“The stillness in stillness is not the real stillness; only when there is stillness in movement does the universal rhythm manifest.” – Bruce Lee
“Destiny is saying yes to the calling we’re born with; while fate is what happens when we fight or ignore our calling.”
– Alberto Villoldo
Ever since Randy Whorton, a friend who lives in Chattanooga but grew up in Boulder, told me about his favorite run I have been intent upon doing it. As he describes it you start at the South Mesa trailhead near Eldorado Springs, run over to and up Bear Peak, down the backside and over to the summit of Green Mountain, down the north side of Green and up Flagstaff Mountain, then down to Pioneer Park, over to the base of Mt. Sanitas, to the summit, then down the frontside and run along the front of the mountains, through Boulder and along the Mesa Trail, all the way back to where you started. It has been on my mind for a few weeks now and as I described it to a friend over beers while standing around waiting for a table at the Mountain Sun, the woman next to me overheard and said, “That’s a great one, I’ve always heard it described as the ‘Boulder Skyline.'” And so it is…
I set out alone to do this run on an unseasonably warm Sunday morning, my last in Colorado before the impending trip. The weather was great for deciding what to wear – I was comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt all day – but unfortunately wreaked havoc on the trail conditions, which were mostly ankle deep slush, mud, and standing puddles. It was laughable how silly it felt to be running through such slush, but within a couple miles it was obvious that taking any attitude but that of a little child would just make for a grumpy day. I spent most of the day just stomping through the muck and mud, ignoring the cold water I splashed all over myself, smiling all the way. At about mile three I tripped on a hidden rock and took a spill into a puddle, splashing mud all over my shirt and face, and the transformation to naughty, innocent child was complete.
The last month or so of my life has been very full. Full of trying to tick everything off of the massive to-do list. Full of jumping though hoops and filling out paperwork. Full of re-organizing my business so I can maintain it while traveling, and making sure that many important things will still happen while I am gone. Full of hanging out with friends and spending far too much money drinking and dining. Full of reading, writing, and dreaming. But not nearly full enough of running, and especially not full enough of suffering while running, the kind of suffering that can only take place while running distances which most people think are much too far, and usually up and over many mountains along the way. I’m not sure why I’m drawn to this type of activity, but why ask why? As long as a smile still makes its way through the agony, then of course it is worthwhile. Since I got hooked on this “fun,” I notice that about every month or so I manage to forget the pain of the last long run and get in a bit over my head planning the next outing…
Without doing any concrete research whatsoever I thought this run would be about 20 miles, which I consider to be fairly manageable in about four hours. Maybe you can see where this is going… Regardless, I didn’t bring a headlamp, very much water, or nearly enough food for anything longer than that. I also didn’t start till almost noon. Were any of these decisions wise? Probably not. Did they contribute to my eventual suffering? Of course. But I’ll get to that in a little bit…
At about mile four I huffed my way up the Fern Canyon trail as it steeply ascended Bear Peak (the Shadow Canyon trail was closed). My mind finally settled down enough to contemplate the above quote by Bruce Lee, “…only when there is stillness in movement does the universal rhythm manifest.” It had popped up on Facebook sometime in the last week, and by giving it a mere moment of thought, I didn’t really understand what it meant. I did understand that it was probably cool, after all it included movement and had the word manifest in it, so I decided I would contemplate it the next time that I was actually moving, on my next run. That time was now, and as I considered it I realized he was talking about the mental stillness that comes with meditation, the mental skill of total silence, the lack of thought and the lack of the need for thought. Pure awareness, pure being; that is the stillness. And he was making reference to the fact that most people seeking this stillness find it by being utterly still, literally while sitting cross-legged on a cushion. But Bruce Lee was talking about the Universal Rhythm, which I can’t pretend I understand or have noticed experiencing, but which I interpreted to mean something along the lines of action happening through you, rather than you enacting an action. Action performed without thought or intent, just done, automatically, and perfectly… Cool! Tapping into the Universal Rhythm is certainly how I want to run!
I set about trying to create the stillness in my mind as I continued my ascent up Bear Peak, now power hiking rather than running up the steep and slippery packed snow on the final ridge. It sometimes seemed that maybe I managed a step or two here or there without thought or distraction, but would then inevitably catch myself thinking again, often times about how I was thinking. This stillness was elusive! Maybe it was because the angle of the mountain had relegated me to a pace which was almost still, maybe I wasn’t moving fast enough. Or maybe I just need much much more practice. Regardless, deep in thought (stop thinking!) I reached my favorite part of the mountain, the last couple hundred feet, where the trees end and the ridge you have been ascending tightens into a dramatic fin of jumbled, but low angle, rock. I love balancing right on the edge, jumping from rock to rock while trying to maintain my balance, placing my feet carefully and perfectly on the little holds, channeling my inner billy goat. When the wind is howling like it was this day this task becomes extra difficult, and extra fun. One with nature, with life, one love.
A quick break for a snack and pictures on the summit and it was off down the West Ridge trail, heading away from Boulder and towards Green Mountain. The deep snow had made finding the trail impossible for whoever had broken this foot trench after the most recent storm, as as such the “trail” went slip sliding nearly straight down through ghosts of Ponderosa Pines, burned last July by a lightning fire. As the angle of the ridge eased, the trail became more navigable. I gained momentum and came to the realization that the stillness was much easier to find while running downhill than up. Running down a steep rocky mountainside, you let the force of gravity act upon you, and try not to waste too much effort holding yourself back. You flow, doing whatever you can to not end up on your face in the rocks or on a cactus, but also acting without fear. Things happen quickly, your feet must be light, and your focus is unwavering, already three or four footsteps into the future. Here there is not time for thought, only action, and I began to understand the stillness, and perhaps something of the Rhythm. It was impossible not to smile! Big smile!
And then it was over, I was down to Bear Creek and from here the Green-Bear trail went up, switchbacking its way up the west side of Green Mountain. The rhythm was different, the pace had changed for the slower, the breathing became heavy, and I found my brain wandering again, unable to channel the stillness I sought, chattering. I decided to go with it and found myself contemplating Destiny. Recently I have been reading a really crazy book by Alberto Villoldo called, “Mending the Past and Healing the Future with Soul Retrieval.” I owe my friend Jonas again for lending it to me. It delves into Shamanism, taking creative visualization “Journies” to different planes of existence – the underworld of our souls and the upper worlds of our spirit – things traditionally attempted by primitive peoples in south america influenced by the amazonian drug ayahuasca. The idea of the whole process of Journeying is to heal ourselves, heal our souls, and to understand the potential of our future selves in a way that will inform and enable our present selves to act in the best possible ways. It is without a doubt an esoteric form of meditation that few people in this country would be open enough to read or use. But Villoldo brings up a lot of very interesting concepts to ponder, and one which had caught my fancy was regarding fate versus destiny. He does not think that they are in any way the same thing.
According to Villoldo, each of us is born with a true calling, a purpose which we were each meant to do, an activity or skill which we are meant to spend our lives fulfilling. To follow this calling is to follow our Destiny, and if we manage to do so, we will lead the greatest and happiest of lives, and our soul will not be plagued in the future with troubling karma, but will transcend to the highest planes. But the catch is that most of us do not find this calling, or if we stumble upon it we choose not to heed it, for any number if different reasons. And if this is the life that we end up living, one in which we do not follow what we were called here to do, then that is the life to which we are “fated.” Obviously he believes that this is an existence that will be much less rewarding than the alternative. You do not want to have your fate control you, you would much rather be free to follow your own special Destiny. But of course, to do that you have to know what your calling is.
I pondered my calling as I plodded away, step by step, up the snowy trail. Do I know what my calling in this life is? No. Have I been exposed to my calling? Is it something that I am already practicing, something that I am good at, and I just don’t realize it? Possibly, who knows. Not me. I thought about this a bit and revised my goals slightly for my upcoming journey. I decided that I would make it a point of finding my calling, so that I can follow my Destiny. We are all meant to follow our destinies, and as I questioned – who, the air? the divine? myself? – whether I would be able to find my true calling or not, suddenly I noticed my shadow beneath my feet, and I turned around and looked up into the sky at the sun, which had at that very moment poked its face out from behind the bank of lenticular clouds hiding it all day. It greeted me and shown brilliantly down around me. I took that as a positive omen, and smiled even wider! What a magical day!
The rest of the run proceeded fairly normally – from the standpoint of revelatory epiphanies. But it was still a blast. On top of Green Mountain I enjoyed the warm wind blasting me in the face, and on the crazy careening charge down the E.M. Greenman trail I again slipped into fleeting seconds of the elusive stillness. By the time I reached the lower altitude where I crossed Flagstaff Road the air had warmed enough that the ankle slush was in full effect, but I just splashed through it to the summit of Flagstaff, which I found by veering a short ways off the Ute Trail. Down the frontside on the Flagstaff trail things got about as ridiculous as they could, tromping through deep muddy puddles, channelling my inner black lab. I still had a smile on my face as I made my way across Canyon Blvd. in Boulder and cruised over the small hill of Pioneer Park to the base of Mt. Sanitas. Fully exposed to the southern sun, Sanitas was joyously dry of all snow. As I looked up at the long ridge stretching away I saw a couple of dudes running and made the decision that as the last peak of the day, I needed to run up this one as well.
I set off charging, but only made it about half way to the top before I succumbed to the lung-busting, back-aching, dead-legged, under-nourished, almost out of water tiredness and looked down at my gps watch. 16 miles traveled already, and still heading out. Uh-oh. Blasting through the end of my depleted glycogen reserves while still on the way out of what was obviously going to be waay longer than a 20 mile run may not have been a good idea. I slogged away to the top, passing a couple of small kids along the way – still got it! On top I looked back towards where my car was parked in the not even visible distance, a moment captured in the photo below.
The girls who took this photo probably thought I looked like an idiot all decked out in my “ultra” running gear, calf sleeves and all, as they were wearing snow boots and warm jackets. But they liked my new tattoo on my arm (ONE Love), so that gave me something else to smile about as I stumbled my way down the steep frontside trail and tried to keep my stride fluid and open as I pounded downward. The familiar pain was setting in, the back pain, the glutes burning, debating whether to cramp up and really make this miserable, the ankles protesting, the stiffness, rigor mortis, giving up and allowing my bones to absorb the jolting shock of every footfall, all my muscles laughing at the idea of channeling a gazelle, or mountain goat, or any other cool power animal to help me get through this. But I have been here before…
After jogging up the huge hill of 6th Street, not at a pace that any normal person couldn’t maintain while walking and talking, but jogging none-the-less, I ate my last bite of gel and drank my last sip of water. At Chataqua I was too tired to be even consider filling my water bladder from the faucets there, not sure why. I tried to manifest my cell-phone into my hands so I could call a friend, anyone, to bail me out and give me a ride back to my car, but alas, the force was not with me. The phone remained where I had left it in the car, only 6.5 slushy miles away. There was no hope of running the hills anymore, even walking uphill was not really a pleasant experience. Mantras became my best friend. Repeated, unendingly, over and over.
These are those special miles which define a good long run. These are the miles which don’t make sense to many people, or any people. They don’t make any sense to me, especially while I am experiencing them. But they are the part of the long run that is truly unique, that you just don’t get if you stop before you are in pain. Making your body move through these miles there is no reality but the present. You are way too tired to do any of that fancy contemplation that occupied the enjoyable miles hours way earlier. In this emotionally strung out state, you may be too fragile to look back into the past, as this may lead to your eyes welling up. Looking forward is even more painful, as there is really nothing to look forward to except knowing you have six, five, four, three more miles to go. The present is the only comfortable spot, and it is not at all comfortable! There is no choice either, action is the only remedy. I just do because I have to do, I don’t even think about whether or not to do. One foot in front of the other. Repeat the mantra, timed to the breath. One foot in front of the other. No thought, only action. But wait, is this action working though me, or is it intentional? Is it just happening, of its own volition, because I do not dare put a stop to it? Is this the stillness, the universal rhythm manifested? The amazing blues and oranges and deep purples of the sky which signal the fading of the day certainly indicate that this moment is special! Nobody on earth is experiencing this moment the same way I am right now! This moment will never happen again, it is unique, and indeed it only exists because I am perceiving it in this moment. This Earth loves me, as I love it, and I love myself. With that there is clarity, understanding, and no need for answers…