Re-wilding

Narvaez bivy

People have asked me my whole life if I’m a runner just based on the way I’m built, and I’ve always said no. It’s not that I don’t run; a morning 5k has been a semi-regular part of my exercise regime since college. It’s always been something that I’ve had to force myself to do, though, and as soon as I fall off the bandwagon it always takes me a long time to get back into the habit—there have been whole years that have passed without my ever putting on a pair of running shoes. That’s been changing recently, though.

It all began four months ago when I started linking up with a friend on his weekly morning run-commutes—he’d run down from Wallingford, I’d run up from Capitol Hill, and we’d run over into the Arboretum and up through Interlaken Park to Volunteer Park before we split off at Madison, he going downtown and I stopping at my place. I’d never run more than 4 miles at a time in my life before this, but we started out at 5 miles and kept building from there. I broke 10 miles for the first time on a trail run at Cougar Mountain a couple of months later, and shortly thereafter he invited me to join him and a bunch of friends on an 8-day bike tour from Vancouver BC to Seattle via the Gulf Islands in Canada, the San Juans, and the Olympic Peninsula.

I was thoroughly unprepared for such an aggressive trip—it ended up being 332 miles and 21,285 feet of elevation gain all told—but that’s never stopped me from saying yes in the past, and it didn’t in this case either. I did a 30-mile, 1900-foot practice ride around Seattle the day before we left, just to be sure that I wouldn’t be holding the rest of the group back, and the next morning I boarded a Bolt Bus bound for Vancouver. The experience that unfolded over the course of the next 8 days can really only be described as life-changing—the nine of us on the tour got along amazingly well and had a ton of fun, we slept under the stars and explored all sorts of amazing little out-of-the-way island spots, and, perhaps most importantly, I was forced to discover new capacities for physical exertion that I hadn’t realized I possessed.

A few weeks earlier I’d had a great dinner conversation about the difference between pain and suffering—the basic theme being that pain is the body’s response to a certain set of circumstances, but suffering is the mind’s response to the body’s input—and I thought about it a lot as I was grinding my way up hills and wanting nothing more than to be fast asleep at the end of the day. I have pretty good climbing gears on my bike, so it took awhile for me to really hit the wall, but somewhere on day 6 I hit it, and I hit it hard. Continuing on went from being difficult to being downright painful, but I had no choice; I had to keep going, and I did it by telling myself over and over that the pain was making me stronger (a mantra I borrowed from my one of my tourmates) until I really and truly started to look forward to the hills instead of secretly dreading each one. The input hadn’t changed at all, but by changing my response to it I had given myself the will to keep going and actually enjoy it instead of just counting the miles until the end of the day.

All of this was swirling around inside my head immediately after the tour ended, but without much form—I knew I’d just had an amazing experience, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the core of it had been. That night was my monthly book club meeting, and the book we chose for this month was Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization. Once I picked it up the next day I could barely put it down—the basic premise is that human beings evolved to live in a world that’s very different from the one we live in now, and because evolution is such a slow process we really haven’t had much time to catch up and adapt to our current circumstances. Go Wild is the authors’ manifesto on how to better align a modern lifestyle with our ancient genes, and it really resonated with me.

Some aspects of the book are more controversial than others—they argue for a diet that’s very Paleo-like (although not quite as strict), but they also spend a lot of time talking about the holistic physical and mental health benefits of varied forms of outdoor exercise and generally spending more time in nature. Over and over again I recognized things from the book that echoed my experiences on the tour and a lot of my experiences over the course of my life, and I resolved to make some changes accordingly.

My running friend recently quit his job to move to another state, and to commemorate his last day in the office we did an epic run-commute finale five days after the end of the bike tour that involved climbing at the outdoor climbing wall at the UW, swimming across the Montlake Cut, and running a total of just over 9 miles. I was beat-up and sore by the end of it, but I also felt like a million bucks, in stark contrast to the first 7-mile-plus run that I ever did a few months ago, after which I think I may have declared that I was never going to run again.

The authors talk a lot about trail running and ultrarunning, and they reference Born to Run several times (and it had also been recommended to me many times independently), so the next day when I finished Go Wild I bought a copy of Born to Run and similarly couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it—it’s a fantastic story even if you have no interest in running, but for a budding runner like myself it was like lighter fluid on charcoal. I finished the book on a Sunday night, and the next day on a whim I laced up my running shoes, plotted out a course online, and ran my first-ever half marathon, up to Green Lake, around the lake once, and then back to my apartment. I hit a point maybe halfway through where I was running solely for the sake of running, appreciating the feeling of the muscles in my legs being torn down so that they could come back stronger and reveling in the freedom of running somewhere that I would normally drive or maybe bike if I was feeling really adventurous, and very much not just looking forward to the run being over. I made it back in one piece without any issues, gave myself a couple of days to recover, and then started my morning runs in earnest again. The half-marathon marked the beginning of a new chapter for me; it gave me a glimpse of just how deep my own untapped physical potential is when I’m operating in harmony with my body.

“Re-wilding” is a concept from Go Wild that I really like that more or less describes that feeling of getting back into a state of harmony with one’s essential nature, and it reminds me of a thought that I had as I was drifting off to sleep in my bivy sack on Saturna Island, gazing out across the water at the San Juans in the distance with the faint lights of humanity twinkling underneath the stars and a huge cargo freighter chugging along a shipping lane between us as quietly as it could: there’s a balance between the demands of civilization and our true nature as wild humans (I’ve started using myself as a three-year-old for my model) that each of us is capable of achieving in our daily lives but that definitely doesn’t happen by default. I’m still working on achieving that balance, but now at least I feel like I’ve learned to notice when I chance across it, and I’m starting to understand how to get there more often.

One change I’ve made recently is fairly standard—as a general rule, I’ve stopped eating processed food and sugar, started eating fewer of the super-dense carbohydrates like pasta and corn tortillas that used to make up the bulk of my daily calories, and started eating a lot more fruit and vegetables of all kinds, beans, meat, fish, and healthy fats like nuts and avocados. This represents a huge shift from the way I’ve traditionally thought about nutrition; I’ve already noticed a positive difference in my energy level, but I’ve also been forced to spend a lot more time thinking about, choosing, and preparing the food that I eat, which has been great in and of itself. My standard for food used to be all about avoiding effort: how easily can I get as many calories as possible without eating outright junk food? Now my goal is just to eat good food, which feels like a better way to think about it.

The other life change is a small thing, but one that I’ve come to really enjoy. It’s based on the observation from one of the two books that our feet are incredibly sensitive and packed with neuroreceptors, but we keep them cooped up in shoes and sandals almost our entire lives once we reach adulthood. On a whim one day about a week and a half ago I woke up and decided that before I did anything else I was going to go walk around outside barefoot, just for the sheer sensory activation of it. I put on some clothes, grabbed my keys, and stepped outside with nothing on my feet for perhaps the first time in the 4 ½ years that I’ve lived in my apartment—and it was fantastic. I ended up walking about a block and a half to my little neighborhood pocket park, luxuriating in the feel of thick grass on bare feet, and then walking back to my apartment and resuming my normal morning routine…and it was such a great way to wake up that I’ve been doing it ever since. Coffee isn’t part of my daily ritual, but if it were I would experiment with giving up my morning coffee in exchange for a 5-minute barefoot walk; I think the walk would probably win.

So the long and the short of it is that I realize now that I am a runner, and that’s something that I’m continuing to grow into, but running is only the beginning; I’m also a singer, an artist, an explorer, and a bunch of other aspects of myself as a little kid that have gotten buried to varying degrees over the years. I’m very much looking forward to continuing to dig in the dirt and see what I find.

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