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  • Writer's pictureErin Ward

My 12-Hour Walk Experience

Mindfully mindless. This was the phrase that came to me at about the 5 hour mark on the 12 hour walk. I had reached the end of the beach. Did you know that existed? The end of the beach? Have you ever walked the beach and thought to yourself, “I wonder where it ends.”? This was the most intriguing part of my walk.

I did this 12-hour walk a year ago today. In fact, I did most of the writing of this experience the day after the walk but didn’t share it until now. This was a global event that people all over the world were engaging in, under the guidance of Colin O’Brady. The purpose was to engage in something that was physically and mentally challenging and push your endurance to degrees you didn’t know you could achieve. The rules: no phone usage other than utilizing the walk app that tracked your time and distance, no talking to anyone, no music, no distractions. Just you, alone with your body and mind.

I’d started out in shorts, tank top, and flip flops on shelly sand. The sun was just barely starting to rise, and as I entered the beach, my first thought was “OMG I wanna take a picture of that”. Followed by, “No, you’re not using your phone today. This experience is for you and only you. YOU get to enjoy this without sharing it with anyone”. And so I did. 

About 20 minutes in, I had reached the entrance from the beach into the state park. The sun had pretty much risen then, so I turned to enter the park. I didn’t have a plan, other than to walk and see where I ended up. I caught the tail end of the sunrise from a beach overlook in the park, then continued walking through the park. Before long, I saw the entrance to a trail…Ancient Dunes Trail. I changed from my flip flops into the sneakers that were in my backpack and set off on the trail. Basically, I was walking through a forest that once was part of the ocean. Hundreds of years ago, when the ocean extended in further than it does now, the area I was in was ocean and sea oats. So, while the trail wasn’t long or hard, it was interesting to think about its history.

While I didn’t know what to expect with the walk, I anticipated it being easier at the beginning, as far as mindset goes, and more difficult at the end. I found the opposite to be true. It took me a few good hours to fully disconnect from life and distractions. Even though I wasn’t using my phone or talking to anyone, the everyday distractions were still very much alive in my head. I was still very conscious of time and wondering how long certain portions of my walk would take. What time would it be when I ended this trail? How long should I sit at that picnic table and journal? What am I supposed to be thinking about? Should I be thinking about certain things? Oh man, I haven’t been focusing on the intention I set for this walk. How will I get answers if I’m not focusing on the questions? Should I be journaling more? I haven’t meditated yet. I should probably stop and do that. The weirdest thoughts would pop into my head. I wasn’t struggling with being alone, but I hadn’t fully given up control of my mind yet.

After a couple hours in the state park, I ventured back out to the beach a different way than I’d come in. The boardwalk was long, and at that point, I wanted anything that would add even just a little bit of mileage to my walk. I hit the beach, the shoes came off, and the rest of my walk…which was about 8 ½ hours…was done barefoot. It was between 9:30 and 10:00 in the morning. I’d been walking since 6:23. The beach was gorgeous. Of course I had planned appropriately and worn a bikini under my clothes, so into the water I went. I took my time. I soaked it in. Afterwards, I sat on my towel and ate some food. The beauty around me was breathtaking. The sun, the waves, the white sand, all of it. I found myself breathing it in and feeling so lucky to be there. And in the same moment, I also was very conscious of a twinge of guilt. I felt guilty for being in such a pretty place on a day that was supposed to be challenging. I felt guilty for sitting there, reveling in beauty when this was supposed to be hard. The judgmental thought came, “You should be walking”. And just as quickly, I also heard the words, “It doesn’t have to be hard”. And I instantly felt relieved. I realized that I’d gone into the day, expecting every moment to be challenging, mentally and physically. In fact, I was so prepared for this outcome, that I hadn’t even thought for a moment that I might actually ENJOY it! And here I was, about 4 hours in, not in pain, not struggling with my mind, not feeling tempted to look at my phone, just reveling in the experience, and feeling guilty for being fully in the moment, like I should be anticipating struggles to pop up at any moment, NOT enjoying myself. 

Isn’t that life? We are so conditioned that things have to be hard, so when they’re not, we feel they must be wrong. We are so conditioned to hustle, to grind, and we experience shame when we don’t. What will people think of us if we don’t work crazy hours, if we go on yet ANOTHER vacation, if we make money easily doing a job that we love. What will people think of us if we create a life that actually brings us joy?

We are so conditioned to suffer and trained to believe that there is honor in suffering. I’ve lived from that belief for many years, not consciously of course, but I definitely didn’t see how life could be easy because it never had been for me. I had struggled for everything, so I believed that that would always be the case. I also harbored some guilt for joy in my life. I felt a need to play down my happiness if I felt someone else wasn’t experiencing such happiness. I would feel a need to apologize for having a good day, a non-stressful week, a gentle start to a morning, because if others weren’t experiencing it, why should I be allowed to? 

On the beach, with those words “It doesn’t have to be hard” in my head and the sudden realization that I had been living from the belief that it DID have to be hard, I resolved to be in the moment and soak up the rest of the day. I pulled out my journal and described the revelation I’d just had. I slowly enjoyed my food. I laid back on my towel thinking I’d do a meditation…and I fell asleep. Yep! And when I woke up, I didn’t let myself feel guilty. The day was mine, after all. No rules, endless time, and sunshine.

That was my longest break of the day, about an hour and a half in length. But while it was a break from walking, it was an important revelation that set the mindful tone for the rest of my walk. It was the turning point for me. From that point on, I was carefree. I walked with a different perspective. I anticipated what I might see in the next steps, rather than what challenges might arise. I walked steadily but not racing. A couple times, I stopped and took a quick dip in the ocean, drank some water, and continued on. I’d given up getting dressed after a swim. I walked in my bikini with my backpack on my back, not caring how funny it looked. I walked barefoot, mostly along the edge of the water. 

And that is when I saw the sand dollars. 3 big, whole beautiful sand dollars all together in the water. I picked them up and stowed them carefully in my backpack. I saw them as a sign of abundance. Abundance in all areas of my life. Financial abundance, obviously, I mean, they were SAND DOLLARS, but also abundance of joy, peace, love, work, clients, travel, creativity, time with loved ones, health, etc…all the things that bring me joy.

I was walking a stretch of beach I’ve never been on. It was pretty remote, which I liked. With no public access available, the few people I saw were either walking or on bikes. I loved the solitude. At one point, I came upon a beached sailboat. It was on its side, water lapping into it. I thought about the story of it…what had happened to it, where had it come from, how had it ended up there, had someone died on it? It wasn’t far past the sailboat that the beach rounded a corner. And there, the ocean became the inlet. I loved being somewhere I had never been. Big rocks now jutted up along the edge of the water, and boats were anchored behind them while people fished off the boats and the rocks. I looked across and realized that Porpoise Point, part of Vilano Beach, another beach that I frequent, was just across the inlet. I’m not great with geography and proximity of things, but it made me feel like I’d walked for days. I continued walking along the inlet, and that’s when I came to the end of the beach. It just sort of…ended, slowly giving way to endless sea oats and dunes, no more miles of beach as far as the eye could see.

At this point, I was high on the experience. The change in scenery from long sandy oceanside beach to quiet rock-lined inlet beach to no beach at all, just water and sea oats. Looking across at the vehicles driving on Porpoise Point and all the action of people and music and busy-ness, I wondered if, in all the times I’d been over there in all that noise, if I’d ever looked across to where I now was and wondered how to get there. Could they see me there? Were they wondering how I got there? I imagined it must look so peaceful over here from that side where everything was moving. And I marveled at how I had found myself there without even planning to. And I was so thankful I had.

Another life lesson, right? How many times do we find ourselves in one place, looking longingly in the distance at another place that feels so far away, we can’t imagine ever getting there. And then one day, through events perfectly aligned and no conscious intention on our part, but perhaps subconscious intention, we make it to that place to which we once dreamed of finding a way. And it’s even more beautiful and peaceful than we imagined. We’ve encountered things along the way that we had no way of knowing we would encounter…things of beauty like whole, big sand dollars and beached, abandoned sailboats. When we encounter them, they feel so special and meaningful because they were unplanned and unforeseen. They were the experiences we had no idea would take place and would have been missed had we not had the courage to venture into unknown places. And we look across at the noise and hustle of where we once were, and we wonder that we didn’t make it here sooner. 

It was about this time, as I was heading back, that the phrase “Mindfully Mindless” came to me, and I smiled, knowing that’s exactly what I was experiencing. I was letting thoughts come to me and no longer questioning if they were right or wrong. They just were, and I just was. I was at about the 7 hour mark, and sure, I was feeling some pain, but I was feeling strong mentally and physically. I looked down at my feet and legs and mentally started visualizing my muscles as I walked. The muscles in my feet, my calves, my thighs, and how they worked to carry my body. I was in love with how capable my body was. And then my thoughts traveled to how I care for my body…how I nourish it and exercise it and let it rest…and I let myself feel proud. I noticed my initial reaction of playing it down in my mind, and I intentionally shifted the other direction, acknowledging to myself that I have reached a place where I actually ENJOY caring for my body and that it’s ok to feel proud of this and grateful for the journey that has gotten me here. That it is ok to recognize I am now in a place that I once wondered what it would be like to be in. And one day, I’ll realize I have made it to the place that right now feels so far off in the future, and I’ll marvel at how I found my way there without knowing I was. And I’ll allow myself to feel proud and grateful all over again.

After all, isn’t that what the walk is about? It’s not so much about the destination as it is the journey. And once we reach that destination, the next one awaits us. It’s about soaking in the moments along the way. It’s about letting the pleasurable moments be pleasurable, with zero guilt and self judgment and without anticipation of difficulties ahead. And it is about pushing through the difficult moments knowing they will end, allowing yourself to rest when rest is needed, and removing any preset expectation of how far you should go and how fast you should get there. It is about building mental strength as much as physical strength, because the journey most certainly requires both. It is about knowing and trusting that that strength is built during the journey. If we wait till we are “strong enough” to start, we will never feel ready. We are strong enough now, as we are, to take the first step. The rest of the strength will come through the journey and the experiences we have along the way.

As I was nearing the end of my walk, I began reaching the more heavily populated part of the beach. By this point, I was so far removed from society in my mind that arriving back in the company of people was extremely difficult. Even though I was just walking past them, not engaging with them in any way, it was really hard to be there. It’s like I had reached a place so deeply comforting inside myself that any outside energy felt like an invasion of my newfound peace. I felt like an outsider looking in on life happening around me that I was no longer a part of.

In 12 hours, I was significantly sunkissed, my backpack was heavy, my legs were limping, and I had been on a physical and mental journey that had shown me things I wouldn’t have seen had I not ventured into an uncomfortable situation. I was acutely aware that those around me were not in the same energetic space as I was. It’s hard to describe, other than it was almost like I could visibly see the energy of those around me, and I didn’t like it. I looked at people immersed in their phones, immersed in their chatter, music playing around me…places I had spent lots of time before without thought…and I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I missed the solitude in me and around me.

I guess that’s where the journey continues…to find a way to maintain that new level of existence that I discovered while still functioning in a world that isn’t there with me. I’ve never had such an intense desire to leave a place in my entire life. The facade, the artificial noise, the “show” was so apparent to me. At the beginning of the walk, I had been a bit self conscious of how funny I looked carrying a backpack while wearing only a bikini. I now felt so at home in this version of myself that I couldn’t imagine being any other way. I didn’t care who looked at me. I had just emerged from a journey that had changed me. If only they knew.

I made it back to my Jeep with about 45 minutes left of walk time. I was in so much pain. I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider quitting early. But I didn’t let myself. A pretty severe thunderstorm had come up about the time I arrived back in the vicinity of the state park, and I’d taken shelter under a pavilion there. I’d let myself sit on a bench, which allowed my legs just enough rest that, when I stood to get moving again, I literally had to will my legs to move. I was cold from the rain. I was irritated by the noise of coming back to reality. Thankfully, I’d thrown my boyfriend’s flannel shirt in my bag for warmth and comfort. I put it on, and with sheer determination to make it to the 12 hour mark, I began limping anywhere I could limp. Up the boardwalk, down the boardwalk, onto the beach, off the beach, around the parking lot, down the sidewalk. I was at the door of my Jeep not a second late. Done. Hurting and tired. Out of energy physically, but highly energized mentally.

My boyfriend had done the walk as well, at a different location, with different joys and obstacles. We went to dinner that night and ate pasta and drank wine. It’s amazing how the senses are so alive after an experience such as the 12-hour walk. You smell and taste and see and hear and feel everything at such a deeper level. I’ve never felt more in touch with my body than I did that day. I began the journey very much in my mind and ended it fully in my body…mindfully mindless and mindlessly mindful.

And now, the journey continues.

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