Five Things I Learned from my Big Stupid Goal of Running up a Mountain

author - melissa witmer
Melissa sitting on a bench above Turtle Lake

On a hike a few months ago, my brain said to me “you should try to run up this mountain.” 

Also me: “No, I don’t want to run up this mountain.”

“Yea, but you should try to run up this mountain.”

“I don’t even like running. There is no reason that I would want to do this. Why do you think you want to do this? I don’t want to run up a mountain. We’re not doing this.”

...

Later that week I found myself glancing at a map for routes that might work to run up this mountain even though I DEFINITELY DID NOT want to run up this mountain.

On hikes I started noticing which sections were runnable and which were probably not.

I still did not want to run up the mountain. Because that would be really hard and I don’t like running and all I could imagine were miserable training runs that I didn’t want to do.

“But what if you could do it in a way that wasn’t miserable?”

I decided if I could do it in a way that wasn’t miserable I would at least entertain the possibility of maybe trying to run up a mountain. If I tried for a few weeks and it really wasn’t possible, then at least the voice in my head would go away.

Goals that we both want and don’t want exist because they have something to teach us. It can feel more like compulsion than desire at first. I believe this is the nonverbal brain’s way of telling us we have something to learn. Though it’s not able to tell us what that might be.

Here are a few things I learned pursuing this idiotic goal of running up a mountain.

The Benefits of Half-Assed Commitment

Though it runs counter to a lot of self-help advice, you can begin moving toward a goal without committing to it. 

We think the way to achieve goals is to decide on a goal, make a logical plan, and then just be disciplined. And if we can’t achieve our goal it’s proof we just don’t have the willpower. 

But we know from the success rate of New Year’s Resolutions that this isn’t the most effective way.

Instead, I recommend allowing for a half-assed exploratory stage. The exploratory stage of a goal draws on different parts of our brain. It allows for more options of how to achieve our goal than what we may lay out for ourselves using only our prefrontal cortex.

In this stage we can also listen to what our feelings are trying to tell us. I realized I did not want to commit to this goal because all I could envision were lots of hard workouts ahead. And I truly did not want to stick to a strict training regimen. 

I wanted to be able to continue to enjoy long hikes, and go spontaneously when the weather was nicest. I did not want to sacrifice those in order to adhere to a rigorous training schedule that might or might not result in me being able to run up this mountain anway.

Running up a mountain did not seem realistic to me. But I knew I would be willing to at least try for a little while if I could promise myself that I would not let it be a torture-fest the whole way through.

In this stage we can find small ways forward that do not rely on willpower or “hard work.”

My exploratory stage involved looking for a pathway up the mountain with less incline than my first hiking trail so that it could be actually runnable.

I started a few exploratory training runs where I would run when I felt like it and walk when I didn’t want to run. I let myself do this for a few weeks with no pressure to continue toward this goal if it seemed truly unrealistic.

Half Assed commitment allows you to point your brain toward new possibilities without any judgment toward the outcome. I had permission not to pursue the goal and curiosity about if it was logistically possible. At the end of this phase, my goals were grounded in the realities of my own limitations and desires.

 

Slowing down to Speed Up

Once I found a workable route, I started a few training runs. Now I was committed. My strategy was to run 1 minute, walk 1 minute in intervals. And as the weeks progressed, increase the length of the running intervals.

The first time I completed a 1 minute on, 1 minute off training run, I was so excited! I knew that if I could do this, then I would eventually be able to do the whole thing. I had a plan mapped out of how my training runs could progress over the next 12-16 weeks to enable me to run up this mountain without a torturous training regimen. Easy peezy.

Two weeks later my back was hurting and I felt wiped out. Hiking on trails that I usually found easy were hard. And intervals of even 1 minute 15 seconds felt way more difficult than I thought they should be.

Turns out running intervals uphill is a LOT harder than running intervals on flat ground or rolling hills. One week later, my first attempt at one 1:30 running one minute walking felt impossibly difficult.

It was clear that my strategy was not working. 

I took a full week off to reset and re-think things. Why did my back hurt SO much? Is running up a mountain THAT different than training on flat ground (turns out yes! duh.)

I went back to what I knew.

  1. I needed the work capacity to handle my own training loads, whatever they would be. And right now I was not ready. So going forward with the current plan would not work.
  2. I would need to feel better in order to restart and continue training.
  3. I needed to accept the principle of max adaptation per workout and let go of whatever output or results I was expecting from each workout.

One day on a short (yet still backache inducing) hike, I noticed that when I relaxed my shoulders, my core became more engaged and my posture shifted. Maybe a year of not playing frisbee and sitting down most of my waking hours had shifted lots of things.

I began taking some serious time for self-massage of my back and stretching in my hips. I stretched my psoas every day. I started small amounts of core training every day.

Within three weeks I was starting on longer hikes and exploratory runs again. Pain free. I had lost about a month of training by slowing down. But now I knew I’d be in a position to physically handle and adapt with each training run rather than accumulating fatigue. My posture was better. Even hiking felt way easier.

The Importance of Definitions - What even IS running?

When I realized my strategy wasn’t working, I did some reading on mountain running. I learned that the incline at which running becomes less efficient than walking is less that I would have thought - about 16 degrees of incline.

Professional trail runners don’t actually run all of the time. Speed hiking is apparently, a thing.

 

 

Should I do what these professionals do?

I practiced a bit on my next run in the sections with the higher inclines. I’m sure I looked ridiculous. But yea, it was easier and likely not slower than running those sections. 

Any UAP S&C member knows that I am not averse to doing things that look weird in order to get results. 

 However I decided that I wanted to run the whole thing, even if it was less efficient. 

 Why?

Because I had decided my objective was to run up the mountain. And to me, speed hiking was not running. I already knew from experience that the fastest way up the mountain would be hiking a steeper trail. So if “fastest” was my objective, I would not be on this route at all.

Turns out, I wanted it to be hard. In my head, running is hard and I just kinda wanted to see if I could do it the hard way. 

 If this were a race with a predetermined course, then the objective would be “speed on this course” and I would do a combination of running and speed hiking. But this was my own goal with my own objectives and definitions. Running nonstop from my apartment to the sign post on the hill above Turtle Lake was my objective. “Running” is not speed hiking.

It Will Be Hard Differently Than You Want it to Be

 When I stared on this goal, I thought the challenge would be to figure out how to train for and run up the mountain with the least amount of suffering.

In the end, the challenge was actually about learning to embrace and endure the suffering itself.

Running up a mountain is not really a cardiovascularly dominant experience. Especially with the amount of training time available, I would be relying on significant contribution from my anaerobic system. This simply means it's going to feel hard, perhaps very hard.

When my first strategy for training didn’t work, and I had to take a few weeks of and start over, I realized this would actually be a mental toughness challenge, not a training discipline challenge. Could I put up with the discomfort required for the 40-45 minutes it would take me to run up a mountain? 

My less frequent hard training runs became about relaxing into the discomfort and accepting it more fully.

This is not what I wanted this goal to be about. I spend a LOT of time convincing ultimate players that they will get better results in their training if they spend LESS time on crazy hard workouts.

And so of course, my own goal arrived to teach me that there can be value in simply embracing physical effort for its own sake. This goal was about not only doing something hard, but doing it in a way that was purposefully inefficient (running vs hiking). 

I had to learn that I could handle doing things harder, not smarter - the opposite of what is comfortable for me.

The Final Battle

Spoiler alert. I have not yet attempted to run up the mountain.

Two weeks ago I ran over two thirds of the way without stopping. I now think that I am likely physically capable of running up the mountain.

Realizing you are capable of achieving what you set out to do should feel amazing. It also felt uncomfortable. Now if I cannot run up this mountain I might feel bad about it.

A few months ago, I truly believed that running up the mountain would not be possible. Now I believe it is possible. Which leads to the fundamental truth.

Believing something is possible is more painful than believing something is NOT possible.

As long as something is NOT possible for us, we don’t have to try. We don’t have to be afraid of failing at it. We can point to all the reasons we can’t do it and these will all sound totally logical and reasonable. 

But once we believe something might actually be possible for us, then we need to face the real challenges - the fear of failure. The fear of disappointment. The option to feel bad about ourselves if we cannot achieve the things that we believe are achievable for ourselves.

Having done my own mental training work I was able to quickly recognize and interrupt this thought pattern. 

I know that my best training runs are when I am curious about whether or not I can complete it. When I give myself permission to stop if I want to, I paradoxically give myself more ease moving forward. I can stay relaxed, which is what I will need to be while my lungs are burning.

The final challenge will be maintaining the beginner's mind with the end clearly in sight.

 

The Ultimate Failure

At the time of writing, I am scheduled to go out and make my attempt on the mountain tomorrow.

So why did I write this before I’ve actually achieved what I set out to do?

Would this blog post have more impact reporting in from the mountain top?

When I talk to folks considering working with me in the UAP Premium program, the biggest fear they have is that they will put in the work and STILL not achieve the goals they desire. 

It is the fear of the end failure that prevents them from even getting started. 

This is tragic.

I believe the most important part of the story remains true regardless of the final result. 

Folks who succeed at their goals will tell you that the joy is really in the journey, not the destination. Perhaps we look at those people and think it’s easy for them to say because they have actually reached their destination.

So I wanted to write this blog post before my attempt at running up the mountain.

It’s quite possible that I will not succeed. I could still bust an ankle, get a  side stitch, or just not be as mentally tough as I think I am and give up. Or maybe I will throw up or pass out before I get to my destination. Who knows.

But because I intimately know the value of my own journey, I’m not going to care what anyone else thinks about it. I have a friend who thinks my goal is easy and that the mountain I am running up is not actually that large. That’s fine.

I have become someone who is very likely capable of running up this mountain when a few months ago the idea seemed totally absurd. This mental resilience and physical fitness I have achieved does not disappear if, for some reason, I do not actually succeed in my attempt

Whatever disappointment or sadness I will experience if I cannot actually do this, will pale in comparison to what I would have lost if I had never tried.

And this is what I see in folks who are saying “no” to their desires and dreams. They are saying no to the person they would become in the pursuit of their goals. They are saying “no” to what their desire has to teach them.

 

What’s Your Mountain?

I know many players out there right now want to try out for elite squads or national teams. Maybe you’re so far from that goal it doesn’t even make sense for you to want it. Maybe that desire would seem laughable to others. I’m here to tell you, it does not have to make sense. 

What you desire is calling your toward something your nonverbal brain wants you to learn. You don’t even know what those things are yet. 

The first step is to suspend your disbelief and start exploring.

If you have big ultimate goals and desires, come explore your options with me. I have room for about 6 more clients in the month of May. If you want to go all in on your ultimate goals with the support of someone who knows the terrain, book a strategy call with me here. Let’s have a deeper discussion about your goals and expand your ideas of what might be possible for you.