Cover image: Finishing a tough workout. Photo by Kevin Wilson.
During hard workouts my high school cross country coach would tell us, “If a bear were chasing you, you would run faster.”
In the moment, I usually hated the challenge implicit in that phrase. My legs and lungs were burning and I knew that running faster was impossible. But as soon as that imaginary bear started running and the optional hill workout became a mandatory run for my life, I’d run just a little bit faster and a little bit stronger.
First Step: Pick a Challenge
I’ve chosen to spend a bunch of my time trying to do hard things—running, climbing, learning to talk smoothly to strangers—with varying levels of success.
Here’s my best advice for when you meet a challenge you think is impossible: don’t make it optional.
Tell yourself that the hill in your run is mandatory, that you have to finish the longest bike ride of your life, that you must make at least one phone call to a politician per week even though your hands are already a little sweaty thinking about it. You’ll be surprised at what you’re able to do when you fully commit to the challenge, whatever it is.
Dealing with harsh conditions isn’t optional when it’s time to put on the snow chains. Photo by Molly Herber.
Commit to the Challenge
Long after I stopped running competitively, I found myself hauling a 45-pound backpack up a 1,000 foot pass on my first extended backpacking trip, a NOLS mountaineering course. If I’d felt how heavy the pack would be ahead of time, I wouldn’t have gone. If I’d known what hiking up 1,000 vertical feet and then back down in a day felt like, I wouldn’t have gone. But I knew when I signed up for the course that I was committing to whatever challenges lay ahead, and that I’d have to do them because it’d be the only way forward.
So I carried the pack and climbed the pass, and as my group and I looked back at our neat, deliberate footsteps zigzagging across the snow, we realized we’d done an “impossible” thing, simply because we needed to.
Get Your Head Out of the Way
Eliminating the option works because it gets your head out of the way. It helps separate what you know you’re capable of doing from your fears and doubts. Sure, running up a big hill might be intimidating, but you’re capable of doing it, and you certainly would do it if a bear were chasing you.
Of course, this decision making is separate from your judgment of risk—you shouldn’t climb in a lightning storm, or keep running when you’re injured, or ignore actual danger merely because you’re committed to a goal, and you need to choose the appropriate challenge for you. But when it’s only your head that’s in the way, take it out of the equation. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is turn off your brain.
The reality is that almost every challenge we meet is optional. We do not have to summit any peak, run any river, or step one foot outside of our comfort zones. We don’t have to choose to be kind to each other. But when we do decide to outrun the bear, we choose making something impossible a reality.
Molly Herber is a NOLS instructor and writer who lives in Wyoming. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. Find her work on the NOLS Blog and follow her on Instagram and Facebook.