Coming up for aire

by Kate Carter

 

It was born – as all the best ideas are – on a run. Two friends, Manuel Morato and Mau Diaz, were planning an adventure. Manuel had been reading Dean Karnazes’ cult classic Ultramarathon Man – a book responsible, you suspect, for more than a few crazy adventures. He decided he wanted to run from his hometown in northern Mexico to the coast in one shot.

The straight route would have been along the highway, but 100km non-stop along an asphalt road was hardly appealing. Instead, the runners decided to head through the Sonoran Desert, along the Sea of Cortes. This tough journey would take them through the lands of the indigenous Seri people but, rather than simply passing through, they wanted to connect, to be respectful of this community – seeking permission to run on the Seri lands. Of course, they also wanted to document the journey, encouraging adventure and a healthy lifestyle, but there was more to the idea than simply nice photos and an endorphin kick. What they sought was a sense of reconnection with a simpler way of life.

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"The team helps people connect with a deeper sense of landscape, to something bigger than themselves"

The project, documented by creative director and co-founder of the project Daniel Almazán Klinckwort, was a big success in terms of the metrics that matter to many these days: hits, clicks, social media approval. But that was really just a happy by-product. Something much more profound happened to the runners themselves, as Daniel explains from his home in Mexico City: “I think we all realised the power of running as a way to connect to the ancestral part of our being with that more primitive side of ourselves.”

 

And from this realisation, Aire Libre was born. The team would not just plan their own adventures, but take others on their own journeys – helping people connect with a deeper sense of landscape, to something bigger than themselves. By no means would all journeys involve such extreme distances, but participants would move beyond their comfort zones and travel outside the normal tourist destinations, working alongside local communities in a partnership of respect and understanding. This would be truly sustainable tourism, where visiting runners would unplug themselves from their ever-connected, fast-paced worlds and live – temporarily – a much simpler life.

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A year of planning later, the team took a group of Canadian runners on a trip to the mountains of Oaxaca. As Daniel says: “I think because we were doing these runs, connecting to the communities, it was changing us already. But we were used to it. When we took people that weren’t, and saw the effect it had on them... at the end of the trip, people were crying and hugging us. It was absolutely a life-changing experience for them. We realised then, there’s something very powerful here that can be translated into so many lives.

 

”So why running? After all, even remote communities are usually accessible by car. Because, explains Daniel, running is more than simply a practical way of seeing a lot of landscape quickly – though it is that, too. There is something in this most primitive of sports that actually deepens the experience. “Running has this power to sensitise you, to put you in the same frequency of the place,” he muses. “You can connect to the energy of the place through the movement, your own physical effort. It’s very humbling as well. You aren’t simply passing by – running really connects you to the place that you’re running through or that you’re running towards.

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Perhaps this sounds a little mystical and vague, but sceptics may wish to consider that there is hard science here too. Studies of the human brain after endurance running show that certain areas of the brain – those involved in memory, in navigational decisions, or in self-control – are lit up. This you would expect. But other areas go into what you might call a standby mode. The “default mode network” is a series of linked areas of the brain that turn on when we do nothing: sit around, idling, perhaps fretting or stressing over events and blowing them out of all proportion. Studies show activity in this area is actually suppressed by running. Most runners will know the effects, if not the mechanism: that feeling of a run calming troubled thoughts, or untying seemingly intractable knots. Then, too, there are the biochemical changes in the brain and body. The endorphins released by exercise or – a more recent discovery – the endocannabinoids. These are naturally produced transmitters that have the same chemical structure and bind to the same brain receptors as THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The effects, too, are the same: pain relief, mood enhancement… that “runner’s high” we all seek.

 

And so you can read complex scientific papers on the mechanisms involved, bandy around words like neurogenesis and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor… or you can simply experience the effects and choose to interpret them as a spiritual experience. There is room for both with Aire Libre.

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“In Mexico, we have a big history of what you might call pilgrimages,” muses Daniel. “Whether they’re religious or movements within the tribes – so that form of movement is in itself a way of respect. It sets the tone for accessing, for connecting to a place in a humbler and a deeper, more respectful way. If you look for it, in every culture running will be there somewhere because it’s part of our evolution as a human race. It’s been a really powerful thing to discover in every place we go. This has all helped us to connect to places and to people. And they see it too: when communities see what we are doing, they open up, they relate because they know about their own history and that this is a very human thing to be doing.”

 

Kate Carter is a writer, runner, presenter, and Guinness World Record holder for fastest panda in a marathon. www.themondaydebrief.com IG: @katehelencarter

Photography by Daniel Almazan Klinckwort, Michael Dunn Caceres and Pixquel