While the majority of elite runners are focused primarily on winning high-profile competitions and securing sponsorships, professional runner Anthony Kunkel shows us that running doesn’t have to be just about competition and can instead be a way to explore spirituality. Kunkel, two-time national road running champion (2017 USATF 50-Mile Road National Champion and 2018 100-Kilometer Road National Champion) is no stranger to focusing his training on major competitions, however, in his most recent running project – a nearly 250-mile running pilgrimage from his home in Durango, CO, to the holy Catholic pilgrimage site, El Santuario de Chimayo, NM — Kunkel has discovered that running can be a tool to more deeply explore his own spirituality and creativity. His journey began on March 28, and he arrived in Chimayo on April 7, running nearly a marathon per day while his friend and Durango-based filmmaker, Amir Drissi, crewed and documented his journey.
El Santuario de Chimayo is one of the largest Catholic pilgrimage sites in North America and attracts more than 300,000 visitors each year. The shrine is registered as a National Historic Landmark. One of the key features of this holy site is the blessed dirt located inside the shrine that is purported to have healing powers.
Kunkel speaks on the inspiration behind choosing Chimayo as the final destination of his spiritual running journey, “The Chimayo pilgrimage has been on my radar for the past few years. I’m drawn to the idea of grokking, or knowing something intimately through “touch.” The idea that I would visit Chimayo, touch the holy dirt and engage with the spirituality of the sanctuary was appealing to me. It was just a matter of finding the logistics to be able to do it. If I ran the route in one 250 mile push, I knew I’d be physically wrecked for months afterwards. Doing it the way I did, breaking up the journey into more manageable runs each day, felt more like a heavy training week. It’s not everyday that you have an opportunity to visit one of the most important religious pilgrimage sites in North America and when things started to fall into place to make it a reality, I knew I had to go run there.”
Prior to this pilgrimage, Kunkel had already completed one large multi-day running adventure. In route to running the 2017 Leadville Trail 100, Kunkel ran, hitchhiked and backpacked with his dog Winston from Durango to Leadville, CO via the Colorado Trail to stay for the summer in Leadville and train for the race. Kunkel’s pilgrimage to Chimayo was similar in overall distance, but was much more physically demanding. Kunkel experienced extreme highs and lows like he never had before in any run or race.
A Journey of “Sweat, Breath, Blood and Tears”
Kunkel’s journey to Chimayo started out rough. By the third day, Kunkel was no more than 50 miles from his home and already telling his crew, “I feel like death.” Colorado’s unpredictable spring weather struck hard with a mix of rain, hail and snow causing Kunkel to feel feverish coupled with increasingly sore muscles. To make matters worse, on day three Kunkel’s crew chief, Amir Drissi, took a wrong turn with the support crew van on a poorly maintained road. The van became stuck in the mud and Drissi had to wait four hours for a tow. Kunkel was already 15 miles into the run and had to complete the planned 28-mile day to the day’s ending point in, Dulce, NM, without crew support.
Kunkel had no food, water, or credit card and his cell phone had died. He describes getting through this low point to continue the journey, “Even as low as I felt on day three, it was awesome because it flipped a switch in my head. It obliterated the sport of running as I knew it. As opposed to thinking ‘this is a workout and a training stimulus’ or thinking about the concept of running as a sport and construct that’s very recreational, I endured this very primal and survival-based experience. I felt an overwhelming sense that I needed to get to the end, to keep covering ground because that was my only option. I like to connect to that part of my human experience that has bearing and sense of place, awareness of surroundings, and an innate intuition to find what it would take to most efficiently move my body from one point to the other.”
Kunkel successfully moved slowly and efficiently to Dulce, but was famished. Drissi had still not arrived with the support van. Drissi describes the experience from his perspective, “I gave a sincere effort to get out and back to Kunkel as fast as possible but the van was too deep in the mud. I had my own share of divine experience that eventually facilitated the rescue of the van!” Kunkel entered the only open building in town, a grocery store, and thanks to the support of friendly locals who provided him with groceries, he was able to satisfy his hunger as he stuffed his face with food. Drissi arrived later that day and from that point forward, Kunkel felt revitalized. Kunkel described the day, “It really was my transcendental low-point and once I overcame it, the rest of the journey seemed so simple.”
Kunkel completed 160 miles in the first week (a weekly mileage personal record) and took a few easy and moderate running days before a 30-mile push on the final day to reach Chimayo. Kunkel had planned this 30-mile run on April 7, the day of his 30th birthday. He also had DJ Fox, a close friend and training partner, to run with for the 30-mile journey.
Nothing could hold back Kunkel on the final day and he felt strong and ran quickly all the way to Chimayo, “Around 21 miles into the run my pace just kept getting faster. I started to drop DJ and before I knew it I was running solo. It had nothing to do with trying to get to Chimayo quicker, but everything to do with getting deeper and deeper into my running experience. I wasn’t counting miles and it was a pure flow state without any internal dialogue in my mind. Arriving in Chimayo, my sensations were very spiritual and weird. I had goosebumps, I was smiling and felt speechless. I couldn’t have even yelled with excitement if I had tried. It was an indescribable mix of sweat, breath, blood and tears that will change the rest of my life and running career.”
What Does it Mean To Be a Professional Runner?
Kunkel’s perspective on being an elite runner has changed significantly because of this journey and he shares how it may change the rest of his running career, “I’m excited to see what I can do with my new lens of running. The idea of going somewhere on foot and not chasing race goals but going for a deep personal experience is liberating. Spiritually, professionally and financially as a runner, these pilgrimage or adventure runs will be better for me than doing another race and that’s a huge realization for me.”
Kunkel views some of the main responsibilities and duties as a professional runner differently because of this experience, “I’m grateful for a platform like this to be able to tell people that running pilgrimages like this exist and that elite athletes don’t have to just race or chase FKTs and personal records. Certainly if you are liberated by creating something new, and you are living the professional athlete lifestyle, then you owe humanity to share whatever it is that you think you’re learning out there. If all you think you’re learning is that you’re a more talented runner than the average person, then that’s a shame. This focus on talent above all else is currently the status quo in elite athletics but I’ll take mediocre performances, soaring too close to the sun and dropping out in a race any day if it means that I can write, talk and transmute what I’m learning into something of value for the world.”
After letting this journey sink in, Kunkel will put thought into planning another spiritual-running journey. “There are a few Buddhist pilgrimages and holy sites in Thailand and India I would like to see. I don’t know exactly what I want to point my eyes at yet, but they are definitely open to this new spiritually focused way of running.”
Kunkel is well-respected in the ultrarunning community for his cutting-edge nutrition and recovery techniques. This 250-mile journey was a way for Kunkel to put many of his practices and nutritional supplements to the ultimate test. Similar to many top level ultrarunners such as Jeff Browning, Timothy Olsen, Mike McKnight and Zach Bitter, Kunkel prioritizes fat-adaptation techniques to run long distances while carrying and consuming less calories, “I kept a moderate intake of carbohydrates, and relied on my fat adaptation, which not only fueled me but kept inflammation low and my feet didn’t swell, my knees didn’t hurt, etc. I truly felt like my energy was infinite.”
Additionally, Kunkel is a huge proponent of using nutrition and supplement products to boost performance and recovery. He used several products for better recovery including DrinkHRW, My Vital C and a Ketone Ester drink protocol that closely mimicked that of Tour de France riders. He describes how these products worked for him, “Nutritionally and supplementally it couldn’t have been better. My supplements helped me stay on top of recovery, avoid feeling feverish and weak at night and kept me feeling bulletproof in the later stages of the journey.”
Overall, Kunkel is completely satisfied by what his body could do performance-wise during this pilgrimage, “After running a personal weekly mileage record of 160 miles the first week, it was validating to see just how good my body still felt. I couldn’t possibly ask for more physically and my body responded well to how I took care of my nutrition and recovery.”
Running As a Creative and Spiritual Tool
Kunkel’s 250-mile journey has encouraged him to further connect his spirituality and running. Each morning on the journey Kunkel would journal prompts from The Artist’s Way, a guide to spiritual exploration of creativity written by Julia Cameron that has been used by many prominent creatives including Alicia Keys, Elizabeth Gilbert and Reese Witherspoon. “Each day I would journal, writing down free-flowing thoughts, completing creative writing prompts from The Artist’s Way to lay the fertile ground for my flow-state running. Nothing is by accident. The flow and the selflessness I was seeking in my running journey came about in reality through my intentional daily writing practices.”
Out of all the ways to explore spirituality, running has become the tool that resonates with Kunkel more than anything, “First, there is the social aspect of running that I feed off of, the crewing and team support, getting to know each other through workouts, etc. Then there is the running itself. It’s liberating. To run free, those are the days you remember. I can’t imagine getting to that place in any other sport. Other sports are too complicated, there’s too many people to lean on or too much gear involved. Running is pure and raw.”
Kunkel’s 250-mile pilgrimage is a great reminder to the running community that our sport is about more than just competing or winning. Running can be a tool for adventures that build community, inspire others and allow us to have more meaningful experiences in some of the world’s most beautiful and unique places. Whatever one believes about the healing powers of Chimayo’s holy dirt, one thing is certain: running there on foot is a spiritual and healing experience all in itself.
Amir Drissi will be releasing a documentary film on Kunkel’s journey through his film company, All Dimension Films, this June.