Beyond the Astral Plane

Adventures in Trail Running

When I was growing up on my family’s hill block farm in the 1970s, it was common for us to muster the sheep and cattle on foot. At the time, the long, hot summers spent running up and over ridges, pursuing livestock seemed onerous. However, time is the wisest counsellor of all, and like those Kenyan distance runners who spent their childhood physically active in ‘training’ by running or walking to school, I have now ditched the car in favour of walking and running on trails to and from work, in an attempt to lessen the sedentary hours during my day, and also re-ignite the running genetics from my rural background.

I clearly remember four years ago, on a cool autumn morning lacing up my running shoes, crunching over the dead leaves on my lawn, and stepping out onto the pavement to head south, on the six kilometres to work. In no time at all, my legs had revolted and the whole awful exercise seemed to be magnified one hundred fold as my lungs heaved for air. About half way and with my regret at an all-time high, I made a decision that would prove to be my ‘satori’ and propel me into trail run commuting.

I plodded up to a fork in the path that impelled me to make a decision on how I was to continue my journey. Straight ahead would see me haggling up a one kilometer rise alongside rush-hour morning traffic, or to my left, a trail cut through a riparian zone. My rural genetics rebelled over my urban characteristics and I ran left, and up over the first small hollow.

It was to take a few months, but eventually my body became conditioned to trail running. This fundamental rejoining with nature allowed me to forget daily ministrations, as I thread my way alongside the creek wending its way over the folds and ridges of the valley. My companions on the trail are the thickets of Manuka that hang left and right, clawing at me with their pointed leaves, as well as the fantails flitting above and just beyond. While running, I look to focus one meter ahead, and this centres me in the moment, heightening my senses and tightening the mind around the experience.

I needn’t have worried about bookending the start and finish of my working day running on trails as part of a daily routine. As outlined in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, our ascendance as humans has been based around the ability to outlast our prey through persistence hunting, and to successfully move on from poor Pheidippides who flaked out and died after haring over 24 miles to proclaim victory for the Athenians. A more modern success story has been the Tarahumara of Mexico who based their whole society on running great distances through inhospitable canyons, almost daily for communication and hunting. They have been the blueprint for people running these very long distances, and eventually in 1973 man maintained endurance over 100 miles in an official race, as Gordy Ainsleigh competed alongside horses in the Western State Trail Ride and forged the way ahead for the sport of trail running, and the longer form of ultra-marathons.

Now, even after four years of trail run commuting, my enthusiasm hasn’t waned. Of course, in a physical sense I feel great and thankfully, wonderfully pain free. The reason being, I feel, is because I’m running on an uneven surface that allows my body more ‘give.’ My ankles are strengthened because the trail calls for smaller muscles to be used for stabilisation that gives me balance as I run.

However, it is so much more than just staying injury free and clocking up the kilometres. My daily excursions to work and back on the trail span the mental, emotional and spiritual areas of life. I arrive at work very calm and clear headed, sometimes feeling as if during the run having floated on air, looking down at my physical self a la Dr. Strange when he dissipated to the astral plane. Scientific studies have backed up this ‘altered state’ as perhaps being largely chemical and is based on the secretion of endorphins in the brain during physical activity. These endorphins attach themselves to the brain in those areas associated with emotions, and produces a kind of ‘chill’ that you will have probably felt before, if for example when you have experienced something that is emotionally uplifting.

Trail run commuting provides me with a transition both into and out of the working day. I’m lucky because it transcends my past, present and future, and because of this, I’ll still gallop across the trail and into the horizon.