North

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I recently read a book called “North.” It was written by an accomplished ultramarathon runner, Scott Jurek, as he detailed his attempt to break the speed record for the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail is a 2,000+ mile trail that runs from Georgia all the way to Maine, going through the Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a journey that typically takes people 5-6 months to complete and Scott was going to try and travel the whole trail in under 47 days. SPOILER ALERT: he did in 46 days. He described in detail the physical toll the attempt took on him and how mentally draining it was. There were days he needed to run 40-50 miles just to keep pace despite how exhausted he was. He couldn’t afford to stop and rest for too long if he wanted to break the record. Any lost or wasted time could be detrimental to his attempt. While I was thoroughly inspired and motivated by his mental toughness and ability to break the record, I was more moved by his ability to still appreciate the beauty around him. Despite the pressure to keep moving forward toward the record he still allowed himself time to slow down every so often to take in his incredible surroundings.

Needless to say, this book inspired me in a multitude of ways. For starters, it got me off my butt to start running again. If this guy can run 50 miles a day through the mountains I think I can handle 3 miles every few days. I admired him for his ability to push himself past his limits, proving that we are always capable of more than we realize physically and mentally. What inspired me the most about his journey, however, was the reason he started it in the first place.

As I mentioned, Scott Jurek is one of the most accomplished ultramarathon runners in the sport’s history. He has broken a multitude of records, has written numerous books, and is always on the road for speaking engagements. In short, he was always on the go and never slowed down. Additionally, he was dealing with the fact that his career may be coming to an end and also had experienced a lot of loss in his life. He realized one day that he needed to get away from the chaos, pressure, and stress of life and decided to escape to the wilderness. Being the competitor that he is he of course made it a challenge for himself, but at the core of his attempt was an opportunity to recharge and clear his head. Yes, he was trying to break a record, but more than anything he was trying to find clarity and a renewed purpose. Scott’s journey inspired me, not to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (although that is something I would love to do), run 50 miles a day, or break any records. No, he inspired me to find my own clarity and to find an outlet to do so, preferably something active and outdoors. He inspired me to start hiking every week.

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For the last 6 weeks or so I have been going on a hike every Sunday morning. To be fair, I use the word “hike” very loosely. Obviously, being in Saint Louis means I don’t have easy access to any mountains or very tough terrain. But there are a lot of different trails around the area that I’ve been exploring or hoping to explore. Regardless of the difficulty level, each new trail I hike provides me an opportunity to escape from the chaos of life.

There are many times I feel like Scott Jurek – always on the go. I absolutely love my job at the Y but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t busy or stressful. After a long day at work I usually find myself going straight to another activity or obligation, whether it’s youth group, a meeting, a volleyball game, a catch up with friends, or something else entirely. Truthfully, most of these things, if not all of them, are things I enjoy and purposefully plan. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve struggled with spreading myself too thin and not knowing when to scale things back. Through all the activities I find myself trying to juggle all sorts of other things as well – stress, finances, dealing with expectations and pressure, running errands, and so on. Add everything up and it can pretty overwhelming and exhausting at times. At the end of each week I’m usually mentally fried and would love nothing more than to just seclude myself in the house to recoup. But after reading “North” I understood that just shutting everything out wouldn’t be beneficial or make anything disappear. What I needed to do was find a productive outlet that would allow me to slow things down, cut through the fuzziness on the edges of life, and zero in on the things that are truly important.

Also like Scott Jurek, I found my escape in the outdoors. I’m very fortunate to live literally 30 seconds away from a collection of hiking trails that run up to the Mississippi River at Bangert Island. I’ve hiked on those trails a handful of times over the years but it didn’t click until recently just how close I lived to the perfect place of solitude. Within the last month and half, Bangert Island has become a safe haven of sorts. I haven’t just settled for Bangert Island, however. I’ve searched for other hiking trails in the area, and each one I’ve been to has provided its own unique qualities.

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My Sunday morning hikes have quickly become one of the highlights of my week. As I mentioned they provide me a chance to push all the stress and distractions to the side, if only for a little bit. Everything is simple and peaceful and I feel like I can breathe a little more easily. I’m able to reflect on the week I just had and really focus on the things and people I’m thankful for. It literally feels like time slows down. Just as Scott Jurek found little bits of time to slow down and appreciate the immense beauty that he was running through, I feel like my Sunday hikes are my opportunity to slow down through the chaos of life and appreciate just how blessed I am.

Scott’s small moments of appreciation provided him extra motivation to keep going on his journey. They reminded him why he was there and pushed him to move forward. That’s exactly how I feel about my morning hikes. They’re only a small part of my week but they provide me with solitude and a renewed vigor to take on the coming week.

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I encourage everyone to find their own unique outlet for stress and the busyness of life. For many people it’s running or going to the gym. Maybe it’s reading or journaling. Whatever it is, find it. Find it and make time for it, no matter how busy you are. I promise, making time for that one small thing will help you to put everything else into perspective. It will provide you a sense of calmness and serenity. I know in this day and age there’s a pressure to always be busy and to commit yourself to a number of things. That’s totally fine (seeing as I’m guilty of it myself) but it’s necessary to slow things down from time to time. It’s not uncommon during one of my morning hikes to come to a realization about something that I would have otherwise completely looked over. If I hadn’t slowed down I wouldn’t have found that clarity.

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Scott Jurek broke the Appalachian Trail speed record but unfortunately it barely lasted two years. Was he upset his record was broken so quickly after he poured his blood, sweat, and tears onto that trail? Absolutely not. While on his journey he accomplished exactly what he sought out to do – find clarity and purpose. I don’t set out on my hikes to completely vanish or outrun the stress of daily life. But they provide me exactly what I need – opportunities to slow things down and reflect on the beauty of the life I have.

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