Waypoints for the year ahead

Here’s what happens when you start writing something you aren’t quite sure how to finish. By the time you get back to the computer, the words coalescing in your head, the actual seasons have changed. When I started this, it was snowing so hard we were home from school. I’m finishing it as the temps have stayed solidly above freezing and the snow is mostly ice and shrinking more each day (at least here on the coast). Patience is a virtue, though maybe not in blogging…

My husband is a mountain guide. For each trip into the mountains he creates a route plan; he knows the compass bearings to follow, the waypoints to look for, the elevations to contour that will lead to the objective. He uses the underlying geography to shape the course of the travel and commits to a turn around time. He scopes out the escape routes and topographic handrails he’ll use should the weather turn bad, a rock falls, the snow slides, someone gets hurt. He plans carefully and thoroughly, but in the end, much depends on the mood of the mountain.

For some planning is a necessary evil, others relax in the deep comfort of having premade decisions. If pressed to choose a team I’d go with the latter. On the last snowy day home from school I found myself with the unexpected time necessary to craft my own route plan for the coming year. A hard copy of the 2018 calendar had been sitting on my desk waiting for the arc of the year ahead to materialize in pencil and ink. Finally, a few hours at home with treacherous roads and nowhere to go. Online race registrations here I come.

This calendar takes me from one physical event to another. Each event (organized or personal), while a milestone of its own, is another rung on the ladder, or waypoint along the way to the ultimate objective. Each step builds upon itself and brings me further. I fill the spaces on the calendar between these events with progressive goals. Call it a training plan, call it a race schedule; I call it the map to the coming year spent in my body.

The arc begins in darkness, and like virtually every conception of how the world works, the beginning arises from the end of the cycle that came before. December comes and I take a break. For me the weeks around and especially after the winter solstice are for resting. In 2017 I ran through the Millinocket half marathon on December 9th, and then mostly stopped running. Some bodies can sustain high training volumes, my doesn’t. I rest for a few weeks, and then at some point after the holidays, my body starts to ache from the inactivity. After the holidays, more than formal training, I just need movement-consistent low impact movement (best when coupled with fresh air and sunlight). This year early cold snow allowed for a couple of weeks of local Nordic skiing—a dream come true. While I try to avoid the cliché of the new year’s resolution, the energy around the idea of a fresh start is hard to resist. When the semester starts, structure returns (and our campus fitness facility reopens) and I head to the gym. For me, the depth of winter is the perfect time to strength train.

For those of you looking for concrete details, after taking nearly two months off, doing some gentle yoga and catch as catch can Nordic skiing, I go to the gym two mornings a week to strength train, focusing mainly on my legs and core (I have a side project to build up to unsupported pull ups too, but let’s call that a vanity project…). Running right now is just a few miles at a time, slowly building volume – one day a week, two days a week, three days a week. It’s getting my body used to the impact, my muscles used to the constant states of use and recovery. I’ll continue this in March, continuing to add running volume, increasing mileage, and cross training by Nordic and alpine skiing when conditions and time permit. I need to be up to 10 miles by April 8th’s Bridge the Gap race in Bucksport. I’m strongly motivated by the week of backcountry skiing in Iceland I have planned for May; I don’t want my fitness to be a limiting factor. Later in May is the Rompin’ Rockwood 25km run in Saint John New Brunswick. By the end of May I should be running at full capacity (which doesn’t mean full mileage, just fully rebuilt and ready to prepare for whatever comes next). I don’t have any thing on the books yet for June, but I’m thinking about a long day longer hike like last year. In July, I’ll head to Canada for the second of my three Canadian races this year, the Herring Run 10km. I’ll also probably do some longer hiking/fastpacking/trail running up in the Carrabassett Valley at the end of July. August will be devoted to building up mountain mileage for the big event of my year, September’s 50km Fundy Circuit trail race. By the beginning of September I’ll be starting to taper back, letting my body fully recover from the training of August in preparation for that third Canadian race. After that is the home stretch, running home town races like old friends; the MDI marathon relay, the triple crown of local trail races benefiting local land trusts, the Millinocket half marathon, and then, rest time once again. So that’s what a training plan looks like, at its simplest level (note: my serious runner and triathlete friends did this, and in much greater detail, back in December). Having the whole year thought through allows me to chop it up into pieces, and string those pieces together in manageable chunks. The concrete objective is that big race in September; the work prepares me for that mileage, that much elevation and the arc of the year reaches its zenith that weekend.

The act of creating the architecture of a whole year is pleasing to me, as illusory as the act is. The pleasure comes from the mild delusion that we have control over our time. I look at the year ahead and say to myself “yes, this is how it will be”. On one hand, we do control our destinies. If I want to be able to run 50km in Fundy National Park in September, I have to start working now. That level of performance requires training and I choose to undertake it. On the other hand is a suite of possibilities utterly beyond our command. Injury, illness, change of circumstance, meteors, zombie apocalypse all bide their time beyond our immediate sphere of attention, and demonstrate just how cute it is that we make any plans at all. Of course, if we turned out full attention to any of these road blocks, we’d never leave our beds let alone our houses. So even though they are entirely present and omnipotent, we have to carry on as if they don’t exist, and carrying on is exactly the training we need to prepare for their inevitable arrival. As they say, no one gets out of here alive.

No zombies up there that day, Franconia Ridge, photo from Jenny Johnson.

My training plan is me holding up my end of the bargain—If all goes well this is how I plan to spend my days. These are my waypoints, marked on the calendar. This is my route plan for the coming year, but as much as success depends on the work I put in, I also have to hope for grace, from wherever it is dispensed. May the mountain keep the zombies at bay for another year.

Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.