Miles of Processing

British Columbia is, arguably, the greatest running destination in the world.

British Columbia is, arguably, the greatest running destination in the world.


Originally submitted as part of research through Graduate Program at MSU Mankato

Miles of Processing:
Using Running as a Form of Therapy

The first three miles are the toughest. It is a struggle to get into the right rhythm; connecting my breathing with my stride takes patience and understanding. For those first three miles, it is a delicate increase to a harmonious crescendo – a perfect connection between my physical strength and mental acuity. Sometimes, three miles is more than enough. Not because I’m winded or tired or too lazy to continue, but because my brain reaches the capacity for which it can reassess ruminations seemingly at a point I am incapable of controlling. Sometimes that crescendo of understanding comes much later— maybe six or seven miles in—but when I do approach that desired bout of clarity, I can feel a substantial shift in my overall demeanor. I call these mini-epiphany reaching sessions my Processing Miles, or PM’s.

            A crucial ingredient to the success of PM’s is the environment. I have never been able to find solace in running inside, whether on a treadmill or an indoor track. The most important part of running, for me, is the connection with nature. Living in a rural area allows me the unbeatable luxury of running endless country roads lined with oversized birch trees, sweeping meadows and endless acres of farmland. The surrounding scenery plays an integral part in my pursuit of running, as it directly affects my ability to relieve stress.

            In this instance, running is my own personal form of restoration due to my ability to get away from distractions and focus on one important thing in that moment. To participate in this experience, I must engage in a subconscious practice of moving on from what Kaplan (1995) refers to as “directed attention fatigue” (p. 170). Essentially, the idea is that from an evolutionary standpoint, humans were not designed to withstand attention to one singular detail or project for a long period of time. In retaliation, we have become susceptible to inevitable mental fatigue. As Kaplan suggests, “All too often the modern human must exert effort to do the important while resisting distraction from the interesting” (Kaplan, 1995, p. 170).

This is a wildly modern conundrum, as it is a relatively recent problem (recent as in the past few hundred years) to have to divert our attention to anything other than staying alive. Thus, directed attention fatigue can result in severe consequences within someone’s life or work or both and the understanding of the need for restoration is ever important. Kaplan (1995) suggests four key components to a restorative environment is that it must be far away, fascinating, extensive, and adequate compatibility between the environment and one’s purpose (p. 173). Most notably, the research suggests, “Experience in natural environments can not only help mitigate stress; it can also prevent it through aiding in the recovery of this essential resource” (Kaplan, 1995, p. 180).

While we do our best to avoid stress, it is inevitable. Nature is an incredible resource available to aid in stress relief, as shown by extensive research and, in my case, personal experience. Running has become a form of therapy for me as it gives me the opportunity to reframe problems by means of exercise and extensive time outdoors. I have found, however, that my PM’s have been more valuable in rural areas due to the ability to disconnect from modern luxuries and distractions. This is not uncommon, as research regarding restoration within nature has shown that “…recuperation was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to the natural settings rather than the various urban environments” (Ulrich et al., 1991, p. 222).

It is interesting that the profound benefits of nature for restorative purposes seem so obvious to me. I rarely question the importance of natural settings as a crucial quality for stress relief because my experience proves it to be beneficial. An important factor to this process, as Kaplan points out, is fascination. The beauty of natural settings is that it offers reprieve from overwhelming stimuli such as car horns, bright city lights, or external conversations. Objects in nature offer a fascination that is more manageable in the background and, unlike harsh light or dramatic noise in urban environments, allows us to focus on other things while engulfed in this environment. Kaplan summarizes this phenomenon as a critical component to a restorative environment:

“Many of the fascinations afforded by the natural setting qualify as “soft” fascinations: clouds, sunsets, snow patterns, the motion of the leaves in the breeze—these readily hold the attention, but in an undramatic fashion” (Kaplan, 1995, p. 174).

Interacting with these natural fascination patterns requires no effort, thus creating an environment for the mind to wander freely and return to a state of positivity. In researching the reactions to natural environments after a form of stress, it was discovered “Findings were consistent with the predictions of the psycho-evolutionary theory that restorative influences of nature involve a shift towards a more positively-toned emotional state” (Ulrich et al., 1991, p. 201). Our society tends to favor the idea of overworking, and with the prevalence of exhausted professionals, spending time in nature is more important than ever to aid in the return to a manageable, positive state of mind.

It stands to reason, then, that this process happening within nature in response to stressful situations can (and should) be applied to various professional settings with high instances of stress and overwhelming directed attention fatigue. Interesting findings have shown, in a healthcare setting for example, that “Instead of providing televisions in these spaces, the research evidence demonstrates that a nature intervention would be significantly more beneficial” (Sullivan & Kaplan, 2015, p. 8). If you think about it as a never-ending cycle, the benefits of nature starting in the healthcare setting could set off a domino effect to the rest of the world in which we live and work. As patients heal faster and with a more positive mindset, healthcare workers are happier, facilities are less stressful environments and healed patients are quicker to return to their industries with a more positive mindset, allowing for the cycle to continue to companions and consumers and so forth. It seems abstract, but the benefits of nature are all encompassing.

There are so many different ways to experience the stress-relieving benefits of nature. For me, running outside has become the most useful form of therapy as it allows me to break away from a hectic lifestyle, focus in on important thoughts, and utilize a distraction-free environment to restore my sanity. I find the best solutions to problems come after those initial few miles—when my body is in sync with the wind, fresh air, and chirping of birds in the distance—and my thoughts have the ability to detach from the day and rearrange.


Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology,15(3), 169-182. doi:10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2

Sullivan, W. C., & Kaplan, R. (2015). Nature! Small steps that can make a big difference. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal,9(2), 6-10. doi:10.1177/1937586715623664

Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology,11(3), 201-230. doi:10.1016/s0272-4944(05)80184-7

Clarity From The Outside In

Originally submitted as part of research for M.S. Grad program through MSU Mankato, 2019.

The French Valley, Torres del Paine Nat’l Park, Patagonia, Chile

The French Valley, Torres del Paine Nat’l Park, Patagonia, Chile


Finding Clarity: Lessons in Emotional Understanding by Way of Patagonia

        One hour before we were supposed to board the bus to take us to our starting point for a week long trek through Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile, we received a call from my husband’s mother. Tim’s aunt, Jackie, had lost her decades-long battle with breast cancer. It was a devastating moment, and our hearts grew increasingly heavy as we were forced to carry this overwhelming sadness from the very beginning of our hiking trip. Jackie was Tim’s biggest fan, and by sheer proximity, mine as well. She was the most supportive of us even through her struggles, and she was always inspired by our willingness to jump into unfamiliar adventure territory (like trekking through the mountains of Chile).

        Our hike through Patagonia was deemed a “bucket list” item from the very beginning. We spent months planning, researching, packing, and dreaming of the trail that would (hopefully) provide us with reprieve from our over stimulating lifestyle. This trip was a chance for us to clear our minds and connect with unfamiliar and, quite frankly, intimidating terrain. What we didn’t realize was that this emotional curveball would hit us so hard that it would be the driving force for an exploration in where and how we seek out mental clarity. Death often provides an unexpected learning experience. Add in the highs and lows of time spent in the wilderness and the experience becomes a cinematic reel of overwhelming emotional and internal awakening.

       My own personal desire to connect with the outdoors has long been something stronger than the need for a quick walk through the local park. Sigurd Olson captured this feeling when he wrote, “For [some], the out-of-doors is not enough; nor are the delights of meditation. They need the sense of actual struggle and accomplishment, where the odds are real and where they know that they are no longer playing make-believe. These men need more than picnics, purling streams, or fields of daffodils to stifle their discontent, more than mere solitude and contemplation to give them peace” (Olson, 2006, p. 7-8). Trips to distant places like Patagonia instinctively ignite a sense of calm for me. With the death of Jackie looming over us, every step was heavier; every overlook seemed more majestic and meaningful. We were alive and really living. We weren’t glued to our phones while walking through a fenced-off city park. Rather, the intensity of this trek provided a sense of humbling pride we couldn’t find elsewhere. This human-nature interaction we experienced taught both of us the value of giving wilderness the respect it deserves. I felt a connection—physically and spiritually—to this place I had never been before and amidst the struggle, I discovered a profound need to protect it. My time in this new place made me so grateful to be able to visit and, simultaneously, unclear as to what had to happen on this land for me to be able to access it. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my emotional confusion was due in part to a lack of what Robin Wall Kimmerer referred to as Traditional ecological Knowledge (TEK).

TEK is comprised of the understanding of indigenous and local peoples and their philosophies/relationships with the earth (Kimmerer, 2012, p.317). According to Kimmerer’s research, TEK is widely omitted in the traditional science classroom, depriving the next generations of potential ecological scientists the understanding of diverse epistemologies. He argued, “TEK, which is inherently integrative of social and biophysical processes, offers an alternative to the dominant materialist worldview which conceptually separates people from nature and instead focuses on the understanding and managing relationships between land and people for mutual benefit” (Kimmerer, p. 317).

Essentially, Kimmerer is making the point that we can’t achieve sustainability without the proper cultural awareness and understanding. He argued, “We are surrounded by the aftermath of wounds we have inflicted on the earth. We need to recognize that it is not the land which is broken, but our relationship with the land. Cultivating a relationship with the living earth should be an essential component of higher education” (Kimmerer, p. 318).  

I am willing to admit that my trip to Patagonia was intended for my own selfish pleasure. The understanding of how Torres del Paine National Park (or Patagonia as a whole) came to be was not a particular priority in my early stage research, but rather an anecdote surfaced during a question and answer session with an outfitter in the small town of Punta Arenas. Patagonia’s livelihood has drastically changed over the years due to reliance on tourism as a major industry – a far stretch from its beginnings as a hub for only the hardiest of farmers (Díaz & Webb, 2018). As more people seek unique opportunities for human-nature connection, Patagonia is quick to answer with stunning untouched glaciers and towering rocky peaks unlike any other mountain range in the world. The trail is harsh and unforgiving, and we were often warned of the serious dangers and unrelenting changes in altitude. Through all of the warnings, we survived high winds and negative temperatures; sudden waves of heat followed by hours-long streaks of persistent rain. Whenever the natural world of Patagonia tried to surprise us, we challenged back with unwavering fortitude.

I tell this story often. Not to gloat, but to encourage others to seek out the sensation of experiencing the wilderness for what it is really worth: an opportunity to interact with an area that is messy, dirty, and unpredictable. Resiliency was Jackie’s superpower. She fought cancer head-on with true grace and positivity. Our trip through Patagonia became a silent salute to the woman Jackie was – fearless, strong, and endlessly optimistic. I tell this story because our relationship with nature changed drastically during this trip, as we found ourselves connecting our physical world with our spiritual world in ways we had never dreamed possible. A recent study recounted the many benefits of Nature Language and it’s impression on our interactions with the natural world. Kahn, et al. wrote, “…we think language needs to be used to articulate, save, and recover the human relationship with nature. That language–what we are calling a nature language—needs to focus not just on nature “out there,”…but in meaningful and deep forms of interactions people have with the natural world” (Kahn, et al., 2010 p. 64). The importance of our relationship with nature is that it connects us to our world as a living species. The patterns we experience such as listening to the waves crash against the beach or the sound of wind sweeping through a glacial valley will all but be lost as generations are not exposed to such natural phenomenon.

The mental clarity encountered on a long hiking trip like ours cannot be bottled up and sold online. I cannot recreate the feeling of waking up absurdly early and hiking to the top of Torres del Paine – only to be greeted by one of the most stunning multi-colored sunrises dancing across the snow-capped peaks. While many people consider us lucky to have experienced such a rare sunrise, we know deep down that the land we fell in love with and felt instantaneously connected to was reciprocating its gratitude.


Díaz, Emilio Fernando Gonzalez, and Kempton E. Webb. “Patagonia.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 26 Oct. 2018,

Kahn, Peter H., et al. “A Nature Language: An Agenda to Catalog, Save, and Recover Patterns of Human–Nature Interaction.” Ecopsychology, vol. 2, no. 2, 2010, pp. 59–66., doi:10.1089/eco.2009.0047.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. “Searching for Synergy: Integrating Traditional and Scientific Ecological Knowledge in Environmental Science Education.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, vol. 2, no. 4, 2012, pp. 317–323., doi:10.1007/s13412-012-0091-y.

Olson, S. “Why Wilderness?” The View From Listening Point Newsletter, vol. VIII, no. 4, Fall/Winter 2006. Retrieved from

Fotos de la Patagonia