Running into the tiny village of Guipry, in France’s Brittany district, on August 31, 2002, I was feeling pretty worn. It was the fourth long day of La Transe Gaule, an 18-day stage race across France. I’d run maybe 25 km already that morning, and had another 45 or so to go – a typical 70 km day. This was beginning to seem like a long race!
My low mood was not helped by the pretty town – as I loped along Rue de la Liberation, feeling sorry for myself, I was unmoved by the beautiful late summer weather – sunny but not hot, with a gentle breeze. I was aware that my pace was starting to lag from of my target pace, and it just seemed like too much work to pick it back up.
As I ran through the central square bells began ringing, and a wedding party poured out of the town’s small church. It was a lovely scene, but what flooded my consciousness was the ringing of the bells, which were heavenly. I felt my whole being lighten as they continued to chime, my heart suddenly opened, my step quickened. In a few seconds my whole mood shifted to pure joy. Running felt easy, almost effortless. I finished the stage easily.
In the ensuing days I had a lot of time out on the road to ponder this experience. I began to experiment with trying to re-create the effect that the bells had on me mentally, emotionally and physically. After a while I was able to see the connection between a feeling of openness in my heart, joy, and my physical performance. At the time I was mostly interested in this because of the clear, immediate and very positive influence on my pace.
It took me several years before I came to understand the true significance what had happened to me in France that day – that it was actually an awakening to a truer, deeper reality that exists beneath my normal perception of the world. This deeper truth is usually veiled by my preconceptions and beliefs.
In the next few years I did many more big runs and big adventures. In 2003, I was the first person to run the 223-mile John Muir Trail (from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite) in under 4 days. In 2004, my wife, Stephanie Ehret, and I set the current record (32h47m) for the 140-mile Kokopelli Trail in Colorado and Utah. In 2006, I was the first (and still only) person to run a true Double Hardrock – 200 miles on the course of the Hardrock Hundred (90h50m). During these adventures I continued to experience episodes where I opened into a different space, allowing more energy. What I wrote just after the Double Hardrock is a good example:
“Walking through the wide meadows above Pole Creek [183 miles into the run] I notice something gnawing at my chest. What is this? There is a softness here, tenderness. Sensing deeper, it is like an ocean of sweetness in my chest. Love. So many people came out to selflessly help me in my quest for the Double Hardrock. No one ever complained, they just did exactly what needed to be done. And, all these volunteers are here to help the runners achieve their dreams, no questions asked. No one says ‘Why?’ No one says these dreams are not worth it. The RD puts in hundreds of hours a year so we can be here in communion with the mountains, so we can challenge our limits and test ourselves to the core.”
“This feeling has grown deeper. There is a universal support, a loving, unconditional support for each and every one of us. I see that the true nature of the universe is tender and compassionate. All we have to do to experience this is open our hearts. There is no need to struggle and fuss. There is no need for fear. We are all one, and that oneness is beauty and love. As we talk, Stephanie feels it too.”
“We are at the Cunningham Gulch aid station [195 miles] before dark! I am astonished by our progress. I have surrendered completely to the loving support that is all around me, all around everyone and everything; it is the true nature of everything. And it’s time to do the last climb.”
“The day fades into night, and we ascend slowly into the inky blackness. Up and up, until it seems we will step into the stars. Finally, there is no more up. We pick our way across the saddle and down the often poor trail into Little Giant Basin. When we hit the jeep road we are ready to run. There is pain, but it is meaningless. There is nothing to do but run down the hill. That’s what we’re doing, that is what exists, and there is strength to do what need to be done. It all seems very ordinary, very calm and peaceful. There is nothing for the mind to do. There is no excitement or upwelling of emotion at the impending finish. Just run.”
There are many more examples from my own experience, and from published accounts by other adventurers. What seems to be common in these experiences is the feeling of “breaking through” a previously unperceived barrier, a sense of flow, ease, joy and freedom, and a perception of oneness. There is also a curious lack of emotionality which lends a quality of objectivity to the experience – these experiences are deeper than emotions. They are experiences of objective reality, unmediated by our emotions, thoughts, beliefs or interpretations. We perceive that there is a natural flow to the universe which is characterized by unconditional love and support, and we have somehow stepped into that flow and are being swept along by it. Our normal individual efforts are puny and useless compared to the vast, loving intelligence of this flow.
Can running help us get in touch with our deeper nature? I think it can and often does. Many times we miss the importance of these experiences, just taking them as some mysterious serendipity that will help us reach our goals (finishing a race, or whatever). But, I’ve found that with awareness these transcendent experiences can deepen, they can begin to affect our whole lives. Everything get easier, with a greater sense of flow, more spaciousness, and more joy.
After these serendipitous openings, I began intentionally engaged in practices that will elicit them. Awareness is one: I like to focus on sensing a strike point of my foot during each footfall (for me that’s the back of the ball of the foot, between the second and third toes). This builds awareness, and also improves my form. When I find myself lost in thought I gently return my attention to the foot strike, which brings my awareness back to the now.
Questioning is the other: For years I’ve asked, “Why do I run?” The answers may seem obvious at first, but as I’ve stayed open to the question, I have become in touch with deeper and deeper motivations. This in turn, has helped me align my running with a purer motivation, bringing more joy, satisfaction, and pleasure in the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.
Awareness and inquiry can be used in any aspect of our lives. When they are a part of our running, the occasional breakthrough moment can become a frequent occurrence.