HURT: Pacing the 2018 HURT 100

It is 3 A.M., and despite how strong and capable he his, I am a little worried about the man in front of me. He is still smiling, yes, and takes a gulp of Pepsi as he sits and looks around. Then, he meets my eyes and the smile fades.

“This,” he says, “is really hard. This is crazy. I want to be done with this already. I want to be done.”

It’s an understandable desire, since Tim, the man in front of me, has currently run 67 miles. It makes sense that he is ready for this to be over. The problem is, though, that he still has another 33 miles to go before this race is over. He has more than 12-hours of running left, so while he has already done amazing work, he is far from the end.

Still, in his own form of resurrection, Tim gets up and, with the help of his pacer Justin, starts to shuffle off to complete his fourth loop of the race. I am grateful that, after the earlier moment of vulnerability, Tim has gotten up with a smile as he said, “See you soon!”

I’m grateful, because I know that I won’t just see him soon, but I’ll be meeting him in five hours to run the last twenty miles of this race with him. He’s got the hardest job– making it to the end. I’ve taken on the task of doing everything I can to help him get there, and I can already tell it’s going to be quite an adventure.


Tim Griffiths of Three Forks, MT, has been nothing but positive the entire time we’ve known each other, which is about two weeks come race day. He already has a few hundred-milers under his belt, and has an optimistic and realistic mindset about doing what he can and simply focusing on trying to finish. He’d done it before, and he was hopeful he could do it again.

This isn’t just any race, though. Tim is taking on the HURT100, one of the most technically difficult trail races out there. It’s five loops on O‘ahu’s wet, muddy. root-strewn trails, making not only physically hard, but mentally challenging as well. The documentary Rooted captures it really well: it’s a crazy, amazing adventure that tests so many things about an athlete’s capacity and capability to commit to the joy and pain of distance running.

Still, it sounds crazy when you first consider it.

I mean, who would run 100 miles? That sort of distance is ridiculous– a laughable fool’s errand at best, but an overwhelming and dangerous prospect in the eyes of some. A marathon is already a crazy distance. Who would do that nearly four times over?

I can’t claim to, completely, understand why someone would run 100 miles– because I still haven’t done it (yet?). I do, however, stand in awe of the people who do it. This year, after continuing my own running journey, I decided to get a little closer to the action by volunteering and then, at the last minute, offering to pace Tim. 

I had learned a few weekend before, though, that this was no normal twenty-mile run. Trail running and road running are more like cousins than siblings. I have cousins, for example, that are six-foot tall basketball players. We share a few similar features, and there’s a lot of love between us, but there are some ways in which we are very different.

Running the HURT100, as I was taught by some awesome folks who joined me on my practice loop, is much less about pace than road running. The course is so technical, there are a whole lot of sections that are much more like scaling a mountain– including climbing over roots and rock faces– than actually running a race. At the end, also, it’s much less about an actual time and more about staying in a good mindset, healthy (lots of racers end up twisting their ankles and having to drop) and moving forward. 

So, my job when I meet Tim later that morning, was to help ensure he stayed in good spirits, kept eating and drinking as much as he could, and getting him whatever he needed.

I see Tim again at about 9AM the next morning. He is two hours behind his initial plan, with the fourth lap taking its difficult mental toll. Lots of runners, I both learned in the documentary and Tim told me later, struggle with that fourth loop– it’s well out of sight from the end, takes place in complete darkness, and begins reaching the point when runner’s are no longer simply tired, but sleepy as well.

So, when Tim comes in a little late, his wife and I are a little nervous, but not overly worried that he’s off schedule. His initial plan was ambitious, and we’ve heard he’s still in good spirits. He also still has more than 9 hours to complete the final loop of the race, and as long as he’s able to keep close to his current pace, he should have more than enough time.

When Tim finally runs in to the aid station, the sound of cowbells that congratulate all runners fills the air. He is followed by Justin, head-banded and tutu’d, as they come in. Tim, ever the optimist, waves at me and gives us a big smile. “You’re here!” he exclaims. “You ready?!”

“Hell yeah!” I respond. We know it’s time.

But first, there’s some wounds to tend to. Tim’s crew– lovingly made up of his wife, two kids, mother and step-father– start prepping him for this final lap. Shoes are removed, to discover massive blisters on his feet that need to be lanced and drained for him to go forward. This is as painful as it sounds, and Tim scrunches his face as he drinks Pepsi, coffee, and eats as many peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips (refueling his protein, carbs, and sodium are key at this point) as he can.

He sits dazed for a moment as his crew prepares his body, while he prepares his mind for what’s to come. Then he looks up at me. “You ready for this?” he asks, with a wry smile on his face. “We gotta go. We gotta get moving.”

I nod, putting up a fist for him to bump. “Alright,” I respond, “then let’s do this thing.”

He nods, smiles at his family, and we head off. The sound of his crew’s cheers and cowbells follows us, and we try as hard as we can to suck up its energy as get ready for this final, arduous loop ahead of us.


You have to keep him talking, I think to myself as we climb up the hill.

This is what Tim’s family and pacers have told me as I prepped to help Tim out. He needed to get his mind out of what some runners would call “the dark place.” It was something I knew all too well (heck, I had it yesterday at mile 6)– the mental state you go into when you’re tired or it just feels hard, and the idea of doing this for another minute seems unbearable. Part of my job was to help Tim focus on anything other than how crazy this journey was, and help him find the energy to finish this race strong.

And here’s where my nerves kicked in– I’m not used to talking while I run. This is why I run solo. Running is, so often, where I finally find quiet, that the prospect of having to talk with him is a little daunting.

But, as this site has likely shown, I do love a good story, and I love to hear the stories of other folks. So, without thinking, I start asking Tim every question I can think of. How has the race been so far? How are you feeling? Are you excited to say good-bye to these places? 

Tim starts answering, a smile on his, face slowly growing, as he realizes that this, finally is his final loop. “This is crazy!” he hoots. “I have never seen anything like this! How is this a race?!”  He starts to laugh. “I can’t wait to be be done with this.” 

“I know,” I start to laugh along with him. “So let’s get this done!” 

He nods, puts his head down, and starts to get us to work. 

DCIM105GOPRO

The rest of the race passes in a blur of steps– all kinds of steps. Trot-to-jog-almost-running steps. Slow, slogging, hands-on-thighs steps up hills. Careful, climbing over roots-and-rocks steps. The mental aspect of continuously moving the body for hours on end, unable to rest because we have to be constantly vigilant to ensure we don’t get lost or fall, is exhausting.

Still, it is also incredibly joyful– in the fullest sense of the word– to watch Tim work towards this amazing achievement. He breathes deeply through his nose, working his way up the nastier slopes, staying positive as he tells me about how much he loves his wife and kids, how he started bow hunting, what his life in Montana is like.

And through it all, we keep moving. DCIM105GOPRO

Eventually, through Tim’s hard work and the grace of God, we make it to the final aid station– Jack-Ass Ginger, on the Nuuanu Pali trail– meaning we only have 8.5 miles to go till the end. About a mile from the aid station, I had asked Tim what he needed– Pepsi, coffee, food. I had fallen at this point, and so my hands are covered in mud.

As soon as we get up there, I start asking his crew and all the nearby volunteers for what he needs. As I do this, though, other folks immediately take over so I can take care of myself. Someone, without my asking, grabs my hands and starts wiping the mud off them. Rebecca, another awesome teacher and runner who is volunteering, hands Tim and I smoothie after smoothie to fuel us to the end. Someone slips a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth. Everything around us is full of so much love and support. It’s a little overwhelming.

But there’s no time to be overwhelmed. We have to get moving.

Tim is feeling jovial for these final few miles. After a three mile climb, the last five miles is almost completely downhill. The climb is incredibly hard, but knowing that the end is near keeps Tim feeling excited.

IMG_2219

Then, though, we get to the final four miles, and Tim is pushing, but I can tell it’s getting hard. He’s feeling it, now, saying that as much as he is determined to get to this finish line– and he is damn determined– he is starting to feel it. While he is still positive, and greeting every one who we meet on the trial and who roots us on, he occasionally intersperses it with moments where he admits that he is in pain. He is cheered on by folks as we pass, and so he is able to keep smiling.

 

Still, we keep moving.

Finally, we get to the last few miles, and Tim is a little in his head. We’re both working to get him out. “Tim, we have to do this. You can do this.”

“I know,” he replies. “Almost there. Get out of your head,” he tells himself, “We’re almost there.”

“You’re bigger than the pain, Tim. You can do this.”

“No weakness,” he says back, “We have to keep moving. I didn’t get this far to stop.”

Finally, we get him to the last half-mile. I let him know that we’re so close.

He stops and looks back at me. “Still a half mile?” He looks at me confusedly. “That can’t be. I thought it was right there. I can’t go anymore.”

“Yes you can, Tim,” I immediately respond. “You didn’t come 99.5 miles to stop now. Keep moving.”

He nods, and moves from a slow jog to a faster one.

“There we go,” I encourage him. “We’re doing this.”

He starts moving even faster, until the moment he has been waiting for comes. We round a corner, and there are Tim’s family– particularly his children– cheering him on and ready to run the last few feet with him.

 

And with that, after 34 hours and 37 minutes, Tim has finished. We’ve come back to the end.

IMG_2729

IMG_2221

Words can’t begin to describe how powerful it was to watch this incredible journey. We never truly know the capability of our own spirits until we meet that moment.

Watching Tim get there, I realized that even though I so often think of running as “my” time, it is so much bigger than that. Running is where we come we come back to our most human, the purest versions of ourselves, without all the things we try to put between us as others.

On the surface, Tim and I may have little in common. In the end, though, he let me join in on his incredible journey. And I could not be more grateful or inspired.

Advertisements

Dreaming Big Again: Honolulu Marathon 2018

I took a bit of a hiatus from race reports at the end of 2017. I got so caught up in working out and fitness that, in truth, in probably got a little unhealthy. By the time I finished those marathons, I had a crazy amount of work and I was just trying to get my life back together. By the time I had a moment to breathe, I was so removed from the races that it felt difficult to write at all.

So, an update. Last December, I ran two marathons within six days of each other, at 3:54 and, wonderfully, 3:49:30 for a small PR. The Hawai‘i Bird Conservation Marathon is a tiny race that’s net downhill, and I felt blessed I could PR 6 days after a warm Honolulu race.

Now, so I don’t repeat the mistakes I made, let’s talk about 2018.


Intro

I came into this race with a lot of cautious optimism. I’d had a good few weeks of training, and was feeling really strong as a runner.

This year, I opted to not run the Hawai‘i Bird Marathon. It was a tough choice, and I had been planning on running it all the way up until this past November. Then, I got invited to an awesome weekend in Sonoma, CA, that felt sort of once-in-a-lifetime. It was a tough choice, but in the end I think it was the right one. One of my goals for 2018 was to stop doing things out of obligation, so when the time came, I decided to do what made me happy instead of just what I had “agreed” to do.

In the end, though, I made the right choice. It meant that I was able to really focus on this race as a benchmark for how my training was going so far. That also meant a new race strategy. I’ve always been an very conservative runner. It’s a mixture of things– fear of bonking or hitting the wall, residual fear from my injury a few years back, and my general worry-wart attitude always mean I tend to pull back so I don’t die before the finish line.

This year, however, I decided to be more strategic about my racing and go out faster then I had in a while. My eventual goal pace for Revel Kūlia is under an 8-minute-mile (which seems absurd to me right now), but I’ve been able to steadily hold ~8:30 in my distance training runs. I decided to go out trying to hold that 8:30 pace for the entire race, just to see what would happen.

Continue reading

Like Water

There is something about the shock of cold that is powerful as a writer.

I know that’s a funny thing to say, as I live in Hawai‘i, of all places, but any time I get to go somewhere cold (oddly, this time, Houston for NCTE), I’m reminded about what a powerful sensation the cold is.

The cold makes me turn inward. It focuses me. It forces me to eschew the outside world (which, for me, is often distractingly beautiful), and instead turns me back to what’s it inside.

And that’s powerful, because as teachers, we’re so quick to nourish everyone else’s voice. Rarely do we make the time and allow ourselves to grow our own voices. We’re so focused on what everyone else wants or needs, we forget that our students look to us as models, which means modeling the practice of prioritizing time to nourish, to self-care, and to read, write, and grow as people.

So, as I ran down some cold, dark trails one morning in Houston, I thought. I asked myself: What are the stories that are sitting in my heart that I have been too busy to share?


A few weeks ago, I went home, looked at my running shoes, and started to sob.

I don’t know what came over me, but I was just so sad. I was devastated. It felt like I was watching the slow death of a part of myself. The sight of my abandoned running shoes lying against the door frame hit me– in the past, my shoes had symbolized struggle, discipline, pain, joy. They were literally covered in my blood, sweat, and tears. So, to see them laid against the door frame, a reminder of what I wanted but felt was unattainable, was so cheesy, yet such a powerful symbol of the place I was in. I felt a pang of longing and sadness swell inside me that was so big it felt the only way I could get it out was to let it seep out of my eyes and wring it out of my throat.

I flopped onto my couch in a heap and began to cry. My throat grew hoarse as I let my mouth hang open, sadness ringing out of it like the mourning church bells at a funeral. I held myself, quite literally, on my couch, and let myself steep in what I was feeling.

A few minutes later, I was able to catch my breath. I inhaled, and felt the cool stream of air flowing into me slowly bring me back to a calmer place.

And then, 40 minutes later, I went out and ran 6 miles much faster than I had in a while.

Sadness is a funny and powerful emotion, and one that we run away from far too often. We associate sadness with tragedy. We do everything we can to stifle or erase or “get over” it as quickly as we can.

The thing is, sadness actually forces us to take time to check in with ourselves. Like a cold or an ache, it’s way for our bodies to let us know that something is off or in transition, and we need to check into that part of ourselves and try and understand that some part of ourselves is in flux.

I look back on that day and ask myself what I needed to heal, what needed to change. As I remember, I realize how quickly I had let the world around me pull me away from tending and cultivating the world growing in my heart. 

It’s certainly not an unusual phenomena for me, particularly at this time of year. The beginning of the school year always tends to be crazy, and when you combine that with my first year being a full-time cross country assistant coach and the handful of part-time jobs I have, it was so crazy that I barely had time to breathe. I didn’t write– for the first time in nearly a decade, I haven’t written a post about my birthday and what I want this year of my life to be. When we get so pulled away from ourselves that we forget to nourish our internal growth, the lack of light and care makes it a lot harder to feel like we’re on solid, fruitful ground.

It’s hard, though, because in some ways I feel like I’m doing some of my strongest work as a teacher this year. I’ve incorporated student feedback and finally have a manageable plan for reading and writing this year. My kids are having some really meaningful conversations, and I’m feeling like I have a better handle on my work coaching first-year teachers too.

So part of me doesn’t want to step away– my mind keeps telling me I have to work, work, work to keep up this quality of work.

If running has taught me anything, though, it’s that physical and mental recovery is the only way you perform at your best. Physically, recovery days allow our muscles to rebuild– the sinews and fibers in our legs heal and grow stronger after we break them down with a work out. Mentally, taking time to recover and turn inward allows us to actually reflect on what’s happened and learn from it to move forward. Grasping at the the straws of individual moments and seconds-to-breathe is hardly a way to hold on and create meaningful change in our work.

My sadness wasn’t a problem, really, it was the rainstorm reminding me that I needed to return back to myself. It was the beating of the rain reminding me I had to listen to my internal workings before everything crumbled.

I am, now, so grateful for the sadness I was feeling. I am doing my best not to run away from it, and instead listening to it as helps me return to myself. Like water, it flowed through not to destroy, but to purify– and to bring back to light the parts of me that had gone dark.

Gratitude, Grace, Joy

You’ve gotta be kidding me, I thought as I looked at my phone.

It’s a few weeks later, and I am on a cold, Houston street after finishing a 16-mile run. I was eager to look at my pacing, and opened my running app to look at my stats. That’s when I saw it: I had run 48 miles that week.

Running big mileage is a staple of any good distance training program. It helps build up stamina and muscle. It lets your legs to build the foundation, slowly, for the endurance it will need on race day. Your hamstrings and quads stretch and mold under the consistent beating of the pavement. Your calves firm up. It’s physical and important.

Still, I had never hit mileage this big before. In fact, the closest I came was 7 years ago, when I hit 45 miles in a week. I tweeted, cavalier, that in two weeks I was going to hit a 50-mile week.

Then, the accident happened.

I was hit by a car 7 years ago while running, and I didn’t know if I would run distance ever again. Certainly, a 50 mile week was out of the question. I eventually crawled my way out of my injury, and would occasionally, wistfully think about hitting 50 miles again, but between everything in my life, it seemed unlikely.

The last few weeks, though, I had certainly ramped up my training. After my little cry-fest, I signed up for a Revel race on Big Island and decided to try and hit a lofty, crazy speed goal. I invested a little money in a coaching program, and something about having a defined set of workouts clicked. I’ve run faster than I have in years, my mileage is up, and I’m feeling a lot better than I did before.

Still, I’ve been busy. Last week was 8th grade camp and this week I’ve been at NCTE, and so trying to meet my weekly training goals has been tough.

Yet, by some fluke, I had made it to 48 miles without realizing it.

So, as I looked at my phone, something sparked in me, excited and eager. You can finally do it, it said. You can finally have a 50-mile week. 

I showered, had lunch with a friend, and then returned to my room. I was tired, but I knew that if I wanted to hit my goal before sundown, I needed to get moving. I put on a new set of running clothes, ached as I reached down to slip on my soaking, wet running shoes, and hit the road.

It was a slow, thoughtful 2.1 miles. I thought about the accident, the races since, and the things I loved about running. I also thought back to the girl who had cried as she wrote a few weeks ago, and wondered why I was so sad when that happened. What was I mourning?

Then, I realized it: running used to be easyNot physically, but mentally. I didn’t care about pacing, all I wanted to do was beat a rhythm on the pavement as I moved through Hawai‘i.

I had lost that. In all the change my body had gone through in the past few years– different sports, becoming a coach, teaching yoga– I had lost the mindset of being a distance runner. I realized I had not used mantras to focus myself in years. I had stopped warming up and stretching. And, frankly, I just wasn’t doing it as often as I used to.

Now, though, I was running more than ever, but it wasn’t easy. Increasing my speed and mileage has taken work. I don’t get to just zone out the entire time like I used to. I spend a lot of time actively thinking about my form, cadence, and pacing. It’s a balancing act, each piece moving and spinning in its own way so that the machine of my body can propel itself properly.

See, over the past few years, I honestly hadn’t put in the work. I ran, sure, but I also did a bunch of other things and hoped that my years of experience and general fitness level would mean that I would be able to finish a race well. It had worked, but only a little. While being fit and cross-training are useful, there is no substitute for lacing up your shoes, pounding the pavement, and just putting in the miles. It is often not glamorous, but it adds up.

Teaching, in many ways, is similar. We can have all the rockstar moments we want, or I can get accolades for a thing I write or something I say or share. And that’s great, but none of that is a substitute for the day-to-day relationship work that my kids and I do together each day. Not every day is a fancy, amazing lesson, but the moments we laugh about a journal topic together are just as important to laying the foundation for a great classroom.

I hit 1.75, and started to push my pace. Now’s the time, I thought. My cadence sped up, the rhythm of my legs churning faster and faster, my heart starting to beat a little harder in my chest. You have to push now. It’s time. I returned to my mantra: I am strong, I have energy, I feel good, I can do this. With each phrase, my pace quickened.

And just like that, my watch beeped, and I had done it. Without fanfare, as the leftover drizzle from the tail-end of a storm sprinkled my skin, I hit a 50-mile week.

There were no fireworks. I took a screenshot and smiled. There was no fanfare. No, it wasn’t easy. It was hard and sometimes grueling work. It pushed me.

Yet, for all that work, there was something about knowing that I was setting up something much greater than each individual step I was taking. There was something more important than “easy” or “fun” at the end of the week.

There was gratitude. There was grace that the work will keep moving us forward, even when we doubt its potential. There was joy– not just temporal happiness– but joythat my body was capable of laying the foundation for something bigger than I had planned.

Then, I went inside to stretch. It was time to get to work.

Hello.

I want to tell you a story, but I don’t know how to start.

This has been the general place in my life for the past six months or so. I want to write– heck, I need to write for myself, really– but I haven’t been able to sit down and sit with myself.

Honestly, I feel like I haven’t been able to truly do that in months. I got close in Montana, where I sat quietly in a house and on trails and tried to come home to myself a little. I got part of the way there, I think, but the world moves so quickly and I had set so much of a goal of writing ~my next big thing~ (which I did and didn’t, at the same time), that I didn’t really just get to sit and breathe.

And it’s hard, because it feels so overwhelming at a certain point. How could I possibly catch up on the life that has happened in the past six months? The past year? There are so many things that happened– two marathons, a trip to Europe, starting my 7th year as a teacher– there’s no way. It feels so massive it doesn’t seem worth it to start.

Then, I had the privilege of being called mentioned as of Tom Rademacher‘s favorite teacher-storytellers. It was a huge honor, but also a big call out: hey, if you want to be a storyteller and a writer, you actually have to, ya know, tell stories and write

So, I’m going to try and step away from the laundry list of “things I should have written about.” I’m not going to worry about how to start. I just want to tell you some stories.


This is not a triumphant story.

Yesterday, I quit a running work out.

After running twenty-two miles on Friday morning, I had decided to take a brief break from running. In truth, I’ve been struggling for a few weeks now. In an effort to try and get faster or push myself to do more miles, I got in my head about running. My paces were too slow. My mileage wasn’t enough. I had to do more. Slowly, running became a chore that brought me anxiety. The thought of getting out there, just to deal with the terrible heat and running so slow and not enjoying myself, there was just a pit in my stomach.

That’s a difficult thing to admit. I’m writing while my kids watch a movie right now, and as I wrote that my eyes welled up without my expecting it. I used to love this sport, to the point where other people said my talking about it encouraged them to run. I’m so sad. I’m sad that I feel like I’ve lost running. I’m sad that this thing that used to bring me so much freedom and joy now just fills me with frustration. I miss the part of myself that found joy in running. I miss the sense of limitlessness that running used to bring me.

So, yesterday I tried to take a break. I did an Aaptiv strength work out, then decided to try a 38 minute speed work out on the track.

Now, I could list all the reasons this workout went wrong. It was too hot. I had just done a 35 minute leg work out. The boys PE class was also there, and while I love my kids, they make it difficult to zone out and do my run without feeling weird and self-conscious. The music in the workout was not my favorite.

But, as I did a final half-assed sprint down a 100m straight away, it hit me what the main problem was: I hate this. I was hot, sweat beads slipping into my eyes. My chest and stomach were burning (probably from eating a big lunch less than an hour before). My legs ached. I do not want to do this right now.

And just like that, I stopped. I looked at the sky around me, a beautiful bright blue with a smattering of clouds dropping the tuahine rain that makes Mānoa such a special place. It was so lovely out. Why wasn’t I able to enjoy that?

I didn’t have a clear answer, but I knew that until I did, I needed to take a step back and figure out what was going on. I slowly sauntered off the track, the rain feeling less like a gentle touch and more like prickly reminders of what I was leaving behind, unable to enjoy as I once did, and walked to the showers.

I am working hard not to beat myself up too much this week. I am trying to remember that, as down as I was, I still ran (a very slow) 21.6 mile run before going to work on a Friday morning. Somewhere in there is a runner that can key into the part that just loves running and let’s miles fly by.

So, I am trying to take a break and invest in myself. I bought a new running watch. I invested in a coaching plan. I’m trying to worry less about my times at Honolulu and Bird Marathon and focus on a marathon in March. I’m hoping to change things up to try and rediscover joy.

This is not a triumphant story.

At least, not yet.

Under the Big Sky

I think I am happiest when I am loping through the mountains of the American West.

This is the thought that pops into my brain as I bound down Entertainment Trail in Helena, Montana.

After a month in Europe [I’ve been terrible at updating my blog. Life update: My boyfriend finished his dissertation! I finished the school year! Then we lived in a camper van in Europe for a month! Then I came to Helena to write while he surfs! Then we go to the PNW and then home to Hawaii!], I have made my way back to Helena, Montana, and got myself to the nearest trailhead as soon as possible.

As I bound and push my way up Mt. Ascension, I finally come to a stretch of beautiful, single track trail around the mountain and through a meadow. It’s here that this thought pops into my head.

I leave the meadow, and go through a few minutes of forest before turning a corner and stumbling onto a beautiful field of wildflowers.

IMG_9479

It stops me in my tracks. I take a breath, and in awe at how truly beautiful it all is, and how blessed I am to be in this space.


When describing my summer plans to people, one of the first questions I inevitably got was, “Why Helena?” I admit, in a whirlwind of Europe, Colorado, and the Pacific North West, Montana is not normally perceived as “exciting” as the other places on my itinerary.

And, in some ways, that’s fair. Helena still has a small-town feel (Population: 31,179). It has an ice cream shop, a few coffee shops, and some local boutiques. It does have some excellent breweries and a wine bar, and it’s also a place where the drivers are so polite to pedestrians that it can sometimes cause a traffic jam. I wouldn’t describe it as a “party” city.

Which, to be fair, isn’t what I wanted. So, after falling in love with this place last year, Helena popped into my mind when I first realized I had the time to give to it. Still, I wasn’t sure how it would be to come back. I didn’t know if the small-town feel would make me as happy as it did last year.

Then, on my first morning, I ran these mountains, and my heart has been floating there ever since.

On my second morning, I ran a different set of trails. The trails here aren’t overcrowded (like they are at home), but you’ll pass by a handful of folks out there– which is nice since there is quite a bit of wildlife in Montana. People are generally very friendly when they’re hiking and this time proved no exception.

I was running around Mt. Helena when I stumbled on an older woman and her three adorable (and very big) dogs. As soon as they saw me, they immediately began bounding over to me, which stopped me dead in my tracks. I love dogs, but I also know they can have different reactions to a new human than you plan.

“Don’t worry,” the woman called as she ran over. “They’re friendly! They just love to be pet.”

I started scratching their heads and ears and laughed, “Don’t we all?!”

She took a second, then laughed– a sparkling sound that made her throw her head back a little. Then, she reached over and patted my shoulder. I love touch, but I rarely receive it from strangers (something I often consider a blessing). I was gross and sweaty from running. I had only been back in Helena for 36 hours.

Still, this woman, who did not know me, took the time to laugh, show me some love, and wish me a safe run. The familiarity of the gesture, the willingness treat me as a friend even in my very not-cute state, is something that stayed with me the rest of the day.

And it was another reminder of why I love this place.

I wrote, last year, that I was admittedly very nervous coming here as a woman of color. Both times I have arrived at Helena Regional Airport, I’m the only person of color there.

I also shared that I had found nothing but kindness and warmth once I was here. That remains true (and I’m seeing more diversity!). I still get some looks, but I am still consistently shown a sense of friendliness that, honestly, I have rarely found anywhere else.

And that has been very, very relieving. My newsfeed is pretty consistently filled with videos and stories of people from oppressed groups having their humanity stripped in public, or being attacked and assaulted outright. It is easy to feel on edge and have very valid concerns about one’s safety just existing in public spaces.

Still, it is nice to know that there are still parts of our country where people are just treated as… people. While I’m sure Helena is not perfect, there is still an overall culture of care that flows through its streets and in its citizens. It is an important reminder that, in a world that consistently feels more hostile, there are places where people coexist with care for the humanity of those around them.

Why is that? Where does that come from?

I was pondering that as I walked home the other day. The streets are tree-lined and quiet– just a few folks walking their dogs or in their gardens once the heat had finally settled down. I passed a woman on her porch, who greeted me, then looked over my shoulder.

I turned and was treated to another beautiful Montana sunset. Gold and orange streaks filled the sky, while the clouds were painted brilliant shades red and purple, adorning the sun as it went behind Mt. Helena.

I once had a professor who noted that “the way you treat land reflects how you treat  people.” There is something about people who grow up or spend time in nature that embodies this truth. Within them is a willingness to connect with things around them and a deeper understanding of their place in a larger world. It comes from knowing the people around you are tied to the same earth that you are and, just by existing there and holding that land in reverence, you create kinship. It goes deeper than culture– it goes to the very place of you that connects with time and physical space itself.  Perhaps the kindness and warmth I have found in Helena comes, in part, from that place.

The woman and I took a moment together to watch the sunset. We did not know each other, yet under Big Sky, we were both children from the same creator, in awe of the beautiful place we were in.

Thank God for the Stoplight

I’ve never been good at slowing down.

Well, scratch that. As an adult, I’ve never been good at slowing down. Like most people, I was a happier, more carefree, and likely a better human when I was a kid. I would have been content to spend hours sitting, reading books, watching TV and just enjoying the world.

Now, though, like most adults, I live in a world of Google Calendar notifications and Doodle polls to try and find time to do everything from attending meetings and grading to seeing my girlfriends (sometimes needing to plan weeks in advance– we’re busy! And I’m an introvert who needs emotional time to prepare to see people!).

This especially includes fitness. A colleague of mine yesterday spotted me going out on my second run yesterday. No, I’m no superhuman– I just knew that my day was going to be crazy, so instead of being able to do a regular run, I’d need to break it up into two short ones– one at lunch, and one after school but before my meeting.

“I feel like it must be something you schedule,” she said, thinking about how to get into the habit herself.

I thought about it and realized she was right– like anything else, I normally assess my calendar that morning to figure out just how I will be able to manage the many plates of teaching, part-time jobs, writing, trying to see friends and fitness. There are plenty of days where I don’t want to– I’d rather take the hour to veg out in front of my laptop and play on Facebook.

But since my running shoes are there, I compel myself to go out, often as fast as I can. The faster you go, the more miles you can run, I think to myself, using it to push my pace.

Because I feel like I’m always racing the clock and squeezing in miles when I can, I am normally annoyed when I have to stop running. I’ve crafted routes that avoid the particularly slow and long stoplights in my area so I’m not wasting precious minutes of running just, well, standing around “doing nothing.”

Yesterday, though, I went out for my second run and hit nearly every stoplight. I was perturbed at first– how was I going to hit my mileage and make my meeting like this?!

At the third stoplight, though, I noticed the light rain falling over Honolulu. In a place that is typically warm and a little humid, the rain felt wonderful– cool and inviting– it’s understandable why Hawaiian culture views the gentle soothing plop of each drop hitting your skin as a blessing.

By the fifth stoplight, I realized how grateful I was to be forced to stop. I was pretty achey (I haven’t done two-a-days in a bit), and I’m actually recovering from a nasty bout of gastritis from last week. I realized that, at each red light, there was a little bit of grace. I was being given permission to stop, to breathe, to let my body heal and to appreciate the world around me.

So often, we’re trying to fill in every second of our day being as productive as possible– how long can I go as fast as I can so that I achieve as much as I’m capable of? That can be good, but it’s important to seek out and feel grateful for the pauses where the universe forces us to stop, let ourselves recover, and appreciate the moment we are in. As much as we want to hustle, we all deserve a second to breathe too.

So, by the last few stoplights, I made it a point to look around. Towards the end of my run, there’s this beautiful chapel surrounded by a row of trees on the street. Green and luscious, their rich, shiny leaves are each a reminder of how beautiful even small things are.

I waited there, marveling at the trees, appreciating them and the rain and the bright, afternoon light. For the first time in a while, I willed the red light to stay just a moment longer, if only so I could take in the true beauty of this moment and feel grateful for the deep, peaceful pause in my heart.