In just over a week I will be heading north by train with a couple of friends to take on the famous West Highland Way trail up in Scotland. I think it’s fair to say that over the last few weeks I have grown increasingly anxious about this. And you’ve noticed. The other evening I had a small melt down over my new backpack and posted such on twitter, and have since had a whole host of super helpful messages from friends and family. I wrote versions of those tweets many times and didn’t post, eventually giving in hoping that someone might come back with an encouraging response. You did, and I’m grateful for that.
Trying out my pack on the trail for the first time. Thanks Jenni for the pic.
It might be a bit of an odd post to write on my blog, but I thought I’d turn to words to explain myself a little. I’m hoping this will help me sort through some of the worries in my own mind, but might also help anyone else who suffers with similar concerns, and demonstrate to those who think that outdoorsy people with huge bucket lists don’t struggle with this stuff that we really do.
I am an anxious person at the best of times. Worry and worrying is a part of who I am. I don’t hide this, I can’t, it’s so completely obvious, especially when I’m getting ready for something big. I know what is happening and I know it is normal for me. And, probably most importantly, I know what my coping mechanisms are. I am a planner, an organiser. I write things down into lists and get things done in plenty of time to try and curb some of the worry that can otherwise become crippling.
And so, over the last few months, I have spent hours and hours researching everything to do with the West Highland Way hike. The hike that I am about to do at the end of next week. The hike that is the longest hike I will have ever done. The hike that will see this 30-something year old pretend she is a teenager again. I have read the guidebook several times, have studied the route, read blogs from others who have done the hike, reached out to groups of cool people on facebook and twitter to ask advice, learnt all about the equipment I need (and want), have tested my set-up, and done a whole load of thinking in an attempt to make sure I am ready for whatever the trail will throw at me.
I mean, they say you cannot over prepare, don’t they?!
Phone. Map. Pack. Thanks Jenni for the pic.
Even with hours and hours of reading, writing lists, shopping, packing and repacking, I still don’t feel planned or organised. In fact, I feel awful. I look at the pile of stuff in my spare room and it ties my stomach in knots. I think about getting all my maps prepared but I can’t face it. I feel out of my depth, like I’m punching above my adventure weight. When I read the amazing things that other people are doing with seemingly little or no effort, and the amazing kit they have to do it with, I feel like a complete impostor.
Here’s the thing. I’m not actually worried about the hike. I consider myself a seasoned hiker, I know what I’m doing when I’m hiking, it’s comfortable, it’s my happy place. I might have never done the total distance before, but I know I can; in my mind I’ve broken it down into several day hikes, and I know can do long day hikes. It probably should be the thing that worries me, but actually what I’m worried about is everything else. And I mean everything else: eating enough, running out of water, getting cold, being uncomfortable, carrying my pack, smelling bad, having to wear wet pants because they didn’t dry out over night, not sleeping, getting belly ache, wishing I had different boots on, crying, getting blisters, hurting myself badly, having to quit, not enjoying it. While I can hopefully reduce the chance of a lot of those things from happening (although if anyone can recommend some good value but quick drying pants/briefs/boxers I’m all ears), I won’t know if my preparations have been any good until I actually get out and hike.
Muddy and wet testing out my new boots and poles.
And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a post about quitting or saying that I’m not going to do it. The West Highland Way has been on my list for a long time and I’m so pleased that Jenni and Chelsea share the same dream. I’ve driven and ridden the A82 in Scotland alongside Loch Lomond and over Glencoe countless times, and every time I look across the vista wishing I was walking. I’ve stopped at the Mountain Centre and seen the snake of people wind their way down towards King’s House. And I’ve stayed in Fort William and watched people celebrate the end of their West Highland Way journey. I am definitely doing this hike, I am excited to do it, it’s going to be amazing.
These are simply words to explain how easy it is for anxiety to spiral out of control and turn what should be an exciting build up into a feeling of nausea whenever the name of the hike is mentioned. I’m not asking for sympathy, I’m definitely not asking for pity, I just want to describe the mood, and provide some kind of excuse for what felt like a huge melt down over where my hips are in relation to my shoulders!
It’s not even that big of an adventure. As far as through-hikes go it’s a baby, an entry level event. It doesn’t propel me up into the higher echelons of adventure land, and isn’t going to be the subject of a bestselling book. But it is my adventure, and everything that I experience in the run up and during the hike is part of that. However frustrating I might find it!
Looking out over Cheddar Gorge. Thanks Steph for the pic.
Going back to my tried and tested coping mechanisms, I’ve written another list. This time it’s a short list of things I need to remember when I’m thinking about – and doing – the West Highland Way. Maybe it’ll be useful to you for whatever adventure you’re planning, too.
Everyone’s Journey is Different
I might be walking a route that is super popular – thousands of people have hiked it before me, and doing it with two lovely friends Jenni and Chelsea, but this version of the West Highland Way is mine and mine alone. The equipment I carry, the views I see, the experiences I have are totally down to me. Everyone is different and everyone encounters things in a different way. The only person on my West Highland Way journey, the planning and the preparations, and including the hiking, is me. Something that worries me will not worry someone else, something that worries someone else will not worry me. We are all different and that is what makes life interesting. I must remember that this is my adventure, my journey, my experience, and look forward to telling the stories of the things that happened when it’s done.
Things Get Better with Time
Sean Conway said something interesting at the South West Outdoor Festival the other weekend that struck a chord with me. He said, and I paraphrase because I didn’t write it down at the time: “The first day of any new adventure is generally horrible. You’re stressed, everything is all over the place, you struggle with your body and mind. But then you realise it’s wonderful. You work out how you need to have things, get into a rhythm, relax, and smile. The trick is to not worry at the stress of the first few miles, or the first night, and just go with it. Don’t add to it by getting angry, just know it is normal and it will be enjoyable soon.” He’s right. I have found exactly this before, especially last summer when we did our Zartusacan road trip when it took us a few days to sort ourselves out and then we were pros! I know I will be stressed with the preparation and lack of time to do everything I want to do. My pack will feel heavy on the first day, I will put my tent up wonky on the first night, and I won’t be able to get it back in my pack the next morning. But then it will all fall into place, the walking will be a pleasure, the evenings relaxing, and the food taste good. Time is wonderful.
Overthinking Leads to Sadness
Planning and preparing are both good and hugely important things when it comes to adventure. But overthinking is not. There is a huge difference between the two. Planning, being organised, having the right gear, knowing the route and making sure you are as prepared as you can be for the tough days, is vital to the success of any adventure. Many people fail because they didn’t do their research, wore the wrong stuff, or got lost. Overthinking, on the other hand, is a mind game that causes anxieties to rear their head and very quickly spiral out of control. You know, the worst case scenario problem. The mind is both a wonderful thing and a terrible thing – a clear head and open mind are the best companion to adventure, a busy and racing mind will only lead to upset and panic. Starting to overthink things? Take five. Breathe. Sing a song. Know it is happening and do something to stop the spiral.
Positive Thoughts Create Positive Things
I know it’s an old cliché, but a positive mental attitude really does help. Finding something to be positive about can turn an otherwise difficult day into a great experience. Yes, the weather or terrain or something else in front of you may mean an adventure is “character building”, but being able to focus on the good means that you will have a much better time in the process. Being positive, looking for the good, enjoying where you are right now rather than waiting for the end to celebrate, are so important in having a good time. Try to use positive language rather than negative, accept when things aren’t perfect but don’t dwell on them, learn from your experiences and see that as a benefit, be grateful for the good things you encounter, and focus on what you can see and feel right now. And remember, if all else fails, smiles are contagious; force one if you have to, and the load will feel lighter.
Smiling selfie at Cheddar Gorge.
I believe that life is all about the journey. Adventure isn’t just about the event or activity, it’s also about the planning and preparation. All this worry eating me up inside is part of my journey, and I am dealing with it, the best way I can. I just need to remember that I am not defined by my worry, and I can totally do this hike with a smile on my face!
I would love to hear from you on this topic. What are your coping mechanisms when you worry? What bothers you most when you’re about to embark on an adventure? What sayings or phrases do you recite to help you when anxiety takes over?