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It has been said that the worst part of Navy SEAL training is Hell Week, which is five and a half days of physical training for twenty hours a day, running over 200 miles, with four hours of sleep for the entire week and extreme mental fuckery. The purpose of this training is to break you, weed out those who are unfit to endure. From surviving these experiences, SEALs have devised the Forty Percent Rule. “When your mind is telling you that you have no more strength left and that you have hit the wall, you’re body is really only forty percent done.” That extra elusive sixty percent comes from our sheer will and the ability to overcome our thoughts.
HALF DOME TRAIL
On a much smaller scale, Yosemite’s Half Dome Trail proved this concept to me. This adventure was eighteen miles round trip- nine miles and eight hours of climbing to the pinnacle, 5000 feet of elevation gained and lost, nine miles and four hours of excruciating, pounding downhill back to the valley. The planning for this “walk” was minimal. While lounging in the sun at an outdoor party discussing our upcoming trip to California, my brother Sean said, “Yeah, I heard about this really cool hike to Half Dome.” Nodding in unison, James and I said, “That sounds great.” The numbers were thrown around without their full meaning consciously registering. What is 5000 feet in elevation? I get it, it’s up, WAY up. How far is eighteen miles anyway? Six three-mile walks with the dog. That’s doable...
We started out at the campsite at 7 am with the boys groggily packing their packs pre-coffee, with flat affects and blunted emotions. I was contrastingly cheerful and talkative, flitting about, enjoying the morning light, saying “Come on guys, we’re just going for a reeeeeeeally long walk!”
We hiked in the order of our fitness.
Sean was the most cardiovascularly and physically capable. He is a cyclist who routinely bikes fifty miles. Plodding along ahead of us, he steadily climbed, methodical and silent. He was basically free of both physical and mental issues.
James was next, quietly carrying eighteen pounds of photography equipment in addition to the necessities. He had remembered everything that I had forgotten. I needed chapstick? A tube appeared from his side pocket. My nose was chapped from wiping it with tissues? He produced an extra handkerchief with a flourish. Blisters formed on my feet? His stash of moleskin came to the rescue.
Initially unknown to Sean and I, James was suffering from a hip flexor strain that began about an hour into the hike. When he finally mentioned it, he was concerned about making it to the top. He was hiking with his thumb in his left pants pocket pressing down on his thigh, which seemed to relieve the pain slightly. With each step up (and according to my Fitbit, there were 25,000 up and then 25,000 down), he pulled his pant leg up which assisted in lifting his leg. James is never one to complain and can deal with an amazing amount of discomfort. He had to be hurting if he was talking about it.
Physically, I was having a hard time, but trying not to show my weakness. Having Type 1 diabetes, I routinely had to stop to check my blood sugar so that I could maintain the often-elusive 80 to 180 range. I ate glucose tablets when my sugar dropped below 80 to avoid the exhaustion that comes with hypoglycemia. When needed, I programmed my insulin pump to release additional insulin to bring down a drowsy hyperglycemia. For the entire 18 miles, my diabetes and I danced this weird medical tango.
Eight hours into the hike, while climbing the sub-dome, I panicked when I looked over my shoulder and saw only sheer vertical granite slabs dropping to the valley floor. At this moment, I realized that we had to climb back down that extremely steep slope face-forward. Scrambling above that dramatic drop terrified me and froze me in place. Other hikers were bounding down the face and I was amazed by their cavalier attitude. I sat on the cold granite slab, trying to collect myself and refusing to give into tears. I leaned into the slope to steady myself and tried to talk myself out of my fear. At that point, I had hit my mental wall.
Sean and James alternately said, “we can turn back”, “we don’t have to go to the top”, “we don’t need to be heroes”, "it's really ok.." But I could SEE it. I could SEE the top from where I sat. I had said repeatedly how desperately I wanted to stand there and look down at the world. James gently joked about my being stubborn (a well-known flaw/strength/flaw of mine). My edge-of-tears, quivering response was, “That quality is the only thing keeping me going right now.” I steadied myself as I stood up, called on my extra sixty percent and focused on making my feet climb upward.
Twenty minutes later, we reached the summit of the sub-dome and our trials faded into a victorious rush. The views were unparalleled. You can see where the earth curves away from you. In every direction, there is fear and exhilaration and death and life and breathlessness and pure air.
At this particular time, there was also a lightning storm approaching. In other words, an immediate retreat down from the sub-dome was required. Climbing the metal cables to the top of Half Dome was not going to be possible.
Furtively glancing in the direction of the storm, we allowed ourselves five minutes to soak in the experience, enjoyed the triumph of the moment, take pictures, and then we turned back down the mountain towards safety. The boys (more than I) felt the disappointment of the unclimbed cables sharply, but ultimately, we were all euphoric about our accomplishment.
The initial descent proved to be much lighter. We were happy to be going down instead of up. Miraculously, we had transformed into those giddy, skipping, descending hikers. We were pumped full of epinephrine and felt none of our aches...
... for a while. The scenery was stunning, but soon, the pain-killing characteristic of adrenaline wore off. I realized that we still had half of the hike to conquer and that ‘down’ was in no way easier than ‘up’. The descent presented its own problems. By the bottom of the steepest part, my knees felt like the bones were scraping together and I could barely walk. Sean and James split the contents of my backpack between them to lighten my load. Luckily, Sean had brought walking poles, which I leaned on heavily with each step. Unlike going up, there was not a spectacular carrot at the end of the stick at the bottom, unless you count alcohol, pizza, and sleep. We felt every single step fully. The eight miles down seemed endless.
FORTY PERCENT RULE
Again, remembering the Forty Percent Rule was helpful. It helped block the discomfort and focus on finishing the journey. I learned that I could do way more than I thought I could. The SEALS know that the mentally strong make it through and that a focused mind gives you an edge. The strongest guys don’t always make it. It has nothing to do with your physical size or strength. Anyone can do anything if they believe they can.
I could not exaggerate the experience we had; in fact, this telling does not come close. The difficulty of the hike and the steepness of the sub-dome was daunting. I do not mean to even remotely compare this experience to SEAL training, but it did make me a believer in the Forty Percent Rule. This hike was the hardest thing I have done in my lifetime. Without the driving will to get to the top, I would have stopped only a few miles in.
If you are interested in experiencing the Half Dome hike for yourself, search YouTube for “Half Dome GoPro” and watch a few videos. Or pack a bag, go do it for yourself and find your sixty percent.
'Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.' Mahatma Gandhi
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Maria travels with her dog, Abby. She has the possibility to travel and work all around the USA and spends a lot of her time on the road. Maria works as an optometrist and has had the pleasure of working in places from Alaska to Alabama. She talks about the highs and lows of life on the road and what motivates her with her lifestyle.
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