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Breathe in -- step step step -- breathe out -- step step step. That’s what running is like when I’m relaxed and in control. I focus on my breath, the clean air surrounding me and the mechanics of my body.

Smooth, rhythmic, painless, flowing. Those are the easy days. I am most grateful for those days.

Sometimes my breathing is jagged and breaks up into steps of its own: a little piece of breath along with every footfall, like a little song but an annoying song, one stuck in my head that I can’t stop hearing. On those days I tend to be grateful when the run is over.

Sometimes breathing deep takes effort. My legs hurt and my breath can’t keep up with my desire to keep going. I push myself, being grateful for my legs, my independence and my mobility.

Sometimes breathing is stressful. During frozen mornings, I take a break and my lungs sting. I think of my grandfather who died of lung cancer. I think of coal miners with black lung and silicosis. I can’t make the pain stop. It has to pass slowly. On those days, I am thankful for my healthy lungs. I am thankful for every breath.

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Sometimes my feet pound the ground so hard that my breath is split into pieces and scattered ahead of me. In those moments I am traveling swiftly downhill. Grateful I can afford running shoes that grip the rock, I realize I live a life of privilege.

I don't always run to things. Sometimes I run from things. I’ve had painful experiences, and sometimes they surround and crush me like a lead blanket. I can't get a full breath until I run, so I run. On those days running frees me.

On a recent smoky morning, I went for a run on Observatory Mesa. Flagstaff looked like Grand Canyon during a cloud inversion. The town disappeared under a solid white blanket. Treed mesas emerged around the edges. I could imagine a forest without buildings. There was a fantasy element. A crescent of the Walkup Skydome glowed through the haze as a train appeared to disappear into mist. I was grateful for this fire-fed forest I get to live in, this place I call home.

Also on my mind, as they often are, were the 13-plus tribes who were brutally moved aside so this town could come to be. After all, the story of Thanksgiving is a gloriously incomplete mythology. This time of year we must be aware. The things that give us gratitude sometimes come at a cost.

Moving across the landscape quietly, except for the sound of my breath and my feet, I imagine myself as barely even here, my presence as fleeting, just a moment. And I am grateful for every moment I have.

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Alicyn Gitlin is a conservation coordinator for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. When not out enjoying Arizona’s living ecosystems and scenic landscapes, she is often in meeting rooms trying to protect them. Running has taught her to find gratitude, patience, appreciation and strength.

Do you have a column, tip or idea for High Country Running? Send it to coordinating editor Julie Hammonds at runner@juliehammonds.com.

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