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Soul Running

Sometimes the best way to unravel the mystery of a foreign culture is to take a jog.

This piece first appeared in the June issue of Competitor Magazine.

Story and photos by: Stephanie Pearson

Sometimes the best way to unravel the mystery of a foreign culture is to take a jog. Over the following pages Outside magazine contributing editor Stephanie Pearson shares some of her off-the-beaten-path adventures running through out-of-the-way places.

Journal Entry: Oct. 30, 2005

Tiger's Nest Monastery is considered one of the most holy sites in Bhutan and hangs on a cliff 10,200 feet above sea level.

I’m freaking out in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. What am I doing in Bhutan reporting a story on Buddhism? What is Buddhism, anyway? What’s the point of an existential question? Does my tape recorder work? What is my story lead? When can I go running?!

Welcome to the 4 a.m. unraveling of my mind. This frequent spiraling into the frenzied abyss is why I was in Bhutan six years ago practicing the calming effects of Buddhist meditation. It’s also why I’m addicted to running. Unlike most endorphin junkies who read a magazine with a name like Competitor, my habit rarely involves a clock and a finish line. Perhaps that’s because I came out of the womb in third place. Or maybe it’s because doctors tell me there’s a glitch in my heart that can kill me if I add any extra stress to exercise. Whatever the reason, instead of fueling my addiction by lining up next to strangers at a starting line, I fuel my addiction by finding the strangest places in the world. Then I run.

On the best days I call this quirk “soul running.” On the worst days, I call it a job hazard. I’m a journalist whose beat is writing about out-of-the-way places. Over the past 20 years, my most interesting cultural insights have come as the result of early morning runs in these wild places, whether I’ve had to paddle across a lake to find pavement near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness or endure savage red mosquito bites in the South Pacific’s Marquesas Islands.

I’ve been growled at by howler monkeys while running in mud-crusted hiking boots in Guatemala; I’ve sprinted down a dirt road in Brazil’s Pantanal in fear of having my face ripped off by a jaguar; and I’ve slogged behind a Jeep in the baking sun of Botswana as my guide, Custard Samoya, drove ahead with his loaded .458 Winchester Magnum across his lap. With the exception of a recent reporting trip to Nicaragua where my only form of exercise was—literally—burning the rubber off my boots while hiking volcanoes, I bring my running shoes no matter where I am in the world. There’s no better way to confront the mysteries of how my brain works and what happens around the next bend.

“It’s the tolerance of inconceivability, being able to be with something when you can’t wrap your mind around it.”

Pearls of incomprehensible wisdom like these, strung together by Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, are what kept me preoccupied on my daily runs in Bhutan. I was there to report a story about the last independent Tibetan Buddhist kingdom, a peaceful land where the king prioritizes “gross national happiness” over “gross national product.” For three weeks, Thurman, a close personal friend to the Dalai Lama and father of actress Uma Thurman, led 17 Western “pilgrims” on a wild goose chase of the soul, forcing us to look inward, and grapple with the nature of the Buddhist dharma (natural law) and questions like: “Who ever discovered nothingness?”

What better place to come to terms with the freedom of voidness and nothingness than while running through the Bhutanese countryside at 6 a.m.? As the mist rises over the valley and the Himalayas poke through the dawn, I run toward Tiger’s Nest Monastery, that famous temple that looks as if it’s been carved from the mountain by a divine hand, and past a dog that looks passed out in a ditch. I run up toward a village going with the “traffic.” There is an occasional military truck with school kids sitting in the back, singing songs and practicing their English on the panting foreigner, who is wearing space-age spandex, and looking mighty strange next to their crisp school uniforms.

“Enjoy your jogging!” one girl yells.

“Run faster!” shout the bigger boys.

School children greeted the author as she ran her way through Paro Valley near Tiger's Nest Monastery.

I stride past large phallic symbols painted on farmhouses (Who knew a penis can ward off malicious evil and gossip?) and over a deep river churning with white water. The jagged mountain peaks and pastoral farmland are stunning. But given Bhutan’s stringent rules about the environment—it was the first country to ban plastic bags—even the small and tasteful signage is inspiring. My favorites: “Love nature,” “Trees are deep, dark, and lovely,” “Keep clean and green,” and “Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.”

But even running in Bhutan has its downside. The dog population is out of control. Sometimes they travel in packs, snarling, jumping and humping along the roadsides. According to local beliefs about reincarnation, dogs are next in line to be human, which is possibly why they can be pretty aggro—the most common reason for a hospital visit is treatment for dog bites. The longer I’m in the country, the more I notice that among the “Love Nature” placards, there are also “Help to reduce stray dog population and prevent rabies” signs. Just to be on the safe side, I started carrying a rock on my morning run.

One dawn I woke up at the Swiss Guest House near the village of Bumthang, rolled out of bed, tied my shoes and started jogging up the dirt road. I watched the mist rise from the valley floor and passed a sign that said: “Meditating beyond. No entry behind this point.”

In a spurt of ugly Americanism, I blew off the sign. That’s when karma caught up with me. I rounded two more switchbacks and a mangy dog came flying out of a farmhouse. I did an about face and sprinted downhill as fast as I could, trying to outrun this bullet train of a beast.

I eventually remembered the rock and threw it— a major spiritual faux pas in a country where catching fish with a barbed hook is taboo. As luck would have it, I did not kill, maim or even hit the dog. And the dog did not bite me. I like to think that during our uneasy face-off, the two of us reached a moment of nirvana, when, as Thurman describes it, we “melted into being finally, fully relational, where wisdom and compassion are indivisible.” That, or we were just mutually terrified of each other.

The human interactions on these runs are just as interesting. One Saturday in 2003 I stepped out of my hotel in downtown Wellington, New Zealand, in search of the Town Belt, a nearly 1,000-acre strip of green that runs the length of this antipodean San Francisco, linking golf courses to botanical gardens to quiet singletrack paths through the forest.

Journal Entry: Nov. 29, 2003

God Love Wellington! Botanic gardens and a steep hilly climb into 61 acres of dwarf conifers. After running past pink and purple flowers surrounding hobbit cottages, I crossed Tinakori Road to Town Belt. A steep muddy path took me to a forest full of chirping birds until I reached a bench that overlooked the city and the sailboats on the bay. I got lost trying to wind my way back down. When I finally hit pavement a few hours later, I passed an old man walking two terriers.

“Good morning, Lovey,” he said. Who wouldn’t want to live in a country where a stranger greets you with the “L” word?

Then there are the bathroom-emergency soul runs.

Journal Entry: Feb. 26, 2001

We’re in the town of Panajachel on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. I went for a run as soon as we got to town and had to make an emergency pit stop at a farm among the banana trees. I asked permission in Spanglish to use the toilet, which was outside and consisted of a porcelain seat on a dirt mound surrounded by plastic tarps. A little boy and his father saw me through the thick scrub and started to laugh. I laughed back, then ran on, enjoying the view of the lake lined by volcanoes until I had to stop again. Montezuma is getting his revenge and I’m not even in Mexico.

All of this running in foreign places has made me realize that I have a peculiar habit of falling in love with landscapes, sometimes to the severe detriment of human relationships.

The first time I drove through Santa Fe, N.M., where I’ve lived most of the last 15 years, I took one look at the Sangre de Cristo foothills and wanted to run toward them. A year and a string of miraculous serendipities later, I moved there. Three years later, when my husband at the time wanted to move on, I didn’t.

We left anyway, eventually split, and I moved back. Since then, I’ve even betrayed Santa Fe, feeling intense connections to other landscapes, making my life one continuous longing for places I’ll likely never see again, at least in this lifetime.

Journal Entry: Oct. 13, 2004

A farmhouse Pearson ran by in Bhutan. Note the phallic symbols at the entrance.

I went for a run on a paved road, up, around, down and over. A few unnerving roosters were the only sign of life. The Hiva Oa peak looms large and reminds me of the movie, “Joe Versus The Volcano.” I half expect Tom Hanks to jump out of the jungle wearing a lei. This island feels less claustrophobic than the last because the bay doesn’t cut as deeply inland. It seems the other island has an inward focus, whereas this one projects outward. I have mosquito bites everywhere. Instead of a savage tan, I’ll come away with savage red bumps, but this run is worth it. I wonder how I can make my living here?

Four years later, the location changed, but the sentiment remains the same.

Journal Entry: April 24, 2008

While in Botswana, Pearson embarked on a jeep tour with guide Custard Samoya to look for giant tapirs grazing on the side of the road.

We were in the Jeep by 5:30 a.m. to look for giant tapirs grazing on the side of the road, but they must have been sleeping. Instead of riding back in the Jeep, I ran the four kilometers back to the ranch before the sun rose too high and too hot. Straight ahead all I could see was tall grass lining the pasture and marking the edge of the Pantanal. Jaguars could be lurking anywhere. Farther down the road past the ironwood cattle guard, solid as metal and much more beautiful, the road dips into the ranch oasis. There’s a cluster of yellow buildings with a chapel. The original owner is buried out back and Brazilian meat sheep graze over his grave. Birds squawk, and the long tile verandah in front of the ranch house is lined with palms, inviting my grumbling stomach to breakfast. All I want to do is sit down in that roped chair and start rocking. I want to stay here forever.


Stephanie Pearson is a contributing editor for Outside magazine.