Apidura Ambassador, Jenny Tough, shares the ten things she has learned on solo adventures that help with a lockdown.
Have a Plan
The hours and days are long on a solo endurance challenge. The task ahead can feel impossible and endless. It can be overwhelming, if you let it be, opening the door to negativity, fear, discomfort and boredom. It’s part of the expedition, but it’s something you need to proactively mitigate against.
The best thing I’ve learned is to be proactive. Experience means I know challenging times will come, regardless of whether they should, so I always go into a big adventure with a plan for them. I have my phone loaded with podcasts and playlists to distract me, and mantras jotted down somewhere that will help. I break the expedition down into manageable chunks, so instead of looking ahead at weeks of doing this, I focus on getting through the next segment, or even just the day. Sometimes the just the next hour. Coping techniques like mindfulness, gratitude, and positivity work when my mind turns negative, and I will tell myself to stop what I’m doing and then give my attention to that until I feel better.
There’s always joy around you. Sometimes it’s hidden and you have to dig it up and work for it. But it’s there.
During lockdown, there’s so much to be anxious and negative about, but there’s also so much joy around us. I’m loving riding my bike or going for small runs more than ever, relishing every moment of freedom outside. Reading, cooking, speaking to friends online, the work I haven’t lost, afternoon naps, the sun in the sky, the smile passing a stranger in the park. There’s so much joy still existing in the world. Focus on it. Embrace it. Cherish it.
Looking after yourself has to be the priority, especially in solitude. I know it sounds selfish and goes against a lot of our values, but you can’t take care of anything unless you’ve first taken care of yourself.
Everything that’s hard becomes infinitely harder when I’m not in a good place. I’m finding the lack of motivation in lockdown is taking a lot of discipline, but I know from experience in endurance challenges that if I need to make my health – body and mind – a priority.
Without knowing whether I’m really training for an expedition this summer or (likely) not, mixed with a lower than usual level of social contact, and a heavily reduced amount of paid work, I’m noticing myself slowing down, and even losing interest. So I tried thinking back to how I’ve managed to motivate myself for days of quite serious isolation on past adventures – times when I’ve been plodding on an endless route with far too many hours in far too many days with no relief or reward – and I think it’s really believing in my goals.
When I start a challenge, I have a finish line in mind and I know before I start that I really care about that, and won’t be happy unless I meet it. I usually don’t know how long it will take me, and it often feels like it takes me way too long to get there, and I’ll get frustrated, bored, exhausted and despondent… But I’ll find that note that I wrote down before I started to remind me what the finish line was, and that will always snap me back.
Our finish line right now is so important to all of us. It’s hard to feel like we’re personally making any progress when we’re locked up inside but if we keep the goal in mind, and regularly remind ourselves what it is and what it means to each of us personally, we can dig down to find that motivation.
You Can Do This Solo
I’m not sure why no one ever told me this. I think going solo is so against the cultures that most of us live in that perhaps it was never encouraged or even imagined. But, sometimes, you will find yourself without your favourite people next to you. Whether that was by choice or by COVID, it’s always hard. But you can do this on your own.
Solo challenges taught me to trust and depend on myself. They taught me that I’m more capable than I ever gave myself credit for. By being stuck in situations where the only person around to help me was myself, I found my independence and surprised myself with what I could do, if I had to.
Like a lot of you, I miss the important people in my life. I don’t think I can really wrap my head around the knowledge that I can’t hop on a plane and go see my family. So, instead, I’m reminding myself of the times that I missed them before; the time I broke my first bike but couldn’t call my dad for help, times that I cried in my tent but my mom was nowhere near, times that I needed a friend but my sister was eight time zones away.
Cope With Fear
I don’t believe in fearlessness. In the real world, it’s not achievable. In the outdoor adventure world, it’s simply not safe. Fear is a handy, although annoying, signal that our brain needs to send us to alert us to threats. In the backcountry, these may be real. In my tent, they’re usually not. In a global pandemic, they’re both real and shared.
I’ve developed a relationship with fear through solo adventure challenges where I can respect it, understand it, and even sometimes welcome it. I wouldn’t say it’s a relationship with someone I usually like, but I know it’ll always be there for as long as I pursue a life of pushing my comfort zone. The good thing is that at a time like this, the work I’ve put into that relationship is helping me cope.
One way I’ve learned to deal with fear is to always acknowledge it and try to understand it: what am I afraid of? How realistic is? What can I do about it?
Fear and uncertainty about the human tribe and what happens next is swirling around minds around the world. I can’t make that fear go away, but if you sit down and have a conversation with it, it can help to process that a little.
Humans are social creatures, even those of us who fall at the far end of the introverted scale. When I’ve been totally isolated in the backcountry on long, solo challenges, I often forget to stay in touch with the people I love back at home. But, when I get a message through or even stay in signal long enough for a phone call, I get a noticeable boost from the exchange.
Lockdown measures have equalled a total loss of passive social contact. Events cancelled, public places closed, visiting quiet and awkward supermarkets, even the shared national experience of watching sports or live events on TV is gone. It now falls to us to make the extra effort to connect to keep the human tribe connected. When I’m far away from home on a solo adventure, it takes the same level of conscious effort, and I can easily ignore it but I know I’ll pay for it later if I slip too far into my isolated world. And, in addition to my own health, there are people in my life that apparently would also quite like to hear from me, and it’s important to reach out to them.
Solo endurance challenges are certainly prone to long hours that are best described as ‘slogging’. Hours when it feels like a true graft to keep going. But that graft is what keeps you going. It gives you a purpose and a focus. It’s why you got up this morning. It’s how you’re going to go to bed again tonight feeling satisfied. Without that graft mentality, you’re just sitting on a rock waiting for change (I have definitely done that, and in the backcountry it’s very ineffective).
Remind Yourself This Will One Day Be Just a Story You Tell People
I took this photo just after CP1 on the Silk Road Mountain Race. It was an important picnic stop for me because it was the exact location I camped two years earlier when I was halfway through my solo run across Kyrgyzstan.
That night on the run, I was overwhelmed and overjoyed in equal measures to be only halfway. It had taken me 12 of the hardest days in the mountains I’d ever experienced to get there, and the loneliness was already driving me crazy, and I was scared I didn’t have another 12 days in me.
When I passed that patch of grass two years later, I smiled and laughed at my old self, remembering how she whimpered and got scared, but in fact, the second half of the run got stronger every day and she managed to get to the finish and felt incredibly proud of herself. The mountains looked so much smaller the second time around. Funny that.
Up until that point on the race, I had been scared again and totally overwhelmed at the scale of the challenge, but when I saw that patch of grass I remembered one thing: no matter what happens, in a couple of weeks I’ll be back at home, hanging out with my friends and telling them all about my race – no matter the outcome. I will definitely get home, and these will all just be stories one day. That calmed me down a lot.
Never Quit While You’re Crying
This was my first big adventure lesson. I had crashed my bike and thought it was broken and my adventure was over. I sat down and had a massive meltdown (luckily only a forest was around to see this). Long story short – my bike was completely fixable, it just turned out that I was pretty sleep-deprived and hangry at the same time. The perfect conditions to have a meltdown over a twisted handlebar (please don’t judge me – I had been a cyclist for about two whole weeks at this stage, and my multi-tool had yet to be christened).
During my meltdown, I had been utterly convinced that the adventure was over. A failure. I would have to go home that day. But after a decent snack and a bit of a timeout, I calmed down, properly assessed my problem, fixed it, and then got back on the saddle. I’ve probably done this about a dozen times in various adventures, crying alone in a forest and certain that I’ve been defeated. It usually just turns out that I’m either hungry, exhausted, bleeding, scared, or some combination of any or all of the above. So I’ve made myself a promise: never quit while you’re crying. Sort things out and calm down first.
We’re all bound to have moments where this feels impossible. When it doesn’t feel like we’ll last another day. What I learned from my adventure meltdowns is to always first start with a snack, nap, and health check. Get out of crisis mindset. Then find a way to keep going.