Ryan and I are athletic, but we are NOT professional athletes. We have never competed in any kind of organized race including marathons, ultramarathons, nor a 10 k. So what compelled us to average a marathon per day for 14 days straight?
Seriously. We did not willingly choose to take on such a daunting objective. We had a goal and chose to adapt to our situation rather than have an out and calling it quits. What I’m referring to is our 420 KM Iceland expedition that ended up tacking on over 100 KM extra. Using Google Earth as our only reference, we mapped out our entire route thinking we only had a maximum of 300 KM to walk. To our surprise, and dismay, that route turned out to be incredibly off base. Hitting our pre-planned daily pinpoint targets was nearly impossible. What was supposed to take only one day often quickly turned into a two day haul, sometimes even three days.
We really did not want to ration food so we made the decision that we would just walk for longer each day. Our days went from 10 hours to 15 hours real fast. We were hauling as hard as we could and putting every ounce of what we had left in us into each step. Just when the days would start to feel long, weather greeted us and always had something in store. Sometimes we would experience all four seasons in the span of 2 hours. Mother Nature would roar her brains out and shower golfball sized hail stones down on us. It really felt like she was trying to get the best of us.
It is by no means a stretch of the imagination when I say that our Iceland expedition was the most mentally and physically tough challenge we had ever experienced.
So, how did we keep it together when we just wanted our joints to stop crying and the pain to end? How did we keep walking after getting cold rashes on our legs from sub zero glacial rivers or blisters on our feet bigger than our toes?
No, literally oreos! Ryan and I relied on the cookies so much that we created a little acronym about how we were able to get this expedition done.
(Side story, we came across a few mountain huts along the way that sold Oreos so we would seriously eat them as some of our meals so we could preserve all of the food that we could).
Alright, enough cookie talk.
OREOS stands for Objective, Resilience, Empower, Optimism, Strength. These five words truly did allow us to complete our mission and kept our heads up when times got tough ( which was all of the time).
Not only does objective refer to the actual mission of the trip, it refers to knowing your ‘why’ and always keeping it in the back of your mind. I learned this practice from my mentor, ultra-marathoner, Leanne Richardson. Leanne always knows her why and uses it as the fuel to keep going when times get hard out on the course.
In our case, our ‘why’ was Iceland’s Highlands. It was the very environment that we were walking through. It was the ground beneath each step we took, remembering how vulnerable it is to human threat. There is nothing that compels you to protect a place more than reminding yourself you are just a passenger voyaging through a potential once- upon- a- time wilderness oasis.
We had a job to do. Not only were we walking to raise awareness, we were also filming ourselves doing it to assist the Highlands Project to create noise so their government will listen. When times got tough we no longer had to get through for ourselves, we had to keep moving for the planet.
If I had to pick one word to sum up our expedition it would be this one. We pretty much had every obstacle thrown in our way. Going from 25 km walking days to over 50 km, injuries and unpreventable blisters, learning that there was no way to get our food supply to our pre planned drops, the list goes on. We had so many hurdles and set backs that could have prevented us from continuing.
Crossing rapidly moving glacial rivers at 2:00 AM during a rainstorm and having to camp out for 3 days to combat injuries so we could finish the last 80 km were two of my biggest obstacles. These were moments where that inner voice of self doubt came out and broke me down. It called me unspeakable names and made me question myself and my actions.
I heard and listened to the voice, but then I would get a spark of my true self and remind myself how badly I wanted to accomplish this. I knew there was no way out. I told myself that I would live off of plain Lays chips for 7 days straight if that meant we could have enough food to finish our expedition.
There was no way we were giving up.
I am so thankful to have had my partner, Ryan, with me on this expedition. I truly have an appreciation for people who are able to do these kinds of things solo. It helped having the person I love with me and we were really able to get each other through. Ryan didn’t even know how much he helped me until the expedition was over and done.
I was able to get through because of his belief in me which made me believe in myself. I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ but I felt like I suffered from it often during the trip. When the journey got difficult, I would say things like “I’m not an athlete!”, or “how can someone like me be doing something as crazy as this?”. Ryan would always respond positively with comments like “well, you did an ultramarathon yesterday, did you not?”
I would laugh and shake my head in disbelief but it was truly those comments that reassured me that someone like me CAN dream big and accomplish their goal.
Even if you don’t have a partner to empower or who can empower you, saying nice things to yourself while you’re out on your journey makes a huge difference. Treat yourself like you would treat a friend. Would you ever tell your friend that they are weak and out of their mind for attempting such a wild objective? Most likely you would not. You are allowed to experience self doubt but remember to pick yourself up and keep moving even if it’s at a slower pace.
Optimism is a funny one. This word can make or break your expedition because if you have too little of it, it’s a game ender but if you have too much of it, things can get dangerous. A healthy balance of optimism and realism is the key ingredient to a successful expedition recipe.
Being too optimistic can lead people to put themselves in dangerous situations because they didn’t properly assess the risk. Knowing the risks, your capabilities, and being prepared will combat this.
Ryan and I are naturally optimistic people so there was never a moment where we didn’t think we had a chance of crossing the island. I appreciated this characteristic after the fact because I know how damaging negative talk and disbelief can be. If you don’t believe you will be successful, you most likely won’t be.
For this expedition specifically, it really came down to our mental strength. I personally believe that mental strength is trainable and it is something you can work on and get better at. For me, mental strength was the combination of OREO. Knowing our objective, being resilient, empowering one another, and being unapologetically optimistic truly built the foundation.
Mental strength is difficult to train without putting yourself in uncomfortable situations to achieve a goal. You know you’re mentally strong when you feel like the world is working against you but you don’t let that stop you from getting the job done.
I hope you can take this acronym and apply it to your own journeys. If there is anything I have learned from our Iceland expedition, it’s that you are so much more capable than you think you are. Whether you want to run a marathon or achieve a first ascent, you have the power within you to accomplish whatever it is you put your mind to.