Last year I started training for my first half marathon. As a devoted hiker, the last thing I wanted to do was run on pavement. To get the distance I needed, I drove 40 minutes a day to places like Carkeek Park, Saint Edward State Park and Meadowdale Beach Park. On weekends, I drove farther to trailheads outside the city. I reveled in the feeling of my ankles stabilizing over roots and rocks. I spotted owls and deer, leaped over banana slugs and broke through the trees to lakes or ocean waves or layers upon layers of mountains. When I drove home, passing other runners making their routes past gas stations and traffic lights, I thought: I don’t know how they do it.
This year, as I started getting back into a routine for a late-summer race (which may or may not happen), I’ve been sticking closer to home. It turns out commuting for a run can be a real demotivator. Instead, a mile from my house is a small forested city park, and I’ve often used that as my “reward” for having made it on sidewalk and asphalt. Ah, finally — trees. Ah, finally — dirt.
But as the coronavirus pandemic unfurled, that park became less of a relief and more of a stressor. Unlike the streets full of sidewalks and bike lanes, the park has narrow trails that make it impossible to pass at a safe distance of 6 feet or more. And because it’s the closest option to nature, the normally quiet route suddenly had more people coming from every direction.
As a result, I’ve come to really, truly love my sidewalk runs. I like the snippets of conversation I hear as I pass by from the opposite side of the street. I like the teenagers skateboarding in the middle of a quiet road while trying to remain distant. For the first time, I noticed just how tall the trees I run past are — stories upon stories high. Why hadn’t I ever looked up?
“The more familiar things become, the less sensitive we are,” says Eliza Carlson, a licensed mental-health counselor, founder of Sound Mindfulness Group and a mindfulness meditation teacher for Bastyr University. It’s for good reason, she says, since focusing on the new stimuli would historically help keep us safe in the face of danger.
It also means that, most of the time, we’re on autopilot. In my case, I’d been so focused on the idea that sidewalk runs were boring that I hadn’t bothered to look around. Everywhere around me, flowers were blooming and neighbors were tending to their yards. There were all kinds of details I hadn’t noticed before.
Paying attention to these smaller things isn’t just a whimsical way of getting through an afternoon. It can also be a powerful way to calm our stress levels.
“In our archaic nervous system, the flight, fright, freeze system is … designed to respond to threats from our environment, like the tiger jumping out of the bushes,” Carlson says. “Physically, most of the time you’re OK. You want your physiology and your biology responding to that reality.”
Mindfulness helps our bodies adjust stress levels to what’s actually surrounding us, not the disasters we’re creating in our heads. It’s useful on a run, and we can also incorporate it when we’re washing dishes or putting away our now-precious toilet paper. “When I teach mindfulness classes, we often start with asking people to start with something mundane and bringing that quality of attention to it,” says Neha Chawla, Ph.D., founder and director of the Seattle Mindfulness Center. “Even that mundane thing can become interesting.”
One popular technique is a countdown of sorts, where you notice five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can touch, two you can smell, one you can taste.
Or you can just make a pointed effort to notice something new, Carlson says. “Put your attention to something that at a minimum is just OK or ideally on something that is pleasurable, and take 30 seconds or more to experience the feeling of enjoying that moment.” It’s easy, but it relaxes the nervous system and can lead to a sense of gratitude.
I soon realized the countdown method had become part of my sidewalk runs.
This week, I saw a vibrant pinwheel on the flat street where I sprint. The neighbor behind us has children, and one of them has been yelling the same four-note tune (it’s the ethereal call from “Into the Unknown,” from “Frozen 2”) and later, I heard three different kids yell-singing it back to each other from separate yards. Running downhill from my house, I could smell at least three different dinners being cooked in the houses I passed (burgers, curry and pasta, if I had to take a guess).
On a walk with my husband to take pictures for this story, I spotted a stranger’s tree in full, white-blossomed bloom. I leaned at the edge of the grass to try to get a photo, and then the door opened: “Come on in!” A woman was smiling, inviting me into her yard. “It’s made my day to see you!”
Eventually, we won’t have to practice social distancing anymore. If I keep it up, I’ll be able to take long runs through the woods, even on popular trails. I might get lucky enough to race. Even more, I’ll get to see my friends in person. I like to think I’ll finally get to know my neighbors. Dinner at my house! We’re having curry, burgers and pasta. Yes, all of it. I hope you can come.
For now, when I run, I try to notice the breeze skimming against my skin. The pavement, I learned, makes me faster. With fewer cars on the road, the air was fresh and tasteless. However bad the news gets, the world is full of things I’ve never noticed before — including the fact that running on sidewalks can be beautiful.
What else, I wonder, have we all been missing?