There is a narrow road that climbs up the side of the historic Boyne River Valley in County Meath, Ireland. It is dark, even on the brightest of days. The dense trees are mature and meet each other in a green tunnel above your head. The road twists and turns, as such roads do. You do not see the top until you are over it.
If you run up this road often, you push yourself hard, despite the burn, because you know about the flat spot a third of the way up. Also you know that, just after the first house on the edge of the town, the hill gives way to open grass and gentler gradient. There you can breathe huge gulps of clean air and feel deeply happy.
My friend, Alice, and I were running up that long hill just last week. Our feet and legs were splashed with mud from the canal tow-path and the battle fields. It had rained gently so our clothing (and her hair) were stuck down against our sweaty skin.
I say, “her hair,” because I don’t have hair to get stuck down by gentle rain or sweaty skin.
And to be correct I should say that I was running. Alice was on her bicycle. She can’t run the whole route so she cycles down the hill to the start of the tow-path where we chain her bike to the railings. Then we run the trail in a loop along the canal and up over the battlefields and collect her bike again before we climb the hill towards home.
Alice can’t run the whole way because she isn’t strong enough for that yet. I say yet, because I’m sure that she will be soon. Even though she still looks quite frail, she’s getting stronger by the day.
In the meantime this works well for us. I get my run in and she gets exercise and runs as far as is good for her right now. Besides, she prefers running the muddy trail and cycling the road.
So, last week, as I ran and she cycled up the hill, we came up behind a man pushing his bike. He had his head down and his bum out and he was making slow progress, like an unpopular president trying to address the state of the nation. It is a tough hill to climb.
Then some things happened.
The first is that Alice laughed. I don’t think she was laughing at how he had his head down and his bum out. I think it was more an expression of simple, pure joy at being alive with her clothing and hair sticking to her sweaty skin. It sounded beautiful - like a small bell and a soapy shower all at once.
This delightful sound caused the man to look through the small gap under his armpit so that he could see behind him without lifting his head or pulling in his bum.
Just as he looked at Alice and me coming up behind him, me running and her cycling, we happened to get to the flat spot that lies a third of the way up the hill. That meant, in the very second he looked, Alice picked up speed and started to close the gap between her and the labouring rider..
Then another thing happened that was quite miraculous. It was like magic right in front of our eyes.
The man’s head shot up, directly towards the mature tree tops. His bum flicked in so sharply that I could hear a clap. In one fluid motion that man leapt onto that bicycle and peddled like a president trying to protect private payments.
It was simply superb to see. A tremendous transformation. In one swift second the slowed up labourer became the stuff of legends. What had been akin to the Mont Ventoux just a moment before was instantaneously transformed into something inconsequential and easily conquerable. That man flew over the top of that hill, past the open grass and along the gentler gradient without another look behind.
And this magnificent metamorphosis was all because that man saw, through the small gap in his armpit, a young pig-tailed girl cycling a pink bicycle with purple ribbons and a white plastic basket in front, at speed toward him.
I say a young girl because Alice is seven and that is why she shouldn’t run too far yet. It’s not good for the joints, you know. But she does love running the muddy trail.
I’ve got one last thing to say. Trail running is a wonderful gift because on a narrow track you can get perspective on your life. What felt insurmountable before can become quite possible. What felt confused can become crystal clear. There you can find the simple, pure joy of being alive - like a small bell and a soapy shower all at once.
Running trails can help you to stop looking at your life through the gap in your armpit and get a move on to seize the opportunities in front of you. It can make you lift your head up and pull your bum in.
I know that man didn’t look back as he sped away on his bike. But I do hope he paused enough to breath in a few gulps of clean air and to be happy, deeply happy. And I wish the same for you.