Off The Grid: A Runner's Retreat
It’s rare for me to be unable to put things into words, especially after such a unique experience, but this has been the case up to now and left me wondering why. I’ve finally tackled my procrastination in divulging what it meant for me to go on Off the Grid (“OTG”), a runner’s retreat to Chiapas, Mexico. The trip was in collaboration with Mexican running retreat organizers, “Aire Libre”, and was certainly a trip to remember.
Having had time to reflect, I think I’ve been unable to describe this trip because so much happened and it truly was a “you had to be there” kind of experience. Although it was only one week long, it was crammed with activities, festivals, markets, running, meeting new faces, exploring food and culture in Chiapas, and yes perhaps experiencing a bit of the revenge of Montezuma. I’ll be honest, it was not a relaxing beach vacation, but it left me feeling rejuvenated in a completely different sense. I disconnected from work and busy Toronto life, and conquered new experiences head on. I’d never done any trail running before, and felt pretty hardcore with my newly purchased hydration pack. I felt fit and unfit all the time, huffing and puffing for air while running in altitude but feeling pretty damn hardcore after a 20km + trail run dodging dead snakes (yes, that happened). Some of the best times were the random sing-alongs in the van, morning meditations and setting out our mantra for the run ahead and then sharing them at dinner time as a group.
The town of San Christobal, where we stayed for the beginning portion of the trip, was a classic Mexican style town with bright colours and cobble stone roads. There were plenty of street vendors, but it also had hidden elements of modernity and top-notch restaurants and cafés. It had me wondering why I’d never considered Mexico when wanting to get off the beaten path before, as it reminded me so much of other places I’d been in Central and South America, like Nicaragua and even Bolivia. When we first arrived, we did a few shorter runs around the town to get acclimatized to the altitude and hills, and let me tell you, Mexico has HILLS! An “easy” 5km run took double the amount of time and left even the most fit participants feeling sheepish and winded. It was humbling to say the least.
I love people and meeting new people, which is why I’m never afraid to travel alone. The deep conversations with some of the Mexican women who came on the trip (and even ran for the very first time!) and hearing about their very similar struggles as entrepreneurs made me feel so connected and inspired. Because in the end, we are all the same, and it’s amazing how when you’re open you can connect with anyone no matter age, gender, culture, or race. There was an authenticity to this trip that no perfect itinerary could ever capture. I feel like we saw the real Mexico, from the eyes of Mexican people. And yes, sometimes we were tired or late or things weren’t perfect but that’s what made it feel like a real travel experience. It wasn’t an organized travel tour with strict time limits for each sight, but rather it was a guided entrance into a special community from insiders who knew the routes and wanted to share their world. Because of this we got to go into a normally guarded off Zapatista community, and saw incredible murals and artwork of people who are anti-capitalism and anti their culture being diluted by technology, modernity, and global conglomerates. These are not violent people by any means. We also had the unique opportunity to meet a co-op of women who support their families by making pom-poms. We learnt how to cook traditional food, and most significantly we ran through villages and saw the peoples’ connection to their ancestry as they farmed, raised animals and lived off their land.
Most noteworthy, and something I’d never experienced before nor did I know was in the plan for this trip, was the traditional Temazcal or sweat lodge. That’s another thing about OTG, it’s organized enough that you feel like there's a plan, but they leave plenty of room for surprises and unexpected activities! The sweat lodge is exactly what it sounds like, sweaty, but so much more than that. Our group was divided for the experience, as only a small amount of people can enter the dome-like structure, which almost looked like an Igloo. We were guided by a female shaman for this cleanse and rebirth ceremony. It was cold in the mornings and evenings, and we started our session at around 4:30pm. We stood unsure of what to expect, shivering in our bathing suits, although some people already had the experience last year on another OTG retreat.
We entered the small space and were told about the ‘4 doors’. These represented north, south, east, and west and were also a representation of phases in our life (which get repeated). Each door was also an opportunity for air and there was a delicious rosemary tea break in the middle of the ceremony, after the first two doors. When we sat down inside and the door was shut, we set an intention for that particular symbolic door, and marked it by criss crossing the burning rocks in the centre pit with a piece of herb or a piece of a cleansing scent, such as palo santo. It was intense inside as she added more water to the stones and the temperature kept rising along with the steam. We could sing or chant or talk or be still. For those who were really struggling, they could lay down or sit lower to the ground. Some people left between doors. I could barely talk and by the end it almost felt like panic to breathe, but then the door would open and we’d have relief. As the cold air seeped into our safe space we almost forgot how suffocatingly hot we once were. Pain is temporary. We peered outside the small entrance and saw the sun setting and the fire blazing outside our cocoon, as our next set of rocks were roasting for us. It was special. The metaphor is that you're in the womb while in the temazcal and experiencing a rebirth. So many emotions come up, as you fight to stay calm and stay inside. For each new door our shaman would explain the significance of the door or that phase of our life, and we'd set a different intention and begin the process again, watching her add water to the stones as the discomfort and catharsism set in. This went on for four doors. For me, it was amazing to feel and hear the emphasis she placed on our ancestry and connection to the land, our earth. It made our trail running on the Mexican soil that much more meaningful. It was hard to sustain all four doors, but was an amazing test for our will power, something we would rely on during our long runs. Afterwards we sat around drinking the rosemary tea by the fire, feeling so calm and energized and exhausted by what went on in that tiny dome. There was an unspoken bond and a sense of release and forgiveness.
All in all, as you can probably tell by now, this was an unforgettable experience for me, rich in culture, physical endurance as well as a reboot for the spirit. Being in nature is always the best way to strip down, be humble, and see the world with fresh eyes so that you’re open to receiving new inspiration and lessons. Things aren’t meant to be perfectly planned because it’s in the unexpected detours that magic happens. OTG definitely brought the magic and I’m forever grateful to the people I met on the trip who made the adventure so meaningful and special, and to our fantastic local guides for allowing us in to their world and for encouraging us to vocalize our mantras and embrace a new spirit. Let this be a reminder to take time out for yourself in order to be your best self. You’ll always return stronger, invigorated and more effective. Gracias amigos, I’ll definitely be back as Mexico has stolen my heart! xo