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Finding a Mindset for Success

By Jeff Garmire

Quitting can feel unexpected, but it often comes down to mental preparation. I have continually had the highs and lows of both successes and failures. While disappointing at the time, each of these failures makes sense in hindsight. While my physical training and ability have remained largely the same throughout the period, the mentality has shifted and is the sole factor in the success and achievement of goals…or lack thereof. 

A year ago, I went out to Minnesota to attempt to set the record on the Superior Hiking Trail, but my heart wasn’t in it. The idea of the record was appealing, but not the process or the highs and lows that would come with a record attempt. I simply did not prepare mentally to be successful. I didn’t want to give up life’s amenities in exchange for sleeping on the ground without a sleeping pad. I wasn’t ready for something hard. But going into the effort, I convinced myself that I was. The desire was only surface deep, and it easily crumbled. 

For two days, I stayed at a record-setting pace. But then my mind began to wander. There was no focus on a singular goal. It was a confusing feeling. The distractions were seeping in, and there were other things I wanted to do and other places I wanted to be. Usually, I easily lock in on a goal and do not let in any distractions. But, for some reason, things were different, my motivation and mentality were fragile, and it took only the smallest adversity to spiral out of control. 

On day three, my pack tore and no longer carried symmetrically on my shoulders. It hurt my back, but I was able to keep moving. It was discomfort but nothing I hadn’t dealt with before. But, after ten miles, I was over it. I quit the attempt altogether. A small gear failure was all it took to tip the mental scale and make me realize I was miserable. At first, I used the backpack tear as an excuse, but by the time I hitched back to civilization, I accepted that the attempt was doomed from the start. The commitment wasn’t there from the beginning, and my desire waned throughout. No amount of physical preparation or training could have neutralized the thin layer of motivation that quickly evaporated. That was when I finally accepted the power of mental preparation, but it wasn’t the first time I had felt the feeling. 

“A small gear failure was all it took to tip the mental scale and make me realize I was miserable. At first, I used the backpack tear as an excuse, but by the time I hitched back to civilization, I accepted that the attempt was doomed from the start.”

A similar frustration occurred when I tried to set the record on Nolan's 14 in 2019. A record on the 100-mile route with 45,000 feet of elevation gain was something that I desperately wanted to achieve. I had trained, scouted, and even done the entire route before the record attempt. But I forced the timing. For years I had trained and scouted the off-trail sections, but when I showed up, I was not focused. I had spent my time in the days leading up to it focused on everything except an all-consuming 50-hour attempt in the mountains. I was destined for failure. 

On the first of 14 mountain peaks, I had an asthma attack. It shouldn’t have had the impact it did. But, a lack of commitment to the adventure made my attempt fragile. Something as simple as an asthma attack broke the attempt. The first sign of adversity knocked me back, and suddenly I was not committed or focused. I entered the attempt hoping for some reason to quit. I didn’t want to be out there, and quitting was a relief. 

Failing to address the mental preparation leaves a glaring gap in any large effort. When things get difficult, internal motivation is not there. The tools and the mindset to draw on are absent. The motivation to push through the hardest of times needs to come from within and from true desire. 

“The motivation to push through the hardest of times needs to come from within and from true desire.”

For three years, I considered going for the John Muir Trail record, but I was scared away by the thought of failure. I cared about the record and being the most prepared I could if I gave it an attempt. I didn’t want to show up unfocused or unprepared. In 2019, I scouted the route and thought about how I would break it up. But, for the next two years I made excuses about why the time was not right to try for the record. Then finally, something clicked this year. In late August, I felt the undeniable pull and commitment to making this the year to give it a try. I was guided by commitment and motivation rather than forcing it. So I drove to Yosemite and gave it a shot. 

Even with some small gear failures, lack of appetite, and feeling those high altitude passes, my commitment never faltered. It was a stark contrast from the recent failures, and it was a reminder how much these efforts can test one’s resolve. At 42 miles, some physical issues were already presenting themselves, but my mindset was solution-oriented rather than looking for a reason to quit. It would prevail throughout the John Muir Trail FKT. For the entire 220 miles, I simply wanted to give myself a chance. 

There are highs and lows in hiking, running, thru-hiking, FKTs, and personal challenges. There are failures along the way, but there is usually something within those failures that help us discover the missing link, especially mentally. That missing link is what I am continually working to refind, maintain, and hold onto. 

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