Surprise. On the way to (yet) another race, I’ve pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike — desperate for coffee, water, a break from unpredictable traffic (speeds of up to 95 MPH) — and here I find myself, suddenly, in the Walt Whitman Service Area. Whitman being, to some, the greatest artist America has produced. The singer of the open road. The poet of Democracy. I did not know there was a Service Area named for him. After the race I’m planning to visit his gravesite, which lies a few miles distant. First, though, I must complete the Delaware Running Festival Marathon in nearby Wilmington, my 100th event of marathon distance or longer. Which begs the question — what next?
In April 2021, I reached my 7,000th mile of hiking, running, and walking barefoot, accumulated over roughly seven years. Now — five months later — the mileage stands at 8,034. I seem to be picking up the pace. Which supports the thesis that practice makes you stronger (at least until age catches up). The real thesis, though, is that life is better with more nature and less technology.
Some highlights from a 37-mile circuit over the holiday weekend along the so-called “Super Pemi Loop” in New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness. The purpose of this trip was i) to make progress on the peak-bagging list for New Hampshire’s 48 mountains over 4,000 feet and ii) to test gear and train for my upcoming trip to the John Muir Trail in California’s High Sierra.
On May 27, 2019 I completed a slow-paced trail run in the Catskills, which incidentally marked my 4,000th mile of barefoot training. I reported previously on the 3,000th, 2,000th, and 1,000th miles, and this post is my latest update on what has turned out to be a fascinating journey.
The story of the last thousand miles is a return to running, after a series of injuries in 2016-2017 that limited me mostly to hiking, and then a gradual recovery in 2018. But the main theme is getting better, and slightly faster, especially on rocky trails. And what fun it is to get better!
A beautiful late spring morning for a 20-miler along the Hudson River, and here are some of the sights and sounds….
On September 1, 2018, I was ushered off the local college running track, which was closing for a field hockey match about to begin. As it happened, this abbreviated workout ended with the completion of my 3,000th mile of barefoot training, on the dot. I’d been working towards this goal with great enthusiasm since reporting on my 2,000th mile in December 2017 (and the first 1,000 miles the year before).
Sometimes writers raise the question, what is it that runners think about? Often the writers are looking for something beyond the inner dialogue of effort and discomfort, they’re hoping for clues to deeper meaning in the runners’ lives or even hints of spirituality.
That’s fine, but why shouldn’t runners think about the act of running? Call it being “mindful,” or just paying attention to what you’re doing.
In fact, there’s enormous interest among coaches, journalists, and psychologists in the best kind of “inner dialogue” for athletes. Often this advice focuses on confidence, determination, motivation, visualizing peak performance, or getting into the “flow.”
I was thinking about this the other day when I heard about an emergency landing of a passenger jet which had lost an engine: the pilot was lauded for keeping her cool. A former fighter pilot, she had been taught to “exude confidence,” a practice that some attribute to legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, who once commented that as situations became more dangerous, he would speak more slowly.
This line of thought led me to conduct an experiment: I’d take some notes on my own thoughts while completing a high-intensity speed workout at the local track — an exercise that doesn’t carry the same risk as piloting a jet fighter, but which subjects the runner to high levels of discomfort and exposes him or her to heightened risk of injury. The goal of the experiment: observe how I talk to myself while running.
After the first try at this experiment, however, it became clear that what was going on in my head wasn’t a monologue, but rather a conversation among several speakers — all different parts of myself, admittedly — but with specific roles. This segregation of duties, based on my military and corporate experience, seemed to help the decision-making process during the run. Perhaps others will find it useful to organize their thoughts this way.
I’m a little nervous that this transcript may strike people as somewhat nerdy — but why shouldn’t I try to be as calm and collected as a fighter pilot?
See what you think…
Back in December 2016, I reported on the completion of my first 1,000 miles barefoot, and now, a little more than a year later, here’s the 2,000 mile marker. The biggest surprise is how much fun it’s been running, hiking, and walking without shoes. The biggest challenge has been injuries, and whether these were caused or exacerbated by barefoot running, or simply the result of getting older and/or trying to do too much, it’s hard to know. Either way, I’m looking forward to the next thousand miles on this interesting and unexpected journey. Here’s my report.
There are two themes to the December Grid so far. First is the question whether I can get all 35 done, with the latest challenge being a sore knee and a tight groin, which together led me to abort an attempt on Big Indian and Doubletop earlier this week. The second, and more interesting theme, is the effort to “push back” against the grim cold conditions of winter, especially on the part of someone who’s pretty comfortable in the heat (even back in the day running in summertime Death Valley) and for whom the cold can be a little intimidating. As it happened, the other day an email showed up from the Wim Hof organization promoting a new book by investigative journalist Scott Carney, titled “What Doesn’t Kill us,” which profiles the author’s experiences with some of the cold-training methods that have made Wim Hof famous, culminating in a shirtless climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Over the last few years I’ve played around with some of the Wim Hof techniques, and this new book sparked my interest again, and helped me stoke a little bid of attitude with which to confront the cold. (Also, I signed up for ten 10-week Wim Hof instructional video series, so it will be interesting to see what I learn going forward.)
In a recent essay for the New York Times, performance coach Brad Stulberg advocates for the “unbalanced” life. He explains that “the times in my life during which I’ve felt happiest and most alive are also the times that I’ve been the most unbalanced.” These were times when he was fully consumed by a particular activity, whether trekking in the Himalayas, training to set a personal record in the triathlon, or writing a book. Sticking with a more balanced lifestyle might have precluded these “formative experiences.”
Brad goes on to quote elite athletes who also urge people to “give it your all.” The idea is enticing: who wouldn’t want to clear away distractions and throw themselves passionately into a single special activity?
But whether unbalance is the best strategy is debatable. There’s a simple approach to allocating time among activities, and that’s to spend the incremental hour where you get the highest pay-off. Because talents and aspirations differ, what seems balanced for one person might be unbalanced for another. The more important question is how to achieve a state of inner balance.