The Sounds of Running Feet
If I left my little gray house and walked straight up, past the other homes built terraced into the hills, across the main road, and around a deep bend, I would find myself standing in the forest within twenty-five minutes. Once there, the noise of the street traffic below faded into the hush of the fir trees. Paths crisscrossed through forest and farms, winding around a central lake. Birdsong and the soft tinkle of cowbells strung around thick bovine necks played like music to the discerning ear. I, of course, heard none of it with my headphones smashed deep into my ears, pumping out the sounds of Pearl Jam and Pink.
In the three and a half years I lived in the gray house, I always drove the five minutes it took to reach my forest destination. I couldn’t imagine spending any more time on my feet than necessary after a long, hilly run. I trained for two half-marathons and two full ones on those criss-crossing paths, running a three-miles-up and three-miles-back loop between the farms and the forest. I began planning on Friday evenings, setting aside all of the gear I needed for a successful Saturday morning training run. I meticulously placed everything in small piles, starting in the kitchen with the ingredients for a pre-run breakfast lined up next to my energy gels and filled water bottles. The bathroom held my sunscreen, sunglasses, and hat. I placed a small pile of clothes, running shoes, headphones, fuel belt, and a GPS watch to track my distance just outside the bedroom door. In bad weather, I laid out additional gear to meet any need I might have while facing the elements. Friday night prep was a serious production.
The few times I forgot something, I drove myself back home immediately to retrieve it. I refused to run without all of these “necessities”. One Saturday morning, I found myself pinched for time when I arrived at the start of my running loop. I pulled everything out, setting my water bottles on the windshield of the car for easier access on the return every sixth mile. I put my belt on, hid the keys to the car, pulled out my phone to choose my running playlist, and then discovered I forgot my headphones. Already pressed for time, I forced myself to run without them, listening to nothing but the sound of the countryside waking up. It was the longest, hardest, most boring run of my life, and one of the few in which I found myself actually paying attention.
I heard the sounds of the farms coming to life around me, the dogs barking their hellos, and the soft crush of fir needles beneath my feet when I entered the forest. I noticed the niggly pain in my knee on the downhill slopes. I felt the depth of my breathing increase with the force of a dragon spewing fire, as I ran up and up and up. I took notice of what my eyes saw too. Rather than retreating into the sounds in my head, I stayed alert to the scenery passing by me in slow motion—the two Siberian Huskies resting in the garden, the tree house, the geraniums red and blooming in the wood window box. My music-free run imprinted on all of my senses, becoming one I distinctly remember, out of hundreds of runs I don’t.
Some time after that, I developed an injury that required me to take a long break from running altogether. I no longer spent Friday evenings pulling together piles of gear, or planning the next day’s route. In an effort to stay active, I began taking long walks around the lake and through the forest. Some days I brought a camera, occasionally I listened to music, but most days I brought nothing but myself, contained in a stiff and broken body. I tuck each of those walking, injury-induced days away in a special place in my memory. I didn’t realize it until then, but my hip wasn’t the only part of me that was injured. My spirit needed a time of recovery too. I needed a break from the ridiculous planning and from the noise created by a busy life filled with endless training. I needed to strip everything back to the bare essentials—feet that pulled me forward, eyes that see, ears that hear, and a spirit willing to be at rest. Those walking weeks allowed me the space and the freedom and the quiet I needed to recover.
In the quiet times, without the distraction of my music and fiddling around with my water bottles and gear, I realized how often I missed the subtle signs of life unfolding around me. I missed God whispering to me in the sway of the lakeside grass. I missed seeing His face in the people I passed along the way. I missed hearing His reply when my prayers only consisted of this one line, “Dear God, please help me finish!” I missed it all until He forced me into a season of rest. I felt like Jacob after the angel of the Lord touched his hip, leaving him with a permanent limp. This limp reminded him of a supernatural encounter with God, just as mine reminded me that God remained ever-present in my everyday.
One afternoon, well into my season of recovery, I walked from my home all the way to the forest. I spent some time at the lake, before turning around to hike back. I had no gear with me and my running shoes remained tucked away in my bedroom closet, but on the return home I broke into a spontaneous run. As evidenced by my crazy, Friday night planning, I am not a spontaneous run kind of person. During that run, I prayed and watched the world slowly slip by. I tuned my ear to the sound of my own breathing, and I ran from the center of the forest back down to my little gray house. It’s a run I will always remember—stripped down to nothing but the essentials—with a spirit alive to a God who is always around me, in me, and working through me, from my listening ears to my running feet.