with ryan hall
CHOP wood, CARRY WATER
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water” – Zen proverb. Ryan Hall has never been able to get that ancient proverb out of his head. Ryan’s athleticism has taken him around the world. It has earned him titles and medals; he still holds the U.S. Record for the marathon and the half marathon, and he’s been to the Olympics. He’s started a foundation. He became a husband and a father of four. Ryan’s life is filled to the brim with blessings, stories of huge achievements and disappointing failures side-by-side. But steadily, in the back of his mind, the proverb repeated itself.
In his time training in Kenya and Ethiopia from 2010-2016, he would watch people travel miles by foot to sell firewood or collect water. It always brought him back to before all of the competition. Before the titles and the medals when Ryan was a child. Every Fall, Ryan and his brothers would go to Big Bear Lake in Southern California and challenge each other to see who could carry the most firewood.
“Big Bear Lake is how I fell in love with hard, strenuous work. That’s how I fell in love with doing the hard stuff and it translated into every sport since.”
Ryan knew he wanted to live the proverb he’s sworn by in real life. He kept thinking about what it said and what it meant, and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Ultimately, Ryan’s Feat of Strength was born from the pieces of his life that had been interweaving themselves for years.
It would be complex because that’s how Ryan challenges himself, pushing himself to his personal limits: split a cord of wood before taking two 62-lb water jugs down into the Grand Canyon and farmers’ carrying them back up to the rim – over 5,000 feet of elevation gain. At the same time, he would simply be living the proverb: chop wood, carry water.
use your gifts
Ryan speaks candidly about how he views his athletic ability as a gift - one that he is consistently trying to use to help other people. Ryan had the chance to train in Zambia and Ethiopia, where he learned that access to clean water can extend someone’s lifespan by 10 years. He and his wife started the Halls STEPS foundation. STEPS engages the running community in funding grants to care for the 4-5 million orphaned children and 60,000 children living on the streets in Ethiopia. Funds also aid orphan prevention through education, clean water, health clinics, and microlending throughout East Africa.
He’s adamant that he wants to use his athleticism for the greater good of humanity. He’s approaching this Feat of Strength the same way that he views his individual actions to bring about change in the world - it has to happen one step at a time.
“If you look at what next step you can take, if you don’t get lost in the whole challenge, if we all took one small step every day to making the world a better place, that’s where change happens”
As he descends into the Grand Canyon, collects water, and carries it back up, he’ll be taking it one step at a time, living purely in the moment he’s in, rather than letting the enormity of the challenge consume him. A task that might be easier said than done.
“I’m doing this for me. I’m doing this for my girls. I’m doing this for my family. I want to inspire athletes to keep pushing the limit. Life is never over: don’t stop moving forward.”
TWENTY MINUTES A DAY
“I think it’s important to understand just how much wood a cord is. A cord of wood is 128 cubic feet of firewood, so 4’ high, 4’ wide, 8’ long.”
For comparison, an eight-foot truck bed can only fit half a cord of firewood. Not only that, he’ll be carting what he estimates to be two 62-lb jugs of water up the South Kaibab Trail out of the Grand Canyon having filled them up with water from the Colorado River. This feat is a full-day, full-body task, designed to fatigue most of the muscles in his body.
Over time, Ryan’s began to pivot from distance running to strength training. This feat is the perfect marriage of distance and strength, so he’s already well-suited to the task at hand. He’s got years of conditioning and strength helping him out, but that doesn’t mean he can skip out on training for this. Quite the opposite, he’s been working for months on end. His life is busy and he knows sometimes the excuses are loud, daring him to skip a day here and there. He meets those excuses with simple consistency.
“It’s just twenty minutes a day. I tell myself, I can do anything for twenty minutes, if it’s just twenty minutes, I have no reason to skip it. Those twenty minutes add up.”
Whether or not they can add up to what he expects to be an hours-long farmer carry is yet to be determined. Ryan’s not trying for any specific time, he’s just trying to push himself to complete the task.
“I’ve been training for over a year for this. As far as I know, no one’s ever done anything like it.”
LEAN ON YOUR PEOPLE
It starts hard and only gets harder. Splitting the firewood has fatigued most of his muscles - chopping firewood properly will engage the entire core. To properly anchor yourself to the ground while chopping firewood requires the entire posterior chain to be activated - hamstrings, calves, quads, glutes. That doesn’t even account for the swing itself - lats, traps, delts, obliques, and pectoral muscles all working together. It’ll spike your heart rate and increase your breathing. It is – in no uncertain terms – an entire body workout, and Ryan has spent more time and energy than he has anticipated by the time all of the firewood has been split.
He has some recovery as he commutes to the rim of the Grand Canyon. The run into the Canyon is the most enjoyable part of the feat, though he knows the 5,000 foot descent will become the hardest ascent in a short matter of time. It keeps the run into the Canyon from being completely joyous; the fear is present every step of the way.
At the bottom of the canyon, there’s a moment Ryan gets to have with the Colorado River. It’s a reset and it’s a recentering. It’s here with the river that he can reflect and acknowledge the hardest part is still somehow yet to come. It’s right in front of him, looming. The trail offers stunning views, but is steep and difficult enough without carrying jugs of water. At a certain point, Ryan cannot put off the ascent any longer and he begins the last leg of this journey. Even with the easier descent and the moment of respite at the water, he’s far from completely recovered from the day so far. The trek up is nothing short of grueling.
“Words cannot describe the suffering I experienced on the water jug haul back to the rim of the canyon as muscle after muscle gave out and my lungs struggled to gain the necessary oxygen to sufficiently oxygenate my muscles.”
Ryan’s pretty good at living in the mile he is in, but even that mentality is being tested. He’s taking things step by step at this point, and the sun is dangerously close to setting before making it out of the Grand Canyon is in his reach. The darkness is what brings Ryan close to his breaking point. He reckons with his disappointment while wrestling with the reality that he has to keep going.
It’s fitting that he leans on a mantra to bring him to some kind of metaphorical light.
“Be like bamboo; bend, don’t break.”
Over and over, he repeats it with every step forward. He’s got his entire team with him and he has no choice but to lean on them, for sustenance and support. They are a wall of support for him to lean upon and they bring unending encouragement. It’s so overwhelming that Ryan is distracted from his pain enough to keep climbing. It’s more than six hours later that Ryan emerges from the Canyon and drops the water jugs. He is completely spent, but far from empty.
For anyone that knows Ryan, this makes complete sense. Every time he speaks of the physical feats he’s managed to accomplish in his life, he’s quick to speak about the people who journeyed alongside him. It’s a reminder that every time Ryan has used his body to its fullest capacity, it feels spiritual. He’s been able to run with who he describes as the “best guys in the world” all over the world, he’s used his gifts and abilities to help other people. Movement has been simply a launch pad for a decades-and-counting career in helping other people and it’s been fueled by other people supporting and carrying him.
“One of my sincerest wishes for every human is to feel the love and support I felt from my crew. This challenge became more about the people than the strength and endurance; which is how it is for me when life is at its best.”
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