Dismantled

Here’s a piece from my irrepressible running partner Meghna.

How did I get here? How did this get to be my happy place? I had this thought yesterday as I was stomping around somewhat aimlessly in the woods, sleety snow pelting me in the face, not another human in sight, and pretty darn close to content despite a bum knee that has kept me from running for a couple of weeks now.

I grew up in Bangalore and Lagos in very urban settings where time outdoors often meant playing on the streets while dodging traffic. No idyllic open green spaces with trails, and definitely no snow. Really, I didn’t find myself in the woods or even woods-adjacent till I moved to this country in my 20s. I didn’t start running, not really, till a couple of years ago. And trail running is an even more recent development. Yet, here I am now, doing this thing that I’ve come to love, day after day if I can help it. It has become such an integral part of who I am and how I see myself as if it’s always been there, some sort of latent gene waiting to be expressed.

It seems surreal that this is the thing that brings me joy.

I was raised in a very goal-oriented environment, not uncommon in my corner of the world. Results and ranks mattered. There was no room for second place. I was taught to believe that my worth in this world depended on how well I did the things I did. Better than everyone else was best. Good enough was NOT enough, not even close. There was no free love. This sort of hard wiring can be debilitating at times and tough to undo. Hard as I tried over the years, it felt impossible to break away from this idea of self-worth.

Then I started running in the woods and brought all of this to my run. I figured if I put in the work everyday, tried really hard, I’d get to call the shots, determine the outcome. I could conquer trail running. Easy. So I ran as consistently and as much as I could. But the more I ran trails, the more I came to realize that my agenda didn’t belong there. It slowly started to dismantle my sense of control, my desire to be fast and first at all costs. The only thing that I could be certain of on the trail was that I’d be humbled repeatedly, reminded of my place time and time again, even on days I felt fast and strong, even on trails I knew really well. It’s a beautiful thing and has helped me so much.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still who I am. I’m competitive and neurotic. I want to be fast and push my boundaries and go big and do well. These are certainly things that follow me to the woods every time, whether I want it or not. I start a run with a map in my head, preconceived notions of how long it will take and how I’ll feel on different legs of the run. It just doesn’t often go the way I think it should, and why would it?

The trail has a mind of its own and it changes by the day, by the season, by the mile. The flat, loamy stretch by the water that I was planning to sprint is water logged, the rocky climb to the summit that I want to dance up is an ice covered slog, the skittering light through the leaves, while absolutely beautiful, makes it impossible to see anything. I finally find my rhythm, leaping around the rocks, only to be undone by the downed trees that force me down a trail I don’t know at all.

All I can do is let the trail decide how far and fast I go. Get lost and find my way back. Slow down and look up. Run for the run, for the things that matter, for the full moon sunrises, for the pre-dawn fog, for the skeleton trees in the swampy marshes, for the deer in the tall grass, for all the many birds I still can’t identify, for those moments, however fleeting, when I feel connected to it all and everything is as it should be.

I went to the woods to master them, and instead they dismantled me and put me back together. In fact, they are still doing it. Slowly. Sometimes, still, I resist, but the trail is magic and I have faith that someday the job will be done, if only I keep going.

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