This is a transcript from Find Your Feet Podcast Episode #48: Running the French Pyrenees. This podcast was a quiet ramble with myself, reflecting on this huge adventure that unfolded in July 2019. I hope you have the opportunity to listen to this podcast too.
I know I’m going to totally regret trying to have this conversation after dropping my husband, Graham, off at the airport at 4 o’clock in the morning. I’ve had a very early start, and I’m probably going to slur all my words together, but in some ways, I find that the fatigue kind of brings a peacefulness, and maybe that’s a really lovely prelude into this conversation. Because today I really wanted to share with you the adventure that I just came back from in the French Pyrenees. I’ve just returned from running 700km from the Atlantic coastline to the Mediterranean coastline. A traverse that took me 19 days, and covered about 42,000 metres of vertical climb, and when I think about that, and I try to put that into perspective, all I can think of is holy moly, that’s like 40 times Mt Wellington, which is the mountain that sits behind Hobart and one that I live on the slopes of. When I think about it like that, even thinking about it now, I’m just like, “I don’t even know how I did that.”
Today’s conversation is really just sharing with you, and I haven’t got notes in front of me, so if I ramble I apologise, but sharing with you the true beauty of that adventure and all the lessons that kind of went in to reaching the Mediterranean where I stripped off to my underwear on a French beach and went for a dip in the ocean. So here we go.
This goal for me wasn’t really a goal, it was a dream. And it started when we were in the French Pyrenees over a year ago now with another tour. We had ten wonderful people (nine women, one male). I felt pretty sorry for the sole male in a group of giggling girls, but we had a really fabulous trip there. Part of the runs that we were doing with the group were on this trail called the GR10. I didn’t really know a lot about it. I mean, I have a girlfriend who has walked the full length of the Haute route, so the very high route that traverses all the different mountains across the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic (think England) down to the Mediterranean (think Morocco). The GR10, it stayed a bit lower on the French side, and it turns out it actually traverses the same length, so Atlantic to the Mediterranean, but hugging on the French side. Because it’s a bit lower, you go right up into the huge high mountains, but then every night you drop down again and back into the valleys. It sort of goes up and down through these glaciated valleys. The bits that we ran on were absolutely stunning and really beautiful under foot, and just lovely running. I sort of had this image, and naïvely my normal way is to never look into things; never to over-read and over-analyse, but I just had this picture of this trail just sort of meandering gently up, gently down, smooth under foot, green, grassy, think The Sound of Music, and that’s what the trail was going to be like. I sort of began to dream about this beautiful Sound of Music adventure through the Pyrenees, and could I do it? I was sort of really eager. I knew in my heart there was… in fact it wasn’t even in my heart, it was in my mind’s eye, this need to kind of chew on something. I had this vision of myself, and it wasn’t quite where I was in place or time. Towards the end of last year, I just, I felt like I’d gone a bit squishy. And I don’t mean that in a body image, necessarily, I just felt like I’d lost my edge – a bit like a knife that had blunted a little. So this goal, this dream, just kind of kept coming back to me, like maybe I should try and run the Pyrenees. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe…
And then I broke my foot.
As soon as I broke my foot, or as soon as I ended up on crutches and in a moon boot hobbling around, I knew in my heart that I needed something that was going to keep my fuel alive, that was going to keep driving me forward. Because even though I’d talked about previously on the podcast how I used that time for this amazing self-growth phase, and self-discovery phase, I knew that I needed this little seed to kind of grow towards, or like the sun that I was growing up towards and giving the energy to kind of keep photosynthesising playfulness. So, the Pyrenees became it, and I decided that I would book my flights and I’d set three weeks aside for this adventure straight after two of our tours which we did and we just got back from that as well: Italy and Albania.
When my foot started to not get better, I realised that, well, I believed that this goal was too far beyond my reach. Like I was barely able to go for a 5km run without getting foot pain or a 10km run without foot pain. There seemed to only be one pair of shoes I could run in and one pair of shoes that I could wear around the house in and all the rest of the time I seemed to have this dull ache and discomfort in my foot and I thought, you know, there’s no way I could go and run 700km in a three week period, which is affectively nearly a marathon a day on average. I remember the exact moment that I had that realisation. Graham and I were chatting about what are we going to do when we’re going away? Are we going to do the Pyrenees? And I think without even uttering a word we looked at one another. He came towards me. He wrapped his arms around me, and I burst into tears. It was like this huge bubble; this big dream had been crushed and dissolved away.
I think because neither of us quite knew how to set another adventure in Europe for three weeks that would live up to the expectations of the Pyrenees, we had nothing planned. We had all sorts of weird and whacky ideas, like maybe we’ll cycle tour, maybe we’ll do this. And it wasn’t until the day before we were due to leave Tirana in Albania at the end of our tour there and embark on this three week holiday together, and which we hadn’t had for about seven years, we just have not had a holiday that hasn’t involved some kind of work, we still had no plan. But the thing was that this seed of the Pyrenees never left me – I could feel it always in my gut and even when I was trying to think up what it would be like to cycle through Italy, the Pyrenees would just kind of metamorphize into the back of my brain, and it would start sprouting, and I could feel it’s roots digging into me and into my heart, and so in the end we went, “You know what? Bugger it.” The foot had been pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good. We didn’t bring enough gear or sports nutrition and my shoes were completely dead. I had no idea what I was going to wear for the next three weeks, and I didn’t really have any of the stuff that I probably had dreamt of using in the Pyrenees but we though bugger it – we’re going to go anyway. So, we booked a flight that went via Italy to Portugal and in Lysbon with an hour to spare towards Spain we did a James Bond taxi moment. We ran out of the airport and flagged down a taxi, jumped in it and a seven-minute taxi ride down to the local running store. Managed to find a pair of a shoes that was in my size, and we grabbed them, and back into the taxi and bundled back to the airport and with about 15 minutes to spare we caught our flight to Spain. So, I had brand new shoes, and then literally all we had with us was these tiny little vest packs that contained basically my bathers, a pair of shorts that I could sleep in and a singlet. We had a few leftover tubes of electrolyte from the trips and we’d scrounged a few off a couple of other guests. I had two pairs of socks, a phone, oh and we had a Jetboil, like a little camping stove, so that we could boil water and of which we still had to find gas. And that was pretty much it. So, it was pretty comical. I had a weird feeling getting on all of these international flights literally just dressed in your running clothes and running shoes and little vest packs, but anyway it was super cool because the dream had gone from me running the length of the Pyrenees to actually Graham and I both having a go and that we would lightweight run, hike, I guess you call if fastpack, as far as we could. But a couple of days into the experience, having a heatwave, another heatwave, yet another one, sweep through Europe, we both realised that we weren’t really being true to ourselves. And you could feel it because it felt mechanical, it felt a bit heavy. Like we were having fun, but you could feel yourself fighting the weight of the pack even though the pack wasn’t that big. It felt like if we were to keep doing this it would become a job. And we didn’t want to have a job. It wasn’t part of the plan. And so, on Day 2, Graham decided that he didn’t want to keep going. I remember the moment because we were standing up on this hill, looking down over this beautiful country of France, thinking, “What do I do?”. For me, probably, my greatest Achilles heel in all of my life has been the emotion of guilt. And as I’ve come to learn, guilt really stems from love. I don’t know why I’ve been so wrapped in a little silver foil of guilt for most of my life, and it’s never to do necessarily with ‘shoulds’ from other people, but it comes from me always wanting, or finding it really hard to put myself first, and I hope that other listeners will resonate with that, because I always felt guilty if I did something for myself that didn’t mean I could pay it forward, or include someone else. I don’t know. I just know it was coming from a place of absolute love and in this moment, the guilt was thinking, “This is the first holiday… this is kind of a honeymoon that Graham and I have had in six years,” and I’m out here thinking, “I actually just want to run the length of the Pyrenees,” which for every single day of that would be at least half a day, if not a full day, out on the trails. I’m dragging him out of bed at 4 in the morning on days that we want to start before the heat of the day. Him driving to meet me at random points beside cow barns and ponds and up the depths of valleys where he was thinking he was going to get mowed down by some little truck on a single-lane road to the middle of nowhere and to put all that on him and to not just spend this holiday next to him was hard for me to wrap my head around. In that exact moment, though, and bless him, and I love him unconditionally, not just for supporting me in this adventure, he agreed that he would love to support me, to continue the adventure, no matter whether it took me one more day, or five more days, or halfway, or to the finish; it really didn’t matter. It was more about not wanting to end in that moment, and knowing in the heart of my heart, that no matter how difficult it was and uncomfortable I was in that moment, I really wanted to be out there and to continue on. We back tracked and we went all the way back via a number of random local buses back to Beirut and we hired a little car. Which in itself was pretty comical! Normally when you’re setting out on a trip to somewhere and going to be in mountainous environments, you generally go fairly well-prepared with big suitcases or duffle bags, or roller wheels, or whatever you travel with, but in our scenario we literally just threw these two tiny vest packs in the back of this car and beelined back towards the mountains. We found a cardboard box a bit later in the trip and that became our suitcase of food. We stopped at a supermarket and bought two teaspoons and a sharp knife, all for the measly sum of about 5 Australian dollars, and that became our fork/knife/spoon. We never even bothered with plates in the end, we would just find a piece of paper, or the back of the bread bag! And we literally just travelled in this ridiculously lightweight scenario.
It was really interesting to end up back at the foot of these mountains and never having really been through most of it, not really knowing what the hell I was getting myself into, and really on the fringes of the big mountains, to find myself lying in bed thinking, “Just lean in, Han. Just lean in.” Because I think that’s pretty much it. You have the opportunity in life. I think every day should throw challenges at you, whether it’s some little challenge of remaining patient in a challenging moment, or you are really challenged by something that you’re working on, or something going on in your home life, or the little challenge that you experience out on a training run in the morning. I kind of believe now that you have the opportunity to lean in or lean out, and I lay there meditating in bed and I just heard my head saying, “Just lean in. Just lean in. Just lean in, Han.” And so, the challenge getting out the next day was that when I woke it was raining. It was one of the only days, actually there were two days of rain, but for now this was pretty rare to have seen rain in the whole time we’d been in Europe, and so I sort of rolled out of bed and onto these legs that were just screaming at me already. This was day three, so it was two days of marathon-length running in, and my legs felt so, so sore and so heavy from all these downhill especially. I just was thinking, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” It was raining and dark and we drove back to the start and there was this gushing waterfall coming down, and it was all misty and the track was just root-y and gnarly and rocky and we started walking up. I think Graham could sense… I’m sure it was an energy I was giving off of doubt. He just took my hand in the peace of the moment, and gave it a squeeze. He didn’t even say anything, and in that moment, I knew. I knew in that moment that I was ready, and that he was ready, and that we were going to give this thing a damngood crack. In fact, I reckon, if I’m completely honest with myself, in that moment I knewthat I would see the Mediterranean, and I was on Day 3.
So, it was a really interest experience, because as I read in a quote: “We fight to hold on, and we fight to let go.” And I think I did both, and then I let go. But the funny thing was, if I look at the first two days of the trip, it was completely about the physical. I felt like a little wooden soldier, marching through the Pyrenees on a journey, so excited, but physically, you know, I’m on a journey. And then on Day 3 it became very mental. It became very “Now that I’m here, how much am I going to eat, and when am I going to eat, and how much water should I take, and do I take my raincoat today, and what time do I think I’ll do this, and how far have I got to go in kilometres?” and it was very, very, very mental. I mean, it served me – I absolutely thrived out there. From Day 4 to Day 7 I felt very organised and very prepared for the trail. I was using my phone to navigate. There’s this awesome app called Maps.Me and we had the GPS of the track marked so I was able to use that to correct myself and at times I had to do that. But I think even through that time, I had a couple of really tough days where I thought that I’d be out there for six hours, and six hours became nine hours, and I sweat a lot as you probably all know already, and super-hot and just getting to the end of this day and just thinking, “I do not know how I’m going to get up again tomorrow”. Every day I got out of bed, like I could feel this body just getting stronger, and I don’t know where it was coming from, because like marathon after marathon, with thousands and thousands of vertical metres climbed, I was just like it’s just not going to be possible. But every day, sure enough, I’d get up and I’d take one ginger step towards the Jetboil to make my cup of tea and amazingly it just started to work. I think now, like what was it that allowed me to recover in such away that I’ve never experienced before? I think there were two reasons. No, actually I think there were three. The first one is that I think when you take away the stress of life, you know, because we’d gone so lightweight I’d had to leave my laptop back in Italy and I’d had to leave all of my work stuff, that I just turned off stress source. Even positive ones, even responsibilities to family. No one really knew where we were at alland there was something very liberating about that, and I think without the cortisol rushing through my body I was able to physically really recover. I think the second reason why I felt like I was recovering so, so well, was that I just damn well wanted to be there. And I had no pressure, I had no expectation. I didn’t even really care if I made it to the Mediterranean. In fact, I didn’t even care if I only had one or two more days on the trail in me, that for as long as I was loving it, that was where I wanted to be, and I think that positivity and kindness and compassion to myself, even in the way I moved on the trail, felt more compassionate than what I’d experienced when you just go on a one-day mission at home. I think that really helped.
And I think the other thing which was really eye-opening to me was that I did a lot of meditation. I would lie in bed at night after reading my book, and chatting with Graham, and sharing our highlights of the day, and having that last goodnight hug, but I would then lie there in the moment, and just try and bring myself to the absolute present, and find gratitude for the experiences that I’d had. To feel every muscle fibre just talking to me and then releasing. Telling me what it wanted me to listen to and the releasing, and then I’d fall into this super heavy sleep. Mind you with whacky dreams. Like, every night, whacky dreams. I don’t know where they were coming from. And then I’d wake up in the morning, and I’d just feel like, feeling so ready for the day, and that was super cool. So, something that we can all sort of have a go at is this concept of, you know, if you imagine when you go for a massage, you dig your fingers in and you try to release the muscle by telling it to release. Well I guess I was mentally massaging my muscles and telling them that I was hearing them and that I knew that they’d done so well and that they were talking to me, but now it was time to relax. I’d get up in the morning and I felt like I’d had a massage. It was very powerful.
I think I’d gone from a really physical state on the trail, to a very mental state on the trail, but after Week 1 passed it became a very emotional state on the trail. I started to feel… I don’t know… like one minute I’d be exuberantly happy, and like a little kid in a lolly shop moment and skinny dipping in the lake that I’d found, and whipping down a hill, and kicking up all the leaves from the deciduous trees, and then the next minute I’d feel really, really low, and contemplative and meditative. And then I’d feel fear, like real anxiety about this big section that was going to come up and I was going to be really alone and it was going to be really remote, and what would happen out there if something went wrong. And then suddenly I’d feel real strength in myself. So, the journey became more emotional for a period of time, and very thoughtful. But not from a mental place. And then it was bizarre, because that passed and the physical discomfort had passed and now in this really great space to suddenly finding this absolute peace in the last week. Like absolute, there is no other place on the planet I want to be. I guess, in some ways, I had reached that spiritual place, like I guess you’d transcended into this place that you can really only go if you’ve pushed through all the other, not obstacles, but other walls, other doors: the physical door, the mental door, the emotional door. And then I finally reached what I call for myself, the spiritual door. It was a time when my mind was very, very quiet when I was out there. I still had all the planning and the preparation, but it was so quiet.
I think one thing that really helped me to get through that last door was that at one point I remember even saying to Graham, “It’s looking a bit threatening today, and we haven’t really had a lot of rain, do you think that I should put my phone in a bag just in case it rains? Do you think I should take a thermal as well as my rain coat?” We were both, like, “Nah,”. We probably got really blasé because we just had so much warm weather. “Nah, nah, she’ll be right, she’ll be right.” So I set off, and I literally ended up in the most extreme thunderstorm I have ever been in my entire life, and I was crossing these totally barren mountain passes at 2,000m above sea level, and I am the tallest thing for a million miles and there is bolts of lightning and it’s misty and the thunder’s right overhead, and the rain is teeming down. And sure enough it killed my phone. So, from that moment on, I think I probably had about 6 or 7 days to go of the journey at that point, I didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t reach anyone unless I met someone on the trail and could get help from them. My phone was also my map. So, I had no map. So I had to spend the evenings looking at the map and studying them, and memorising them, and then going out on the trail and just trusting my what had now become fairly intimate knowledge of the landscape and the way the trails were marked and relying on this memory of where I was going. I think that forced me to step up even more than I probably would have if my phone had still been alive, and it also forced me to forego emails. I couldn’t be contacted by anyone, no one knew where we were, and it just moved into this bubble of an experience. It was super cool. The thing about the Pyrenees that completely surprised me, was that my Sound of Music adventure that I had expected, this grassy, meandering, trail interspersed with little mountain villages, the quiet little backroads I’d been running on, it was bollocks. There were fleeting moments of beauty like that, and then the rest of the time was just gnarly, and rocky, and every day was at least once up Mt Wellington, if not twice up Mt Wellington, up to 2,500m of vertical climbing at any given climb, and then down the other side, and up the other side, and boulder-hopping, and scree. At one point there was not a blade of vegetation, and then the next minute you were pushing through bracken and gorse… Honestly it was nothing like what I expected. But I think that just kind of made it, because in some ways it just helped me traverse those doors because I’d be angry with it at one moment, and then I’d be scared of it the next moment, and then I’d feel sad because I think it would be defeating me, and I’d lean in again, and I’d rally, and I’d get this euphoric determination that I could do it and then I’d feel even more euphoria at the end of the day when I finished, and that would lift me into the next day. Eventually I think I got to that place of transcending all of that and reaching this place where I just let go and I stopped fighting it and just accepted the landscape for what it was. Every day of that trail was so uniquely different.
The final massive challenge was this mountain, Mt Canigou, which sits quite isolated, almost, from the rest of the Pyrenees, and it really is the last massive mountain before you pop down towards the Mediterranean coastline. It goes up to 2,900m. The day that I set out it was pitch black. It was the day after I broke my phone, so I was on my own out there, and we started really early in the day because this day was 47km I had to traverse because there were no other stops. There were no places that Graham could really get to me until at least the 40km mark. So, I had a 40km day, I had to get up to 2,900m. And when I got up there, not only was it really cold, but there was this extremelystrong wind blowing, I’d never been in wind like it, to the point when I was on this knife-like ridge. It was completely barren, so there’s not a blade of vegetation, and so this wind would whip off of the plains of France and then sweep up over this spur, and it would hit me. I had to crawl on my hands and knees for a portion of this ridgeline because it was so strong. I felt like I was literally going to get blown off this mountain. Which is completely bizarre, because by the time I got down and bumped into Graham who’d run up to meet me, it was thirty-something degrees, not a cloud in the sky, completely calm because we were down lower on the mountain slopes, protected by the trees and the valleys. It was kind of comical, but that day on paper just terrified the bajeezers out of me, and it ended up becoming pretty much one of the highlights of the trip. So, the final big mountain push, and I remember the emotion really hit me, actually, because when I crested that mountain was the first time I saw the Mediterranean ocean and it kind of looked so far, and yet so far away. But I knew in that moment I was going to get there.
When I got to the Mediterranean, and the very end, having not only had the most amazing days on the trail, but some incredible hospitality from the locals in the area. Each night we’d stay in little gites, and farm stays, and the occasional ski apartments, and then running down off the last mountain through the olive trees and the vineyards, and seeing the terracotta roofs of the towns. Every town changed because of the different rock types, but in the Mediterranean, everything is terracotta. It was so picture-perfect. It was a beautiful blue-sky day. I’d had in my mind this white, sandy beach, and really warm water, and I was just going to float around on my back, staring at the sky, and when I got there it was this rubbly, grey, rocky beach, and the water was freezing! Like Tasmanian cold! So, I certainly wasn’t floating on my back. I can’t even put words to what I felt, but I didn’t feel anything. I kind of felt like I should cry, or high-five or laugh… I don’t know, I just had this absolute peace in myself. I was euphoric, but I was so peaceful. And it stayed like that, and it has stayed like that. It actually hasn’t changed. I mean, I feel like a different person, and I don’t know why. I’m not saying that just because I ran 700km in 19 days and this through the Pyrenees that ‘wow, look at me’. It’s not that, it’s just… I just think that I let go of guilt. I breached limitations that I had put in my head about what I was capable of. I found a place to trust myself. I found a new level of love in my relationship that brings tears and goose bumps to me. I realise that I am my absolute best self when I listen to the calling that is coming from within me, to the yearnings, to the seeds of growth. Even just today I was working with a client who wants to set a big, meaty goal and had some ideas, and she said, “How do I know if this is the right goal?” and I’m like, “Because your soul will tell you. It will be that gnawing seed that never went away.” It will make your toes tingle and you’ll know. You will know. I think that so many of us don’t let go of our ‘shoulds’, and let go of our guilt, and let go of our fears and anxieties and our thoughts that we need to kind of live life by the text book, when sometimes the textbook just has a bloody error in it. Sometimes you just need to shut the textbook and make up the rules for a moment. Sometimes it’s when you make up the rules that you realise there aren’t any rules. I think that’s probably what I learned on this journey, that traversing these mountains kind of became traversing my own inner mountains and I reached the other side and I realised that I’m still the same Hanny. But I’d also found another side of Hanny, and that was pretty cool. I brought that person home, and I’m really proud of that person, and I love that person in my relationship and I love that person in my team at work. And I love that person when I’m just sitting quietly at home in my house and when I’m just rambling on a podcast with you. I’m not embarrassed to say that, and I don’t believe I have an ego in saying that, it’s just I’m cool with being me. So that’s the Pyrenees.
I guess the motto of the story is “Don’t be afraid to dream”. Don’t be afraid to be afraid, and don’t be afraid to lean in when you are, and when maybe it would be easier just to lean out, because sometimes when you lean in and you keep leaning in, and you keep leaning in, and you keep leaning in, you fall down an Alice in Wonderland hole and you find a whole other world waiting for you. And that is pretty cool. Yeah. I think that’s my ramble. And done.
I’d love to hear from you all. I’m curious to know who’s listening. I’m really genuinely asking you to reach out, whether it’s on social, or you can take the time to drop me an email. I’m curious to know who’s listening and what you really want to hear more of, because there are so many extraordinary people out there with amazing stories. And I’m kind of curious to know whom you want to listen to. So, let’s call that a day. I’m wishing you all the very best. I hope you’re out playing wilder and until next time, this is Hanny on the Find Your Feet Podcast.
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