Face the Unknown: An Opportunity to Connect with our Highest Self
Facing life head on requires skills mostly found within. Planning your steps along the way will help us reach our greatest heights, but we must also prepare ourselves to be amongst the infinite possibilities. Life will certainly throw you some surprises along the way, but you can also throw yourself at them; this is how I embrace the GrandTaiga spirit.
Colorado is known for an impressive number of mountain peaks over 14,000 feet. After moving to Colorado I quickly was brought up to speed about the regional anomaly. Colorado has 53 or 58 depending who you ask, Alaska has 21, California has 12, and Washington has just two. How I hadn’t known about this major Colorado craze before, I don't know.
Excited to try something new, I dove into the adventure. In my first month of 14er-addiction, I summited seven different peaks in four weekends! The following season, I explored further into the Rocky mountains and began to get a hang of my new endeavor. Each climb brought benefits in mind and body, and nurtured a connection with nature. I even proposed to my hiking partner and now wife on top of Colorado's highest 14er, Mt. Elbert.
Neil Rasmussen proposing at 14,439ft, the highest point in Colorado.
As my 14er experience flourished, I started to feel empowered by the experience of hiking these incredibly formidable snow-capped peaks. In preparation for my next season of climbing, I then learned that some people run 14ers! I always hike a steady pace and sustain hours of discomfort, but also take many breaks, bring a surplus of water, snacks (I really love my snacks), emergency supplies, and am bagged up with several layers. It didn’t seem possible to go any faster.
This new idea to run a 14er soon excited me with butterflies, as well as ignited my deep-rooted desire to overcome a challenge.
This desire to face unknown possibilities is something we all have the potential to provoke in some regard (this is one reason why I appreciate the mission of GrandTaiga). If we don’t push this comfort bubble into the unknown, I believe we are missing a fundamental component to a healthy and optimal human existence.
Given our advancement in society, we are rarely pushed to our physical boundaries. Life is inevitably stressful, but this is most often psychologically driven. Stress is not a bad thing, but our response to it can be. If we don't seek out stressors intentionally, we respond worse to the inevitable stress of work, relationships, traffic, planning, and life; a path to habitual stagnation. Fortunately, we have a choice to combat this by practicing voluntary discomfort. With this understanding in mind, I decided to challenge myself to run a 14er.
I scheduled a run with a new friend that had been running 14ers for a few seasons. We discussed our morning and intrarun fuel plans. I was planning to bring a hydration bladder with at least a liter of water, as well as some snacks and/or running gels and a few supplements. This plan shifted when he made me consider the alternative; no water or food. The upside being less weight, less distractions for the mind and body, and more incentive to finish. At first this seemed impossible and added another layer of insanity to the venture, but I realized I would probably be able to do it.
As I was transitioning into endurance sports from previous football training, steady-state endurance was new for me. My training volume and consistency had been locked-in for a while now, incorporating rigorous functional strength training and trail runs around Denver and Boulders’ front range regularly, as well as a Spartan Beast race at Aspen’s high elevation.
I still sincerely didn't know if I would be able to keep moving fast, or even just keep moving, at this higher elevation. Run-climbing over 4000ft elevation through the gnarly Rocky Mountain high country in one bout is no joke.
"This new trail-running pursuit had UNKNOWN written all over it."
After barely making it up the uber-rocky trailhead road to Grey’s and Torrey’s Peaks in a Toyota Prius (we actually had to wait for a Subaru Forester attempting 6 times before getting over a very large hole, but our Prius made its first try), we took off running for the high country before the sunrise, with just a 16oz. water bottle in hand. Within a minute or so my glycolytic energy pathways exhausted. This is the energy system in our body that is great for 60-90 seconds and then tapers off resources until given a chance to recover. It’s awesome for football and many sports but not for steady-state endurance activities like running. The discomfort set in more quickly than any previous runs, and with vengeance. The trail immediately climbs uphill, and I would have stopped had I not seen the person in front of me continuing to run.
“This was a critical moment of re-embracing the unknown, don’t wait for someone else to exemplify what is currently impossible to you before expecting it of yourself."
I was forced to start breathing deeper than ever before. This is the point where consciousness quiets and I realize that all my energy, focus and intention must be devoted to the task at hand, no room for inefficiencies or mistakes. Yeah, I guess I could have stopped at some point but when I'm on an adventure like this (especially when it entails venturing into the high country, with a prius) I like to dig in!
With a mix of running and fast climbing eventually I found myself midway up the mountain. After keeping my head down and pushing myself to move as fast as I could for the first phase of this adventure, we stopped because some mountain goats appeared ahead on the trail. For the first time since starting I paused for a moment, and looked behind me as the sliver of sun crept over the mountain’s horizon. I stared in transcendance from my rocky vantage point, connected with deep appreciation and grounded truth that I am, and always will be “enough”. For me, these words transcribe revelational experiences that facing the unknown unlocks, but ultimately this concept goes beyond words; it is an experience you must feel for yourself.
In this moment I allowed myself to go inward and connect in a different way with my harsh inner critic. I spent a considerable amount of time anticipating this endeavor with negative self-talk regarding my potential “failure”. Imagine if part of this time was spent cultivating a calm nervous system state, or even visualizing succeeding. This is what we often need more of! I can be extremely stubborn (I call it strong-willed💪🏽) so sometimes it takes running up a mountain for my heart to open and find a new light of inner healing.
We ended up summiting the first peak and a second 14,000ft plus summit in 1 hour 50 minutes (including over 10 min spent at the top basking in our newfound alter-mountain-goat-ego). To add in a reference point, I hiked just the first peak with a young out-of-state friend and it took over 6.5 hours to summit. This time it took just under 1 hour 20 minutes!
Neil Rasmussen and friends bag Torrey’s Peak in Colorado.
While I still have doubts, this mind-body-and-beyond feat showed me that I should trust myself and get out of my own way more often. There will always be a sense of resistance in our head to question our capabilities. Facing the Unknown requires a discerning relationship with yourself that recognizes the natural tendency to feel fear, but to dive into meaningful challenges when called.
I also relearned that we can do a lot as humans, a lot more than we would often assume. In seeing another lead the way I was able to visually see that this was possible to achieve so therefore I just did it. I have had this exemplified with other physical feats before, and this was a culminating example to push me into creating my own possibilities without needing to see others first.
This is our creative gift in being human, the ability to imagine things before they are in present physical reality and manifest into existence. When we set goals we can visualize success in our brain. I challenge you to see yourself in the present moment but with an aligned future. We can eliminate the doubt as we approach the uncertainty of life. We may still have some fear, but ultimately a stronger trust in ourselves, and/or beyond to get us through what lies ahead.
This idea has been around for millennia in multiple contexts. Alan Watts writes about this in his book “The Wisdom of Insecurity”. He extrapolates Buddhist teachings to explain that so much of our life is outside of our control, and we must learn to live with this reality. By preparing with this knowledge in mind, we come to a deeper understanding of the present moment. We are inevitably living with an extremely insecure [from a human perspective] future, and in the present moment we can transcend into flow; a balance to receive and react as needed to whatever life brings.
The other side of this is realization of how utterly amazing it is that we are alive and here in consciousness. We need to remember that life is precious, and also something to prepare for and embrace. Lets prepare for life like we would hold a bar of soap, not too attached that we squeeze away opportunity but with relaxed strength directed with the appropriate amount of force.
Facing the unknown with this appropriate ambition requires discernment, easily confused with naive inspiration. When we choose mindful challenges there is opportunity to connect with our highest self and enter novel states of consciousness, while hearing the wisest insight from within. Intentional hardship is a new-age human pursuit, but I feel this is going to be a necessity for optimal mind-body-spirit living and balance moving forward if we want a healthy global community for generations to come.