It’s been coming up a lot lately, do you push too hard? Or are you not pushing hard enough?
Tim and I were just talking about this in the context of yoga and I was remembering that when I was new to yoga, even not that new, I was always looking for the hardest variation, to hold the poses longer, to strive for ethical perfection, to have the stillest mind. I was always trying to push harder. My teacher used to say that honesty means being honest with yourself first, and that the most advanced practice was someone who knew when they needed to push harder, but also knew when they needed to back off. It took me ages, probably 11, 12 years? To actually understand this. That doing the most isn’t always the best.
Now that I coach other runners, I think about this a lot. It almost seems like the easiest way to categorize athletes, whether my job is to push them harder, or to convince them to back off. It’s the most individualized problem in the world, but it’s also very simple. What is going to be best for your performance? How much can your body take? Your mind? What’s helping you progress toward your goals? Working harder isn’t always better. But less isn’t always more either.
“The way you do one thing is the way you do anything.” That’s an old zen saying and I couldn’t find if it’s attributed to anyone in particular. I was already thinking, I don’t think that’s true. When I googled the phrase and read someone else’s blog, where they talked about doing an 80% job on small tasks that didn’t feel important to them, and how that meant they were living in laziness and mediocrity. Really it just confirmed to me that it’s not right. Because everyone categorizes their activities and determines what’s more worthy of their limited and valuable time. If you committed 100% of yourself to EVERY SINGLE TASK you do in a day, you’d have the daily life equivalent of overtraining, aka sympathetic dominance.
So what is the answer? I’m pretty sure it’s balance. I’m no spiritual expert here guys, but I think it’s that thing that my yoga teacher used to say, that the most advanced practice is when you can tell when you need to push harder and when you need to back off, and that can apply to everything you do. If you do anything obsessively, you probably need to back off and find some kind of healthy balance or you’re going to end up overtrained. But there’s plenty of stuff you’re probably slacking on because you don’t feel it’s important. I can run 100 mile weeks (when I’m healthy, obv) but I can never seem to put everything away. If that “the way you do anything is the way you do everything” were true, I’d either be way too intense and obsessive about every single activity, obsessing over cleanliness and cooking just as much as I obsess over strength training and running, and I probably would’ve died of a heart attack, OR I’d be just as sloppy about training as I was about cleaning and I never would’ve made any worthwhile gains at all in my life. If I didn’t devote all of my time and energy to running (when I’m healthy) I would have more time to spend on the other stuff, like I am right now, cooking and drawing coloring books and practicing elaborate breathwork. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to describe myself with words like “balanced” or “well rounded.”
So I assume this persistent adrenal fatigue is trying to teach me this, right? Because after I recovered from OTS, I eased back in slowly but ultimately was doing way too much too soon and caused the relapse. The important lesson of balance being left unlearned, so here I am again to learn it. The most advanced practice is when you can tell when to push harder, and when to back off.
Nolan’s 14 2020 was a banner year for Nolan’s FKTs, probably because the races were canceled and the pros had nothing else to do. While it used to have so much mystery and appeal and was rarely attempted and even more rarely completed, its popularity doesn’t change that it’s the most aesthetic 100 mile line in the world and deserves a prominent place on this list. Since I’ve fallen in love with skyrunning, 100s seem less appealing (there’s a reason the Barkley’s not on this list), but I still secretly think about digging out my poles and meditating up some resilience and going for it again. Here’s iRunfar’s interview with new male FKT, and Sabrina Stanley’s video recap of her FKT, and I still love Joe Grant’s video.
The Grand (Teton) Traverse: From time to time, someone will tell me they or someone they know did the Grand Traverse. And every time, I’m disappointed when I find out they’re talking about the race in Crested Butte that’s taking the name in vain. I’m sure that’s a cool race and everything, but there’s only one Grand Traverse and it magnificently and terrifyingly traverses the main 14 peaks of the Teton Range, including the Grand. It’s the ultimate collision of alpinism and mountain running, if one wishes to do it in sub 24 hours, they must have the beastliest of thighs, excellent climbing prowess, and you’ve got to wear a helmet and carry an ax. Record holders have free soloed the 5.8 north face of the Grand in their running shoes. A route like this is so compelling, I’ve been working on my climbing prowess to be able to do it one day. While we’re talking Tetons, there’s also the Picnic (Unofficial Grand Teton Triathalon), circumnavigating the range, and the nearby Cirque of the Towers route to consider.
Tromso Skyrace: the brainchild of Emilie Forsberg and Kilian Jornet, all you need really is to watch the highlights reel and you’ll be looking up plane tickets to Norway. Exposure, scrambling, altitude, snow, the headliner is the Hamperokken Skyrace, a 57k with 15,748ft of gain in “a place to run between the sky and the earth to feel freedom” that “follows the soul of skyrunning.” Held annually in early August.
Matterhorn/Matterhorn Ultraks: Did anyone watch Summits of My Life and NOT get obsessed with running the Matterhorn? If you’re not a climber and don’t find the mountain itself inspiring, maybe you’d like to run around near it in a skyrace in Zermatt? The Matterhorn Ultraks Skyrace is “a magical track” that gains almost 12,000ft in just under a 50k.
Diagonale des Fous/Grand Raid: The Madmen’s Diagonal, about 100 miles and 31,600 ft of gain crossing an island near Madagascar, this highly technical race has a mythical status, possibly as or more technical than how complicated it would be to get there. But, this is a list of the dopest running events and adventures, not a list of the easiest or the ones nearest to you. I loved the look of their 2019 ad:
If you’ve visited altitude, you’ve noticed that it makes you uncomfortable. If you live up here, you might remember your first month in the sky (bloody noses, constantly itchy skin, headaches, constant dehydration, worse), and you’ve probably noticed that when you leave, even for a week, you’ve already lost that magical adaptation called acclimatization, and you have to work your way back into living the hard but sweet thin air life. We all know that altitude puts a strain on our body, and those of us who live here are always telling tourists not to underestimate it, but how big of a strain is it really? And why?
Altitude affects oxygen saturation, which is the amount of oxygen the hemoglobin in your red blood cells is carrying at any given time. At sea level, the atmospheric pressure and concentration of oxygen in the air is highest, which is optimal for oxygen saturation in humans. As altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases exponentially, while the fraction of oxygen remains the same, which leads to lower saturation. According to Princeton, it takes 1-3 days to begin acclimatizing, and months to adapt fully. The biggest change is the increase in hemoglobin specifically, and red blood cells in general, which is an adaptation that we lose quickly when we lose altitude. Other adaptations include: increased depth of breathing, increased pressure in pulmonary arteries (which increases blood flow in the lungs, and utilizes a higher portion of the lungs than you’d use at sea level), and increased production of enzymes that release oxygen from hemoglobin.
So the reason this is all top of my mind right now is that I’ve just returned to Ouray 7,792ft, after two weeks in southern Missouri, at approximately 1,004ft. You may remember that I’m now wearing a Whoop device 24 hours a day, and the data it’s given me around this trip is astonishing. Obviously, we know that altitude is a big physical stressor, but seeing it quantitatively, it’s bigger than I ever imagined.
For simplicity, let’s start with the Whoop’s overall recovery metric. They use an algorithm that takes into account my average resting HR, heart rate variability, and respiratory rate while I slept, and then other stuff like the previous day’s HR variations and the amount of physical strain from previous days, that results in a percentage. I don’t strictly adhere to this number, but it paints a clear picture of my journey from 8k to 1k and back. Here’s three weeks worth of my recovery scores:
The first photo is a full week spent in Ouray (all fairly low, which is average). The second includes my drive to Missouri and a full week there, the third is a full week just in Missouri, then the last photo I started driving on Saturday and arrived home in Ouray on Sunday night. The four days of red, then, were all spent in Ouray. Once I left Ouray, I had subpar recoveries on Saturday, after a stressful day of snowy mountain driving, then there’s two particularly intense cycling days that resulted in low recovery that quickly bounced back, another one of those on 12/22, then you can see the decline starts again after the drive back to CO.
140 million people live above 8,000ft. People who were born and raised in the Andes and Himalayas show particularly impressive evolution, being born with larger lung volumes and excellent oxygen saturation even as high as 16,000ft. High altitude dwellers in Ethiopia are less evolved, and show the same type of adaptations as people from low elevations that moved to high elevations during their life, and of all the high altitude populations studied, only Himalayans can move between altitudes without losing any of their altitude adaptations. Which means a Sherpa could go to Missouri for a month and they would not lose any red blood cells or have a change in stroke volume or cardiac output or anything, then on their return to the Himalayas, they would not need to re-acclimate. While someone born in the Andes would go to Missouri and have a similar reaction to me, then on their return to the mountains, they would have an increased HR and lower HRV and begin the process re-acclimatization. Himalayas also have another leg-up on us, with a sustained increase in cerebral blood flow, low concentration of hemoglobin, and an obvious resilience to chronic mountain sickness (CMS).
In studies of permanent high altitude residents, those that are born into it and those that live high by choice share a decreased instance of all types of cardiovascular disease and obesity, but an unexplained increased rate of suicide, even with controls in place for known suicide risk factors.
Let’s dive deeper into the data. Most people measure resting HR by taking their pulse the moment they wake up in the morning, while the Whoop measures your HR every second while you’re sleeping then takes an average. My resting HR at altitude before OTS was 50. Since OTS, I haven’t seen it get lower than 55, and it’s generally somewhere in the 60’s. Let’s take a look at the trends for the same four weeks:
For the week in Ouray, it was 63-68. It went up during the drive, then decreased steadily over the next two weeks, going all the way down to 50. It starts going back up after a day of driving, 57, then 65-74 over the next four days of being at home in Ouray. This is interesting, because an increase in HR is to be expected, as one of the first short-term adaptations to altitude is a decrease in overall blood volume, my body is trying to increase the ratio of red blood cells, and a decrease in blood volume corresponds to an increase in HR to pump it. My average HR, taken throughout the day, and including any exercise, actually didn’t change that significantly during the trip. It’s generally 70-80, and while I was in Missouri it was 67-78.
Another reason HR increases at high altitude is that hypoxia activates the sympathetic nervous system. This isn’t great news for me, as my tendency towards sympathetic dominance is one of the biggest driving factors for how I got Overtraining Syndrome in the first place, but it’s possible to do things to counteract it. Basically, you can expect your HR and blood pressure both to increase while at altitude, and not just within the first couple of days, because of pulmonary vasoconstriction, particularly during exercise, is caused by sympathetic nervous system excitation (which happens because hypoxia, which is lowered oxygen saturation, which happens because of the change in pressure at altitude). This link, from altitude to nervous system imbalance, was exactly what I hoped to find in my research today, because it is obvious from the Whoop data that I’m having cardiovascular effects, but they’re likely nervous system related, as we’ll discuss in this next section about HRV.
Now, here’s Heart Rate Variability (HRV). It’s a controversial metric, mostly it seems like because since it’s been introduced to the wider world, folks put a little too much stock in it and it’s true that you can’t base all your decisions around a number that’s so squirrelly. What I really like about it though is that it reflects the health of your nervous system specifically. Mostly when you’re training, you’re thinking about your cardiovascular system (resting HR) and the health, feel, and fatigue of your body itself (neuromuscular). Both your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are exerting control over your heart rate at any given time, and if both sides are healthy, that competition results in a high HRV. Parasympathetic is what’s damaged in OTS, so while you’re in a state of overtraining, your HRV is low because the sympathetic system is dominating the decision making. There’s still plenty we don’t know about OTS, and even in healthy folks it fluctuates rapidly. But these graphs are still telling:
To sum up these graphs, before I left it was typically pretty low. I forgot to mention above that HRV is highly individualized and part of what makes it a squirrelly and controversial metric is because it’s only relevant compared to extended data in the same person. So my HRV is only comparable to my HRV at other times. Moving on, before I left it was low. During my trip, it fluctuated a lot (mostly in relation to exercise) and occasionally skyrocketed, much higher than it’s ever been since I got the Whoop device. Most interesting I think is the steady decline since I’ve gotten back to altitude. When I got up this morning, I thought, it’s so low (19) that am I going to survive the day? (Just kidding, that’s not how HRV works).
So this was all so interesting, I thought I’d look back on our UT/AZ trip in October, and the results at first were uninteresting, there was a period where everything was slightly better for a couple days, probably associated with the relaxation and fun of the trip, but mostly it all was similar to when I’m in Ouray. Then I realized, we were mostly at 7,000ft which isn’t any great improvement to 7,992. 🤷
I was listening to an audiobook about training yesterday and while the guy was discussing this study about the effects of different workout intensities, he said, “No one’s ever gotten overtrained from doing too much low intensity, because low intensity doesn’t suppress your parasympathetic nervous system.” And I was like WHAT!? Why is this the first time I’ve heard anyone reference that!? And I thought, over the past year+, I’ve failed so many times, partially because I couldn’t find specifics about how to get back into training after you’ve gone through the initial recovery phase.
In case you’re starting at square one (Do I have OTS?) the only thing you can do is take time off, complete rest. They say you’ll just know when you’re ready to start back up again, and they’re right. There will be a phase where you start feeling better, you start noticing your symptoms going away, and then one day you’ll just feel normal again. The most important rule for this time is, do not train at all until you WANT to.
Your first forays back in should be extremely brief with tons of recovery between. As in, 20-30 minute walks, then a rest day, then another 20-30 minute walk, until you can tell for sure that your nervous system is recovering in between. I know there’s a lot of controversy about using HRV as a training metric, it seems mostly uninformed. Heart rate variability is an excellent metric for determining the health of your nervous system, and now that I have a Whoop and I’ve been doing this, I wish I had it at the beginning of my OTS recovery. It helps you tell the difference between fatigue and normal fitness-related tiredness, and the difference between the impact exercise is having on your cardiovascular system and your nervous system, which is critical.
LOW VOLUME: Because I couldn’t find any information on what training should be like after OTS, I eased back in slowly over the winter then starting working my mileage back up in the spring, like I normally would. I was initially feeling good, then three weeks later I relapsed. About a month later, I heard a quote in a general athlete recovery-themed book about an athlete that had OTS and his coach prescribed him low volume with lots of recovery for the first six months. This corroborated with my recent experience, so I got on the low volume train.
SHORT: No long workouts, even if weekly mileage is lower. This ties into low volume, and maybe it was already obvious to you but it was not obvious to me. Once I decreased my volume, twice I went out for runs that were far too long. It was mostly by accident, the local trail group asked my boyfriend to scout remote parts of trails to determine where they should focus trail work efforts, and I went along, and both times they ended up being very long days (19 and 26). Both times, it took over a week of feeling cortisol surges and full-body fatigue all day every day until I could even think about going for an easy walk.
LOW INTENSITY: And ONLY low intensity, zone one. After I accepted low volume, I thought the smart thing to do would be to up the intensity, temporarily, until I could do more volume. This was poorly thought out, but at the time I thought it made a lot of sense. If I could only do a couple runs a week and they had to be shorter, I could do them harder. Like, if I couldn’t do 10 or 12 milers, I could do a six miler with a hard effort on a 2,000 or 3,000ft climb (I live in Ouray, where climbing is always the only option). Perhaps you can see the writing on the wall, it didn’t take long before I relapsed again.
Now that I’ve figured out those last three principles (low volume, short workouts, and low intensity) I’m able to workout regularly and I’m feeling great. I’ve also noticed on the Whoop that my vitals are all better when I’m doing this. Aerobic-level exercise metabolizes cortisol that’s in your system, and during your OTS recovery you’ll almost certainly have too much cortisol in your system, which will continue to adversely affect your recovery. You can learn lots and lots about cortisol if you feel like it, but to sum it up quickly:
CORTISOL: prevent cortisol dumps by not letting your heart rate get too high (by too high intensity of exercise, stress, or otherwise). Metabolize cortisol in your system by getting regular low-intensity aerobic exercise. Look into adrenal fatigue supplements to support your body’s ability to regulate cortisol production (you can find much better info about this elsewhere, too, but I can tell you the difference to me was really noticeable when I started taking them).
Things that are really big stressors on your system:
Altitude, even just existing at altitude
I’m bringing this up because it was probably some combination of these things that caused your OTS in the first place, and some combination of these things might sabotage your recovery. It’s been a big struggle for me to keep my intensity low because all the trails here are steep climbs and I’m always at high altitude. It was very eye opening to me since I got the Whoop how much a mentally stressful day, for whatever the reason, put a strain on my body, equivalent to a hard workout. BTW, I have no affiliation with Whoop, and I think it’s very useful and perhaps I’ll write a review post on the pro’s and con’s, but in general I think having more awareness of tracking things like your heart rate (and I’m talking thorough tracking of heart rate, daily average, during workouts, and overnight resting HR average) and heart rate variability give you really good information on how much strain you’re putting on your body (in life and in training), and how well you’re adapting and recovering to that strain, particularly, like I mentioned earlier, the difference between your cardiovascular system’s load and your nervous system’s strain (perhaps I’ll write a whole post sometime just on that). Because ideally, training will put a strain on your cardiovascular system that you then adapt to and recover from, but straining your nervous system is the basis of overtraining, and it’s much harder to bounce back from.
I’ve actually got some really interesting data about altitude and my health after my recent two week trip to low altitude that I’ll do a whole post on soon. We all already know what a stressor altitude is, but it blew my mind how much healthier my body and nervous system was when I left it and I am stoked to share that. Like of course it affects you, but now that I can say how much quantitatively, it’s bananas.
General tips for promoting the health of your nervous system and high HRV:
your nervous system likes a routine. It’s great for your physical and mental health anyway.
get plenty of sleep, and keep your hours regular. As in, go to bed and get up at the same time. Ideally work it out so you never have an alarm, when you’re recovering from OTS at any stage, it’s best to let your body sleep as long as it wants.
Normatec. They’re so expensive, I almost don’t want to bring it up because they’re out of reach for most (I certainly could NEVER have afforded them and am very lucky to have access to them out of someone else’s generosity). Using them for at least an hour a day both increases my sleep quality and quantity, and increases my HRV by an average of 12%.
Meditation/breathwork/yoga. I put all these in the same category because each one has a significant effect on my HRV but I think it’s all for the same reason, and when I do yoga I generally do breathwork and it’s at least somewhat meditative. Any combination of these also combats mental stresses that are straining your system, and all of them stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the thing we damaged in OTS, the health of which we’re working to restore.
Drinking enough water. Duh? But then, I’m terrible at it.
Legs up the wall. Also very stimulating to the parasympathetic nervous system, also great for sleep.
Massage: when Tim and I trade massages, the effect on my HRV is noticeable. I suspect but I haven’t input it into my Whoop journal so I don’t have the data to back it up, that if I spent any significant amount of time self massaging like I normally would during training, that would also have a positive impact on HRV.
That’s all for now! Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve got a post just on the quantitative effects of altitude coming up. In the meantime, Pippa Climbs Mt. Rainier is in paperback now, check it out on Amazon. And if you’re interested in personal run coaching or training plans for various adventures (in addition to the Grand Canyon plans, I’ve got more mtn specific plans coming in time for New Year’s) check those out on Training Peaks or alpineruncoach.com
Approximately four miles into your weekly long run, that you’ve chosen to do in a new place while you’re on vacation.
You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and God damn it, you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way. – Elizabeth Taylor
Your pacer says to you at mile 70 of your first 100.
“The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.” – Jonas Salk
You realize right after you pat yourself on the back for having done ALL of your training for a whole week.
“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” — Audre Lorde
You say to yourself as you’re chugging Udo’s oil in a hot epsom salt bath while you’re trying to rearrange your budget so that you can afford Normatec boots.
You tell yourself as you enter the Hardrock lottery OR as you step outside for your first day of Nolan’s 14 training.
When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. –Henry Ford
5 minutes into a windy run, when you’ve committed to your new life of positivity vis a vis Joe Vigil.
If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.– Nora Roberts
This is clear, if you don’t go out for a run, you’ll never have the life you want.
“The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”– Maimonides
I’m watching the live feed from Mandalen, Norway, where Kilian’s about 8:30 into his 24 hour record attempt. He is ahead of the world record pace, and they’re projecting right now that he’ll go just over 200 miles, which would beat the previous record 188.590 miles, set in ’97 by Yiannis Kouros, but Kilian’s stated that he expects to slow down after 10 hours. I wouldn’t think I’d like watching some guys run around a track so much, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s both exciting and soothing. His gait is so consistent! He recently stopped to switch his shoes, and I hear things get very exciting every four hours when they change directions.
Yiannis Kouros was 41 when he set that record. He still holds world records for 100 road miles (11:46!) and 1,000 miles (10 days, 10 hours). As well as all the timed records for miles run in 12, 24, 48 hours and six days for both roads and track. Something I thought was a fun fact was that he played Pheidippides in a documentary, The Story of the Marathon: A Hero’s Journey. He was a long jumper in elementary school, but in high school his coach dismissed him, saying he was “a mediocre athlete who just didn’t have the build to go fast.”
After being a junior champion, Yiannis worked as a guard at an athletic stadium. He trained twice a day, then at night he worked on building his own house in Tripoli and claims he only slept 2.5 hours a night. In six years, from age 21 to 27, he raced 25 marathons but only won one. In ’83, he went from marathon to 156 miles when he ran his first ultra at the Spartathalon, (kind of gives some perspective to what we consider an ultra) and won it, beating the previous course record by something like 6 hours to come in under 22 hours. He set another course record in ’84 which still stands, which is also two hours faster than Scott Jurek’s best time at the Spartathalon.
It’s both dark and cold in Norway today. The commentator said he asked Kilian what he thinks about the dark, and Kilian said something like, well I’m used to running in the mountains in the dark, so at the track with the lights, it just doesn’t matter. They’re expecting a low of 32 degrees f, and highs between 44 and 55 f. The runners look pretty chilly to me. As I’m writing this now, it’s almost 8pm in Norway, so they’re about eight hours of where I am in Mtn time.
Unrelated, I’ve just finished my set of R2R2R training plans, you can see them here:
For about 40 seconds I let the demons loose on Grandview and go flying down a flat part of the trail. I turn a corner and there’s a short climb. My heart already feels like it’s about to explode [and not in the fun trying-really-hard way, but in the my-nervous-system’s-broken-and-can’t-regulate-my-heart-rate way]. I know I’ve pushed it too much already. I want to go further, and I want to go faster, and while giving in this little bit by hiking three miles into the Grand Canyon feels like it quenches my thirst a little, it probably made me more thirsty overall, like that water Dumbledore has to drink in Harry Potter six. And I’ll pay for it tomorrow, and for several more days with bad vitals. Because that’s right, I have a device now that measures my heart rate variability, heart rate, basal temp, movement, sleep, and respiratory rate every second 24 hours a day now. I love it and fear it.
The Grandview trail is somewhat controversial in history and I had a vendetta, not against it, but with my failure related to it, left over from last year. See, it’s the only trail you can’t get to by bus and so last year, I really wanted to do it but put it off heinously until my second to last day in the park. Then, because I felt tragic about driving all the way there, I attempted to ride my bike, based solely off of the information I had gleaned from riding a few miles down the USFS road I was camped on. There was a sign that said, “Grandview 13 miles.” I said, 13 miles sounds good to me! And packed up.
13 miles later, I arrived at a fire overlook tower, still alongside of the dirt road. I climbed the tower for some reason. I don’t have a fear of heights generally, but the dumb thing was basically a ladder made of that metal mesh that’s see through, which is sometimes cool but also the whole tower swayed and it was hard to see where you were putting your feet since it was see through. I continued riding the road, and saw 14 miles, 15 miles, 16, 17. Suddenly, I was on the paved park road! I made a guess and turned left? 18, and 19. Then I gave up and turned around. When I arrived back in camp, I looked at my map on Strava and saw that I was so close to the trailhead when I turned around, it had to have been a half mile or less. Oh well. The very last day in the canyon was reserved for one more Kaibab to the river and back, so Grandview wasn’t to be in 2019.
So here we are in 2020, and I’ve just learned somehow that OTS is actually a small, unusual, and severe category of the Sympathetic Dominance umbrella. How did it take so long for me to find this? Because unlike OTS, sympathetic dominance is a hot topic on the internet, and lots of people are on its spectrum. The internet tells me that I should stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system by doing reflexology on my feet, eating in such a way that might help balance too much copper in my body, and exercise should be limited to activities like restorative yoga and meditative walking. Because anything at all that activates my sympathetic nervous system will make things worse.
So Grandview was the first trail in the Grand Canyon. I can’t remember the other stories we’d heard before arriving at the TH, but the TH sign paints a picture of some guy that arrived at the canyon to mine, found the mine to be unproductive, and immediately pivoted to tourism. At the time, tourists from Flagstaff were being stagecoached for 12 hours to view the canyon, and there were photographers to take their photos and some amenities, but nobody was entering the canyon yet. So this guy takes his unproductive mine and builds this totally absurd trail down into the canyon, then collects some mules and lets tourists ride them down it. We’re all used to this feature of the GC by now, but I imagine how absurd the notion would’ve been then.
I’m also wondering about this trail, and how impossible it would’ve been for hooves the way it was built, steeply paved in rocks and with pretty big drops often. But then I think, tourists may not have had Yelp yet, but if this guy was killing people on the regular, word would spread and he’d lose his business right?
It’s also really cool to think about how hard to build this trail would’ve been. In some places, he hauled hundreds of trees to frame out and build a trail that just fully didn’t exist on the cliffside. It certainly takes an interesting and probably the only possible path down, traversing cliffs and winding in and out of other large rock features. He must have really cared about it, because there had to have been easier ways to make money [jobs easier than building this trail include: Alaskan fishing, oil riggers, blood worm hunter, sewer inspector, building the Transcontinental railroad, and those explorers that traversed Antarctica by kite boat].
The GC’s gotten some new signage since the last time I was there. I’ve seen in the news that this was a particularly bad year for rescues. I imagine there are folks whose job it is to go on the offensive and find new ways to prevent stupid people from killing themselves there.
At this point in recovery, after overdoing it and relapsing so many times, there’s nothing I’m more desperate to do than to run again. But I understand that I need to get better and that there is no other way but to back off and give it time. Naturally, it was nearly impossible to be on this beautiful trail in the canyon thinking, I have to keep my dumb heart rate down. If I do too much today, it’ll set me back. Because then you’re like, I literally don’t care about anything else besides running this trail right now. Screw being pragmatic! How could I give this up?
Then I kept seeing points I wanted to go to. I wanted to see what it looked like from there, and then from there. What’s down there? I needed to know. But every step down is more steps up and more damage and slower recovery. I just listened to the Rich Roll episode with Apollo Ohno, one, that guy is amazing. Two, he raves about how there’s just nothing better than being a full time athlete. It is the most beautiful thing in a human existence. What are we without it? Wins and losses, boring grown up stuff. When you’re training, nothing exists but the act of bettering yourself every single day.
He also discusses this new documentary he’s in, The Weight of Gold, about the mental health of Olympic level athletes in the US, and how for him he’s 10 years into a journey of having to work on every single day being okay with not being an Olympic athlete anymore. I’ll never understand his level, but I do get it when every day I think about how badly I want to be there again. Being in the GC, too, it just reminds me how fit I was last time I was there. To maximize your potential, to be your absolute best every single day, to rip technical descents, fly past the tourists, and burn the ascents, to jump in the river. God, to see the fucking river! To sprint the bridges. There’s nothing else.
Here’s the trailer for that docu, which sounds awesome but it’s on HBO so who knows when I’ll get to see it. Great trailer though, it’s three minutes long and I cried. Five stars.
My favorite books to inspire, run smarter, blow your mind, and find more fulfillment in running and your life.
Let Your Mind Run:A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory by Deena Kastor I’m not going to say this was my *favorite running book of all time* because it would be insane to make that claim about any book, but I am putting it first on this list for a reason. What’s so great about this book is, it’s somewhat educational, it gives you a glimpse into the glittery and exciting world of the elite, it’s wildly inspirational, and the takeaway is bringing more positivity into your life and running. No book has had this big of an impact on my life since the first time I read Once a Runner! Big time.
The Science of Running:How to find your limit and train to maximum performanceby Steve Magness. Okay, Steve Magness is a genius, and this book is the ultimate nerd out for us science minded runners (which obviously isn’t for everyone, even I had a hard time following a couple of the chapters and I studied biochemistry, although I listened to it and I don’t know that was the right format). It’s intensely informative, and it makes the other running instruction manuals look like those learn to read books with Nan and Sand. I just saw when looking up a link for this post that Magness has a new book. the Passion Paradox, about the joy and unbalance of intensity and I am so stoked to read it I might put this post on hold until I have.
Born to Runby ChristopherMcDougall I resisted reading this for a long time, it was so popular and I had this conception that it was all about the whole silly barefoot running fad. It’s actually awesome, it’s a great story, there’s tons of research and conspiracy and science and history. Classic. Must read.
Strongby Kara Goucher The Amazon reviews are absolutely right, this is not a memoir or an instruction manual, there’s some but not a lot of meat to it. It’s the jumping off point for you to learn to write your own confidence journal and it does that perfectly. The contributions by other prominent women are the icing on the cake, this is an inspirational workbook!
Run or Die by Kilian Jornet Is it too obvious to include? I couldn’t exactly make a list of favorite running books without it though. I handwrote out the Skyrunner’s Manifesto and had it taped to my door for years. Kilian doesn’t give a lot of interviews [but when he does it’s a must listen, here’s Kilian’s episode of Rich Roll], so this is a rare and delightful look inside his wonderful head. His new book, Above the Clouds just came out, and I’m not all the way through it yet, it’s beautiful and mature, but it doesn’t have the same rawness as Run or Die. I relish in when they all lived in one studio apartment, called their skis and bikes their “girlfriends”, and dropped their rent on race fees. Speaking of girlfriends, I’m going to include Skyrunner here, Emelie’s book is delightful and inspiring, just like she is.
Run the Worldby Becky Wade Becky Wade was an elite college track runner that eventually moved on to marathons and in between she got a prestigious fellowship that paid for a year long odyssey visiting great running cultures of the world for a year and then she wrote a book about it. What a fun exploration of culture and community and why people run, beautiful and brilliant.
Meb For Mortalsby Meb Keflezighi I loved this deep dive into Meb’s world but not everyone wants to “Run, think, and eat like a champion marathoner.” There’s chapters on inventive strength moves, he gives you the nitty gritty of his training schedule and eating (although it infuriates me when he says many runners think they can eat whatever they want but it’s just not true, paraphrased), recovery, mindset, just everything. He wasn’t one of the great runners of our time by accident or talent alone, he devoted everything in his life to it and he lays it all out in this book. I think his somewhat arrogant tone is delightful here (but not in his autobiography) but I’m sure not everyone will agree. 🤷♂️
Once a Runnerby John L. Parker I know there’s folks that haven’t read it yet. We used to consider this the Bible. I’ve read it probably, 80 times? I read single chapters over and over sometimes. The flip side of getting too intense about it is it might lead you too far into the rabbit hole. It’s a fictional story about the pursuit of perfection and world records and Olympics with a cast of some technically fictional characters [universal avatars that you’ll recognize in folks today] and some real life historical heroes.
The graphics I designed for this post are all in my Threadless shop if you’re interested! Want to read more? I’ve just started writing about yoga again here.The Amazon book links are affiliate links. If you use any of the links to buy anything, it doesn’t cost you extra but it helps support this blog! xo
When I started writing about the winter buildout considerations, I realized I had way too much for one post so here’s its companion post, a list of things that I found made my life a lot easier and more comfortable after spending last winter in the San Juans. I read a lot of vanlife essentials lists when I was starting out a year ago, and these I think are all things I haven’t seen on other lists (a weather station is something that was super useful to me but you’ll find on everyone else’s lists too).
Forgot to put the cover on my bikes before an unexpected storm 😦
Down BootiesI had always wanted these anyway, for winter camping (or backpacking in the mountains when it’s not even winter), or mountaineering, because my feet are always cold, but I never wanted to spend the $$$. Nowadays, you can buy cheaper versions of everything down, and while I wouldn’t recommend cheaping out on your belay parka or sleeping bag, down booties is one place where the $20 version serves the purpose fine. Of course, are the Western Mountaineering ones nicer? Duh.
The Sun Something I had never considered in the camper was the direction I was parked relative to the sun. You’re probably familiar with this concept in the summer, because your windshield is a powerful and undesirable heat source. When you’re parking somewhere for the night, if you can, face the direction the sun is going to come up. You will honestly not believe how much heat you get from doing this and it will melt the interior ice buildup on your windshield quickly.
A Long Pivoting Snow Brush Look, I didn’t even know this existed until someone saw me trying to clean off my solar panel and brought theirs over to help. I’m short, van windshields are tall, and clearing off your solar panels is a necessary evil that’s difficult and dangerous when the van is buried in snow and you’re crawling around on the roof with a mediocre brush. There are a lot of variations of these super brushes, but the crucial qualities both for clearing the windshield faster and easier, and the ability to clear your panels while standing on the ground, are a pivoting brush and an extendable reach. It will make your life So. Much. Easier.
Clip on Oil Diffusers for your heating vents I was always concerned about the van developing a smell, and winter is harder because you’re going to be keeping the van mostly shut up. When it is warm enough to drive with the windows down to get some airflow, do it. The other golden rules of keeping stink out are: keep it clean, wipe down surfaces after cooking, odor absorbers, and essential oils. At first I was just randomly dumping oils around the van, in the bedding and rug and whatnot. Then I found on these clip on dealies, you put oil on the felt pads, insert them into the little clips, and clip them to your heating vents so while you’re driving, they heat up and spread lemon or eucalyptus or cedarwood or whatever delightful scent you choose all around. They work better and are much cheaper than a standard diffuser.
Windshield Insulation Last winter I used Reflectix that I had sewn a blanket to one side of. You’re looking for the opposite effect than the summer, any reflector you want on the inside, and you want the outside to be a dark color that draws heat in. I had hoped the blanket would absorb some of the moisture that collects and freezes on the windshield, and that hasn’t worked yet. But covering the windshield and any exposed windows while you’re parked and they’re not in direct sunlight with ANYTHING will make a huge difference heat wise. I am definitely making nicer ones this year that velcro on and are more heavily insulated. This couple makes really nice ones if you have the $$ and don’t want to make them yourself. These nice folks made their own and posted here about it for some guidance if you’re going to diy, but there’s a ton of ways to do it from very cheap to very spendy. I’m going to use some of their ideas and but do it cheaper and spend less time for this winter.
Rubbing Alcohol in a Spray Bottle I don’t remember how I found this out, but rubbing alcohol melts ice. The only moisture I really had trouble with was the inside of the windshield and front windows. Whether I was just existing and breathing, or especially if I was cooking or running the heater, there would inevitably be a layer of ice in the morning. The best way to deal with this is to park in the direction of the sun and not have to drive anywhere until the sun came up and melted and dried the windshield ice itself. But I worked at the ice park last year and had to be in before sunrise. Melting ice off the windshield takes FOREVER if it’s cold and you’re just waiting for the defroster to do it, so I’d first use my ice scraper on it, then spray rubbing alcohol on it and wipe it with a towel. This is why you see towels on dashboards in the winter, ps, to collect all the melted ice water when the windshield defrosts in the morning.
Electric Blanket & Electric Gloves I was actually gifted an electric blanket for Christmas one year, I can run it off solar and it’s much more efficient to warm you up than running a heater to heat the space, and I absolutely love it. For comfort level, it is the biggest difference, and if you’re part timing or not going to be in horrifically cold temps, I would go this route first before getting a heater. I also bought these cheap gloves with heating elements in them, the heating elements are removable and you can put them in socks or boots or other gloves or anything. They only take a tiny bit of electric to run and produce a small amount of heat, but it was a big comfort level difference when I was doing computer work in the morning.
Sleep Setup I had a variety of pieces that I tried together in different combinations and what I ended up really liking was a regular comforter and a very heavy sleeping bag (flannel on the inside, heavily insulated, and some type of plastic outside, the kind you car camped with as a kid) unzipped as a top layer. I considered buying a really nice down comforter, but it would’ve been spendy and it wouldn’t have been versatile enough for summer. I also didn’t want to use my really nice and expensive UL down bag on an every day basis. In the summer, I still sleep with my medium weight comforter or nothing, and have the big heavy sleeping bag put away. This set up was warm enough to sleep comfortably in in all temperatures, the variations being that sometimes I went to bed with my down coat and booties on. I only ran the heat at night if it was below zero, preferring to sleep with Pip in our cozy little den then turn the heat on when I woke up.
Hydroflasks and Yetis I was never a hot drinks person until I started ice climbing. The same principle applies to winter vanlife. Hot bevies completely change your quality of life. I boiled a lot of water on the stove, and every time I was at a coffee shop, I’d have them fill up one of my big Hydroflasks with hot water that I could save for later. Pips and I both drank mostly warm water all winter. You can put emergen-c or tea bags in it, you can use Better Than Bouillon to make broth, lots of options. Klear bottles are identical to Hydroflasks but cheaper. Yetis do keep stuff hot for longer, it’s noticeable, but they’re so $$$ (save money and get one free at the Ice Fest).
Rugs I mentioned this in the buildout post, but just in case anyone’s on the fence (I was), you NEED RUGS if you’re going to live in your van in the winter. No matter how much insulation you have (I have 2″ of foamboard and a 1/2″ of plywood AND laminated flooring), the floor will be unbearably cold to the touch at all times. You also need rugs because you will never be able to keep up with the mess you track in with snow, and at least a rug will absorb it and dry out later.
Hope you got some good ideas from this post, how do you stay warm in the winter??