When the legendary Badwater 135 ultramarathon starts deep in the salt flats of Death Valley this July, one of the 90 athletes toeing the start line will be U.S. Marine Corps Captain Mosi Smith. As part of his application to enter Badwater, Captain Smith wrote an essay which included the following memory of running in the Javelina Hundred ultramarathon in Arizona:
“On that cool evening in November running the JJ100, I came face to face with a previously unexplored depth of my soul. I felt stripped away and as open as the sky above the Sonoran Desert.”
I’m no Mosi Smith, but I can certainly relate to this experience with ultramarathoning: when there is nothing left but pain and fatigue, when you literally become pain and fatigue, you are indeed stripped bare — as naked and open as you can feel on the seventh day of a week-long sesshin. It’s as these times, when we’re at our most vulnerable and egoless, that the greatest spiritual growth can occur.
And this, for me, is a reminder of why ultramarathoning can be a vital and instructive part of Zen practice. Not that one has to run ultramarathons to practice Zen. But if one can realize a significant spiritual link in their running practice, then running simply becomes Zen. And vice versa, of course. Zen is all about the vice versa.