Health

How Trail Walking Helped Me Find Hope and Heal My Grief

Driving home from dropping her boyfriend off at the airport, Samantha de la Vega wished she could get on a plane and fly off somewhere herself.

Between her high-stress tech job and raising three kids as a solo parent, she was feeling completely overwhelmed by life. And on top of it all, her younger sister had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. I feel like I’m sinking into a pit and can’t see a way out, Samantha sighed sadly. She thought about her boyfriend, an avid mountain climber, off on another exciting adventure. Not that she’d want to go mountain climbing, but his trip did get her thinking.

On the track team in high school, Samantha remembered how energized she’d always feel after a run out in the fresh air. The endorphins would kick in, and no matter what was going on in her life, she’d feel better. But it had been years since the 43-year-old had run. I’m too out of shape for that, she realized. Maybe I could start out walking and work up to running. I have to at least try, she decided.

There was a mile-long trail that looped through a park near her home in Portland, Oregon, and Samantha began taking daily 30-minute trail walks. She’d take in the smell of the dirt and trees around her, the sound of the stream running and birds chirping, and she’d instantly fill with a sense of calm.

In the months that followed, Samantha slowly increased her mileage and even began jogging part of the way. And as her endorphins flowed, she found herself feeling instantly happier, more energized and more grounded. Samantha’s solo time in nature became her salvation as her relationship ended and her sister’s illness eventually claimed her life. When she felt like all she wanted to do was curl up in a ball and cry, she’d hit the trail. By the time she returned home, she’d feel lighter, more at peace… more hopeful.

As years passed and she built endurance, Samantha began entering 5K and 10K races and participating in trail walking and running events. Competing gave her a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Today, 11 years after she first laced up her sneakers, Samantha, now 54, continues to reap the health benefits of trail walking. She is physically and emotionally stronger. She’s even lost some weight. She also enjoys the camaraderie of meeting other like-minded nature enthusiasts and the constant challenges presented by the rugged, uneven and sometimes steep trails.

“Early on, I’d see people speeding by, looking like they didn’t have a care in the world, while I struggled to catch my breath. I’d wonder, How did they do it? But once I put my mind to something, I don’t give up. And over time, I became stronger,” Samantha says. “I can’t think of a better way to de-stress, whether it’s from daily pressures or major life challenges like heartbreak and loss, than being out in nature. It gives me a sense of freedom and makes me feel empowered!”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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