It’s a welcome sunny day in September, and Josh and I park his car at the Pike Road entrance to East Sooke Park, and then drive mine south to Aylard Farm to start our run. I don’t get nervous at the start of a long run anymore: I know I can do this. I don’t fear the physical discomfort that might come. Instead, I’m exhilarated by the prospect of moving through the coastal landscape at the southern most tip of Vancouver Island on this extraordinary day.
We begin along the path slowly, warming up, falling into a rhythm of conversation, and a easy flow along the gravel path to the beach. We follow along the water’s edge a while, the mid day sunshine gleaming off the swells, the beach strewn with bull kelp. The tide is high, so we scramble up the bank and into the woods and continue along the trail that skirts the water’s edge along some of the most exquisite sea shore on southern Vancouver Island.
The path winds through groves of naked arbutus trees and over rocky outcrops. This is the sort of running where you use your hands a lot, pulling up steep slopes, and dropping down over rocky cliffs. Below us, sometimes a hundred feet or more down sheer cliffs, the surf pounds the exposed southern point of the island, its roar omni-present, filling the space around us with a cacophony of white noise.
We pass Beechey Head, warming up. I can feel my body starting to intuit the trail. Can feel my mind relaxing into the run. Our conversation takes long pauses as we pound up steep sections of the trail that climb high above the sea, where finger inlets poke the rocky bulkheads. Then down again, thick mats of salal. We pass the first clump of black bear dung of the day, itself composed nearly entirely of salal berries, leaves and twigs, most of which have been only minimally digested. The berry crop is so rich that the bears need only draw minimal nutrition from each encouraged bellyful.
Every step forward is a step into joy. Every step forward is a step into bliss.
In the last two or three years, trail running has become the yang component of my body/spirit workout. I’ve been running all of my life, but never like this. I was a skinny kid who was frequently chided for his lack of athletic prowess. In grade four I was on my schools cross country team. I remember a three kilometer race where I placed dead centre of the pack. I didn’t run much through grade school, except through the woods behind my home in Burlington, where second growth maple, pine and beach cast dark pools of cool shadow during the heat of southern Ontario summers. In high school and collage I dated a woman who was a track and field athlete, and she inspired me to run again.
It wasn’t until moving to the Rockies in 1992 that I ran again with any regularity. When I landed at the western edge of the continent two and a half years ago, I replaced Nordic skiing with cross country running as the mainstay of my work out. It brings me to bliss nearly every time I hit a trail.
So now I am a skinny (I prefer slender, svelte, or streamlined) man who can run for hours.
Josh and I race down a long, muddy slope to where the trail crosses a rocky beach and a sheltered cove just south of Cabin Point. From here the trail climbs steeply up through cliffs and a tangled forest again to emerge on a broad, open plateau a few hundred feet above the crashing tide. Its my favorite place on the Coast Trail, a flat expanse of stone and meadow where I can stride out and feel the contentment of a cadence and the flow of land, sea, sky, muscle and heart.
Just a few weeks ago I ran to Cabin Point and back on my own, shaking off a difficult parting from someone I love dearly, and I remember crossing this bench wishing that I was not alone, that she was there to share this miraculous place with me.
Maybe someday. Maybe someday.
Josh and I push ourselves along the trail, feeling the effortless flow that comes at the apex of a run.
I know that soon I’ll touch, however briefly, the stillness that I am seeking in all my efforts.
The yin aspect of my mind/spirit workout is meditation. Every morning I sit for thirty minutes, practicing silence and stillness as best I can. I’m an amateur, and my daily practice is still mostly involves a pattern of inner dialog where memory and prediction emerge; where dreams merge with reality; where sexual fantasy foists itself on the stillness of my body; where fear and vulnerability take an icy grip on the softness of my heart. I’m still practicing tenderness with myself: rather than growing angry or frustrated, I silently say “those are thoughts,” and return to focus on my breathing.
As I have written elsewhere, from time to time I am even jolted from this stillness by an urge to move. To escape my mind. I lurch from my cushion, from the tiny alter, and have to gently remind myself to “sit through” whatever is making me so uncomfortable with stillness.
The urge to run, during these challenging times, is almost overwhelming.
This is where yin and the yang create not opposites playing against one another, but two halves of a whole, becoming one.
When I run, I allow my mind to range over the landscape through which I pass. The technical nature of most of my trails demand sharp focus on my feet or I’d surely trip or fall, in some places almost certainly to my death. But inside of that focus, my mind, and my spirit, are working things out. I let them. I try not to get in the way of my mind, my heart, my soul’s intuitive nature of sort through life’s mysteries.
I run in nature, in part, because in the woods, in the hills and mountains, by the sea shore, I am most able to draw the extraordinary creative abundance of the natural word into me. When I run, I am reminded that I am not separate from the landscape through which I move. I am simply another element of the land moving through a myriad other elements, indistinguishable.
Running awakens my passions, my desires, my vulnerabilities, my creativity. In meditation I touch to the creative void, the field of pure potentiality that exists everywhere around us, and within us, at all times. In meditation I find a stillness where I can allow my soul to touch the place within, and all around me, where this creativity manifests. But as with the Tai Chi — the swirling black and white symbol taken to represent yin and yang — in the black there is white, and the white there is black: in stillness, motion, and in motion stillness.
In meditation, my breathing (and my occasional physical reactions to the really hard, and sometimes dark places my soul stumbles upon) are the movement. In running, in particular on long, challenges runs, I inevitably find a place of stillness: I am not a man running through nature, but nature finding a still point from the motion.
And then, without a doubt, that stillness slips away, and is replaced by burning muscles and panting lungs as the trail winds on and on. On this particular day, I am awe struck by the shear magnificence of the coastal landscape. I keep exclaiming to Josh that I “can’t believe I live here!” Its pure delight to pass through this place, this promise, this life.
We finish our trail on the beach at the end of Pike Road and rest in the sun, on a log, watching the waves pound the islets off shore, watch fishing boats navigate the narrow channels, watch the sky grow mottled with cloud and then clear again. Then another short run out Pike Road, and we reach the car after two and a half hours of on the trial and begin the drive back into Victoria.
Every step is a step into mystery. Every moment an opportunity to touch the both stillness and motion, the abundant creative power of life’s love and energy, its joy and its sorrow, its peace and challenge and beauty. I will spend my life running towards stillness, and then, when I’ve finally reached it, simply keep running.