Seeking Grand Challenges

I wanted to get my thoughts on why I’m doing this “Grand Round” out ahead of time, before they’re forever altered by the pain, joy, and experience of actually doing it. For my own sake as much as anything, I wanted them crystallized in writing and set aside for me to reflect on afterwards. Because honestly, I’m terrified. This is likely to be more challenging than even Barkley, and I haven’t been this terrified of anything I’ve attempted since my very first attempt at Barkley. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing; actually I’d say the opposite.

For those unaware, I’ve created a project that combines the UK’s three big rounds: Paddy Buckley, Bob Graham, and Charlie Ramsay. For a bit more background see: I’ll be doing the three of them consecutively, aiming for under 24 hours for each, and riding my bike in between them with a goal total time of under 100 hours. That’s about 185 miles of running with 84K feet of elevation gain over 113 summits, plus over 400 miles of biking.

The weather forecast has also taken a turn for the worse, but what good would a British fell running adventure be without proper British weather? Photo: Jack Atkinson

So why am I doing this crazy, rather arbitrarily defined thing? There are a few reasons, which all basically come down to exploring my own strengths, weaknesses, and limits, and doing it in a way that’s personally appealing to me.

If you’re just here for the tracker, you can find that here:

The tracker will only update every 30 minutes, though (to save battery), so in between those updates maybe read on below.

Create Your Passion

Races are great. They give you a chance to test yourself against others, and most of the organizational logistics are taken care of. I’ve competed in many events where that was my primary goal: to see how I stacked up against the best or to see what time I could get in a common distance. That definitely has its time and place, and having the event organized and planned for you is quite nice.

But to do those events we have to limit ourselves to the distances, venues, and types of events that others have decided to organize. I was a triathlete who hated swimming. Now I’m a mountain runner who loves cycling, in locations and over distances that don’t exactly fit the typical duathlon mold.

So what to do? I made my own challenge, with loads of mountain running and road biking. And I’m going to enjoy every last second of it. There won’t be any, “I can’t wait till I get through this section so I can get to the next part.”

Is it over? Can I do the fun part now?

Organizing and planning was much more difficult, and of course there’s no competition or points of comparison even, but that’s fine. It’s a personal challenge that I’ll immensely enjoy and take great satisfaction in if I’m able to complete it. I didn’t set this up to compare myself to anyone or anything else.

So don’t just choose from the options set before you; if it doesn’t exist already then go create it yourself. It might not be easy, but unless the goal is to compare yourself to others there’s really no reason to stick just to organized races. Sometimes comparison is the goal and competition is definitely a great motivator, but other times you’ve just gotta have fun and remember why you chose the hobby in the first place. I’ll continue to do both: adventuring, exploring, and pursuing my passion through whatever excites me, but coming back to races to measure how far I’ve come and get that thrill of competition and the shared experience.

Adventure Is Everywhere

I’ve never lived in Colorado, or California, or anywhere that anyone would really consider a trail running mecca (outside of growing up next to Frozen Head maybe). With a family and a rather demanding job, I rarely even get to travel to the “big mountains” other than races. I trained for Barkley by running up and down a 95 foot hill for hours on end. But no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve found exciting adventures not far outside my door.

From organizing the Farm to Founders 50K before I left the DC area, to doing FKT attempts near my home, to hidden trails in the cities I’ve had to travel to for work, I’ve always sought to find adventure wherever I happen to be. If I can’t go to where it is, I find it or make it where I am.

Some might scoff at the idea of an ultra in Washington DC. Running from rural Maryland farmland through fields, forest, and a few hundred years of history to end at the seat of Mr. Lincoln? Pretty awesome.

So here I am living in the English countryside. I have some nice rolling hills around me, but no, it’s not the mountains. I’ve had great fun in those rolling hills, exploring the countryside and setting my sights on the big local adventures that those hills could prepare me for. The biggest I could think of? The rounds. All of them. There all sorts of big adventures I’ve had my sights set on for a while and that I still have hopes to do in the future. But right now? I’m here. And I’m going to make one heck of an adventure out of it.

Explore Your Unknown

Now we come to the most difficult part of this equation. Couldn’t I just spend a day biking and running around the Brecon Beacons? Yeah, and maybe I’ll do that at some point too and it’ll be great fun. But what really drives me for things like Barkley and for this project is a desire to explore what I don’t know about myself.

When I hit my absolute limits, and experience difficulties far beyond what can be encountered in everyday life, I learn things about myself that I could have otherwise never discovered. Subtle strengths become towering mountains, weaknesses I would be oblivious to become gaping chasms I’m forced to peer into, and limits that would be easy enough to go around become unscalable walls stretching from horizon to horizon. Extreme situations do not change who I am, they simply magnify what I already am.

I’m peering into some kind of chasm at least, and it’s definitely not something I’d find on a normal walk in the woods. Photo: Leon Lutz

When I go back to my everyday life I take that knowledge with me. I know how to better use my strengths, and how to improve as a husband, father, data scientist… in general as a person. Small changes, even subtle shifts in mindset, can make big differences especially over the long-term.

You could say, “oh what a first world problem that you have to create arbitrary challenges to experience that.” And yeah, that’s true. I’m not dealing with actual critical situations, or life and death circumstances. I certainly hope that one day no one has extreme difficulties forced upon them by their life. But if that day comes I also hope that people will recognize the value in stepping outside the comforts of everyday life and choosing to periodically experience those difficulties to learn who they truly are and how to become better.

So how far is too far? Well for me, I want to go just far enough to where I am able to have that type of experience. Where that line is will be different for everyone. But this is also where things tie back to my earlier two points: create your passion and adventure is everywhere. For me to reach that point where I truly am exploring my unknown, it has to of be something that’s not overly challenging to start (e.g. local) and be something that I’m passionate about. Otherwise, it’s too easy to simply quit before I reach my limits, and then afterwards wonder if that was my limit or if maybe I just didn’t care enough to go on.

What if I Fail

As mentioned at the outset, I am legitimately terrified of this project. Not in a I might die sort of way, but in a this might be an absolutely epic failure type of way. I’ve had other challenges where I’ve known I might come up short, but where I knew I’d at least get within reach of the bar. This one, not so much. I could trip and fall flat on my face before I even get within sight of the bar.

But again, I think having that kind of fear every once in a while is healthy. If my goal is to explore my unknown, it would be rather hard to do that if I knew what was going to happen. If failure is not a possibility, then it’s not a challenge, or a goal. It’s just a task. And I also get to learn how I respond to this sort of uncertainty, to be better prepared to succeed the next time or if I encounter it in every day life.

This would not have happened without 2 previous failures. And even if I had not ultimately succeeded, I would have never regretted those previous two ill-fated attempts. Photo: Alexis Berg

In the end, as long as I accomplish the 3 goals above: having fun, having an adventure, and learning about myself, then it will be impossible to fail. And if it takes me longer than 100 hours? That’s fine too, as long as I can get it in before all my support has to go home and I have to get back to real life. I just wanted some target to shoot for.

What if I Succeed

I’ve actually already had a big win just in learning about the new country I’m living in and the fell running community that created these rounds in the first place. I currently have over 30 people who have come forward to physically be there and support me in this crazy adventure. Most of these people, I’ve never even met.

With this being a personal challenge a big part of me wanted to do what I did for Barkley this year, and not tell anyone until right before or even afterwards. I knew I couldn’t do that for this, though. I needed local support, and I didn’t yet know enough people here to gather that privately. In the end, I’m glad it was that way.

These are people who are taking time out of their week to come run with or drive gear around for this crazy American they’ve never met. I am absolutely blown away by that and honestly a bit overwhelmed just thinking about it. This isn’t a “oh thanks so much for all the support it was really special and encouraging” type thing. I absolutely, 100% could not even attempt to do this without that support. If I do succeed, these communities own an enormous chunk of that achievement.

Most of this adventure will look like this. Me, flanked by some of the UK’s finest. Photo: Jack Atkinson

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