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The Pure Joy of Running Outside In the Summer



I love running through the woods in the summer. There’s nothing like the feeling of rising with the sun, lacing up my trail shoes, taking a deep breath at the edge of the forest … and crashing immediately into a spiderweb.

“I’m so sorry, spider!” is what I should say. The tiny creature spun a beautiful web with perfect angles—a marvel of engineering, really, glistening in the dawn’s early light. And then—thump, thump, thump—here comes big, bumbling me, a guy unable to draw symmetrical heart shapes on Valentine’s cards.

But I don’t apologize. I shriek and swat frantically at myself as I imagine an angry spider skittering across my skin, searching for her hatchlings. Then I thump on, sometimes getting as far as 20 feet before ruining another spider’s hard work.

Getting caught in webs is the cost of doing business when it comes to trail running in the summer. And it’s well worth it. I find immersing myself in nature is a calming and restorative experience. I don’t know if it’s the fresh air, the chirping birds or the trace amounts of spider venom in my bloodstream, but a morning run significantly reduces my stress and helps me prepare for the day ahead.

The Japanese have a term for this phenomenon is shinrin-yoku. Shinrin means “forest”; yoku means “bath.” Presumably, the dash indicates that you have to take a real bath afterward and also check yourself for deer ticks.

My favorite place to run is Ridley Creek State Park. At 2,600 acres, there’s plenty of forest to bathe in. I like to arrive just after it opens at sunrise and spend a few minutes on the massive stone patio of the magnificent, old Jeffords Mansion, pretending I own the place. Then, it’s time to run—yellow trail to white, white trail to blue—my eyes and mind focused on placing my footsteps on and around the rocks and roots, mud and puddles, bridges and stepping stones. This is, I’m convinced, the only kind of meditation my generation is capable of. These days, people need the kind of meditation where, if you stop being mindful and present for one second, you’ll twist your ankle.

Usually, I don’t encounter any other humans until I reach my turnaround point, Pavilion 17, where I’ll sometimes find a boot-camp fitness instructor in camouflage pants hollering at a group of mostly middle-aged women. I pause for a moment and wonder just how well the program works, and, more specifically, whether any of these recruits could catch me if I grabbed one of their water bottles and ran into the woods.

But, in a way, that’s part of the appeal of running through the woods in the muggy months—being thirsty and far from water. A gym is air-conditioned, there’s a water fountain, and there are no tree roots on the treadmill to hop over.

I took a brief hiatus from gyms while I attended college, entered the workforce and started a family, and just recently started going to one again. I’m amazed at the technology and analytics involved. Exercise machines now measure and prominently display something called METs. I searched online, and the answer came back: “the ratio of metabolic rate during a specific physical activity to a reference metabolic rate, set by convention to 3.5 ml O2·kg−1·min−1.”

How many METS do you have to do to counter the quart of mint chocolate chip ice cream you just ate? Google has no answer.

So I’ll leave the METs and the math indoors, and spend as much time as I can on the trail.

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