Do hard things – escape from “The Comfort Crisis”
There aren’t many people out on the streets this early.
It’s a humid, overcast morning, 7:45, as I shoulder my backpack and head northwest.
I’ve put a 12kg kettlebell, as well as a couple of large bottles of water, into the backpack. The sport, if you will, is called rucking.
It’s simple: you grab something heavy, and walk with it. It’s cardio for people who hate running, and weights for people who hate weights. All the cool kids are doing it.
And today I’ve got 33lbs on my back.
The pack feels heavy, but it’s manageable.
“It’s too bad Barcelona doesn’t have any hills”, I think. “Then I could really feel the burn.”
I look up the street past Arc de Triomf.
Actually, there are some hills. It’s just that they’re outside town, a few kilometers from here. I can see them in the distance, the line where the city ends and the forest begins, the church on top of Mount Tibidabo. It doesn’t look that far away.
Then again, everything changes when you’re carrying this much weight on your back.
“The Comfort Crisis” by Michael Easter
Part of my inspiration for this little adventure is a book called The Comfort Crisis, by Michael Easter, which explains how many of our modern health problems are products of a sedentary lifestyle.
The other part of my inspiration is the absolute disgust I feel at the current cultural trend which seems to celebrate laziness and weakness as if they were virtues.
Back when I had a day job, for example, it came to my attention that many of my coworkers would spend the whole weekend “bingeing” on movies or series. They’d sit in a dark room and watch movie after movie, apparently, from Friday evening until it was time to go back to work on Monday.
This was an activity they actually considered “fun”.
I also found, while attempting to socialize and explore the Spanish dating scene, that many people don’t exercise at all. If you suggest a ten-minute walk up the street, just for the hell of it, they mention that there’s a metro stop right over there, and we can take the elevator straight down to the platform. It’ll be much easier, they explain.
“Easier than what?” I used to ask. “How could anything possibly be easier than a 10-minute walk?”
My shock and awe at this perverse life philosophy came to a boiling point during the Covid-19 lockdown last year, when going outside to exercise was actually illegal. For MONTHS.
My social media feeds were suddenly full of people proudly staying home, watching Netflix in their jammy-jams, and declaring themselves to be excellent human beings for doing so.
“Dear Diary: I just spent another day eating Cheetos in bed. It’s really too bad that the world doesn’t have more people like me.”
For me, on the other hand, staying indoors all day is torture. And sitting in front of a screen “consuming content” for more than the length of an episode of Rick and Morty is like death.
But for many, laziness is a virtue – it’s something they aspire to do more of.
The bar for heroism is so low for some people.
In the (excellent) book The Comfort Crisis, Easter explains that modern life is very different from the type of environment we evolved to live in.
Many people, these days, spend virtually all their time indoors: driving from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned office, maybe stopping off at an air-conditioned gym to zone out on YouTube videos while riding a stationary bike.
Back on the ranch in Arizona, I remember that the high point of many people’s day seemed to be finding a parking spot just outside the grocery store. They’d announce it to their friends and families hours later, as if it were some sort of accomplishment: “I got the BEST parking space at the Safeway this morning!”
Most of the day is spent staring at one type of screen or another, either sitting or lying down. And the modern diet has very little to recommend it: a whole lot of processed carbs and fats – nothing like what our ancestors ate.
Of course, this abundance is mostly a good thing. Generally, people live longer than before.
But if we’re not careful, the abundance can also ruin our health.
One of the best lines from the book: “Being out of shape is the new smoking, only worse. Research suggests that smoking takes 10 years off a person’s life, while the combined effects of being unfit may take as many as 23.”
So yes, due to modern technology, you can survive a VERY long time in a medicated daze.
But you might be unhealthy and feeling terrible for most of that time.
Life, as they say, is hard if you live it the easy way… and easy if you live it the hard way.
Rucking on the streets of Barcelona
My goal for today’s rucking 33-pound rucking adventure is to go 5 miles – in other words, 8 kilometers.
(Sorry for the mishmash of metric and imperial measurements in this article. Move abroad for a few years and you’ll probably be confused forever, too.)
The fitness app on my phone announces each new kilometer in a robotic female voice. “Distance 3 kilometers. Current speed, 4 kilometers per hour. Average speed, 4.7 kilometers per hour.”
Soon I’m up in the Gracia neighborhood, and things are starting to get hilly.
The pack doesn’t even feel that heavy, as long as I keep moving. It’s only when I pick it up or put it down that it’s really noticeable. I stop for a coffee and some water on the edge of town, and contemplate my next move.
I’ve almost reached the 5-mile mark and I’m feeling fine.
Could I do those hills? Probably.
How far could I actually walk with this pack on?
I’m not sure. Without the pack I can walk 20 or 30 kilometers in a day without much trouble. Sometimes I do more – just pick two points on the map and walk between them.
It’s hard, of course.
But you know what else sounds hard? Being 40 and barely able to get up a few flights of stairs.
You’ve gotta pick one or the other, so choose wisely.
Collserrola Park is a natural area just outside Barcelona – it’s the hills I’m contemplating now – with pine forests and wild boars. European nature tends to have a bit more infrastructure than the stuff back home: it also has a few bars and restaurants, a couple of small outlying neighborhoods, and some train stations.
If I make it to Valvidrera Superior, I can take the train back home.
Or I could just stay on the flatter ground here, and take the metro from wherever. Taxis are cheap. I could just give up now, call it a day, and be in a taxi to the nearest Five Guys in about 20 seconds.
Walking up that hill sounds hard.
But then again, that’s the point.
Do hard things
My dad used to tell me the story of taking me to hike the Grand Canyon when I was a toddler.
I guess I did okay on some of the downhills, but couldn’t bring myself to walk back out. Instead of enjoying the hike, I insisted that my dad carry my two-year-old ass back up.
Two year olds aren’t usually great endurance athletes, but perhaps my dad didn’t know this at the time.
Anyway, he got his rucking in, that day, carrying a whiny ginger baby back up to the South Rim.
I don’t remember any of that, of course, but I’ve got proof…
Apparently, my dad gave up on taking me hiking after that, because the first hilly experience I actually remember was at summer camp when I was about 10. They took us to hike up part of Humphrey’s Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona. Only part of it. But I was woefully unprepared for such a challenge.
I soon found myself with a pukey feeling in my gut, huffing and puffing my way uphill, and last in the group – that pudgy loser who couldn’t handle a minimal exertion.
And I hated it.
I mean, I hated the hiking, but more than that, I hated being in last place.
So afterwards, I was that pudgy loser who was bad at basically every sport for the next several years.
But it didn’t stop me from trying. Doing hard things, I discovered, was actually sort of fun. I ran cross-country in school, biked around in the desert, and eventually came to enjoy hiking.
In the meantime, it was the 90s, and it was popular to be a “slacker”. Making any sort of effort was sort of lame, and “jocks” were – obviously – dumb.
I didn’t make the football team, and never became a jock. But when I decided, a few years later, to bike places instead of driving, people treated me like I was out of my mind.
Actually, though, biking was much more enjoyable: it made getting from point A to point B in my suburban desert wasteland into an adventure, rather than more climate-controlled boredom.
Eventually, I developed a strong aversion to sitting still for long periods, which made me sure I could never work in an office. More than one member of the slipper-socks-and-Netflix crowd has suggested that I have some sort ADHD, and should be heavily medicated so that I can act more “normal”, but (secretly) I think that wasting all your free time watching TV is the real mental illness…
I’m the healthy one, thanks!
And it’s not just culture that encourages people to sit around all day. The environment we live in also feeds into people’s tendency toward laziness.
In the US we’ve spent the last seven decades or so designing whole cities around cars, so it’s easy to spend your day without doing much walking at all.
In Europe, things are a bit different. Most cities are older, and designed for human beings – what a concept! Parking is limited, public transport is common, and people generally walk more: at the very least, you’ve got to walk a ways to the bus stop, or to where you’ve parked your car.
In fact, when Morena gave me a Fitbit a couple of years ago, I discovered that I actually walk 10 or 12 kilometers every day – without even attempting to “exercise”. Getting coffee, going to the market, wandering along the beach, heading off to the bar: all of these things are close by, but at the end of the day it usually adds up to about 12000 steps or more.
And none of that is what I’m counting as a workout. In the intervening years I’ve done quite a bit of boxing, as well as some weights, a whole lot of bodyweight calisthenics, and more. I’m not a great athlete at all, but it’s good to do something. Currently I’m doing kettlebells at a place here in the barrio.
Which brings us back to the kettlebell weighing heavily in my backpack as I start up the hill.
The road to Vallvidrera (Superior)
After a bit of a slope to get out of the last neighborhood in Barcelona proper, I’m up in the pines.
Carretera de les Aigues (or “Water Road” if you don’t speak Catalan) is mostly flat and curves around the bottom edge of the park. The views are great, and you can see all the way to the Mediterranean.
Kilometers 9 and 10 go by pretty easily, and I’m past my original goal by a good margin. I can probably make it to the train up the hill and be home by lunchtime.
I’m still feeling pretty good about myself as I turn off Carretera de les Aigues and approach the area called Vallvidrera Superior. The name should give you an idea: it’s on top of the hill.
And the hill is getting a lot steeper as I proceed. Google Maps is sending me on a hard left, and it turns out to be one of those stairways they’ve built as an alleyway between steeply-sloped banks of houses.
The last thing I want to do at this point is walk up stairs. But it’s time to embrace the suck.
It’s not like there’s any better option. I could walk back downhill to some other stop, but that would be a couple more kilometers – and, more importantly, an admission of failure.
Better just do the steps. It looks like 75 or so. No biggie.
I decide to count them. After the first 75 I’ve gotten past a tree that was blocking the view.
It turns out the stairway’s much longer. I’m only a quarter of the way up, or less.
I take off the pack and drink some water. A guy in a business casual outfit, carrying a briefcase, steps out of one of the houses and starts up the stairs. His car is parked on a side street that goes downhill, so he’s done after 40 steps or so. I’ve got to keep going up.
Thighs burning, I finally make it to the top. There’s a little street, some old guys on mountain bikes, a stone wall with the typical Catalan graffiti on it… Llibertat Presos Polítics or some such.
I could be slightly off, but I’ve counted 437 stairs.
And I’ve also done something that feels really worthwhile.
A few blocks to the left, I find the train station and the tiny bar. I take off my pack and order a beer. Without the weight, I feel amazing.
What’s your misogi, Miyagi?
In the last couple of decades, I guess I’ve gotten somewhat used to doing hard things.
But of course, hard is relative.
This 12-kilometer walk with a heavy pack was a bit hard, but on a one-to-ten scale it was honestly about a two.
In fact, the day I wrote the first draft of this article, I later ended up having lunch with a guy who does Ironman Triathlons in his free time. That’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile marathon run at the end, just as a finisher. And he doesn’t just do this to finish: he’s ranked in the top 10% globally.
Training for a triathlon after work… that sounds hard.
(And also, if you want to put “hard” in a totally new perspective, listen to 6 Years in the Hanoi Hilton on Jocko Podcast, or read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Like I said, hard is relative.)
But it’s certainly useful to expand your definition of “hard things”…
So besides adding some hard work and discomfort into your day to day routine, Easter also talks about a practice called Misogi, which was “invented” by a sports scientist named Marcus Elliott.
Essentially, you create a challenge for yourself that’s hard enough you’ve only got a 50/50 chance of succeeding. The basic rules are:
- Make it really hard.
- Don’t die.
With the further caveat that you’re not supposed to brag about it on Instagram. Some Misogis that Elliott, Easter and others have done include carrying a large rock under water for several miles (diving down to carry it a few meters each time before coming up for air), trail runs in the 30 to 50-mile range, month-long Caribou hunts in the Arctic, and more.
The point is to stretch your limits, so make it something difficult for you. If you know you can run 5 miles, and suspect you could probably run 10 miles, then a good goal would be… 15 miles. Really stretch yourself.
I haven’t done this yet – most of my workouts are hard but not anywhere near a 10 out of 10 – but it’s something to contemplate for the future.
Do hard things… just don’t die.
P.S. What do you think? Wanna come rucking with me? Apparently the US Army standard is 12 miles in 3 hours with a pack and rifle. Here in Europe the rifle would be hard to come by, but we can still carry the weight. Hit me up, right here in the comments. Be strong, y’all!
P.P.S. Updated, a couple of years later: Okay, well, I’m 40 now, I’ve stopped drinking, and I’m feeling pretty good. Actually, working out more often helps. I’m less tired if I work out 4 or 5 times a week than if I work out twice, it would appear.