Running in a “Garden of Compassion”

On October 24, 2013 by Kevin Washburn


(First published in the Birmingham Track Club Newsletter, May 2013)

Twenty hours of driving over rough, mostly mountain, roads delivered me to Jhamtse Gatsal. I was disheveled, a bit disoriented (altitude combined with weariness), and nearly desperate to escape the jeep’s backseat. Despite my rumpled state, my first steps into this “Garden of Compassion” brought me face to face with every one of its children and staff members. Each greeted my wife and me while welcome scarves (khadas) were placed around our necks. Reaching the end of the line, I stopped and took my first real look around.

Where, I wondered, would I run?

It was a stupid question. There was only one option: the road. The same road we had taken to get there. The partially paved, constantly potholed, frequently rim-deep-in-mud road. The byway used by motorists, cows, horses, goats, and an occasional pedestrian. In twenty hours of driving, I had not seen a single runner.

Nonetheless, 5:00 the next morning found me talking to my GPS-equipped watch. “Come on, you can do it,” I chided. “Find the satellite. Find the satellite!” I really wanted to map this run. How often do you get proof that you ran in the Himalayan Mountains? With a cheery chirp, my watch said, “Go!” I obeyed, and in fewer than a dozen steps I thought I might die.

At this point, I should mention that Jhamtse Gatsal is located at an elevation of 6700+ feet. The elevation was saying, “Good morning!” and I was feeling woozy. Was I dizzy because I was gasping for breath, or because the land dropped off to my right? I began to question the wisdom of carving a road into the side of a cliff. Within a few more steps, the dizziness passed, and I continued running. Slowly. Very slowly, which gave my mind time to wander.

I should run on the right side of the road because driving is reversed in India, right? Wait, that won’t work. The cliff’s drop-off is constantly in my peripheral vision, and that makes me dizzy. Guess I can run on the left. Wait, it’s a single lane road. What difference does it make?

From there my thoughts devolved into the dumb and dumber as the running experience grew more unique.

That cow ahead has impressive horns. Is it okay to run past it? I mean, if I get gored, how far could I get before bleeding out? Oh, and enter a dog. How far can you run with rabies?

I will never complain about hills at home again!

Is my heart going to explode? I think my heart is going to explode. How far can I run…never mind.

Are those…horses? Wow, how cool is that—running with the horses? And, oh yes, a few goats to complete the menagerie. Thankfully we’re lower than the yak tend to roam. Are they aggressive? Has there ever been a yak-runner altercation?

All that in a long, 1.5 mile run.

In my defense, I was coming off two months of serious illness that kept me off the roads. Oh, and did I mention the elevation?

Finally returning to the community, I stood in the road, bent over and gasping. (Standing in the road was generally not a problem. It’s sparsely travelled.) Running at Jhamtse Gatsal would be a challenge, but I was determined.

I set a goal of adding a ½ mile each morning, and reached four miles on my last run there. I wanted to reach five before leaving, but four became acceptable as I realized that the pavement ended two miles up the mountain road. There was no way I was going to run the unpaved, switchback that had at least 8” of mud and was prone to landslides, and I couldn’t bring myself to run past the community on the return. That would mean completing the run going up-mountain (Sorry, uphill is not descriptive enough.), and who needs that kind of misery at the end of a run?

As challenging as it was, it was equally inspiring. When I dared to lift my eyes from the road, mountain waterfalls across the valley moved in slow motion. Clouds formed, shifted, and dissipated below me. A raging river ran its own route through the valley, never letting the altitude slow its momentum. How could you not run when this awaited you?

Though I was there to teach, each morning it felt like I was there to run. I’m so glad I pleaded with my watch to find a satellite almost every morning. I know, it sounds like a platitude, but my mind and spirit found release in the bit of pavement I pounded. The runs expanded my vision, inviting me to accept the gift of nature’s beauty.


I park the car. Pelham’s little and little-known Coker Park stretches in front of me. No cows, no waterfalls, and definitely no yak. However, there is an occasional deer, a flowing creek (at least after recent rain), and once I met a Great Dane while starting a run here.

I sigh. It’s not the Indian Himalayas. It’s not exotic at all. But it’s not void of beauty either.

Come on, I tell myself, find and accept the gift, even here.

My watch finds a satellite and chirps. I run, more aware and more grateful to experience the world, even the familiar parts, mile by mile.

Running Past Phoenix

On December 30, 2011 by Kevin Washburn
The pain of training is nothing compared to the pain of not reaching your potential. Josh Cox
“When did you run the marathon in Phoenix?”
“Wow, look what you’ve accomplished in a year!”
“No, seriously. Think about it.”

This conversation took place as Julia and I crossed a parking lot to our favorite Chinese restaurant. Since it is the time of year when we tend to reflect on the last twelve months, I’ve been following orders and thinking about it—not so much what I’ve accomplished, but what I’ve learned. In January, I was a guy who ran a few times a week and thought completing a marathon would be cool. (And because I ran that first 26.2 in Phoenix, I can say, “Oh yeah, I’ve run with Josh Cox!”) Now, I’m a runner, pursuing my hobby with as much passion as I do my profession. I’m aware of this shift, this result of at least three insights collected on the journey.

  • Running is an exercise in self-discipline. Sure, this includes getting up and getting out there, but it reaches beyond donning technical fabric and task-specific shoes.Honestly, just about anyone can muster that much self-discipline. Stretching to achieve goals, however, requires sustained attention. Training gives every run a purpose, and how I run needs to match the run’s intent. I’m learning that I need to attend to more than distance. Pace matters. Form matters. Nutrition matters. Even what I do on my non-running days matters. Thankfully, running also strengthens my self-discipline. Research suggests this is more than an insight. Fitness contributes several cognitive benefits, including greater self-regulation ability. When I’m forced to miss runs due to injury or a travel schedule, I can tell. My emotions lie closer to the border of irritation than contentment, and my concentration abilities suffer. I runas much for my mental health as my physical health (which really is a false dichotomy since we have embodied brains).
  • No substitutes exist for a good “fan” and a good guide. A card that sits on my desk reads, “Your art and my art go hand in hand.” Behind the words lie a series of photographs. Close-ups, from various angles, of my running shoes. My “fan,” is a photographer, one whose support makes the occasional craziness of running possible. When I need three hours (or more) on a Saturday morning for a long run, my wife encourages me and asks, “How was your run?” when I return home. When I suggest running a race that requires travel, Julia investigates potential, photo-worthy subjects in the area. And she’s always there, at the finish line, camera in hand, chronicling and cheering my efforts. A good fan can be the infrastructure of goal achievement. good guide takes you places you weren’t sure you could go, never doubting your potential to get there. I know many runners who find the go-it-alone approach works for them, but I’ve experienced the benefit of having an expert focus on my goals and training. Though I began working with a coach out of frustration, I now find this collaboration contributes to the joy of running. Many think the main benefit is accountability. Sure, it’s good to have someone watching over your shoulder, but this is a rather negative perspective of a positive partnership. A good coach invests in a runner—invests time, energy, expertise, and ongoing strategizing. Training is more about continual adjustment and refinement than rigid plans, and an effective coach helps a runner make the necessary tweeks. I know, without an iota of doubt, that I am a better, stronger, and more passionate runner because of the investment my coach has made.One of the most re-tweeted posts I’ve contributed to the Twitterverse reads, “There may be nothing more powerful that you can give another than your belief in his potential.” A “fan” and a guide—believers you need on your side.
  • Nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the feeling of achieving a goal. I wrote previously about my ping-ponging emotions as I crossed the finish line of my second 26.2, the ING Hartford Marathon. Crossing the finish line is not the sole source of these emotions. It’s more the recognition and appreciation of the work it took to get to that finish line, the work that took place before race day. I’ll never forget my wife finding me in the finish area and asking, “Was it worth it, all those early mornings?” No hesitation. “Yes!” Working for something and seeing it happen changes you. Even though my major running achievement puts me squarely in the average bracket of marathon runners (3:55), it still required a price, and it still paid rewards. One reason I’m still running and chasing goals is to experience it all again. I frequently say, “I’m fine if such-and-such running goal is beyond my reach, but I don’t want the regret of having not tried.” I’m still learning, still growing, still striving to discover my potential. And this process is exhilarating.

Yesterday, UPS delivered a new pair of running shoes. My usual shoes lay beneath the orange lid. Nothing new. Same brand, same model, same size. I ordered the same color I had a pair ago, so I already knew exactly what the shoes looked like. Still, I opened the box, thinking, “We’re a long way from Phoenix. Hope you’re ready for what’s next.” I’m not sure it was the shoes that I was talking to.