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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Atkinson

The Endurance Hiker's Guide to Surviving the COVID-19 Crisis

Many of us are feeling isolated, struggling to work at home while taking care of our children, dealing with the fear or reality of being unemployed, worrying about the health of a loved one … the list goes on. Yet, we need to keep showing up. Our customers, colleagues, family, and friends all need us; perhaps now more than ever. So, how do we bring our best self when adversity is at its greatest?

I think endurance hiking (my favorite activity) has something to teach us. Endurance hiking is the task of scaling as many mountains and hiking as many miles as you possibly can without stopping. To give a sense of scale, my personal best hike is 35 miles with 24,000 feet of elevation change in 27 hours. Here are the five endurance hiking strategies that can help us be our best self while navigating the COVID-19 crisis.

1. The Morning Sets the Tone.

A strong start gets me primed for the long day ahead. I sleep in my car at the trailhead so there is no travel in the morning. My breakfast is ready so I can eat and go. Hours before sunrise, my backpack is loaded, my headlamp is on, and I hit the trail charged up and keyed in for the task ahead.

With so many of us working from home, it can be easy to sleep late, start working in our pajamas, or generally muddle about before starting our day. However, what we do and even what we think in the morning tends to influence our entire day. If we start the morning strong, we are bound to have a more productive and inspired day.

2. Control What You Can Control.

I am not in outstanding physical shape. The hardest part of endurance hiking isn’t physical; it’s mental. If I think about how tired my legs are, they become more tired. If I think about how many miles are left, anxiety sets in and I feel depleted. However, when I lock in on what I have control over – the next step, and then the next, and then the next – I have seemingly endless reserves of energy.

Perhaps the hardest part of dealing with the current crisis is all the unknowns. When will the economy open back up? When will my kids go back to school? Will I be laid off? We tend ruminate on all the bad things that may happen, but probably won’t. This saps our energy and productivity. If instead we focus our thoughts on what we can control right now, we tend to get more done and we feel greater vibrancy.

3. Breath Melts Stress.

After ascending the third or fourth mountain in a long hike the mere sight of another steep incline can create anxiety. To move past this, I focus on my breath … step, step, exhale … step, step, exhale. I am so focused on my breath it’s like there is no mountain, there are is no trail, there is no effort, there is only the breath.

The adversity we are facing every day because of COVID-19 can seem like an endless trail of mountains. Developing a meditation practice is a great way to build the muscle of connecting with our breath to reduce stress and build resilience. Alternatively, simply breathing slowly and deeply into our abdomen (not our chest) has a very calming effect. Try it the next time your stressed!

4. Gratitude Dissolves Suffering.

Inevitably, there is a point in each hike when my enthusiasm turns into suffering. Frequently, it’s when the sun starts to set. Will it ever end? Why am I doing this again? I’ve found I can let that go by turning to gratitude. I listen to the rustle of the leaves or the whisper of a nearby creek and say, “thank you.” Or I notice a fallen tree, a lonely wildflower, or a massive bolder and spend a moment to appreciate their uniqueness.

With COVID-19 we are grieving the loss of normalcy. There is no getting around that. Yet, we can lessen its grip on us by finding time each day to express what we are grateful for. It could be something simple like the sunny day, or something more meaningful like the health of our children. It all counts! Actively practicing gratitude is one of the most powering things we can do to improve our well-being.

5. One Mountain at a Time.

I came across a hiker who asked if I was camping out nearby tonight. I said no; I was heading back to the parking lot. He looked at me puzzled, glanced at his watch, said good luck, and kept hiking. His behavior prodded me to do that math. I started the hike at 4am. It was now 5pm. I’ll soon approach the half-way point. Yikes … I’m behind schedule … massively! I couldn’t allow myself to think about the 17 miles remaining. Instead, there was one mountain to summit; and then one more; and then the last one. And, at the peak of each mountain I celebrated. The next thing I knew I was done!

Many of us are in a “shelter in place” order to prevent the spread of the virus. We have no idea how long this will last. The thought of being isolated at home for so long can be daunting. It can help to orient our life in terms of weeks. Every Friday is a victory; another week in the bag; time to celebrate!

Final Thought: A Silver Lining

An interesting thing happens after each hike. There is a small shift in my sense of self. What I know I am capable of is now greater than before. I think this is true after doing any hard thing. When we are pushed beyond our previous boundaries, and we persevere, it changes us.

I hope this will be the silver lining of the COVID-19 crisis. It is an unprecedented challenge. Yet as individuals and communities we will rise to the occasion; and when the crisis passes, we will be a little different than before – a wiser, more resilient, more compassionate version of ourselves.

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