yogi josh

I set the intention of running the Jemez Mountain 50k trail marathon last October. I had recently returned from a series of devastating mudslides in Ladakh, India where over 1,000 people lost their lives. I came back in a difficult place, needing some time to heal and reconnect with friends and family. I also came back keenly aware of the preciousness of this life, and with a renewed sense of what is possible for the human being, how much brilliant potential we carry around with us every day.
The heart of the yogic traditions and practice that I’ve studied for years is the systematic and total transformation of the human individual. If there’s one thing my time in India last year taught me, its that this transformation is not a lofty ideal — it is a real, tangible, thing. After years of somewhat non-committal practice in which the transformation of myself remained a ‘nice idea’, I felt it was time to put all the concepts into actual practice and, more importantly, I felt a clear path to do so.   From the beginning, when I set the intention of running this race — the first race of its kind that I’ve ever run — I set goals. Personal goals, fundraising goals for my beloved charity, Students for a Free Tibet, and, of course…. the ultimate goal.
My personal goal was always to finish the race top ten in my age group. For my first ultra, I decided this would be a good measure of success. I’d never been much of a runner before — though I did grow up hiking and backpacking on the trails of New Mexico — but I knew something of my physical and spiritual potential from my yoga practice, and wanted to deeply challenge myself — not just to finish the race, but to finish strong, stronger than would be expected from a first time marathoner.
The fundraising goal was one I felt achievable — $5,000 in pledges for Students for a Free Tibet.   And of course, the ultimate goal…. winning the race. What if, I asked myself as I began to log some fairly impressive training times, what if by some miracle I could actually win. Although I knew from the start that there were professional trail runners competing in this ultra, and that it was by all counts a very difficult course, I let myself dream of winning, for motivation and inspiration, if nothing else.   In the Tibet movement, we have always had a very one-pointed and somewhat lofty goal — freedom for an entire nation. It is easy sometimes to look at the current situation in Tibet and feel discouraged, to feel that the task is too daunting and that our efforts — since they have not yet resulted in freedom — are falling short of our goal. But our work along the way pays off daily in deeply significant victories. In a sense, we are still at the beginning of the race… and as in any race of significant length, its important that we pace ourselves, that we stop and replenish, that we recognize and celebrate our victories along the way, and that we not overlook the value and significance of each of those little victories. Each of them deeply matter, and each of them move us toward the goal. Our path to freedom is a long one —  and although there is a lot of urgency in the Tibet situation, I would like to also suggest that its OK that it is a long path, because that actually works in our favor. We will outlast them. If we are steadfast in our conviction of the rightness of our cause and we pace ourselves for a nice, long ultra run, we will eventually win. They will lag, and we will outlast them.
On race day, I kept a good pace at the back of the leader pack for the first 10 miles to the base of Caballo Peak. I climbed the 2,000 steep vertical feet to the top slowly, still shaking off the cobwebs from the lack of sleep the night before. I had decided that the descent down Caballo would be the first time I would open it up and risk a little real speed. Downhills are my strength — something about having the steep trails of New Mexico  in my childhood blood — and after a 10 mile warmup I wanted to start attacking the course a little more. I paused a minute in the gorgeous sunny meadow at the top and popped in my headphones for the first time to give me some extra juice for the run down. One of the race staff made a comment about the other racers she’d seen running with headphones on.   “Yeah,” I grinned. “But I bet they’re not listening to bagpipes.”
I tore down the mountain full speed, flying past racer after racer on the descent. If I could keep this pace on the downhills and keep my energy levels up on the uphills I knew I stood a good chance of breaking the top 20. I screamed around a corner at top velocity, felt my left foot slide out from under me on loose Jemez pebbles, went airborne for a long second in which i registered that there was nowhere I was going to land but on a bed of sharp rocks, and then slammed down hard.   I got up immediately.  Both knees and elbows were bruised and bleeding, my left hand was completely numb and immovable, and a lot of the skin of my right forearm was missing. It all hurt like hell, but nothing felt like more than surface scratches and bruises. Until I started to run again and felt a stabbing pain in my right knee. It had landed squarely on a rock and — while there was no twisting or structural damage — it was badly bruised and hurt every time i stepped or moved or tried to bend that leg.   Immediately, I knew that this was going to badly effect my finishing time. I knew that there were still 20 miles left to run. And I knew that with every single step of that 20 long miles I was going to feel that knee screaming at me.
I kept going. To me, looking back on Saturday, this was the defining spiritual breakthrough of this run — not some amazing finishing time, not “winning” which of course was never going to happen on my first ultra — the fact that I kept going. And in keeping going, I learned a lot about myself over the next 20 miles. And I learned a tiny little bit about what we call pain.   In a couple of the pre-race writeups and interviews I referred to drawing on a small amount of the immense strength and courage of Tibetan political prisoners I’d worked with. People like Ngawang Sangdrol, whose steadfastness and perseverance in the face of extreme suffering had been a great inspiration to me.
As I labored up the next hill (there’s an immediate 1,200 foot climb after the Caballo descent), shedding all my expectations of a top 10 or top 20 finish, I put my words into action.  I visualized the former prisoners I had worked with and I asked them for strength.    As my knee kept telling me in no uncertain terms to immediately stop what I was doing, I repeated to myself — whatever this is, this is not pain. Ngawang Sangdrol — SHE suffered pain. This is nothing. Its not pain. In fact its not even you….  I remembered the Vipassana insight meditation I had practiced, in which you go deep into a sensation, strip away all the external labeling of it, and just dive into what the actual sensation is. And time and time again, as I dove into it, I found it wasn’t as dire as my mind made it out to be. In fact, it was hardly anything at all.   This is your spirit running, I told myself. Your spirit is so much vaster than that little body on the trail. That tiny voice crying out to you from your body, that’s not even you.
Over the hours, as the pain continued and the number of miles I’d logged began to physically wear on me and each step required me to access deeper and deeper reservoirs of determination and strength, I found that I could use all these deep emotions that I have around Tibet and the Tibetan cause to propel me forward. My deep-seated anger at the Chinese government for all they’ve done to the Tibetan people rose to the surface.    However, I quickly discovered that the baser emotions of anger, frustration, rage, and a desire to defeat or to destroy only got me so far. They served as short term fuel. They gave me a quick burst and just as quickly dissipated. What I needed to get me through was far deeper. Serenity. Acceptance. Peace.    I would imagine, that if you asked the Tibetan political prisoners what kept them going for all those years, it wasn’t anger. In fact, I imagine the angriest of prisoners were probably the first to break. If someone like Sangdrol can be motivated by something far deeper than anger, why can’t we?
At mile 22, I found that peace. Or rather, it found me. I stopped fighting. I got out of the way. And everything shifted.   I crested a ridge and came into an open meadow as the soundtrack from Gladiator kicked in :) and suddenly the pain stopped being pain. It just became the way things were. I accepted it for exactly what it was. And that acceptance gave me strength.   I’m sure you could find a scientific explanation for it involving endorphins and serotonin and the body’s natural pain killers kicking in. But it was more than that. It was something that over the last year I have experienced quite a bit. One of the most important and vital experiences for the human being, and one that gets lost all to frequently in our culture of individual achievement, in which we expect ourselves to forge our way forward with no outside assistance — it was Grace.
There is a place where human effort ends and grace begins. There is a place where we let go and let ourselves be carried by currents far greater and stronger than we are. And in that letting go, we are carried to places more profound than we could have ever gotten through our own effort alone.   In relation to our work for Tibet, I would like to offer the idea that our own effort can only carry us so far. If we rely solely on our effort, we will exhaust ourselves. There are things — most things, in fact — that happen outside of us. Outside our small spheres of control, outside the Chinese government’s tiny manipulations. The gears that are at work in the turning of this world are so much vaster than our minute lives.    Grace is available to us, and will continue to come if we are open to it.    What does this mean in relation to our daily work for Tibet? It doesn’t mean at all that we should let up in our effort — certainly it was a great deal of effort that took me across the finish line and that effort is a necessary aspect of our work. It means in addition to effort, we bring in all the other qualities necessary to running a good, long race. We pace ourselves. We replenish. We ask for help. We let go of doubt and cynicism. We remember the ideals that we are working for involve peace and compassion and we see how that is reflected in our word, our deed, and our lives. And we draw from the immense spiritual resource that the Tibetan culture has to offer us.
In the end, I did not, of course, win the race :) But I did finish top ten in my age group. Together, we raised about $12,000 for SFT. And most importantly for me, I had a moment where I experienced some pretty deep adversity, I immediately readjusted expectations, and I kept going.    These experiences aren’t remarkable — they are what dedicated trail runners go through, all across the world, every time they run. And there’s nothing particularly remarkable about my finishing time. As of today, there are just over three dozen people in the world that have run the Jemez Mountain 50k faster than me. And I can tell you with full conviction that this will be true for exactly 364 more days, so I hope they enjoy it while they can.   😉
Until next time,   Josh   

6 Responses to “Goals and Victories, Falling and Rising, and a Little Thing Called Grace…a Guest Teaching by WF Yogi, Josh Schrei”

  1. py says:

    Om Mani Padme Hung
    head bowed,

  2. Kevin Burnett says:

    Nice Josh.

  3. Sandra Lee says:

    thank u for this

  4. Brad Gantt says:

    Fantastic effort. Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Alan Ludgate says:


  6. eyt :() says:

    Thank you for sharing your inspiration josh and nice one on all counts!
    Reminded me of my first and only marathon when
    my knee inflamed at mile three from
    where onwards I skipped the rest of the course (and ended up on crutches for three days :).
    It was the knowing Why and the people who so beautifully supported me that kept me going. I can see also now it was meditation that got me through, observing it, unattached, As It Is.
    Thank you for reminding me /\
    Om Shanti

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