Running as Ritual

Many a mountain runner has experienced the peaceful gliding on a trail, mind and body in perfect sync with earth underfoot. Breathing becomes rhythmic—beating to nature’s pulse—and the mind eases into a meditative reverie. Runners may be inclined to believe we’ve tapped into something primal here. We would be right to so assume. Running reconnects us to what is deeply ingrained in our species: the rhythms and mystery of the natural world and our interdependence with it.

We run for many reasons: to compete, train, stay fit, lose weight, socialize, “get out” in nature, de-stress. I run for some of these and may admit as much. But when out on the trail, in that meditative trance, I return to the primary reason I run. It is a transport to my inner soul.

Traditional, nature-based societies embraced rituals that connected them to earth’s rhythms: trance drumming and dance, solstice celebrations, animal tracking, and the like. In one tradition tribe members are sent on a solo “wander” with no food or water for a few hours or days. Sometimes it involves all-night vigils. The idea is to surrender expectation, become vulnerable, and attune oneself. Our excursions can take on a similar purpose. For wilderness provides the backdrop for us to venture into the soul—the inner wilderness—to a place where fear and longing reside. Here it becomes possible to allow the mysteries of life to move the intuitive side of us, not the overfed rational side that needs to know.

When I took part in a meditative, nature-based wander recently, I did so somewhat reluctantly. I had been longing for self-inventory and was open to receiving the healing energies of earth and sky. But I remained skeptical that my experience would be more than skin deep.

I know, I know, the practice sounds new-agey. And perhaps some aspects were a bit contrived. But overwhelmingly the experience was intimate—even profound—and reminded me that running is my wander. It is a deliberate act of deep attachment—and letting go. It provides a bridge between the modern, comfortable life I lead and the wild and sometimes fearsome world that still pulses in my body. It is my practice, my ritual.

The message is urgent for our day. Modern life drubs out the natural rhythms that once dictated human existence. For millennia our ancestors lived close to the land—building their own structures, hunting, gathering, growing their own food. But generations of living closely to rhythms and seasons have given way to a more comfortable—but severed—relationship to the natural world. Now we are conditioned to see nature as a conquest or personal playground, not as our natal home. In his classic text The Tree John Fowles worries that we see ourselves as masters of neatly organizing nature. We divide and categorize according to how it serves us or meets our needs and expectations. We act as though we are isolated and independent, separate from and above the natural processes that govern other species.

And when we do make it a point to get outside, we strive to control all the variables. I am certainly guilty of obsessing over temperature, gear, route, and the strength of my legs. And I’m not alone—many runners I know approach the sport methodically. We map our routes, carefully craft plans for weekend excursions, count the number of gels needed to move our bodies up and over mountains. We monitor race results, compare times, and study data from GPS watches. We subscribe to running magazines or blogs, scouring the pages for helpful tips on training, nutrition, and gear.
Running does suit the analytical. In fact, I am told, our earliest ancestors developed large frontal lobes after years of thinking while running to catch prey. To order, classify, and understand what we see, touch, and feel is uniquely human. But when I am too analytical in my approach, when I attempt to organize to the point of self-obsession, when I remove all risk--then I find my experience wanting.
Of course I’m not suggesting we embark on epic runs unprepared: venturing into backcountry can be dangerous (bears, anyone?). I often encounter this tension: how can I experience the outback free and unfettered while doing so responsibly? I offer no immediate answers except to suggest that we ought not veer too far from our primeval roots. At the least, let us acknowledge and coax them back into our lives. If John Fowles is correct, perhaps our ordering and classifying and isolating have taken us too far afield from that intermediary with the land that lies in the heart, not the head. Nature is intricately and inextricably interdependent, in ways that can’t be calculated, let alone understood. But they can be felt in a primal place that supersedes rationale.

I have at times listened to mountain runners speak of their trail experiences in reverent tones: of the scenery’s sublimity, the heart-stopping mountain vistas, the revelations that come, unbidden, in those quiet moments when the mind ceases its prattle and opens to the deeper stirrings of soul. These moments are otherworldly, even religious. It is here that we feel a presence larger than our little selves.

Running can draw us away from the mundane. Topography acts as a portal, removing us from the ordinary and transporting us into the mystery of the wild. We are beckoned through the mountain’s threshold as we climb up and over and climb still. We go back the way we come signifying repurpose, or perhaps we return along a new route to betoken a needed life transition. The experience can be uncomfortable—even outright painful—exposed as we are to the elements and the weakness of our own bodies. As we venture deep, and deeper still, we carry our intentionality and heart with us on the trail. We let ourselves be allured by the landscape. We let our curiosity propel us. And then we lay ourselves bare to what unfolds.

These transcendent experiences, these wanders, keep us coming back to the wild, to those places unfamiliar yet familiar, to our beginnings, our yearnings . . . our home. As our feet glide along the trail we are connected to that longing that is the core of the human condition. The natural rhythms and a kinship to our earliest ancestors throb in our hearts. We venture deeper, distancing ourselves from the lights and noise and cry of civilization. We think by feeling. We smile, let out a yelp, revel in the breeze and the heat bearing down. This is what it feels like to be alive. The reservoir of knowledge lies deep within the shadows of subconscious if we but bravely burrow deep enough to uncover it.


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