Return to the Canyon

imageIt starts in darkness as you head toward the park entrance. “Just follow the tail lights,” the race director says at the pre-race dinner. It’s good advice. No one else is up before 6 a.m. on the canyon road except people driving to the race. You get to the park entrance, take a short, cautious drive in blackness on a winding road, and then pass a road grade warning sign.

You start to descend into what looks like nothing at all. There is the feeling of dropping into a vastness, something that can’t be seen but is rising all around you. Your headlights catch glimpses of patterned rock walls, but there is no sense of elevation or scale – just a feeling that something very big is happening just past your car window.

Attendants waving light sticks and flashlights direct you into a dirt parking lot, and you get out of your car to the sound of bagpipes playing in the near distance. The sky is packed with stars. In the distance in every direction, you can now see, dimly, high cragged walls. As the sky slowly lightens and reveals the richly patterned streaks in those walls, you feel as if you were in the bottom of a giant, ruggedly fashioned bowl of exquisite Indian pottery. It is huge, yet somehow still intimate, a Grand Canyon on a more human scale. You’re in Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas. It’s the day of the Palo Duro Canyon trail race, and you’re lining up in the pre-dawn light and chill on a start path paved with Texas state flags, serenaded by a bagpipe player in full Scottish regalia, leading you into an awakening wilderness for 20 kilometers of rocky, twisty trail goodness around the spectacular rock formations of the canyon floor.

Years ago I ran the 50K race here twice and the 50 mile race once, but today I was here just for the 20K – what the 50K and 50 milers jokingly call the “fun run.” The question was, why? I hadn’t run a race in four years and had stated I would never run another. But for some reason this past spring, the canyon was calling. And really, for me, that was what this was about. It wasn’t about a return to racing, although I haven’t ruled out doing another. It was about answering the canyon’s strangely timed call. Spending one more morning in a place like no other I’ve ever seen.

And it didn’t disappoint. The weather was crystal clear and cool, the trail in excellent condition, and the scenery still as jaw-dropping as ever. I’m constantly torn between stopping to look at what I’m passing by and pushing on, just getting it done. It is a “race”, after all. But am I in serious contention to break any world records today? And is this really just something else to get done? How many things in life do we treat like they’re a list of boxes on an seemingly endless to-do list, until we get to the point where death is the only box left? And so I slow down, take time to walk a little, and drink in the sculpted wonders towering over me.

I pass a few people, a few people pass me. That old competitive urge is still there, tempered by something that might be wisdom but feels more like age. Perhaps, in some ways, they’re (hopefully) the same thing. But I find myself much more drawn to the canyon than who’s ahead or behind. I do notice the race has grown: rarely am I not in sight of someone.

The last four and a half miles are smoother, flatter, a reward for taking a fair amount of punishment during the first eight. But despite an almost continuous roller coaster of short, sharp up-and-down and one brief section that is more climb than run, the trail isn’t really that technical. Still, I take my eyes off of it at my own peril, as a couple of bad spills I witness remind me.

I finish in good shape, tired but not exhausted. I could have pushed harder, I suppose. I didn’t really want to. Hardly the first to finish, not the last. It’s okay. I cheer a few minutes for the runners still coming in, trudge up the hill to the parking lot, and say another goodbye to a place that had suddenly called to me from clear across the state – over four years and two grandchildren later. Grateful for the opportunity to answer, to run its trails with others once again, and watch darkness take shape into something wonderful.

Gifts from a Morning Run

One of the many life bonuses I’m gifted by running is experiencing things I would otherwise sleep through. Still wiping sleep from my eyes as I nudge my legs into a stiff trot and in the sky, a bright full moon dipping lower and lower so quickly I felt I could almost see it moving; on the opposite horizon, a rusty sun struggling to climb above the trees …

bright moon quick to fade,
dark sun slow to brighten –
early morning run

The night and the day, today and yesterday coming together for a few fleeting moments, the last lingering stars and planets sinking back invisible. The legs loosen. In the shadows, others are on the move …

a half-raised hand,
a breathless “good morning” –
passing a runner

The air is cooler, although still spread thick with chunky summer humidity. But it feels a tad easier to move through, and I feel stronger on the uphills. A little over a month until the Palo Duro Canyon 20K and I want the weather to share my gathering sense of urgency, to lay down a crisper welcome mat for the longer runs to come in September. Still, summer dies a hundred slow deaths around these parts, a brontosaurus roiling in a tar pit, and I know this season will only succumb, literally and figuratively, by degrees …

like a popular song
fast falling from the top ten –
those last cicadas

After the run a shower, followed by coffee in the den with the morning staples: four preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by a reading from either Thoreau’s Journal or Eihei Dogen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. It’s Dogen today, and a sentence that lingers: “That you have a human body and mind is a rare thing.” It is indeed! To savor the deep sweet ache in the muscles from a good run, roasty coffee aroma filling the den, old Bach’s counterpoint dancing like jazz. And, on the patio, more gifts from a morning still pulling itself together:

finding their own way:
orange marigolds twisting
out of the blue pot


no time to waste
by the blooming lantana:
hurry hummingbird!

From Thoreau’s Journal VIII

      these are old and worn-out fields

 I ramble over

        and men have gone to law about them

               far before I was born

     but I trust I ramble over them

             in a new fashion

        and redeem them

(November 18, 1857)

Falling, With Style

A friend once described trail running as “a good way to twist an ankle.” I suppose it is. Running on rocky, rootsy ribbons of crooked earth is probably a good way to twist or break a lot of things. It can also serve as a bell of awareness – a reminder that life itself is a continually unwinding path of shifting textures and directions, and that the more rewarding solution is not to avoid the rough spots or pave them smooth, but simply adapt our pace and stride to match the changes. I run paved roads often. But given that one definition of running is controlled falling, then running trail is the more complete experience, a mobile laboratory for learning how to deftly fall into the way things are now, and now, and now, and now.

Coffee and a Book: “H Is for Hawk”

imageReading this book was probably inevitable for me since it combines two of my favorite book genres: personal memoir and nature. While the chances of me liking it were high, it turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read in the past 20 years. An experienced falconer and Cambridge research scholar, Helen Macdonald is devastated by the death of her father and turns to training Mabel – a goshawk, one of nature’s most vicious predators – as a way of coping with her loss. She looks for inspiration and advice by re-reading author T.H. White’s falconry chronicle The Goshawk, a book she had read when younger – and learns new lessons from his story. As she absorbs White’s slim, harrowing book (a classic nature memoir in its own right) and faces up to the enormous challenge of training Mabel, Helen learns much about what it means to be wild, what it means to be human, and the risky moments when the two can briefly intertwine. It’s a tough, exquisitely written book, charged with humor and pain – never weepy or sentimental. At times, it is chilling. “I love Mabel,” she writes at one point, “but what passes between us is not human.”


While I was sitting this morning, eyes half shut, I noticed the wall in front of me seemed to faintly crumple and unfurl like a flag slowly moving in the wind, the colors shifting and morphing, while fleeting images of people, animals, and monsters appeared and disappeared in the old textured paint.  How tenuous our grip on what we call reality is!  To think that we willfully hurtle along ribbons of asphalt in shaking contraptions of metal and plastic at speeds of 65-70 miles per hour or more, or race hard on foot down narrow, rocky mountain trails.  People who say they don’t believe in making decisions based on faith have never seriously considered the question.  It takes faith just to point at a chair, call it a chair, and sit in it.

In Motion, In Stillness

imageThey were in sesshin, an intensive multi-day Zen practice session, and I was very disappointed.  My wife and I had stopped in Santa Fe on our way home from vacation, where I had hoped to sit with others early one morning at the renowned Upaya Zen Center (a photo of their beautiful meditation hall is on the left).  But they were already several days into a sesshin according to the schedule on the bulletin board outside, and I rather doubted visitors would be allowed to drop in.  I was about to leave when a very nice young woman welcomed me, heard my request, and quickly ushered me inside.

She whispered that while I wouldn’t be able to sit in the main meditation hall where the sesshin participats were sitting, we could sit in the sun room, a room next to the main hall.  We found a couple of empty spots, quickly bowed to our mats, and settled on our cushions.

The nourishing richness of that stillness and silence!  I have participated in sesshins and know that the first days are usually filled with snuffling, coughing, sighing, and much squirming on the mats.  Over the course of several days, or a week or more, the entire room or hall begins to calm down, go still, and deepen.  First, physical activity slows and grows into stillness, then the nervous, almost audible humming energy of mental activity slips away.  That’s the point they had already reached in this sesshin – a world so vast and gloriously, peacefully empty, yet containing everything. I felt completely unbound, as if I were floating.  And it was not created or manufactured – wherever we are, whatever might be going on with us, it is already there, within and without.

At first I felt like a boorish party-crasher:  relative to what I sensed all around me, my body felt wracked with spasms and my breath sounded like loud hiccups.  But after some ten minutes or so, my body and mind expanded into that silence, and my breath became one with everyone else’s.  I know of few more powerful, nurturing experiences than a shared silence that enormous.  When the bell rang, I was very sorry to leave.

But of course, leaving the meditation hall is what we have to do, and back out into the messy, noisy, restless world we go.  It was the same with running during my vacation in the dry, cooler temperatures and spectacular scenery of Colorado – and then back to dodging cars in my roasting, humid neighborhood.  But that same boundless personal freedom – the kind of palpable peace we can realize during an intenstive Zen practice period, and the serenity and solitude we can find running trails in the mountains – is actually accessible anywhere we go.  “Practice-realization is not defiled with specialness,” Dogen wrote.  “It is a matter for every day.”

For me, that’s the reason for running and sitting – no matter who you are or where you are, no matter what is going on with you, the most awesome peace and serenity are always right here.  Sure, it may be hidden under many crusty old layers of noise, anxiety, misunderstanding, anger, and that nagging vague dissatisfaction with your lot in life, but it’s there all the same.  Running and sitting are two of the most helpful ways I know to uncover it.  And then there’s the real trick:  not having to uncover it again and again.  Still working on that one – the failed work of a lifetime, a happy failure that begins anew each day, each breath.