The gauntlet of ways to push our physical limits to the max is expanding. From old standbys like the epic Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim hike to milder challenges that tap into the Tough Mudder-esque adventure racing trend, there’s a way to find your holy grail of “Holy crap!” moments at the edge of some inhospitable threshold.
And as popularity for chasing our limits grows, adventure organizers are stocking their death waivers and bottled water so we can satisfy our need for the greatest physical capstones on our brag lists.
That thirst for adventure is exactly why I left work early one afternoon to embark on a 60-mile backcountry challenge with a Bear Gryllislike wilderness survival educator named T. Coyne and a Naval EOD captain. Logic? All about the thrill of the unknown and a break from my Bruce-Lee-motto-lined desk. But as I learned later, the Boy Scouts were right: Safety First.
Here’s what I took away from my adventure.
NEXT: Accidents Happen
1. THE “IMPOSSIBLE” ISN’T
Try this: Stare down a 65-degree slate-rock-laced slope that’s crumbling under you like glass—and watch your Gore-Tex rubber sole skid double-time from underfoot as you scramble for a lifeline back up the mountain. If you can still smile afterwards, you’re definitely ready for adventure.
This unbelievably inopportune boot incident really happened within eight hours of starting my trek. The level-headed Coyne, founder of the Survival Training School of California, advised me to search for Jeffrey pine, nature’s Super Glue, to retack the bottoms back onto my boots, which—along with paracord (a miracle-working military-grade string)—saved me. I wanted adventure, and this was it. You have to think on your feet.
2. TAKE AN EXPERT
It’s a fact. “Crazy” people do cooler sh*t, and here’s why: Adventure is the antithesis of logic. So stop trying to make sense of your latest crackpot adrenaline-seeking scheme—it’s just what you do. But the one golden rule is Be Safe. So no matter your sport, take an expert out with you those first few times in varying conditions, or start with a well-organized event to learn to manage best- and worst-case scenarios. Beyond that, you make the rules for your world.
NEXT: Physical Demands
3. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOUR NUMBERS
What do you bench? Squat? Deadlift? When you’re in a groove and tackling big numbers at the gym, that’s all that matters. But when you’re facing real-world physical challenges, your vitals take precedence. Yeah, your gym numbers will suffer and your body will be catabolic for longer than it should be, but what else do you work out for but to use that functional muscle? Go hard, then go outside!
4. FUEL UP RIGHT
Up Your Mass, an unfortunately named but enormously effective weight gainer, was the last supplement I took before heading onto the trail. Calories in the days preceding an adventure are the top priority, so I had a double scoop of it—in addition to eating big, clean meals—on my way out. My body craved it every day until got back in front of a plateful of food.
NEXT: A Medical Emergency
5. MEDICAL EMERGENCIES HAPPEN
Things went all wrong at some point. We were walking up endless switchbacks, but then the naval captain with us stops short and lies down in the middle of the trail—as we’d done a zillion times before on the trek—but this time he’s dry heaving, shaking. We were blindsided because this guy’s done tours in Iraq, but he was challenging himself on this trip, too, to forage (read: eat only what he could find and kill on the trail) with Coyne.
They hadn’t killed much, though, because it’s illegal in national parks, so they were running on black elderberries, mice, and yarrow. That, plus the nine hours hiking each day and the elevation, were too rich for his blood. Luckily, Coyne knew what to do (again: it’s crucial to have an expert on hand), and got him stabilized with electrolytes. The takeaway, though: Sometimes things go wrong, so be aware of warning signs and treat them seriously.
NEXT: No Turning Back
6. THERE’S NO TURNING BACK
In the middle of an event, sometimes your heart just sinks when your worst fear is staring you in the face. Surprisingly that paralysis occurred only once on my trek, when I saw our trail skirting along a 70-degree slope covered in rocks and slippery pine needles (really?!). But 12 miles in, there was no turning back. With no escape route, I got the chance to see what I was really made of: All fight, all focus, all good.
So in short: Choose your first adventure race wisely, prepare fully, expect the unexpected—it all seems like common knowledge. But if you follow those tips to a T, you’ll never regret it, and more adventure will await around the corner.
Infinite thanks from the author to: Mountain Hardwear, for the plush, 2 lb(!) Phantom 15 sleeping bag that shut out the cold all night long; Lärabar, for the crucial (and tasty) sustenance; and the Survival Training School of California for being the real deal—from start to finish.