Walking till it hurts, then walking some more

The 17.5 mile walk that should have been 20 miles. Screecap by the author in Feb 2022.

I know from my prior forays into absurd physical hobbies that once you have conditioned your body to a certain degree, most of the rest of the challenge is in your mind. If you can run or walk a certain distance regularly, then doubling or tripling that distance occasionally is totally doable. The body can take it, but the mind has to be taught that the body can take it. The only way to do that is to push past your stopping point repeatedly. This will hurt.

I have learned to ignore discomfort and some pain if I want to achieve endurance goals. Well, really, any goals. And now I have an injury (plantar fasciitis) that makes me unable to figure out when to push through the pain and when to sit down. I have a vague notion that this is the definition of middle age.

It’s a confusing experience (which may also be the definition of middle age?). It feels like I’m always rolling the dice on whether everything will be fine or I’ll injure myself in ways that prevent me from walking for months. Walking at least an hour, ideally two, every day is critical for my mental health. I’m not going to avoid things where accidental injuries could happen, but I’d feel awfully stupid if I did something to myself that prevents me from walking for a long time.

This door, in an alley in Philly, seems confused about how locks work. Or maybe I’m confused about how doors work. Since the door is my age I feel its confusion deeply. Photo by author in Philly, Feb 2022.

Part 1: Missing the Goals, Twice

The idea was to get 50Km in two states — DE and PA — in 9 days. Two big Saturdays (20 and 25 miles, respectively) and clean up the remaining miles on other, easier days. Right now I’m walking about 45 miles a week and have done for over a year. The longest walk I’d done recently was 14 miles on a treadmill, so 20 should have been in easy reach, and 25 a doable stretch.

I had to bail out of both Saturdays at 17.5 miles, short of what should have been an easy goal. I expected it to hurt. I expected it to hurt a lot, even. By mile 13 my plantar fascia were telling me that if I ever wanted to walk again I should sit down for the rest of the day, and possibly for the rest of the decade. Walking 6 or 7 miles a day is a very different thing to gutting out the last 4 or 5 miles in pain, with too little food, with a bad mental game….doing basically everything wrong on something so simple.

It’s embarrassing to admit that I walk so much yet I clearly do not know how to walk so much all at once. Walking is a strange challenge — at once the most natural thing to most of us, so easy we don’t even think about it, and yet, over a prolonged period of time, very alien. You do not get lots of walking miles over with quickly. You get lots of miles over six, seven, eight or more hours of steady movement. It is not the miles, it’s the duration. It’s not the walking, it’s the having to think so much about the walking — a thing I never have to think about.

So….could I have finished the 20 miles? Should I have? Was I right to quit?

I rationalized so hard. I thought: “if I’m wrong about the pain and I destroy my tendons, then I will have wasted the trip and I’ll be recovering for months. Why risk it?” I thought: “isn’t it better to go home at a respectable distance and walk again tomorrow?”

These are sane and adult thoughts. These are thoughts that will allow me to keep walking for a long time. These are thoughts that I need to have to get rid of this evil injury.

These are thoughts that I regret, second-guess, and feel lousy about.

Part 2: The Lure of Hurting On Purpose

There’s something exhilarating about pushing through the pain and hitting a goal. Recently I had a 14 mile training walk scheduled. There was an epic blizzard outside so I did the training walk on the treadmill.

Five hours on a treadmill is something I do not recommend for anyone, ever. But I just felt phenomenal when I finished it. It was hard, mentally and physically. It hurt worse than anything I’d remembered doing voluntarily. I had set a goal, I had pushed through the pain, and I accomplished my goal. Endurance stuff feels amazing when it’s over.

I’m not saying that to valorize it — the opposite, in fact. It can be deeply unhealthy. Ignoring pain signals is fine when they’re just signalling discomfort (at change, or insecurity, or pushing past physical boundaries, or whatever), but troubling when they’re more than that. The more we ignore the harder it is to distinguish discomfort from a real problem.

In most areas of my life, I literally do not know whether to stop or keep going. I find it impossible to determine if my body (or mind) are about to break, or are just complaining about something transitory. And in a way that’s part of the appeal of pushing into pain on these walks…it’s a type of slow moving risk taking. Will this time be the one that breaks me for good?

Part 3: Embracing the Joy, Embracing the Suck

I did several shorter walks in Wilmington (DE) and Philly, anywhere from 3 to 9 miles, and they were frankly just joyful. I got to see things that I could then introduce to other people. I found cool art. I exchanged smiles with folks on their porches. I just absorbed new stuff, which is one of my favorite things in the world to do. I didn’t hurt. And I easily accumulated the 50K that was my excuse for going to these places to begin with.

The kind of detail you’re unlikely to find unless exploring by foot. Sculpture in a Wilmington DE neighborhood. Photo by author, Feb 2022.

The longer walks were great for the first 10 or 12 miles, too. Amazing stuff to see, stuff you can’t see unless you’re on foot. Stuff you’d never notice if you were moving faster than a walking pace. Stuff I filled my camera with and will remember fondly when I come across it years from now.

So why not just focus my walking on the joyful bits? Why this obsession with long walks, this nagging fixation on enduring the entire 50K in a single day? I know damn well that there will be little joy in it and a fair amount of pain as I get my body used to the distance. But I need to do it. I need to know I tried. I need to keep trying until I succeed.

50K over a few days is optimal for really being in a place. The world expands at a walking pace when I can really be present. I see so much, so many details, so many people, and I totally forget myself. I couldn’t mistake a shorter walk in one place for that same distance anywhere else in the world, because every step offers something new to showcase the uniqueness of wherever I am. There’s a wonder in it, a discovery, an openness.

50K in a single day — at least, for me right now and for probably the next year or more — narrows the universe to my own experience. I can’t see much beyond completing the distance. I could be anywhere in the world because every step is just a step that must be taken. There’s a closing in on the self that constricts my awareness down to a small tunnel where the only things that exist are the goal, and whatever it takes to get to that goal.

The more I push myself toward the goal that doesn’t bring joy, the longer my joyful walks can be. By pushing through discomfort to be able to walk further and further, I expand the amount of time I’m able to be expansive, wondering, and joyful. Perhaps learning to balance the confusion of knowing that discomfort allows more joy, but not yet knowing how much pain is too much, is the true definition of middle age. In which case, I look forward to the wisdom on the other side of this journey.

I have set myself a goal of completing at least 50Km in all 50 states by the time I’m 50. To acknowledge that I’m traveling on land that was stolen from others, I am donating $500 to the First Nations Development Institute for each state I complete.

Thank you for reading and supporting me on this journey. If you’re able to chip in — for your state, or for all 50 states — you’ll help me double the impact I’m able to make on my own.

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J Taylor

J Taylor

Freewalker with a goal of walking at least 50Km in all 50 states by the end of my 50th year.