Build up Familiar to unfamiliar and back to familiar.

Reflection on Aire Libre Scotland 2021

WORDS BY George Bauer

Photographs by Dan King

01. Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland Running Experience 2021 by Dan King

Our sense of familiarity is a constantly changing landscape that tells us when something is unknown, and sends us messages of understanding or discomfort.

We all have a unique relationship with this sense and experience it in different ways. For some, we obsessively chase the new and unfamiliar, while others prefer to operate within the four walls of knowing what is going to happen next.

During the pandemic, regardless of how we process familiarity, we were forced to put the steering wheel aside and let life unfold. This was challenging for those of us who actively seek discomfort and gain energy from new surroundings, but for others who gain energy from within, this was a time to exist in the comfort of home. And yet with comfort can come social isolation and distancing from the outside world. 

 

Acknowledging this, I knew the first Knoydart Peninsula Retreat had to accommodate all of us, no matter our story. 

 

My brief for the trip was to introduce a diverse group of runners to the wild and remote Scottish Highlands, by using movement as a form of exploration. We would discover a new way of living by interacting with the people of Knoydart.

 

So, the idea was to take the group from a sense of familiarity in our surroundings to a state of vulnerability in the wild. We would then come full circle, returning home with a newfound sense of familiarity within ourselves.

02. Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland Running Experience 2021 by Dan King

Part 1 A state of being familiar 

 

The group met at Papercup Coffee in Glasgow’s West End, tucked away in a calm spot away from the main street. The smell of freshly roasted coffee and baked pastries gave us familiar surroundings so we might try to remember the alien art of introducing ourselves. I felt a state of fogginess, struggling to believe day one had arrived after first designing this moment 18 months ago.

 

We made our way out to the hills for our first movement practice. Local yogi Rosie Barge led us into her stunning yoga dome overlooking Loch Fyne. She guided us through poses in a warm, comfortable environment before our resident yogi, Sanchia Legister, helped us to set intentions for the trip as she led us through our shavasana. A gentle head massage from Rosie and we understood that from this point on, it was up to us to make our intentions happen.

03. Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland Running Experience 2021 by Dan King
04. Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland Running Experience 2021 by Dan King

Part 2. Knoydart, why is it so special?

 

On day 3, we packed the team vans for the last time heading west from Fort William for Mallaig. Mallaig is a small fishing town, and has been a key sea port for the Highlands for many generations. For our group, it served as the gateway to Knoydart. We said goodbye to the vans as from here we were travelling on foot, sea ferry and lastly a train journey to return to Glasgow. 

 

Knoydart has an almost mythical feel. An abundance of water brings rapidly changing seasons, an insane variety of wildflowers and constantly shifting autumnal hues. During the summer months, the colours of the jagged peaks stand against the sky in stunning contrast. Mother Nature seems to be winning her ongoing battle here, not yet conceding to human civilisation. Many have tried; the communities of Knoydart Peninsula have changed over the years. But to this day, it remains one of the most remote parts of Scotland, thanks to its inaccessibility by road and often harsh weather conditions.

 

These conditions were the ideal backdrop for us to explore the area and, in turn, ourselves. 

Each day we set out an intention for the group. These were intrinsic to the trip, flowing from awareness to curiosity, from introductory forest trails to technical mountain terrain. Our daily yoga with Sanchia brought purposeful movement and space for everyone to embody the intention for the day. 

04. Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland Running Experience 2021 by Dan King

Part 2B. The unknown

Day 3 our intention was acceptance. An intention that played out its own journey for us all individually.

For co-leader Jo and I, we needed patience and problem solving, as Mother Nature unleashed her strength upon us. We had to cancel a night of lush wild camping due to 50 mph winds and torrential rain. The only way possible to traverse Knoydart is on foot and we had planned to run a spectacular route the next day as our method of transport. The change of plan threw a spanner in the works. Working early in the morning before the crew woke up, we came up with a new plan that was safe, would keep us dry and warm while including an unfamiliar environment for everyone. 

A vital lesson was reinforced for me in these moments – adaptability to change is just as important as meticulous planning. For us, as leaders, that meant clearly communicating what lay ahead. For the group it meant being open to our new direction.

In true embodiment of acceptance (that day’s intention!), our running route took us up the glen and beside Inverie River. For many participants this was completely new terrain, big mountains with gushing streams, culminating at the dreary Loch-an Dubh Lochain (small black lake). 

One of the biggest challenges for many of us, was not the running, but the wild swims. Choosing to be uncomfortable and going against our fear response, rather than following its guidance, is what makes wild swimming such a transformative experience. For many reasons, opportunities to swim in open water hadn’t presented themselves until now for much of the group. Therefore Wild Swimming was included as an optional activity for the group on Day 2,4 and 5.

 

05. Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland Running Experience 2021 by Dan King

On the shores of Loch Nevis, wind whirling around our heads, we prepared our mind and body with breath practice. Bringing equality and a sense of rhythm to our mind and body. This moment of preparation is key, surrendering to the feelings and emotions that are imminent, bringing our heart rate down, as we begin to enter the cold water. 

 

Keeping the rhythm of our breath, we formed a circle, as I guided the group through a 2 minute immersion. We placed our hands on our thighs to create a warmth loop, within ourselves but also in solidarity with each other. 

 

Flowing from panic and stiffness, to calm and relaxed, our bodies collectively became in balance with the temperature. This feeling of comfort after such a shock, is what brings people back to the water. Curating the euphoric but calm environment, a sensation that is totally unique in our daily lives. 

 

Walking back towards the lodge, the smirr or soft rain gently fell down, we shared our experience while warming our numb hands in our towels. It was clear today was a lesson of acceptance and one the group had embodied completely. The end result ended up looking different from what was first imagined, but it was the process of we got there, that counted.

06. Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland Running Experience 2021 by Dan King
07. Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland Running Experience 2021 by Dan King

Part 3 – Conclusion 

 

This lesson and experience served as the basis upon the retreat becoming such a transformative experience for each individual involved; participant, photographer or host. 

By opening ourselves up to new experiences we allow space for new perspectives, and for me as a host, it is in hearing about the small changes members of the group are now implementing into their lives, as a result of the Knoydart retreat, that mean the most. I can’t wait to continue this journey in 2022 with our next group of participants to visit the Highlands.

George Bauer

George Bauer is a Melbourne-raised runner who now lives in the Highlands of Scotland, fulfilling a dream to explore single track trails from his doorstep. Having run marathons and informal events across 4 continents, George’s inspirtaion comes from the vast and varied experiences that running has brought him. He is a project designer focused on creating community through his love of plant-based food, and the exciting ways in which we can exercise the body and mind. You can find him on Instagram at  @__georgebauer

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