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The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.
It has taken me 38 winters on God’s good green earth to even begin to figure this out, but now I’m here to tell you about it. And I am absolutely convinced that if we can crack the code on this lesson, if we can really lean into understanding this thing, we can have bigger adventures more often because we won’t be quite so exhausted by the ones we already attempted.
So what is it? What is the thing that I’ve learned that is the most important, life-changing lesson of my winter season outside — maybe even the most important lesson I’ve ever started to understand in all of my outdoor adventures?
My nervous system deserves just as much care, respect and training as any other part of my body and is just as important for getting outside as anything else.
Hang with me here while I explain.
This is a concept I first started to understand last year thanks to the work of Sarah Histand, a mental-health focused fitness trainer here in Alaska. Her teaching on this blew my mind — so credit where it’s due: Sarah is the master of teaching this subject and you should her work at Mind and Mountain and her woman-focused training program Ski Babes.
Respecting your nervous system, she taught me, means knowing that when you head outside to take on a big task, adventure, fun day or anything at all you take your whole body with you and that includes your nervous system. It is, I have learned, a part of us that we don’t stop and appreciate. But it is also the part of our physical beings that has to work together with all of our other parts to make sure we’re not just having fun, but physically able to move through whatever challenge we’re having.
When you encounter something outside and it feels really risky and you have trouble getting yourself to move through it …. that’s your nervous system talking.
When you’re super exhausted all of the sudden — not just your muscles, but that deep SO TIRED feeling — after doing something challenging … that’s your nervous system talking.
When you find yourself in the middle of something hard and really, really want to quit … that’s your nervous system talking.
When something feels overwhelming and you just don’t want to do it … that’s your nervous system talking.
How OK you are with risk is a nervous system thing, Sarah taught me. And just like you aren’t going to go from never running in your life today to running a marathon tomorrow, you have to train this part of your literal body.
If you wanted to run, you’d practice running by working up to your goal distance. If you want your nervous system to get happy, you have to train it get used to the work. And that training, Sarah says, is done through titration and pundulation. First you take a baby step into something risky, and then you take a step back. And then, the next time, maybe your baby step is a little bit bigger. And then you give yourself a break.
You take risks. You teach yourself that you can. But you also don’t live in constant state of risk taking. Not every moment is a step. Some of the moments are doing something that feels safer or more comfortable.
OK, so that’s what I’ve learned about working with and training my nervous system. And that huge, important lesson has helped me unlock the ability to try new things, like learning to snowboard. Because when it was really hard I knew that on the other side of taking this step was putting the snowboard away while I took a break. And then I could get it back out again, try again or ride it down a slightly harder slope when me and my nervous system were good and ready.
But the even MORE important lesson all of this was the lesson that is simply knowing that my nervous system is with me in all of this and that it deserves the same break and recovery time as any other physical part of me. By being able to name it and claim it, I am learning how to identify what it is about any given challenge that is hard, which means that I can then help my body recover for the next adventure without feeling like I am less-than another person.
Here’s an example from just this week: this past weekend was the Crazy Lazy Mountain Race, a run that goes straight up about 3,000 feet over 2 miles — so a very very steep climb — and then down the mountain over a 4 mile route. It is very snowy and because of that conditions are often very tough to run in. It’s easy to sprain an ankle, and I know that because I have sprained an ankle running this route or race multiple times. At this point I have done that so many times that my top goal for this year’s race wasn’t time, it simply not hurting myself running down the stupid mountain.
The race also has pretty aggressive cut-off times for a fairly average runner like me. You need to get past the first check point, about halfway up, in 45 minutes. The next cut off is 1 hour, 30 minutes to the top — much less aggressive than the first cutoff but still tough. And that’s especially true if the weather is bad.
And boy oh boy was the weather bad this year. It was a lovely day at the start line, but as soon as we hit that check point the wind started blasting over the mountain. I’m talking 20 mph sustained winds with gusts upwards of 40 mph. I mean I thought it felt like 50 plus gusts but Ive seen other people guess 40 so we’ll go with that. But it was SO windy. And the roar of the wind was incredible. Because the wind was whipping up and around the the mountain, we were running directly into it at multiple points, even after changing directions.
Visibility was low. The light was very flat which meant it was hard to see the ground. And I was slow going up but VERY slow going down. So slow. The slowest Ive ever been. It took me a solid 40 minutes to get from the top to an adjacent trail that takes the course fully down the mountain. That’s something that shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes, at the most.
And that entire time, the wind was howling, blowing ice and rocks into my face. For about 65 of the 80 minutes I struggled through that wind I felt like I was experiencing an incredible challenge. And then there was a moment that a switch in me turned from “this is fun in a weird, not that fun way” to “this is an actual nightmare.”
And that switch? That was my nervous system saying — ok, we’re out. And thanks to the work I’ve done to understand all of this, I knew what was happening. I knew that that feeling” That was my nervous system talking.
Except of course I was on top of a mountain. I could not simply be done. There was only one way out, and it was the way I was going. So I kept after it and finished the race. Knowing why I felt that way makes absolutely no difference in how the day turned out.
So why is understanding all of this so important to me? Because it changes how I’m now talking to myself about that race and how I’ll talk myself through the next big thing.
I am not blaming myself for being slow — 40 minutes slower than last year, by the way — or feeling very ragged after the run — that’s my nervous system working with me. And the next time I take on that mountain or any other challenge? I can say: Remember how bad that felt? And you lived through it. You’ve got this. Let’s go.
Maybe you’re not up on top of Lazy Mountain in a windstorm — and I really hope you’re not because that was dumb. So maybe you’re wondering how this applies to you. Here are a few examples:
If you’re afraid of heights or big drops down rocks — and that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to be afraid of by the way because whoa scary — and find yourself staring down rocks? Pause, acknowledge what’s happening, move through it, honor that you did it, give yourself some time, remember it next time.
You find yourself alone in the unknown and hate the idea of taking the risk? Pause, acknowledge what’s happening, assess your risks and make a decision on your next step, give yourself a high five that you moved through it and remember this next time.
You’re outside and it’s cold, and you’re feeling unprepared? Pause, acknowledge what’s happening, assess your options and make a decision on what you should do, be proud of yourself for having the understanding to see what was happening and remember the lesson for next time.
By knowing why you’re reacting a certain way, you can know what to do about it. While I was in the wind on that run I knew that the moment it went from fun to nightmare wasn’t because of any actual danger — I wasn’t too cold, I wasn’t hurt, I wasn’t about to die — it was my nervous system saying that we were just big all done, thank you very much. And if you can find a way to see what’s going on with you, you can also understand how to move through it. For me it meant finishing my race. For you it might mean something else.
You can see a photo from the finish line on Humans Outside on Facebook and Instagram. I am all smiles because I am no longer in the wind. There are no photos from the nightmare because, well, who has the time to take photos during a wind nightmare?
I want to see photos of your outdoor adventures, too. Share them with me on Facebook and Instagram with #humansoutside365. Until next time, we’ll see you out there.