When I arrived in Finland, it was great just to be in fresh surroundings. I was excited to meet my host-family, new friends, and run in the forest-lake culture so prominent in Scandinavia.
As it unfolded, my trip to Finland was both a blessing and a constant struggle. Like anyone moving to a new town I was trying to find my place in the culture. I was open to the unexpected, but was adamant to further my achievements. When I sought out paths, I faced value checks all-around, yet was awarded with new ideas and thrilling activities.
In time I found running friends and a club to race in, but in an unexpected way my attitude toward running had changed for the better. "Learning and desire keeps us tapping into the pulse of life," my mom told me once. "You have always been curious in life", and for me curious running is an ever-changing revelation.
In my search to identify with a running group, I slowly let go of my PR mentality and began training vigorously in nature's splendour, ultimately learning the Native American virtue of running for the People.
Speed is a sacred and momentous cause, but is equally useful when applied to life, the surroundings, and the community. Like any different culture, native running has something to teach all of us. In essence we should not emphasise the outcome of an event so much, but actually rejoice in its actual happening. For me it is like realising I wouldn't have won the race if I didn't have a running community to run with.
In another sense native running is about appreciating nature and the community it provides. In Finland I was bounding my way miles through knee-deep snow just to go investigate the peaks of inviting ridges. I was on an adventure to explore every nook of the woods and felt like I was flying through the snow, a sensation that was soon confirmed by my host-dad who said my stride was impossible and must be a trick of the paranormal.
Running in nature provided me with possibilities for experience. I would run bare-bodied in the silent powder, marvelling like a little kid at the impossibility of it all. I would struggle mercifully with a squishy swamp to be relinquished to the over-stimulating footwork of the boulder field. I would invite myself to run under the stars, on the beach, in the water, and into the desert. Like the first runners, I was being blessed with all the temporal experiences of nature just by living with the earth.
Not so long ago this experience was common place in the Americas. Imagine two young Indian boys with painted legs paused at the start line, readying themselves for the next 20 miles ahead. For them the race isn't about time, it's a race within ritual. One carries an arrowhead in his mouth for speed, while the other counters with moccasin painted wind-sign. No roads, no pavement, no cars; just the earth itself. This skill isn't just play, it's useful for survival. It's needed for hunting, evasion, trade, and the deliverance of messages. The boys race effortlessly and race for the People.
There are many ways to run within the Great Race for People and the boys just illustrate one way. "...A Hopi messenger has been known to run 120 miles in 15 hours ...The Arizona Indians are known to run down deer by sheer endurance," remarked an outsider in 1882. Present day Native Americans do not all go to such extremes to run for practical means, but still have a distinct running worldview.
Mythic races are said to have helped the Gods settle important decisions and structure the universe. The milky way that shines so proudly at night is but a dust trail left between wildcat and coyote in a race. It was the Gods who first ran and it is they who taught it to the People. The Hopi of the South-western United States incorporate running into religious ceremonies centre around the crop year. These races insure that the nature will give to them what they need and the sacred cycle will continue.
In a different part of the south, the Tarahumara of Mexico relay messages of all kinds between mountainous villages. They carry with them crushed corn powder called pinole to sustain them on their long journeys. For them running is accepted part if daily life.
It is my view that once running has coalesced with the habits of daily life, victory becomes less important. In tribal events races are often preceded by boastful rivalry, yet once the victor emerges, he is virtually ignored by spectators and competitors alike. Grudges from last years races are not kept and it is important to try your hardest, yet rejoice in the happening, far cry from the spectator-fed super star mentality of the modern athletics.
It is easy to see that modern athletics is distinctly different from Native Running, but on the more subtle level mainstream Americans run with team-pride in mind, not the People. The respected ultramarathoners have their community apart from the high-school routine and the university, in turn, is discouraged from running with the young runners observing NCAA regulations. What we have here is a case of age segregation that disunites the running community at the joints, and makes the transition to being a life-long runner less attainable.
This is all generally speaking of course and given that we all have heaps of fun and the older runners have really helped us out, there might be no complaining, but somehow it seems that all the institutions are pitted against each other, rather than pooling their knowledge and their camaraderie together.
In other countries the club system makes the opportunity for such a running conscious much more realistic. In Helsinki, I was part of a Coaching Association called TALLI2000 that pooled their resources together producing some fine world class runners. The opportunity for running for the people really abounds in Finland, a fact that is championed by the popularity of orienteering, a family event in which all ages can equally participate.
After a successful 10k run in Sweden, I was sitting in the terminal of the Stockholm sea-port relaxing with one of my best Finnish friends, Matti, when I asked him, "Why do you think it is the Finnish rarely go to church."
"I can be in church every Sunday or I can be surrounded by friends orienteering out in forest. For our family orienteering is our time to be together and be with the community. As for church, some old people go, but times have changed since the hard years when it was more necessary."
People who organise orienteering events have the right idea, but there always remains a potential to do more than races for the People.
Once I had this dream that I told my Finnish host-brother. "I think we should have a sauna relay. All the inhabitants of the country would warm up their saunas, then starting from our own sauna we would jump in the snow and then run a kilometres distance across the lake to our neighbour's sauna, warm up and repeat the process until a big sauna circuit had been achieved. Just imagine the crazy fun we would have; neighbours passing this way and that, poking our heads into the next sauna, greeted by other sauna runners marvelling in the night-time craziness. It would be a grand social event."
Running through the woods with my mentor and training pal, Matti stops unexpectedly and says, listening to the wind intently, "Don't you hear the dogs?" He then jumps off the path into a water ditch stomping wildly. He motions for me to imitate. I splash around and then suddenly understand his intent and we bolt off into the woods fleeing our imaginary pursuers.
What wild fun we runners have sometimes, yet I still wonder if this fun can last forever.
"I will say this as if I am your father," Matti says to me kindly. Sitting in the sauna after Orienteering in a snow storm he relates, "Sometimes I'm worried about you and Tiina (Matti's daughter), and the other Juniors who train hard. I think that you might be doing too much and will get hurt."
As a complement to my speed, my exploits in nature were giving me new all-body strength and endurance. I was training hard, and the results were showing. "When I was your age I would train hard just like you, but now I have had problems... You should remember to rest your body. "I ensured him that I was listening to my body, took a ladle of water, and threw it on to the sauna rocks. We both cringed as the steam prickled its way up our backs.
Matti was my training partner while I lived in Helsinki. We were fortunate to have many loony adventures together, yet sadly he is running no longer, his Achilles being beyond recovery. His affection for orienteering has inspired me to continue his bush-style running in the U.S. and be cautious about my training. By running within the ritual of life and the community I could be 85 years old and in awesome running shape, or contrarily the world champion at 27 years burnt out 30 years later. There are many ways to run and not one of them is bad, however it's good to be aware of the style opposite of your own.
As developments encroach, support open space initiatives, and maybe then we can still run in nature. Running on asphalt is fine, but won't get you there in the long-haul. Don't think like the MIT coach who says today's high-tech running shoes alleviate the shock of concrete. Think like the life-long runners the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Tarahumara who among many others believe the earth caresses the feet.
When I got back from Finland I felt like the world was just beginning. I had confidence in my values and was proud to be a child of both cultures. For those who can, I recommend cultural exchange as a reprieve from comfort, and the beginning of learning. For myself, I now run with new reason, knowing my place is among the People.