Thanks again to Trail Sisters for hosting my words! Be sure to check out the article and the rest of their amazing resources for lady runners.
Thanks again to Trail Sisters for hosting my words! Be sure to check out the article and the rest of their amazing resources for lady runners.
There have been multiple times in my life when I needed a run or a climb not because my training plan said so but because my spirit demanded it. Most recently I spent the holidays in the noisy west side at a house with which I was unfamiliar caring for my father who was headed for hospice care - and neither Rumi nor I were sleeping well. A few mornings that week I woke, after six or so hours of fitful sleep, and knew I needed to contact the muddy, fern-populated forest in order to cope. It was on those runs that this post milled itself.
Oftentimes when a client on my roster violates her training plan it is because she had a hard day at work, a fight with her spouse, or some other stressful situation that caused her to run farther, climb harder, or generally practice poor self-care in motion. Since we all experience critical life stressors and since most endurance athletes use their practice in order to cope, I devised this quick how-to guide.
Next time you saddle up for a run, climb, or ski with a heavy heart, I hope you find these tips useful.
How much did you sleep? If you slept seven or more hours consecutively, you’re good to go for a workout. If you slept less than seven but more than five, you’ll need to curtail the duration and intensity of your workout even more than I suggest below. If your total sleep hours were less than five consecutively or added up to less than eight in chunks of fewer than four hours each, your best bet is to skip your workout entirely and opt for a walk and a meditation instead.
Mindset: Enter your mental health training session with a mindset of curiosity and self-compassion. Over-processing events as you move will only auger in negative or obsessive mental habits leading to anxiety or depression that will persist long after the stressor ceases. During the session, be sure to cultivate an associative relationship with sensation: pain, discomfort, heaviness, or ease. Welcome Mara to tea.
Intensity and duration: In order to soothe rather than activate your already-stressed ANS, avoid Zones 3 and higher during a mental health workout. Also since the body doesn’t replenish glycogen stores well when it is under stress or has not slept well, be sure to feed yourself high-carb snacks during your workout and keep the total duration under ninety minutes.
Objective hazard: In stark contrast to my post on going solo, the bedraggled, confused, depressed, or flustered athlete has no business engaging in any sort of risky activity. Despite the obvious distraction personal upheaval poses, the nervous system of a person functioning on little sleep and under stress is not the person who makes sound decisions in the alpine. Until the life stressor subsides, settle for workouts in places you know well that are well outside of harm’s way.
Recovery: Perhaps the most important part of the mental health workout is the mindset you continue after the session concludes. Practice good self-care by having fresh cotton clothes and a recovery snack available immediately after you cease motion. As soon as you’re alone, either sit in meditation (you could use the Headspace app or a simple timer on your phone) or queue up one of these effective somatic meditations. The goal of the mental health workout is not to self-flagellate as that will only make whatever problem you’re experiencing worse; the aim is to gain perspective and maintain presence.
Efficiency: When an athlete chooses to use pace as a training metric, she will generally function in a heart rate zone referred to by coaches as the ‘black hole of endurance training’. None of us, even the most masochistic, can function much above lactate threshold for extended periods of time on consecutive days. Most of us are also too impatient to put in the work that feels like it wasn’t work in the lower heart rate zones. This leaves uncoached athletes defaulting to a ‘fun-hard’ pace - and that’s the black hole. This pace, what most pace-based athletes slot themselves into thinking it will make them stronger over time, is too hard to serve as recovery and too easy to support an increase in your lactate threshold.
Your ANS: When you consistently work at too high a heart rate zone during endurance training, your autonomic nervous system becomes activated. This isn’t a good thing. When you perform in your sympathetic nervous system, you lose your capacity for empathy and critical decision-making; your body consumes the limited stores of glycogen in your organs and other easily-accessible sources before beginning to burn muscle; and extended activation of the nervous system can lead to thyroid dysfunction, mental health disturbances, and illness or injury. I host single-topic webinars on this and other nervous system phenomena. Sign up for the waitlist to learn more.
Alternatives: Athletes might measure their training using climbing grade, elevation gain/loss, distance, duration, watts, or time in zone. While pace is nearly always the poorest measurement of training impact, time in zone is the best way to meter your endurance production. Nested within this strategy is the need for the athlete to train alone much of the time. Given that your level of recovery, heart rate variability, and, ultimately, the appropriate level of output during each training session fluctuates from session to session, a training buddy is more likely to cause you to over- or under-train than to support your training. Over time, time-in-zone training will result in you getting faster - there’s simply no need to check in all that frequently to validate that this is the case.
When is pace useful in endurance training? Pace-based training only has its place in the repertoire of the most elite mountain runners and even for those athletes only in metered doses during narrow periods of their training. Personally, the only time I’ve ever employed pace-based training was during my training for a fifty mile FKT and I’ve only suggested pace-based training for one client in my six years of business. Nuff said.
Quit with the competitive thinking already; learn your individual zones; and watch your performance rise while incidences of overtraining, insomnia, and injury decrease. Releasing the ego's attachment to pace and measuring the success of your session only by time in zone is of vital importance, not only to your fitness but to your health.
I’ll be hosting a special session entitled Your Zones later in the month. Be sure to sign up and learn all about the alternative to pace-based training.
Many endurance or running coaches out there make a pretty penny on the passive income source they call 'training plans'. Though passive income sources are enticing, my top priority is to support my clients and community on their path to a more sustainable, nourishing endurance practice.
When I do create training plans, they are tailor-made to an individual client and not derived from some algorithm. I don’t simply hand the plan over to the athlete to implement, we check in multiple times per month to be sure you’re on track and to adjust as circumstances dictate. Sure, this is far more time-consuming and expensive but who wants to half-ass an investment in their health and performance?
A few reasons to shun pre-made, mass-marketed training plans:
It is much easier to over train than to under train an ultra-endurance athlete - and overtraining is costly. Without knowing your specific fitness level (to a scientific degree of specificity) your online 'coach' runs the risk of colluding in your overtraining. Train smart, not rigid, by hiring a coach rather than buying a plan.
All athletes begin training for each event at a different starting place. Consider these two athletes training for their first 50k: Jill is an experienced alpine climber having had many successful climbs lasting longer than twenty-four hours. She doesn't particularly enjoy running, but believes running an ultra will be great cross-training for alpine climbing season. On the other hand, Mark is a regular 5k runner. Though he's never moved longer than ninety at a time he's confident his good form and recovery practices will carry him through training. These two athletes need, and deserve, coaching tailored to the factors they will struggle with throughout their training.
Ultra-endurance training often requires course-correction. As the athlete settles in to her training plan, whether for a climb, run, or ski event, she is bound to notice places where she could push harder and places where more active recovery will suit her. This is why, at Magnetic North, we check in at regular intervals throughout our relationship. During check ins we can up your strength training, dial back your mileage, and shuffle the schedule around to accomodate a vacation or illness.
I offer single-hour consults on the topic of your choice, gait analysis on trail, and multi-month coaching packages.
As the Kettles Map Project marches forward, my friends over at KAVU generously asked to feature the story of how I fell in love with the Range.
Give it a read and share it on your Facebook or Instagram. The wolves and lynx will thank you.
I wrote a piece for the Ferry County View and, since it was an old-school paper article, I’m reposting the text here for your enjoyment.
Stewardship of and our relationships with the more-than-human have divided us for far too long and, since I see that the dualistic arguments that dominate discourse about wolves have failed to provide new ways of looking at the situation especially in the Kettles, allow me to present an alternate perspective. The mass hysteria we feed as part of our fear of the wild within us only disables our relationships with the more-than-human and with each other. What are people so afraid of?
I grew up on a steer farm in rural Washington and now work as a professional mountain athlete. Every single time I run, climb, fish or spend time outside with my daughter I do so alone, unarmed and in wilderness (not a state park or some other peri-urban forest). The thriving wilderness that we call home is full of cougars, bobcats, wolves, moose, deer, eagles, bears, snakes and we interact with these neighbors one-on-one many times a week. Every single run I take I tread where moose passed mere minutes before, I’ve been followed by cougars more times than I can count (three times that I know of this last winter alone), and last winter I had the privilege of being followed by a bobcat. I’ve run WITH four moose individuals including one with a calf, one big bull in the Colville, and one when I was nineteen alone in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The first time a cougar followed me I was alone on snowshoes near Grand Park on Mount Rainier at the age of sixteen. I’ve encountered five bear individuals on the Kettle Crest Trail alone in the last two years––one at about twenty feet away, so close I could smell her fur.
Every encounter with a furry friend in the woods inspires in me a deeper awareness of how I move, an understanding of the truth that I am very small and very insignificant, and that “wild” animals are, in our cultural consciousness, the monster under the bed. Never once has a “wild” animal so much as looked at me askance; but do you know what animal is aggressive to me regularly? Dogs. People’s misbehaving, off-leash dogs. I like to stay away from peopled trails, which is one reason why I love the Kettle Range.
As the frequency of my encounters with the wild increases, they become a still-remarkable but entirely normal part of my daily movements in the woods. I prefer the kind company of a large carnivore to the unpredictable nature of humans and their dogs any day of the week. Encounters with the wild are unavoidable if you spend time outside in Ferry County; learning to listen is a process of enrichment for us all.
As my individual coaching practice fills up, I am trying to find ways to engage with more of you. I want the work I do to be accessible and appropriately-scaled for many different levels and types of mountain endurance athletes.
Enter: COURSES. As I’ve found with my Pregnant Athlete Ecourse over the last eighteen months and as I’m learning after hosting the first instance of my ANS For Athletes Webinar, there is a lot of interest out there in bite-sized coaching offerings - and I enjoy working with groups.
I just added new dates for both courses and I plan to add more courses to the webinar series soon. Look forward to topics like mindfulness, lucid dreaming, nutrition, and self-care for athletes. Be sure to sign up to save your spot.
Thank you for being here.
When I niched down authentically in this here small business, there were a lot of potential clients I either started saying “no” to or who were turned off by how I communicated my brand. And that’s a good thing.
Of all the varied athletes I DO coach from ultra-runners to alpinists to mountain guides to wingsuit BASE jumpers to US Military Special Forces to your regular ol mom/athlete getting her grind on at her local trail system and at the climbing gym, there are a few groups I don’t coach. Here’s that list and a brief reason why.
Cyclists: Y’all have your own brand of crazy and a lot more specifically-trained and -qualified coaches (uh: Zones 5a, 5b, and 5c? Who comes up with this kind of torture?). I’m just not right for you unless you want to talk mindfulness, the nervous system, and visualization. In that case, I’ll totally coach a cyclist.
Nordic skiers: Similar to the above and I’ll add to that that I’ve tried to get into Nordic skiing and I just can’t. Like sold-my-skate-setup “just can’t”. Also, I find Nordic skiing (especially skate skiing) to be not a true mountain sport as you must have a human-maintained trail on which to move in order to conduct these sports. Simply not a great alignment with my values, skills, or interests.
Triathletes: Similar to cyclists, triathlon has a whole host of highly-specific coaches, trainers, and very deep peer-reviewed evidence base behind it. Of the very few triathletes I coached prior to screening them out in my client selection process, all of them had an active eating disorder, strayed from my well-crafted training plans built specifically for them, and thus we’re not a good match. My coaching doesn’t work unless my clients heed my advice and, while I’m happy to coach those in recovery from an eating disorder, I’m not qualified to coach athletes through their eating disorders.
Competition addicts: You know who you are, Strava user who thinks corporations and comparative models of achievement define what an ‘elite’ athlete is. Though I coach many athletes for competitive events (Emily! Jeff!) these athletes are process-oriented and actively seeking to quiet their minds and turn down the volume on their egos. These athletes understand that the event for which they’re training is only a finger pointing to the moon - and they don’t mind when I ask them to ditch pace-based training. If you want your coach to only help you go faster or harder, I’m not the coach for you.
My relationship with being alone in the forest as a tool of self-discovery and intimacy with place goes back as far as I can remember. When family gatherings as a child or, heck, my own birthday parties would get too stressful for me I’d retire to the sturdy limbs of the nearest cedar with my journal until all the guests had departed. Often I’d invite friends over for play dates as a kid to appease my mom then spend the entire time they were at my house evading and spying on them or constructing makeshift tents out of the brown tall grass, whiling away the afternoon alone and daydreaming. At recess during elementary school I spent my time making concoctions of whatever plants grew on the playground or I stayed in the library and read, invariably alone and not at all miffed. This behavior continued into my teens as I made my first forays into the mountains solo.
The first time I remember conducting an endurance activity alone in the mountains I was sixteen and on snowshoes. There is a minor ridge to the north-northwest of Mount Rainier––the trail was near my home and where I’d worked as a volunteer with the Department of Fish and Wildlife so I felt comfortable there and I admired the mountain whose milk had nourished me all through childhood. Though the entire hike was less than eight miles long, I saw no one the entire way up. When I doubled back on my path of ascent, I began to note cougar tracks laid in to the square patterns made by my snowshoes. That was the first time I felt the now-familiar mix of fear, responsibility, and wonder that comes standard with each of my solo ventures into the wilderness. That snowy day I also realized that, by putting myself at the mercy of the more-than-human yet remaining aware and not dissociating by arming myself, I felt the natural order of things in the woods and my heart was tender, my ears were sharp, my attention diffused itself to perceive the slightest movements and sound in the silent understory.
Following that first time in the mountains alone, I began hiking to my favorite alpine lakes alone that summer; this was less because I preferred being alone and more because I found my friends were less reliably available to join me than I’d have liked. When I was twenty I took up mountaineering; that same summer I rode the train then hitched in to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park on a ten-day backpacking trip alone. On that trip I interacted with my first moose in the wild and I coped with fear so profound that at night it felt like a hand pressing on my chest as I tried in vain to sleep.
This quickly devolved into runs from Camp Muir to the top of the Cleaver solo as a twenty-two-year-old climbing ranger on Mount Rainier. Once the slowest and most cautious person on the mountain (literally, not hyperbolically) I surprised myself by striding out alone, unroped across the Cowlitz and Ingraham Glaciers in my lightest crampons. I liked the feeling of efficiency, traveling without so much as a pack to slow me down, and the way that my lack of safety devices demanded that I use my mind to discern subtle bumps in the snow that might be collapsable snow bridges and to take note of the speed at which I traveled downhill in different consistencies of snow. In 2010 I set the first female speed record on the mountain, simul-soloing next to my late partner, Chad Kellogg, and ultimately deciding to tell no one about the day’s activities. The feeling of total awareness combined with complete relaxation, the giddy action of leaping over gaping crevasses next to my soul mate, is one I only replicated with the homebirth of my child five years later.
Together, we also climbed solo on alpine rock and waterfall ice. The most indelible of these experiences came one day just before solstice on our yearly trips to Canmore to ice climb. We climbed a multipitch waterfall unroped and in perfect synch next to one another. This took a lot of trust, not only in my own technical abilities, in the ice and in him. Climbing together that day, feeling the ringing of my solid sticks in plastic ice and the vibration of his tools landing in unison, goes down for me as one of my favorite moments in the mountains. We found safety in moving fast together but still solo.
Chad’s boldness in his solo endeavors and the elegant simplicity of his alpine aesthetic poured fuel on the loneliness-seeking fire inside me and solidified my own stylistic leanings as a spirit-athlete. When we parted ways, I began to run ultras solo and unsupported as a way to feel less confused by other people and more in the company with the beings with whom I knew I belonged: the trees and the animals. Over the next couple years I ran distances from 50k to 100 miles, some that I had never run before, solo and unsupported adding up to twenty-seven ultras alone at the time of writing.
I taught myself to rope solo the summer of 2014 but didn’t begin to rely on that tool as one for regular training until the summer of 2015 when I moved to the Methow. I realized that, alone, I could knock out a ten-pitch session in less than a quarter of the time it would have taken with a partner. Sure, I didn’t get the opportunity to lead given that I was top-rope soloing at the time, but if fitness and simple movement on the rock were my intended outcomes for the day then rope soloing was the vastly more efficient way to get it done. I continued rope soloing through the first two trimesters of my pregnancy with Rumi and, as a parent, rope soloing has often been the only way to get in a few quick pitches as parenting compresses my schedule.
These days, in the summer and autumn I rope solo and run alone six days a week; in the winters I run and ski alone six days a week - many of these days include two solo sessions in a day (climb/run, or run/ski, or on the best days run/climb/ski). I have never been late to check in with my safety people and have self-evacuated after my two injuries alone in the mountains - one evacuation had me run/walking twenty miles alone and hypothermic, the other bleeding from four orofices with bursa in my knee deployed and a shattered pinkie knuckle.
These days, solo and unsupported is my happy default - rock, snow, and trail. I’m no Honnold, nor do I ever want to be, but here’s this introvert’s guide to the ethic of the solo, unsupported athlete.
What is soloing for runners? For running this can encompass a broad spectrum of what is considered “solo”. This begins, in its mildest form, as a fully-supported run completed alone. The runner’s crew might maintain aid stations, refill the runner’s water, provide bodywork on the fly, and do course marking or navigation for the runner. But why deal with the annoyance and distraction of other people clogging your spirit work and complicating your plans? In its most extreme, solo running takes the form of solo, unsupported, onsight runs in the mountains. This is the same for skiing except in ski mountaineering where a pair of skiers can solo by simply choosing not to rope up or a single skier can go out alone.
What is soloing for climbers? Climbers can rope solo, either top-rope or lead, on a variety of terrains from sport crags to alpine multipitch climbs, to glaciers, to big walls, and on aid pitches. There is a lot of complexity between and among these varied types of roped solo climbing. A climber can also simul-solo, solo alongside a partner on rock, ice, or glacier, which is a common practice for a team of experienced climbers wishing to travel swiftly through easy terrain between harder pitches or steeper, more broken terrain. Sometimes unroping in this environment is the safest decision for the team. The most risky soloing a climber can do is to free solo (climb without ropes though sometimes still in a harness) on a bigwall or mulitpitch route - especially one she or he has never climbed before. The levels of risk, experience, and judgement involved in decisions about soloing while climbing range widely from top-rope soloing to free solo bigwall climbs.
Why? For athletes for whom comparative, patriarchal, capitalist models of alpinism originating in whiteness ring hollow, there exists an alternate path: going alone and sharing your journey only out of joy, not conquest or personal gain. This path is little-discussed, stigmatized, and old as time. Every spiritual tradition has, in its structure, a wisdom-seeker who goes into the wilderness alone to seek or construct situations that alter their ordinary perceptive reality into one of non-dual awareness and psychedelia. It is my personal belief that this is where most mythology springs from. Some athletes choose to solo simply because their need for movement outstrips the availability of partners. Some go because they like to be quiet, as a break from their lives of constant social obligation.
Internal risk factors: Reserves, physical and emotional, are the first consideration in choosing whether or not to go solo. If it has been a stressful week at work, if you’ve not been sleeping well, or if you’re in emotional distress, either choose to not solo or choose a solo activity with less objective hazard or one in familiar terrain. Risk assessment capacities are vital to develop and maintain as a solo athlete and they can be compromised if you are observed, if you’re tired, or when you’re stressed. Medical training for solo athletes is a must. Attain and keep current at least a Wilderness First Responder and become familiar with the types of self-rescue systems you might need to employ if you are rope soloing in any sort of terrain. There are creative ways a soloist on a glacier can protect herself when crossing a crevasse and important knots, hitches, and pieces of equipment a climber must learn to use to release the load on a rope or to lower themselves safely back to the ground. Be sure you have solid navigation skills before venturing into the mountains alone. Pregnancy is not necessarily a risk factor in the solo endeavor rather the person’s individual health and skill level should be the determining factors.
External risk factors: Objective hazard comes in many different flavors depending on your mode of travel: avalanche, crevasse falls, wildfire, rockfall, tree wells, adverse weather events, falling off a wall or trail, and deadfall in historic burns all make the list. Other people in high-traffic areas are a particular concern for female mountain movers. Animals rank lowest for me on my list of external risk factors.
Mental training: Part of being solo and unsupported that refines me is the component of total commitment. If shit hits the fan, I am the only one out there to resolve things––I have to let go of any sense of being the victim of my circumstances and take responsibility for what is in every moment. The athlete should have a sober and realistic assessment of her own abilities including technical skill, planning, and fitness before venturing out alone. Fortitude, the quality of persisting either stoically or softly under pressure, is vital for the solo athlete and going alone will cultivate this in you. Rather than allowing yourself to bonk hard at mile twenty or thirty-six or sixty or at hour twenty-four when you’re out alone, transform those lulls in the event by implementing grace windows instead, walking and feeding your way into them so they hit in a less-acute way. Cultivating any sort of mindfulness practice - sitting, visualization, lucid dreaming, or astral projection - is an invaluable tool for the soloist. You stop being a hero or a martyr the moment you eschew outdated dualistic thinking and instead move in a gnostic paradigm.
Physical training: When first embarking on solo endeavors, I advise athletes to choose their local training grounds and routine places for alone training sessions. The solo sessions can increase in complexity as the consistent fitness and boldness of the athlete increases. If you want to go alone on new terrain, at a new distance, or under any unfamiliar circumstances, you must first attain an ample endurance base, be in perfect mental and physical health, and accept that additional degree of risk. For some, this level of risk is motivating and exhilarating; for others it is distracting and debilitating. Also choose your solo activity in each discipline in alignment with your skill level at each. For example, I might be comfortable running a solo, unsupported ultra in unfamiliar terrain while I’m only comfortable soloing on alpine rock in places with which I am intimately familiar and whose rock is quite stable.
Safety (or “Do As I Say, Not As I Do”): Leave a plan for your outing with a local safety person. This plan should include a map, where you’re parking, when you anticipate being back in contact with said safety person, and instructions for that person to get in contact with the relevant Search and Rescue professionals in the area if you’re not out on schedule. Carry a satellite GPS tracking device, preferably one with the capability to send and receive messages. These are two important safety concerns and I’ll note here that I’m a hypocrite: I do neither. Though I usually leave a plan with a trusted safety person when I ski or climb alone, many of the trails I run are secret, unmapped trails whose location I won’t disclose to even my best friend. I simply don’t have the $500 to buy a sat phone or pay for the annual subscription. The latter I hope to remedy in the coming year; the former will likely remain the risk it currently is because solitude is solace.
Contraindications: Solo wilderness travel is contraindicated for those people without adequate training, those who lack a clear plan, and those who have experienced the need to be rescued in the past as a result of poor decision-making. Soloing for an audience, whether your friends or a camera crew, is additionally reckless and negates the ego-transcendent properties of true aloneness. Additionally, people in dissociative relationship to their pain and fear are not qualified to travel peacefully and uneventfully alone in the wilderness. People with poor mental health might think of a rash solo trip as the only balm for their pain, this is incorrect. Whether alone or in a group, your most effective safety tool is the mushy, grey one between your ears.
Communion: Alone, I am vulnerable and unguarded - in stark contrast to my daily life among unpredictable two-leggeds. Alone, I am creative and ferocious, forgiving and alive, attuned and magnificent, grotesque and tired. Alone, I realize the emptiness of all things. Above all, going it alone is about connecting with the people with whom I most identify: the trees, rocks, snow, and animals. In this sense, solo and unsupported is less a romantic notion of accessing the unsullied, the undisturbed, the placid and more the practice of plugging in to a subtler frequency without the fetters of ropes, partners, or coordinating plans with someone other than the moon, the snow, and the weather.