Human endurance does not run at the pace of modern humans.  Our literature and schedules can easily grasp the seasonal and annual peaks and valleys which mind/body seem to necessitate, but the larger ways in which physical and mental development run are as yet poorly understood and too little spoken of out loud.

Take as a brief case study Philippe Gilbert, a pro roadie who last year enjoyed a rather legendary season, with a phenomenal run of dominance in March and April, as well as continued streaks of form throughout the rest of the year.  Thus far this year, he had been thoroughly mediocre.  Armchair quarterbacking anything is dangerous, and doing so with something as complex as human athleticism borders on the absurd, but the simplest explanation for Gilbert’s slow start is that he has yet to recover from last year.  Such feats (April, in this case) exact a high price, the paying of which could be put off (through June, July and even into September of 2011), but not foregone.

I’ve been doing long walks in rough country quickly for a long time, but a useful beginning might be the fall of 2002, when I trained for a ran a road marathon, and then a week or two later did a ~50 kilometer Steve Allen loop in the San Rafael Swell in  a day with Brad and Kyle.  Popping 3200mg of ibu a day to kill the pain in my knees ended up not being the best way to treat IT band problems, but that was the first in a long line (set back by 18 months of knee issues) of big walks which continue to this day.

In late 2005 I did a double crossing in the Grand Canyon for the first time.  In early 2008 I did the Coyote Two Moons 100k, establishing a personal best for vertical in 24 hours that I ought to get around to breaking this year.  In 2009 I did the Devils Backbone, Paunsaugunt Enduro, and a two-day northern circle in Glacier within four weeks.  Last year I did the Classic.  There are many missing, important steps here, but the tale of a logical, patient, multi-year progression is clear, as are the lesson it teaches: that the human body will over time acclimate to the point that amazing things will be routine, if you pay attention and give it enough time.

Today, I am convinced that this approach is paying dividends.  The story of this past August, September, and even October was that I just didn’t want to work that hard.  Well beyond the point of complete physical recovery I was left with no inclination to be all that ambitious, which is why I spent so much (very enjoyable) time fishing, and by extension getting fat.  The winter thus saw a slow start, bad numbers, a shitty run at the Whitefish Whiteout, and the usual and banal moments of self-doubt.  Walking up the stairs at work this afternoon put all those to rest.

M and I took this past long weekend to do our annual trip to Craters of the Moon National Monument.  Two weeks earlier than last year, and with much less snow.  As seen in the video above, the walking in Craters could scarcely get more absorbing.  Add in 10 liters of water in my pack at the beginning, and that I intentionally wore the XCountrys to up the training value and by the end of our 3 day trip my legs were hammered like they haven’t been since last summer.  And after the initial stiffness was worn of spinning in the work, they felt good as new.  So I now know I’m recovered from last summer, ahead of the curve based on last spring, and psyched to do some damage in the coming months.

I could have done a lot of the things listed above earlier.  Brad and I were talking about running Bighorn way back in 2002.  But I think that from a physical and spiritual perspective, it’s healthier to climb the ladder enjoying all the steps along the way, reasonable sure you won’t fall back down in the course of a too-forward looking leap.

It’s worth talking about minimal shoes and legs strength in the context of long-term athletic development.  Above is the sole of my XCountry after the first day of our trip, perhaps 15 miles virtually all off trail on lava of one sort of another.  Recall that it looked like this at the start of that day.  My intention when I bought those shoes last summer was to use them as a training tool, and to find out how minimal a shoe could be before speed over substantial distance and rough terrain was adversely affected.  Definitive conclusions on this matter are illusory, but I can say with certainty that for me, on that particular trip, the XCountrys became slower than (for instance) a pair of Crossleathers late on the first day, and remained that way for the rest of the trip.  I am almost as sure that anything beyond the Crossleathers would be superfluous protection and weight.  I enjoy the sensation of and mindfulness required using such a (relatively) soft shoe in such tough terrain, and in making sure I do so safely.  My feet and legs don’t just feel fully recovered right now, they feel actively loose and fantastic, more ready to go than this time last week.   Taking minimal shoes into challenging terrain, with a decent load, is a fantastic training tool, building strength from the arches all the way up into the core.  After last summer I am convinced that the secret to fast wilderness travel on foot is this kind of strength.  It would also seem increasingly likely that the minimal shoe envelope is only so beneficial, and that I may have found the ideal level of protection for my feet.

Of course, just as I intend to keep cultivating stronger feet and legs, so too do I intend to keep experimenting with minimal shoes.  New Balance and Inov8 continue to do great things.