The “Out There” That Awaits

Photo by Adam Parshall for Tracksmith

Winter is still going strong and ohhh am I feeling it! The snow keeps snowing, the chill keeps chilling, and my bit of outdoor time before and after school/work is encroached by darkness (though less and less so every day). I feel like a creature of the night and early morning hours. It’s hard not to compare the daily workload with a grueling multi-day effort on the trail. I’d say there’s a similar amount of stress and energy that goes into it, just manifested in a different way; more mental than physical, though both things aren’t independent from the other. Stress is stress, as they say!

Through all of the self-imposed hardship I’ve experienced on long distance trails, there are inevitable magical moments interspersed throughout. When I look back on photos from these types of adventures, there’s almost always a genuine grin on my face. It’s not because the experience is sunshine and rainbows from start to finish- it’s that I’m doing something that makes me feel in the deepest core of my human self. The aliveness, the primal desire to move and use my body what it’s made for. To be in awe of nature and know I might not have had a particular experience in the outdoors or appreciate it as much without the struggle and desire to get there on my two feet. Moments like one time when I was up on a ridge on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, the sun was setting beyond a dark storm cloud and flooded an otherwise darkening forest with fluorescent rays, lighting up all the wispy white flowers lining the trail. Or the heart-thumping time when I was hiking up Albert Mountain in the wee hours of the morning and heard what could have only been a bear barreling down into a valley the moment it heard me approaching. Sorry bear!

For all the stress that can come with being a full-time working student, I’ve been feeling “aliveness” in a different way. Much like going for daily runs, there’s the unglamorous amount of practice that must be done to learn my music and refine my technique, for which there are never enough hours in the day. There’s homework to be done, papers to write, and lessons to prepare for. But then interspersed through all the chaos are those magical moments of connection with my collaborators, the “aha” moments of getting difficult passages in my fingers, and the delight of putting words and music to paper and hearing it all come to life. I’ve had those inevitable low moments of despair (“how will I ever learn/finish this in time?”) only to be reminded over and over with those special moments and performances “Oh yes… this is why I do this.”

Following the Black Canyon 100K a couple weeks ago, I took a full week off of running and started easing back in this week with my good ol’ run commute. With the limited time bookending each school/work day, this seems to be what’s working best for me in this season. Sometimes I feel a little down on myself for not doing more, or not making time to do more speed or trail-specific running. I worry that I’m falling too far behind my peers, or that I’ll be setting myself back by not being in the very best shape possible all the time. It’s been causing me to think about my relationship with running and how to best honor it while also going all-in with my music studies and professional aspirations.

Looking ahead, my next planned adventures are backpacking a section of the Arizona Trail over spring break a couple weeks from now (if you’re aware of the recent snowfall, yes I will be packing my micro-spikes!), and thru-hiking the Colorado Trail this summer. Now, there may be some shuffling and fast hiking involved (maybe some slipping and sliding too), but I’d hardly call those running-specific endeavors. So when I think of it that way, it makes me feel a little less bad for not being my very best runner-self in this season, and makes my shuffle to and/or from school with a pack (sometimes weighing in at almost 15 pounds) seem quite practical.

Today I received a surprise in the mail from my sister, a beautiful print of a watercolor painting of Massanutten Peak in Virginia, fittingly with white flowers dotting the grassy fields in the foreground. I basically immediately burst into tears, touched by her thoughtfulness and the reminder of the “out there” that awaits when I’m ready to return.

“Summer” Massanutten Mountain by Lynda E. Chandler

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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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