In autumn of 2021 Aire Libre launched their first ever UK running retreat. Powered by Veloforte, participants spent five days running, hiking and exploring Scotland’s stunning Knoydart Peninsula.
Aire Libre’s George Bauer led the group on their runs and hikes through the rugged and beautiful Scottish highlands. He’s shared his reflections on the trip.
From the familiar…
Our sense of familiarity is a constantly changing landscape. It’s a sense that tells us when something is unknown, and sends us messages, either 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 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.
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 provided a 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. After a gentle head massage from Rosie we understood that, from this point on, it was up to us to make our intentions happen.
…into the unfamiliar.
On Day Three, we packed the team vans for the last time heading west from Fort William for Mallaig. Mallaig is a small fishing town which 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.
On Day Three 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 50mph 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 — the ability to adapt 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, 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. Many of the group had never experienced open water swimming. So Wild Swimming was included as an optional activity for the group on Day Two, Four and Five.
On the shores of Loch Nevis, wind whirling around our heads, we prepared our mind and body with breath practice. Bringing equilibrium 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 two 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 panicked and stiff 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 alien to most of our daily lives.
Walking back towards the lodge as 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 than first imagined, but it was the process which got us there that counted.
This lesson and experience became the basis for 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. For me as a host, it is 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.