How Aire Libre are taking running in a very different direction
Editor's Note: I don't exactly remember how I came to discover Aire Libre, but once I found them I got sucked deep into the rabbit hole. Without spoiling the feature you're about to read (from Manuel Morato with stunning imagery courtesy of Daniel Almazán Klinckwort), to me these guys are at the forefront of an exciting space in our sport; using running to discover hidden pockets of the world and to connect with and learn about foreign cultures, all the while bringing together people who share the same love we all do.
One could say that Aire Libre began by accident. It was born seemingly out of impulse, out of a burning desire to explore a land holding the promise of a deeper truth and connection. To achieve what exactly? When Daniel, Mauricio and myself decided to venture out into the heart of the Sonoran Desert in Northwest Mexico, determined to run a long distance through that wild, off-limits terrain, we weren't exactly sure what we set out to achieve. All we knew was that we had the blessing and moral authorization from the elders of the Seri people to go ahead and tread through their ancestral land on foot, as they themselves probably did for centuries.
The newly formed Aire Libre crew was not completely sure of what we were getting ourselves into, but that didn’t stop three fellow runners from New York City, led by seasoned running culture advocate and founder of The Black Roses, Knox Robinson, from joining this uncertain endeavor. The resulting 56 mile expedition through the land of the Seri was an experience that left a permanent mark on all of us.
The journey would turn out to be Aire Libre's first in a series of short running documentaries that would allow us to create a vehicle to promote and discover the importance of ancestral cultures and their knowledge. The documentaries went online to the eyes of many Mexican and international runners, who seemed to resonate strongly with what they saw.
This is how Aire Libre found itself at the unlikely intersection of running, traditional cultures and wellness. It wasn’t just the raw beauty of running through a pristine virginal desert lined by the blue ocean at sunrise, but also the unique opportunity to connect to the traditional ways of the Seri people: their music, their language, their art, their simple lives, their connection to nature, their lack of modern life stress. Running was unequivocally the backbone of this opportunity to penetrate deep into nature, into ourselves and into our ancestral roots.
Following this new vision of running as a way of discovering the world around us, more running expeditions came to life: through Zapotec villages in the cloud forests of the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca in Southeast Mexico, around the heavily guarded USA-Mexico border in the depths of the Tohono O’odham Nation and through other mystical corners of our native Mexico and Latin America.
"Aire Libre didn’t just pass through these amazing locations: we took great care and the time to develop bonds with the local communities dwelling therein".
Meanwhile, people seemed to pay close attention to the content we were producing and sharing with Aire Libre as a result of all of these running adventures. Many of our followers expressed a vocal desire to join in on the epic cultural running frenzy. At first it was unthinkable, mostly for logistical and even safety reasons. Later on, however, the possibility started opening up. The thought that motivated our Aire Libre crew was we could perhaps share with other people this intimate philosophy of ours, of running as a form of human connection to nature, to oneself and to ancestral traditions in a more direct and intimate way. Perhaps other people could also experience the benefits that this kind of running can have on one’s soul.
This is how Aire Libre partnered up with Canadian outfit Running Off The Grid (OTG) to produce our first ever international running retreat in January 2017, in the recently explored Pueblos Mancomunados (Commonwealth of Villages) of the Sierra Norte in the state of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s most culturally rich and scenic regions. We had produced our second Aire Libre video documentary a few months earlier, where along with Born To Run famed running coach Eric Orton, we had run through a network of mesmerizing cloud forest, mountain and canyon trails connecting the Pueblos, in those once Zapotec-ruled hills.
The experience was open to the public to runners or non-runners of any fitness level. People were slightly befuddled by this: a running retreat where you don’t have to necessarily be a runner to sign up? The answer was yes, because the main objective of the experience was not just to train or run, but to use running or hiking as a vehicle to connect to oneself, to the magnificent surrounding landscape and to the rich history and context of the people living in the Pueblos Mancomunados.
The other very important aim of the retreat was for the participants to disconnect from the hectic pace, noise and stress of modern city life, by suddenly finding themselves without wifi or phone reception, surrounded by merely trees, rock formations and blue skies, and with a daily schedule that started with morning meditations followed by lots of trail running or walking, delicious food, a yoga and stretching session in the evening, and finally just plain old-school talking and sharing with the fellow participants, retreat staff and locals from the communities that were visited.
The end result of the week-long Oaxaca Aire Libre pilot experience was enjoyment in its most pure form. Before heading into the mountainous connectivity void of the nearby Sierra Norte, the group spent two days in Oaxaca City, taking in all of its vibrant colors and world-famous flavors. The city is widely considered as an epicenter of strong gastronomic identity, ranging from tempting local traditional street food to high-cuisine restaurants where sophisticated chefs create artful dishes using creative mixes of endemic ingredients and traditions. The state of Oaxaca is also the cradle of mezcal, a smoky spirit now well-known throughout the world.
After the intense glow, colors and people of Oaxaca City, came the raw natural beauty of the hills and trails of the Sierra Norte. Zapotec culture and gastronomy are also present there, however in a much more rural setting. The group would start running or walking after the morning meditation session and would follow trails lined with maize plantations and epic views that would take them from one Pueblo to the next. Once they arrived at a new village with a distinct atmosphere, delicious warm food would be waiting, as well as comfortable cottages where they would find their belongings already there. All the while, the surrounding nature and simplicity of life in the village communities would have a sort of healing effect on each one of the retreat participants (and staff, too).
Many more retreats have come after that first Oaxaca experience in different remote corners of Mexico: the thick forests around the old mining towns of the state of Hidalgo, through the sand pits and stunning views of the Colima volcanoes, around the misty Mayan highlands of central Chiapas on the border with Guatemala, and down the arid canyons of the Sierra Gorda in Querétaro. We have also gone back repeatedly to Oaxaca, which is perhaps the epicenter of all our experiences. The outcome of all these experience has been consistent: participants leave with a very noticeable sense of personal renewal, with a whole bunch of new interesting friends and with a subtle hint of peace in their face. Their comments and testimonials after their retreat experiences point to personal transformation and a renovated appreciation for their life and context.
The Aire Libre Experiences offer a very straightforward way to connect to these essential things in life that make us happy: a conscious connection to our bodies, a pleasurable discovery of new places and cultures that satisfies our innate curiosity, and a decrease of speed in our heads that allows us to truly savor and value simple things such as a beautiful landscape, an exquisite meal, or an honest smile on the face of someone around us. Running or walking is the final ingredient that provides a front-row seat to this rich universe of human possibility and a unique perspective for discovering the world around us.