Trail Running in the Mist and Staying in the Present

Trail Running in Peru (©Guy van den Branden)When running, one of my pitfalls is focusing on how much farther I have to go. This can be killing because it often seems too far, which is so discouraging that I give up. The problem is that instead of staying in the present – and thus running right now and right here – the mental focus has shifted to the future.

Understanding this rationally doesn’t mean I’m apt at staying in the present. However, one morning when Coen, two friends and I set off in the thick mist I simply couldn’t see how much farther I had to go, which gave a whole new dimension to covering our 10+ kilometers. I had fun!

Coen and I ran without our camera. Fortunately, Guy brought his and all photos in this blog post are his. Thanks Guy.

Focus on Easy

In the distance I see Coen, Guy and Inge running among trees that stand like black shadows in a world of gray. I tell myself to let go, to not try to catch up with them but to run my own course. They simply go at a much faster rate.

I run, immersed in the deep silence of the mountains interrupted by my panting. I find a rhythm, my shoes steadily tramping across the agricultural soil. It is my first run since a long time and it feels good to be out there again, getting back in shape. “Easy, go for ‘easy’,” I remind myself. “Don’t go for speed, not for endurance”.

Trail Running around Lake Piuray in Peru’s Sacred Valley (©Guy van den Branden)Easy’ is the first magic word in the series of getting back in shape, and to enjoy running again, I recently read in the bestseller Born to Run by Cristopher McDoughall. Easy. Feel your body again, feel every step, every breath and the sense of being here and nowhere else.

We got up at 6.30 and, buoyed by one of Guy’s energy drinks of ginger tea with chia seeds and maca powder, we set off for a run around Lake Piuray in Peru’s Sacred Valley, at an altitude of 3534 meters. Yesterday we were mesmerized by its setting: A deep-blue lake hemmed in by rolling hills with in the distance the snow-covered Veronica Mountain Range. Now I don’t see any of this.

Coen on an early morning run, Peru (©Guy van den Branden)

Lake Piuray in Peru’s Sacred Valley (©Guy van den Branden)I’m running in an ethereal world with patches lifting in a slow-motion movement. Trees disappear and reappear, as do my running companions. I get snap shots of the water surface with reeds and waterfowl. Being here feels like magic, as if I am in the book The Mists of Avalon (by Marion Zimmer Bradley) where anytime the boat may appear to take me to the island.

Comfort vs. Discomfort – the Brain at Work

I am plodding through agricultural fields around the shore with thick clumps of clay. Some lands lay fallow, others have been plowed and neat rows lie at the ready to be sown again.

Running with a bottle of water in my hand is a nuisance but since we don’t know how far it is, I better take it with me since we’re at such high altitude. In the pocket of my pants are a handful of raisins and dried apricots. I feel like an African soccer player in the Netherlands, wearing my woolen gloves. The temperature for running is perfect, but too cold for my hands.

I stretch my back, walk up straight, let my legs do the work and remember our bodies can perform much more than our brain thinks it can. The brain, explains Born to Run, is a comfort seeker and will do anything to avoid discomfort, searching for reasons not to run. One of the challenges is to overcome that feeling of discomfort; not only that; to find pleasure in it.

Trail Running Here and Now

The big advantage of the fog is that I can’t look ahead; I can’t see how much further I have to go. I am only here, on this square meter and then on the next. There is nothing to do but take one step after the other and nothing else. In fact, it’s a fantastic exercise of focusing and now instead of the future. Worrying about how much farther you have to go is demoralizing, but often hard nót to focus on.

Mist around Lake Piuray, Peru (©Guy van den Branden)

Inge and Guy, Peru's Sacred Valley (©Guy van den Branden)I am now running on a reasonable flat stretch of grass but slow down to find my way across fallow fields with more nasty clumps of clay. The other three have disappeared out of sight. I’m on my own. I’m okay with that as I just have to trace the edge of the lake so can’t get lost.

I do have to search for trails through. Below a steep hillside is not much space to move around without getting wet feet. I sometimes recognize the print of Inge’s shoes or the toes of the Vibram FiveFingers that Guy and Coen wear.

I scramble across a stone wall, wander through forest and hit the plains again. Easy going. The mist starts clearing. Time to put on my sunglasses and take off those woolen gloves. I take a short break with a sip of water and a snack, and see Guy and Inge ahead of me. The fact that they’re not too far ahead is a great motivator. I get up and soldier on.

From Land to Water

I hit a navigation channel, about a meter wide. I suck at jumping waterways, generally ending up halfway. I follow the channel for a bit, away from the lake until it’s narrow enough. However, there is an almost vertical dike on the other side. I may not be a good jumper but I can scramble up a wall so I throw my water bottle up there, jump and pull myself up using tufts of grass.

Coen Trail Running in Peru (©Guy van den Branden)A second and third stream follow. I search for places to cross, determined to keep dry feet. Yet the soil is deteriorating with mud, showing deep imprints of cows and humans who have walked here before me. I wander back and forth in search for firm soil until I can’t avoid the unavoidable: I sink away.

Finally. It’s for the better. Now that my feet are wet – cold! – I’m okay with it and slosh through muddy water. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying. I am having fun, I feel full of energy. The sky is opening up with blue slowly conquering the sky. I see the other side of the lake with the slopes covered in brown, reddish and beige agricultural fields, where our vehicles must somewhere stand. I gather I’m about halfway. Behind me rise the seemingly impenetrable mountains, their tops covered in snow and glaciers. The sight is mesmerizing.

From the Back to the Front

I look around. Despite my hard breathing and heavy legs I feel awesome, inspired, full of energy. Magic all around me, ruled by silence. I try to spot the others but they are nowhere to be seen. They must be nearing the vehicles by now, I reckon. After a minute’s rest I move on. The first farmers are arriving and put up their hands in friendly greetings. Two toddlers sit alongside a field, staring at me in silence. I see no parents around.

I’m reaching the road and decide to follow that for a bit. Once up there I hear a voice. “Did you get a taxi?” I turn around and see the other three, coming up from behind! How the heck did that happen? They say they followed the shore, but so did I. Somehow their loop must have been much wider than mine. We’re all intrigued and laugh about it. A rickshaw passes by, honking its horn. “See, he knows you,” Guy jokes.

Shadows on Agricultural Field, Peru (©Guy van den Branden)

Trail Running around Lake Piuray in Peru’s Sacred Valley (©Guy van den Branden)We run the last couple of kilometers along the dirt road. I overtake a local woman wearing a knee-length skirt and woolen socks, carrying a heavy load wrapped in a blanket on her back. She carries one of those fabulous high, white hats that seem so out of place in the countryside yet are such an integral part of the local dress in this area.

We chat for a bit and she tells me she has another hour to go. I point to the Land Cruiser, “That’s my home, ” I say. “I’m almost there.” I ask if she wants some water, hand her my bottle and wave her goodbye with a smile.

Additional Reading

All photos by Guy van den Branden.

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