Struggling for Joy: Running Trails at Rancho San Antonio

This is a bit of an experiment. I wrote this way pretty much all the time in my diary when I was in the mainstream of my running career. Now that I’m crapped-out and 73, I can only hope my memories will inspire you. This is from May 2006.

I ran in the foothills this morning. My exercise routine has changed drastically. I’m running just 15 miles a week, getting in shape after a six-week layoff to rehab an ankle injury.


Lovely thing about the Bay Area, you’re never more than 15-20 minutes from the trails. Rancho San Antonio, in the Coastal Range, offers 3,000+ acres of wildland with 20+ miles of solitudinous ambling.
A lovely thing about the Bay Area: you’re never more than 15-20 minutes from the wild. Rancho San Antonio, in the Coastal Range, offers 3,000+ acres of wildland and 20+ miles of solitudinous trails. (All photos by an ancient runner.)

I went straight up the hill, avoiding the flats that aggravate my ankle. I felt good whle running at 65%, then 70% and 75% of MHR. As always, I was experimenting with joy, running fast then slow, trying to find the harmony zone, seeing if I could “stay in the heart” while running.

My breathing was ragged when I accelerated to 78% MHR, not surprising so early in the run. I wondered if I should warm up slowly, as is my usual wont. But I felt good trotting briskly, so I reasoned that I was “following my heart,” letting it tell me what my body wanted. But on the slow descent I got caught up racing a couple who were trying to stay ahead, and I blasted off some sections at 85% MHR.

I reached the farm and stopped for water then headed up Wildcat Canyon. It was a lovely day, cloudy but warm. I ran up the shady canyon to the junction with Wildcat Loop Trail, then headed back, enjoying the lovely runnable downhills.

I was trying to find the place where my body was happiest and my heart and head felt harmonious. I slowed, thinking to take a breather and recover for the uphill leg on Coyote Trail.

My running felt labored – I wasn’t breathing easy, and some of the joyful confidence had oozed out of the run. I turned up Coyote and slowed again, not wanting to blast into oxygen debt and spin my mind.

I had a sense, which I often have, that something was subtly “wrong.” It felt like my heart and lungs were working inefficiently, like a car when the timing is off or the plugs are cross-wired.

Wildcat Canyon
Wildcat Canyon

Often I’ve done things that dropped my heart rate 5 or 10 beats instantly. Recently, while running on the treadmill, I glanced at the HRM and saw that my heart rate had fallen 5 beats. I realized it was because I’d been looking out the window in a relaxed and interested way at the swimming pool, watching the women’s water polo team practice. I’d forgotten about myself, stopped the endless churning process of thoughts, and “fallen into my heart.”

When there’s an opening of my heart, my body runs with joy. Several days after the run that I’m describing here, I told Ishani about it. I said, “That’s always been the reason I run. I’m always looking for that sweet place where my heart and lungs and body feel ‘just right.’” I told her how inefficient I feel when I’m running and thinking, and how my heart doesn’t want to run faster when my mind and heart feel disconnected.

I’d felt a little bit efficient at the start – happy to be back in the hills and rested and cheerful. My heart felt good – but it was nothing like what happened later on, which I’m about to describe – when there was such a complete inner warmth of rightness – no pain in my heart or feeling of dis-coordination, no hard breathing or burning in my lungs. I told Ishani, “It’s always been for me that my body is a monitor for my heart, instead of my heart being a monitor for my body.” Meaning that when my body’s running right, it’s just about a sure thing that my heart’s in the right place. The kind of running I care about is where my heart is right, regardless of how well my body is performing. I run not for the body but for the heart.

I jogged up Coyote for a quarter-mile still feeling inwardly discombobulated. Then I came around a corner on a stretch of trail and saw some Chinese people across the gully. They were stopped on the trail, talking and laughing. I was annoyed, “Golly, did you come out here in nature to make noise?” They split to make a path for me, and as I approached I felt that they were sharing a moment of friendship and enjoying being out in nature together. It touched my heart, and as I drew nearer I saw that one of the kids was a Down Syndrome child. My heart opened and I sent them silent blessings as I passed.

Emerging from their midst, I felt my heart warm with good feelings of love and kindness. It was very pleasant, but what amazed me was what happened to my body – I picked up speed and ran much faster, feeling a lovely warm enthusiasm, all hints of dis‑coordination completely gone. I sped along for perhaps a quarter of a mile until the feelings faded and I began to breathe hard again and slowed. While I was in that feeling of love, I was able to run with a kind of unhindered quiet verve and joy, free of mental analyzing or doubts.

I thought, “That’s amazing – it’s the power of love.” I ran on, going slower, and thinking how love really is the key to blissful running and running with power.

mushroomsranchoLooking up I saw two young Chinese girls ahead. They were standing by the trail; one was taking pictures while the other watched. Beyond them an old Caucasian guy sat on the railing of a wooden bridge. As I approached, I opened my heart, thinking and feeling how we are all parts of the same one thing. It wasn’t an oozy emotion, more a sense of being kids together in the sandbox of the world, open, cheerful and friendly. After I passed, the same thing happened – I ran with a deeply focused inner warmth of spirit, a kind of heart’s aura of oneness, running with power and joy.

It seems I run two ways: from the heart and from the head. When I’m too much in my head, it disintegrates my running. Thinking adds nothing to my run. Even if I’m thinking “good thoughts,” it doesn’t contribute unless I’m first of all feeling those thoughts. And I can feel them without thinking them. When my mind is quiet and my heart is open, any good thoughts that come seem to be somehow cosmically received.

So many times when I’ve found my way into a higher part of running, it has felt the same way, like it’s coming from the heart, and like the head must butt out or it will wreck the whole deal. Thinking puts me outside of my run – I’m not running, I’m thinking about running. But positive feelings like love and kindness bring immediate joy. I would call the state I get into at such times “real” running.

I went on up the trail recalling how I’ve sometimes tried to “use” deliberate prayers for people in order to get into an interior state where the running is fine. And how it sometimes works but sometimes it doesn’t. If I’m unable to use my thoughts to awaken my heart, nothing happens at all – it’s just a bunch of thoughts about loving people, but it isn’t the real thing. Today I was thinking as I continued up the trail, how trying to get into loving states for the sake of running faster never works, at least not for me. The motive is wrong – it’s not the right kind of feeling – it’s not pure love. Sometimes I’ve been able to get into loving states with the help of my thoughts, but it’s been hard. Always, what works best is if I focus my mind and just run, not sweating it, certainly not analyzing. Maybe I’ll repeat a prayer, “God God God” – I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my mind from wandering too much, maybe put my attention at the spiritual eye and in the heart.

King Snake

It works a lot better not to work directly with my mind, but keep my mental focus on one thing, as a way of eventually quieting my thoughts. When I focus on just one thing – like a short prayer – over time it does have that effect. If I do it long enough, it pulls all the energy out of the distractions. And the one thought becomes not a thought but an experience of joy and stillness.

It makes me very simple and sincere and quiet. And when I’m simple and sincere and joyful it opens my heart. Especially if I’m using the body, too – by running in the harmony zone, running with my chest out and my spine straight, running in rhythm, imagining I’m living and running entirely within the circle of an immediate bubble around me. Controlling the movement of my eyes, bringing the energy of my eyes more inward and still, looking at one thing at a time, holding my eyes in one position, keeping them from “peering about” (as the Bhagavad Gita says) and so on.

But the “end thing” is of the heart. It’s only when the heart’s doors open that I feel inwardly fulfilled and in touch with God coming and bringing His love (all love is His) from the other side. So I think that’s why it helps to use my mind to sing inwardly, or pray for someone, or send energy, or feel my oneness with all. But it does have to start with that mental focus. “Before there can be an expansion, there must be a certain grounding first,” my spiritual teacher said.

There are times when I catch myself being mentally lazy or abstracted and I’ll try to correct myself by becoming as grave as possible, dwelling on how this life is a very serious business, it’s about life and death, and it’s no good trying to go through it acting like a fool. I ask myself what good I can possible do for others, if my mind is all over and I’m “taking it easy” inside.

Runner at Rancho (San Jose and Mt. Hamilton)
Runner at Rancho (with San Jose and Mt. Hamilton in the background)

But then it makes me wonder, because gosh, if I get totally serious, how will I be able to love people? Isn’t excessive seriousness the opposite of love – if I’m scowlingly grave, won’t they be repelled? But no, actually the opposite. I find that I’m able to love much more when I’m under control, not swimming about in emotions or drowning in my own wants and don’t-wants.

When I’m controlled, I can make room for others. When I’m not noisy inside, I can hear their needs. I suspect all expansion and sympathy and true conversation begins with self-restraint. Not just empty expressions of restraint, but a deep pulling-away from self inside. The paradox is that when I empty myself, when I die in gravity, I end up feeling much more full. I’m empty, but I’m useful.

I’m reading Marc Ian Barasch’s book, Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search For the Soul of Kindness. It’s an excellent book. Barasch does a lot of soul-searching – he’s deeply aware of how often his feelings aren’t compassionate. He’s acutely aware how much of the time he’s thinking about his own needs, his own qualities, his own pride. I think he needs a method. He goes around the world and meets people who are compassionate, but he never commits to a method – never takes up Buddhism or Christian contemplation or Sufism or whatever. And, okay, he’s exploring. But I think those who desire self-transformation must recognize the need to work, and work with focus.

“Rancho” offers room for inward running.
“Rancho” offers plenty of room for inward running.

Running has been a laboratory for me, for discovering my heart and the riches of inner freedom that it holds – and it holds out those riches all the time, if I can know how to find them. But then, that is what meditation is for.

“At the inner end of the human nervous system, the mind, interiorized, communes with God,” Paramhansa Yogananda said. In deep meditation, when the mind and energy are focused in the heart, it’s impossible not to love, because that is the natural state of the interiorized heart. Meditation is diving into the ocean of God’s goodness again and again so that we can be washed, until we can live in that state and never leave it.

That’s what I’m trying to do with running, dive repeatedly, enter the ocean, leaving “thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea,” and be truly alive.

Note: Ishani’s name means “a disciple of Isha, or Christ.” It comes from the mission of St. Thomas, who founded the Thomasine Christian sect in India soon after Christ’s passing. In those times, Christ was called Isha, and his followers were called Ishanis. There are still about 3 million Thomasine Christians in India.

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