All of them.
Matt was obliging, pointing out caves as we passed so I could fit myself into them like a cat exploring a new cardboard box.
Weirdly, I lost my usual fear of spiders and other creepy-crawlies. All that mattered was getting under the rocks and roots and moss as deep as I could go.
The hollow trees weren't really nice to go in - I mean, of course Sam had to widen and clean his hidey-hole by burning it out a bit - but there was still something alluring about being within the tree. I recognized that I was doing something I had always wanted a chance to try as a kid.
After my second or third foray into a cave, I started laughing. "I'm going to look like a little gremlin in these pictures!" And then it occurred to me - I wasn't just enjoying myself; I was being silly. I was playing! 
After we got home and I looked back at all these photos and sat down to write, I realized something. My Side of the Mountain did not create this interest to live in a tree; rather, the novel revealed it to me. I think the reason I connected with the book so intensely was because the inclination to run away and live in a tree already existed within me. 

I was the weird kid who saw beauty in strange things and often felt a little bit like an outsider. Connecting with nature anchored me and made me feel like I belonged somewhere.

I had forgotten this bit of trivia about myself, that I feel the most me when I'm outside, "in nature". Now, it's coming back to me.

The Epiphany

I keep saying that being outside and surrounded by trees is where I feel happiest; more to the point, it's where I feel the most inspired. Hiking makes me want to write. Why?

Growing up, my backyard sloped down to a line of trees that separated us from the neighbors' yard on the next street over. These "woods" weren't dense, but if you got into them you could pretend you were in a forest. I remember sitting under those trees and making up stories.

I have been making up stories all of my life. According to my mom, I used to spin yarns when I was two or three; we have at least one home video of me telling a fantastical tale that came wholly out of my head. In grade school, writing was my passion and my escape, and that only intensified as I got older; I think I wrote most prolifically in high school, when I had so. many. feelings and so much time on my hands.

Writing was what I was known for. As I've reconnected with old friends over the years, the first thing many of them have asked me is if I'm still writing. That question brings me both joy and pain, because the truth is that I haven't written fiction in a long time. Not the way I used to, anyway.

As I got older, the time for creative writing dwindled. The drive petered out. At some point, I wondered if I even enjoyed it anymore, because it felt so difficult. I never had new ideas; the faucet that once flowed so freely was stoppered.

I've come to believe that adulthood kills our hobbies not because we outgrow them, but because we don't have the time and energy to nurture them anymore. We don't forget what used to bring us joy, but we do forget what that all-consuming joy actually feels like.

Hiking itself hasn't necessarily reignited my desire to write - that's never really left me - but it has reminded me of how that desire used to feel. How it would fill me up inside with longing, how I felt ready to burst if I didn't tell a story. How idea after idea would spring up, fresh and tantalizing.

To write was a need, as intuitive as breathing.

I'm remembering how it felt to be imaginative. To play. I'm finding who I am after years of shutting myself away because I just didn't have time to explore who I was becoming.

I keep saying that being surrounded by trees inspires me, but it's really more that it reminds me of who I am at my core, and I am desperately trying to get back there.

For months now, I've been joking with friends that Seattle-Ali will be different in some ways, and now I'm seeing that she's not different. She's just more me. She's more honest. She's the foundation of who I was before other stuff got in the way.

I can't be the only one who feels this way. 

How sad, to know that many of us are living as shells of ourselves without realizing it, so separated from our passions and interests that we wonder if we even have them anymore. How sad to know that this is "normal" and part of life, because other obligations must take priority.

But we're missing out. Creative explorations, having fun, taking the time to play...isn't that what makes life worth living?

I'll admit, being unemployed (or marginally self-employed) during a pandemic is scary and filled with uncertainty, but I am so grateful that I have this time to throw off expectations and obligations and rediscover who I am.

I shouldn't be surprised that who I am is still a person who is left speechless in the presence of natural landscapes and wants to live inside a tree.

*I read the Wikipedia page on My Side of the Mountain to refresh my memory and clearly forgot the impetus for Sam's leaving home was that his parents were raising 8 kids in an NYC apartment. Yikes. I can't blame him! Also, this book was published in 1959 but kids in 1996 were eating it up, I swear.

ABK

Friday, October 2, 2020

Trees, Trails, and Eye Candy

Matt and I made it to Seattle on the evening of August 14, which means we've officially lived here for about six weeks. (It feels weird to write that we live here, but that's the case, isn't it?!)

Having arrived in the Pacific Northwest at the tail-end of summer, our priorities were to get in as much hiking and outdoor time as possible before the weather got too cold and wet. In fact, we had already missed the best window for more intense hikes up Rainier and the Cascades because the weather gets treacherous much earlier in the big mountains.

Still, we've had good luck hiking at least once a week, not including those ten days we spent cooped up inside due to the wildfire smoke. We've been making the most of the last days of summer.

We moved here for so many reasons, but the trees? The hiking? The views? Those are the big ones, and we've gotten to spend some quality time taking it all in. 

Talapus Lake Trail
Our original plan on this day in August was to hike Rattlesnake Ledge. We stopped at Nuflours, a dedicated gluten free bakery, to pick up lunch (quiche) and desserts (a donut, lemon bar, and brownie), then drove out to Rattlesnake Ridge, only to find the trail was closed. Undeterred and starving, we set up chairs on the bank of Rattlesnake Lake to eat. 

Lunch was delicious but annoying - I am just not one for crowded beaches, pandemic or no. That's why I left Florida.

Luckily, the Washington Trails Association has a handy app that helps you search nearby trails, read reviews, and see if they're open. We chose to try the Talapus Trail, which is an intermediate 10k roundtrip hike.
Because of our delay, we arrived at the Talapus trailhead in mid-afternoon. We estimated the hike would take us about three hours; we knew we'd beat sunset, but I was anxious not to dawdle too much.

The hike was beautiful. The parking lot for the trailhead is at the top of a long, secluded dirt road, so there really wasn't any road noise on the trail. It felt like we were deep in a forest.

At first, the terrain was fairly flat and packed. Both Matt and I were wearing normal running shoes, and for the majority of this trail they were sufficient.
The best thing about the Talapus Trail was we didn't have to wait to get to the end to enjoy a gorgeous lake view. Around 1.5 miles (halfway to the turn-around), we came to the first lake and the trail's namesake, Talapus. 
Talapus Lake. Is it weird to call views like this eye candy?
We left the trail to climb down and take some pictures. At this point, it had still been fairly even and easy, with very little steep inclines or switchbacks.

The trail to the second lake was definitely steeper and a little more difficult. The terrain was still packed and mostly clear, but there were more rocks and roots the higher we went. It also started to get chilly. I mentioned out loud that I really need to learn what to wear for hiking, because temperatures drastically drop under the canopy, especially as the elevation climbs.
Around mile three we finally came to our terminal destination: Olallie Lake. Here, we paused to enjoy the view and have some snacks. A curious and brave chipmunk joined us. I would have been happy to stay longer, but the day was getting downright cold. Packing up our garbage, we headed back.
Olallie Lake
The return trip on any out-and-back has the potential to be a little boring. You've already seen the major landmarks and your mindset is a little more focused on getting back to the car, as opposed to enjoying the journey. Still, we paused once more at Talapus Lake, breaking up the monotony of the return trip.
They do allow camping on this trail. There are no bathrooms and fires aren't allowed, but since hiking to a campsite is something we've never done, we think this could be a good first experience with it.

I highly recommend this trail for newbie hikers. We passed some families with little kids, and we passed lots of dogs. (Humans were all masked and did a good job moving aside as necessary.) There were parts that I found tedious, but I think this is a good trail when we want to undertake a longer hike without planning for a full day.

Washington Park Arboretum
In mid-September, we endured the smoke and watched the weather like hawks, waiting for the all-clear for outdoor activities to resume. No one warned me about fire season!

We were insistent on getting outside as soon as the air quality returned to "good", but we hadn't really planned anything because we didn't know when that would happen, so when the blessed day finally arrived, we made the decision to return to one of our favorite places from our last two trips to Seattle and visit the Washington Park Arboretum.
The Arboretum is about ten minutes from us and barely counts as a hike. While there are some unpaved paths to explore, much of the park is paved and the biggest hills are pretty tame. This will probably become a running destination for me once I get more comfortable going out alone and once I need to increase my distances, because the trails go on for miles and you can wind through them in infinite ways.
We wandered through the north part of the park down to the south, enjoying the well-kept groves. The Arboretum is loosely separated into sections by continent and plant type; we started near the Pinetum Loop and walked down to Azalea Way. There is so much to see here, but we weren't really in the mood to read signs and learn about plant species.

Instead, we stopped at a well-shaded bench and listened to the birds for awhile.
The Arboretum is well-maintained and as far from intimidating as a hiker can get. I plan to take advantage of its proximity and paved paths soon!

Twin Falls
We heard about Twin Falls from Scott and Robby, so when we decided to go we invited Scott to come along. Unfortunately, Robby had to work.
The three of us and Kogi (Scott's teacup Yorkie) got started in early afternoon. Despite being told this trail was easy, I found parts of it challenging from the get-go. There were some steeper areas that really burned my quads and lungs.

I was breaking in my new hiking boots and was glad to have them! I enjoyed splashing in the mud and puddles left over from the weekend's rain. The boys were jealous.
This is a fairly short hike and we reached the top of the falls easily. Scott had never ventured past the bridge that allows for a bird's eye view of the falls and river below, so we decided to keep going. 

After a time, it became clear that the path was just getting steeper and wasn't going anywhere interesting. We checked GPS and discovered we were on a never-ending trail that would eventually meet other trails and never...end.
So we turned around.

On the descent, we took the stairs down to the bottom of the falls, where we got some more photos. 

Then, Scott showed us the slightly off-road detour that offered the best views and a place for a snack break. This brought the 2.6 mile hike to around 5k. 

My happy place is definitely in the middle of a river surrounded by trees.
Overall, this hike would be my first choice for visitors. The trail itself is easy and the visual payoff is fantastic.

Heybrook Lookout
Our latest hike had to fit a very specific set of criteria: it had to be close enough and short enough to complete in under 4 hours so we could be back in time to log on to Zoom and witness Wyatt's first birthday cake smash.

For a midweek hike, this one was perfect. We had the trail to ourselves until the very end, and as a fairly narrow trail with a specific destination, crowds would be hard to avoid on a busy day.
I asked Matt if we could live here. He reminded me that we do.
The hike to the Haybrook lookout tower is short, but the flipside of that is that it's also steep the entire time. This was the most challenging trail as far as terrain goes; once more, my boots were appreciated! The paths were dry and easy to follow, but they were full of rocks and roots. There really wasn't a flat or clear area the entire way, and there were no plateaus or places where the trees opened up so we could rest off the trail.
Matt told me the hike would take about an hour, but it took 45 minutes to get to the lookout tower, where we used the bathroom (literally a box deep in the trees, no walls, no privacy, no TP) and climbed to the top to take in the view.
You can rent out the top level to camp in overnight! We want to do that when it reopens after Covid.
I enjoyed this hike from start to finish. The atmosphere is the epitome of what I love about forests: big trees; lush green everywhere; dappled, sun-spotted ground underfoot...it just does not get better. The only thing this hike was missing was a rushing river.
Hello up there!
The trip back down was tough on my knees the way the trip up had been tough on my quads, but it only took 20 minutes. The hour round-trip estimate was fairly accurate after all.
Despite bad traffic on our way home, we made it in time for Wyatt's birthday!

When I used to think of hiking, my mind would go to our trip to Rainier, which we planned ahead and which took all day. My perspective of hiking has changed; now I know they don't all have to be huge, all-consuming endeavors. It's been a treat to find these smaller, less intimidating hikes nearby. They offer gorgeous views and a good workout, and I love that we can just decide to go whenever want, without tons of prep and planning.

I now know a few hikes I can take friends on once having visitors is a realistic option. In the meantime, I'll continue exploring and adding more to my list. I want to make the most of these last warm days while we have them.

ABK