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Featured Friend: The Deep End by Stefanie Shumaker

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

Trail Runner, Hospice Chaplain, CEO/Clothing Designer at Ambatana Threads

On a regular basis people ask me why I spend so much time in nature…why I choose to run up and down mountain trails instead of taking to the flat, smooth roads. Today I set out on one of my favorite trails for a solo hike/run, my thoughts consumed by the difficult conversations I’ve had with patients and families over the last few days. At some point during my adventure, it suddenly hit me…my love for running in the mountains is similar to my love for deeper human connection. I know. Mountain running and people…the correlation might seem a little crazy, but in my mind it makes sense. Well, at least I’m going to try and make sense of it…

When I started working as a hospice chaplain three years ago, I had no idea how messy and painful and beautiful and rewarding it would be to journey with patients and families through the dying process. Since the death of my mom 14 years ago, I’ve been more drawn to the deeper stories of people. And maybe because of my openness to their stories, people who are working through loss or brokenness and something difficult in their lives, always seem to find their way to me…as though I’m a magnet for the hard stuff. I’ve had an endless amount of encounters with persons of all ages in some of the most random places and situations (even a bar in Nashville on New Year’s Eve). Let’s just say it’s a good thing that I’m calm, flexible and have a good sense of humor! In these extended or brief interactions with people, I’ve heard anything from “I never trust anyone but I feel like I can be open and share with you” or “I don’t know why I’m crying…I never do that” to “I feel like you’re really hearing me”…even in our first and sometimes only exchange. And with each encounter I find myself offering a similar reply, “Yep, I know…it’s something about my nature…this sort of thing happens with me all the time.”

I’m open to the deeper stuff…so, people tell me about their deeper stuff.

Sometimes it feels like a blessing and a curse. I get to experience the most gritty, real and honest parts of a person. Then there are days, like today, when I’m a little worn out by those secrets and burdens and feelings that have been expressed to me. Friday I listened to a cancer patient recount her experiences of sexual abuse. Saturday I had to look into the tear-stained faces of an Armenian family, after hearing about their struggle as refugees and the strength they’ve found in being a tight-knit family, and encourage them to let go of their 85 year old mother who is ready to die. Sunday I met with a grieving family concerned about their nine year old who discovered her dead grandfather a couple weeks ago, and I watched this sweet girl shed tears while telling her parents she doesn’t want to talk about it. That was a lot for one weekend, and only a few of my work encounters. When I toss in conversations with family and friends, or the strangers at the coffee shop and grocery store, the burden is quite heavy. I will admit…it feels like too much at times.

But there are so many blessings in these deep connections.

Knowing the deeper parts of someone’s story lends me the opportunity to offer words of hope, to encourage a person to take steps forward in healing…to let go of the past and move toward to a place of peace. The gains people make in their lives after being vulnerable and digging deeper into themselves….that’s the part I love to witness, the reward…the assurance that the struggle was worth it. I see it as a privilege and honor to be the keeper of someone’s story. And I learn so much about myself and about life through these deep encounters.

I think that’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with mountain trail running. I love growing through the struggle. For me, running has always been my first-choice form of exercise…an opportunity for solitude…therapy for my soul. I love it. Always have, always will. Two years ago I switched over to trail running, and just one year ago I entered the world of ultra racing. My love for nature and untouched beauty beckoned me to the trails. But it’s the grit and challenge, the not-so-pretty moments that require you to “dig deep”….that is why I’m drawn to the crazy mountain races.

With every ultra race, I seem to uncover another layer of myself. The tough physical and mental battle leads to self-discovery and growth. And I seem to keep wanting more of it, which is why I registered for a 100 mile trail race in September. Yikes!!

Mountain running and people…my love for each is similar in that I’m drawn to vulnerability that leads to growth. There is so much to gain in the depths! But, I have to be honest…there is some pain in it for me. Pain in an ultra race….now that’s a given. But I’m talking about the pain that comes with human interaction…the pain I experience in the comings and goings of these people that I grow to care about along the way. Letting go of people is something I’ve never been good at. This is probably why I cling to trail running and solitude…it’s my place to process these stories and my own life, but it’s also a constant in my life. Trail running is the thing that will be there unless I choose to let go of it. I get a choice when it comes to running.

But it’s different with people….I don’t always get to choose. People pop in and out of my life, and that’s hard. Most of the time I feel like I’m hanging out in the deep end of a pool, sometimes in the company of others and sometimes alone…people swim over for awhile from the shallow end before eventually making their return, or dive in from the side and climb out just as quickly as they jumped in. Letting go of people is hard. I’m learning to accept the reality that hospice families, strangers, acquaintances, and friends will always be bouncing in and out of my life.

It’s ok. I know that depth…all the time…isn’t for everyone. But it is for me. I guess it’s where I’ve become most comfortable. When it comes to me and trail running or people, I’m all in…committed, reflective, deep, embracing of challenge, open to the messy-ness, always seeking growth. Whether people come and go, or hang with me in the depths for awhile, I’ve developed an overflowing amount of joy and gratitude for our beautiful encounters.

And even as I let some of them go, I’m certain each story will always hold a special place in my heart.

Mountain running and people…that’s what I’ve been pondering today. Thanks for listening.

Follow Stefanie on Instagram @peacefulwildshu.


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