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Backpacker Magazine – March 2014

Go the Distance: Mental Endurance

Get your head around the challenges of hiking hour after hour, day after day.

by: Casey Lyons

Heather "Anish" Anderson (Photo by Nick Hall)
Brain Food (Photo by Ben Fullerton)
Brain Food (Photo by Ben Fullerton)

 Profiles in Endurance: Heather Anderson

Pacific Crest Trail (unsupported) in 60 days, 17 hours, 12 minutes

“All right," Heather Anderson said to herself, “the record isn’t going to break itself.” And with that—underslept and definitely not a morning person—Anderson broke camp at 5 a.m., switched on her headlamp, and began her next 40-mile day. 

This daily morning verbalization was just one of her tools, and from pre-dawn to post-dusk, the 2,663-mile PCT gave her ample chances to use them all.

When she didn’t make it as far as she planned: “I had to allow myself grace. It is what it is at this moment and you can’t change the past.”

When she was hurting: “Pain is going to be part of this journey and I don’t want to waste mental or physical energy trying to avoid it or being afraid of it. If you have the ability to accept pain for what it is, then it ceases to have power.”

When she took a wrong turn at a confusing junction in Oregon: “I was very angry while I was hiking. Then I realized it doesn’t matter. Getting upset is a waste of energy, and energy is a commodity.”

When confronted with an obstacle in the trail, like a snowfield or fast-moving river: “You have to shut off that part of your brain that allows for doubt. You can’t think about falling. Trust that you’re capable of making it, and if you fall, trust that you can stop yourself.”

These lessons were the exceptions. Most of the time, simply being out in some of the West’s best wilderness was enough to keep her going. “During the day, once I was up and hiking, I didn’t need any external motivation,” she says. The PCT took care of that.

The 4 Keys to Mental Toughness

The military teaches these precepts to make its warriors Army Strong. Take a lesson.

1. Set better goals

Make sure every goal is specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound, says Stephen Gonzalez, a sport psychologist and Army contractor. Make contingency plans for a variety of scenarios.

2. Monitor your self-talk

Your internal monologue can be helpful or discouraging. Find out by asking yourself: Are my thoughts purposeful, productive, and giving me a chance of success? If not, change the dialogue.

3. Control the controllables

Focus on the things you have power over. Forget about the rest. “As soon as you let things you can’t control creep into your mindset, you’re wasting your energy,” Gonzalez says.

4. Combat catastrophic thinking

Keep your mind from spiraling into the worst-case scenario with this three-step plan from Army Master Sergeant Warren Feaster. 

A) Visualize the end-of-the-world nightmare situation. (e.g. I’ll never make it. I’ll die out here!)

B) Create an (equally outrageous) best-case scenario. (Or maybe I’ll be picked up by a sexy ranger in a chopper!)

C) Recognize that the truth is somewhere in between. (I’ll night hike if I need to until I get there.)







Choice Words

Why choose endurance?

“I wanted to see how fast I could do a long-distance hike and the PCT provided a counterbalance because it’s so beautiful. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than out on this trail.” –Heather “Anish” Anderson

Don’t Forget: Sleep, stupid

Getting fewer than seven hours of shut-eye per night causes decreased mental and physical performance, says neurologist Ronald Kramer.

Perfect 50: Cranberry  Lake Loop, NY

Take in constant lake views on this 50-miler. INFO

Food: Sustain your brain

When the going gets tough, a snack can get your head back in the game.

Clear your mind. “You need carbs to fuel the brain to maintain motivation and your central nervous system,” Ryan says. Feeling confused or woozy? Chew down some dried fruit (especially blueberries and strawberries, which are packed with stress-fighting vitamin C).

Stay calm. In clinical studies, chamomile tea has been shown to reduce stress and promote sleepiness. Dark chocolate reduces blood pressure. Moreover, Ryan says, “Eating foods you like will boost your mood.”










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