by Tim MacKay
Crunch, crunch. Breathe. Crunch, crunch. Breathe.
The snow underneath my feet responds to my pace with a rhythmic crunch, matched by a parallel rhythm in my breathing. There’s great comfort in the rhythm. It’s soothing, healing. It’s important. Maybe essential. The rhythm—the consistent beating—is what keeps me going. It marks the mental space I find the most comfort in, with a steady ‘left, right, in, out’ bringing calm and peace. And when set along a trail in the woods, the forest bathing me in solitude and simplicity, this healing rhythm is as close as I can come to perfection.
There’s no mystery to this. I’m not alone in treasuring the healing power of running’s rhythm and calm. I’m not alone in needing the solitude of a trail to run out my demons. I’m not alone in using running as an antidote to the stressors of life that challenge my mental health. Like many, I run to stay well.
People sometimes ask chronic runners what they might be running from. For some of us, it’s a very simple answer: ghosts! It’s a bit like the experience of the main character in Amos Tutuola’s novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The novel tells a series of stories about a young Nigerian boy who finds himself alone in a haunted forest, where he is completely unprepared for the strange spirits he encounters and the unusual and dreamlike experiences he faces. Life is like that for many of us. We are unprepared for the sometimes nightmarish things that happen to and around us. And we sometimes end up carrying the ghosts of these experiences long after the events have ended.
Yet this oversimplifies it a bit too much, because the kind of running I’m talking about isn’t so much a ‘running from’ as it is a ‘running with’. Many of us run to find peace with the ghosts that we have come across. We run alongside them. The reality is that we may never be rid of the ghosts that haunt us, so running with them instead of away from them, befriending them, becomes the purpose. The bush of ghosts never fully goes away, it rarely gets cut down completely. We may find our way out of it for awhile, but invariably it sits somewhere over our shoulder waiting for an opportunity to swallow us again. The cure isn’t to run away. No, better to acknowledge it, embrace it, and find a rhythm to safely move through it, to befriend the spirits and ghosts and run with them. This is where wellness lives.
Running’s healing rhythm is no accident. Running is a metronome of well-being, beating out a steady rhythm of coherence and calm. The quiet, contemplative rhythm is powerfully therapeutic. It’s a healthy complement to meditation and other wellness practices. And the resulting fatigue helps, too. For those who sometimes struggle, the value of deep, sound sleep is unequalled. Research has shown that as part of a comprehensive approach to wellness, running can help to counterbalance many of the symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other challenges to mental well-being.
Some of us run more than others. Some run distances that others would even consider unwell or “crazy.” Some of us tire and run shorter distances as we age. But run we must.
To be clear, not everyone who runs is running with ghosts. Not everyone who runs is using it as a strategy to stay mentally well. But for many, like me, running helps them navigate and keep moving through life. We tend to find each other and cluster in small groups of running buddies. We are comrades on the road and trail, despite each of us running through our own private bush of ghosts. Together and alone all at once, the friendships and solidarity providing an additional buffer to the ghosts. We run, sweat, hurt, and laugh together, making our way along untold kilometres of road and trail—step after step through the bush of ghosts.