When was the last time you went out for a run and didn’t know the route home? The last time you got on a bike and didn’t plan how far you’d go? The last time you set off for an open water swim and didn’t know what the beginning, middle, and end would feel like?
Been awhile? Unfamiliar with the feeling of getting lost? Used to feeling like every workout is like an old episode of “Friends”, where you might not know the dialogue by heart, but you’re pretty sure Monica’s going to be anal retentive, Chandler’s going to make you spit milk out your nose, and Ross will make you glad you stopped dating that guy from the museum? Yeah, I know. If you’re a creature of habit, or you’ve been training for anything – and training close to home – the answer is probably “yes, it’s been awhile” – because we always advocate that you know exactly where you are, at all times on a run, on a bike, on a swim. In today’s safety-conscious world, and particularly as woman runners, we say “know your route” and “be prepared” and all that stuff.
But that means life can get pretty boring. It can stop feeling challenging. It can make you forget why you started getting active in the first place.
So every once in awhile, I like recommend something radical: Do something so different, so challenging, that it makes you throw your playbook – if not out the window – at least to the back seat.
I did this last week, and though it was one of the most challenging vacations I’ve had in awhile, it was by far the most rewarding, as I returned to an active holiday with absolutely no pain and no issues.
I sneakily convinced a friend to join me in Wales for three days. There, with the help of Anna from Drover Holidays, we had picked out a three-day-tour of the Brecon Beacons National Park – a gorgeous landscape of the Black Mountains and green hills that offered the Beacons Way – an 80+ mile path that runs through three distinct segments of the park. We started with the day 1 hike up The Skirrid just outside Abergavenny.
Where’s the adventure, you ask?
Hiking in Wales should have been pretty easy for me – I mean, I’ve been hiking now since I was 18, thanks to my dad and stepmom, who introduced us to the joys of Buffet to Prevent Bear Attacks while wandering through the western US national parks. But I’ve never – not once – hiked using a back-country permit, or hiked where I didn’t have a clearly marked trail laid out in front of me with cairns or markers every 20 feet. I’m a bit of a wuss that way (and hey, Colorado isn’t a place you go off trail if you’re only hauling a day pack.) But as I found out while researching this trip, hiking (or “walking” in the UK) is different here than it is in the states.
Unlike the states, here there is a principle which allows any person to cross anyone’s land in order to get to the next plot. The Right to Roam allows right of access across open lands, moors, national park areas (which may include private property within park borders) and several other areas. What that means, in practice, is that you can walk anywhere in England and Wales, as long as you’re carrying a good map and you’re on the recommended route.
But as we found out last week, the route is not quite what you might think. That route might just tell you that there’s a gate in the North East corner of that one farm on your map – but the footpath might or might not be visible to get you there. The next farm’s gate should be through those woods, and over a creek – but you’ll need to read your map closely and find your way carefully. In short, you not only have to be able to read the map – but you have to be able to translate what you’re seeing with your eyes (and feeling with your feet) into what’s on the paper in front of you.
So for me, this was the first bit of the adventure that was truly new. Though I’d orienteered a few times before (and thank GOD for Jenny’s map-reading class and for the orienteering day with the girls), this was truly putting my skills to the test. Second, it required a level of concentration I’m not used to bringing to a hike! We had set out on the first day for a 10.6 mile endurance fest – up two small mountains, with a large valley (and many sheep) in between – and a descent that would bring weaker thighs to their breaking point at the 10 mile mark. But for the mid-point of the trek, where we wandered through the valley – it was a great and refreshing challenge (ahem, with occasional cussing and much sheep shit) to find our way through the farms.
It was also refreshingly, delightfully, sweatily difficult going. It was vertical in ways I hadn’t done in two years. It was, however, also beautiful. In ways I hadn’t seen in two years.
So what’s the big deal about adventuring?
Well, the simple answer is this: it’s about doing something you thought you might never be able to do. And succeeding. I guess this week, so long away from running, and so recently back from surgery, I was worried about whether I’d be able to take it. Would I be able to do the mileage? Would I be able to handle the demands? We built in a day of cycling after the first day – 30 miles of slight climbs and one very long descent – but even the cycling had its moments of toughness on the heels of a massive day of hiking. And yet, I did it. My traveling buddy and I both lamented our dead legs – but they kept us going. And the third day, when we called an audible on our planned route but still did about 10-12 miles of gorgeous hiking along the Talybont Reservoir, country lanes, and one gorgeous canal – we were both pretty happy that we’d been able to get it all done.
And the hidden point in all of it is this: we hadn’t done any of these trips before. We let someone else do the planning – and she handed us the maps, the route, and the gear (for the ride at least). Anna was our tour master and by giving up the planning to someone else, we took a risk. But it was a comfortable risk, a calculated risk, and in the end, we had the trip we needed to test our limits but still have a fun time. We were happy to head home at the end of three days with more than 20 miles of hiking and 30 miles of cycling under our belts.
And part of the test, part of the challenge – was not knowing exactly what we’d find over that ridge. Would it be another false summit? Another thigh-crunching uphill on the bike? A descent that would test our faith in modern braking technology? It was, as my friend put it, like being on a rolleroaster you’ve never ridden – wondering what’s around the corner. It was the best, most unexpected fun we could have had as two adults roaming around the countryside.
So the lesson I think I’m sharing today is this: find a way to take off the training wheels if you can. Go find a completely new trail. Go do something you’ve never – ever – considered before. Oh sure, have a safety net. Take your phone and tell someone where you’re going. Take your water and all that jazz. But just once in the next thirty days, consider going somewhere that makes you nervous. Make your palms sweat and your conscience ask “are you sure?” Because if you do it smartly (and you KNOW how to do it smartly), you’ll find that you absolutely can find what I found: you’ve still got it. You have that sense that you had as a ten year old that there are adventures around every corner, and things that will stop your breath with their beauty. I found mine in wild ponies and heather moors, in centuries-old ruins and green paths on mile high ridges. But you can find yours closer to home, if you only look.
Find your local park. Find your closest National Park. Get on your boots. And get out there. It’s an adventure you simply won’t regret.