Struck By Living

Coping with depression and living life to the fullest.

Give Your Brain a Sprint, Think Like a Kid

What comes first: Age or brain atrophy from inaction?

View from McCrary Ridge Trail, Big Basin
I have a you’re not old yet measure for myself every summer. Near the Pecos Wilderness, Highway 63 meanders upward, then climbs over a mile at a pitch of about 8,000 to 9,000 feet. From my cabin to the Virgin Mary statue who stares from the rocks at the top, it’s a 5 mile round trip run. Every year, if I can make the run without stopping, I’m not old.

At 52, this hill is a bitch. I woke up a few weeks ago with a sense of dread. Part of my brain argued for more realistic measures of youth, the other side called me names I hadn’t heard since grade school. Always a peacemaker, I brokered a deal with myself: a hike-run. Run a mile to the trail entrance at Mora Creek, then run-hike the rest. The chore transformed into adventure before I tied my running shoes. I left a note for my family and was off.

I kept running while on the trail, cheered by the gurgle of the Mora River as the water rippled against the rocks. Obstacles appeared. Downed trees and fist to melon-sized rocks littered the trail. With a misstep, a twisted ankle or a broken limb seemed likely.

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Normally, I won’t risk a run in these conditions. An injury takes weeks to heal, hardly worth the fool-hardy effort. Not that morning. I glided over the rocks, my feet somehow magically aware of the best step. Had I'd been gifted a seventh sense of georgraphical orientation, like the Tzeltal speakers in Mexico? I leapt over fallen trees, climbed boulders like a kid.

Redwoods at Big Basin
A story unwove as I raced. You are a warrior; the enemy in hot pursuit. You have to get to higher ground to defend yourself. I burst through green brush where the trail dwindled. My brain fired with a game of imagine that I hadn’t played in a long, long time.

Scientists have long documented the benefit of a stimulating environment on lab rats and children and Richard Louv has been a strong voice for the benefits of nature for all of us. But my nature run last week made me wonder about a new angle on this question. Do our brains atrophy only because of age or because we forget how to play?

Runners may be familiar with “fartlek” training, where the route, speed and intensity varies, in an effort to create a new challenge for our bodies. I believe our minds need the same challenge. As I age, I find I battle the barrier of wisdom, which translates into all the reasons why I can’t do something. Lately, I’ve been taking a different approach. When the wise portion of my brain tells me all the reasons I can’t do something, another portion of my brain counters with all the reasons why I can’t wait. The outcome is action versus inaction, and almost always a better day.

Berry Falls - Silver Falls and the Golden Cascades are worth the trip too!
I found myself in this situation last week on vacation by myself in Santa Cruz. A quick tour of the internet told me the best hike in the area rested in Big Basin, up the Skyline to the Sea Trail to Berry Falls, about a 14 mile hike. My wise brain told me I couldn’t do this hike by myself. I didn’t have the right equipment and I should wait for another time when a friend could go with me.  A more impulsive side of my brain knew I might never return to Big Basin. At my age, I know how quickly decades pass before I return to a spot. The next time I returned, my legs might not carry me up the trail. Decision made, I bought a day backpack, three power bars and was off.

The day unfolded into an 18-mile hike rewarded with a solo meditation in front of lush Berry Falls. The light pierced green leaves in a way that made my soul grow.  My feet ached, but it was a good tired.

After the hike I watched the kitesurfers at Waddell State Beach zip through the waves.  A man who must have been 10 years my senior stood next to me in a full wet suit as I shivered beside him. He’d been on the waves for four hours. He eyed the water lustfully as he recounted his leaps in laidback-California-cool-dude swagger.  “But it’s time to quit now,” he admitted. “I know my body. When I push past this point I get hurt.”

Kitesurfers at Waddell State Beach, CA
I nodded, bit into the nectarine I’d bought at the farm stand on the way up Highway 1. The juice dribbled down my cheek, salted by the ocean breeze.

There’s a fine line between adventure and hurt. For me, health rests in the balance between the two. BTW I did complete my Hwy 63 run up the hill, but this year the hill seemed an inferior means to judge my vitality. Instead I faced a new challenge, more engaged by the adventure than the measure of my efforts. The fun won. My inner kid cheered and begged for more.

Julie Hersh is the author of Struck By Living: From Depression to Hope.

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