Planting Trees Vs UltraRunning

For those who know me, I often attribute a lot of my capacity to run UltraMarathon to the lessons and adaptations I gather during my ongoing years as a tree planter. The mental and physical benefits that come from 2-3 months of intensive tree planting include: the musculoskeletal adaptation of transporting 60lbs+ bags around shnarby terrain, the aerobic adaptation of spending 8-10 hours a day with a heart rate between 130-170bps, the fat-burning & endurance building adaptation, the sleep-deprivation adaptation, the mental fortitude adaptation as well as an enhanced ability to read and decipher the signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia, hypothermia, sun-stroke, dehydration, over-exertion, muscle tension and tendinitis that can lead to serious injuries.

But what captures my imagination the most is the striking resemblance between a day of Tree Planting and an Ultra Marathon.

A day in the life of a Tree Planter

5:30. The alarm goes off, I eat what I can manage to this early in the morning. I listen to some music to escape while I go through a mental checklist of all that I’ll need for the day ahead. Water, food, rain gear, sun gear, bags, boots, watch, shovel and first aid kit. Like a little duck I waddle, heavy loaded and still asleep, from the motel to the truck. A few coworkers join in the waddle and we exchange a few jokes about how the worst part of the day is behind us. The sun is barely rising and the city is still asleep. At the trucks, we await instructions from the head of the company. Then we get driven to the land, mostly in silence, some sleeping, some dreading the day ahead, all slightly uncomfortable and cold in planting clothes. Once at the cut forest we load trees into our bags and await the instructions of our foreman. I get assigned a chunk of land and I’m off. Unloading my bags should take about an hour. I work systematically, establish a working strategy, and I try to get a feeling for how much energy I have in my legs to carry me through the day. I talk to myself to stay focused and motivated and also to keep the bears away. An hour strikes, I’m getting wobbly because the human body can only really work hard for about an hour without replenishing sugars. I plant the last few trees and walk to the cache where my snacks, water and more trees await. I’ve made between 30-60$ depending on how bad the land is and how much energy I have. I throw a sugar snack in my mouth, generally something that fits entirely in my mouth so I can chew while my hands are free to pack more trees in my bags. This takes about 6-8 minutes. The urge to stick around the cache, to eat more, to sit down and chat with fellow planters varies in strength depending on who’s present and whether or not they have tasty snacks to share. I down 300-500ml of water with food still in my mouth and head out swallowing. I repeat this about 6-8 times in day and as simple as it seems, emotionally, it’s a roller coaster. Every second counts. So much, in fact, that a bad day is a day where I have to stop to tie a shoelace or go for a poo. As the day progresses, my body hurts more and more and my mind is less and less capable of dealing with it. I become tired, irrational and less efficient, and the end is nowhere near in sight.

By the end of the day, I’ve cried and laughed in the same breath, moments of great reflective silence have been abruptly interrupted by bouts of wild signing, rare moments of loving life have been murdered randomly by as little as flipping a nail on a rock when I plant a tree in the ground or a shovel hitting a knee or (my favourite) an accidental punch on a sharp branch as I push my shovel forward to open a hole; and by as much as a 45min marble-sized hail storm or a life threatening tumble down a cliff with nothing but sharp stumps to stop my fall or an encounter with a Mother Bear and her cubs. When the day is over, I am in pain and the notion of what exactly it is that I do for a living is kind of blurred and fuzzy and all the reflection in the world will never make any making sense of it.

A day in the life of an UltraRunner

5:30. The alarm goes off, I eat what I can manage to this early in the morning. I listen to some music to escape while I go through a mental checklist of all that I’ll need for the day ahead. Water, food, rain gear, sun gear, bag, shoes, watch and first aid kit. Like a little duck I waddle, heavy loaded and still asleep, from the hotel to the bus. A few co-athletes join in the waddle and we exchange a few jokes about how the worst part of the day is behind us. The sun is barely rising and the city is still asleep. At the bus, we await instructions from the race director. Then we get driven to the start line, mostly in silence, some sleeping, some dreading the day ahead, all slightly uncomfortable and cold in running clothes. At the start line we load the last pieces of gear into our bags and await the instructions of the Race Director. I shuffle to find a suitable spot among the racers waiting behind the start line, and I’m off. Running 10 kilometres should take about an hour. I work systematically, establish a racing strategy, and I try to get a feeling for how much energy I have in my legs to carry me through the day. I talk to myself to stay focused and motivated and also to keep the bears away. An hour strikes, I’m getting wobbly because the human body can only really work hard for about an hour without replenishing sugars. I fumble around in my backpack and find the spot where my snacks and water are. I throw a sugar snack in my mouth, generally something that fits entirely in my mouth so I can chew while my hands are free to stow away the garbage. Within 4 hours I’ve generally made decent progress, all depending on how technical the land is and how much energy I have. I make my mind up to stop at the next aid station where I’ll replenish my 2 litre hydration bag and grab a few fun snacks. This takes about 3-8 minutes. The urge to stick around the aid station, to eat more, to sit down and chat with fellow runners and volunteers varies in strength depending on who’s present and whether or not they have tasty snacks to share. I down 300-500ml of water with food still in my mouth and head out swallowing. I repeat this about 6-8 times in day and as simple as it seems, emotionally, it’s a roller coaster. Every second counts. So much, in fact, that a bad day is a day where I have to stop to tie a shoelace or go for a poo. As the day progresses, my body hurts more and more and my mind is less and less capable of dealing with it. I become tired, irrational and less efficient and the end is nowhere near in sight.

By the end of the day, I’ve cried and laughed in the same breath, moments of great reflective silence have been abruptly interrupted by bouts of wild signing, rare moments of loving life have been murdered randomly by as little as breaking a toe on a rock when I try to pass a competitor using the side of the trail or a rock hitting an ankle or (my favourite) sliding in mud and feeling all my muscles cramp up from the shock; and by as much as a 45min marble-sized hail storm or a life threatening tumble down a cliff with nothing but sharp stumps to stop my fall or an encounter with a Mother Bear and her cubs. When the day is over, I am in pain and the notion of what exactly it is that I do for a living is kind of blurred and fuzzy and all the reflection in the world will never make any sense of it.

One of my passions is to draw meanings and life lessons from everything on the path that I chose to take. I’m a great believer in the idea that it is always possible to grow from any experience. I think it is fairly rare to find two experiences that mirror each other as perfectly as Tree Planting and UltraRunning and it is my secret joy to always draw new comparisons between them!


Follow along on Instagram: @etiennegabriel

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. rhallum says:

    Awesome. it’s a great thing, to be able to draw comparisons and strengths from two different – but wonderfully similar – life endeavors. Cheers!

    Like

  2. Canuck Carl says:

    Really, really amazing comparison between these 2 activities. Very creative and well thought out. Enjoyed reading this! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! Now you know, all you need is a shovel and some bags and your already a TreePlanter!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love your blog! Thanks for following mine.
    I always thought my ultra training helped me be a better farmer. Well, at least it made me a less whiney farmer 😉 Stay awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I also do a few weeks of farming in the year, it just merges well with my love of working hard outdoors and of the relationships you develop while doing it! I look forward to reading about more of your adventures!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Scott says:

    Great post and blog. Thanks for finding mine. Impressive race calendar. Best of luck to you this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Scott! Your account of the Great Wall Marathon was incredibly motivating & might have convinced me to register for it in the next few years! Thanks for the inspiration.

      Like

  5. Interesting comparison and great read. I am in awe of your racing calendar (and your Grouse Grind time!) Thanks for liking/following mine. I look forward to reading about your upcoming runs.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great read, thanks for finding my blog, ‘cos now I get to read yours!

    Liked by 1 person

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