Unconscious on the Trail

Sorry. Sorry. I’m fine. I just sometimes write headlines that seem like cries for help. What I’m actually talking about is the unconscious imprinting that happens while you run, the slow pattern absorption that lets you put your feet down on familiar trail without thinking about it.

If you want to know how well you know a stretch of dirt, run it at night. (Use a headlamp. This isn’t some Jedi mind training that marks progress in ankle sprains.) And then just notice how easily you make turns, how readily you run the right line.

I am not sure how many miles of trail I have committed to memory, not just navigationally, but down to rock and root. It’s a lot. And what’s brilliant about it is that I didn’t try. I don’t have to summon the knowledge when I use it. It’s just there. And two versions of these mental maps exist, the running version and the riding version. Different obstacles. Different flow. Like layers of the same map.

Proprioception is our ability to know where our body is in space. It’s made of this integration of sensory input from touch to sight to how a space sounds. We sense incline and the closeness of trees. Our heart rate feeds data about speed. The amalgam is an unconscious flow of information back out through our limbs into the world.

Yoga trains this. Agility work improves it. Trail running is, in my mind, agility yoga.

Having said that, I often wonder why I don’t hurt myself more. I suppose my wife would argue that I do. Last time I saw my doctor, she said to me, looking over my chart, “You have quite a history of trauma here.”

“Maybe,” I didn’t say to her, “you have to collect the physical trauma to heal the emotional stuff.”

I don’t know.

There was a storm here last week, more wind than rain, and the result was a reboot of our local woods with new trees down and branches everywhere. The next morning M and I set out on our Wednesday Test Loop and I rolled my ankle in the first mile, jumping over a downed tree and landing directly on a 4″ high hatchet stone, right in the middle of the path. That ankle is garbage anyway, so I kept running, but it made me wonder how I would have run that section if the tree hadn’t been there. Would I have needed to look to avoid that rock? Two days later I was there on the mountain bike. Didn’t clear the trunk, but also didn’t step on the rock.

New details had already been assimilated.

Paying attention, holding focus, these are not my strong suits. I can only stare at my feet for so long, and on longer runs in particular I depend on being able to go unconscious for stretches of time. It actually gives some urgency to learning new trails, near and far, to be able to clock the distance without sweating the details.

It saves my limited bandwidth for seeing, feeling, and thinking other things, for listening to music that’s also just committed to memory, for writing words before the keyboard gets them, for feeling all my mental bullshit lighten and lift off my shoulders.