Week 14: We can only see so far ahead
A lesson from Scott Jurek's 'North'
Yesterday morning a little before 7 a.m., I took this photo here on the South Carolina coast, where I’ve been with my family for spring break, as my son has the week off from school.
It had been way too long since I’d seen the sun come up with my own eyes, bit by tiny little bit over the horizon. It was gloriously beautiful.
I knew I’d be writing to you all today about the training we’ve been doing together since the start of the year, and how far we’ve come. (If you’re timing your running to the plan, it’s kinda hard to believe we’re just a few weeks away from 13.1 miles, isn’t it?)
At this point in a training cycle, what I try to focus on is not getting too far ahead of myself — either by congratulating myself too much, or thinking too far ahead. Just focus on the day I’m in, and the miles I need to run that day. Not tomorrow, not next week. Just today.
Seeing the sunrise yesterday reminded me of all of that, and a wonderful quotation from this interview Willie Nelson gave several years ago:
“I think all we have is right now. You know, we don’t have yesterday, we don’t have tomorrow. All we have is this moment — we don’t have ‘after a while,’ we just have now. But I try to live in that moment, I try to be happy in that moment, and that way it takes a lot of the pressure off of worrying about what happened last year, or what’s gonna happen next year.”
Lately, I’ve been reading Scott Jurek’s North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, which tells the story of his 2016 attempt to beat what was then the fastest known time to complete the 2,186-mile-long trail, from the mountains of north Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
That record — 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes — had been set five years earlier by long distance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis, whose accomplishments on thousands of miles of trails around the world are almost impossible to imagine. (Her bio says she “has backpacked 700 miles pregnant, walked across North Carolina while nursing her newborn son, and hiked in all 50 states with her two-year-old daughter.”)
Jurek — whose accomplishments are just as legendary, having won many of the world’s most grueling ultra-marathons, including the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run seven times in a row — would beat Davis’s record by just 3 hours and 13 minutes, which shows how extraordinary both of these athletes are.
What’s interesting to me about what Jurek accomplished — thanks hugely to the inseparable partnership of his wife Jenny, who co-wrote the book with him — isn’t the physical feat of running and hiking 50 miles a day for more than 40 days in the Appalachian wilderness. (Or, that isn’t the only thing that’s interesting about it.)
Rather, it’s how he saw himself along the way — how his mind responded to the situations he put himself in, and how he adapted to the sometimes extreme hardships out on the trail.
There’s a moment early on in the book in which Jurek describes taking a moment to stop and rest for about 20 minutes. He’s on day four of his trek on the AT, having just entered the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and as he says, “I was still in my own little honeymoon phase.”
It didn’t last long:
“I arranged my hydration pack behind my head, stretched out, pulled my lightweight jacket over my chest, and let myself sink into the ground. I did some low-intensity calculations as I settled in. I was on a good pace. If I kept up what I’d been doing over the past three and a half days — difficult but doable — I’d be on track to set a new fastest-known time. Everything so far was going according to plan. Better than the plan, really. But then, as all the fatigue and sleepiness set in, doubts began to play with my brain. What had I gotten us into? Could I really do this for another forty days? What the hell had I been thinking?
Fat, majestic clouds drifted slowly across the sky, and the foliage of the Smoky Mountains forest whispered me to sleep.
I closed my eyes. And waited.
My brain and body were not on the same page. I managed to steal a few minutes of rest for my legs, but my mind took up the slack. My thoughts were doing the racing now.
I thought back, with a pang of embarrassment, to two nights earlier when a magazine writer had called to talk about my attempt. I’d tried to express how important it was to me, how it differed from my hundred-mile-trail wins and the twenty-four-hour American road record, but I was reaching for feelings and ideas that were still incipient, even though I’d finally put my feet down on the trail. So what came out of my mouth was… less than articulate. I said something like, “This is going to be my masterpiece.” I was trying to sound confident, but instead I sounded full of myself. The truth is that I was afraid to say I really don’t know why I’m out here. Hopefully I figure it out over the next two thousand miles.”
I’ve added emphasis on those last two sentences because I find them so refreshing; he’s human too, just like we are. He experiences moments of doubt, wondering sometimes, “what am I doing?”
In the years leading up to this, Jurek had traveled the world competing in the world’s toughest races. He’d won many of them. And he could call on the memories of those experiences to remind himself of his own capabilities and strengths.
But he couldn’t see into the future any farther than we can, and still he had to make it through the challenge of the day he was in. Step by step, just like we do.
I know the challenges we’re taking on — like our 10 miles this weekend — can seem really big. All we can do is take them step by step, mile by mile, day by day.
I hope you have a great running week this week, and the weather cooperates with you wherever you are in the world — as always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going.
Our training plan for this week
This week, we take our long run into double-digit miles for the first time. I know some of you won’t feel quite ready, but if you’ve been following our plan each week, you are — and you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment when you’re done:
Thursday, April 7 — 4-5 miles/40-50 minutes
Saturday, April 9 — 10 miles/100 minutes
Sunday, April 10 — 2 miles/20 minutes
Tuesday, April 12 — 5-6 miles/50-60 minutes
Let me know how it’s going for you and if you have any questions about the plan, your running, or anything else 👍