That’s the goal, isn’t it? Happiness? What metrics can we use to achieve that happiness and contentment? That’s a question that arose while discussing running with Aire Libre founder Mauricio Diaz
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It’s the normal way to think for someone who’s starting running.
“I’m going to run a mile without stopping today.”
“I ran 3 miles for the first time!”
“I signed up for a marathon!”
“I’m aiming for a sub-2hr half.”
The new physical frontiers being conquered in this new activity are exciting, but these tangible metrics can only take most so far. More likely, they lead to disappointment.
For instance: age can mean that personal bests are never improved upon; injury can mean starting from the beginning again; a change in circumstance can remove the ability to focus 100% of your energy into a training plan.
Written down like that, none of it sounds particularly good for one’s mental health or indeed for improving one’s happiness.
If centering your running practice and your goals around quantitative data is not the wisest path forward, what is the solution? Qualitative goals? What exactly is a qualitative goal?
The pure numbers of a quantitative goal make it easy. There’s no question that 3 miles is further than 2.9 miles. You cannot argue that a 1:59 half-marathon was run faster than a 2hr half-marathon. What’s the ‘qualitative’ alternative?
For me, just turning up is an easy win. Getting out there. Being mindful of my running practice. Remembering my doctor recommending 45 minutes of cardio three times a week, and fulfilling that through running. Meeting my friends and running with them.
Being able to say I met those goals x times per week or month? That, for me, is achievable success. Success from which I can glean happiness and contentment. I’ll worry more about my pure performance metrics when I get to the Olympic time trials.
I first wrote about the ‘ego metrics’ of speed and distance in the first ever Running Sucks post back in March, so it’s nice to round out the year by speaking to a kindred spirit.
Mauricio Diaz is co-founder of Aire Libre, a collective brought together by a shared passion for adventure and creativity that designs running experiences that connect with nature and new communities around the world.
Mauricio is so divested from those ego metrics that he doesn’t even track his runs with a GPS watch.
How Aire Libre started
It was back in December 2015 that the seeds of Aire Libre (Spanish: fresh air) were planted, when Manuel Morato asked Mauricio to join him on a run from his hometown - Hermosillo in Sonora - to the ocean, Mau had ideas about the 100km (60-mile) adventure.
“At that point in my life, I already much more enjoyed running on trails than on pavement.”
Long story short: Mauricio changed the route from roads to running through untamed coastal wilderness - land connected to the native Seri tribe. They had to gain the approval of the tribe leader to run through their home.
“The response was one of the foundation pillars of our project. He said, ‘We will support you because what you're going to do represents a sacrifice that will bring a greater good to our land and our people.’”
“In our short history of being runners - at least for me and Manuel - we had never thought of running in that way.”
With permission granted - along with important protection from the local drug cartels - Mauricio and Manuel brought their friend Daniel Almazán Klinckwort on-board to document the 11-hour journey.
The entire mission was all so profound a learning experience that the three knew they had to offer it to as many others as possible.
Aire Libre was born.
A new perspective
“We came from the regular path of running and its egocentric nature of how fast can you be and how long can you run? The Seri completely shifted the perspective.”
“The Boston Marathon has been around for 130 editions, the Athens marathon, modern running… How can you even compare 50 years of running to what running has really been and meant for the existence of our species?”
Mauricio goes on to retell the tale of visiting the Hopi tribe in Arizona. Known as being some of the strongest runners in the world, they have a ritual called the Snake Ceremony, which is essentially an extreme game of tag.
One tribe member has to run. The rest of the group chases them to get the tag. And they run, and they run, and they run until there is one last person left.
“I was just blown away by the story. So I ask how much distance and how much time they end up running. The guy starts laughing, and says that time and distance is something only white people measure.”
“They don't even call it running.”
What if, instead of a way to perform constant one-upmanship on yourself, running is looked at as just another necessary movement of your body.
Take it back to the school playground where you ran to run, perhaps. You didn’t measure a single thing. You simply chased joy.
Mauricio finds the mental health component of running interesting. When it comes to clinical depression, for instance, doctors often suggest whole foods, exercising outdoors, and talking before any medication. Those are key components of Aire Libre experiences.
He tells me an anecdote - he is full of them - about a moment during an end-of-day group dinner.
“There was once this lady who shared that she’s been suffering from severe depression for the last three years, but in these three days she was reminded what happiness is.”
“By doing what? Nothing but the most basic, back-to-our-roots things that make us a species: being in nature, moving, being in a community, opening the space for people to feel comfortable being vulnerable. Not more than that.”
Connecting to new lands
With experiences across the Americas, Europe, and beyond, travel is another essential ingredient of the Aire Libre model, and in this world of interconnected cultures - whether by air travel or just online - how does Mauricio approach a new location?
“There's no better way to know a place than with your own two feet. The closer you are and the fewer layers from your feet to the ground, the deeper and the better the experience of knowing a place.”
Growing up with a “superhero” marathon-running father helped, of course, but Mauricio got the travel running bug at college. Studying in Monterrey in the north of Mexico, he first ran up a particular hill to stay in shape and “feel invincible,” but as his degree took him around Europe, he soon began to notice how beneficial running the streets of a new city was in terms of getting to know it.
“As soon as I would get to a new place, I stick my shoes on, go out, just run the heck out of the streets.”
He talks about the specific energy that radiates from within the ground of each city. He talks about recognizing and connecting with that energy by running.
Maybe that energy can be understood through orientation - simply knowing which local coffee shops have a long line and which ones don’t - but those initial runs through a new, previously-untrodden place are so important to immersing yourself in a new culture.
Mauricio on running
We all find ourselves in that moment of difficulty during a run. How do you make running suck less?
“It's focusing on the end. It always hurts, but I know how I'm going to feel after. If I do it, I'm going to feel great. It's going to propel me through the day, make me more centered, more creative, and more engaged.”
“And I know something for certain: if I don't do it, throughout the day, I'm going to regret it. I've also been working on when I don't do it, not to regret it, though.”
What is your advice for a new runner?
“A group of people can hold you accountable, so the probability of you running versus not running increases when you have already told someone you will.”
“Find someone to run with and then sign up for something. Even if you're not prepared now, you will be, so open up the calendar, see what's ahead and sign up to that race. You now have a goal to prepare for.”
What is your perfect run?
“I enjoy running the most when I'm out exploring. It’s not tied to any distance or any time or anything. That could be discovering my new neighborhood or crossing 70 miles of the Backbone Trail.”
“I think a lot of people can end up getting frustrated and build up a toxic relationship with running because they put a statistic to it.”
“For me - and what I try to share - is that we should run for the sake of celebrating that you are alive. That's it. You shouldn't really run for anything more than just to acknowledge that you are here and that you are moving. Then you can experience the world.”
How do we quantify happiness, then? It was something of a trick question (surely not a clickbait headline) because, in my view, we can not. Happiness, for me, is rooted in contentment, and the eternal, exhausting pursuit of more, more, more negates that completely.
Using running to explore your surroundings and yourself is the ultimate. Looking at running as an activity - just something that you do - rather than as a sport, can help you find a different position. Maybe one with less purposeful friction. Certainly one with less disappointment.
I might not give up my Garmin like Mauricio has, but I’ll always be thinking of better ways of achieving Local Legend status.
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Ways to make running suck less covered today:
Train for a race
Explore new places
Run for your health
Connect with nature
Run with your friends
Ditch your GPS watch
Stop competing with yourself
Focus on how good you will feel
Acknowledge turning up for yourself
Running Sucks Haiku of the Week
It’s not very straightforward
Even when running
Thank you for joining me on this journey of thinking about running this year. Expect a couple of round-up pieces to finish off 2023. Maybe three - I haven’t quite decided yet. I’m trying to make infographics, anyway. Data!
Further reading and links:
Mauricio Diaz [IG]
DMT in Sonora [VICE]
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