Mind Over Miles

Not every mile is created equal. Sometimes they fly by, while other times they stretch on endlessly. This perception is directly influenced by mindset. Staring down multiple backpacking routes over 7,000 miles, my mindset became a major tool and factor in my success. At the start of a difficult day, a race, or a long adventure, getting wrapped up in doubt is easy. The key to a successful mentality, however, is to break it down to manageable chunks.  

Try onX backcountry for free
Plan your route and visualize your journey with onX Backcountry. Try today for free.

Finding a Mindset Balance

Last year, I waited for the start of the Cocodona 250 race without a shred of uncertainty. My mind was not on the entire race length, but simply the first small chunk. It was only about 10 miles to the first aid station, and then my thoughts would shift ahead to the next. I would systematically work my way through a series of micro-goals and distances that would add up to the completion of the race. With no crew for the nearly four-day race, this was the only way my mind could accept the possibility of success. 

I operated on two different levels when attempting to set a record on Vermont’s 276-mile Long Trail. The overall goal was to finish the route unsupported in under six days. Each day was broken into its own goals—both stretch goals and minimum necessary. I had two great days where I reached my stretch goals and two poor days where I barely achieved the minimum necessary distance to keep my attempt at breaking six days alive. But, the overall effort was good enough for me to finish in 5 days, 23 hours, and 48 minutes.

The range and varying levels of goals allow me to avoid the spiral of a bad day (or hour).  Knowing that good and bad hours and days are all part of adventures is the best way to stay positive during an adventure.

Throughout recent ultramarathons, I have used the mantra, “It can’t keep getting worse.” Even in the lowest moments on multi-day races, this simple statement clears thoughts of ongoing negativity from influencing both my performance and enjoyment. 

A Broader Mindset

In 2018, I backpacked a 7,000-mile loop around the western United States. It connected five long-distance trails with a 700-mile cross-country section on a route I drew up myself. I hoped to finish the adventure in seven months, but thinking seven months down the road was unimaginable. So, I broke it up into much smaller chunks. Every three to six days required resupplying in a town along the way, and that is the furthest I ever thought ahead. Some days went well, while others were extremely difficult and frustrating, but with my eyes only on attainable chunks, I slowly chipped away at the more aggressive goal. With a few days to spare, all the micro goals eventually added up to me achieving the bigger objective. 

Even in reflection, some distances, days, and lengths of time are too difficult to comprehend. But, the bigger the goal, the easier it is to break down. This is the most essential part of planning.

-Jeff Garmire

Today, I am planning a long day in the mountains. There is only one water source during a ten-hour outing, so that is how I am breaking up my day. The route and the features dictate my plan, packing list, goals, and mindset. The first goal is to complete the 40-mile route, and the stretch goal is to break the current record. Since the route is very dry, my micro-goals are centered around the creek at about the midway point. This gives me two distinct segments and the ability to put one potentially rough section behind me and focus on the next. Casting away the negativity of a bad past segment is the key to performing on the next one. 

On the Arizona Trail record attempt, I told myself every single morning, “You can’t change yesterday and it is not yet time to worry about tomorrow.” It was a simple statement that helped me focus on being present and avoiding getting overwhelmed at the prospect of stringing together 15, 50-mile days in a row. And it worked.

Breaking Down Mind Over Miles

It is similar to a numbered to-do list. No matter how long the first mile of a run, hike, or race takes you, you can’t move on to the second mile until you finish the first. Instead of miles, I prefer to break my long days into segments or time periods. Even during a backpacking trip, I like to break the day into time segments. Maybe it is an hour, or maybe it is multiple hours, but this gives the day structure, and sets arbitrary success points along the way. 

Even when training on my local 9,000-foot Montana mountain, I have segmented the 4,000-foot climb into distinct sections. It is my way to internally acknowledge the progress toward the peak. It may only be a couple of hours roundtrip, but defining points of success and progress helps me stay present. It is my way to check off items and micro goals en route to achieving the larger goal.

Try onX Backcountry for free
Start your free 7 day trial to onX Backcountry today.

Jeff Garmire

Jeff Garmire is an endurance athlete with a flare for having fun while pushing the envelope. Jeff has 17 trail records ranging from the Arizona Trail to the Colorado Trail. He has backpacked over 30,000 miles, run numerous races including the Barkley Marathons, and is a published author.