What is the most difficult thing you’ve ever done?

I asked myself this question, in the early twilight, coffee steam forming haloes between the sun and myself. It took me awhile to answer. It isn’t as though I’d forgotten. But what I remembered most was not the bullet-point-mission I was on of getting to the summit, but my internal mental monologue while climbing Long’s Peak (14,295′) or traversing the Sawtooth between Mount Bierstat (14,065′) and Mount Evans (14,265′).  I remember a whispered chant oscillating between, “I will laugh at the days to come” and “I think I can.”


Beyond Positive Thinking

What do you say to yourself when things get hard?

We’ve all heard about the power of positive thinking. If you say things like, “I can’t do it” or “I’m not going to make it,” well, then you’ll do what you say. But getting to the finish is a little more than just being positive. It is being purposeful. Purposeful with every foot step. Every water break. And every thought.

This year I’ve embarked on a running journey. I have always hated running. I mean loathed it. I am not sure there is a strong enough word for my negative emotions toward it. I’d run, my chest would hurt, my breathing more like gasping, my legs burning and sluggish. So I’ve avoided running. Until this year… when I was half-tricked-half-challenged into signing up for my first half-marathon. The game is on. And my husband shared a few thoughts as I started my training late last fall, thoughts that I have applied to hiking, climbing, and skiing with measured success.


1. Go slow to go far

Ever been on hike with a group of people and everyone shoots off down the trail like they are being chased by a mountain lion? Or run a race only to find yourself exhausted after mile two because you took off like stampeding cattle? I have. And each and every time I bonked hardcore, far before the finish. Far before I even expected to. I learned my mental game has to be on, right from the start. Go slow to go far. Or start slow to go long.

I’ve learned this the hard way in the world of rock climbing too. Early last summer I’d find my arms pumping out, my grip slipping, and in a panic I’d throw myself quicker and quicker up the rock…eventually failing and falling. It’s taken time to train myself to slow down. Find a good resting stance, shake out my arms one by one, breathe deeply, then make my move. But as I slow down, my success increases.

This has made all the difference in my running. I slowed down, I mean way down. And running was a little more enjoyable. I no longer felt like dying with every step. I found I could run longer distances. But I’ve noticed something else. I’ve gotten faster! In slowing down, and not really worrying about my pace, I have lost almost 1.5 minutes/mile in my pace in the last month and a half. Without even trying!

For me, this involves setting my ego aside. Don’t get caught up in comparing yourself to the others around you.  Be willing to set your pace and stick to it. For me it means running my own race, not the person’s next to me. And mostly, being ok with not always being first. For many outdoor endeavors and for most outdoor athletes, the goal is in finishing, not in being ‘first’. And that is a worthy goal.


2. Focus on the Small Picture

Did you think I was going to say, “Focus on the big picture?” No, I meant it. The small picture. There is a time to dream big. Usually this time is when you are setting your far reaching goals. But in actually accomplishing them? Looking at where you want to end is not always the best plan…

In my last article I chronicled an all-women’s backpacking trip that I took my mom on. Focusing on “baby goals” was invaluable to getting us to the top of Mount Belford (14,067′) and Mount Oxford (14,153′). Nearing the end of our second summit of Belford my mom had hit a wall (and I wasn’t too far off.) Some super-steep-switchbacks, covered in crumbling rock, stood between us and the summit (and inevitably the descent to our tents). I remember setting baby goal. If I’d asked her, “can you make it back to camp?” She’d probably have thrown something at me or burst into tears. Somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds, we couldn’t handle that question. But could you make it 25 feet to that funny little rock shaped like a triangle. Well….sure. So we did. And how about forty feet further to where the trail turns left…Okay. Before we knew it, we were at the top and on the way back down. Choosing to focus on the the small picture helped us accomplish the big picture.

Dean Kazarnes, renowned ultra-runner uses a similar approach when the end goal seems endlessly impossible. An article on Wired.com shared the story:

Fifty-six miles into his first Western States Endurance Run – one of the oldest 100-mile races in the country – Karnazes found himself alone entering a canyon at twilight. It was tough going – the trek boasts a total elevation change of 38,000 feet. With 44 miles to go, his spirit was flagging, but he found a way to make it seem conquerable: He remembered the next checkpoint would leave only a marathon and two 10Ks left to go. He knew he could run each leg, and that helped him achieve the whole.

Early last summer I found myself staring up at Bastille Crack (5.7, 5 pitches) in Eldorado Canyon, CO. River water rushing behind and below me, stirring my stomach into a mess of knots and spasms. Recently I’d been having a “freak out” problem when it came to climbing. Not just climbing, but climbing high. And here I was, about to start a 350 foot climb, with nothing but some rope and my shaky limbs keeping me on the rock. This is the first of many adventures where my mental game was tested. When I looked to the top, I could not imagine how any one got there. And yet if all went well, that would be me, a little speck high on the wall.

Instead of surrendering to a full on fit-of-nerves, I focused one pitch at a time, one rest at a time. It sounded like this in my head: “Can I climb this first pitch? Yes. Six moves up then a good rest before the crux (a.k.a the hardest moves on the pitch). Make sure to slow down and take that rest. Worry about the other pitches one at a time.” And it worked. Days later I came back to Eldorado Canyon for a little day hike with my kids and stopped to watch other climbers start on this infamous route. My vision swam a little, and then I heard myself telling my mom, “I don’t know how anyone does that.” I had to chuckle to myself… of course I’d just done that two days prior.


3. Tears aren’t all bad…

When in doubt, when it seems like all hope is gone, shed a few tears. This is mostly for the women out there (and maybe a few men). But often I find myself getting bogged down with doubt and if I shed a little emotion, my thoughts will clear up. My body once frozen in fear or exhaustion might just find that “little extra” it needs to keep going. A few tears isn’t an admission of defeat, just an admission that the road is hard.

One thing I’ve learned this last year: your mental game can make or break your outdoor adventures. I find it funny that we spend so much time focusing on gear, training, packing lists, and meal planning, while neglecting the fact that our mental game is such a huge factor in our success.

And there is no better way to prepare mentally than challenging yourself beyond what you think you can do. We become mentally stronger by taking that first step, and moving to a place we are not comfortable. But after you’ve committed remember to move slowly, with purpose. With your eyes directly ahead. You’ll become stronger. You’ll achieve more. You’ll get to the top.



Leave a Reply