The Unadulterated Joy Of Running—Without Running Shoes

Trudging up the steep back slope of a jagged Dolomite trail, I leaned into a rip-roaring wind and shielded my face from the pelting rain. These were the mountains I'd been dreaming of for months, stalking with online photos whenever I needed a mental break at work (often). And in the midst of cold, wet misery, I was utterly happy. My only regret: I wished I had my running shoes.

When I quit my job and set out to live out of a backpack and travel for a few months, I had to make some sacrifices, packing and otherwise. I was trading in a draining, if promising, job in a Los Angeles film office for haying and digging ditches as a volunteer farmer while I traveled through Europe and launched a blog. To say I made the leap from security to the unknown without fear would be a blatant lie—I felt crazy. But I needed to pursue my pent-up dreams of exploration, and I was happy to load my bag with outdoor gear instead of office attire for once.

But packing light had meant I’d left behind my running shoes—which made me sad. They’d been with me for every pavement patter, dusty canyon run and painful marathon mile. But with limited space for an indefinitely long journey, stuffing in both hiking boots and running shoes seemed excessive. Knowing I would need the sturdy ankle support and extra protection of the boots for trekking, as well as in the fields of the farms where I'd be working, I chose the boots. But standing on the trail that afternoon, and wanting desperately to leap forward and simply run, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. The immense beauty spreading before me represented a world of freedom and possibility—and all I wanted was to shed my gear and let loose on the trail, wind, rain and all.

I missed my running shoes.

For several days I trekked onward, oohing and aahing at every turn of the trail. The sun returned and the Dolomites' mean-looking spires seemed friendlier. But my heavy backpack and those clunky hiking boots still held me in check. The weighing pack, which once symbolized the liberation of travel and having all my necessities on my back, started to feel like a burden, more like baggage brought from home.

Finally, I'd had enough.

Storing my bag at my couch surfing host's place, I donned my woolly hiking socks and heavy boots and walked out the front door in search of a trail, any trail. Within a few steps, my feet couldn't hold back. No more plodding—I was running. Running along a river and past Armani-clad Italian tourists. Running through a playground where kids turned to me with baffled expressions.

I found a gravelly trail and kept running, up, up, upward on the steep path until I couldn't hack another switchback. Huffing and puffing, I stopped to take in the view. Through the trees I saw Marmolada, the region's tallest peak, looking back at me as if in mutual respect. I'd finally done it.

This was freedom. This euphoria of running, this broken down barrier of speed on the trail, just me on the trail. The shoes didn't matter. The boots were carrying me, and that was enough. Whatever baggage I carried from home, whatever hesitations lingered about the decision to travel, they were gone.

From then on, I ran whenever I had the chance. In those boots, I ran through Alpine meadows. Along glacial streams. Past curious cows. Sometimes I was in a Swiss mountain village, heading down the main road toward the farm. Sometimes I carried my backpack as well. Like Forrest Gump with a blonde ponytail, I ran everywhere. Was I setting PR's? No. But I clunked along giddily in spite of it.

Three times, cars pulled over and befuddled faces asked me, German accents thick, ‘Do you need a ride?’

Thank you, no, I replied, I'm running.