May 21 2018
How running after losing my leg has helped me find my identity and purpose.
The summer after I turned 8, my parents sent me to sleepaway camp in a small town in upstate New York. It was one of those camps that provided an opportunity for low-income and working-class children of New York City to escape our urban environment and live in the country for a few weeks.
For most of us, our experience outdoors was fairly limited to playing on our blocks, exploring our neighborhood parks and traveling by cheese bus to Bear Mountain for picnicking and field games. These times were valuable and memorable but would prove to be nothing like what would remain etched in my mind like the four weeks I spent at summer camp in the Catskills.
The first night there, after we settled into our bunks and had done the requisite getting-to-know-you games and trust falls, we had a choice of activities for the evening. Because I was adventurous and excited about the whole idea of being away from Brooklyn, I chose the weirdest and scariest-sounding activity: night-time stream hiking. I dressed in my new jeans and work boots that my parents had bought for my time in the country and joined a group of campers from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens and the Bronx and two British counselors (whom we thought were exotic). Attendance was taken, and we headed down a big hill, through some woods and into a stream.
It was simple and fun enough at first. Sure, getting our clothes and shoes wet was part of the reason we were there. We wanted adventure. We wanted something different from the concrete of our Brooklyn streets. We forged ahead.
The rocks were slippery and unsteady, but we, being intrepid New Yorkers, took this as a welcome challenge. We squealed in delight and splashed each other as we made our way upstream. Because it was evening, the sky began to darken, and the steady, slow and rhythmic chirping of crickets started to rise, and all other sounds became more pronounced—our heartbeats, our quick inhalations of breath as we slipped and slid. You could hear everything and nothing. The quiet of the country evening descended upon us quickly.
For all of us citified children, the silence became unbearable. It was too quiet, too disturbing. There were animals we couldn’t see scurrying through the brush that lined the stream, and the crickets sounded as though they had landed on the tops of our heads, they were so loud. We became uneasy and less cavalier, less city-proud and more afraid. But afraid of what, exactly?
The two counselors kept on, expecting us to keep pace (not very fast), but were generous with their support and encouragement amid our squeals-turned-screams in the increasingly dark night.
“Everybody okay? Just a few animals that are more afraid of us than we are of them! And onward, campers!”
Even though we didn’t know each other that morning, we became fast friends. We held hands tightly with one another as we became more frightened. We reassured each other. We helped those who had tripped on a rock and fallen into the stream.
Just when it was almost too dark to see more than a few feet ahead of us, the counselors brought us to an underpass—a large culvert whose silver-metal outline we could barely make out in the dark. The stream flowed through this dark entity, and our task was to traverse it in order to finish our hike.
We each entered the culvert. When we reached the middle, the counselors stopped and stood still and told us to listen.
“To what?” we asked, voices shaking.
“Shhh! Just listen.”
We were enveloped by a thick, palpable blackness. We listened to the water flowing against the metal of this huge pipe. We heard the swoosh of a light breeze as it flowed through the culvert. Our heartbeats slowed, our racing minds calmed down and for a few moments, we let go of each other’s sweaty hands and just stood in the darkness, listening and being.
I inhaled deeply and smiled.
After a few moments of this, our counselors handed out spearmint Life Savers and showed us the neat trick of creating light by biting down on the candies. We giggled and relaxed, pale green light coming from our mouths like little flashes of lightning in the distance. When we finished the entire roll, the counselors turned on their headlamps and we finished our hike, sloshing through the last bit of culvert and making a left up a sharp incline and onto a dirt road that would lead us back to camp.
Although I was still a bit shaken and uneasy, I felt oddly empowered and strong. Here I was, outside in a stream that hadn’t been created by a fire hydrant, in the pitch-black, claustrophobic darkness with nary a streetlamp to speak of, with people I didn’t know—an introvert’s nightmare—with bugs and critters all around making loud bug and critter noises in a silence that was foreign to me. I loved it. I relished the exhilaration of having fear and discomfort but being able to live with it and appreciate where I was at the moment, far away from home in a cool
but scary place with my shoes and jeans all wet and heavy.
If I could walk in complete darkness not knowing what the next step would bring, I could do anything.
A few weekends ago, I endured what was likely the muddiest and perhaps most unsettling trail race I have ever run. As soon as the race director yelled, “GO!” we began our trek down a still-dry forest service road. I had a nagging feeling, what with weather reports and all, that this was going to be a long slog through deep, shoe-sucking mud, with the potential for slips, slides and outright face-planting. I allowed myself to relax a little on this easy downhill but prepared myself mentally for what was to come. The real test was about to begin.
Related: I’m A Serious Runner–Are You?
We turned left onto the trail, and I immediately became worried about completing the race. The trail was so muddy, I knew traversing it would be slow and difficult. A wave of disappointment came over me. Then an even stronger wave of determination followed. I was in my element. I was here.
This is where I am supposed to be.
I had signed up to be in this dark forest, a place that over the course of the day would experience several thunderstorms and drawn-out, soaking downpours that would turn once-dry streambeds into murky, raging rivers.
Have I told you yet that I have an irrational fear of thunderstorms? And that I willingly continued on this journey in which I would confront this fear multiple times?
I would be running and hiking these trails with my own two feet, depending on my own leg, core and upper-body strength (and a few unsuspecting trees) to remain upright on slippery, uneven surfaces. And even though there would be aid stations, I would ultimately be responsible for my own safety and health throughout the day.
It was up to me to be aware and have the common sense to stop if I needed to—to wade confidently but carefully through the rushing waters. Of course there would be others out on the trail, and we would cross paths from time to time, but if you’ve ever been on a trail in the outback, it can be downright lonely, even during a race.
The thunder came in fits and spurts, loud and booming. Every single time, I found myself alone and frightened, but my legs couldn’t and wouldn’t stop moving. I had to take care of myself; I had to be strong.
Each time I was fairly sure the thunder and its accompanying downpours had ended, I would stop briefly wherever I was, at the top of a hill, in the bottom of a dark ravine, in the meadow filled with wild daisies…
I inhaled sharply and smiled.
I am here, where I am meant to be—navigating through the literal hills and valleys of the earth, in the most basic human way: standing tall, the exhilaration of fear and strength coursing through my body, my heart beating hard from physical effort and adrenaline.
I love the outdoors for requiring us to be self-sufficient human beings, for gently nudging us toward working with—and not against—nature. Sometimes she gives us a dose of tough love, too.
As we increasingly succumb to a fast-paced, nonstop, breathless existence, it becomes more and more important to spend some time exploring the outside world, being fully present in our humanity in the outdoors and perhaps learning some things about ourselves that we didn’t know before.
I find that when I am in the woods, or walking through a beautiful flower-filled meadow on a dewy, misty mountaintop, or even running through Van Cortlandt Park in New York on an early summer morning, I always learn or relearn something about myself.
I might rediscover that I love the feel of damp wild flowers brushing against my ankles. I might learn that this mountain running thing is actually kind of fun. I realize, while running through several thunderstorms in one morning, that I’m still afraid of them no matter how much I’ve worked on this fear, but I’m still alive. I recognize within myself the need to constantly be moving in the world—to always be exploring, to remain curious and willing to learn and to be open to the experiences that nature has to offer.
Running outdoors, whether on trails or road, forces you to take heed of your body and its incredible capacity to move you forward. It encourages us to be in the moment—because if we are to take care of ourselves, we have to pay attention and be hyperaware of our environment in order to detect when the wind shifts, the sky darkens imperceptibly and the first threatening drops fall—and to ultimately choose how we will use our humanity, our bodies and our mind to respond.
Just recently, I ran down a busy street in Brooklyn during the hottest part of the day. I weaved in and out of people leaving and entering a hospital, I dodged women pushing strollers, surprised a few forklift drivers darting about with their heavy loads and made my way down to the Brooklyn Bridge. Since it was the middle of the day, the sun made my back hot and my neck sweaty. The lukewarm water in my hydration pack swished around noisily. I ran by city parks with that oddly comforting yet gross smell of freshly cut grass, metal from wrought-iron fences and sun-dried dog poop. I inhaled exhaust and listened to snippets of conversations in Spanish, Brooklyn-accented English and Yiddish. I heard everything and nothing. In the noise and hum of the city, there was a beautiful silence.
As I ran across the Brooklyn Bridge, I marveled at the geometry of it all, the perfect feng shui of the pale-blue sky and fluffy fair-weather cumulus clouds cut in straight lines by the wires and poles of that iconic miracle of engineering that links two iconic islands. I knew exactly where I was geographically and was grateful to be part of the afternoon hum of people and machine. In the middle of the bridge, I stopped to take a picture, to listen, to be.
I inhaled sharply and smiled.
The sun continued to beat down my back, the warm salty sweat now running in rivulets under my tank top. Still, I moved through the hot citified air, in my head, in my zone, yet equally attuned to everything around me.
This is what being outdoors does. There is little else that can give you the sense of self-empowerment, strength, self-trust and self-knowledge like having to reconcile yourself with your base physicality, interacting with the earth, moving forward, holding yourself upright with occasional help from unwitting trees at the side of the trail, popping back up from a painful fall because you have no choice but to get up. It allows us to be connected to what the human body is built to do—to move forward, up and down curbs, to duck under low-hanging branches, balance atop unsteady boulders, slosh through streams, weave through throngs of people and arrive where we need to be, not only sweaty and fatigued, but wiser, stronger and more human.
Read more of Mirna Valerio’s writing in her new memoir, A Beautiful Work in Progress.