aire libre; mexico city

taming the ego; (re)discovering mindfulness in mexico city

taming the ego; (re)discovering mindfulness in mexico city
We forget 50-80% of what we learn in a 24 hour period, and about 98% after about a month’s time. This is human adaptation. Our animal brains don’t need a rock-solid remembrance of every groove of our steering wheel each me we grip it, right? A nuanced recount of flicking on a light switch? No. Trivial information is processed, info’s purged, this is how our brains stay in a healthy working order. But the big stuff, stuff hitched upon near & dear interests, that stuff has hold. Just… not always.

This past September, I found myself a bit fixated on memory happening upon a chance to revisit a place that changed so much of my running world: Aire Libre and their Mexico City experience. This was late 2017. Mentally, I was good with the marathon. Good, like, Yeah I’m okay to never do that again. The deep sacrifices, a singular focus for a quarter of the calendar year. Just, why keep on at it… ?
everything in aire libre’s genetic makeup flies in the face of what I’d thought of running.
Up to that point I ran to compete, shooting for local podium spots. But mostly the “competing” piece was with myself. I enjoy getting the blood pumping, need routine and structure, running just fits nicely.
But what is it that delineates positive self-confidence from the toxicity of Ego? I ask that semi-hypothetically because I sure as shit don’t know and I’m not sure if science really bears anything out there. Back in ‘17 when I made the choice to get uncomfortable, entrusting myself with a group of strangers whose mission I knew little about save for a couple of podcasts, I only later would realize I happened upon a life-altering, transcendent opportunity.

I could gush on and on about the thing, but discovering the world–really taking it in–at a trotting, some times spicy/flowy tempo, was bliss. Moving my body–not while preoccupied about a pace or a daunting workout–not even glancing at my watch, this was special. Pure cultural submersion, that’s what the team at Aire does brilliantly. The food, sounds, the unblemished nature, all of this cracked me wide open. We visited ancient Aztec “floating farms” (Chinampas), we ran Nevado de Toluca (Mexico’s 4th highest peak) we took part in a ceremonial sweat lodge (Temazcal). I found renewal I didn’t know I needed. My view of running changed in every way imaginable.

Skipping forward to present day. I’ve now taken part in or helped organize some odd six Aire Libre happenings. Now I have a chance to shoot down to CDMX once more, now actively recruiting a few friends, and being the old, wisened master of Aire Libre zen. Right? Well…
Early on, as I hounded Allison to posse up with me on this journey, I tried, vainly, to produce a vocabulary in describing just how mesmerizing the Chinampas were – for my money at least.

The Chinampas are an invention of the Aztecs. Located in the southern city-state of Xochimilco, Chinampas are basically small, rectangular plots of farmland. What makes them unique is how they’re built upon a shallow lakebed producing these little artificial islands or “Floating Gardens”, as they’re often referred to. Accessing a plot requires you to navigate through a labyrinthine run of canals via gondola-esque boats piloted by a local with a paddle.

The islands are supported beneath by a complex meshing of reeds staked into the lakebed (a kind of altogether netting). Soil and vegetation is/was then piled together un til a rich topsoil was achieved–“floating” as it were, the whole thing. The soil from the lakebed’s bottom is/was absurdly rich in nutrients and key bacteria, and the continual recycling of this now super-soil to the top allowed for incredible yields. Zero pesticides, an organic pH balancing, the high salinity of the mud, all of this makes for an end result that’s a wild thing to set eyes on. Today, lauded Chefs from Mexico City make the hours-long trek down to the Chinampas to hand-pick small yields of impossible-to-find produce.
Experts today now recognize, with wonderment, that the Chinampas didn’t harm the environment in any measurable way (as big, industrial farming does). They, the Aztecs, actually enhanced it. Future farming and sustainability no longer has to look bleakly towards a Sci-Fi-y future to feed humanity. All it really has to do is examine the genius of the past. (Phew, ok, done Googling shit for a bit.)

The place hit me hard that first time in 2017. Our guide was eloquent and absurdly knowledgeable in his explanation of what these swampy waterways were. I recall first setting foot off the boat, immediately having to jerk the shades from my face. “Wow, nope, this ain’t some optical illusion”, I marveled. The soil was… twinkling. Tiny diamonds of healthy, ebonyed earth–it was otherworldly. I immediately dropped down, scooping a handful and watching its velvety contents spill through the gaps of my fingers.

The idea that the sharpest minds in horticulture are, to this day, trying to unlock the secrets of these sacred farmlands astonishes me. But I geek out about weird shit, as anyone who knows me can attest, so not completely surprising–again, memories can store deep when bound to interest-piquers.

So. Upon docking upon a little bank, we made our way to a cleared section of the grounds. Zucchini was just harvested. We kicked off our shoes, grounded ourselves, and began into a meditative yoga session. We sucked in lungs-full of pure, crisp air, exhaling back carbon dioxide that the surrounding vegetation, no doubt, thanked us for.

Glowing with renewal, we walked a few paces to another sec on of the plot where we met the stewards and caretaking owners of the tract. A thin covering overhead hampered the bright UV’s; wooden planks atop cinder blocks made for a tabletop to a simple feast where we snacked mightily. Tamales and Tlacoyos (basically plumped up masa tor tillas stuffed with cheese, beans and other fixins), some fruit and thick aroma c coffee. I could have eaten 24 of those little tlacoyos numbers. I might’ve settled for four. The energy to the group was ruminative. The only talk was of the food; short-syllabled words about the taste, the freshness, the lot of us carrying on in our descriptions like aspiring Michelin critics. Or maybe that was just me.

But that’s the net effect to a backdrop like this, IMO. It loudly, in its silent way, commands a quietude. There’s so much charged sensory–colors, smells, sounds–that you feel a bit numb, lost. And how great is that! In our fast-paced, over-caffeinated, over-stimulated Westerner worlds, just allowing yourself to observe and key in on details you wouldn’t otherwise, it does something, pokes at a hibernating part of us, us as human animals. And is it really just the culmination of the natural space, the idea of Ancients masterminding something so astounding, or is a shift happening in each of us? Is our ego chin-checked, are we reminded of our small, sands-in-a-desert place in the world around us?
This is a core groundwork to Aire Libre’s mystique, I’d wager.
nevado de toluca
This is Mexico’s 4th largest volcano, with a summit of around 15,000 feet. In 2017, I hadn’t run at anything higher than, hell, let’s say 8k. So the disbelief as I tried to turn the legs over, kicking with all of my might, during a flat stretch (throw me a tasty trail and my inner-child lurches to the fore!), only to see my watch taunt me with an inert shuffler’s speed… total humble-fest. Like, all air is repossessed from your lungs, a debt your body finds impossible to repay. In that quick instance I learned a fast lesson: There are a myriad of disciplines within this running game. Like MMA with its wrestling, striking, jiu-jitsu, each needs its own servicing. Or not. Want to see the uninitiated Marathoner in catharsis? Drop them onto some nasty vert at a spicy altitude. Pure carnage guaranteed to ensue…

I filed this run away back in ‘17 in the Holy shit, pure absurdity file folder of my brain. Grammar would be a wasted effort or even worse: read as drummed up facetiousness. Patches of frost, jagged ridges, and a crater at the peak which has formed an emerald lake of still-as-if-frozen waters. The surrounding beauty is so intense, your softened, old age is flanked by emotion, tears rimming your eyes as you try and compute a place more perfect. Ego is laid down at the grand altar for sacrifice. It’s very confusing.
So come September I feel better prepared mentally. I knew what this would be, I know what I couldn’t do (keep that inner Gordo chill!). Back some odd four years ago, I tried to go pretty hard–I wanted to feel how deep I could burn, wanted to scalpel up that weakness within (as you slowly, hyper-slowly acclimate, every 30 minute interval or so you’re up there). And I paid for this foolishness dearly. My hamstrings began locking up something fierce when our run was done. The cramps electro-shocking my body for the remainder of the trip. Lesson learned, I see you Toluca, ‘Til next me.

Well, the volcano won out once more. This time, instead of a cool, brisk air and endless stretch of horizon, we were greeted viciously with chopping winds and a piercing cold that invaded every crevice of my under-prepared, overwhelmed thermal gear. Moisture swirled about the air; something not totally rain but not unlike sleet. Visibility was 30 feet, tops. This was a completely new visual experience. And as we wound our way upward and the peak played blocker to the wind’s ferocity, we were transported; enveloped by some invisible force-field that hushed the wind’s howl, our breaths climbing in audibility, haze suspended still about us.
and in this space, a stark departure from the violent sensory just previous… we were one, as a collective, giddy that we had pushed past, and began finding our rhythm, a kind of flow state.
Once we climbed into the bowl of the crater, circling around the lake, we would stop for some pictures, yes, but then past that, everyone just somehow knew to take inventory of the moment, reflecting on all the things that brought us here. Not just here, but the here of this trip, this experience, for some of us traveling halfway around the world. I found myself drawn to the water, looking out at the tranquil, watery expanse which parodied the sky above. I took in four to five deep, lung-stretching breaths, releasing slowly. Ahhhh… Blissful serenity.

Once we found our way to a jagged climb up out of the crater, what once was a trot morphed into a power-hike/scramble. I foolheartedly tried running this back in ‘17 and I wasn’t going to dare repeat such stupidity. Yes, there’s a Strava segment, but no, that thing isn’t something to be trifled with. At the top, having circled back to our original drop-off point, we had the option of hopping back into the truck bed of our transports to be sherpa’d down the winding climb of a road–some odd 8-10, bumpy, dusty miles. Or, you could travel by foot, flying down a steep, brutally technical “trail” of maybe five miles. I felt good giving it a little push, thinking I was hotshit kicking out ahead of our guide San ago (professional trail runner for La Sportiva and a bonafide legend in the IYKYK Mexican running circles). I felt the urge to race ahead, show him I could really open up–mind you, this is a “race” he didn’t know he was participating in.

When he met me with a few others at the start of the ascent he asked, “So you want to go fast now?” I grinned, the mischief in me, “Fuck it, let’s rip”, and it’s at this point that I learned firsthand the difference between an amateur trail runner and what pro grade really means. He was like watching the wildebeest stampede in Disney’s The Lion King, launching himself so heedlessly at the task, it was spellbinding. He launched himself in large gallops, pitching his way over jagged rock (to hell with the ankle busters underfoot), and every time I could raise my eye level past the immediate two meters ahead of me, he became a distant, shrinking target, eventually a full-on apparition. It was a humbling moment, poetry in motion personified. He is a mountain man if there ever was one.
We hugged it out at the bottom, those that took to the fast flying track, laughed at the absurdity, congratulated each other on keeping our bodies whole, and it honestly was a key remembrance of the trip for me. Everyone was equal. Pace, dexterity, whatever you want to call it, these details were unimportant.. We all knew how tough that was, how easily something could’ve gone sideways. The adrenaline was fresh, warm blood reinvigorating our bodies. All we could do between spurts of breath was grin like asses and sleeve away at our runny-noses as our minds played back the feat. You didn’t need words, our energies, the emotional replay, all of that was braided into one, unnamable thing, as good, honest efforts go with a group of likeminded’s.

ego was shrivelled away to a mousey nothingness. in its stead: love.
I shutter just typing those words. “Do something daily that scares the shit outta yourself,” a personal axiom I’ve clung to for a few years now. For my money: This is where the real growth is. Discomfort, and its ability to force all sensory front & center. The unexpected is the desired–yet unconjurable–end-point.
My first experience with the ceremony was a total shock to my… hell, everything. Mentally, physically, and–I’ll swear by it–spiritually. The basics are super simple: Intense heat by way of steam, an enclosed space that snuffs out all but a sliver of light, an Elder guiding you along spiritually. I’m leery giving away much more than that; if you’re reading this, you should experience it first-hand. And I’m positive everyone communing in the space was moved in their own personal ways. But being the woeful hydrator that I am, coupled with a tough go there up at Toluca, my body revolted later that evening. Cramps of the fiercest variety bubbling up and wreaking terrific havoc on my body. Dinner, trying to sleep, I was jarred by the pain of my hamstrings rolling themselves into the angriest imaginable knots… It sucked. Bad.

Jump forward to the present. I tried all I could to gird myself mentally. I’d thought about the last time with the Temazcalero, knee-to-knee with the 20 some odd people, steam-choked, panic-rising as my self-preserving nature fought to rationalize every nanosecond. The remembrance of my past experience tormented me–I’d thought about this thing more than any other part of Aire Libre’s past. So I drank every ounce of water I could, my need to pee every half hour as proof that I would be better prepared this go round. I stretched, I tried to force my mind to relax, I slapped at my legs like an Olympic Sprinter moments ahead of his event.
Once more: I’m not keen on sharing the nuance of the cleansing ritual, but know this: in the sacred sweat lodge, it’s not a matter of physical strength, nor tolerance for pain. It’s a mirror held up to every particle of your psyche. Every doubt, hesitation, fear, that, with the right shaman, will find its way to the surface. Emotions are so close you could have a dialog with them. Your mind plays powerful tricks. For those that know, you know. For those that can lack faith (like me) you learn a harsh but beautiful lesson.

This practice is a rebirth. You are to die and be reborn. This time, unlike last, I quit. I know I shouldn’t say that, or even think that, but it is what it is and has haunted me since. I exited when allowed. I thanked Mother Earth, my head bowed to the sacred ground beneath me, and crawled out. I drank water, walked the grounds by myself, barefoot, soaked and nearly naked to some outhouses with a cold running faucet, dousing myself. On replay: a sick loop: the moment I succumbed, my demons screaming “You can’t handle this!” in the wordless shout that they did.

I sat alone by a raging urth–a bat-jaguar creature, its jaw wide in extension, tongue rolled outward–a blistering heat aggressively stoked in the back of its throat. I sat and watched the flickering of the flame, praying in a gutteral Om to the God of Fire, if there is such a thing. Then, in that lowboy, hallucinatory state, I felt a warm wetness to my back, jerking me back to reality; a dog had showed up, belonging to someone who tended the property. A lovely woman with a smile of pure radiance said: “He wanted to come to you.” Somehow this validated all of the heavy thoughts racing through me. I sputtered as I vainly fought the urge to cry, patting the animal on its head.
I didn’t think I would take as much away from this experience as I did. A new lesson learned: You can view the same object, the same place, a person even, and find yourself utterly moved in completely different ways if you allow yourself the freedom to do so purely; with a child’s eyes and with all of that naive enthusiasm that comes with it. I thought revisiting these places would just be a fun time with old friends and new. I looked forward to being the wise running sage. That’s Ego right there.

A few months removed from my 2nd CDMX experience and there’s so much I’ve forgotten, sadly. But I’m reminded, in little flicks of chats with my friends, how we’re all likely just grades of incomplete searching manically for wholeness.

Do our successes or failures teach us more? Science seems a little muddy there, arguments going both directions. And paramount possibly to that first query: Which will better lodge in our memory? Again, subjective. The guides of Aire Libre might cringe at my word choice; Failure. But that’s the binary viewpoint, I think, we draw of things here–very American.

Failure is an abrupt recognition of a shortcoming. The best failures are the ones you can pin squarely on yourself. I’ll often get frustrated at how quickly I forget the seemingly “simple” stuff taught during a getaway: mindfulness, patience, slowing down, observing, being kid-like, love, wonderment. But I’m working on it. Maybe a tattooed reminder could help.

I’m beyond grateful for my “Familia”. It’s impossible to express how much you learn and grow simply in the presence of others, something I’ve neglected to assign words to in this little write up.
and that’s part of the genius of aire libre; they know how integral friends (old and new) are to the recipe for these powerful breakthroughs of self.
Science asserts I should’ve forgotten 98% of all my learnings during that short four day stint down there. But here’s a shining, outlier instance, I think, where Science is stunted by its cynicism.
about the author
gordon is a ten-year transplant to los angeles where he has become a student of running. he's a newly dubbed ambassador for tracksmith, proud ciele FAM, and a co-director for LA's unsanctioned race series, take the bridge. but aire libre Experiences are where he finds his real zen, showing him that running is well more than numbers and tape-breaking. film & cinema is his number one passion, but he also nerds out on bio-hacking, enjoys puffing cigars and contemplating his next tattoo.
IG: @gordonclark
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