I recently came across this mini-documentary Stringbean, chronicling the record-breaking, self-supported hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) by Joe "Stringbean" McConaughy in a stunning 45 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes. For context, the next closest time was set in the year prior by Karl Metzer, during a supported run taking 45d 22h 38m. The difference between a supported and self-supported run largely hinge on the immediacy of the help you get. Supported runs are an active group effort, with team members stationed on the trail ahead, helping the runner along the way. Self-supported runs are meticulously planned, and completed alone with re-supply stations being contents mailed to oneself. It should be said that even supported, it’s an astonishing feat to pull off an AT run of this speed. But Metzer’s run really draws McConaughy’s achievement into sharper contrast considering his lack of immediate help during the attempt.
Coincidentally, just before viewing Stringbean, I caught the documentary Free Solo (now available on Hulu) chronicling the free solo climb up the 3,000ft tall face of El Capitan by Alex Honnold. Again, here's a human achieving a remarkable feat — both in mental and physical endurance. On the side of El Capitan, if one is tired or injured there’s no place to stop or break like there is on the AT, the danger is truly in another class altogether. Even climbs of El Capitan with equipment are a real challenge, and to do so without any backup at all is enough to give me anxiety as I write this. Both the achievements of “FKT-ing the AT” and “Free Solo-ing El Capitan” are amazing and unbelievably impressive. We all need to see the record breakers and hear their stories for that vicarious motivation and experience — I certainly won’t be attempting those records in my lifetime (side note: I would love to hike the AT before I die, but certainly not speedrun it). All that being said, Free Solo and Stringbean left me with far more thoughts about the kinds of people it takes to achieve these feats, rather than nature or equipment (which is where my mind usually wanders after these kinds of documentaries).
In both cases, these record breakers are practiced planners, seeking a lighter approach to their craft. For Honnold, weight is obviously critical, to go up at the speed necessary, he needed to stay light — it was just him on the rock face. For McConaughy, every unnecessary ounce is torture and a hindrance to speed as well. At a glance, McConaughy’s setup rings familiar to fans of Ray Jardine’s “Trail Life” guide to thru-hiking “The Ray Way.” Joe is wearing trail running shoes, not boots. He carried an 11-ounce custom prototype backpack with no frame, and at its heaviest, his bag weighed only 28 pounds (not a lot when considering the amount of food he needed to carry and consume every day). A oft quoted line by Yvon Chouinard in his classic book “Let My People Go Surfing,” is “The more you know, the less you need.” That notion is undoubtedly proven out in these two feats — both Honnold and McConaughy have attributed their success to intensive practice and planning — and that allowed them to carry only what was absolutely needed.
Honnold spent over a year training the routes of El Capitan, returning to his “basecamp” van and girlfriend Sanni, to recharge and plan. McConaughy spent four months planning times, routes, and resupply locations with his fellow ultrarunner fiancee Katie, along with training runs of AT sections beforehand. However, it’s at this point where the two differ, and why I’m writing this post. When viewed together, Honnold’s approach to his task is analytical and calculating, seeking an obsessive goal bordering on sociopathy— McConaughy is determined but joyous, a challenge he aims to conquer with the support of others. At one point in Free Solo, Honnold all but says he has no obligation to be safe for his loved one — that he’s doing his best and to not climb would only leave simmering resentment towards those who’ve asked him not to. You can see that clip below:
It was the moments like this that stuck with me in Free Solo and drew such a sharp contrast to Stringbean. Both were stunning feats of human ability, achieved by practice and planning, but done so in vastly different ways when it comes to the emotional context of their support system. I bring this distinction to the forefront not to diminish or promote one over the other — but just to try and acknowledge the difference and the paths one can take to “success.” It’s hard to not see Free Solo as a glorification of having a singular mindset toward a goal, with the hope that one’s support system tolerates the questionable behavior required to meet the challenge. Our society sometimes needs people with near sociopathic intent to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Culture holds up those people as motivating examples, while taunting us with their less than idyllic moments. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg come first to mind, both “geniuses” incidentally with dramatic films portraying their more monstrous sides. Yet, at the same time, would society be better off if there were more singular-minded humans, hell-bent on achieving? Or would we not have a better foundation, and better communities, if we held up the examples of those who still achieved greatness by planting roots and building a mutually supportive system?
After circling around these examples, personally, I lean towards believing the latter. We are surrounded by examples of people who achieve greatness in a bold, singular way — and their mentality is lauded. In the corporate space, the growth of Amazon, and it’s ever-widening offerings are rewarded by Wall Street, consumes tremendous ecological resources, and is hated by its overworked “temporary” employees. Socially, there is constant cultural messaging encouraging us to ignore “the haters” and cut out of our lives “those who hold us back” and to “hustle 24/7.” But it’s hard to pinpoint what this “personal brand” mentality leaves us with for the long term. That behavior may net achievement in the short term, but it consumes a lot to gain something so quickly. In other words, it’s not sustainable. Sustainability is frequently top of mind in product design, and for a good reason — we consume too many resources for such little gain. But I am beginning to wonder if we should not also consider sustainability more deeply in the process of achievement, of living itself. At the risk of erring into something akin to “lifestyle design,” I’ll just say that I see these two achievement stories as a difference in values-based living.
Author Austin Kleon relates this difference in lifestyle to the difference in the gardener’s mindset toward “Annuals” and “Perennials.” In his excellent book, “Keep Going,” Kleon encourages readers to see their work as seasons, and that like perennials, they will have times of dormancy building for the bloom. He encourages that we seek motivation from masters of their craft who are the top “8 over 80” rather than “30 under 30.” In a world that is continuously encouraging that we broadcast our immediate results, this idea of slowing down and building roots for a more fruitful life overall, almost feels radical. Some of us will strive for an annual difference, continually expending energy to plant for a big immediate harvest — reaching the peak of El Capitan in a matter of hours. And others will strive for endurance, with deep roots that draw energy from more than just the initial planting, to cover the entire AT in 45 days. Society needs both, but it feels profoundly important to examine which route we each want to pursue as individuals.
So are you an annual or a perennial?