I’ve had a draft playing around in my head for a month or two, a sharing of my experience at the Hike Across Maryland (HAM). I’ve come to think of this experience as a walking meditation. This morning, a radio program gave me the impetus to move ahead and put those thoughts to keyboard.
Krista Tippett’s “On Being” was airing, her topic being Running As Spiritual Practice. A number of runners (including Olympian Billy Mills) share with her how running has taken them through dark times, lifted spirits, developed discipline and in many different ways become part of each runner’s spiritual practice.
I have felt many of those sentiments through my years of running. At the HAM, the closest I felt was the necessity to be mindful of every step I took as I ran and hiked the 40-mile distance on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in a single day.
The HAM is an incredible opportunity for hikers to test their endurance and pacing. From the 5 a.m. start at the Mason-Dixon line where Pennsylvania meets Maryland to the arrival crossing the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, we were supported by volunteers and checkpoints providing refreshments and documenting our passage. While this event is not a race, we were required to reach specific locations by specific times or be asked to drop and accept transport to the finish.
Rain was heavy the previous day, making our May 6th passage on the trail muddy and slick. Temperatures at the start in the high 50’s would have been perfect if not for the cool rain. A love of nature and tests of endurance still brought out over 100 participants.
Off-and-on again sheets of rain came down as we ran a portion of an early mile. As water ran down her face, my friend said “Isn’t this great? We get to be in the woods all day.” She was serious and set a tone of optimism for me.
I realized early on that 40 miles of hiking, with running spurts where I was sure of my footing, would require concentration. I decided if I was to make it through with minimal injury, it would need to be a meditative endeavor.
I cleared my mind of any extraneous mumbo-jumbo thoughts that usually find their way into my thinking. Every step was a mindful step. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of the rushing of the streams we crossed, the calf-deep mudholes, the occasional birdsong and the rustling of unseen critters in the woods. It’s not to say I wasn’t aware of the beautiful deep, deep green the rain was bringing out in an already lush area. And it’s also not to say that I didn’t listen to and acknowledge a number of fellow hikers talking through their love of the trail, concerns about and pride in their children, job and health challenges. Being on the trail is license to spew out to total strangers the things that really matter in life.
With any and all of that seeming to be on a separate track, my concentration was in each step of the trail, 40 miles of meditation. Even that concentration did not stop me from taking a face plant as we climbed a rain-slick boulder. The bill of my cap and my glasses let me escape with nothing worse than a small goose egg on the forehead and a few scratches on the palms of my hands.
At our last major checkpoint, I turned over my headlamp and heavier raincoat to friends who volunteered support, exchanging that weight for a couple of quick chugs of Coke. Off then for the last few miles, still mindful in each step, my pace was quicker than the pace of my first few miles.
Although the towpath near the finish seemed unending, the stairs to the bridge a cruel trick and as we crossed to West Virginia the wild beauty of the rain-swollen Potomac breathtaking, I stayed mindful of each step on this wonderful earth.
There are no regrets I took up this challenge. Through this 40-mile hiking/jogging meditation, I treasured the company of good friends as well as strangers and the support of the organizers and personal hiking friends who made the day.
Enjoy your weekend, dream of a new challenge and try taking a mindful approach. Gotta run.