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June 8, 2009

Zen and the Art of Ultrarunning

With only three more weeks until Western States, I wanted my last long training run to be something both interesting and memorable. Knowing how burned out I get towards the end of a long training period, I knew that my final big training day had to entice me as the date drew nearer – otherwise I’d probably find some weak rationale for blowing it off in favor of sleeping in for once.

Luckily, I didn’t have to look far to find my inspiration: the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, located in the heart of the Ventana Wilderness area between Carmel Valley and Big Sur. It’s an honest-to-goodness Zen monastery about as far removed from the modern world as you can get nowadays (at least, in California).

For nine months per year, the retreat is closed to the public to allow the monks to practice – according to the website – “intensive Zen training”. (I’ve since learned that Tassajara is renowned for its rigorous practice – in fact, it’s where Zen masters come to receive their own instruction. In other words, in Zen circles, this place is a big deal.) However, during the summer months, it’s open season at Tassajara, and guests are welcome to spend a few days or weeks cohabitating with the monks – you can join them for meditations or work assignments, or take a dip in the natural hot springs that run through the secluded canyon.

Getting there is no piece of cake, though – it’s 14 miles from the nearest point of civilization on a rugged jeep trail that rises over one of the highest ridge lines in the area, traverses the highland briefly, then plummets down for several miles to the remote outpost. The website recommends that only 4-wheel drive vehicles attempt driving the road, and the Zen Center provides an eight-passenger ATV known as the Stage that shuttles skittish travelers to and from the retreat twice per day.

Or, if you’re with a group of crazy ultrarunners, you could just run it.

I recruited a handful of companions to join me on this adventure run, looking forward to a morning of strenuous physical exertion and - who knows? – maybe a little spiritual enlightenment as well. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I also brought my Nikon.

This is the parking area in the one-building (no exaggeration – as you’ll see later) town of Jamesburg, where most normal folks wait for the Stage. It didn’t quite look like this when we got there, because it was still dark outside at our 5AM start time.

After a few miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation, the sun started peeking through the fog to light our way a bit better.

By the time the sun was fully awake, we were well above the fog line …

… enjoying some killer views in the Ventana Wilderness.

After bobbing up and down for a few miles on top of the world, we began a steep five-mile descent down and down …

… and down some more, until we finally arrived at Tassajara.

Apparently Zenshinji means “Zen Mind Temple”, and not – as one of our group suggested – “May you rest peacefully with your shin splints”. But after 3000’ of constant downhill, it was hard for us to disprove him.

Inside the Zen Center, everything is angles and light – and since we were arriving there right as the sun was spilling over the mountain, there were some cool perspectives from which to take it all in.

There are also a lot of knick-knacks (not a proper Buddhist term, but you know what I mean) all over the place to make sure you know you’re not in Carmel Valley anymore.

This is a zendo, one of the main meditation rooms. When we got there, the day guests and monks were exiting the zendo and forming a circle on the grass outside it … so the six of us wearing shorts and trail shoes and hydration packs tried to blend in as inconspicuously as possible. Or not.

Here’s how you tell which ones are the monks: they’re usually the ones with shaved heads, wearing the robes. In case you were wondering.

Rickshaws are the only way to travel around the Zen Center – when day guests arrive, they load their stuff in these carts for transportation on the grounds. On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about having enough cash to tip a luggage boy.

Rumor has it that the monks are CRAZY about bocce ball – who knew?

All around Tassajara are little rest spots and alcoves that seem to pull you in for quiet contemplation. I was intrigued - so when no one was looking …

… I tried to soak in a little bit of Zen myself. I didn’t come away from this moment as enlightened as I was hoping; maybe my hands were positioned wrong or something.

Or maybe I just needed some of this stuff! I’m going to give the monks the benefit of the doubt that this is a simple, legal garden, and not something designed to cultivate enlightenment by artificial means. But I didn’t snoop too closely, just in case.

This is called an echo han – it’s used to wake the residents up in the morning, or call them to prayer or work sessions. From the looks of it, it’s been very well-used over the years.

Near the exit of the compound is a parable come to life in this stream: water wears down stone; through softness we overcome hardness, or something like that. It was an opportune reminder, because as we left Tassajara …

… we started the steep 5-mile climb that kicked off our return trip home. You know how suffering brings enlightenment? Let’s just say there was lots to get enlightened about on this climb.

This is my friend Brian, interlocking pinkies with his wife Sophia as they made their way up the huge grade. Since she’s going to be his pacer at Western States, our group spent about a half-mile debating whether or not this would be considered physical assistance – and since Brian is way faster than us, we decided that we’d totally narc on him if they tried this.

A backward glance at the hill we were climbing, from about the halfway point. Eee-yikes.

Fortunately, the views from the top were just as scenic on the return trip as they were in the morning – perhaps even more so, as some mottled clouds started rolling across the sky with the warmer weather.

About halfway down the final 6-mile descent, guess what we encountered?

What’s my rule? If there are cows, they’re in the report. Simple as that.

Finally we made it back to the town of Jamesburg, which I previously called a one-building town. Here’s the building, which doubles as the waiting point for the Tassajara Stage:

Welcome to downtown Jamesburg. Food and refreshment available on occasion. Pull up a chair and stay awhile.

The little chair looked welcoming – but since it was already more than seven hours and 30 miles (counting a couple of double-backs along the way) after we started, I was more than content to get in the car and drive home. The run was everything that I had hoped for – and even though I didn’t have a spiritual awakening to speak of, I think some of that Zen stuff actually might have rubbed off on me.

After all, there’s a lot to be said for being highly disciplined, but also living in the moment. For putting your mind and body through a consistently demanding regimen, but also leaving time to pamper yourself and relax. For appreciating life for what it is, but always striving to make it – and by extension, yourself – better all the time. These are the things these monks do every single day; I’ll bet they could teach us ultrarunners a thing or two about how to get the most out of our experiences.

Hopefully I’ll return to this run another day and ponder these things further – but for now, it’s time to focus my energy on Western States, which is rising over the horizon like the sun spilling over the mountain, now less than three weeks away.

Between now and then, I have a feeling I’m going to need all the Zen I can possibly get.


Bruce 6/9/09, 2:45 AM  

What a cool adventure, all the best for WS

Jamie 6/9/09, 4:36 AM  

Wow! That is what I call an adventure! Heck of a way to have a final training run before a taper. Reading your post, I'm tempted to plan a trip there next summer to do the run you did but stay a few days at the monastery. Great post.

Best of luck in your taper. I'm also in WS, will maybe see you out there.

Dave 6/9/09, 5:40 AM  

Donald, I wish you only the best at WS. Keep a look out for our North Texas guys...they're good guys. If I lived in your area...i would be right there with you running this...looked like a good run.

Spokane Al 6/9/09, 8:47 AM  

That sounds like a very nice, one of a kind adventure to regenerate the spirit for WS.

P.S. Which of the hydration packs did you use?

Deene 6/9/09, 9:05 AM  

this sounds like an incredibly cool place. getting there must be an adventure!

runningcommentaries 6/9/09, 9:44 AM  

Love the cows! What a cool adventure and you were very smart to give yourself a training run that was more adventure than anything else toward the end. I had no idea that was back there or even in California-- learn something new everyday!

triguyjt 6/9/09, 3:39 PM  

you are right...see a cow...put it in the report... my kids always rip me for the one time we were driving on vacation and I spotted a cow in a field and just said "cow"..kinda like homer simpson would say "burger"!!!
thats a place I would love to visit..and soak up the peace and tranquility....
good luck...27th is coming fast.

Rick Gaston 6/9/09, 3:49 PM  

I was just gonna say, "just run it". Looks like a Diablo race profile but steeper. Nice pose but maybe, just maybe, the gaiters were blocking the positive flow of energy. Just my theory. Have a good taper and hope to see you at WS. I'll be there spectating and most likely pacing.

Peter Lubbers 6/9/09, 4:56 PM  

Definitely a different "long run."

Think of "Don't waste time" when you hit those aid stations...

All the best at WS100. I'll be volunteering at Michigan Bluff, so hope to see you there!

Backofpack 6/9/09, 8:38 PM  

Excellent adventure Donald!

Billy Burger 6/9/09, 10:28 PM  

very/tres/muy cool Donald - thanks for sharing!

Stuart 6/10/09, 3:04 PM  

wow now that is simply very very cool; zen, hills, trails, scenery...dang where do I sign!

mindy 6/10/09, 5:20 PM  

Wow. Thanks for this Donald. Your WS experience is going to be incredible!

Dori 6/10/09, 11:05 PM  

I'd say stopping to take photo's of cows counts for living in the moment. :-) Sounds like a grueling run. Good luck in Western States!

Gretchen 6/15/09, 1:20 PM  

Yeah, I think the monks would definitely approve of ultrarunning. Sort of a spiritual awakening every morning. It just seems so perfect to combine a long run with a visit to a Zen center. And a good reminder--Don't forget to enjoy each moment of your race, even when you're at your lowest, most horribly distraught point. Appreciate the moment, because you've been waiting a long time for it.
Also, I am in love with that picture of the sun coming up through the fog. That pretty much seems to encompass everything.

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