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BRO Athletes: Trail Running as Moving Meditation

As a kid growing up in Roanoke, Virginia, I was restless. I was always riding my bike or skateboard, hiking, jumping on the trampoline, running through the neighborhood. I was not, however, interested in team sports. I guess I was just too shy and timid. I dabbled with competitive running -the track team- in middle school, gravitating to the longer distances, but in my immature state found it rather stressful and humiliating. I wasn’t very good at it.

In high school I continued my trend of avoiding participation in organized sports—boy was I was terrible at ball throwing—but I continued nevertheless to be very active in other physical pursuits such as the aforementioned skateboarding and hiking and backpacking. In high school my fascination with rock climbing blossomed as well. And then there was always my ever-present interest in biking.

I started taking overnight trips on my bike when I was 14. My parents actually encouraged that sort of thing. That summer I took a solo, three-day trip to Fairystone State Park and back from Roanoke via the Blue Ridge Parkway. That trip was followed the next summer by a four-day trek in which I rode across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Other bike journeys followed, through my high school and college years, culminating in a trans-continental USA trip the summer before I started dental school. I finished that trip only a week before classes commenced, and when they did I really missed the daily dose of movement -I mean, I was accustomed to riding for ten to twelve hours a day, so being at all sedentary was not really an option I was willing or able to accept; I found I needed to move. I tried bike riding from my base in downtown Richmond, but logistically it didn’t work out very well so I thought, hmmmm maybe I’ll try running. Maybe I’ll try running.

I bought some Reebok running shoes, my decision based on their snazzy looks alone, and started jogging the downtown streets of the Capitol city. Soon I was running almost every day, during what worked out to be a regular, late afternoon window of opportunity. Richmond did not have the wonderful and extensive system of trails along the James River corridor that it has today, so all of my running there was of the pavement pounding variety. And it was great.

Yes, I was discovering something amazing. Of course, it took a while for my body to get accustomed to the physiological and mechanical demands of running, but my mind took to it readily and naturally. Despite the considerable physical effort -or because of it?- I found joy in the movement, and in my perception of all my bodily systems working together in harmony. Out there, amid the exhaust fumes and the engine noise, the dodging of traffic and the hopping of curbs, I found peace.

As the weeks and months went by, and my dental studies gained momentum, so did my running. I further appreciated the mental therapy that running was providing me, and there was no question that running was helping me reset my psychic bowling pins, clearing confusion, calming the incessant chatter in my brain. I came to refer to my running as “my secret weapon.”

I started entering races -5k’s, 10k’s, marathons- and that added a new dimension to my running adventures, but mainly, above all, there was the daily dose of running as moving meditation.

Years later, with my dental practice established back in Roanoke, I was running as much as ever. I was still running and racing on the road, but more and more the local trails felt the fall of my feet. A local and regional classic, the 8-mile McAfee Knob Trail round-trip became my all-time favorite. I really felt the tug of that one, and as testament I logged over 830 times of running that beautiful route in all weather conditions. The setting, the rhythm and tempo, of the McAfee route made it my most reliable and best meditational outing ever. On that run especially, surrounded by forest, dirt, rocks, and wildlife in whatever season, my worldly concerns would come to the surface and shake free; my overloaded brain would relax, re-sort, and reset. The normal challenges of running a business, making a living, and being a husband, father, and son would lay down and be easier to manage. The McAfee Knob run is where my trail-running-as-moving-meditation really came into it’s own, and attached itself forever to my psyche.

Thirty years have gone by now since I started running. I abandoned road running years ago—save for emergencies when I’m somewhere without trails—and these days much of my regular running is upon the varied paths of Mill Mountain Park just a mile from my home in Roanoke. Since the development of that 20-mile network of trails I don’t run McAfee as much as I used to, but since the Knob is one of my favorite places on the planet I still get up there often. In the past decade I’ve been especially fascinated by long mountain trail races and the associated 20-mile-plus training runs that go along with them. The amazing number and variety of stellar trail long training runs in and around the Roanoke Valley -on the Appalachian Trail, National Forest trails, huge park trail networks like Mill Mountain and Carvins Cove- keep me busy. And the top-notch mountain trail ultras offered in the Blue Ridge Mountain region, races which attract participants from throughout the country, continue to hold my interest.

With all there is to know and experience about the world of trail running, including the discipline and suffering of racing ultras, the basics of it are in me deeply ingrained: the joy in the rhythm of the movement in natural, wild and beautiful settings….the moving meditation of it.

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