The day is sunny but cold, and there is a familiar wind blowing. The wind that pushes debris and great galleons along their way. It may be this wind, the two years of lockdown, or perhaps the awareness of my advancing years that have prompted me to come up with my latest plan. A plan for a travel adventure, that excites me almost as much as it scares me; and I want to take you along with me!
The plan is that together we will run (or “fastpack”, if you prefer), unsupported and unsponsored, up a foreign mountain range; follow a 954 km / 592 mi footpath along its ridge, and then run down the other end. For extra credit, we will do this without losing our full-time job, destroy our marriage, or damage our relationship with our children. Are you game?
I didn’t doubt you for a second! But keep reading because we are not leaving just yet. In fact, we won’t set off for another 16 months or so – and I don’t expect us to reach the finish until 7 years later. Together, we, assisted by experienced runners and industry experts where we can get them, will share knowledge on:
- Training for multi-day running, carrying all our load in a backpackThe gear necessary for such an adventure: enough to sustain us for 7 days at a time, but light enough to carry on our backs while running up mountainsThe planning and organization involved
What to do on emergencies, including learning self-administering first aid
Finding and going on shorter training or practice runs, closer to home. Solo training runs, group runs, organised multi-day events…
Splitting a 900+ km, multi-year adventure into bite-size pieces, and trying to maintain momentum over the years that it will take to complete
Confronting our fears and
- Doing all the above in the context of real life, whatever that means for each one of us. For me that means a being a middle aged, portly man, who wishes to keep his full-time job, his marriage, and to be present to his son growing up!up!
What I propose is to fastpack the GR10, the trail through the Pyrenees which connects France’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. But the specific plan is only incidental to my posts: The intention is that what we learn together can be applied to any multi-day adventure!
This is then the first of a (monthly?) series of posts exploring the subjects listed above, and anything else that seems relevant. And – attempts at humorous writing aside – I really do depend on your help. Perhaps you:
- Already have fastpacking experience;
- Are intrigued by the idea of fastpacking and fancy doing, and sharing, your own research; or
- Just want to sit on a comfy armchair by the fire and daydream of faraway trails as you sip your favourite tipple. I certainly fit in this category for now!
The run itself will be no ultra-race: Rather, a series of leisurely runs of discovery and wonder. Together we will travel, light and fast, through amazing landscape; we will sleep in mountain refuges, sleepy villages, and wild camp in the mountains; we will sample the food and drink of the French / Spanish border with no fear of compromising our already stretched waistlines; and who knows, but we may reach the Med better people than we left the Atlantic!
As for this series of posts, I hope that rather than a self-centred diary, it will become a useful, collaboratively built, resource that might help any other ordinary person dreaming of a similar adventure.
So to work! All potential topics on the list above seem important, and some even sexy (for who isn’t aroused by the thought of a whole lot of new gear “for research purposes”?). But there is one issue that is capable of stopping this adventure before I even press “post” for the first time, never mind getting to the start of the trail. Without further ado then, let’s talk about:
Fear. Part one, confronting it.
In my first year at university, I had bought a No Fear poster which every day screamed at me to “Not Let Your Fears Stand In The Way of Your Dreams”. In vain, because as a student I did just that, time and again. Especially where it involved women. Or heights. Or tall women. Brrrr!!!!
But there were also times when I did overcome my fears and – with hindsight – couldn’t tell you what the fuss was about. Emily Woodhouse, a writer and adventurer, has written eloquently about how to overcome other people’s fears about adventures you have planned. But what about the fears that live inside us and threaten to extinguish the flame of adventure before it even takes hold?
The first step must be to be honest about them, call them by their name and look them in the eye. So, in the context of a multi-stage running adventure, here are mine:
- That this whole thing, the blog posts first and the adventure next, will just fizzle out and die. Of laziness, busyness, lack of reader engagement, or a bout of depression. When I was starting to write this post, and in a typically self-important manner, I revisited Tennyson’s Ulysses, hoping perhaps to steal a quote to say that:
We are not now the strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will.
Instead, I came across a comment by Goldwin Smith, according to whom Ulysses “intends to roam, but stands for ever a listless and melancholy figure on the shore”. At 46, with a young family, a full-time job and many other such excuses, I am afraid that I too will stand forever a listless and melancholy figure on my drive. Or my keyboard.
- Then there are the more prosaic fears of the beasts of the mountains:
- The Patou dogs (Pyrenean sheepdogs that live with their flock to the extent that they believe they are sheep). I am told they don’t take kindly to approaching strangers,
- but also bears, bulls…
- …but for some reason not wolves. They do exist in the Pyrenees, but they don’t tend to attack humans. And after all, at their core they are packs of dogs untouched by civilisation. Somehow that thought doesn’t inspire as much fear as the idea of a solitary dog touched by civilisation.
- On the other hand, and despite my dislike of heights, the idea of running, laden, on footpaths at up to 2,231m (7,319 ft) of altitude, doesn’t trouble me. At least not while I am writing these lines at my desk, 70m above sea level!
- Ditto with the more “realistic” dangers of an injury, unavailable accommodation, sunstroke, storms, dehydration, etc. These may be far more likely to occur than a bear attack, but they form the core of the concept of the adventure. To try it without such risks, would almost be to cheat yourself of it (although you don’t need to remind me I said that if I end up laying 100ft below the footpath, with a bended shin and no water, nibbled on by a pack of wolves, thank you very much!)
So that was me showing you mine. How about you? What fears, rational or not, most often tug at you when you contemplate launching on something new (whether it is an outdoor adventure, a change in your life or anything else)?
Fear. Part two, overcoming it
Ok, so we have put our fears into words, and hopefully this will have at least cut them down to some human dimensions. So now what do we do about them?
From my confession at the start of the previous section, you will have guessed that I am not the Internet’s Authority on overcoming fear (but hey, this is part of the appeal of this blog, I hope: it is written by an ordinary bloke). On the other hand, my life story has not been about me rendered inert by fear at every turn. What then is the secret to overcoming our fears?
I can’t say I ever had a particular way of doing it, other than the usual taking a deep breath and getting on with things. But I recently came across the brilliant “Barking Up The Wrong Tree” by Eric Barker (which I thoroughly recommend by the way). In the chapter on grit (where he wisely also addresses the question on choosing what to be gritty at, and what to unburden yourself of and move on), he outlines the WOOP technique for overcoming obstacles (properly called “mental contrasting”, and developed by Gabrielle Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York Uganiversity), which can be quite useful in this context:
WOOP is – you guessed it – an acronym for “Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan”. It’s based on the premise that a wish alone does not bring us any closer to our goals. On the contrary, daydreaming (whether it is to lose weight, stop smoking, get a new job or, indeed, go on a scary adventure) triggers similar responses in our brain as if we had achieved our dream. Instead of motivating us to put the effort in to achieve it, this makes us relax and try less (it’s harder to motivate yourself to work towards something your brain thinks it has already achieved). Or as Eric puts in in his book:
“While dreaming, we feel good. But dreaming ends up increasing depression later on. Fantasizing gives us the reward before we’ve accomplished the task and saps the energy we need to realize it. More dreams now mean less achievement later”.
That is not to say that dreaming is in itself bad. But it’s just the first step. Or rather the second. The full process goes along the following lines:
- First, we get to wish! What is it we want?
- Then we dream about what life will be like with the desired outcome. By all means indulge here and make it feel as real as it can. This will help motivate you to keep on when things get hard.
- Then bring reality into it: What potential obstacles are you likely to encounter? What stands in your way now, or what could go wrong on your way to achieving your wish? A good way of doing this is through a pre-mortem exercise, which is imagining failure and thinking back to what might have caused it. Pre-mortem exercises are usually talked about in a business or project management context, but they are used in a wide variety of settings, including sport (why was the race / game lost? why did I DNF the marathon I am training for?)
- And finally, you devise a plan to overcome these obstacles. Clearly, the level of planning will vary by the activity, obstacles, consequences of things going wrong etc.
There are two advantages in using this technique:
The first is that an “if” and “then” exercise, does not only not sap your energy like pure daydreaming would, but helps by building habitual responses to problems that could otherwise derail an effort. And even if unexpected obstacles do arise, the self-knowledge and situational consideration gained through this exercise will make a significant difference in overcoming them (or as Dwight Eisenhower put it: “plans are useless; planning is indispensable”).
Put perhaps the greatest advantage of WOOP is that it doesn’t always work:
In her research, Oettingen found that mental contrasting gives you a motivational boost and a plan to achieve outcomes that are realistic. However, when your goal is less feasible, the exercise will leave you less motivated. A message to perhaps rethink your goals before you invest too much time, energy and emotional commitment into something unlikely to come off.
A worked example:
Ok, so let’s see how the WOOP approach would work in the context of one of the fears I identified above. I will use the “fear of it all fizzling out” as an example, although for a project of this magnitude I would normally go through quite a detailed pre-mortem. So a WOOP for that would look a bit like:
|Wish||Create a series of blog posts documenting all aspects of my preparation to fastpack the GR10.|
Do so by exchanging knowledge and ideas with others who are contemplating, or have completed, something similar. Build connections with them;
Start my adventure in earnest (i.e. make running sections of the GR10 an annual event).
|Outcome||Create a body of work that will be useful to others planning a multiday adventure. Especially people living ordinary lives with the constraints these impose;|
Embark on a novel, physically challenging multi-year adventure through a breath-taking landscape.
|Obstacle||I will not be consistent in creating content.|
I will either shy from seeking contributions for others, or none will be forthcoming when I do.
|Plan||Plan and pace content creation: Set a realistic, sustainable pace of posting (monthly). Plan all steps of content creation ahead (i.e., specific posts ideas for future months, and the steps needed during the month to create & post each blog post). Make a routine of your posting to fit your everyday life (e.g., in the evenings when away from my family on business).|
Recognise that like with training, there will be good (productive) and bad days. Use the good days to build a buffer / momentum.
Invite, but do not rely exclusively on contributions from experts (who may well be too busy with their own endeavours). Use social channels where people are more forthcoming with opinions, experience and advice.
Ok, now for the test. How does this exercise make me feel? More or less motivated? Definitely more is the answer: This is something I really want to do, but I realise I need to give myself the space to pursue it. And yes, this will mean trimming back other, less important items on my wish list, and ride the inevitable waves.
So that was me. How about you? When you make big plans, how do you deal with barriers or fears that stand in the way? Are you led by your gut, or do you follow a more analytical approach?
To summarise then:
- This was the first of a series of posts dealing with all elements an ordinary bloke, or lass, should take into account when planning a multi-day, fastpacking expedition. The intention is that these will be posted monthly, but if you are interested I suggest you follow me:
- Today we looked at overcoming barriers to such adventures, and I described one tool to do so: “Mental contrasting” (or “WOOP” for friends), developed by Gabrielle Oettingen. I gave an example of how that might apply by examining the potential barrier of the fear that my blogging endeavour will fizzle out.
- I invited you to share the barriers or fears that you have found stand in your way and how you overcome them. Are you led by your gut, or do you follow more of an analytical approach, like the example above?
Bonus question: Do you have any experience, insights or opinion you would like to share on any of the topics I suggested? Or perhaps one I’ve missed out? Would you like to contribute information or even write a guest post on my blog? Get in touch by contacting me.
I am not affiliated with any persons or brands mentioned in my post. All opinions and interpretations of their work are my own and not necessarily reflect upon them.
In writing this blog post I referred to work by: