Last weekend I did something it’s really hard to do in Oxford. I ran a kilometre (1053m to be precise) of vertical gain. I say really hard because Oxford is not a place you really associate with hills. My route took 35 kilometres of horizontal distance, and at its heart were 18 repeats of the 600 metre stretch of road going to the top of Shotover Hill.
You learn a lot from an experience like that.
I was taking part in Running Up For Air, a global event organised by Patagonia to raise funds for charities campaigning for clean air. You can read more or donate here.
Before reflecting in detail, I want to cut straight to the big takeaway:
If something you do tells you about, or trains you in, two rather than just one seemingly unrelated parts of your life goals, the value it brings is far more than double.
A lot of training is built upon repetition. And a lot of endurance training is built upon a lot of repetitions. The kind of repetition, like climbing the same hill 18 times, that doesn’t require constant attention. And in many ways that makes this kind of training really, really hard. Whole chapters are devoted to helping people get their heads around starting super long events and sessions where if you let yourself think too much about the numbers you would simply give up.
But finding ways to get through these blocks means missing out on a really fantastic opportunity. Any chance for your body to go onto autopilot is a chance for your mind to engage. And engaging your mind at the same time as you are building your body enhances the effect on both — as well as giving you the extra mental endurance to make good decisions when you are exhausted; and the extra physical endurance to keep you performing mentally at your best towards the end of a long competition.
Of course, it’s vital to keep on top of your body’s maintenance. I set a very clear schedule to take on hydration and calories every 4 repetitions (while low level monitoring so that I could adapt as needed). And I always had one eye on the changing weather and small but steady stream of cars coming up and down the road to the park.
But once I’d done that, I let my mind free.
And I set it a very particular task. To think around the whole reason this event was created — clean air. There are many reasons why clean air matters; and many reasons why a lack of access to clean air is one of the key contributors to not just unequal health outcomes but all kinds of unequal outcome in life.
And that’s the question I spent at least 3 hours of high quality time exploring. Access to clean air is part of a much wider issue of access to the means of exploring your body’s limits, and everything that means — for your general health; for your ability to discover your talents and widen your horizons; for your ability to fulfil potential; for your confidence; for the benefits in every other area of life that come from being able to push your body to the limits you choose rather than ones set by what your environment permits.
I was delighted by how my body coped with the challenge. Not only did I manage 18 hill repeats with no tail off in performance from first to last — I managed to do so without ever considering stopping. Both of those are things that would have been unheard of only a year ago.
But more than that, I had a greater understanding of my relation to a key problem, and a greater understanding of how I can use my creativity and my accomplishments to achieve something concrete that could benefit many lives. Clean air is vital for so many reasons. But fixing it within the context of enabling as many people as possible to push at the limits of their minds and bodies feels like it has clarified where I might be best able to contribute.
And by keeping my mind active even when my body was exhausted, I feel as though I have taken an important step towards making the most of my own potential. We live in a time poor age — that is one reason why combining training disciplines is important. But the crossover benefits to every area of your life make it so much more than a time saving device.