Mindfulness, a technique of remaining present in the moment, has proved to hold numerous significant long term physical and psychological benefits.
It’s interesting to us here at Adventure Pedlars at the moment, not least because there are so many parallels to draw with what we know as the benefits of being in the outdoors: learning how to focus the mind, to not be distracted by thoughts, to manage pain or increase ‘flow’ are all a big factors in most adventurous activities and, having done some research, I felt the Highland Trail 550 could well provide a suitable platform to explore this in adventure.
There’s no doubting that prior knowledge of a route makes a huge difference in a race like this. Last time I’d been intimidated by pushing myself alone into really remote sections, fearing that “there may be dragons in them hills”... but knowing what’s around the corner creates a familiarity that dispels that fear and whilst there may still indeed be dragons, one is now aware that they are altogether more friendly than previously imagined. So on that first day I found myself unlocking ever further sections of the route, pressing on alone longer into the night around the misty, barren and quite possibly haunted shores of Loch Ma Stac, this time safe in the knowledge that there was a bothy to get to on the other side. This security blanket of awareness gave me far more confidence to ride on alone and as such to hit my own rhythm, in turn, tilling fertile ground for exploring the recesses and limits of my mind.
Call it what you like (it depends who you talk to really) The Shamen, the Yogi, the Monk or the Madman... but in almost all societies and through the ages there’s always been those with an awareness of another place. A place where the boundaries of the ‘self’ are stretched. To that list I’d like to add HT550 racer…
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain”
- Carl Jung
Anyone who has had any experience of pushing themselves beyond what they physically perceive to be possible will have some understanding of this statement.
But for me that’s not the end of the story... Pain is a crude tool by itself, but combine it with wonder, awe, peace, exhilaration, flow, tranquility and a deep sense connection with the rhythm of nature and you’ll create a heady and potent brew that can see you not only surviving an ordeal but thriving through it.
Dawn light wakes us in our bivvy bags at 5am. Dammit, we’ve overslept! The small crew of riders that had pressed on into the night with will now be long gone. Stupid!!.. and definitely all Body’s fault - too weak, tired and beaten from the day before… shame.
But then wait a moment, just look at that view... A sky so clear and perfect that to reach out and touch it might shatter the world itself; remote mountains of gold, piled high and touched by Midas himself, basking lazily in the early morning glow. Where on earth would I rather be right now? I want this moment to stretch and stretch... Far from rushing to leave we all just lie there and drink it in. Drink until we’re tipsy and reeling in the beauty of it all. A perfect glass pool before the descent to Carnmore Bothy draws us in. Splashing naked through embarrassingly ankle-deep water while a coffee brews on the loch shore. Strong sun dries the droplets off my back and I just sit there and breathe… becoming utterly rejuvenated.
There’s no doubting that prior knowledge of a route makes a huge difference in a race like this...
This security blanket of awareness gave me far more confidence to ride on alone and as such to hit my own rhythm, in turn, tilling fertile ground for exploring the recesses and limits of my mind.
The descent then passes in a blur of symbiotic flow; Bike skidding its way effortlessly around tight switchbacks, totally unconcerned with the treacherous drop inches from its wheels. Mind and Body just hold on for the ride. Unthinking. Completely succumbed to the moment. And then, crossing the causeway at the bottom, the turbo boosters kicked in. So filled with an infectious energy that we attacked the next climb like an XC racer, no concern for what was coming next, just wholly present.
I didn’t know it then but I’d be riding and carrying my bike for the next 300km and 34 hours practically non-stop until the finish. I’d catch all the riders from the night before and then some. Finishing in four days and six hours (ten hours less than the previous year).
I’m still not quite sure how or why I did this, but I’m now convinced that part of the beauty of a race like the Highland 550 is that stopping to take in and recognise those moments of mindful awe will not make you slower. Far from it. They’ll sling-shot you on like a planet around the sun, speeding you into the depths and darkness before grabbing you and pulling you back in to infuse you once again with the energy to continue.
These are my lessons learned from this adventure. But it’s not enough just to apply them racing a race, experiences like the HT550 can be a metaphor for life. By stripping back the layers of b******* and reflecting something of the core of existence back at us we can learn an awful lot about ourselves and the world around us. I suppose the hard part is in knowing and interpreting what that all means. For me, I’ve found that it’s the great things; the adventures, the blue skies, the swooping descents and the heady sunsets in life that give me energy and momentum to push on through all manner of hardship and turmoil. The trick is to stop once in a while and take note. It won’t slow you down...
Pete and Alice from Adventure Pedlars are now taking all that they’ve learned from a lifetime in adventure, outdoor education, psychology, physiotherapy, yoga and mindfulness to create Breathe Adventure Escape experiences. Multi-day adventurous retreats in the UK and abroad. They aim to be an antidote to (what has become) ‘modern living’ and to reconnect, refresh and reinvigorate your body and mind through adventurous experiences in wild places.
Check out what’s coming up at: adventurepedlars.com/adventure-pedlars-breathe-escapes or sign up to their newsletter to learn more.