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🔥 Get Light. Get Lit. 🔥
A motivational manual for this year's Fifty-Mile March
America needs a kick in the pants. The land of the free has become the land of the obese. The medical establishment talks about it as a physical problem—perhaps even an inherited disease—but the sickness is much deeper.
We are spiritually obese.
Even the slim among us are weighed down by so much unnecessary stuff. Our wealth is an illusion, and we are increasingly owned by our things instead of the other way around.
Every few generations in this country, a figure comes along to remind us of our responsibility for preserving our essential freedoms. John F. Kennedy was the last President to speak to the country as a whole with a message of optimism and national vigor. The 50-mile ‘Kennedy March’ was once a vital tradition in both the U.S. and around the world. Today, the idea that average Americans could march fifty miles is seen as absurd.
The time has come to normalize vigorous activity again.
For the past three years, I’ve done an annual 50-mile march—always with at least one friend at my side, and sometimes two. This year, I am challenging a minimum of five friends to go the distance. When I picture the finish line, I see the five of us marching in lockstep — tired but not broken. We are carrying nothing, and we are a little slimmer than when we started. Whatever baggage we started with has been jettisoned along the path. Our energy stores are depleted. We are physically and spiritually empty—ready to be filled up again.
The conditions for a widespread national awakening have yet to arrive. Today, being in moderately good shape makes you exceptional. For a spiritually and physically obese people, a 50-mile march would be dangerous and inadvisable. But I can see the day—and it’s not far off—when masses of Americans are hitting the rural roads in groups of five, fifty, and five hundred, shedding all the weight we’ve been carrying for more than five decades.
To prepare for that day, some number of us must first become light on our feet. That means firing up our inner furnaces to burn away whatever is not essential to our mission, which is waking others up to our dire condition.
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Where/When is it?
The route this year will take us from Mission Santa Cruz to Mission San Carlos in Monterey–the oldest stone building in California. The Spanish missions were built to be a day's walking distance apart. If frail old Padres could walk it back in the late 1700s, so can we.
The scenic route to get there will include a mix of beach, highway shoulder, and farm road.
Sunday, May 28 is a day of triple significance: it is Memorial Day weekend, Pentecost (fifty days after Easter), and the day after JFK’s birthday. The three-day weekend will allow us to camp in Santa Cruz the night before, start the march around 5:30 am on Sunday, and recover on Monday.
We will also have some vans to shuttle people and their bikes, in case they want to walk as far as they can before peddling the remainder of the way.
Why are we doing this?
“Of course, modern advances and increasing leisure can add greatly to the comfort and enjoyment of life. But they must not be confused with indolence, with, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “slothful-ease,” with an increasing deterioration of our physical strength. For the strength of our youth and the fitness of our adults are among our most important assets, and this growing decline is a matter of urgent concern to thoughtful Americans.” – John F. Kennedy
Anyone can start a 50-mile march, but to finish requires a clear and strong motivation.
This “why?” is the inner flame that gives you meaning and purpose.
If your primary motivation is weight loss, you’re probably not going to make it. Somewhere around the 40-mile mark, a little voice starts to suggest, “You could quit.” That’s when you recall your “why,” dig deep, and finish what you started.
Teddy Roosevelt first instituted a requirement for all officers in the Marine Corps to march fifty miles because that’s what they were ordering their men in the field to do. JFK revived the challenge as part of a vision of national vigor that included the Presidential Fitness Challenge and the Moon mission. His “why” was rooted in the need to expand the frontiers of science and technology—maintaining grit and optimism in the face of hard things.
My motivation is to strengthen my tribe and nurture the friendships that matter most to me. Tribes are solidified through coordinated movement—what historian William McNeill calls "muscular bonding." Marching and moving together builds camaraderie. At a larger scale it breeds unity. You see this in the Native American drum circle, and in every successful warrior culture from Ancient Greece to the WWII-era United States.
Last year, during the final stretch of our march across the pedestrian path of the Bay Bridge, my friend Aku and I were at risk of overstepping the bridge’s 9 pm curfew, and had to run as fast as we could to make it across. We ran in step, chanting battle cries to push through. Here, the "pain lasagna" effect sets in, where hot new pains distracts from the previous layers. Without another person, I doubt I could have started running after having already walked 45 miles.
A second but equally important motivation is to be prepared for the worst. Imagine that you had to get out of the Bay Area because of an earthquake. There is no water coming out of the tap, supplies are running short after 2 or 3 days, the grocery shelves have been pillaged, the roads are blocked with stalled vehicles, and everyone is at each other's throats. Unless you knew how to sail, you'd have to walk it out. We are strong to be more helpful to our fellow man.
A final reason to get comfortable with walking long distances is that it makes the map of the world bigger. Werner Herzog once said, "The world opens itself up to those who walk." One’s sense of possibility grows. Everything else afterwards feels easier. You find that you can do more in a day, and you learn to prioritize what matters.
How to Prepare
I’m of the mind that the best training program is the one you will keep, so it has to be 1) simple 2) enjoyable and 3) in line with your existing lifestyle.
If you form the right habits, life itself becomes training for the march, and the march in turn becomes training for your life. Having a goal like the 50-mile march can focus and orient your efforts, giving you the purpose and motivation to make the habits stick.
Within this framework, I focus on the following five dimensions:
1. Metabolic Flexibility
Diet is the primary determinant of body composition. If you want to be light on your feet, you need to dial in what you eat, and even more importantly, when.
If you have around 15% body fat, you already have enough fat on your body to walk from San Francisco to Los Angeles with no outside calories. As much as possible, we should use our own supply of body-fat as fuel for the fifty-mile march.
Metabolic flexibility refers to your body's ability to switch back and forth between burning different kinds of fuel. You can transition from running on outside carbs to its own body fat through either a low-carb ketogenic diet or intermittent fasting. This transition has many physiological benefits, including autophagy—a process where cells consume the most degraded proteins and organelles within the cell, allowing for a cleaning of the cell.
For periodic or intermittent fasting, I recommend starting with a 12-hour overnight fast and gradually extending it—aiming for 1-2 days per week where you might eat just 2 meals within a 4-8 hour window. However, it is not necessary to stay in a fasted or ketogenic state all the time. Once you clear out the junk via autophagy, your cells and mitochrondria become little furnaces that can consume carbs or fat preferentially, regardless of what’s available. You might start the march in a fasted state, and get that boost of energy from glucose when you really need it. If you are fat-adapted (i.e., able to switch back and forth), you won’t end up “bonking” or hitting the wall, which happens to endurance athletes who are used to only burning sugar.
This article on hormone optimization has more details on a plan for achieving metabolic flexibility through cycling between periods of high-fat, low carb (ketogenic) eating, punctuated by brief carb loads every 3-4 days. Bonus points if you can time your carb up-cycles for the night before you hard workout to re-fuel your cells with glycogen. This is the best way to stay lean physique while still having the energy to build muscle.
2. Metabolic Conditioning
When people think of as “cardio,” they usually picture someone suffering on a treadmill, panting for air and watching how many calories they’ve burned. Not only is “cardio” a terrible way to lose weight, it often gives us an excuse and an appetite to overeat. Worst of all, this kind of exercise is suboptimal for improving fitness. The cardio craze of the 80s and 90s likely made our obesity epidemic worse, by replacing healthy activity with the model of brutalizing oneself back into shape.
I prefer the more general term of metabolic conditioning over cardio. Whereas metabolic flexibility refers to your fuel, metabolic conditioning refers to your body's ability to efficiently convert that fuel into physical output.
I follow a popular protocol among elite cyclists called the polarization method, where you spend most your time training in “Zone 2.” That’s where you can still hold a conversation, but the person you’re talking to can tell you're exercising. You can get into “Zone 2” with brisk walks, rucking (walking with a backpack), walking uphill, or biking at 50% of max effort. By incorporating exercise into your daily routine, such as biking instead of driving or taking a walk after dinner, you can accumulate enough activity to make a difference.
The second part of polarization consists of brief bursts of high-intensity output: such as sprints, which tax your mitochondria to the point of needing to regenerate. If you are spending plenty of time in Zone 2, you can limit your “HIIT” workouts to once or twice per week. I also throw in one day each week of “pure strength” training, using bodyweight calisthenics to maximize tension in the large muscle groups—sending hormonal signals to the muscles that they need to adapt to the new stresses I’m subjecting them to. These acute, high-intensity stressors turn out to help with endurance as well, and are much more time efficient than exercising for hours on end.
3. Bulletproofing Natural Movement Patterns
The reason you're mostly likely to stop during a 50-mile march isn't hunger or fatigue, but because your body is telling you it's about to break down. It's important to listen to those signals, even if you can only walk a couple of miles before your body issues a warning.
When it comes to points of vulnerability, starting from the feet, you have your ankles, knees, hips, and lower body.
Your feet are your foundation, so it's important to protect them with multiple layers of fabric, like a liner sock, a regular sock, and a comfortable fitting shoe that you've worn before. A minimalist shoe is preferable, not heavy hiking boots. Any extra weight will be magnified over distance, so there's no need to bring snacks or water unless you're hiking in a remote area without access to them.
Building up from the feet, the main way to protect your ankles, knees, hips and other vulnerable joints is with better walking form. The goal is to bulletproof your body to prevent injuries and to be able to hike long distances.
I subscribe to the GOATA philosophy of safe and efficient forward locomotion, which advises training to operate from our “back chain,” i.e., hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Each stride involves this whole chain of muscles to push off the back foot. You can train more efficient patterns of take-off and landing with exercises like drop-ins and child rockers.
I’m also a fan of Knees Over Toes guy, who prescribes weighted calf raises, backwards sleds, and various strength and mobility exercises to strengthen body parts that frequently get injured.
4. Endurance - the “X” Factor
The final plank of my training program is about grit and endurance. There’s no getting around a certain amount of discomfort on a 50-mile march. I usually don’t train distances longer than 10 miles (who’s got the time?), but I do try to expose myself to daily doses of “hormesis,” aka beneficial stress. Stress, within the sweet spot, can actually make you stronger. This concept applies to activities like resistance training, intermittent fasting, open-water swimming in cold water, sauna’ing, and getting direct sunlight on your skin.
Gradually introducing barefoot walking and running can help develop a supple, leathery callous on the feet, to accompany your “solar” callous (aka suntan) and “temperature” callous (aka cold adaptation).
With hormesis, as with the 50-mile march, it is important to heed your limits and listen to your body if it’s telling you to stop. Powering through the pain is can result in long-term injury and other setbacks, as you come to associate otherwise healthy activities with an inordinate amount of pain.
There’s a reason I only do the 50-mile march once per year.
5. Eliminate Bad Habits
Preparing for a 50-mile march is an excellent time to take stock of what’s working and what’s not working in your life. During this time, I prioritize the elimination of loser habits:
Cancel all those junk subscriptions to things your not watching/reading.
Pare down your social calendar to prioritize your closest friends.
Clean out your pantry of processed foods, seed oils, and anything that you haven’t touched in more than a year.
Give away your old threads to Good Will.
Give away some fraction of your money to a good charity, or a needy person on the street.
And finally, take inventory of how you’re spending your time.
Say “no” to more things so that you can say “yes” to the things that nourish your soul.
Say “no” to the junk food so you can say “yes” to the hearty meal.
Say “no” to the culture of sloth and ease, so you can say “yes” to a life of vigor.
The spiritual malaise didn’t come about in our country overnight, and we won’t solve in a day no matter how many miles we march. However, continuing this tradition is at least a small step in the direction of national revival and a reversal of the causes of our spiritual obesity.
Take the leap and sign up.
Past articles on the march:
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