By Emily Biolsi
We stood in the parking lot of Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown, N.H., warmed against the cool early morning air by the fluttering of nerves. We had already watched as my friend Jeremy and the rest of the marathoners headed off down the trail. Then it was time to wait.
Eons later—or maybe it was just a half hour—my sister and I joined the rest of the runners at the starting line for the half marathon. As the race director concluded his reminder to keep watch for half marathon flags, which would always be on the LEFT—unless, of course, they were on the right—my sister and I leaned on each other, balancing, in a final effort to stretch the nervousness from our limbs. Mike, another trail running buddy, turned and flashed us an encouraging smile and thumbs up from the front of the pack.
“Ready?” I smiled at my sister. Bear Brook Half Marathon would be her first trail race. Though I’ve developed a taste for running trails, scampering through the woods of the Upper Valley, enjoying a variety of short events in the Western New Hampshire Trail Running Series and completing the Pisgah 23k, I think nervousness and a bit of self doubt will always cause my stomach to dip and flutter at the starting line. Together, my sister and I have run several half marathons, making the hour-plus drive to meet and log training miles together as much as possible. This time around, however, life managed to make it harder to build up our running together.
But we had a plan. A few months ago, when I had convinced her to join me, we’d agreed on a strategy; take our time, hike when we need to, enjoy it, and stick together. As the runners spread out, the slow shuffling off the start evolved into a comfortable pace and we fell into step beside each other.
The course was, in a word, beautiful. It pushed us over Catamount Mountain, winding, undulating, and zigzagging beside babbling brooks, through hillside stands of hemlock, along soft pine needle paths, amid vibrant green forest, before driving us back up the mountain we’d started on.
Under a comfortably warm sun, on a clearly marked trail, listening to the song of the stream, the beat of my heart, the fall of our footsteps, and the breath of my sister behind me, it was easy to get lost in silence. My thoughts twisted and turned, much like the trail beneath my feet.
“Good?” I tossed the question over my shoulder as we ran along narrowing double track, dipping deeper into the trees.
We’d breezed through the second aid station, which marked the midpoint of the half, a few miles back. Conversation ebbed and flowed. With the exception of these quick check-ins, and brief pauses as we’d each, miles apart, taken turns dusting dirt from our elbows and knees, my sister and I had been running in companionable quiet for much of the past nine miles. And that meant that I had been thinking.
I have long viewed running as something, often the only thing, I have allowed myself to do just for me. It has a been a refuge, a place to seek solace, to clear my head, to unlock puzzles, and to solve problems. It has allowed me to find peace and lighten my heart. It has helped me to be joyful, to find myself. Recently, however, I realized that, at times, running is quite the opposite—that it is not at all about having this time for myself, but is rather about sharing the experience, the moment, with others. I’m not sure how it took me so long to recognize it as both.
For years now, I’ve found myself running alongside my sister. Footfalls and breath setting cadence as we’ve traveled the dirt roads surrounding her farm through the cool crisp of early morning fog, the thickness of midday summer heat, and the glistening veil of falling rain. These moments in time have provided an amazing gift: a chance to catch up on what’s new, to share and celebrate each other’s triumphs, to laugh at the hilarity of life events, and to help process the unexpected challenges and change it throws at you—time to just be together.
Over the past year, my feet have shifted away from the road and onto the trails. Awed by the balance of peace and challenge, I’ve pushed, mostly gently, for her to join me. And so our dirt road runs veered onto paths that twist through changing forests, along railroad beds being reclaimed by nature, and up ridgeline routes to picturesque vistas.
There is something indescribably beautiful in the unassuming simplicity of sharing the trails with someone you hold close to your heart, moving silently—together, yet in our own worlds. When conversation can slip away, replaced by the soundtrack of bird songs.
Somewhere between miles nine and ten, we began to share where our heads, and hearts, had been. As I listened to my sister speak, it became clear that this race, for her, had been about healing. The first portion had been time she needed to spend holding on, thinking, and processing recent life events, and now, this final stretch was the time to allow herself to gently let go. We slowed our pace to run hand in hand, as we wiped away a few tears, inhaling and exhaling in unison until our breathing calmed. The closeness we have always shared could not be more clearly exemplified than by those few minutes on the trail. Running, I’ve found, can be both selfish and selfless, and for me this run was for her.
Though our hearts and minds were in our own worlds, my sister and I were similarly considering the past and the future. Our past is only one piece of what shapes us. While it will always be with us, we alone have the power to choose how it inspires or impedes us. We must learn to take something from our experiences, both the joyous and the difficult. We tuck these lessons away and let the rest go. We keep moving forward, ready to discover what lies on the trail ahead.
You can find Emily Biolsi running through the woods of the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire.