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Camino de Cow

Here’s a new one for you ultrarunners who’ve done every race configuration there is; it’s so new, it doesn’t even have a category yet. The Camino de Lavaca. That’s right, the Way of the Cow.

It’s a stage race/pilgrimage/ultrarun/spiritual exercise. Or as race creator/director John T. Sharp officially terms it, the crossing of a “remote pilgrimage path for purposes of existential discovery, historical appreciation, religious reflection, and self-actualization.”

It looks like a (1) stage race because it’s seven days of running with specific start and end points each day; (2) pilgrimage because the route is pegged to historic churches, with a passport stamp at each one; (3) ultrarun because it’s 225 miles long, each day featuring a 50K, and registration is on; (4) spiritual exercise because you’re traversing a remote part of the country with cows and oil wells for company, and lots of time for interior adventure.

Photo: Artisto

In fact, that is precisely what John Sharp is hoping for his participants: an introspective journey during which they will encounter something special, something unique for each one. And that’s what this “race” is really about, an avenue to inner transformation. Sharp, a veteran of the grueling Vol State ultra, has experienced the long and winding interior road himself.

The spiritual aspect of running is little talked-about or acknowledged, which is odd since most of us have experienced it. In fact, many of us started running for inner salvation at points in our life when we’d hit utter bottom. In ultrarunning, we’ve found a particular spirit, beyond the facile “running is my church” sort of palaver and even beyond the running community itself, the kind of spirituality you can’t put into words. And you wouldn’t want to, because that depth of spirituality is so very personal and private that to reduce it to verbiage would take away its power.

Pilgrimage, says Sharp, is simply a physical journey from one place to another. It happens by simply putting one foot in front of the other, but the spiritual journey requires receptivity, a blank slate of the mind. The sheer length of the journey invites boredom, introspection, bold new thinking about old problems. In fact, the long hours of walking or running help to create that openness by the wearing-away of strictly conscious thinking.

Photo: John T. Sharp

Pilgrimage always has a destination. The millions of pilgrims who’ve traveled the Camino in Spain were all headed for the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of St. James lay. The Caminho da Fé in Brazil takes pilgrims to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, in São Paulo. The Camino de Lavaca lacks that big final destination, as it is a loop, but has a mini-destination each day. In a way, perhaps, the circular route of the Camino de Lavaca is even more evocative of our journey in life, a long path that eventually leads us back home. Just so, the last landmark the pilgrims pass before completing the 225-mile trek is called the “Almost Home Tree.”

We are a people in search of a spirituality that speaks to our 21st-century hearts and minds. And if we haven’t found it yet, we are willing to travel great distances to embark on the sort of journeys that have abundantly fulfilled that promise to pilgrims of the past. It is this sort of experience that attracts millions of people to pilgrim paths like the 1000-year old Camino de Santiago in Spain and the Caminho da Fé in Brazil.

And now this remote route path through rural south-central Texas, named after the only crowd support in sight: the cows. But really, it’s more about the “painted churches.”

Photo: John T. Sharp

Designated as National Historic Places, the painted churches are an artistic and cultural phenomenon of the Czech and German influx in the 1800s. Far from their own luscious European cathedrals and no doubt shocked at the stark landscape of Texas, Slavic and Germanic immigrants tried to build a little piece of home for themselves and their families. Each church is like a portrait of a loved one far away that someone kisses every night before drifting off. They were built from immigrants’ resolve to make a home out of the inhospitable Texas plain.

In contrast to the visual minimalism of many American country churches, these tiny architectural treasures sing with the orchestrated beauty of the Gothic era of medieval Europe. Think Notre Dame or Chartres, but in a small package.

Photo: John T. Sharp

The “painted churches” have been the subject of some study, including a 2001 public television documentary subtitled “Echoes of the Homeland”. They are located in undiscovered towns like Praha, Dubina and High Hill. Another church town, Shiner, is better known for their famous Bock than for its lovely Saints Cyril and Methodius Church.

Photo: John T. Sharp

Every once in a while, in our jaded Instagram age, something comes to our attention that has evaded notoriety and exploitation. The painted churches on the Camino de Lavaca are jewels, to be enjoyed with light fanfare, so that what is rare and precious may not become cheap and common. You might say that it’s precisely the ultrarunning ethic, to quietly explore the magic that is inaccessible when speeding through techno-life.

Though claiming no religion, RD John Sharp nevertheless displays a consciousness of what religion does. For instance, he’s planned this crossing in early December, coinciding with the beginning of the Advent season, a time set aside for thousands of years for the purpose of spiritual preparation. The logo for the Camino is encircled by words in the Cyrillic alphabet that have been repeated billions of times in human history: “The Lord be with you.” And on the first page of the runner’s passport are the words of John Paul II “Totus tuus ego sum” (“I am entirely yours”) describing whole-hearted, full-bodied commitment… which is a darn good summation of what it takes to be an ultrarunner.

It’s almost as if this event seeks to speak with us in a new idiom but in an ancient language. All over this country are people who have no knowledge of religion, or, having the knowledge, disdain it. Maybe the old way of representing what can never truly be represented, needs a new light. What if divinity can be communicated to us afresh through the activity of our bodies moving through space, sunshine and prairie grass, art and architecture, light piercing colored glass, great open plains of emptiness and… cows? What if?

I, for one, cannot wait to find out.

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