Does Taking on Really Big Challenges Outside Help Mental Health? (Sonja Weick)

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Sonja Weick likes to do hard things. That’s how she ended up competing in Eco Challenge: Fiji and being featured on the Amazon Prime show about what’s billed as the world’s toughest endurance race. But all is not always sunshine and big wins in Sonja land — something the reality program showed viewers worldwide. In this episode Sonja Weick talks about her journey into the outdoors, how it has impacted her mental health and how doing hard things outside – no matter what they are – can change you.

Some of the good stuff:

[2:32] Sonja Weick’s favorite outdoor space
[4:31] How Sonja became a person who likes to go outside
[7:33] Sonja tells us about Eco Challenge
[16:33] Why doing hard things outside is important to Sonja
[17:55] The differences between Eco Challenge and Ironman
[24:21] What outdoor users and athletes have to think about when they take on hard things
[28:00] Sonja talks about her panic attack during Eco
[35:26] How she got through it
[41:55] How outdoor life impacts her mental health
[43:55] Do endurance activities outside have a bigger impact on mental health than other types of activities?
[49:17] Sonja’s tips for using endurance sport outside for mental health
[53:25] Sonja’s favorite and most essential outdoor gear
[57:30] Sonja’s favorite outdoor moment

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Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on The Humans Outside Podcast. Listen to the episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

AB 0:52

Sonja Weick first came into my home through my TV screen as she raced with Team Iron Cowboy on Eco Challenge: Fiji, streaming on Amazon Prime. I always joke that those who cannot have adventures watch TV adventure shows. So Eco Challenge was the very first thing I watched when I came home from my hip surgery in September of 2020. There I was laying on the couch feeling all the after effects of anesthesia and watching people including Sonja compete in a multi day adventure, race and brutal conditions in Fiji. It was a fantastic and motivating way to spend those recovery days. But Sonja isn’t just an Eco Challenge adventure racer. She’s competed in 18 Iron Mans, a race that consists of a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride. And then if you’re not tired enough, followed by a 26.2 mile run. She is a mom, she’s a podcaster hosting Tales of Toughness, where she talks to other Eco Challenge athletes. She’s learned firsthand about the power and impact spending time in nature has on her mental health. And – left turn alert – she’s got a degree in mathematics, which makes her not just tougher, but also world’s smarter than I am since the word math makes me break into a cold sweat. They say surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. And that’s only one of the reasons I’m so excited that sign is here with us today. Sonja, welcome to the Humans Outside Podcast.

SW 2:12

Thank you so much, Amy. What a great intro. I’m happy to be here today. I’m excited. I’m excited about your podcast. It’s a great podcast. So thanks for having me on today.

AB 2:23

Yeah, so we start all of our episodes like imagining ourselves hanging out in our guest’s favorite outdoor space. Where are we with you today?

SW 2:32

Oh, I want to take you to the coast of California. I live on the central coast of California and I am affectionately referred to as the mayor of Valencia Peak. So I’ve got this peak near my house. It’s about four miles. Oftentimes I’ll run there and sometimes I ride my bike. And it’s like a 2.25 mile trail that gains 1000 feet in elevation. And just imagine every section of the trail if you turn around and look behind you’ve got the full Pacific Ocean behind you. When you get to the top of Valencia Peak you have a 360 degree view of the Central Coast. 50% of that view is the mighty huge Pacific Ocean. You can see whales. I go there for sunset, I go there for sunrise. It’s just a truly magical place and I think everyone really needs a place in their immediate environment that they can kind of have as their pilgrimage and Valencia Peak is mine.

AB 3:30

I love it. I am actually from Santa Cruz, California so I can perfectly envision what you’re talking about.

SW 3:38

Yeah, it’s pretty magical. Pretty special. I love it.

AB 3:40

It is one of the best places in the whole world. You know, we might be biased, so what do you think?

SW 3:46

Oh man, Central Coast is like, it’s horrible. No one should ever move here. It’s like don’t, it’s gross. It’s it’s you know, it’s foggy. Um, yeah, that’s foggy sometimes.

AB 4:04

But you know what, I feel the same way about Alaska. And because it’s so hard to move here. Like it really takes a lot of effort to make it happen. I tell people just to move on up and no one ever does. So if they show up, it’ll be a treat.

SW 4:21

If they can get over the hurdle of actually getting themselves there.

AB 4:24

Totally right, and buy enough jackets. Okay, so start by telling us your outdoor story. How did you become someone who likes to go outside?

SW 4:31

Oh, man, that’s such a great question. I’ve always been outside. I’ve always been a go go girl. Go Go kid. And I mean, I think I think it was seven the first time I ran away. You know, like I didn’t run away to like go to a friend’s house or or put my roller skates on. I mean, I would pack a backpack with dog food and a Capri Sun and maybe like one of those apple strudel things in the wax paper package. And I was always off on adventures, climbing trees, making forts, digging holes under rocks, I always had a dog in tow. And my family was really outdoorsy, they loved camping, and backpacking. And we always kind of gravitated towards the outdoors. My dad was really adventurous. So there was, I don’t know, just this climate in me, that would always seek to be dirty, be in the woods, go questing for new experiences, new heights, new vantage points, I could just remember that being a part of my DNA from when I was a really little girl.

AB 5:40

It’s, you know, it’s interesting to hear that because, um, you can continue that into your later life, or we can like crush that as a society with indoor habits.

SW 5:54

Yeah, that’s so true. I think a lot of us grew up in my generation adventuring. Because we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have, you know, just got that Nintendo. So some of us were playing like, Mario Brothers. But you know, we weren’t allowed to play that more than like, an hour a day. So we just constantly got kicked outside. But how many of us didn’t kick ourselves outside as we got to be adults? And, you know, we go through school, and I just always found myself gravitating back towards that sense of accomplishment and adventure that we get when we plan a trip, or we go to a new open space to hike or, you know, there’s always this like, going somewhere you’ve never been before, you don’t know the trail system, you don’t really know where the parking is. And then you kind of conquer it. And you go there and you experience it in your body and in your mind and in your soul. And then you come away and you feel like you almost have a new friend. Like there’s just there’s a new space that’s opened up to your world. I’ve always just really gravitated towards having experiences like that where I could uncover something new that was always now going to be familiar and more comfortable that I could return to.

AB 7:06

Oh, that’s so good. I love that. That caught like that concept of this space and a new friend. Oh, chills.

All right. So I’m hoping that people who are listening to this have in fact watched Eco Challenge, but not everyone had hip surgery and then binge watched an adventure show for three days. So what do you do? I want them to fully appreciate the badassery that we’re about to talk about here. Um, I give a little description. Can you tell us more? What is Eco Challenge?

SW 7:33

Yeah, I mean, Eco Challenge is amazing. So it was this TV show that Mark Burnett created back in the late 90s, early 2000s off of this sport that was kind of very niche at the time called adventure racing. And adventure racing is a team sport. Typically teams of four, teams of five – Eco Challenge is teams of four. And all the teams have to be co-ed. So you can have one girl, two girls, three girls. But all teams have to be co-ed and, and they pretty much would pick a course that was often like point to point very long, like hundreds of miles. And they create checkpoints along the way. And then you would have to race with your team between these checkpoints. So in the late 90s, a lot of us in my generation saw on TV on the Discovery Channel, this Eco Challenge race and it was always like, leeches were involved and people were falling off their bike and getting cut. I mean, there’s just like everything that could go wrong outdoors does go wrong in Eco Challenge and for 17 years, it’s been off the airways. And you know, Mark Burnett went on to create Survivor and The Voice, and you name it. Well, we got this buzz that he was bringing it back and it would be hosted by Bear Grylls. So it’s a 417 mile adventure race across Fiji, where we did 10 different sports: whitewater rafting, stand up paddleboarding, we sailed through Macau canoes, ancient Fiji and vessels, we mountain bike, we tracked, we climb fixed rope systems, and once the gun goes off, or the conch shell gets blown, at the beginning of the race, we race continuously. So for 10 days, we race, we sleep when we have to. But the clock never stops. It’s just one big ongoing race. And the big element that you know, even the show doesn’t really get to the nitty gritty of is the entire race is navigated by map and compass. So there are no electronics involved. You essentially get, you know, coordinates to the checkpoint one at a time, and told the discipline you need to take to get there to like your mountain bike. And then you have to find your way to that point. So there’s a lot of like creativity that happens navigationally in an adventure race.

AB 9:50

So what do you wish people – I mean, maybe the map is the wish – but what do you wish people knew about Eco Challenge that they didn’t see in the show that maybe didn’t make the cut?

SW 10:01

Yeah, that’s great. The show did a fantastic job of highlighting the course, the disciplines, the tough stuff that we had to go through. But the navigation aspect is so huge. I mean, it’s impossible to get across on TV. The concept in today’s day and age with our phones, and our Google Maps and our Gaia GPS, that we are out there with a map and a compass, which is almost in, in these times feels archaic, you know, almost everybody’s got that backup electronic device in your pocket. But we are solely mapping with a compass. I think that’s just one of the things that’s hard to get across on TV is how navigational these races are. They really aren’t about like — Oh, I could mountain bike that terrain. Yeah, but you might even be on the wrong terrain unit. You know, that’s a whole element to the dynamic of the race. And then the other dynamic, which I think Eco did a great job of highlighting teams and highlighting motivational stories, mine included, but the team dynamics aren’t always so glowing, you know.

So, you know, I was very thankful that Eco provided a very inspirational motivational edit to all of us, but the team side of it, I mean, you know, 48 hours into the race, you’ve got one hour asleep. Imagine being with the three most favorite people in your life, 48 hours into exercising for 47 to 48 hours together. Even if you love people, you’re suddenly hungry, tired, sore, you’ve got lacerations, you know, in some place on your body, something has chaffed. Something’s gone wrong. So navigating those team dynamics is honestly, like, just as hard as the navigation, which those two things are harder than the physical aspect of the race.

AB 11:56

Oh, definitely. You know, I have these very good friends who I’m sure are listening to this and we call each other our running wives, okay, cuz we just spent so much time together. And you know, I know everything there is to know about these people to a point because in part, because we’ve spent so much time together and in part, because one of the things we do while running is talk about our lives. Right? So to the point that I have said — so, you know, we have like eight hours, tell me about your life from when you were born until now. And we just like go from, like, the whole kit and caboodle. Right. Um, and I know that when I am out with these women doing these super long runs, I’m you know, 30 miles, whatever, if I am annoyed with them, or mad at them, there’s something wrong, and I’m not even out for days on end, right? I’m just like, getting to the end of a tough, you know, maybe cold, maybe not even more than a couple hour adventure. And I’m like, just like — you’re on my last nerve. And I think — you know, okay, well, Amy, maybe you need a snack, you know? They know when I’m having a hard time and when I like pull ahead and I’m like not saying anything. Claire took some pictures on a run this summer. And I like I very distinctly remember thinking — I’m smiling, like she said smile. And I’m like smiling now. And this picture of me there, Amy is not smiling.I’ve got this grimace on my face, like I’m in, like acute pain. And it’s just so funny because it’s that moment where like a big smile for me, you know, and it’s not that at all. So those are the things that make up the building blocks of that team dynamic. And it’s the building blocks of having those friends outside who you can do this stuff with who know you well enough to know when your mental health is at stake. And we’ll get to that in a few minutes here. But like who know you well enough how to pull you out of that. Because not everyone responds to the same motivation the same way. Right. And it’s just, that’s the value of having those people in your lives doing that hard stuff with you because that’s the other thing, right? It’s not like you’re just all hanging out, drinking wine together. That it’s that dynamic that’s created when you’re all moving through a challenging thing together.

SW 14:26

Yeah, we all we’re doing the hardest thing we’ve ever done right? And so to do that, to be worried about taking care of yourself, but then also being in the mindset of having to take care of other people just even emotionally and recognizing where they’re at. It’s definitely a pressure cooker. And I think normal adventure racing – non Eco Challenge non massive, multi multi multi million dollar production with Bear Grylls running around in a helicopter – without the production value in a normal adventure race or a bit long run you do with someone or you go on a backpacking trip, if the internal dynamic isn’t working out, you know, you go home early, or you you kind of don’t race with them again. But this was like, this was 10 days that had to work. And so that was a really fascinating dynamic of just kind of being put in, in this position of like — Well, we’ve got to get through the emotional stuff, like we’ve got to get through because we all really want to finish and there’s a gajillion cameras around and we are not gonna not finish, you know, if it’s within our power. So that was a good learning element for me in the race

AB 15:55

There are a lot of extreme things in the world, right? Like you don’t have to be outside to do them. Although there’s like the uncertainty and all these things of being outside. So to you, what is, if there is indeed a factor, to doing them outside that especially speaks to you?

SW 16:13

Yeah. Really what I feel the outdoors offers people is this strict delineation between what you can control and what you can’t, I love that about the outside. And it’s something I learned, and a lot of my training was done with this lovely man named Andrew. And he taught me how to ultralight backpack and something he really like honed into me is — know everything you can about the environment that you’re going into, so that you don’t pack the kitchen sink. Right? You don’t pack like well, the “just in case.” Know your environment and understand your controllables and really get clear on you know, what is the typical weather? Where are your water sources, so that you’re not taking extra layers for just in case? You’ve done your research. So I love what the outdoor provides. I think it’s a great metaphor for life. And those of us who spend a lot of time in the outdoors trying to go fast, trying to go light, we really start to hone in what our control circle is. And the more energy I feel like we spend on our control circle, the less energy we spend on that sphere that’s outside of our control circle. And that’s a huge life lesson. Because we have to take that into business, we have to take that into our families, our relationships, is kind of that personal ownership piece and the outdoors will always push back for you to take personal ownership in your own experience.

AB 17:38

It’s interesting you bring this up, because I heard you talk about this on your own podcast, the differences between the controllables of Eco Challenge and the controllables of Iron Man. So both of them are outside. Right. But they are very different. Talk about that a little bit for us.

SW 17:55

Yes. Gosh, I get asked sometimes like — well, what’s the difference between Iron Man Eco Challenge. So Iron Man, as you said in the intro is this you know, it’s a one day race. For me Iron Man takes around 10 hours plus or minus half an hour. And it is all about perfectionism. Iron Man, when you get really good at the sport, it’s about having those perfect training weeks. And yeah, you’re gonna have sessions that don’t feel as good as other sessions. But it’s about you know, nailing and executing every session, controlling you know, your the valves on your bike tubes, like the material that you’re wearing, your nutrition down to the calorie, everything is hyper, hyper, hyper controlled, because you’re looking for that perfect execution of a race. And that’s what gets you to the top of the podium. That’s what gets you to Kona, that’s what helps you perform well. In Kona, you just don’t have at the top of the sport, really the ability to withstand mistakes, maybe you can get away with one, like maybe you can bonk a little bit once. Maybe you can maybe have a flat tire if you can change it really fast. But for most issues in an Iron Man, it’s sort of a performance ender if you’re at the pointy end of the sport. Eco Challenge is the opposite of that. Eco Challenge is actually all about the problems. Because you literally go from problem to problem to problem to problem because if you’re not hungry, you’re tired. If you’re not tired, you just hurt yourself. If you didn’t just hurt yourself, your bike chain broke, if your bike chain didn’t break, you’ve got the wrong thing in your pack. Like it really is this dynamic running through of — Okay, how are we going to point positive and move on point positive and move on troubleshoot this problem, give it our best and then move forward, move forward, move forward. So as I personally love that shift that naturally came to me from transitioning from Iron Man to adventure racing because Iron Man felt like it was further conditioning me — how we do one thing is how we do everything. So it was like further conditioning me into this life of perfectionism. And adventure racing is like further conditioning me into this life of problem solving and pointing positive and just trying to figure stuff out. And that having spent 10 years in the Ironman World, this shift for me, it’s just been like, it’s really lit me up, because it just feels a lot better in my body.

AB 20:29

Well, and it’s two different kinds of mental toughness, right? There’s the mental toughness of learning yourself so well that you can control those things and having the discipline to get yourself there, that you know how much food you need, or what is too much, right? Because there’s both ends of that spectrum. When you’re racing, like, if you eat the wrong thing, now you feel sick.

SW 20:51

I’ve been there already.

AB 20:52

And then, of course, Eco Challenge – all of the things you listed that are challenges that, you know, hunger, being tired, and all those, by the way, make me really want to do an Eco Challenge. No it does not.

Like, like, that’s how we describe our various sports, like, there’s always going to be the whole point of them is that there’s something you get to overcome. And that’s why they’re fun. Challenge is relative, your tier experience, right? So you’re going to be challenged, if you have no experience in this thing. It’s going to be a challenge, right. So, you know, you could give such an attractive advertisement about almost anything outside, right. But the benefits in my experience, typically, and I want to say like always, but I feel like I’m tempting fate on, you know, high atop the thing outweigh the risk, right? Like, I’m never sorry that I went outside, even though I might have been cold, or I might have been hungry, or it may not have gone the way I wanted it to.

SW 22:07

Yeah, it’s true. I’m trying to think of a time in my life where I was bummed about getting outside. And I just, I can’t come up with one.

AB 22:18

I’m like trying to envision like my worst time outside ever. And it always involves some sort of terrible discomfort where I might have been hungry and probably was cold, but scared, right, but I’m not upset about the going outside. I’m upset about my lack of preparation or whatever, right?

SW 22:37

And and it ends up being type two fun.

AB 22:42

Okay, but like before we leave people with that type one is like, it’s really fun. We had a great time, we went on a roller coaster, maybe we’re at a theme park. Mickey Mouse is there, type one, type two.

Type two was a challenge. And it’s fun. Because it’s a challenge. How would you describe but if there’s like an introductory thing.

SW 23:10

I always say type two fun is like not super fun in the moment. But super fun to talk about afterwards.

AB 23:15

There you go. Type three. How would you describe that?

SW 23:18

How would you describe it?

AB 23:19

I would say it’s like, um, it really wasn’t fun during it. It’s not that fun to describe after, but somehow you still think it’s fun?

SW 23:34

Type three fun is like it went wrong. You were dumb. Everything blew up in your face, you drive yourself home. You don’t really want to tell anyone all the mistakes that you made.

AB 23:45

But nonetheless, you do it again.

SW 23:47

But you learn like type three fun is like oh, but like I learned so much from that, that I can then hopefully transition my next situation into type two fun.

AB 23:57

Yeah, but which will never become type one. Don’t even try. That’s a whole different thing. I did a winter marathon last year that I would describe as type three fun that could turn into type two fun. It’s the only race I’ve never finished. It was like 15 degrees below zero. That is not an exaggeration. Um, and I had to quit because I was too cold.

SW 24:21

Mm hmm. Yeah. Yeah, I think we do as endurance athletes and outdoor enthusiasts have to analyze our own relationship to self harm. Self harm is a is a, you know, it’s a it’s a concept that we often associate with things like cutting or anorexia or, you know, the systems of control, that we all need systems of control. And sometimes if we hyper utilize those systems, we can get into a place of self harm. And I know it’s not a popular concept to talk about when we’re talking about the outdoors. But I do think as people get into really intense endurance activities they’re doing themselves a disservice if they don’t step back every once in a while and just contemplate the concept of self harm. And why exactly they’re putting themselves into such a place of pain. If it’s still, if they’re still coming out of that place of pain with like lessons or positive experience, or XYZ, I think as endurance athletes, we tend to put the blinders on and not be willing to go to that place inside ourselves to kind of ask every once in a while.

AB 25:28

But I think that can be true, even if you’re not an endurance athlete, like lack of preparation would be a good example of that. I recently read a book about a guy called The Moth and the Mountain about a guy who after World War One decided to solo climb Mount Everest, which was not going to be great. Yeah, no, like, you’re not gonna be able to do that he was convinced he could do this. And he wanted to fly his plane, which was a mammoth plane to Tibet, and, you know, solo summit, Mount Everest. Oh, by the way, no one had summited Mount Everest at this point. Okay. So he’s gonna do it by himself. He had no preparation, right? So like, this is a very extreme example of sort of a like — why are you doing this? And then there’s like, the challenge and the suffering and the growth that happens through that, but there’s like a mental health aspect to it. That is a self harm thing.

During Eco Challenge, and this was included in the show, you experienced a panic attack, but it wasn’t your first time dealing with those issues. So can you tell us about that in the show? And then also your mental health journey leading up to that point?

SW 27:56

Yeah, oh, I love talking about this subject. Because there tends to be a bit of a stigma, about panic attacks, anxiety, especially in endurance sports, where we’re supposed to be like super tough, and not show any weakness, because then our opponents might be able to capitalize on that. So I like to talk about my journey, because I’m not alone. I know this now that the show’s aired. And I’ve gotten the reach out from a lot of other athletes and people who have experienced similar, similar stuff. I first started having panic attacks when I started a coaching business that I started in 2015. And I never had panic attacks as an athlete. But something about like external feedback, like other people giving me their opinions about my business and how I was trying to operate it really, just because of my background, didn’t have the emotional tools to really manage a whole ton of feedback, which I think is why I’ve always been drawn to endurance sports, because there’s so much in your wheelhouse, like you go do your training and, and you get your results, right. And there’s not a lot of external feedback on what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, you can kind of do it in isolation, or maybe hire a coach and work directly with them. So yeah, when I put myself into that environment where I was receiving a lot of feedback, I started having these panic attacks. And I had a really bad day in 2017 in my business. It was a Friday, and things were going down in the business that were just, you know, things that normal entrepreneurs were used to, but I wasn’t handling well. And I was receiving a lot of feedback, a lot of negative feedback. And I started having just a succession of panic attacks. So sort of like, phone call for damage control, panic attack, phone call for damage control, panic attack, and I didn’t ever just stop and be like, let’s put today to bed. You know, I just kind of was in the swirl. And I ended up having a panic attack in an auto body parking lot where I could not get control of my breath anymore. So usually I’m hyperventilating and so I’m trying to breathe, breathe through it and manage the panic attack but I could not do it anymore. So I passed out. And then I went to the ER, panic attacks actually present very similar to heart attacks. When you’re having a really bad one, you just aren’t having a heart attack, but you’re having a lot of the other symptoms that people who have heart attacks have. So you literally think you’re dying when you’re having a really bad one. As I did, I thought it was dying. I didn’t know what it was. I knew, like I was having panic. But I did, I thought maybe I had had so much panic that I made my heart stop. Like, that’s what I kind of thought was going on. So yeah, it kind of came from that situation. It was like I was a tea cup that had been dropped on the ground. And when I kind of came out of that situation, I was just looking at this like hand full of broken porcelain, with no idea how to put everything back together, I had essentially like a breakdown, like a just a neurological break, I couldn’t, I couldn’t function. I couldn’t like open my laptop or look at my phone, or I couldn’t have any feedback from anybody ever, not even good feedback, like — Hey, how are you? I couldn’t handle any of that. And that was really I like to say that was my bottom. But really, it wasn’t. It was kind of the months after that we had to close my business at the time, because I just couldn’t even show up in the world. And I went through about four months of extreme depression, many days where I didn’t get out of bed, and was in therapy three times a week. And essentially, like when the teacup shattered, I was in such a point past being able to manage symptoms anymore, that I was in a point of crisis. And so I hadn’t sought therapy or pharmaceuticals or anything like that, until the teacup broke. So I then had to march my way back from being in crisis to being stable, being stable to thriving. And that process takes a long time when you let it get all the way to that crisis mode. It’s like, it’s like, oh, you feel a lump in your breast, but you don’t go to the doctor. And then the whole breast is like three times its size. And then you go to the doctor and you’re like — hey, something might be wrong. And they’re like — Ah, you have like lots of cancer, right? We’re not even talking about like normal breast health anymore, we have to get you way back out of crisis mode. And so that’s where I landed, emotionally. And I had to march my way back out, so I did that. And a few years later is when I saw the ad for Eco Challenge and went into it. So I was at a place of stability working on my foundations of mental health. So that’s a daily thing. I have to work on my foundations, but I was stable, working on foundations when I went into Eco Challenge. So I was not sure whether the demand that I was our sole navigator for the team, most teams have two navigators because 10 days of navigating is just a lot to have on the shoulders. But we were a team of Ironman athletes. And I was the only one that had any map and compass experience. So I was pretty nervous that the sole responsibility of navigation would be too much for me to emotionally handle and that I would potentially go back into a place of panic attack or crisis mode, which did happen in the race.

I love speaking about mental health, I love telling people that our current healthcare system will treat you once you get to crisis stage. But if you’re experiencing any symptoms, that would be anxiety, panic, depression, any of that you actually can go see someone, right when you experience those symptoms. And they will tell you whether you need an intervention. So it’s really easy to think — oh, it’s not that bad yet. But actually, like, just let a professional be like — hey, you’re not that bad yet. They probably won’t, they probably will suggest something so that you stay on the good side rather than progressing in your symptoms. But that was one thing I thought was like, gosh, I let it get so far. And I’d like other people to know like, if you have any symptoms, just like if you had a lump in your breast, you would go seek a professional to give you their advice. So do that with your mental health as well. So going into Eco Challenge, I was really nervous that I’d have a panic attack and I had one. I had two on day nine. So I almost made it all the way through. And yeah, you know, it was like a worst fears coming true situation and with these three guys, I don’t want them to think I’m weak. And I’m hot. I’m tired.

AB 34:50

Do you think it waited until day nine because you stopped being aware? You were afraid it was gonna happen, you get to day nine and it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe you let your guard down or that’s not at all how your panic attack works.

SW 35:07

Yeah, I don’t think it was like letting the guard down. I think it just was a kind of a swirl of things that happened.

AB 35:20

I think when I say letting your guard down I mean like practicing those things that you talked about earlier.

SW 35:26

Yeah. And really in a ten day adventure race like I’m not able to practice any of my foundations. I can’t meditate. I can’t, you know, like you’re just living it. And so there, it was almost like I had a bucket. And I was just filling that bucket. And I tried as hard before the race to make my bucket as big as possible to have as much capacity to handle emotional turmoil. And day nine was when my bucket got full. Yeah. And so whatever went into the bucket next was going to spill out.

I had a really great like Aha, from that panic attack, which is kind of fun to share with your listeners and. And it’s something that’s helped me with actually future panic attacks. And a lot of times, people really try to fight panic attacks with perspective, like — oh, but your life is really good. And that’s never worked for me. Like, I can think my life is really good and still have a panic attack, those two things can actually be going on in my brain at the same time. But a lot of times, I am looping a thought that is working me up really big and making me hyperventilate. And that thought does get looped in my head and I have trouble breaking it. One thing I noticed in this panic attack in Eco Challenges that I had one of my teammates like, kind of grabbed me by the shoulders and was like — you need to change the thoughts in your head, like I can carry your bike and I can carry your backpack, but I can’t change the thoughts in your head. And he just knew he just saw hyperventilating and like whatever that girl is thinking, it’s clearly like making this outcome for her. And I was thinking — I don’t think I can do this. That was my loop. For the various reasons that were going on in my environment, which was that it was really hot, I had just had five hours of sleep, I wasn’t warmed up and we were climbing a massive hill. And I was like a little bit unsure that I knew where we were going, you know, all those things kind of created this dominant thought which was — I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can do this. And that looping of that I don’t think I can do this is really what generated that panic attack. And so he just kind of was like — you have to change your thoughts. And I had never really been called out on my thoughts. They’re mostly unconscious when you’re thinking. And so for some reason I knew I couldn’t say to myself — I can do this. Like that seemed like the stupidest thought ever, because I’ve just been repeating — I don’t think I can do this. And so I think I can do this, or I think I can do this is like — I don’t believe that right now. But what I could believe was that my core body temperature was fine, like not good, not great, but it was fine. And so when I change my thought really just coming back, bringing the compass needle back 15 degrees, finding a thought that is also true and kind of neutral that can shift you out of this thought that’s inciting the panic attack or some performance that you don’t want to see. And once I just move the needle that 15% and started repeating –my core body temp is fine, my core body temp is fine — It actually like it popped me out. And I was able to, I was able to start performing again. So I thought that was like, you know, there are gifts in these attacks, that are gifts in having struggles with your mental health. Like if you’re, if you look back on your time and try to kind of mine it for what was helpful, you can take that forward, you can share it with other people, and you can use it again, you can test it.

I still have panic attacks from time to time for sure. And, you know, I use my tools, and I tell my people and I try to shift my compass 15% and sometimes it’s a whole gaggle of things I have to put in place to calm myself back down. But they are natural, you know, they’re a natural part of life, and a lot of people have them.

AB 39:12

And what you’re talking about applies to any kind of like negative self talk. Um, I’m thinking about being out, you know, on not an Eco Challenge, adventure race, right, just like a normal run. And of course, like we talked about before, hard things are relative to your experience. So this I mean, if someone’s listening to this, who is new to hiking, just even a short hike, may be a challenge. Totally. And that’s great. Okay, so this negative self talk can happen anytime you’re doing something challenging. And I hear myself saying to myself — this is too hard. You can’t do this. You’re tired. You don’t want to be here. And if I turn that around with just like statements of fact, right, yes. Look how far you’ve gone. You’ve gone this far before. At the end of this is, you know, I’m scraped or whatever, right? Like, you get out, there’s coffee in your car. Not even like — you’re doing great.

SW 40:09

I don’t think that’s helpful, honestly, like, the more I get into this stuff, I really don’t think that’s helpful, because you just don’t believe it. Right, and what you believe you will achieve. So if you believe at the core of your being that there is coffee in your car, when you are actually trying to convince yourself that you can’t do something, and you can shift over to but there is like, not even I’m going to drink the coffee just there is coffee in my car. And my shoelaces are pink, like neutral thoughts, and then you look at your performance and let that be your guide. It’s kind of like a reverse hack, you know, try on a different thought like — there is coffee in my car. And then just see what happens in your body. See what happens in your performance. What happens on your watch, what’s your pace look like? Like, bump yourself into a place of sort of like mental creativity, I’m going to like, test this thought, see what it feels on the other side, half the time you don’t even have to because five minutes into that thought you’re running faster. Feeling better. XYZ, right? Right. But if that one doesn’t work, you try another like coffee in my car might not do it for you today. And you might have to move to like — my elbows are really warm.

AB 41:24

If your elbows aren’t warm, friends, get you some long sleeves because elbows are life.

SW 41:29

So important. So important.

AB 41:33

Okay, so I want to know, like, we can practice this. I don’t even call it positive self talk, but like statement effect, self talk, right. We can practice that anywhere. How does speaking outside change this for you? Is there an aspect to outdoor training or outdoor life that has an impact on your mental health and this practice?

SW 41:55

Yeah, outdoor life. Gosh, it’s just it’s so in my DNA, getting outside. But it’s also the place I’ve chosen to challenge myself the most. I think the whole reason that we get we get out and we challenge ourselves in the outdoors really is to learn the lessons that we need to learn. So we can come back and show up better with the people that were invested in, in our home life. I’ve never really used the outdoors as an escape. I’ve always gravitated more towards the challenge so that I can learn deeper lessons about myself that I can then bring back home to my relationships or how I help other people or who I engage with. So I think when we’re talking about positive mental self talk, in the outdoors, specifically, I think it’s a good lesson to think about why you’re out there anyway, and what you’re hoping to learn. And I think that that really should dictate, you know, the types of challenges that you take on, and what you plan to learn on those challenges. Some people are out there just because they really want to have a lot of fun. You know, and those people are like downhill mountain bikers, whitewater rafting, whitewater kayakers, right? Like there’s a different, there’s a lot of ways to be outside. And so when you’re thinking about what you want to get from being outside, and how you want to take that into the rest of your life, that’s going to dictate how you get outside and the experiences that you gravitate towards. So I’ve always gravitated towards these like really long endurance adventures where there’s always going to be that moment of like — Hey, what are you made of? And it’s because that’s the moment I want to play and dance with. Because that’s the moment I feel I’m going to be able to take back into the world to shine a brighter light to help other people or show up better in my relationships.

AB 43:55

Do you think that endurance sport has an impact on mental health in a way other activities, outdoor activities don’t? And when I say endurance sport, I mean, like, again, relative to your experience. So endurance, whether that be a hike, or an Iron Man, versus something more passive, like bird watching, but still outside.

SW 44:14

Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, I know some bird watchers and they’re not like really living on the forefront of like, personal development. Like they’re really they’re really curious and excited to like catalogue and observe.

AB 44:33

There are benefits to that too.

SW 44:34

But absolutely, to me, bird watching is a massive like spiritual connection with nature. And so I think if you’re in that place where you’re really trying to let go, go inside and tap into like your inner creativity and curiosity, then you want to gravitate towards birdwatching, for sure. Endurance sports can negatively affect your mental health. They’ve been doing some studies you know, on just like over exercise or over intensity. That can happen because there’s an addictive quality to the endorphins that we get from doing really hard things and surviving through them. So we have to be careful with that. And that’s why I say you know, the goal you can get anything from the outdoors that you’re thinking that you’re sort of questing for and let that be the driver on how you just decide what sport you’re going to take up. Endurance sports really tend to be for people who feel like there is an utapped, unrevealed, underutilized area of themselves that can only come out through extreme discomfort.

AB 45:58

Type two fun.

SW 45:59

Yeah, yeah. And it does run its course. That was one of the great things about being involved in Eco Challenge because everyone in that the 330 athletes that Amazon so beautifully curated, all in one Pullman resort for five days before the race started. I’ve never been amongst a group of athletes that have so much adventure. I mean, we had I can count at least 10 people that I met who have climbed Everest um so we have like we’re talking about the — Whoa, it’s big endurance adventure athletes. And for the vast majority of these extremely experienced athletes, there was very much a chill calm vibe of people who had already gone to the very extreme of their personal limits and learned the lessons they’re supposed to learn about themselves. And now had found their way more into a place of enjoyment and zest and sort of enthusiasm, excitement for the unknown. Less about like — I need to prove to myself that I’m freaking awesome — which is also something you can gain in the outdoors you can prove to yourself that you’re freaking awesome. And then what? Okay, you’re awesome. Now what are you gonna do with that? So yeah, I think that motivation really behind what you’re doing. What are you longing for in your heart and how can you look to the outdoors to challenge yourself to bring that out? There’s a lot of ways

AB 47:36

What I’m hearing is there are light and dark sides to all things right that there’s so many benefits for mental health and otherwise other health right to doing endurance sport, there’s also a dark side – that that can be true for any pursuit.

SW 47:56

Even birdwatching.

AB 47:57

The dark side of birdwatching!

SW 47:59

I’m sure they complain about like the human-bird interaction and how you know people don’t hold that boundary well enough. Let me know when you have a birdwatcher on.

AB 48:18

I absolutely plan to have a birdwatcher on because I am as I’m sure you can tell, I like to do hard things. But I think I also like to discover the things that I’m missing out on because I have not tried them yet. Yeah, bird watching is absolutely one of those so bird watchers of America hit me up.

Okay, but uh you know, while knowing that there are good and bad things if you are someone who wants to, you know see if endurance sports scratches that itch that you have or is a great way for you to get outside. I know you did not wake up one morning get dressed and go do an Iron Man and there’s a journey to get there. So without going into like your whole Iron Man story, can you give us a couple of tips for people who might want to consider doing an endurance sports, you know, in an effort looking towards that mental health good mental health aspect?

SW 49:17

My first piece of advice is really like start small with exactly where you’re at right now. Um, the reason someone like me has to go do a 10 day adventure race across Fiji is because I’ve like exhausted everything between here and there. And so slow down, slow down when you’re getting started. And look inside and think — what emotion and feeling and zest am I looking for? What do I think outside would help me achieve that inside my body and find the easiest thing that you can go do to get that feeling inside of yourself? Because I guarantee you once you go out for that three mile hike up Valencia Peak, and you come back down, then you’re going to be like — oh, could I do Valencia? Well, maybe Oats Peak, which is like a five mile hike. There’s this natural thing inside of us that’s always, once we get a taste of that thing that we’re really questing for, we’re gonna want the taste again. But the thing we just did isn’t going to give us the same juicy taste. And so we either get okay with not having the same juicy taste, or we kind of uplevel our experience a little bit, and we look for something that is a little bit harder, that will then give us that same juicy taste again. So knowing what you’re going after, and starting as small as possible, so that you can kind of dole out your experiences and they can come to you in the progression that they need to to kind of keep you lit up and and moving forward in your life after whatever goals you have set.

The other thing I would kind of urge people to just think about a little bit is how you go about -, we set these goals in the outside or we go we climb a peak, and then we want to climb a bigger peak. And then we want to climb the bigger peak or we want to do 50 K and then we want to do 100 K and then we want to do 100 miler, like there’s just this progression that can happen. And so we’re usually pretty good at setting goals, but how you accomplish setting, how you accomplish those goals. And the journey that you take throughout is always going to lead you to the journey, the destination. So what I’m saying here is like the energy, the perspective, and the thoughts that you have throughout the process, and how you spend your time in the outdoors, is going to be sort of a direct indicator of the experience that you take away from the outdoors. And I point you to this, especially when it comes to taking on endurance sports in terms of racing, if you’re signing up for an adventure race or trail run or whitewater you know, outrigger paddle, how you go through your journey and how you have that experience. If you show up to every session worried and scared and not sure how it’s all going to go, that’s how your end result is going to go as well. But if you can kind of show up to your training with the same experience that you want your outcome to have, and kind of practice those beliefs and practice those thoughts and practice that perspective along the way, then the thing at the very end that you’re training for the race you do is also going to be infused with that as well. So aim for a journey. It’s not like no pain, no gain. Don’t take that attitude with it.

AB 52:48

Oh, such good advice. Okay. I say this a lot to my guests. But it remains true. We could talk all day. We could do this forever. But no one wants to listen to us forever, even though maybe I think they should, I don’t know. But we’ve come to the end where we do my little leftover. It’s just like, really, it’s selfish because I want to know this stuff. And then I think maybe other people want to know it too. But then I go and like look up whatever it is you’re talking about, so that I can you know, leverage it to be awesome myself now. Okay, with that in mind, can you tell us what is your favorite gear?

SW 53:25

Like your most essential, but like the thing you’d like the most? I know you gave me a little heads up that this might be headed my direction. And so I feel almost embarrassed to say because you gave me a heads up I should have some like super great response to this piece of like crucial key gear that’s just gonna like unlock everything for you. Honestly, my favorite piece of essential outdoor gear is my Junk headbands. I’m a girl. Yeah, I got long hair. And they sent us a whole bunch for Eco Challenge and I hadn’t worn a Junk headband before but I got like them for Eco and then I absolutely fell in love. I’m a big proponent of this idea that you kind of have to put on your superhero cape when you go out to do something tough. And for me, it’s my Junk headband. Like when I get ready to head out the door for a 20 mile trail run, I’m going to look through my headbands and be like — okay, what superhero cape are we putting on today? And I feel like that really helps me set my mindset, my attention, my goals to head into the outdoors that I have got my like, protector headband on me so as silly as it sounds, my Junk headbands are just absolutely my addiction there.

AB 54:39

There are no wrong answers.

SW 54:41

I know.

AB 54:44

All right, what is your most essential, like something you can’t live without?

SW 54:49

Yeah, I would say like I have two things. One most essential is my Garmin inReach Mini. I’m out alone a lot. And as a woman, I’ve had people in my life be scared for me or worried or ask the questions. And my Garmin inReach Mini just solves so many of those issues other than getting falling down something and getting bonked on the head and knocked out, I can hit the SOS on my mini. The mini has just been a good it’s just been such a great piece of gear for me to have as a solo woman. It’s also given me some stability. Also on the ocean, the Garmin inReach Mini, it’s satellite based and so when I’m out of cell coverage, I know that I’m going to be able to get an SOS out should I fall down a ravine or you know something that I just haven’t been able to work for myself.

My other piece of essential gear – and I know you only asked for one but I’m going to give you two – is that big fan of the Aquamira Part A and Part B drops to filter water. And you use Aquamira A and B and I have tiny little dropper bottles and I will often mix up a set because they keep for about mixed when you mix a and b and then they turn yellow you can use them to, I’m not going to say filter because that’s not the right word, but make your water safe to drink or purify your water. Once you mix A and B, it lasts about 24 hours and so often mix up a little dropper bottle and stick it in my pocket when I go on a long run. And people always think — oh I gotta get access to water. But oftentimes I’m crossing streams. Ultra runners don’t think about taking one for water purification and then you can carry a lot less water when you’re running. So I’m a big fan of Aquamira A and B is like my backpacking tip, launching over into ultra running hack.

AB 56:53

Oh yeah. So good. We’ve used that. It doesn’t always taste the great greatest but –

SW 56:59

A and B is tasteless.

AB 57:02

We must have used a different product.

SW 57:04

Aquamira Part A Part B, when you combine them, that it’s tasteless, odorless.

AB 57:11

I’m telling you. We’re gonna end this and I’m gonna go research it.

SW 57:17

Get some and mix them and take them on your next trail run and be like crazy. Get yourself a tiny dropper bottle on the internet.

AB 57:24

Yeah. Okay. Finally, leave us with your best outdoor moment. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself just having your favorite outdoor moment ever. Where are you? What are you doing?

SW 57:36

Oh, my favorite outdoor moment by far is the last probably five minutes of Eco Challenge: Fiji. We’re in the outrigger canoes. We had outrigger canoed on the very last leg of the last day and it was six and a half hours where we outrigger canoed 42 kilometers straight out into the ocean to find an island that we could not see at all when we left land, so I had to navigate the heck out of that thing. And that moment of realizing I had found the proper Island slash finish line. And the water was just teal teal teal teal, like exactly what you would think on a Fiji and postcard and we’re paddling towards this island and there’s palm trees everywhere and white sand and I’ve now identified that it is definitely the finish line. There’s just this outdoor moment of being there with three other guys who had worked so hard for me over the last 10 days, worked hard for themselves. But I felt like they really worked hard for me on the boat as the navigator and the steersman. And we were all in unison and, and it just was one of those moments of accomplishment that I don’t think I can ever forget. I could barely even contain myself.

AB 58:58

That’s just so incredible. Sonja, thank you so much for being on the Humans Outside Podcast today.

SW 59:02

Thanks for having me. It’s been awesome.

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