There isn’t much that Colin O’Brady hasn’t pushed himself to do. Speaking at the World Domination Summit (WDS) in Portland, Oregon in June, he captivated attendees with stories of his incredible feats like crossing Antarctica solo, summiting the highest peaks of the world in record time, and rowing across the treacherous Drake Passage with less than three months of preparation. Had I mentioned that just years before, doctors declared that he would never walk again? (That’s a whole other story!)
The pandemic delivered a logistical blow to his big plans, yet his latest challenge was borne out of the malaise that the last 2.5 years have steeped us all in. Frustrated from lockdown one day, he decided to take a walk, which became a half-day journey to clear his mind. Thus began the 12-Hour Walk, a movement designed to unlock the potential of the human mind and be in the moment with nature.
At its core the premise of the Walk is simple: disconnect from all technology, move about outside, and exercise your brain. Therein lies the challenge. When was the last time you or anyone you knew turned off their cellphones for the waking part of a day? Add to that the removal of other responsibilities and refraining from conversing with people. The actual distance walked is less important, though it could be a parallel goal.
As a member of the WDS community, Colin wanted to have those of us who were interested join in an early “together-alone” group walk on August 13th. After all, he had announced his plans to us first. His new book, also called The 12-Hour Walk, would be released on August 2nd with plans for the Walk challenge for the general public on September 10th.
From Doubt to Excitement
It did sound ambitious, especially considering Washington, DC weather in peak summer. I’d also been neglectful of my daily walking habit. Pre-pandemic it was easy to get 10,000 steps or more just by commuting to and from work, walking around the office, and going to meetings. There were plenty of days over the past year that I didn’t even make it outside of my house.
I’m as guilty as the next person for “glancing” at social media or browsing something random on the internet. Those moments don’t seem like much but they can turn into several hours over the course of a week. I felt the need to take on this challenge just to force myself away from the phone and my laptop. It also seemed like a good excuse to get out and enjoy nature and return to a more routine schedule of walking.
Plenty of doubts entered my mind, mainly centered around the weather or logistics. Would I just start walking or plan a route? Should I pack a backpack full of what I need or make plans to loop back to pick things up? Where could I go that had sidewalks and occasional lavatories? Would I pass out from heat exhaustion four hours into it? Might I get–gasp–bored?
Colin hosted a group Zoom call to discuss these and many other questions people had. Not only did we all feel more capable afterwards, many were excited about the Walk. The other people who had done this–mainly Colin’s friends and family–had great things to say about the outcome. One guy said that he felt more at peace and more present. Colin’s 77-year old mom took the contemplative route and only walked around the block once every hour, gaining inner peace and clarity.
“Certainly if I got tired or too hot, I could just sit down and chill for a while,” I thought. I explored a few routes, but settled on what seemed the most practical and pleasant: the Rock Creek Trail. Officially, there are three sections but the actual creek runs from near Laytonsville, Maryland to the Potomac River in DC. The main trailhead begins at Lake Needwood, less than 10 minutes by car from my house.
Planning for the Walk
I used the AllTrails app and Google to map out my route, but only as guides. The trail is continuous from the lake to the DC boundary, which is 14.4 miles. I figured I could continue on the DC side, which is a much larger series of trails and paved roads within a national park. I took a mental picture of the route to Lake Needwood, but with so much time to kill I wasn’t worried about taking the longer way or getting lost.
Three weeks prior to the walk, I invested in some Brooks shoes from RoadRunner Sports running store. I added to my order custom-made insoles and a three-pair pack of compression socks, and purchased some kinesiology tape from CVS to wrap up my ankles and the tops of my feet. I wanted to be armed with enough gear to make this walk foot-friendly.
My preparation beyond that was minimal other than purchasing Colin’s audiobook and cramming it in at 2x speed a couple days before. I had hoped to be on my way before sunrise and therefore done with the walk at dinnertime.
I fell asleep around 9:30, but had trouble getting back to sleep after waking up at midnight. It was a combination of nervous energy and concerns about what might happen. Mostly, though, I was excited to be part of this event. Even though I’d be doing it alone, I knew the collective energy from the WDS community and inspiration from Colin’s world records would help propel me throughout the day.
The alarm went off shortly before 5am. I did my morning routine of yoga and meditation, made a vegetable and protein smoothie, and geared up for the big walk. I packed a medium-sized backpack with snacks, a sandwich for lunch, and three bottles of fluids including one with electrolytes.
I recorded a short “before” video to capture my thoughts and intentions for the walk. The morning of the walk was surprisingly and mercifully chilly, and I started with a long-sleeved hoodie. It wasn’t until 7:07am that I finally took the first official steps away from my house, and that timing was fine. I had no other plans for the day!
The Walk Itself
The first trail began at the corner of a parking lot about a 45-minute walk from home. It was barely recognizable, made up of one-inch tall dewy grass that immediately soaked my shoes and socks. The path went to the southwestern edge of Lake Needwood by way of undulating hills flanked by woods on the south and mostly residential on the north. I unintentionally took the long cut clockwise around the lake, stopping at the first (and what would be the best) public bathroom at one of the lake park’s picnic areas. The backpack was already heavy.
It was 9:20 when I finally reached the official Rock Creek trailhead. I felt a little like Dorothy following the yellow brick road, but this trail was paved black all the way. There was a steady stream of people going in both directions by bike, running, or walking, so I was never truly alone. I only muttered greetings as needed, but no conversations.
The backs of my knees began showing signs of pain around hour 3 but it wasn’t until hour 6 that they really began hurting. The trail had little to no elevation, so most of the walk was on flat pavement. I had been taking short breaks to eat a snack bar or drink water, and eventually found a shaded picnic table for lunch at 2pm somewhere after I had passed Connecticut Avenue.
Despite a 45-minute respite, my legs were still aching when I resumed. Continue on I did, albeit at a much slower pace with even more rest stops. I passed by the Mormon Temple, Meadowbrook Stables, and Candy Cane City park. This stretch was probably the shortest in miles, yet took the longest due to the stiffness of my legs.
Around 4:30pm I finally reached the end of the trail on the Maryland side. I had envisioned a beautiful park with picnic benches, a lawn I could relax in, and modern restroom facilities. Instead, there was a tiny gravel parking lot, a little bridge, and a barricaded entrance (Beach Drive) to the DC portion of Rock Creek Park.
I gingerly maneuvered to the edge of the concrete ledge of the bridge to sit and have a protein bar, celebrating my stretch goal of reaching the DC border. I still had 2.5 hours left and was suddenly at a loss of where to go. I knew I’d need to find a Metro station to get home once the 12 hours were done, but I wasn’t sure how far that might be from where I would be if I continued to walk the Rock Creek Park in DC.
Fortunately I found a posted map in the park that provided me with bearings, and I decided to try to walk further along Beach Drive to see how far I could get. My pace trudged slowly as if through molasses and wearing concrete shoes. I paused to rest on a curb. I looked at the fallen leaves in the woods behind me and wondered if they would make a comfortable bed to sleep. I seriously considered doing exactly that before mustering the will to get back up and continue.
Soon I came to the intersection of West Beach, where I made the decision to turn away from the park and into a residential area. I came to some confusing cross streets and finally gave in and checked my phone map–still on airplane mode–to get a rough sense of which my best bet for getting to the Metro might be.
Under normal circumstances, the walk from there to Silver Spring, Maryland would have taken 15 minutes tops. In my state of pain, it was more like an hour and 10 minutes before I hobbled into a Giant grocery store a block away from the Metro. There I sought relief with a cold Gatorade and a bathroom that wasn’t portable or made of plastic.
I eventually got to the Metro around 6:30 knowing that the 12-hour mark would pass during the ride. I would have one last push to walk from the Metro station in Rockville to my house but after all I had accomplished that day it seemed quite doable.
At 10 minutes before 8pm, I arrived on my front porch to record my “after” video. Victory was mine!
Aside from the sheer feat of completing the full 12 hours (and then some) and walking the full Montgomery County portion of the Rock Creek Trail to DC, I had some immediate reflections. Other lessons came over the course of the next few days.
My phone was on airplane mode during the entire walk. I purposefully put it in my backpack so it would require more effort to reach. The only times I did use it were when I took the few pictures you see here and once to find directions in DC. I wanted to mark certain milestones and capture a few moments that seemed worthwhile.
If I had to choose a single takeaway from the entire experience, it was that I was more present than I had ever been in my life. Without the distractions of music or podcasts, I had to focus on what was around me. The trail was easily navigable, so the only thing I really had to do was walk and see the scenery. The near-perfect weather was a special gift that allowed me to appreciate so many moments along the way.
Without anyone to talk to I was also able to use some of the walking time to think. It took several hours to quiet down the typical chatter, but I had a few inspirational thoughts and reflections I picked up even four hours in.
I could take in my surroundings and appreciate being right there in the moment without having to hurry back home or think about what else I might have to do that day. I found myself not thinking about my to-do list for the coming week. I did a lot of daydreaming. I tried to remember silly lyrics from songs. I practiced my Spanish. I even made up some words in my own language.
Frequently I relive the feeling I had that day, not the pain part but the reminiscing of passing through each moment. It was like a walking meditation. Sacrosanct.
Connecting to Nature
Thick droplets of dew glistened in the morning sun on the first pre-lake trail; their multitude producing hundreds of mini dome-shaped beads on each blade of grass. Taller grasses cast long shadows across the path. A breeze wafting through the treetop leaves played a gentle melody that would have been otherwise unnoticeable.
Sitting on a park bench in front of an empty soccer field, I glanced around to take in the various shades of green all around me. I even took off my shoes and socks and let my still-taped up feet feel the refreshing caress of freshly mowed turf.
Birds fluttered and sang joyously. Children giggled as they played on the jungle gym or swingset at the many playgrounds I passed along the way. Cattails gave off a faint scent of marshlands, while radiant purple flowers reminded me of our garden.
My senses were heightened to take in these sights, sounds, and smells. I wasn’t the only one enjoying nature, but I felt much more connected to it and in a way that would not have happened if I’d been using my phone. The sense of peace I gained from the Walk has become more palpable with time.
Relationship with Pain
I had always seen pain as a singular thing, a one-dimensional nemesis to avoid at all costs. The walk taught me to be more patient with it, to listen to what it was trying to express. I experienced different hues of pain, but mostly I realized what I was feeling was not the scary kind of pain that signals true danger. This pain was solely from walking on flat surfaces all day, and the more I trudged on the more I could push through.
This not to say that I conquered the discomfort. Far from it! I still needed to take frequent breaks and rest, and it did hurt. I really had to concentrate to keep going, but at times I was able to adjust my stride and footfalls to alleviate the pain. I continued through it. It was not going to end me.
I was so relieved when the walking portion was over but as Colin mentions in his book, the reward was much greater because of what I had gone through. I realized I could manage the pain and work with it to gain valuable insight. I am no longer afraid of it. While I’m not going to seek it out, I know that if I am in a situation where there is pain, I hope to draw on this experience to work through it. At least I know that I’ll be fine and not to worry about it.
Metaphor for Life
Considering the day as a whole, I contemplated the nature-filled highs and pain-filled lows. I thought about my soaking wet feet within the first hour and the glory of seeing mile 0.0 on the DC boundary. I reviewed the 15-minute break I took at Aspen Hill Park, eating a crunchy apple and airing out my wet socks. Several moments along the way were peppered with bliss and awe. The worst of the pain still made me feel alive, and for that I was thankful.
I could document each hour of my walk with moments of joy and pain, discomfort and gratitude. This undulating graph of ups and downs is similar to how life is. We take the good with the bad, the unexpected with the known, the arduous with the facile. It’s possible for simultaneous occurrences of contentedness and soreness, beauty and impatience, and timelessness and velocity.
The Walk allowed me to zoom out and see the bigger picture, noticing the imperfect brushstrokes and precise details that make up so much of what we call life. Appreciating it as a whole instead of critiquing the minutiae or getting frustrated when things aren’t always smooth is just part of the journey. Of course I was going to have pain, but with that I also gained knowledge.
I can’t walk that much!
I don’t have time to take a full day off!
I can’t survive without social media!
I don’t like being alone with my thoughts!
There’s no way I would walk alone!
The above five phrases and many more are all examples of “limiting beliefs.” A limiting belief is a thought we tell ourselves is true, but actually is not proven. Of course, there are legitimate limitations but most of us draw on excuses because they’re comfortable. It’s natural! Humans are innately designed to create habits that will minimize discomfort and maximize pleasure.
However, what Colin and other remarkable leaders have learned is that some things are worth getting uncomfortable for. Stepping outsize of your comfort zone can lead you to a life of your dreams. It may not happen immediately, but it can build a mental muscle that will allow more possibilities. Those possibilities can multiply as you start to realize what truly is possible. So meta, right?
My journey is a decent example, and I’m not just talking about the Walk. I have been taking gradual steps towards a lifestyle that I design. I’m slowly unlearning society’s “rules” and relearning what makes me authentically me so that I can live a life on my terms.
I don’t know exactly what it will look like in 6 months or a year, but I can look back over the past 4 months and measure a lot of progress. I quit my job in April. I gave a presentation in May. I participated in and broke a Guinness world record in June. Last month I made money consulting while working remotely visiting family. This month I walked a marathon. I was traveling in a different state each month, including one I’d never been to before.
These things I say not to brag, but to illustrate what is possible. This time last year, I didn’t have the remotest notion that any of those things would or could happen. This year I am a believer…in myself and what opportunities might be around the corner waiting for me with open arms. The Walk has strengthened my resolve, increased my optimism, and gave me the gift of gratitude for the lessons I’ll be learning along the way.
I still have limiting beliefs. We all do. My task now is to continue to remind myself that those limits aren’t real and what I really want is on the path I’m already on.
Now I want to challenge YOU to clear your calendar for one day. It can be September 10th or any other day. Find someone to take care of the kids and pets. Tell everyone what you will be doing and why. Tell them you will not be reachable. Twelve hours is not much time in the scope of a year or even a month.
You owe it to yourself to take a bold step–many of them, in fact–towards a better version of yourself. Sign up to do the challenge today!
This could be the beginning of something you never thought possible.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”