Holy Terrain: We are All Running On the Same Ground
Whatever you were picturing when you read the words “holy terrain,” I bet it wasn’t Cedarvale Ravine. The 7.2-kilometer trail snaking through the heart of Toronto is flanked by drab apartment buildings and segmented by long stretches of ominous wetland growing in defiance of the subway that threatens the landscape from below. Folks say a brook once babbled there, but all you can hear now is a gurgling sewer. The ravine is the kind of place where you picture local kids searching for dead bodies in the summer, in the touching, coming-of-age sort of way that kids search for dead bodies in the summer. But if Cedarvale Ravine is such a strange ecosystem that’s because it’s the site of a vibrant convergence of stories. The land keeps a record of the city’s formation: within the very topography of the ravine and across its biodiversity, lives the history of the forced displacement of its original, indigenous stewards, of the settler farmlands that followed, of their loss to urbanization, and of the creation of the trail that remains today, maintained by many feet over many years.
The capacity land has to hold a multitude of stories all at once is what makes even an urban oasis of garbage like the Cedarvale Ravine command a level of reverence. On that same trail, at different points in time, gardens grow, foxes outrun hunters, motorcycles race, Hemingway wishes he was in Paris, and I’m lying about being a runner to impress the Chair of my department. The lie started much earlier as a lie to myself, the moment I joined the department’s team for the CIBC Run for the Cure, having never before ran for or against anything, only away from countless things. But here I was in a new city, starting a PhD, and becoming a runner seemed like the next logical thing someone with their act together would do. That’s who runners were to me: other people, more ambitious people, with perpetually flushed cheeks from all their healthy life decisions. But that day, on that trail, I was one of those people, despite my decision to eat not one, not two, but three waffles that morning. The Chair never remembered my name at any of the other practice runs, or any other department event for that matter, but I was introduced to a new me: someone who can eat three waffles (OK it was four) and still show up for a run. It had never occurred to me before that running could be a practice of reimagining yourself. And how fitting that this epiphany would take place on a trail whose own story is constantly rewritten.
Holy Terrain, the first chapter of 2022 by PRAISE ENDURANCE, honours the unique stories about how people fell in love with running, through gear designed for the shared terrains where those stories play out in sacred synchronicity. Whether you run to get fit, to stay fit, to meditate, to relieve stress, to challenge yourself, or to dazzle an old British literary scholar, each and every stride punctuates your personal story and joins it to the history of the terrain beneath your feet. These narratives are electrifying, poetic, side-splitting, charming, offbeat, even heartbreaking; they vibrate with feeling, released by the act of running on the same earth, and connect different bodies, across different times and different cultures, on the same wavelength. Not only do running stories change the land, but they also change the people who tell them, those who hear them, and the communities in which those stories circulate. PRAISE recently had the privilege to take part in one such transformative moment happening right now in Mexico City, where the enchanting story of its running culture is being written by every foot on the ground, spreading magic throughout streets. In return for those stories, for the life lessons, for the friendships, and for all the outstanding Mezcal, we dedicate Holy Terrain to you, Mexico City.
When most North Americans think of Mexico, they think of white-sand beaches and all-inclusive resorts. Not only to those resorts produce a ton of food waste, have a negative impact on the environment, and tend to engage in exploitative labour practices, they insulate guests from the symphony of sights, smells, and sounds that gives a country and culture their unique rhythms. Mexico is so vast and consists of multiple cultures and ecosystems, making all the stereotypes out there especially ridiculous. (Except the one about how nobody there wears any pants—that’s true. Everyone only wears mesh.) The only things we can say for certain is that a history of hardship has made kindness and humour staples of Mexican culture, and that by running in the shoes of Mexicanos, even for a brief moment while reading this blog post, you’ll be charmed by their warmth, modesty, and fortitude. Possessing those virtues in abundance is necessary when you’ve become the go-to destination for reality shows. Mexico is like a beautiful blazing sun whose energy TV producers are harnessing to build a giant evil robot bachelor. Think of what Mexico has had to endure these last few years: Love is Blind, Bachelor in Paradise, The Real Housewives of Orange County, of Atlanta, of New Jersey, of Melbourne, Shahs of Sunset, and the whole yelly cast of Vanderpump Rules. America has some nerve constantly vilifying Mexico when the country is basically holding American culture together.
Luckily, endurance runs deep in Mexico—earth deep. When it comes to Mexico City in particular, that history of endurance is inscribed in the land itself. As one of the oldest and most populous cities in North America, the metropolis exemplifies the tangible connection between people and land. The incredibly diverse landscapes of Mexico City have preserved the narratives of the people who shaped the land over thousands of years: the remaining ruins of the holy city of Teotihuacán continue to give up the secrets of ancient civilizations; the Mexico City basin and its disappearing lake bear witness to the deadly politics of water, a geological document that tells of times of conquest, colonization, revolution, and a climate crisis; and the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, visible from the city, are emblematic of the land and people, born of fire and built upon eruptions. Because above all, the ruins, the basin, the volcanoes, the people, the quaking earth itself—they all remain and share in a legacy of profound endurance. The poet José Emilio Pacheco movingly called Mexico City the “City of Memory,” evoking a hazy world of pain and beauty fiercely loved and protected by its residents. So yeah, Mexico can handle Trump’s dumb tweets and Jax Taylor on margaritas.
Pacheco’s words echo through this city, which like a poem, is a living thing, always offering up new meaning, always testing boundaries and reconfiguring limits. The whole of Mexico City is wrapped in an aura of poetic possibility. From vecidad communities to street art and an abundance of pedestrian green spaces, the city approaches the chaotic social realities of urban living through a unique mixture of ingenuity and whimsicality. It’s a city that will take your breath away—literary, given the high altitude—and teach you how to breathe again, differently. Running in Mexico City heightens your awareness of the unexpected forms of creativity and tenacity that define the city and its residents. Daily car pollution, for example, makes running even harder than it already is, but leave it to Mexicans to turn a challenge into an opportunity to create something magical. Early morning is the optimal time to run in Mexico City to avoid high levels of smog, which means everyone runs before sun-up. For example, runners of every type descend, in the dark, upon Gandhi circuit and its trails, illuminated by festive tree lights of pink and blue. One of the people you’ll usually find there is José Ernani Palalia, who says he started running to keep up with his older brothers and ended up falling in love with it. Those brothers must have been fast because José became an Olympian long-distance runner. Nowadays, he’s a running coach and guru, using his earnings from coaching adults to train the next young generation of runners from underprivileged areas of Mexico City. Gandhi circuit is always filled with people like José, whose paths have been shaped and transformed by running. Because to them running, like poetry, is life itself.
And like so much of life in Mexico City, the running culture PRAISE got to witness a sliver of as it continues to grow and be written, is centered on the idea of sharing, whether that means sharing the streets, sharing a meal and a drink, or sharing moments in time. For a visitor, running provides an instant connection to the openness and generosity of the people of Mexico City. If you happen to be out for a run at dawn, chances are you’ll bump into Sindo and the large DROMO Run Crew at some point. DROMO is one of CDMX’s many run crews and they personify the commitment, endurance, and beauty the PRAISE team observed all over the city. The CDMX’s running community are a shockingly positive bunch considering the sacrifices that come with having to run before 6 AM, which means less night life and more early dinners, planning, and preparation. On top of it, seeing results from all those sacrifices on your body and in your practice takes time. But some gains are more immediate and maybe even more meaningful, like discovering your own mental and physical strength, and benefitting from the strength of others. Running can be done alone but, as the COVID lockdowns have shown us, the collective energy of a community of people born in different years, working in different fields, approaching running from different angles, united purely by a love of running, can make you feel like anything is possible. In a heavily populated city, a shared passion for running allows people who otherwise might never meet to get to know each other.
If waking up at 5 AM to get ready for a run sounds about as appealing as waking up at 5 AM to do anything except eat stupid amounts of waffles then you can enjoy unsanctioned urban races organized by Lactic Acid Culture. This kind of free running on open streets, for runners from any crew or without affiliation, pushes you to run and live outside the lines. LACTIC ACID CULTURE is organized by urban racers who pump life back into running culture as they challenge athletes of different crews to engage in short and fast street racing. The LACTIC ACID CULTURE race PRAISE attended took place in association with the new runner’s hub METTA in the CDMX neighbourhood of Polanco. METTA and LACTIC ACID CULTURE are proof of the culture’s radical, community-oriented perspective on space. As concepts, they say everything about Mexico City’s running philosophy: make space for yourself but make it a kind, shared space. The race was intense and competitive, and matched in ferocity by the post-run celebrations of the hard work, discipline, and friendships of the runners thanks to prizes, beers, and pizzas provided by Bam Bam, the restaurant linked to METTA running house. For just a moment, PRAISE got to sync up with the rhythm of CDMX and truly grasp the lack of boundaries in running. There are only people who see their individual success tied to the improvement of others who also give themselves to the sport. The intensity is real, as are the mental obstacles, but the laughs, the breakfasts, the sights of Mexico City in the early, chilly morning, make all the sacrifices worth it.
Running looks very different from the outside, but if you let your guard down and give into it in Mexico City, you will be rewarded with better understanding of its colourful neighborhoods, parks, sunrises, and outstanding people. These are just some of the lessons Mexico City has to offer the world, at a time when the pandemic has created so much unbreathable space between people and communities. Their running community reminds us that no distance is too far and no space is impossible to re-imagine. The stories we tell about the ground we run on shapes our sense of belonging, and where we belong is on the same ground. PRAISE is immensely grateful to CDMX for letting us be part of this chapter in their running history. Their story brought us back to life and we can’t wait to return. Mexico City, you deserve praise. ¡Salud!
Written by Jess Elkaim in collaboration with the designers and creators behind PRAISE ENDURANCE.