At 63 years of age, I still run eight miles every day through the serene, wooded trails near my home. Throughout the season, I must transcend the elements, physical pain, and endurance to run, often finding peace and wisdom in nature’s tranquility. -s. e-b.
When the alarm sounded, I wanted to continue sleeping. Instead, I slid out of the warm sheets away from the comfort of my husband’s body; peeked through the venetian blinds; and noticed graceful flakes of pearly-white lace had dusted the tree-lined trails adjacent to my home. Even though the mercury hovered just below freezing, I knew today was the perfect day for a solitary winter run. So, I quietly donned my winter running clothes and headed downstairs.
Daylight had not yet turned the slumberous, dark blue clouds to their morning gray, and—for a moment—I hesitated at my front door not wanting to disturb winter’s peaceful silence. When I stepped outside, my warm breath mingled with the crisp, cold air as it stung my cheeks. As I began to run, my stiff legs begged me to turnaround; I ignored their cries knowing they would soon stop complaining. Only my footfalls broke the silence as the gentle snow crunched under my feet.
As I ran through the woods that morning, nary an animal crossed my path; their tracks in the snow indicated that they had been here before me though. The nippy air frosted my breath, and soon my breathing mixed with my footfalls creating a rhythm. I ran effortlessly past fallen trees along the creek side with no thought of time or distance. I wasn’t aware of speed either—just movement.
I ran past an icy pond cloaked by barren, frost-covered trees trembling like skeletons in the brisk wind. Snow began falling around me making me feel as if I was running in a snow globe. Soon, winter’s tranquility and purity enveloped me; time and distance became meaningless, and I imagined that the woods looked as it once did 100 years ago. For a brief moment I thought I saw Henry David Thoreau in the distance standing outside his cabin near Walden Pond. Yet, off in the distance there was absolutely nothing except for what was right in front of me—miles of solitude.
For years I’ve run alone along these trails in the woods—a quiet, almost sacred place every bit as wondrous as Walden Pond. Generally, the only sounds I regularly hear on these solitary runs are birds chirping, small animals collecting nuts, and my feet as they gently land on leaves, pine straws, or snow. I occasionally hear the pitter-patter of rain drops as they hit leaves and fall onto the underbrush and forest floor. Sometimes a light rain cools my perspiring body and soothes my spirit. Frequently, I immerse myself in my thoughts and dreams and feel invigorated. Other times, the solitude nourishes the seeds of stories germinating in my head.
Here in the woods, though, solitude—as silent and powerful as light itself—forces introspection. So, I linger in the solitude emptying and quieting my mind; then, I let go of the world and my ego—journeying inwards. Here, I sometimes hear my inner voice whispering to me; I occasionally meet myself face-to-face and find the being within—the true self—that has been waiting patiently to be released. Solitude has flung open the door of wisdom—amplifying self-awareness as a metamorphosis of my spirit occurs.
At some point I continue running—grateful for the solitude and the balance I feel. I turn around, follow my footprints, and return in the direction from whence I came. Reluctantly, I approach the end of my solitary run—not wanting it to be over. From season to season I’ve run alone along these quiet trails in the nearby woods, but never once have I felt lonely. Strange. Why is that?
True, some would equate this solitude with loneliness. On the surface solitude and loneliness are similar; yet just below the surface, they are quite different. Solitude is refreshing while loneliness is punitive and harsh. Solitude is rich and full while loneliness is empty and hollow. Solitude is the glory of being alone in awareness while loneliness is the pain of being alone in isolation. Solitude is desirable while loneliness is not. Solitude restores body, mind, and spirit while loneliness depletes them.
Have I ever felt lonely while running? No. How could I feel lonely when my inner spirit is there to comfort me? Have I ever felt alone while running? No, I’ve never felt alone—just unaware. Have I ever been alone while running? Yes, I’ve been alone while running, and being alone is exactly what I needed to be.
ABOUT SARA ETGEN-BAKER
STORIES BY SARA ETGEN-BAKER