Running with a beginner's mind
Plus 7 amazing races in Reykjavik, Venice, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Maine coast, Vermont's Adirondacks, Utah's Escalante Canyons, and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
I’m reading a wonderful book right now called The Perfect Run, in which author Mackenzie L. Havey tells the story of Diane Van Deren, a professional ultra distance runner whose accomplishments make my jaw hit the floor: the first woman to finish the 430-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra, she’s also finished in the top five at events like Colorado’s Hardrock Endurance Run and the Canadian Death Race.
Along the way, the now 61-year-old has run through hurricane-force winds in North Carolina, where she completed the 1,175-mile-long Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and up the steps of the Great Wall of China, as well as among the mountains of the Swiss, French and Italian Alps.
But what impresses me most is that she’s running at all. When she was 28 years old and pregnant with her third child, she experienced the first of a decade-long series of grand mal seizures, culminating in an epilepsy diagnosis.
As Havey found in an article she wrote on Van Deren a few years ago, “the worst part wasn’t the subsequent physical exhaustion, mouthful of blood, or blinding headache, but the fact that her husband and young children had to witness these frightening episodes.”
The seizures became common enough that she began to feel a premonition when they were coming on. One day, as she was walking the family dog near their Colorado home, she felt the sensation that one was about to begin — which made her panic and start running home.
And then, strangely enough, nothing happened.
“That was when I figured out that if I ran, I could disrupt the seizure activity,” she recalled to Havey in their interview for The Atlantic. “That’s how I found the love of running: I was running from the fear of the seizure erupting in my brain.”
For a time, running kept the seizures at bay. Whenever she felt one coming on, she’d lace up her shoes and head out for a run. Exercising outdoors in nature really was a kind of calming drug for her brain, her doctors figured.
But the seizures eventually returned with a vengeance, to the point where she couldn’t get out the door fast enough for a run to do any good. That’s when Van Deren’s doctors discovered the seizures were originating in her brain’s right temporal lobe, making her a candidate for a lobectomy, in which a small portion of her brain would be removed.
The idea was scary, but she decided to go ahead — it wasn’t as scary as the alternative, as the risk of dying from a seizure was becoming clear.
Taking away more than the seizures
After the surgery, the seizures mercifully ended. But her family noticed her becoming forgetful, to the point where didn’t remember to pick up her kids from school, or where her car was parked when she left the house to run errands.
There was one thing she seemed to be able to do like she did before: running.
“While her brain injury sometimes made it challenging to operate within the normal time constraints and organizational structure of everyday life, there was a unique sense of familiarity in running and being in the outdoors. In the same way she had relied on running before surgery, she began using it as a coping mechanism when she became frustrated by her brain’s inefficiencies.
‘My mind quickly gets overloaded by too much stimulation,’ she explained. ‘There’s so much of that between computers and phones and social media. I just need to unplug and listen to the healing silence of the outdoors. That’s my medicine.’”
Because she felt unable to process time the way she did before surgery, she began using the simple rhythm of her own footsteps to focus. And what had been a liability became an asset.
Fast-forward a few years, and she was entering (and winning, or nearly winning) races like the ones I mentioned above, in the process becoming one of the world’s best ultra runners.
To me — as someone who’s never attempted to run a distance like an ultra — it seems like you’d have to be intensely, excruciatingly focused to accomplish something like that. It feels like an Everest I couldn’t possibly imagine climbing.
But to Van Deren, the opposite seems to happen, as she told Havey:
“On the harder stretches, I tried to let go of trying to control everything and allow myself to be in flow. I just welcomed what came my way and didn’t fight against anything. And on easier terrain, I could just look ahead and go and I’d find a sense of flow and run in that state for miles. No matter the conditions, when I’m in flow, I’m totally focused on my footwork and using all my senses. I get into a rhythm as I’m listening to my feet and breathing. I’m not thinking about anything in particular, just hearing and feeling.”
All these things have, obviously, come at a great cost. Van Deren says she’s had to grieve the things — and the self — she lost before she got her epilepsy diagnosis, and before she had the surgery that changed her brain so dramatically.
But she has been able to find a new purpose out there. For her running, and for herself. And that, Havey writes, is something we all have the ability to do:
“This should come as good news: In many cases you have the agency to cultivate and nurture happiness and the very quality of your life by gaining greater control of the inner workings of your mind. It doesn’t mean that you don’t pursue the big dreams, but it calls you to take the blinders off and pay attention to each passing mile on the road to getting there.”
We do this by taking a long, hard look at the lenses through which we look at our lives, she adds, as runners and overall:
“If you dubbed yourself a poor athlete back in high school P.E. class, it can be a real challenge to shake that sense of yourself. On the other hand, if your entire identity is wrapped up in being a runner, that narrowness can cause issues too.
The problem with these lenses is that they often shade out your ability to see yourself in a new light — to grow, change, and develop. In mindfulness circles, the idea of the ‘beginner’s mind’ is all about viewing yourself and the world around you with fresh eyes in order to be open to novel discoveries. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that being open to fresh ideas and characterizations can be a boon to health and well-being and... can also expedite perfect running experiences.”
Just like the ones Diane Van Deren has experienced, after all she’s been through. And still does today.
I hope you are well, my friends, and that you’re able to get out this week and have some great running experiences yourselves! As always, keep in touch and let me know how you are.
Races you might love running
Reykjavik, Iceland | Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021
From the starting line on the banks of Tjörnin, the small lake in downtown Reykjavik, you’ll follow an out-and-back loop around Iceland’s capital city, including long stretches along the shoreline of Faxaflói Bay. The route will feature panoramic views of the natural beauty that surrounds the city, including the flat-topped Esjan mountain and Snæfellsjökull glacier, which lies on the top of a volcano — which, by the way, remains an active volcano even though its last eruption occurred more than 1,800 years ago.
$53.95 and up | Sign up here
Venice, Italy | Saturday, June 26, 2021
Starting at 7:45 in the evening, you’ll run in the moonlight as the sun is setting over the Venetian coast at this once-in-a-lifetime race, where all along the route you’ll get to take in “sea, water canals, sunset and white beaches,” the organizers say. Starting from Piazza Milano, the course travels through the countryside of Jesolo, alongside the Cavetta Canal, and to the tourist marina of Cortellazzo before heading toward the mouth of the Piave River and the green parklands of nearby Lido, before returning to the beach and crossing the finish line back where you started in Jesolo.
€25 and up | Sign up here
Spearfish, S.D. | Saturday, July 10, 2021
Love the scenery you saw in the Kevin Costner movie Dances With Wolves? You’ll get to see that and more as you run this very gradual downhill race through South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest, a place filled with canyons and mountains as far as the eye can see. From the start of the race in the tiny hamlet of Savoy, which lies at about 5,000 feet above sea level, you’ll run the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, with gorgeous views of the walls of the canyon and limestone rock formations along the route, descending more than 1,200 feet by the time you reach the finish line in Spearfish.
$60 and up | Sign up here
Tenants Harbor, Maine | Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021
Enjoy the tranquil, peaceful beauty of Midcoast Maine and raise money for the locally based 4-H camp and learning center at this late-summer race, set here along the gorgeous rocky St. George peninsula that looks out into the harbor from which the town gets its name. Known perhaps best for the lighthouse that sits out on Southern Island just offshore, Tenants Harbor is a place where boats outnumber cars — and where you’ll run along winding roads with views of the ocean crashing against the beaches and rocky shorelines, with “quiet coves, gentle hills, and few houses.”
$90 and up | Sign up here
Shelburne, Vt. | Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021
Surrounded by the rolling green Adirondack Mountains and the deep blue waters of Lake Champlain, this small town (population about 7,000) features lots of the peaceful, bucolic scenery this part of western Vermont is known for, with wide-open farm fields specked with rolled hay bales and tree-lined roads. Starting from Shelburne Beach on the shore of Lake Champlain, the race unfolds along a combination of dirt and paved roads, and through the Holmes Creek Covered Bridge just after you pass the third mile marker — which you’ll run through a second time on the way back on this out-and-back route.
$55 and up | Sign up here
Boulder, Utah | Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021
A run filled with jaw-dropping scenery along southern Utah’s Scenic Byway 12, which lies just a short drive from the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this race features, as the organizers describe it, “a challenging uphill run through some of the most amazing slickrock vistas in Escalante Canyons, followed by a long downhill stretch to the finish line through sagebrush rangelands bounded by a background of cliffs.” It’s a race with a small field of participants — small enough for everyone to be transported to the starting line in just a handful of buses — but also one of the most beautiful you’ll ever run.
$75 and up | Sign up here
Cusco, Peru | Sept. 9-17, 2022
Billed as “the most difficult marathon in the world,” next year brings the final running of this once-in-a-lifetime running adventure that will take you along the 500-year-old Inca Trail from the Sacred Valley town of Aguas Calientes just outside Cusco to the ancient lost city of Machu Picchu, a place that’s been described as “the most spectacular finish line in the world.” Just to give you an idea of what lies in store at this race, the starting line lies at an elevation of 8,650 feet above sea level and you’ll climb through the mountains here to an elevation of over 13,000 feet, running through places with names like the “Town in the Clouds” and the “Gateway to the Sun.” The race is actually one day of a 9-day journey, and you’ll get to tour the ruins of Machu Picchu the day after the race.
$3,400 and up | Sign up here
A running read I loved this week
Strava’s Most Active Runner Shared the Secret to Running 20-Mile Days at 61. The headline of this wonderful essay by a Southern California man named David Simon at first put me off; there’s no way I’m running 20 miles a day! How could I relate to this guy? But then I started reading and came across his story of how he “accidentally” ran the Las Vegas Marathon back in 2013, and I was hooked.
“When people ask me about the key to my longevity, I tell them it’s slowing down... That’s also what I like to tell beginners: Start slow. Build up. Don’t try to ‘boil the ocean all at once,’ as a mentor once told me. Otherwise, you’ll burn out. Running is a lifestyle, not just a training activity.”
Words to run by
“Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, you must travel it for yourself. It is not far, it is within reach. Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know, perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.”
— Walt Whitman