Finding the space beyond thought
This newsletter was first published on Patreon on 13 September 2021
I spent Saturday running 35 miles (55km) right across Dartmoor - from north to south - with a small group led ably by former soldier, fell runner and Dartmoor storyteller Colin Kirk-Potter. As we crested tors and skipped down steep-sided valleys, it was a long way from the concrete monotony (or track monotony) of my up-coming challenges.
Yet running in Scotland a few weeks ago, I had a small revelation. Running alone through the rugged, empty landscapes of Dumfries and Galloway, I realised that running 6,000 laps around a block in New York didn’t mean I had to give up the joys of trail running. I was still getting strong, getting my body used to running, moving, being on my feet. In fact, the trails would allow me to get fit enough for the challenges ahead, but with a lower risk of injury than if I decided to do all my training runs around my block.
It was a revelation that made me smile as I ran, and made light of the dark clouds I had been sensing gathering on the horizon. Sure, I will need to train my mind to cope with 52 days of running in circles, with nothing much to look at, no streams to leap over, no descents to plunder. But that doesn’t mean I have to run in nondescript circles every day.
Training the mind for something like this isn’t the same as training the rest of the body. It isn’t simply about repeating actions so that it gets used to dealing with repeating actions. Firstly, I have to become fully aware of what my mind is, how it works, and how it controls me. I learned a lot about all that in my previous ultra marathons (which were mostly on trails).
In truth, the surface, or the environment, becomes largely irrelevant once things begin to get tough and you start to enter your inner world. The mountains are beautiful in the early stages of a race, but by the end all you see is a singular path to follow. Perhaps occasionally you stop to look up and take it all in and for a moment you feel the power of the landscape, but then it is back to the movement and you are back in your own little tunnel of experience.
In the same way, a road race might feel bleak and ugly at first, but by the end you don’t care about the scenery, you are just in your own zone, moving, existing.
Besides, a large part of my mental training will take place not on the roads or the trails, but in my bedroom, with the curtains pulled.
The advice I was sent from the organisers of the 3100 race, about how to prepare for such an undertaking, barely mentioned running at all. What it did say was that “most of our finishers practice meditation regularly”. I’ve been mediating regularly since 1998 when I learned a practice from a teacher called Prem Rawat. I try to do it most days for a full hour. An hour of being aware of the churn of the conscious mind, of letting it go and of finding that other space inside you, that space beyond thought.
If I can find that space, and practice staying there longer and longer, I may have a chance of making it through the 3100, since it is the thoughts, as I learned in my ultra marathons, that are the most debilitating. Unchecked, your thoughts can crush you long before your body starts to fall apart.
If I throw in a regular “running in small, boring circles” training session, then I reckon the rest of the time I’m free to run where I want. Right? And if that means going on adventures such as crossing the entire length of Dartmoor, then all the better.
I just hope my legs have recovered in time for my 24-hour track race this weekend!