Are you finally prepped for the adventure you’ve been dreaming of? Before setting out, there is a final important thing to prep: your mind. Even with the best planning, gear, and safety precautions, things tend to go south if your mind isn’t on board. And, conversely, a go-with-the-flow mindset can overcome a variety of catastrophes when your planning, gear and precautions fail.
To understand the importance of your mindset on a self-supported adventure run, consider your motivations for adventuring in the first place. On some runs, our motivations are utilitarian: getting in X number of training miles, training above a certain elevation, accumulating a certain amount of time on feet. In these cases, we’re on the trail to check off a box or two on the training calendar and perhaps not approaching our run with any goals of a more philosophical nature. But other times, we hit the trail for the sake of discovering new terrain and new capabilities within ourselves. These adventures appeal because they involve a certain amount of unknown. A run becomes an adventure when the outcome is, at least in part, uncertain. The risk is the draw.
If uncertainty is inherent in the undertaking, a rigid mindset is rarely advantageous. Consider the following common occurrences on a long adventure and the consequences of a rigid mindset:
- You mapped out your intended route at 25 miles. It’s late in the day, you know several miles remain to get back to your car, and your GPS watch says you’ve already covered 27 miles.
- You’re exploring a new-to-you trail that you’ve read rave reviews of online. So far, all has gone according to plan, but suddenly the well-defined trail you’ve been following for miles becomes a barely-discernible path that eventually disappears.
- You’re half way through a run in a desert canyon that you intend to repeat soon on a timed attempt. You’ve responsibly consumed water and calories all run. Suddenly you feel nauseous, get a sharp headache and want nothing more than to find some shade and lie down.
- Your run is taking twice as long as you estimated. You’re bonking hard and out of water and food.
In these situations, a rigid mindset panics. The rigid mind had a plan and knew exactly what to do so long as all the gears meshed. But on an adventure—an undertaking with an uncertain outcome—sometimes the gears jam. The flexible mind adjusts. It takes a deep breath and says, “It’s okay that according to my GPS I should be at my car by now.” It calmly backtracks to find the right trail, even if it has to backtrack miles. It accepts that it’s getting heat exhaustion despite taking all necessary precautions and slows to a walk, even though the plan was to run fast today. It remains calm during the bonk and controls what it can control.
Sounds great, right? Having a flexible mindset falls into that annoying “easier-said-than-done” category. But it is possible. Several Trail Sisters shared their stories with me of something unplanned happening during an adventure run and how keeping a flexible mindset helped them make it through.
Deb from Phoenix shares this story:
I’ve been an empty nester for a year now; however, most of my running friends still have young kids at home. I have found extra time to explore trails and go on some epic runs but can’t always find someone to accompany me. I’ve had to make a choice on either going by myself or not going at all. Last spring I went on my first solo North Rim Grand Canyon run. I typically do not recommend going into the Canyon alone, but none of my friends could get away, so I went. My original plan was to run down North Kaibab and across to Phantom Ranch, then return back to up to the North Rim (approx. 30 miles). Being chilled at the start wearing a jacket and gloves, it always surprises me how quickly it heats up in the Canyon. Within one mile of dropping down, I had stripped down to shorts and a tank top. By the time I reached the bottom, it was well over 90 degrees, and it was still early in the day. That was when I decided to change my goals. Maybe if I wasn’t alone I would have pushed on, but risking heat exhaustion or worse while alone just isn’t smart. So instead I detoured to the impressive Ribbon Falls, getting cooled off and recharged for my hike back out. I didn’t make my 30 mile goal, but had a great run, amazing views, and returned safely to come back again someday.
Deb’s willingness to change her goals allowed her to avoid heat-related illness, a difficulty that likely would have been compounded by her being alone. Deb played the long game; she forewent one day’s mileage goal and “returned home safely to come back again someday.” I know Deb, and she has definitely logged plenty of days well over 30 miles recently.
Heidi from Colorado shares this tale of a run gone wrong:
As an over-packer, my mishaps on the trails rarely involve not having enough gear or snacks. Instead my adventures that have required a few mindset adjustments usually involved being out much longer than anticipated. A primary example is a day when a trail-venture that was supposed to last 8 hours turned into an 18-hour sufferfest. When the misery really set in, we were miles from the trailhead following a confident trail runner. Before long, we were off trail, thigh-deep in slushy snow and getting rained on. The trail runner we were following picked up the pace, leaving us in the dark alone. The two of us were fighting our way up a steep, rocky, snow-covered mountainside by pulling ourselves upward one tree root at a time. It was dark, scary, cold and miserable. But our only option was upward, to the trail we knew. We didn’t have time to think about being upset—every forward movement required our concentration. When we finally reached the marked trail, it would have been extremely easy to let the rage set in, but it would have been incredibly unproductive. Instead, I put the little mental strength I had into focusing on hot chocolate, cheesy breakfast omelets (it was 3am) and making silly jokes. Every once in a while, one of us would start complaining, but the other one was there to offer up a snack to distract or a bit of positive insight to keep us going with at least a healthy dose of sarcasm. We knew we were in a bad place, mentally and physically, but we also knew we were going to be okay if we kept our heads on straight.
When things started unraveling for Heidi and her running partner, she chose to consciously redirect her thoughts. They focused on omelets and jokes rather than their soggy, cold condition. Importantly, Heidi “knew we were in a bad place… but we also knew we were going to be okay if we kept our heads on straight.” When your run takes much longer than planned, it’s crucial to remember that extra hours do not mean certain death. Don’t let your head convince you otherwise. Similarly, the wet, snowy conditions Heidi experienced could put a runner in real danger, but being an over-packer, Heidi had the gear she needed to stay safe.
Ruthie, an Oklahoma trail runner who originally hails from England, writes about a moment half way through a 100K when severe cramps struck. She saw the moment as a decision point, with two different metaphorical “lollipop ladies,” AKA crossing guards, presenting two different options.
It’s at that moment when your mindset is either going to crush you or propel you to grit your teeth and keep going. The cramps lasted for about 2 miles, but I refused to give up, even if it meant slowing down to a grimacing walk. At that moment, there is a crossroads in your mind and two lollipop ladies (Brit speak for crossing warden) beckoning at you to come on up their individual roads. One says, “Are you gonna give up then? You might as well because this ruins everything.” And the other says, “No way are you quitting! You put too much time and training into this, and besides you won’t like yourself very much if you quit.” I wasn’t injured or sick, and I knew with a little maintenance, the cramps would pass. They did. I crushed my 100k. You have to decide whether you can live with quitting. Next time, try to visualize those two lollipop ladies, and ignore the negative one.
Though Ruthie was in a race, she still faced uncertainty as to the outcome of her run. Yes, sometimes there are great reasons to take a DNF in a race or on a self-planned adventure. But on this day, Ruthie knew she wasn’t injured or sick and that she had a finish in her. Her gritty mindset saw two options and chose to take the positive road. Adventure runs involve hail storms, nausea, wrong turns and bonks. A gritty mindset that chooses to persevere is essential for proudly finishing the journey.
So how does one acquire this flexible mindset? It’s easy to see its benefits but much harder to implement it.
Many people find mindfulness meditation to be a helpful tool for improving one’s ability to stay calm when the unexpected happens. Clearly, this skill is beneficial in all of life, not just running. Mindfulness meditation is an accessible practice that can involve as little as 10 minutes a day in the comfort of your living room. Try Headspace, a non-intimidating app, to get started.
Discuss any concerns about your planned adventure with someone you trust. Talking about it is, again, a healthy thing to do in all areas of life. Before exploring a new place, you could get coffee with someone who has also run that trail or who simply has experience doing runs on a similar scale. Ask questions and voice your concerns; being flexible is not about eliminating or hiding worries but rather calmly accepting them and proceeding anyway. Can’t find an experienced runner to talk to? Voicing your thoughts about your planned adventure to a trusted non-runner friend can still be valuable. Verbalize your concerns, rather than keeping them locked in your head, and you’re likely to feel some stress dissipate. Just be careful when choosing which non-runner to confide in; a friend who is terrified by the idea of a day in the woods is unlikely to provide the support you need. Also, discussing your concerns doesn’t alleviate the need to plan and pack well. But once you’ve responsibly prepped for your adventure, talking about it can reduce lingering anxiety.
A strategy that I’ve found valuable is setting goals that help me stay calm of mind. In a race or adventure run, I probably have a time-related goal. But I also sometimes set goals like “Stay Relaxed” or “Have fun.” Write these goals down to emphasize their importance. Sure, these goals may violate the “S.M.A.R.T goal” rules of being specific and measurable. But repeating them to myself, out loud if needed, reminds me that there is more to a good run than being fast. And even goals like “stay relaxed” and “have fun” can be specific and measurable. You could, for example, take ten deep breaths at the top of every hour or treat yourself to a handful of M&Ms each time you’re tempted to panic. You could wear a silly and fun clothing item, like taco socks or tie-dye sunglasses, to remind you to keep it fun.
On a long adventure run, planning thoroughly, packing appropriately and traveling safely shrink the risk of something going wrong. But we can only roll the dice so many times before a roll doesn’t go our way. A mind that stays calm and adapts when something goes wrong is invaluable for success. The ability to mentally reframe a mid-run problem as unplanned excitement is a critical skill for an adventure run and for the adventure called life. So what’s on your list? Our home planet holds endless amazing places to explore, and often only our minds limit us. I’ll keep exploring the new places on my list; give me a wave if you see me out there.