Thursday, September 29, 2011

Find A Place

(The inspiration for this post is Joseph Campbells The Power of Myth DVD - a series of interviews with Joseph Campbell that took place back in the late 1980's - which I highly recommend watching)

It's easy to lose track of yourself, you can end playing a role and if you play that role long enough it becomes who you are. But that part you play at work or in society may not be the real you, its something you developed over time.

In the chaotic melee of life you can lose who you are. Suddenly you've become your job, you've become the labels people put on you, but this wasn't how it was meant to be, this isn't you. It's time to re-connect with yourself, it's time to find a place.

"Most of our actions are economically or socially determined" - Joseph Campbell
If you work for 40 plus hours a week and then outside of that you have certain social and financial responsibilities you may not have time to be yourself. It's a persona you end up projecting for most of  your waking hours to allow you to make money and function in society.

That's why its important to find a place to be you. A sacred place, where its 'just you experiencing who you are'. Campbell suggests finding a place where you can seal yourself off for one hour a day, or once a week or whatever it takes, where you become a 'self contained entity' and have an inner life. It should be a place with no demands, no newspapers, no thoughts of who owes you and who you owe.

"A sacred space is any space that is set apart from the usual context of life" - Joseph Campbell
This space should have no connection with how you earn a living or your reputation. It's a place where you can find yourself again and again.

And what you do for an hour should be something you enjoy, maybe listening to music, maybe reading a book (non work related), maybe playing guitar badly, whatever it is. However, you may not have such a space available where you live, maybe you can't seal yourself off. This is where training, the gym and running come in.

If you work in a gym, then the gym where you work definitely isn't going to be your sacred space, because as soon as you turn up someones bound to say 'I know your not working but... my shoulder hurts, why isn't the sauna working etc etc'. The other problem with the gym as a space is that there are too many other people around. If you have your own gym space in a garage or basement or in your garden then this would be ideal. If your one hour training time is what you enjoy and gives you a chance to re-connect with yourself then this is your sacred space.

Henry Rollins states that he always weight trains alone

"I prefer to work out alone. It enables me to concentrate on the lessons
that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you're made of is always
time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron has taught me how to live." -Henry Rollins
 If you don't have a space to train at home then go to the park, or even better trail running. If you have no choice but to run in the city, then do this, at least it is sacred time. But if you can, try and head out into the wilderness, find the trail and run it or walk it. The therapeutic value of being in nature cannot be underestimated, 'the environment becomes a metaphor'.

In his famous quote about weight training Henry Rollins says

"The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all
kinds of talk, get told that you're a god or a total bastard. The Iron
will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference
point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in
the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It
never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two
hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds."
The iron never lies to you. The gym tis a sacred place!

With a few modifications this quote can be applied to running as well. The trail never lies to you, its always there like a beacon calling you, even when you've lost your way and it seems so long ago that you were there and you know the first time you go back and and try and run it will be hard and it will kick your ass. Friends may come and go but 10 miles is 10 miles. The trail knows.

Find a place. The trail never lies to you. Brecon Beacons in rare blue sky moment

If you don't know what your sacred place should be, if its been so long since you've been yourself and you don't even know what you enjoy anymore then take the advice of Carl Jung and look back to when you were a kid, 'what were the games I enjoyed as a child'. If you enjoyed drawing or painting or writing or cycling or whatever, then do it, it doesn't matter, remember you are not doing this to prove to anyone else how good you are at it or for financial gain; you're doing it to reconnect with yourself.

If you don't enjoy it, if its not fun then quit

"Work begins when you don't like what you're doing" - Joseph Campbell
 Campbell suggests that you should be alone in your sacred space away from other people. Sometimes this is not always possible, but it is possible to get out of your usual surroundings, work space and home space. Coffee shops are perfect for this, you don't have to meet anyone there, just take time out for yourself, grab a coffee, take a book or magazine or just hang out and people watch. Plus you'll be getting all the health benefits of coffee - bonus! (unless of course, you work in a coffee shop, then don't do this).

So find that place and find that time, could be watching a dvd by yourself, could be going into your garden to do some kettlebell swings or driving to the nearest trail and running it.

Find a place. A sacred place.

"As an adult you must rediscover the moving power of your life. Tension, a lack of honesty, and a sense of unreality come from following the wrong force in your life."

 (All quotes are from Joseph Campbell unless stated otherwise)


Osbon DK (1991) Reflections on the Art of Living. A Jospeh Campbell Companion. New York. Harper Collins

Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Evening With Caballo Blanco (You know, the bloke from Born To Run)

Firstly if you don't know who Caballo Blanco, aka Micah True, is, then you need to go and read Born To Run now.

The talk took place in the Barbican area of London. Forget the Copper Canyon in Mexico, if you can navigate your way to the Barbican you never have to prove yourself again.

The talk was arranged by a guy called Kester. He read Born To Run the same time as me, when it was first released, unlike me he then headed out to Mexico to meet Caballo and see the Tarahumara people for himself .

In real life Caballo comes across as more easy going and humorous than he does in the book.

Caballo Blanco - the man, the myth. Managed to find his way to the Barbican in London so will never have to prove himself again.

The Early Years

Caballo started by giving an overview of how he started in ultra running. In the 1970's he was mainly involved in martial arts, then about 1980, '81 he started long distance running. In the mid 1980's he went to Guatemala, where he continued to run, including running across volcanoes. It was in Guatemala that the locals gave him the name Caballo Blanco (white horse). He takes this sobriquet with good humour, for anyone who thinks he gave himself the name in an over serious way, the opposite is true. As he himself says, the name has been 'good medicine for me' and it is a cool name to be given.

Around about this time he entered a 50 mile ultra in Wyoming, which he won. In typical self effacing style Caballo points out this was back when no one had really heard of ultra running, hardly anyone did it and there weren't the number of events there are now.

It seems in America it is still possible to disappear, tramp up and down the country and wander. May be its something to do with the frontier mindset and the myth of the west and the wilderness. Its possible for someone to go to Central America and then return  Colorado and get seasonal work and then go again. The same themes appear in books like Into The Wild and Ghost Riders. In the UK this just isn't possible, its too small, living outside of any system is almost impossible.


In the late 80's Caballo started entering the Leadville 100 miler in his local area of Colorado. You could turn up and run back then, no need to enter 8 months before hand.

In 1993 he had a mountain bike accident. I believe this is the first year the Tarahumara entered the race, and Caballo recounts the story of getting passed by an old guy wearing a skirt who gave the traditional Tarahumara greeting of 'we are one' as he overtook Caballo. The person who overtook him was 55 year old Victor Churro, and he won the race.

In '94 Caballo crashed his truck in Guatemala on the 1st January and missed the entry for Leadville. He was invited to be a pace maker for one of the Tarahumara that year, and paced him through the last 50 miles. Caballos fascination with the Tarahumara had begun.

Copper Canyon

Caballo then went to the Copper Canyon to see the Raramuri (what the local Indians call themselves, Tarahumara is a name given to them by the Spanish) in action.

The rest is history as they say. Caballo living down in the canyon and then starting the Copper Canyon ultra, a run of approximately 50 miles. The run made famous by Chris McDougall in Born To Run.

During the talk Caballo showed a video of the run and the copper canyon. As it says in the video, if you finish you win, enjoy it and you win, wake up the next day and you win. He emphasises the Raramuri concept of 'Korima' which means sharing or gift. The idea that running is part of the community, part of who they are and who we are. Also the idea that the winners win quite a few tonnes of donated corn as well as some prize money, which all non Raramuri winners always give back.

You get the sense that when Caballo started the event, the Raramuri had lost much of their running culture, with many working away from the area and more used to pick up trucks than sandals. And as we know from Born To Run, quite a few of the Copper Canyons ultras were won by North Americans.

In recent years though the Tarahumara have won the last three Copper Canyon ultras. They are running and practicing again. I think this is very much to do with the concept of Ignition as explained by Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code. Are the Raramui any better genetically designed to run than we are, probably not, but if you see someone from your village out their winning the race, getting respect, winning money and corn and re-igniting a tradition; you are much more likely to go out there and start engaging in some deep practice.

Q & A

At the end of the talk Caballo took questions. I wont list all the questions but the ones relevant to running.

Firstly, what does he think of barefoot running? It's not a panacea for everything, sometimes you need to wear running shoes. He especially likes it if the trainers are free! There's a risk that barefoot running moves away from what it was to just another of selling you expensive (minimalist) footwear. Theres nothing wrong with people making money from it, but it can become a cult. His views on this are sensible and pretty much what I think as well. (See my blog here).

Nature vs Nurture debate? Are the Raramuri genetically designed to run? Not so much that they are designed to run but they are closer to the land and their genetic memory of what it means to run.  I would go along with the concepts outlined in The Talent Code and Bounce - if you come from a culture of running, you probably spend a lot of time practicing to run, like the traditional Tarahumara ball and stick running game. Then part of that culture was lost but re-ignited with Copper Canyon ultra and media interest.

When do you hit the wall in an ultra? I imagine the person who asked this has never run one. As Caballo says, it can happen at anytime. In my experience it can happened at 1km or the whole run can feel like you're running along the wall with someone throwing stones at you.

Again his advice is common sense, if you're running and injured then stop. Better to be able to run in a few days time and not be permanently injured.

Can anyone run 100 miles? Yes, he thinks anyone can do it.. If you want to. The cut of times are generous, you've just got to keep moving. Try, if you fail, try again. His love of running really comes across, anyone can do it, for the love of the trail and the experience, its not about elite runners and winning.

We Are The Zen Runners

In the Q&A Caballo made the point that we are the zen runners. The Raramuri didn't understand why someone would be out running just to run, if there is no prize money at the end and someones not paying you to do it, then why do it. This is a very similar response that you get from Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, they do it to make a living, they can't understand running for the sake of it, they don't have that luxury. This is probably why there are no East Africans running ultras unlike the big city marathons, no prize= no point.

It will be interesting to see if as ultras become more popular and semi professional with prize money and sponsorship if the East Africans start entering and destroy everyone.

For the rest of us though, trail running and ultra running have nothing to do with sponsorship, or winning. If it all becomes too popular and you can't enter events with a 2 year waiting list, you do what Caballo did and what humans have always done - head out into the wilderness and run.

As Caballo says we are the zen runners, the one running just to run. We are the ones paying hundreds of dollars to enter events to see if we can do them, to push ourselves, to see what's possible.

The Man The Myth

Caballo comes across as the type of guy who never intended to be famous. He was living the life he wanted to and his path happen to intersect with that of Christopher McDougall. It makes you think of all those non famous people out there living extra-ordinary lives, doing what they do with no media attention.

Of course, Caballo just gave us a brief sketch of his life in the hour or so he was talking. Compressing a lifetime into 60 minutes is near on impossible. There must be more to the story, he intimated that he is writing a biography, and if it comes out I will certainly buy it. There is a whole other story there somewhere, the martial arts that were hinted at, the back story, the childhood, the motivations.

The truth is the back ground could be extra-ordinary or it could be plain old average. Like all of us the choices you make and the life you lead is ultimately up to you.

I worked out that he must be about 58 or 59 years old, though he doesn't look that age. He has that look, that zen monk timeless look, a lifetime on the road look but not haggard. Relaxed and at ease with himself. If you're on the road enough these are the type of guys you meet. Always good to talk to, have a story or two hidden but honest ('to live outside the law you must be honest'). These guys are always out there, I've met them in the Nepalese Himalayas and the desert bars of Nevada. You cross paths and then never see them again. They're not running just moving. The past is not hidden just obscured by a lifetime of movement.


Thanks to Kester for bringing Caballo over to the UK to this talk and a few others.

Much of this I wrote from memory as I was too busy listening to Caballo to take too many notes, any mistakes or omissions are my own.

I never got to ask Caballo my question, maybe next time.