In the Fall of 2013, Josh Mathe fast-packed the 212-mile John Muir Trail in 7 days. He reflects on this journey, and his love and appreciation for Nature, in his book, In The Footsteps of Greatness. Josh is a coach and nutritionist based in Sacramento, California, with his business partner and wife Jen.
There is something scary but immensely powerful about speaking openly and plainly about your plans for success. The added pressure can be very uncomfortable, but it also sharpens focus and hardens resolve. It’s much more difficult to quit when the world is watching you.
Josh had attempted to hike the John Muir Trail twice in his twenties; both times he failed. While physically he may have been able to get to the other end, mentally he wasn’t ready. Haunting him for years since those failures, the wiser and more mentally resilient Josh put the JMT on his bucket list once again. This time he approached the quest more realistically and elicited help from Jen. Aside from a specific training plan prepared by Jen that called for 5 days of running per week, Josh practiced gratefulness daily (through quiet meditative mindfulness), as well as focused visualization. According to Jen’s plan, he ran no single effort greater than 2.5 hours, but every run had a specific purpose toward achieving his goal. On logistics, there is a full gear list in the book, including nutritional needs he both carried and had available for pick up at drop locations. All his food was dry goods, canned salmon, high caloric powder mixes, and raw natural foods. No cooking equipment was taken, nor needed. Some notable items on his list:
- Tarp Tent (tarp with mosquito netting)
- Small, frameless pack
- Down quilt (rather than sleeping bag)
- Silk sleeping-bag liner
- SteriPen (for water purification)
A mishap, involving a bear, during his initial attempt in August of 2013 required Josh to forsake his goal, regroup, and return one month later to complete his quest. This speaks to the mentally stronger Josh; the younger version would have bent to the adversity and abandoned his dream until it haunted him once again.
I could be overly sensitive, or maybe it’s merely part of the human condition, but the painful times in my life have always affected me deeply. Over time I subconsciously developed rules, strategies, and complex defense mechanisms to avoid the darkness at all costs — and of course I have still taken some monumental stumbles that have cracked my armor and left me bloody and broken. These falls were terrible, and I won’t pretend otherwise, but after dusting myself off and looking back I have to admit it is these times more than any others that have propelled me toward growth and happiness. The protective wall still stands, but acknowledging and appreciating the entire spectrum of life experience is an important step. My castle now has a drawbridge and front gate…and one of these days I’ll knock the walls down completely.
Pushing ourselves physically is often what stretches us mentally. Resiliency of the mind has proven to be forged through building strength and endurance of our bodies. As an endurance coach and athlete having completed Ironmans and Ultraruns, Josh’s first-hand experiences with physical suffering better prepared him for the battles he’d encounter on the trail: exhaustion, isolation, and unforgiving elements of the wild.
The book is a quick and easy read, I finished it in two evenings. Once into the meat of the trip, the format flows as chapters of daily recollections, and the thoughts that formed from those events. There are several little nuggets of wisdom that feel familiar as I too step into wilderness to push my mind and body, but there are others that I hadn’t pondered on that’ll I carry with me on new adventures.
Upon connecting with others on the trail, and a recognition of the diversity and multitude of varying goals, there is a commonality in purpose and a singularity within mankind that Nature exposes:
When it comes down to it, we are all just people who want to learn, grow, and love; to touch something magical that we yearn for but don’t understand; to be the best versions of ourselves we can be, even if that sometimes scares us. And the mountains magnify this exquisitely.
After crossing paths with a weathered, elderly man, and having a short conversation on Badwater and Ultrarunning, Josh’s reflection on why we run rings particularly true:
If like many endurance athletes, you run to outpace an encroaching darkness, eventually you will be swallowed by it no matter how far you go…However if you run because it connects you to something bigger than yourself, or as a moving meditation that allows you to explore your demons rather than flee from them; I have to believe this is restorative rather than destructive.
On dreams of hermitage gratefully forgotten:
For most of my life I’ve fantasized about hiking into some remote backcountry, building a cabin, and living out the rest of my days as a hermit. I used to think the wellspring of this desire was solitude, peace, simplicity, and space to let my mind wander. And while there may be some truth there, I’ve come to believe the real driving force behind my urge to get lost where I can’t be found is safety. If I’m alone, no one can hurt or judge me; I wouldn’t have to be perfect, I’d just have to be me. It is encouraging that I no longer feel this way very often, and when I do I generally recognize it as the fleeting, empty promise that it is. The warmer, more open part of me has embraced the very real need for connection.
I appreciated this book, and Josh’s words, on two fronts. An adventure in the woods—pushing one’s limits—intrigues me greatly and fuels my own curiosity for what’s possible; not on epic scale proportions we so often hear about, but in challenges that are strictly personal. Secondly, the kindred spirit of we pondering wanderers. Much occurs in the confines of our own minds. Sharing pieces of our intimate selves, whether a sentence, paragraph, or book, is a gift to the recipient; our most heart-felt words become subtle permission for others feel and think freely. Thanks Josh.
Link to the book on Amazon.