My husband and I are runners. You know, more or less. We don’t run fast and we don’t run far; but we do run pretty often together, and we almost always run the same course, which has a lot of ups and downs.
This being New Hampshire, there is hardly any level ground to travel. Most of it slopes up or slopes down, or up and down and up and down, and at both ends of our normal route, there are significant hills — one in the middle that’s short and steep, and one at the end, that’s long and very steep.
A serious runner told me that running downhill for too long — down a mountain, say — gets to be just as hard as running uphill, and you need a whole new set of muscles just to keep yourself from tipping over.
I will take her word for it. In my moderate little routine, downhills are pure bliss. Gravity does much of the work, and all you must do is point yourself in the right direction and off you go. On the downhill, my breathing comes closer to normal, my muscles relax, my stride lengthens, my vision clears. By the time we reach the lowest point and it’s time to circle around and chug right back up again, I feel refreshed, encouraged, and ready.
Except sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, before we get to the downhill, I’m struggling so hard mentally and physically, the chance to ease up doesn’t even register. Maybe I’m stressing out over some unrelated problem, or maybe I’m even worried about how I look, and next thing you know, I’ve gotten the lowest point of the loop, and I don’t even know how I got there. I’ve wasted my chance to take it easy, and now it’s time to start pushing again. I forgot to enjoy the downhill.
So I try to make a point of reminding myself where I am. To really feel my thighs loosen up, to really rest in the sensation of not having to fight against gravity, to relax my chest and my lungs as we descend.
There’s even an actual field of wildflowers at the bottom of the hill, and while I don’t stop to smell them, I do make sure I feast my eyes on them, and search out any new arrivals that have sprung up since last time. There’s always something: White and pink and purple clover, flaming orange hawkweed, purple cow vetch with its fantastical tendrils; Queen Anne’s Lace, bunches of silvery cinquefoil, some early asters, tenacious ranunculus, and clusters of jewelweed with their little orange lanterns. Hardy mulleins stand like sentinels in the tasseled grass, and you’re enveloped in the hot, sweet smell of wild weeds coming into their own.
And then sometimes you come to the bottom of the hill and it’s all been mown down, flattened and carted away by the other people who spend their time on this road, and that’s worth enjoying, too. By proxy, I enjoy the hot, hectic industry of gathering grasses in to make ready for winter. I do enjoy the downhill, when I remember to.
It’s a good motto, “Enjoy the downhill.” Most people have hills and valleys in their life, times of struggle and times of rest — maybe not absolute rest, but at least times when gravity takes over for a while, when you can push less hard, breathe more easily, see more clearly.
When you’re on the downhill, maybe a child still has a chronic illness, but the current crisis has passed. Maybe there are still unresolved problems in the family dynamics, but there’s a temporary truce under your roof. Maybe the Lord has been coming at you with brilliance and heat, but then the downhill comes, and he retreats for a while and lets you be. Maybe things are just easier for a while. There are no pressing bills for once. You’re sleeping through the night. You’re making it through the week. It’s the downhill! It’s not the same as stopping and resting completely, but it’s still so good, so refreshing, if you can recognize that’s where you are.
But sometimes the struggle takes so much out of us, we forget to notice when the eases up. And next thing you know, that time is already past, and now you must start chugging upward again.
If you’re struggling right now, no one needs to point that out to you. You’ll know it when you’re on the uphill, when you have to push with everything you’ve got just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
But if you’re on the downhill, you may be in danger of missing it. So do look for it. Do enjoy it. Do relish the relief it gives, and do take the chance to loosen your muscles and bring extra air to your lungs. You know darn well you’re going to need it when the road starts to rise.
And do, oh do look for the wildflowers. See what has bloomed on its own while you were busy toiling elsewhere, and enjoy that, too. Not everything has to be done by your own two hands. There’s always something to enjoy, even if you didn’t make it yourself.
And remember, a life of nothing but existential downhill is hard on a person, too, just like physical downhills are. It’s understandable to envy people whose lives offer very little challenge, very few obstacles, but believe me: in a life like that, it takes a whole other set of muscles just to keep from tipping over. I have seen them tip over. And they never do get that sweet pleasure that comes with a reprieve.
Are you on a downhill? Can you loosen up, breathe better, see better, let yourself be carried for a bit? Take note, and enjoy! You know there are more hills to come.
Photo (color altered) by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash