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.
The goal for Friday evening was to get a climb done before dark, and Plateau Mountain seemed like a good candidate — and if I got moving quickly enough, it might be possible to reach Orchard Point, a sandstone ledge that juts out high above the valley floor, in time to witness the sun’s last rays. But my stomach objected to the prospect of skipping dinner, and thus the early start was delayed while I grabbed a quick dinner, and by the time I’d finished eating, stopped for gas, and made the hour-long drive to the trailhead, the valley was already filled with shadows. There was still an hour until sunset, and thus a chance of making it to Orchard Point before the day was gone, but this is one of the Catskills’ more daunting climbs: the 1.3 mile trail rises 1,500 feet for an average grade of 22%, and the middle part is even steeper, averaging 44%, with the path in some sections leaping up crude staircases fashioned from blocks of stone. This would be a race with the setting sun.
The other day the idea occurred to me to total up the numbers in my training log. The calculation showed that I’d recently completed my 1,000th mile barefoot. I reflected on the odyssey that had led to this unexpected milestone, and an account seemed in order.
On the drive up to the Catskills, the rising sun was hidden behind a wall of murky fog, but its rays reached out from behind and scattered across the sky, brushing the undersides of clouds with the color and texture of beaten copper.
My mission this morning was to take on the Devil’s Path, one of the most notorious hiking trails in the country — and not just once, but twice. This meant a total distance of 48 miles and something like 28,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. The purpose was to whip myself into shape for an upcoming solo run in the Catskills, as well as experience the Devil’s Path in its entirety, something I had never done before.
This is a revised version of an earlier post in which I described an adventure in the Catskills undertaken in part as an experiment in “askeisis,” the ancient Greek concept of physical and spiritual training. The revised version was published Saturday in Stoicism Today, a blog sponsored by University of Exeter on the topic of ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy applied to modern living.
Reproduced with permission from the author, Lorraine Anderson, here is a recent social media post that caught my eye:
So I’m hiking in the woods, loving the serenity and alone time with nature, and all of a sudden comes running a super fast runner up the mountain I was going down. It was a man wearing only a black pair of shorts. He was really super fast and quiet, if it wasn’t for the leaves underfoot , I wouldn’t have heard anything, no heavy breathing, light on his feet, I cheer him on as he approaches I say ‘way to go, you’re doing great! He smiles and says yesterday I ran up here carrying a rock. I said, Omgoogness! That’s awesome! What are you training for I ask. He says ‘life’ with a big smile. I said I love it ❤ that’s the best ❤
Note: Carrying rocks uphill was a training method popular among Yurok Indians of northwest California.
You can follow Lorraine’s blog feelfitforever on wordpress.com — I particularly enjoyed a recent post in which she recalled her childhood love for nature.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna to “strive to still the mind,” which reminds me of a point made by 2nd century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:
It is in your power, whenever you choose, to retire into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
One day, while waiting for the subway, I decided to give it a try. Instead of fretting at the wait, I put away my phone and stood still. Anxiety faded, and the surroundings came into focus, as I slowly let out my breath.
A visual image had helped me make the transition: I imagined moving a gear shift into neutral. Then I wondered, could I shift into neutral while running?