You don’t go on a 500-mile hike expecting things to go perfectly. In fact, most thru-hikers not only expect adversity, but welcome it. That’s why I chose to do it. I wanted to do something hard; something I might not be able to complete successfully. I wanted a physical and mental challenge, and that’s what I got…
As I traveled further and further from the starting point of the Colorado Trail (near Denver), I ran into fewer and fewer people. In any given year, a couple thousand people start with the intention of finishing, but only 300 – 400 make it all the way to Durango. This is typical of long trail thru-hiking. The Pacific Crest, Appalachian, and Continental Divide Trails are similar, except even fewer finish those 2,000+ mile trails. Some succumb to injuries, but most who quit shy of their goal do so not because they are seriously hurt but because they can’t/won’t/don’t “embrace the suck.”
“Embrace the suck” is a common mantra on the trail. It means exactly what it says: rather than using discomfort and adversity as an excuse to fail, use it as a motivational tool. A mentality of “bring it on!” helps turn steep climbs, cold rain, hail, and wrong turns into challenges to overcome rather than obstacles. The flip of a mental switch can turn discomforts (negatives) into comforts (positives). Flipping that switch isn’t as easy as it sounds, but those who can do it are the most successful, and it can be practiced and learned.
In advance of the hike, I spent a lot of time preparing for “wet.” Wet feet. Wet clothes. Wet gear. I knew I was hiking during a time of frequent afternoon thunderstorms, and I knew that it was no fun being wet and cold for days on end. But I also knew that I was going to be wet for days at a time at some point, and I didn’t want it to ruin my trip. So, I practiced.
I went on multiple practice hikes in Missouri the year before when I knew the weather would not be ideal – November, December, January. I camped in sub-freezing temperatures, rain, and even some sleet and snow. Each “practice session” gave me more experience to build upon so that when I encountered adverse situations in the future, I could better handle them mentally. I had to be very mindful of “embracing the suck” during these practice sessions. It “sucks” when it’s 35 degrees and your tent collapses in a rainstorm, but I embraced it as a lesson in “doing a better job setting up my tent.” It sucked when I walked for four days in soaked shoes and socks. But it got me used to doing it and, more importantly, taught me that it wasn’t that bad. It sucked when I somehow packed one too few days’ worth of food on a five-day haul. But it taught me that I could survive, even if I was a bit hungry (it also taught me to double-check my meals before I left!).
All the practice in the world, though, can’t prepare you for every situation. But focusing on “embracing the suck” every time “suck” happened did help me in every sucky situation I encountered on the Colorado Trail. When you’re hiking upwards of 25 miles a day, extra steps are to be avoided. On several occasions, I took a wrong turn or missed a turn. Once, this resulted in about three miles of extra walking in a very exposed area above 12,000 feet. In the past, I would have been irritated and sometimes downright mad, as adding three miles to an already 20+ mile day is never ideal. But I found myself shrugging it off and enjoying the scenery that I wouldn’t have seen had I not missed the turn. I don’t think I would have reacted this way without mindful focus on “embracing the suck.” On another occasion early in the hike, after a night of severe thunderstorms, I woke to a river of mud outside of my tent. Typically, I always filtered my water before going to bed, so I didn’t have to worry about it in the morning. This night, though, I was in a hurry to pitch camp before the rain hit. By the time I realized I hadn’t gotten my water for the next day, torrential rains had set in, and I was confined to my tent for the next ten hours. With a fifteen-mile dry stretch ahead, I needed water, and all I had to filter in the morning was the nearly black river water (see photo above). Knowing I had no choice, I filtered and drank the water. It looked clear but tasted like mud. It did the job, though, and I made it through the day. It was difficult to drink at first, but I embraced the suck, knowing it was either drink it or lose a day of hiking. Whether it was an hours-long rocky, bone-jarring, joint-popping uphill or downhill trek or spotting fresh mountain lion tracks on the trail yards from where I’d been camping, mindfully reacting to the situations in a positive way kept me grounded, preventing me from “losing it” when time got tough.
Life isn’t perfect, and no amount of planning and preparation can prevent you from completely avoiding discomfort. I am a planner and don’t like it when things don’t go according to plan. Throughout my life, I have had the propensity to let adversity ruin my day, trip, experience, etc. I had previously failed to “embrace the suck.” I knew that to be successful and enjoy this hike fully; I had to make some mental adjustments so that when adversity struck, I handled it in a way that motivated me rather than discouraged me. Once I came to grips with the fact that hiking 500 miles in the mountains would not be as “comfortable” as my normal life, I was able to settle into my new normal and become comfortable being uncomfortable. I was embracing the suck.
“Embracing the suck” is something I encourage everyone to practice – and it does take practice. Start small (remember “one cairn at a time?”) and identify something that frequently causes you to be less than the person you want to be. Then develop a plan to “embrace it” and make the best of it. For me, it’s “traffic.” I absolutely hate it. I used to say things like, “There went 30 minutes of my life I’ll never get back!” But I’ve learned (my wife says I am still learning!) to embrace the situation. First, it’s a great excuse to be late for that meeting you don’t really want to be at, right?! It’s also an opportunity to call someone you haven’t talked to in a while or just be alone with your thoughts – something we have less and less time for these days. As you practice the “embrace the suck” approach in simple situations, you will find yourself automatically doing it in more serious situations. It takes a mindful approach, but over time, it becomes easier because experience makes you wiser.
You don’t have to walk 500 miles to learn how to embrace the suck, but purposefully putting yourself in difficult situations helps you practice the mental and physical skills necessary to better deal with discomfort when it arises. I have to give a shout-out to MAOPS member and friend John Paulson, DO, for recommending the book, “The Comfort Crisis,” by Michael Easter. The premise is this: Humans have evolved to have very few discomforts. We have shelter, easy access to food, and climate-controlled environments. Because of this, we’ve become “soft,” but evidence shows it has also impacted us negatively in other ways. In the book, Easter interviews experts around the globe on how purposefully challenging oneself physically and mentally can expand our creativity, prevent burnout, and reduce anxiety. It’s a very interesting read that might motivate you to plan your personal “thru-hike,” whatever that might be.
I’ll end this piece with two rules from Easter’s book regarding whatever you choose to do to practice embracing the suck. Rule 1: Make it really hard. Rule 2: Don’t die!
Have fun embracing the suck!
Embracing the suck on the Colorado Trail
If you enjoyed this piece, make a comment or ask a question below, and then look for Brian’s next reflection in the December 1 issue of Prognosis.