Animal Nature: Why I Run

Yesterday, as I sat working away at my computer, I felt the urge.  The urge is something that you can probably relate to– it’s that feeling that you want to break out of whatever you’re doing and go elsewhere.  This feeling comes in many sizes, big and small, ambitious and modest.  It comes when you flip through Alpinist magazine rather than read your textbook, and you start planning a trip months in advance instead of paying the bills.  It comes again when your momentary distraction leads you out onto the internet, where we’re blessed to have many, maybe too many, sources of inspiration.  I’ll become distracted only to  read an article about climbing, or skiing, or any movement sport and right then I just have the feeling that I want to do that too. Not later.  I need to go now.

A little piece of nature

While we all have important priorities to look after, which support the bigger goals and missions of our lives (for me it’s medical school, for you it could be your family, your career, or anything else that so impassions you that for it you’ll sacrifice your short-term happiness), I think it’s also important to occasionally honor this urge to move. Something is lost if it is always suppressed in favor of productivity or some other obligation  This is why I always have my running shoes sitting near my front door, standing watch.

Yesterday, when I felt the need to move, I looked out the window of my apartment at a grey, rainy, and blustery day.  ‘But I don’t want to!’,  some part of me said, ‘It looks…uncomfortable’. But another inexplicable drive inside of me towed me around the apartment, throwing on running clothes as quickly as I could, before better sense caught hold of me.  After a brief consult with google earth, I was out the door.

Fall leaves

Running from my apartment leads me through a landscape which mimics the transformation of my mental landscape affected by trail running.  At first, I run through city streets, pausing to work my way around construction sites and to wait for cross walk signals.  Then, after crossing over a freeway, I drop down into a hollow to a high school track, at the far end of which is a gap in the trees.  As I run through the city, my body always rejects the first minutes of pavement.  ‘What is this?  This is…as uncomfortable as I thought.’

Through the gap in the trees at the far end of the track is a trail which winds up through the narrow slots and sharply contoured hills below the University Hospital where I work.  It’s true Northwestern forest, with a canopy closing overhead which holds out both the wind and light, leaving an open understory around the winding dirt single track .  Here, I can settle into a rhythm.  Here, thinking would make me trip and fall.  Far better to settle into a mindless space and let my animal brain place my feet quickly and without effort.  As I pad up hills, bouncing and dodging through rocky outcroppings and tangled roots, my body no longer objects.  Here it knows what to do and how to do it well.  [blockquote_with_author author=”Jesse Owens”] I always loved running.  It was something you could do by yourself, and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs. [/blockquote_with_author]

The first half of my 5-mile loop is uphill, gradually at first, and then steeping into switchbacks near its apex.  Finally, I emerge from the trees onto a familiar street to find myself moving through the University, a technological City-on-a-Hill that shines cleanly and in stark contrast to my mud-covered legs and flushed face.  But quickly I slip down another side street to a hidden trailhead and descent again under the darkened canopy, carefully descending steep zigs and zags of trail, holding the leash tightly to avoid needless momentum.

When the switchbacks end, they spill out onto a forest road lined with gravel.  It’s the perfect grade for flying.  Here I drop the leash and whip down the straight path, feeling reckless but swift, before spilling out at speed onto a city street.  This time, returning home on the concrete, my legs welcome the path, feeling an acute animal awareness of the solid ground beneath their feet.

Thinking Room in Alaska
Looking out on plenty of room to think, or not, in the Northern Talkeetna mountains, Alaska.

All told, by the time I’ve washed the mud from myself and have sat down to my desk once again, little more than an hour has passed.  How quickly that hour would have passed working here mindlessly.  Instead, giving in to the call, the last hour I felt deeply.  For the rest of the day mind and spirit are lighter, happier, and quicker to laughter.  My work does itself, and I wear the soreness of my brief adventure as a proud reminder than I am not just a pair of hands-which-type but an animal capable of ranging.

So I encourage you, reader, to listen to that animal inside yourself.  The next time that you feel it pawing about the door, consider loosing it for a foray into that wild place which restores you. Don’t forget your other half. Out there, between your imagination and your backyard, is room enough to uncage your real self, if only for an hour.


Support Mountain Lessons and equip your animal with some LaSportiva C-Lite 2.0 trail runners. They’re all you’ll ever need.

Category: Running



  1. Awesome. I also live in Portland, and can picture this exact experience, for it’s the only thing that keeps me sane when I can’t be out in the mountains.

    Really been enjoying your stuff.


  2. Patrick, I just recently did king-elk loop. 3 hours on the nose. I have yet to run up king though. I guess you would call it fast hike. I plan on trying again soon. Contact me if you would like to go.

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