Running Home and Getting Lost: Finding El Cerro

I had moved from Albuquerque to North Central Florida to pursue the relationship of my dreams. Along with an internship at the best trauma and addiction treatment facility in the country, I also had landed a job as a personal trainer at the premier gym in town. Life was dreamy and golden.

View from El Cerro.

Shortly, after my arrival, the dream quickly morphed into a nightmare. The job fell through, and I found myself working for my partner at the family restaurant. A large tightknit and passionate Italian family, this arrangement was inherently contrary to my family and upbringing. With my partner now my boss, the restaurant and family dynamics quickly consumed our relationship. I lost faith in this being “the one.” Happy coupledom became nothing more than a crushed cannoli in a takeout order.

“The one” became a six-person hurricane of codependency and enmeshment or was it was Italian cultural norms? As a therapist in training, I was unsure. Either way, I couldn’t relate, and nonstop fighting ensued. Next came the car accident, attorneys, a slip-and-fall at the Cheese Cake Factory, emergency surgery, finding myself in a parking lot with guns and police, the breakup, moving out alone, searching for contraband in an attic crawlspace, and needing to continue work at the restaurant to make ends meet. My ex continued in the role of “boss.” I found myself in a foreign place, frozen and terrified with barely a support system. So, I did what any good therapist does, focused on my locus of control, held to what was good, and adapted to circumstances. My internship was my saving grace, but my heart ached to go home to Albuquerque and return to who I was. I made plans to return and complete the final year of my master’s program. Ironically, when the time came to go, life had calmed down and I was truly enjoying the Florida experience; my heart was torn, and I found it difficult to leave. I guess my coping skills had worked a little too well.

Cedar Keys Florida.

The first three weeks of being home were wonderful. I was back in a democratic state post-election, my parents lived close, I had moved into the same apartment complex, my beloved neighbor close by, and I had a job in a deli I had worked for previously. Come Spring, I hoped to get back onboard with a local nursery. The nursery was the original inspiration for pursuing the master’s degree, forming a full circle.

When the depression and isolation hit me hard, I blamed it on the deli; I just needed to be outside. However, when I started at the nursery, it followed. Truthfully, I didn’t want to be anywhere I was. I had a half day off a week, and this was how it was going to be for an entire year. No out-of-town escapes, no distance hikes which had always brought solace; just homework and classes, work, internship all while juggling three dogs in an apartment with no yard. I needed a reprieve during those precious few hours a week, so I tried some short hikes in the foothills and found it swarming with people. Soon, strange longings for Florida began to invade my mind. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. There was no peace.

A solution presented itself addressing two issues at once, I could drive to El Cerro, a secluded hiking spot twenty miles away. Here I could hike my wild, spring-loaded dog who required significant exercise to not eat the apartment. No one loved this ill-mannered dog but me. I put on my Vibrams and headed out. Once at El Cerro, something surprising happened, spontaneously I began to run. I had never been a runner in my life. Not for a lack of trying, but I never made it far. Running on the treadmill made me want to instantly die.

Melissa and her pup at El Cerro.

I hiked some of the way and ran some. I was in love. This was the freedom I was looking for and after six miles, Puppy was worn out, a win-win. I began running every Sunday, finding three hours of peace. I was finding myself around every corner and seeing myself reflected in expansive blue panoramas. On El Cerro I had the epiphany that Florida had changed me. I would never fit back into my old life; a freshly shaped round peg attempting to fit in a jagged square hole. I concluded I needed to accept the loss of my former self and take steps to fully inhabit this new person. A crucial part of this transformation was running. This weekly ritual became my chrysalis for an inner revolution.

Melissa’s pup on El Cerro.

An MS in counseling had provided me a purview on the therapeutic effects of trail running. Plenty of research touts the benefits of exercise on mental health. Recent research supports spending time in nature to be useful, as well. Therefore, exercising in nature delivers a double-dose of mental health benefits. However, trail running also afforded an array of transferable skills. The uphill climb; sustained incremental effort; one foot in front of the other. When I was banging out paper after paper, wanting to quit, it would be one keystroke after the other, one assignment at a time. Being vigilant for rocks, snakes, and other hazards was cultivating the ability to be present in the moment and focus on the journey rather than the destination. From this, came responding rather than acting impulsively, a hallmark of emotional regulation and resiliency. Paradoxically, it also provided lessons on setting myself up for success. With progressively more difficult goals, I remained flexible by accounting for obstacles along the way and finding alternate routes. There were some runs where I was easily exhausted and appeared to lose progress. This manifested in self-compassion and patience. But, the most important lesson trail running had to teach me, was the ability to be comfortable with who I was and who I was becoming on the trail of life.  

View of the cross at El Cerro.
Melissa Koch

Melissa Koch

Melissa Koch resides in Tucson AZ and considers herself a mediocre trail runner. However, she continues to advance for the joy of the experience and the peanut butter banana sandwich at the end. She has an MS in counseling with an emphasis in addiction and is a certified wilderness first responder and personal trainer. She currently works as a residential therapist at an inpatient facility helping people to help themselves. Her other love besides trail running is vegetable gardening and her three crazy shelter dogs.

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2 thoughts on “Running Home and Getting Lost: Finding El Cerro”

  1. I love this! We had many conversations during this time and seeing how you encapsulated the experience and digested it and used it as fuel for your self evolution is amazing. Thanks for sharing.

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