Beneath my feet, the ground crunched, slipped and slid. My city slicker feet felt unsure and unstable. Don’t trip don’t trip don’t trip became a refrain in my head.
But then the earth rose up as if to catch me and provide a solid foundation. My feet felt light as I skip hopped through the woods, over roots, over rocks. The smell of the soil and moldy rot of evergreen trees filled my lungs, cleaning out the city soot and smell of sun-ripened garbage. I didn’t even know I was holding my breath all this time.
I see the bright orange, pink and cobalt blue of running shirts moving in rhythm ahead of me, a single file line snaking their way through the trail along the McKenzie River, in and out of Douglas firs whose trunk glow with fluorescent green moss. Every once in a while, Isaac breaks out in a spontaneous dance to the music in the her headphones. Watching her makes me smile.
In that moment, I am filled with joy from the trails, the company, and the stillness I’ve been desperately seeking. I don’t run with other people. I prefer to run solo — less for my mind to chew on and compare myself against. But I couldn’t imagine spending this Sunday morning any other way than with this group of women.
When people ask me about my experience at Wilder, the running and writing retreat hosted by Lauren Fleshman, my default answer is, “The food was amazing.” And it was. Plus, as someone who has numerous food allergies — some annoying and some obscure — it’s often hard to go to retreats like this without worrying about what I’ll eat. But this? I didn’t think about it once. Relieved of that worry felt like a huge burden was lifted off my shoulders. I felt so taken care of.
The food is just one example of how Lauren, Marianne Elliott (our writing teacher) and the whole Wilder crew really cared for a group of 30 women over four days in Central Oregon. I’ve never felt so nourished — by the food, the company, the conversations, and the little details like ear plugs and extra hair ties.
It’s also easier to focus on the food and the schedule (lots of writing sessions, running, yoga, snacks, dinner and campfires) than to try and explain what the experience really meant to me. Plus, there’s a big part of me that wants to just keep it to myself. As if when I speak about the magic of Wilder, it loses some of its potency.
On our first day, after we all settled into our weekend homes (OMG the cutest, sweetest A-frame cabin), we gathered in front of the fire pit and stood in a circle with one hand on our heart and the other hand on the back of our neighbor’s heart. Together, we shouted in to the woods, “I AM ON RETREAT!”
And like that, with those four simple words, a magical bubble descended upon us, creating this capsule where time and space stretched in many directions.
The retreat was four days but it felt like a lifetime. Everything revolved around the simple question of, “What do I want?”
What do I want — core work, sleep or a few quiet moments by the lake? Lake. What do I want — incredible breakfast breads and dessert? YES. What do I want — play it safe with a 5+ mile trail run or a 10 mile adventure with new friends? 10 miles please. What do I want — yoga or more free writing? Writing.
I can’t tell you the last time I’ve asked myself that simple question but as soon as we arrived at Wilder, Lauren and Marianne gave us permission to drop all the baggage and expectations and asked us to show up for ourselves, as ourselves.
Before I arrived in Oregon, I was nervous and anxious. I didn’t know anyone who was attending. My IT band and knee decided that after 4 years of a steady relationship, the week before the retreat would be a great time to act up. I was pretty positive I would be one of the slowest runners there. And what in the world would I write about? I don’t have stories to tell.
So when Lauren and Marianne asked us to write our intention for the retreat on a strip of cloth, I wrote stillness and rejuvenation.
I wanted to find a stillness that comes from feeling solid and confident in myself, not the frenetic energy that constantly pulses through my body and out my fingertips and drives my decisions more than my head or my heart.
I wanted to find a new reservoir of ideas because frankly, the well has been tapped dry.
I found both in surprising places.
In a daily writing practice under Marianne’s fierce encouragement where I didn’t second guess or immediately edit the words forming on the page. Instead, I trusted the clarity of the stories pouring forth and played with fiction and poetry which I never do.
I feel like I cracked open the door to a new stream of creativity that I didn’t know existed. I wrote more over the course of four days than I have all year or even last year for that matter.
In running on new terrain and at elevation guided by Lauren’s wicked smile and bullhorn (Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!) I learned to trust my body again and give it the benefit of the doubt. I don’t typically run back-to-back days and I back off at the first sign of soreness or fatigue just in case.
But choosing to run a 10 mile trail run instead of opting for the safer 5 mile option and deciding to push myself a little harder during the last two intervals of our speed workout, I realized that I don’t have to be afraid of challenging myself. I don’t have to always listen to the what-ifs. My body is a lot stronger than I give it credit for.
It reminded me of all the things I love about running that’s been lost for the past several months.
In the company of incredible women — strong, fierce women — whose writing, running, stories and physical presence inspired me and gave me hope that lady swagger is a real thing and we can all find ways to let go and let a little more wild into our lives.
This weekend filled me up — with the sounds of giggles, explosions of cold lake water and primal shrieks, guitars and voices by the campfire, endless chatter and stunning silence along trails, the crunch of dirt and rocks beneath my feet, cans of La Croix cracking open, steaming baskets of Popeye bread, pens furiously scratching across pages in notebooks, the icy spray of waterfall mist, the smell of fire, endless green trees, and a magical blanket of stars.
I am full. A satisfied full. A still full. A rejuvenated full.
Thank you Lauren. Thank you Marianne. Thank you Wilder crew. Thank you.