Back to the Canyon

imageWhen sunlight first creeps in and reveals the high rock walls streaked with color like gigantic shards of painted Indian pottery, and the wind-sculpted rock formations towering overhead, you know you are in a special place.  I fell in love with Palo Duro Canyon the first time I ran in it, a 50K several years ago – followed by another 50K the following year, and capped by a 50-miler the year after that.

But it wasn’t just the incredible scenery that drew me back.  The people who ran the Palo Duro trail races genuinely love the canyon and the people who run it.  The legendary, larger-than-life Red Spicer, race director for many years until he passed away, stood grinning ear-to-ear in jeans and a cowboy hat at the spot where the 50K and 50 mile courses split, shaking the hand of every runner who passed by and wishing every one good luck.  And there were the “Dos Locos Senoritas” who ran one of the aid stations, their cheerful laughter echoing off the canyon walls.  You were lured in by the scenery, and you came back for the people.

After more years than I care to think about, I’ll be going back to the canyon this October for my first race in four years:  the 20K, one loop of that marvelous canyon floor.  My body seems to be craving more work at the moment – a sort of personal Indian summer, I guess – and I’m happy to oblige for as long as it lasts.

I hope to run a few more trail half marathons in other extraordinary locations after Palo Duro, but for now, all focus is on getting back to the canyon.  One of my other favorite memories is lying on the hood of my car near the start of my first Palo Duro 50K, watching bits and pieces of the cosmos streak by overhead in a sky rich with stars.  Before, during, and after the race, there is no other corner of the universe quite like it.  I’m looking forward to going one more time.


In a recent New Yorker cartoon, Gretel says to Hansel as they stand outside a gingerbread house: “Let’s see if there’s another witch’s cottage with a better candy selection.” I have fit people in running shoes that swaddled their feet as naturally as a second skin – only to see them limp out of the store as they limped in, all because we were out of the purple and grey. Choice is the opposite of freedom. It is the enslaver, the procrastinator, the paralyzer. When we simply work with what’s in front of us, we can finally declare independence from our global marketing overlords, and our minds and lives can run free. Three of the most liberating words in the English language are “This will do.”

Always Wandering, Always Running

Three friends are embarking on big adventures by foot this weekend.  The college-age sons of our long-time neighbors are taking time out from school and job searching to hike from Seattle to Mexico on the fabled Pacific Crest Trail.  They’re Eagle Scouts and have been preparing for this at the level of the Apollo moon landings.  You can follow their adventures from now until November on their blog, “Always Wandering.”  And friend Karen Bonnett, six days after marrying friend Nattu Natraj, will toe the formidable starting line of the Western States Endurance Run – 100 grueling miles of high-altitude mountain trail running, one of the world’s toughest ultramarathons.  As the ancient Zen master Dogen wrote, “Although mountains belong to the nation, mountains belong to the people who love them.”  May you carry the mountains as treasures, walk with them as friends, and rest at trail’s end in peace and safety.

Postscript:  The guys are off on their 2650-mile odyssey south, and Karen walked tall with the mountains, finishing in less than 30 hours. 

Pied Pipers

imageWe were hiking up the side of a mountain to get to the wedding when it struck me:  who were all these people happily following a rocky singletrack trail to an unknown location, and why were they coming?

At least I knew why I was coming.  I had met the groom, Nattu, many years ago on an online running forum.  He was an ultramarathoner – someone who runs distances longer than the traditional 26.2 mile marathon, usually either 50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers, or 100 miles – and sometimes even longer.  I was intrigued by the posts about his adventures, and I became interested in attempting an ultra myself.

I bombarded Nattu with questions.  He was gracious in his replies, and both generous and encouraging with his advice and information.  On our family vacations to Boulder, CO, where Nattu lived at the time, I had the opportunity to meet him and run with him on trails.  As I recently told my wife Carol, there is something enjoyable about being around Nattu that is hard to describe, a happy, positive presence.  His enthusiasm for trail running and ultramarathoning drew me in.

And so began a roughly five year odyssey which took me on trails all over the United States.  Ultramarathons were far out of my comfort zone, and I don’t know if I could say I was ever entirely one with them, but I found them compelling largely because they were so different from what I had grown used to:  the epic distances, the beautiful wilderness locations far removed from my urban home.  And they tapped into something elemental in me from my earliest childhood camping trips:  the excitement, even to the point of risking my parents’ wrath when I strayed too far, of following a winding trail to places unknown.

Ultramarathons also reminded me of participating in sesshins, those multi-day Zen practice periods of intensive stillness and silence where I first realized, through sitting and staring at a wall for long periods of time, what a merry chase our mind and emotions lead us on every minute of the day.  You can run the full gamut of emotions in ultramarathons and sesshins, from despairing boredom to pain to joy and back again, and hopefully along the way you learn at least a little about the things that make you tick – and maybe something of how to accept and cope with them.

Nattu continued to be an excellent mentor and, especially after I had met him in person, a friend.  I and others helped pace him through 120-degree heat in Death Valley for his second successful attempt at the Badwater 135, and he sat all night in freezing cold, mummied in a sleeping bag, to shepherd me through my first 24-hour race.

While helping crew Nattu at Badwater I met his now-wife Karen, a highly accomplished ultra athlete in her own right, and I was impressed by her intensity and focus, her ability to help motivate Nattu to work through his pain and fatigue.  What they have already experienced together in their ultramarathoning adventures – learning to accept and adapt swiftly to sudden and unexpected changes of fortune, navigating rapidly whirling events and emotions – would easily fill several lifetimes of marriage for most people.

After a beautiful mountainside wedding just off the trail, a small clearing dotted with yellow wildflowers, my wife and I were hiking back with everyone to the reception.  We began asking others:  how do you know Nattu and Karen?  And their stories sounded, not surprisingly, very similar to mine.  Nearly everyone had been wishing they could do something:  run trails, work better with the weight machines at their gym, somehow improve themselves or broaden their horizons a bit.  Nattu and Karen welcomed their questions, shared their advice and enthusiasm, and soon each person found themselves doing something he or she had never done before.

At the reception, it happened almost without me realizing it.  Nattu and I began talking, first about family and friends, and then of course running and trails slipped into the conversation.  Nattu, in that quietly subversive way of his, encouraged me to check out the Pacific Crest Trail, just about 10 miles up the road.  The next morning Carol and I left for the airport a little earlier than planned to go find the Trail.

We only walked about a quarter of a mile on it, but at one point I stood on a rocky ledge looking across the mountains and I understood what I had to do.  I did manage to wait a day, but I messaged Nattu, and as of now we’re tentatively planning a 2-3 day hike on a section of the PCT next June.  They did it again.  Nattu and Karen, a couple of modern-day pied pipers, leading us to someplace surprising, yet somewhere we had always wanted to be.

Training Break #1

Sometimes when I would complain unreasonably, my father would say, “You’re lucky to be alive.” I thought the old man was just rehashing his aphorisms.  Now after studying a bit of biology, I see his point.  You are indeed lucky to be alive. Moreover, you’re incredibly fortunate to find yourself in a made-to-order dojo with a splendid teacher.  Now the ball is in your court.

Robert Aitken, Miniatures of a Zen Master

Rest Easy

If running is the bright happy playground, then rest is often seen as the shunned, shuttered house on the distant hill, a last-ditch asylum for the aged and injured.  But rest completes running, makes it whole.  Regularly scheduled rest is the salt to running’s pepper, the yin to its yang.  Running can’t happen without stillness to heal aching muscles and numb spirits.  Sitting in zazen prepares us for a more intimate and energetic connection with our daily lives; rest restores our hunger and capacity for running – transforming it from dutiful labor to enjoyment and enrichment. Which in turn creates that deeply satisfactory, bone-filling tiredness that transforms mere sitting or laying down into true rest.  Or, as Old Man Dogen might have put it had he laced up a pair of Mizunos, running is resting, and resting is running.

Baggage Claim

At least once a week, one of the customers visiting the running store where I work confides, “I used to run, but my knees …” The sentence usually ends there.  I realize there are many people struggling with things they can do little or nothing to avoid.  I also know some people are simply more prone to take on a lot of karmic baggage, be it “my knees” or “those damned Democrats/Republicans” or “my stubborn parents” or “this lame job”.  Our mission, if we have one at all, is to become aware of the differences between what we really have to carry and perverse tradition.  Sitting can help with unpacking and sorting it out.  Running can, too.  But nothing has a prayer of helping until we make a very conscious decision to relax our grip.  It’s often less about what we carry, and more about how tightly we’re holding it.