April 14, 2014 by John Buckley
I don’t remember my first run, specifically. But I think I was about 22/23, a late bloomer when it comes to trotting. I had just signed up to try out the Gael Force West, with two of my friends and I don’t think we knew what we were getting into. My first runs involved an industrial, celtic tiger, semi-constructed backdrop. They also involved the following: salty skin, drenched t-shirts, tomato cheeks (or as we call it, “The Buckley Rouge”) and an uncontrollable wheeze.
I was trying to think of the reason why I started to run. I knew I’d signed up for a race, but I think what was behind it was a caldron of vanity, charity and a pinch of “laddish” one-upmanship. It certainly wasn’t for the sport.
The Early Days
So I got through the training, I think. Those runs are a distant blur in my mind. The race though is something a bit more vivid. It was a multisport race, so it involved running, cycling, kayaking and hauling your ass up Croagh Patrick. The scenery is spectacular, a massive juxtaposition to the dreary, unfinished avenues of Sandyford. Killary Harbor, Clew Bay and The Reek drive you on, whilst, at the same time trying to halt your progress. I still remember crossing the finish line, my friends, who’d travelled the N4 to support me, weren’t there. “Oh…you’re finished…sorry we thought you’d be longer…”
From there my trail journey started…albeit slowly. I moved down West for work and County Mayo became my playground. I was running both road and trail at this point, I didn’t subscribe to the Robert Frost “Road Not Taken” philosophy, I saw joy in both. The trails for me became the escape from the everyday and the place where I began to form my running identity, while the roads were where I honed my skills and worked on the basics.
My time in Mayo was unfortunately coloured by a black period of not so great mental wellbeing. Running had its role in a cure, but also in being a place I’d go to escape and push myself. It was something that I put a lot into so as not to face up to certain things in my life. I learnt a lot in this period, in terms of where running belonged in my life. It was something I could use to be present, to be mindful of the right now. Something that helped me build my identity back up, but also feel a sense of connection to the world that I had forgotten.
For about a year, running helped me learn about a healthy balance between my body and mind, that they’re one. I spent a lot of time sitting in a chair talking to someone about the things that I would put into practice on the hill. Being present in the current moment, eating enough of the right food, forgiving myself, starting to like myself again. When I bought into a healthier way of being in my mind and used it through running, I saw a major change in how I connected to the hills.
Anyway, my affection for the trail grew and I moved onto my second race, a few years after that first brush with off road running. Race2Glory in Kiltimagh, brought me through waist high rivers and knee high bogs. It also lead to this pic, which one friend kindly pointed out that I look like the bad terminator.
Those first two races weren’t for anything other than wellness. Competition was far from my mind. But now I have a few ways that I run, sometimes mixed in together, not all of them so healthy, but if taken in moderation…
- Competition – Against both others and myself.
- Vanity – To try and get a body I think/thought/hoped that I wanted.
- Mental Health – To be free, to be mindful and to be well.
- Connection – With the world, nature and just the wild in general.
- Because I love going FAST! And I feel running makes me a better person.
The competitive side of me led to my decision to take part in the Dublin Marathon in 2011 with one weeks notice (not recommended). The furthest I’d run in one go before that was 12km. It was an idiotic decision but something I learnt a lot from. I learnt that during prolonged periods of running I cry. I learnt that pushing my body is a good thing, but being aware of limits is important. I learnt that preparation is more than half the battle, fail to prepare, prepare to fail. I crossed the finish line, with 26 miles of learning that I couldn’t wait to push on with.
And the Journey Had Begun
The list of races and trails then becomes long, different routes and obstacles, from Hell and Back, to the Debra Ireland Wicklow Mountains Half Marathon, to my own personal trails, with an infinite amount more to come. I was becoming part of something, something primitive and paleo-esque, as my runs focused more on the mountainside. Like someone from thousands of years ago stalking prey, traveling to battle (I know it sounds lame!!). But the senses that are heightened from the crunching of snow and leaves beneath your feet, the call of birds and deer, the smell of pine and earth, the visuals and sounds of nature… just being.
The physical challenge of trails is also alluring, it’s something that gloves with your body, it’s like you were supposed to be there, on that hillside, traveling under your own power. While pushing your body through physical barriers (including pain and second guessing the downhill sprints and stutters), it’s always and investment. Gritting your teeth and pushing up near vertical gradients, lungs burning and mind wandering, you look up and push on. Basking in the view from hundreds of meters above the world.
Mountain running brought out qualities that I never really knew I had or that I could tap into, and I’ve been able to bring them into other parts of my life. Strength, resilience, dedication and patience (of all things).
Over the last few months, thanks to IMRA, I’ve revealed a new part of myself. Something that I really now feel I was supposed to do, in a selfish way, but ultimately running is selfish and it’s important that at times we are selfish, and invest in ourselves. It’s something I’m kind of good at, something for the first time in my life I’m proud of myself for doing.
I only realised this while bent double over a ditch during the recent Wicklow Way Trail Race, feeling like I was going to vomit. The race was 25km and 1000m of climbing, there was hail, sun, wind, bog…I could moan about it, but do you know what, it was amazing. Even though I wasn’t really in pain, I’d pushed a bit hard, but I was living, I was there immersed in the beautiful Irish country side, living.
I’ve been reading a lot about running lately and two people, Murakami and Krupicka, have clung to my mind. They both speak about the inherent link between the human being condition and moving. Krupikca focuses a lot in his words and on being mindful too, he talks about tuning in and tuning out of moments and how it can foster compassion. With Murakami sharing how running is so much a part of his life now, he learns from it regularly. Get lost in life and running is a way to find yourself and be more aware of and input into the world around you.
Where trail running is bringing me?
I ask a lofty question here. The start of 2014 has brought me to peaks I’ve never been to before, Maulin, Trooperstown, Ticknock and more. It’s brought me to an awareness that sometimes I enjoy the competitive side. I enjoy that special feeling of passing someone and reacting to being passed. It’s brought me to a place of knowing how deep I can dig when my body and mind requires it, like the three sprint finishes I’ve managed to win this season. It’s brought me to being more aware of my thoughts and the crazy things that come into your brain while running (runners will know what I’m talking about!). Trail running has taught me about connecting to the earth and world around me, how important it is to be part of the world in a real way. Both the natural world and the human world (one and the other can be quite different). The faces I see while training or racing make me feel connected. The shared turmoil, the pain, the questioning why were here, the sadness and joy, the figuring it out faces, but most of all the smiles, the singers, the resilience. I’d like to think all these are painted on my face too.
I wanted to write this blog to kind of explore what running has done and is dong for me, a reflection to build on. I heard someone quote this the other day and I feel it’s apt to finish with it
“We’re only here briefly, and while I’m here I want to allow myself some joy, so fuck it:”
#irunbecause it helps me know the real me.