Magnetic North - equipping alpine seekers
equipping alpine seekers



how-to articles, rich creative posts, guest bloggers

The Novice and the Mountain Mentor: Failure Edition

spring on the snoqualmie

Good evening thunder clouds,

Here is the second in a series of eloquent posts from McKenze on the lessons she receives from the mountain, her mentor. 

Since her last post, McKenze experienced her first bout of overtraining and attended the Samastittihi retreatAddressing these acute bouts of overtraining and developing strategies for avoiding them in the future is one aspect of endurance training I enjoy engaging in most and especially enjoyed the live-time practice with McKenze. After her experience with a first (real) rest week she offered to write about her newest adventures with her Maras on the trail.

...her most recent dispatch from the hills.


Running in the forest enlivens my soul. It brings me closer to nature, closer to harmony with myself and more compassionate towards others. Running in the forest is joyful and playful and reminds me of being a child and gleefully running from place to place, as it was the easiest mode of sensory delight. Running is a spirited quest of merriment – that is, until it’s not, of course. This is the story of me, the novice, and a new mentor: failure.

There is a lot of polarized messaging between what failure is, or isn’t. Here’s what I think: failure is essential to learning. I think failure is real, and possible, and can happen even if you showed up and did your best. I don’t, however, think failure is bad. Sometimes it hurts, sometime it’s devastating, and sometimes it’s the best teacher and motivator. For me, it was all those things: a devastating, painful, and motivating. It happened on an attempt at a twenty-mile run. I have never experienced such pain. I’ve also never learned so quickly what my body needs to perform well on the trails. 

A couple months ago I set out on a twenty-miler on the mountain with my boyfriend (Cy). I thought it was the perfect time to try it as I had just come off of a rest week. We hit the trails, our food and water packed tightly in the Camel Bak. We ran about seven miles before I needed my first break. I thought it was a little strange to need a break so soon but considering my mission to let go of what my runs “should” be and strive towards non-competition with myself, I allowed it. I snacked a bit, stretched, and tried the hill before me. My legs gave me a very strong signal – they weren’t having it. We ran a little further and I told Cy we needed to cut the run short because twenty was just going to be too much for me that day. I was disappointed, but okay with that concession…until I realized that the only way to cut the run short from where we were was to run sixteen or seventeen miles instead of twenty.

I spent the next nine miles stumbling, walking, trying to run, and having to rest. I ate and drank and employed all the recovery tactics I knew. My legs throbbed. It felt like poison was filling my legs and the pressure of the poisonous swelling was a vise on my muscles. I turned pale, I dry heaved several times, and worst of all I got angry. The doubts in myself that I’ve been working towards quelling reared their ugly heads and I told myself: You’re not strong enough, how could you think you could pull this off? It’s because you’re out of shape, it’s because you’re fat, it’s because you’re not good enough. I even snipped and jabbed at Cy in the car on the way home.

In reality none of the aforementioned caused my bonk. It was a mixture of other things that I needed to go through this painful lesson to learn. I was over-trained. I mistook the five days I had gone without running as a rest week – wrong! In reality I had gone a couple months without a proper rest week. A rest week should be all about recovery. It generally needs to be a full seven days and include activities like walking, swimming, and yoga as a means to actively, yet gently, let muscles heal themselves. A recovery week should also include a lot of sleep and ample nutrients. What did my rest week include? Well, given that I wasn’t getting up early to run I figured I could stay up later, drink more with my friends, and with the drinking came eating the bar food. I had a lovely week, catching up with friends and sampling local Seattle bar fare, but I didn’t recover. 

Failure taught me a great lesson about recovery. My lack of consideration for my body caused me to completely bonk on my attempt at a twenty-miler. It put me in the state of failure and pain that has caused me to quit running in the past. If it’s going to be so painful, why bother? I consulted my coach (my human mentor) who encouraged me reflect more objectively on my experience. I realized what I had done: I had failed to complete a necessary part of working out – rest! When the body is depleted, improvements can’t be made and the likelihood of injury is high. Without that rest, I’d allowed myself to slip into a mental state arguably more dangerous than physical injury: the state where I am unkind to myself, then to others by extension. I learned an invaluable lesson about my practice that day (including that I have much more practicing to do!) from my newest mentor: failure.