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I walked 50 miles in a day. Here's why it's worth doing.
Get ready to level up for real life, and expand the map of possibilities
“When you finish this march, you will have a new reservoir of energy and stamina that can carry you to new places,” I said.
I wanted to encourage my young friend, Aku, with whom I had regularly trained for this 50-mile march across all three bridges of San Francisco Bay. We were only on the first leg. But I spoke these words with certainty – confident in Aku’s ability to finish the course set before us, even though most of the nine people who had reached this point would tap out before the end.
My own goal for the third annual 50-mile march was to “level up,” like a video game character, but in reality. I can count the number of times in my life I’ve done this. It happened when I was 13 and spent two weeks at an outdoor backpacking camp, then again at 16 when I left home for a month in a foreign-language-speaking country. Ironically, these vacations from my video game addictions were always the impetus for real-life transformation.
In adulthood, I’d leveled up when I first navigated by myself from the Bay to the Delta, and when I did the Alcatraz Swim on a chilly New Year’s day. Although I seek out novel challenges as a matter of course, it had been a while since I had put myself through a difficult enough trial to generate the epigenetic shift that accompanies imposed demands of a certain kind.
It had been over two years since my last attempt to complete the 50-mile march in a single day. I didn’t know how my body might respond to the stress at age 33 compared to my 30-year-old self. Our outdoor training sessions leading up to the march revealed Aku to be a young man of exceptional grit, spirit, and determination. Also, he was one of the few people who actually read my guide to efficient marching technique, and then further studied the resources on “Glide Walking” from Esther Gokhale.
Walking seems simple, but you need to heed certain biomechanical principles to ensure that you’re efficiently minimizing the forces on your joints while maximizing the impulse generated by each step. These techniques were already helping Aku alleviate a nagging knee pain that he had developed while backpacking in Yosemite the week before.
By mile 40, I could say fairly conclusively that if anything I was in better shape this time around. Thankfully, forward locomotion is one of those rare skills that you can hone over the course of a lifetime – like playing golf or doing crossword puzzles. What’s lost in age is made up for in technique. I considered that I might even sprint the last 200 meters, following the protocol laid out by Theodore Roosevelt when he first institutionalized the 50-mile march requirement for the Marine Corps.
The final stretch from our stomping ground at the Albany Bulb to the final destination at Treasure Island promised to be relatively straightforward. More of the same. Just a bit more pain.
By that point, the marching fellowship was down to just me and Aku. Our pace was a solid 3.5 miles per hour and our gait was consistent. Knowing that we were on pace to finish more or less on time, I teased Aku that at mile 45, we would be officially halfway done – not in terms of time elapsed or distance covered, but in terms of the total effort expended and pain experienced. I was only half-kidding. During my first 50-mile march, my walking buddy characterized his experience of the march in this way. As hotspots and strains accrue, the gait is altered. He called it the ‘pain lasagna.’ Each mile adds a new layer – different from the previous one – which covers up the previous layers that get baked into a delicious experience of discomfort. The walking form becomes less efficient and suddenly you find that it takes three times the effort even to move at a reduced pace.
Everyone on this year’s march had different weak points. For one, it was tense hip flexors. Another’s calves tightened up after 35 miles. For Aku, it was the back of one of his knees, where the hamstring connects. And for me, it was the chafing on the inner thighs of my thick cotton shorts, which I removed at certain times when it felt appropriate to walk in just boxer shorts.
Chafing aside, I still felt enough pep in my step to be optimistic about the final 20%. By mile 45, however, my old friend’s aphorism started to ring true. The last 10% is always the truest test of grit, as you must dig deeper and deeper to find the will to keep going when every fiber of your being is shouting out to stop.
This year, we reversed the original course. Instead of starting on Treasure Island and walking clockwise toward the Golden Gate Bridge, we started at the Embarcardero and marched west before turning north toward Marin, and then east toward Berkeley. In the original version, the home stretch ran along the flat paths of San Francisco’s waterfront – past Crissy Field and through Fisherman’s Wharf then along the welcoming piers leading up to the ferry building. The change in direction had been premised on two ideas: first, that it would be psychologically easier to walk generally in the direction of our home, and second, that we would avoid bumping up against the 6:30 pm wintertime closure of the Golden Gate Bridge, which had prevented me from finishing the march on my first attempt back in January of 2020.
I hadn’t considered that ending on Treasure Island would mean a final challenging ascent up the Bay Bridge pedestrian path after dark, nor that the path might also have a curfew like the Golden Gate.
By the time Aku and I reached the approach to the Bay Bridge, with less than 5 miles to the car awaiting us, we were finding it harder to distract ourselves from our physical discomfort. The pain lasagna was going bad. Our conversation shifted from abstract philosophy of life to the concrete litany of our aches and pains, and how we were managing them. The primary consolation was the fast-approaching finish line. We could see it!
The East Bay sewage treatment plant added to our woes. The scent of heavily chlorinated human waste invaded our nostrils, such that our every sensory faculty was now saturated with suffering. But our tribulations weren’t over yet.
“Keep your wits about you,” I warned my fellow traveler. A sketchy character rode past us on a bike, slowing down and leering at us as he passed. I looked over my shoulder and saw the haggard biker looking back over his shoulder at us as if to assess whether we were an easy target for a mugging. Our powerful aura, coupled with our divine blessing, combined to deter him from whatever malfeasance he might have been considering.
After another pain-filled mile, we came to a series of discouraging signs. First, a trail marker indicated that it was a 2-hour walking trip to the end of the bridge and back to this point. That meant a full hour to the island if we made average time, or around 45 minutes at our well-trained marching pace. The second sign informed us that the pedestrian path was only open until 9 pm.
CITATIONS ISSUED. STRICTLY ENFORCED, the sign read.
Aku looked down at his phone. It was 8:44.
“We have to run,” I gasped.
I’ve often written about how you never know what you’re physically capable of until you are pushed to your outer limits by some actual demand of life. Think of the proverbial adrenaline-pumped parent who lifts a car up to free their trapped infant. Is this based on a true story? Who knows. My own experiences have mostly revolved around either sprinting to catch the bus/train/airplane when I’m late for something important, or jumping off of a sailboat into frigid waters to push it out of the mud before high tide leaves me stranded. In the context of the 50-mile march, however, I’ve always had to motivate myself with the abstract ideals of vigor and Doing Hard Things. In this case, I had a new reason to push myself extra hard for the final push. I didn’t want to get a ticket, or worse, find ourselves unable to complete the journey – having to backtrack just to get to a location where an Uber could transport us unceremoniously to the finish line.
So we ran. Or more accurately, we hobbled at first.
“Soft feet, soft shoes!” I shouted to Aku, but I was really speaking to myself as a reminder of the need to land lightly on the balls of the feet before letting the heel gently tap the ground. Running technique is distinct from walking technique in this way. Whereas the optimal walking form includes long strides and heel strikes, efficient running involves a quicker cadence, shorter strides, and a piston-like action of the foot, ankle, Achilles tendon, and calf – beginning with a soft toe landing, or “forefoot strike.”
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It took a while to make the adjustment, but soon we were cruising along the well-lit pathway of the Bay Bridge with a brand new set of hotspots and burning sensations. The variation in our movement was temporarily a relief, as was the uphill incline, compared to the plodding monotony of flat walking. After about a mile of hobbled running, with the end of the bridge seeming to get farther away, the new aches morphed into heavy, heavy crosses. My chafing now seemed trivial, but had been replaced by a throbbing sensation of the veins or muscles in my inner thighs. I couldn’t tell exactly where the pain was emanating from, but it felt… unbenign.
Was this the final boss, testing me to see whether I really wanted to reach the next level of this game?
It was time for a new strategy.
“I knew a man Bojangles and he danced for me,” I sang. Anything to distract from the pain.
“IN OLLLLLLLDDDD soft shoeeees.”
It didn’t matter that I didn’t know most of the words to the song. I knew the lines that mattered.
“He jumped sooooo high, yeah he jumped. so. high… And then he lightly touched downnnnnnn.”
When you’ve been walking for 14 hours, your feet have a way of self-medicating and becoming somewhat numb. It may be endorphins, or perhaps even the endocannabinoid system delivering your body’s own internal painkillers. However, this dulling comes at the expense of overall mobility. I suspect the reduction in range of motion is meant to protect you from overuse injuries, and is primarily adaptive. Sometimes you have to push through it, though.
“MISTER BOOOO-JANGLES,” I screamed.
There is a workaround when it comes to joint stiffness, and that is simply: Don’t. Stop. Moving. Inertia goes a long way, and it was only when we stopped that the worst of the immobility would kick in.
Soon we were more than halfway across the bridge, but my repetitious refrains of Mr. Bojangles were starting to lose their motivational effect. I needed something more potent to keep me and my young friend in motion – something to move the next foot forward.
The last two miles of marching on the Bay Bridge are something of a blur. I can’t explain how we kept running the whole way without recourse to divine providence. Call it a higher power or “Holy Ghost Power!” – something was moving in us to carry us through when we were out of gas and past the point of running on fumes.
We alternated between singing, chanting, and grunting. None of us knew any marching songs, so we made them up. I went full-on Southern Baptist Preacher Mode – shouting fervent sermons, which Aku riffed on. We imagined we were treading on snakes and looked forward to bathing our feet in milk and honey once safely to the Promised Land.
We arrived on Treasure Island just before 10 pm, after 15 hours of almost continuous walking – stopping only to change socks, refill water bottles, and use the bathroom.
Aku shared that if I had told him at the 40-mile mark that we would be running three out of the last five miles, he wouldn’t have believed that he could have done it. It’s only in the moment of the greatest urgency that we can summon the spirit and will to accomplish what we never imagined was possible. This is why I believe that the 50-mile march is such a vital institution. In addition to being a motivation to get in shape, prepare for hard times, and explore your local region, it carries a symbolic weight that makes superabundant effort come naturally. Coming close to failure is the surest way to become more resilient.
Less than a week after the march, I am again craving new challenges. The world feels different. The missions I can embark on seem larger. It took a few days for my body to recover – especially my throat, what with all the shouting and screaming at the end there. But it didn’t take long before I felt the urge to find some new adventure. My feet feel stronger than ever. As humans, we adapt. If our lives aren’t offering enough hardship naturally, it’s important that we seek out challenges. I’m not talking about arbitrary goals or pain for the sake of pain, but genuine growth opportunities where we know that we will be stretched close to our breaking point, if for no other reason than that it makes all of the other little difficulties in life seem that much easier.
Join us next year? If you’re not in the Bay Area, consider starting your own 50-mile march and don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re wanting to take your game to the next level, and make your map a bit larger.