The awful clanking sounds coming from my kitchen wake me as the coffee maker groans to life. It’s five in the morning, and the pre-dawn sky is beginning to show the first signs of light. I lie in the dark, listening to the clicks and hiss of the machine, glad that in my small living space it can serve as an alarm clock on these chilly, early winter days. My eyes close, I am so tired. I mentally begin to go over the list of things I will do in the hours ahead, the plethora of responsibilities and commitments I have made are overwhelming to think about this early in the day. I pull my thoughts inward, breathe deeply, and smile into the darkness, for although I am tired, I am excited. The sun is on its way.
I’ve been an early riser for most of my life, always anticipating the magic that the moments before daybreak hold, as the world becomes breathtakingly beautiful and humanity remains quiet around me. In every new morning, I arrive within myself, within the world, feeling renewed and inspired for what lays ahead. I am unshakable. First light is the time of day I contemplate large life transitions, the time of day I make big decisions, the time of day I remind myself what I am grateful for. It is the time of day I run.
I throw back the covers, and creep out into the kitchen, turning on lights as I go. I pour myself a few fingers of coffee, and begin the process of preparing for the hour or so of freedom that is unfolding before me. This process could be strictly organized, and I imagine it is for some of my fellow early morning running peers. For me, it includes distracted moments of writing down thoughts, attempting to find my favorite running socks, perhaps reading a passage from a book, or an article my Grandmother sent me in the mail last week, responding to the late night text messages from friends that I wasn’t awake for, continuing to search for my socks, sometimes starting a grocery list that ultimately will lie forgotten on the table, often plugging in my watch for the last minute charge that won’t actually make a difference… the discombobulated list could go on. This is my form of routine. I check the temperature, where did I leave my tights yesterday? The floor, Laura, always the floor. I glance at the clock, tell myself to focus, finish dressing in record speed, click on my head lamp, and head out into the glorious, crackling cold.
I began nurturing my love for running in my late teens. Never having run farther than five miles at a time, I decided to train for my first marathon. I guess I like a challenge. Since that first winter of learning how to log long miles, often gallivanting solo through the snowy woods, I haven’t stopped. As I transitioned from college to graduate school to moving through a variety of geographic locations and jobs, to steering myself through the emotional overload of family divorces and sick parents, to navigating the ending of relationships and the beginning of new ones, running was the only constant I had. It has become a practice that is deeply ingrained in who I am.
I begin the first few frozen steps into the dark neighborhood I live in, immediately feeling as if I am uncurling myself from all restriction. As my breath regulates against the cold, the tension in my jaw dissipates. I smile up at the quickly fading stars, and my muscles awaken to meet the demands I am placing on them. It’s a couple of miles on paved roads before I am at the entrance to the network of trails that I fondly refer to as “home” in my head. Frost coats the leaves, making for a crunchy transition onto the single track. I sense the sky lightening, more so than I see it, feeling the energy in the woods begin to shift, and I soon find myself racing the sun.
I didn’t realize I was a “good at running”, until I was in my early twenties and began placing in local half marathons and ten milers, often taking home the title of top female finisher. As I became a competitive athlete, I began using the solo morning run to train, to push myself towards mental and physical boundaries that I have not yet found. Through training in this way, something much bigger happened. I began to understand myself in these quiet mornings. I realized I was using this time to prepare myself for the chaos of the day that will be filled with responsibilities that leave me tired and time crunched by days end; I use this time to experience the natural wonder that is the dawning of each day, as I dig deeper to discover what fulfills me.
My breath becomes timed with the rise and fall of the trail. My feet find the next root, the next rock, the next curve, the next ascent; I have entered this flowing state of moving in complete rhythm with the woods around me. A nearby crow takes a break from its early morning mischief and its caw echoes among the trees. I answer it in my best crow fashion, and laugh out loud as I continue to climb. I burst out of the trail onto the crest of the rocky cliff of what used to be a quarry. The ocean is visible to the East, and the sun is just beginning to arrive in the sky a little farther to the South. I stand motionless, suddenly silent. I wrap my arms around the oak tree next to me, leaning into its strength, as I watch the sun peek over the horizon. As is the case every time that I witness this brilliant spectacle, I am humbled.
I don’t talk about running to most people, as I imagine that they’d find it boring. I don’t tell people that I need it as badly as I need air, that my brain is wired in such a way that it feels like a primal urge to be in sync with the trails. I am a Yoga teacher, and have no shame in saying that I have never meditated sitting in stillness on my mat. I don’t explain to people that breathing with the forest is the only time my mind is non-attached. I don’t tell people that the hours I spend alone in the woods are the hours that I begin to better understand myself, that they are the hours that make my spirit whole. I don’t tell them that experiencing the sun rising makes my heart hurt in the most awe-filled, pleasurable way possible. I don’t tell my co-workers that I ran a ten miler before showing up at the office at 8:00 am, and it was at mile seven that I came up with this awesome idea for a project I am working on. I don’t tell my friends that I return the cries of crows from the middle of the woods, or that I spend a few minutes making up a story in my head about the crow family that I like to believe exists off in the trees. I don’t tell people that I run so that I will be better at my job, better at being a sister, daughter, or friend – better at being a human.
The sun has risen fully in just the few moments I have stood, silent but for my breath, which has now slowed. My arms are still around the oak, my cheek pressed against it. I notice just now that I can see the crystals of my breath dissolve into the air. I turn my face, brush my lips against the cold bark of the tree, smile at the sun, and nod in thanks to this Goddess of a star. As always, I have received what I needed this morning from the natural world.
I used to try to articulate these things to past partners. I would realize our relationship was growing tense as there was a lack of understanding why I left them in bed every morning, “just to go for a run.” I have laughed with them, asking them to not be jealous of the time I spend alone with the sun, the woods, and my soul. These days, I don’t typically tell men about my lifestyle, as I’ve gotten everything from the condescending, “Well I’d get up that early, but I have to work all day, and I’d need a nap by the afternoon” (Yeah, buddy, I work hard, am good at my job, and am constantly tired too) to, “Have you run a marathon? Because I ran a marathon once. What was your time? Oh, I did it 43 minutes faster. I cut out beer. Did you? No? Oh that’s probably why I did it faster than you.” (I get it, you’re a man who is faster than I am, you are superior, I shall bow down. I bet my beer mile time is better than yours, though) to one of the most common comments, “You don’t need to run so much, you’re already really small” (Oh my God, you are so right, I don’t know what I was thinking with all of this running nonsense). I don’t tell them how important the morning solitude is for me, that this is the only time I will be alone all day. I don’t tell them of kissing trees, of being humbled by the sun, of the reminder the trails gave me that I am a decent person. I don’t tell them of tracking my negative splits, of the exhausting and exhilarating telephone pole sprints, of the effort it takes to push myself farther and faster. I don’t tell them that every time I run, I am celebrating, I am healing, I am nurturing a piece of my being.
I make my way towards home, and let my thoughts spiral outward towards the work day that is filled with meetings, and thoughtful conversations, the class that I will teach after work, the phone call from a friend I’ve been meaning to return, the thought that my fridge is empty, as usual, and I probably need to go to the grocery store on my way home tonight, or else it will be yet another dinner of eggs and whatever-else-I-can-possibly-find. The sun has moved higher into the sky, there are signs of life in my town now, as people begin their daily commutes. I am filled with feelings of accomplishment and contentment, as I sprint the final distance to my driveway. I stop my watch: Just over eight miles, just over an hour, an energized body, a full heart, a clear mind ready to take on the day ahead. Not bad for a Tuesday.