A Hiking Big Year anytime soon?: Part 1

That’s me, trudging across one of the high fells in the Lakes District, as part of the 300-km Coast to Coast just completed in England. We took 16 days, we met one man doing it in 11, most seemed to hike from the Irish Sea to the North Sea in 12 to 17 days. This is my third fifteen-day-plus “through” hike. What did I learn about myself?
Do I appear to be enjoying myself? The two-and-a-half weeks were a kaleidoscope of British scenery, from cowshit farm fields to high tarns to rock scrambles to bleak moors to quaint villages. We were fortunate to have clement weather, although I had to admit that the isolated gloomy/rainy/misty days were thrilling, evoking something uniquely British. I felt a sense of journeying, gradually chewing up the miles across a country, spying what lay ahead while glancing over a shoulder at our conquered territory. One distinct pleasure was the progression of B&Bs/pubs/hostels, with their fulsome breakfasts, accompanied by nightly “reward” dinners, mostly in pubs, nearly always with wine or beer. The company was avuncular and easygoing. The hike was robust – on average we walked just over 20 kms a day, 5 to 10 hours depending on the terrain – and demanding at a very basic level, namely that of keeping leg and foot in shape. But only three of the days really taxed me, so by one reckoning the CtC was not a full challenge – how did that affect my experience?
Two days after scrubbing my boots clean, the ultimate conclusion to a hike, I’m plagued by an unreasonable disquiet. I cannot fault the journey, but here’s the rub: I’ve always yearned, or thought I was yearning, for the big challenges, what I’ve been labelling as a future Tough Hikes Big Year. We’re talking intense physical exertion, navigational intricacies, an element of riskiness verging on danger. Yet the Coast to Coast was quite manageable, thank you very much, and I loved it. Am I changing in what excites me about hiking?

A Music Big Year . . . When?

I’ve begun reading 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, by renowned music critic and biographer Jon Savage. It deals with my formative period – I was 11 in 66 – and rock music, the love of my life. Savage writes early on:

It was a time of enormous ambition and serious engagement. Music was no longer commenting on life but had become indivisible from life. It had become the focus not just of youth consumerism but a way of seeing, the prism through which the world was interpreted. ‘This isn’t it for me’: that simple, defiant cry, delivered by John Lennon, the most famous young person on the planet, echoed throughout 1966. Success wasn’t the be-all and end-all; it was possible to conceive of an alternative future, to believe that things could be different, that people could be free.

But I’ve been away from home nearly two months and took no music with me. What, no music at all? Something is wrong, very wrong. I am planning a Rock Music Big Year, listening to many, many new-music albums, but the plan isn’t for action until quite a few years down the road. Should this big year be sooner?

Pretend . . . or do a Big Year

Let’s pretend we can scale the Matterhorn. Let’s pretend we can swim the English Channel. Let’s pretend we’re at Everest Base Camp. Let’s pretend we’re Euan McGregor crisscrossing the world on a motorbike. Hey, let’s imagine we’re running through Death Valley.

Now let’s not. Let’s not pretend. We’re just human and ordinary and ourselves. But we can aspire to be a little better at something meaningful to us. And . . . why not do it daily for a full year?

That’s a Big Year.

Duhigg’s habit loop: Cue, routine, reward

What is a habit, beyond the dictionary kind of definition? According to Duhigg, it’s a loop of cue, routine, and reward, a loop that if repeated ossifies into “a powerful sense of anticipation and craving.” The brain automates. By understanding this loop, Duhigg insists, “you can fiddle with the gears.” Early on in the book, he specifically mentions two areas of habit close to my heart:

This explains why it’s so hard to create exercise habits, for instance, or change what we eat. Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch, rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside our heads. By the same rule, though, if we learn to create new neurological routines that overpower those behaviors—if we take control of the habit loop—we can force those bad tendencies into the background . . .

Over the decades, I’ve exercised reasonably regularly, but never, repeat, never habitually. Will my Jogging Big Year instil a genuine habit? I’m hopeful.

Might you do some walking, a Big Year even?

Suppose you’ve let yourself go a bit, or maybe a lot, so much so that a tendril of terror rests in your gut whenever a shopping trip leaves you a bit exhausted. You tell yourself to “do regular walking” but each attempt peters out. Life “is too busy.”
What would a Walking Big Year look like? So many options suggest themselves! What if you were to decide to walk thirty minutes, on a prescribed route (let’s call it the Honey Blossom Road circuit) from home, every single day of 2017, from January 1 to December 31? Too easy, eh?
Plan out your Honey Blossom Road Big Year. Is thirty minutes exactly the right challenge, or should you go longer (surely you’ll grow in strength and confidence) or shorter (let’s make squeezing this in a breeze)? How will you measure progress – crossing off calendar pages or employing Strava? What about travel intervals – take a break or (you think not) come up with an equivalent walk wherever you are? What about 40 degrees or windstorm – be clear with yourself.
Over the rest of 2016 you walk now and then, tweaking the concept. You inform some friends, not others. What about Sunday, January 1, 2017, the day after the big New Year’s Eve bash, the day the hordes descend upon you for a BBQ? You steel yourself and actually set an alarm for 8 AM on the Sunday and drag yourself around Honey Blossom Road. Tick one.
As January melds into February and into March, the novelty wears off. You’d decided to walk in the best part of the day, just before lunch, but your busy life threatens and stresses, so you’ve switched to 7 AM. It can seem boring, except sometimes it feels transcendent, not often but maybe enough. In May, a family crisis derails you until 11:38 PM and the rain is pissing down – with the greatest reluctance, you amaze yourself by walking in the dark with a head torch! Can you believe it?
July stresses you because that Intrepid Tuscany tour in August surely requires a Big Year break. Instead your husband urges you to keep it up during the tour, so, quite ludicrously, on August 24th you find yourself setting a 4 AM alarm and walking half an hour from your airport hotel. That night, you reflect how much springier you are on your feet than the other tour participants (including your husband) and you turn down the tiramisu dessert.
In September you trip on your grandson’s tractor and bang the right middle toe. You limp Honey Blossom Road. The physio offers you the choice of a week’s rest and your truculent riposte startles you. With seemingly the greatest of ease, you add half an hour’s stretching to your routine – my God, you’re regularly rising with the dawn! Your original Honey Blossom Road loop amounted to only a little over a kilometre over the half hour, and you’ve steadily added little extras and detours, so by now you’re clocking up two kilometres a day. You began marking ticks on a sheet of paper, now you’re Strava’ing like a champ, and it tells you your accumulated 2017 kms are 467. After a lunchtime Prosecco on September 30, you suddenly aim to walk 800 kms by December 31 – Honey Blossom Road now means an hour on the road, sunshine or rain.
A funny feeling fills you on December 31. There’s nothing special about the walk – it’s a mild New Year’s Eve day and the fact that you need to cover an hour and a half to clock up the final 800-km prize is no imposition – but you’re simultaneously yearning to take a break from the yoke of the daily trudge and almost weeping with anxiety about tomorrow. You drink too much at a rooftop party.
January 1, 2018. The head pounds. You’re miserable throughout the BBQ. At 4:36 you sneak out the back, lace up your Brooks walkers (you upgraded), and enjoy the New Holland Honeyeaters (you know seventeen garden birds by now) in Honey Blossom Road.
After family has gone, sitting with hubby in front of the television, you pull out that embroidery you began in 1985. “2018 is a Craft Big Year,” you announce, almost apologetically.

Diet is the new sin

Yes, diet seems like how Catholicism treated (and still does?) sex – the taboo we lie about, feel most guilty about. For me, what I eat and drink has been a source of existential exploration for four decades. I’ve previously posted that diet is NOT something my Big Year folly can tackle well, so why raise it now? Because I’m still groping. So here are words of wisdom from my friend Shane:

How much should one worry about this stuff? Maybe the most sensible approach is to hove to the basics: exercise, don’t smoke, pursue a whole foods, vegetarian/vegan diet

More from Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”

I continue to re-examine this wonderfully written book – can it teach anything fresh? He writes:

How do habits change? There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.

I find this sobering but realistic. After skipping sections on the “habits” of organizations and societies, subjects of little interest to me right now, at the tail end of the book I focus on his  “advice” chapter, but even then he counsels:

The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid change, right?

I first read “The Power of Habit” two years ago with precisely that hope in mind. “If only it were that easy,” writes Duhigg. “It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.”

I remain hopeful . . . more to come . . .

Cycle? Read this?

To you, the perennial non-cyclist, does cycling seem imbued with romanticism, the allure of effort, speed, ascent, ground covered, the world all around? It does to me. David Coventry’s The Invisible Mile fictionalises Australia’s participation (with one New Zealander) in the 1928 Tour de France. Our book group Novel Men struggled somewhat with the feverish eloquence of the author, but the novel sure does convey the risks and sacrifices of long-distance cycle touring!