“Success is not the absence of failure. Success is persistence through failure.” – Aisha Tyler
On Christof Teuscher’s blog, you can find a list of his “Selected Epic Failures.” Teuscher does not hide this list. In fact, he highlights it at the top of his ultrarunning page, just above his long list of Fastest Known Times (FKT), which is above his extensive list of Only Known Times (OKT), which is above his massive list of ultrarunning race results. His most recent failure listed is the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) speed record attempt in early September 2015. The Oregon Desert Trail has had a number of people hike its entire route. That number, however, is in the single digits. Teuscher was basically going to race the route. He did not finish, and failed.
In January 2016, Teuscher ran a FKT on the Octuple Dog Mountain route. In mid-March, he ran an OKT on the Joshua Tree Double Traverse. And on March 28 of this year, Teuscher won the White Mountains 100-mile race in Fairbanks, AK.
That right there is the essence of the adventurer. The willingness to bite off more than you can chew, taking a risk on yourself and your abilities, and testing your physical strength and your mental determination. And if you fail, or rather when you fail, you must possess the desire that helps you pack up your gear and try it all over again. That’s what sets the true adventurer apart from the rest.
Heather Anderson is another Northwest adventurer. The Bellingham, WA personal trainer holds the FKT for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). All 2,650 miles of it. She also set an FKT for the Appalachian Trail. That one is 2,190 miles long. A few weeks ago, in early April, she failed to finish the second loop of the Barkley Marathons, an inappropriately named 100-mile ultra, considered by many to be the most brutal race in the country. Perhaps not an “epic” failure, considering no one finished in 2015, (that’s not a typo, not a single participant finished the race in 2015, and only one person finished in 2016). Still, a failure. One that was only possible because Anderson was courageous enough to toe the line at a race where fewer than one percent of all participants have ever finished.
What drives adventurers like Anderson and Teuscher? What is the payoff for the suffering? Just who are these people, and how can the rest of us catch what they’ve got?
Tested by the Trail
The Oregon Desert Trail is 750 miles of beautiful, unforgiving wilderness, stretching through eastern Oregon’s Badlands to the Lake Owyhee State Park near Idaho. The ODT is also somewhat theoretical as far as trails go. There is a trail, on paper, but once on the ground, the ODT is mainly about a map and a compass. This is the trail that Teuscher, a professor at Portland State University, decided to tackle. On his own as a thru-hiker.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “thru-hiker,” it basically defines a trekker traveling from the start of a long-distance trail all the way to the end, with no time off and no sectioning of the effort. Self-supported thru-hiking, which Teuscher and Anderson both practice, involves serious planning. Supplies must be planted along the trail before-hand, mailed to different towns along the route, or procured along the way at a store or gas station.
“The fact that the ODT is right in our backyard and that it is a very challenging trail, really attracted me. I’m also a huge fan of deserts,” Teuscher said. “Compared to other long-distance trails, the ODT is extraordinarily challenging for a thru-runner, both physically and logistically. There are very few reliable water sources, the trail is extremely remote, 267 miles are cross country, there is a lack of cell phone coverage, and the environment is very unforgiving.”
Teuscher filmed his ODT effort and posted it online under the title, “Insignificance.” It’s an inspiring piece of work, even though he ended up having to end his attempt as he neared the halfway point. Perhaps it’s more inspiring because of that.
“I am intrinsically driven to push my limits,” said Anderson. “I’m happiest in nature and therefore, it is the perfect venue and compliment to the effort. Living fully each and every day is a victory in and of itself, both on and off the trail.” Anderson lives her words. In 2013, Anderson spent 60 days thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, averaging nearly 45 miles a day. In 2015, she made a 54-day, self-supported hike along the entire 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail. Anderson set another speed record with that effort. While many might succumb to weeks of challenging nature’s limits with no one but yourself as company, Anderson embraces the solitude. When asked how she copes, Anderson said simply, “I am happiest solo.”
When pondering these seemingly impossible, record-breaking feats of hiking and running, the first question for many runners would simply be, “why?”
“I think the question,” said Teuscher “should rather be ‘why not?’ I always had a passion for extremes. Ultra-endurance running allows me to discover things about myself. Running insanely long distances gives you an opportunity to see yourself and find out who you are.” Teuscher has had many such opportunities, recording the OKT for arduous routes such as the Hells Canyon Traverse, Mt. Adams to Mt. Hood Challenge, and Mt. Defiance to Dog Mountain.
What inspires Teuscher to not only dream up and create these journey-quests, but also plan, design and achieve them?
“The question, ‘Where are the limits of what’s humanly possible?’ is deeply interesting to me,” said Teuscher. “And while these adventures are certainly daunting in many aspects, they open doors to an entirely new and unexplored world of experiences that you simply do not have access to when you do ‘normal’ things.”
There is nothing either simple or straightforward about thru-hiking for days, weeks or months on your own, with nothing but desire pushing you forward. Whether sleeping on the hard ground in the open air, fighting bugs and wildlife, running through dust and wind, or surviving for weeks on energy bars and stale water, what gets an adventurer like Anderson through to the finish?
“It’s a mindset really, to know that there will be a lot of difficult times, but to accept that and not let them affect your drive,” said Anderson. “I also know that despite the rain, cold, and pain, the worst day in the wilderness is always far better than the best day out of it.”
Teuscher understands that you’ll face those obstacles going in and there is nothing to do but try to be ready to fight through it. “You do that kind of challenge for a purpose, you prepare, and you are extremely motivated by the adventure,” said Teuscher. “But once you are in it and things become tough, every reason will be good enough to consider giving up. It needs a conscious effort to remember why you started. The mental aspects are also more difficult because you have no one to talk to, no one who encourages you. It’s you, and only you. But again, there’s a beauty and pureness in that approach. There are no shortcuts. You have to face your inner demons and learn how you can overcome them physically and mentally.”
Make an Adventurer
While it can be daunting to read about the truly epic adventures that athletes like Anderson and Teuscher partake in regularly, that doesn’t mean that such journeys are beyond the reach of normal athletes. First and foremost, remember that failing is not a conclusion, but a step. The adventurer is someone who completes a goal. Whether that completion comes on the first or seventh attempt is not vitally important. Second, be realistic. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or Oregon Desert Trail is a serious endeavor and should be worked toward, not started with. Find a hike that can be done in a day and start there. Finally, just start. Don’t wait. You don’t need to be on the trail tomorrow, but you could buy a map. You could sign up for a trail race as training. You could find those boots that are buried in the closet. You could start.
Make an adventurer of yourself.