Why I walked for 12 hours. Marathon Training? A dare? No, Empathy.
My friend and I tried walking really far to develop empathy for people who need to walk far distances for life necessities, healthcare or safety.
I’m working on emm.health, so the issue of maternal health care has been top-of-mind.
The other day my friend and I wanted to walk really far. It was to try to develop empathy for women in rural Sub-Saharan Africa who walk hours roundtrip to receive care for their pregnancies. It was a 12h (!) walk. 50km / 31 miles. — The longest break was ~15 min. Some thoughts:
Note: We did not perfectly replicate the experience. But it was still a painful experience — and I learned a lot. Here are some of my raw thoughts on the “adventure.”
Ps. If you do decide to go on a 12h walk, I’d probably stretch a bit before :)
💥 First 10 km:
We started bright and early & walked nearby Lake Ontario. It was really beautiful and enjoyable. We had so many great, intellectual and philosophical conversations. “How hard could this be?”
We decided at the end of this walk that we’d grab some ice-cream from Tom’s Dairy Freeze — best ice cream in Toronto. (This becomes important later)
This was around 3hs in. My right foot started hurting and blistering, but we still didn’t take any breaks (yes, we’re crazy). Excitement/naivety was our fuel to KEEP GOING.
We didn’t think about the fact that we had 9h left, but we spent time celebrating all the progress we made so far.
It’s a lot easier to keep going when you celebrate the progress vs realize how far you still have to go.
This is when time slows down. I remember walking for what felt like 2 hours (km 15→16), then we checked the time and it had only been 20 minutes. We still had 10km till our halfway point. The whole time we just kept this in mind.
Relentless focus fuels momentum.
I wasn’t tired. I just felt so much pressure on my ankles. I was walking all funny because of my blisters. It was getting very, very uncomfortable.
But, it’s way too easy to lean in and become a victim of discomfort.
Instead, my friend and I started talking about all the great things we had during the walk. Like our access to sunscreen, filtered water, comfortable shoes, and so on.
Instead of thinking “this hurts” we would try to think “I’m grateful for x.”
It’s hard to complain about your walk when you know 99.99% of people that (involuntarily) go on long walks don’t have 99.99% of the things you do.
This part was also difficult because we were walking straight with no direction. We had no idea where we were going, only that we were walking east until we reached 25km. Our path was “ambiguous.”
We took our first break. FINALLY! It only lasted a few minutes, but it was still a break.
It was so comfortable to stand still and not do anything. So comfortable.
Then, it was go time — and getting up was difficult. The pain and pressure in our legs from 5ish hours of walking made each of these steps unbearable. But, we kept the 🍦 we’d consume in the next 6–7 hours top of mind.
The hardest part about breaks is getting the momentum re-going. We tried getting up, walked a few hundred metres but we just got tired and needed to go back to that comfort of standing.
It was hard to get back the speed/effort we were going at before our break.
After failing at re-starting our momentum several times, we changed our approach. We committed to not stopping for at least 1.5h. Gaining momentum was so much easier once we decided on a goal, together — and held each other accountable.
Once we did get the “groove” of going, it was easier to walk because we knew where we were going. We went down the same road we came up, but this time it felt easier because we recognized certain milestones. It’s easier to travel down the path of “certainty” vs “ambiguity.”
This part was hard — despite the more familiar path.
The pressure in my feet + legs was increasing in intensity. I’m pretty sure I got “walker’s high” several times from the endorphins travelling to my feet.
My friend and I reached the limping stage.
The neurons in my feet were FIRING; the blood in from my brain was rushing down to my feet.
I lost the capacity for my mind to wander because I was so focused on my foot pain. Each step required conscious control because my nervous system wanted me to stop.
When I really really focused on the “pain sensations”, they lost some of their significance.
It felt pretty cool to have a mind free of thoughts / totally present — even if it was present thinking about excruciating pain.
This part of the walk was pretty blurry (as I said, blood flowed out of my brain into my feet). All I can really remember is focusing on my feet and shutting down all the thoughts in my mind. Including the ones that were screaming “UBER HOME.”
We walked (slowly) for ~12km before taking another break. We sat in front of the lake and dipped our feet in the freezing water. It was nice to “feel” sensations in our feet.
We were intentional about walking long distances and “working” for our breaks. It makes them so much more enjoyable.
Most of our walk was flat, until this point. There were stairs and hills — both uphill and downhill. It was a whole new challenge. We slowed our pace down by 50% — we walked in funny ways — we held onto each other to stay “balanced.” Having “ice cream” as our end goal kept our motivation going.
I think I even cried a little at this point.
11 hours and 34 minutes later we made it to the ice cream place. There are no words in the English language to describe the pleasure I felt consuming my medium-twist-soft-serve-dipped-in-caramel-with-Skors-on-top-in-a-cone. There’s no emoji to describe my enjoyment of this ice cream.
We had the last 2 km before getting back home.
I’ve spent almost 17 years in my body, and I’ve never felt so pained than at during this walk moment. All my leg bones felt bruised. W/ the help of hype 2010s 😎 music we arrived 🏡.
- Celebrate your progress. (Think: yay! I did 3 h > yay! I have 9h left)
- Progress is easier in chunks w/ milestones.
- Getting up will be hard. Set intentions that force you to “get in the groove”
- Focusing on the pain makes it seem less significant.
- The best way to remove distractions are to focus on what matters (e.g. taking a step forward).
- Bodies are so powerful!
- Friends & relationships are important; they help us push through our craziest adventures.
I’m so privileged that this is a novel experience/story. Walking far, even if it’s not 12h, is a reality for so many people. Whether it’s girls fetching water, refugees fleeing their country or a farmer trying to sell food in a market far away.
It’s a privilege to be able to even walk. It’s a privilege to not need to walk far distances.
It’s a privilege to walk every day without pain. I was talking to my grandma, describing the pain during the walk, and she said “that’s exactly how I feel when I walk” 🤯.
It’s also crazy that I can walk out of my house, as a young girl, and feel completely safe.
I learned about motivation and mental focus. But most of all I learned that the life I live is so far removed from the lives of most other people. I’m so lucky — and I need to figure out how to use all my privilege for good.