The Urban Wild
“The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”
--Robert M. Pirsig
The urban landscape is the most hostile training environment I’ve ever encountered.
It’s not deadly because of wild animals or extreme weather and remoteness.
The city is dangerous because it does everything to soften you up. It guts you without you knowing it, like a true parasite.
Before you know it you are numbed out on delicacies and as you get carried along in an endless current of media, comfort, garbage food, and a whole world aimed at rendering your ass immobile.
Unlike the wilderness, honing yourself a sharp physical edge isn't a matter of daily existence in the city. This strengthening must become some orchestrated fabrication aimed at transforming the dull nature of a coddled physical reality into something able to render your body stronger through imposed stresses. Without stress there is no growth.
Besides, in the urban milieu, all your time and energy is spent fighting off the threats born of economic, bureaucratic and social nature. You are immersed in a linguistic and economic fight to the death to stay socially and financially relevant in a world that bears no resemblance to the one that shaped you through evolution thousands of years go. It's so unnatural and exhausting, who doesn't want to numb out with fatty and salty food before some glass screen flashing pixels at you?
Once I understood this, I began to sharpen my edge by throwing myself against this unpleasantly pleasant hellscape of civilized and settled society in creative ways. You see, I learned that if my environment wouldn’t shape me, it was on me to shape myself.
Because of this, interestingly, it was in the city that I actually started to become that rugged athlete I always aspired to be while living in the woods.
Once upon a time, I lived far off the grid, as they say. For six years I’d gone full-blown Rocky IV training montage with my training in Vermont and remote Montana.
It was easy to train hard there because life was hard there. I simply had to be a product of my harsh environment. Adapting to my surroundings had to make me harder to kill in order not to die. It was a great training plan.
Now, I’m fully embedded in the grid, commuting each day to the center of the financial district of Boston.
No more rural living. No more chopping wood. No more running around the woods near naked carrying rocks and logs generally not giving a fuck about social conventions that prevent me from vigorously exercising throughout my day.
Instead, enter a world of responsibilities born of the social conventions of business as usual. Enter escalators and fast food. Enter traffic. Enter standing in lines. Enter lots and lots of concrete.
Now I have to work really hard to keep things from being too easy on me.
But, in the process, I learned that it takes a true Spartan to train like a Spartan in the city.
Anyone can be a Spartan while living in the remote wilderness. It’s just not that impressive if you ask me.
For anyone can be a monk when stuck in a monastery. It's the person who can leave the monastery and remain the same person in the world that is truly a monk.
I want you to know that Spartan living is an attitude you could execute on Mars if you had, to— let alone your suburban cul-de-sac.
Based upon my time living in the woods, here are my top tips to training like a Spartan while living in an urban environment.
Redefine wilderness and adventure for yourself. Who says that exploration only happens in the wild. Honestly, is there anything more wild and unpredictable than a landscape littered with humans and their technology and infrastructure?
Wherever I find myself in the civilized world I reconnoiter my surrounding territory just like I do if I'm in the woods. I explore any new neighborhood one block at a time. I never run the same route twice until I've pounded all the surrounding roads, trails, paths and straight up forest. I make sure I stand upon each hill and look around. I know where all the stores are. I know where anything I might need may be. I understand the lay of the land.
I never imagined so many people could live in such a small area and not really walk it or know it. In the city everyone just has their heads down and walks the route they always do. It's fucking weird.
Get mobile and conquest your surroundings. Go somewhere. If you live in a super safe and coddled world of civilization why are you limited in your territory? What’s the worst that can happen, you have to Uber home?
When there wasn't a mountain outside my door I was at a loss as to how to train.
Now I walk up and down stairwells all the time. It’s how I do conference calls. It’s how I pace. Always take the stairs. No elevators, no escalators. Just stairs. Find them. Go up and down them. It’s on you.
If you have some stair climbing machines in your gym, all the better.
If you have to take steps, try to make them take you up whenever possible. When in doubt walk up and down the nearest stairwell.
I laugh so hard at the lengths people go to in buying gear and training plans. Really, worry about that after you walk up and down the stair well in your home 200 times a day.
Train in the Worst Weather
Blizzard? Get outside. Typhoon? Get outside.
I mean, worst case scenario you knock on the nearest door for shelter because you get a little too cold. It’s not like rural Montana where I was miles and miles away from another human. Hell, there are 24/7 convenience stores everywhere now. The last thing I’m worried about is dying from exposure in the civilized world.
Yes, if there are dangerous winds or flood waters, you should bunker down. But if it’s just nasty outside, get the fuck out there and try not to die.
That’s good practice for living. A harsh environment reminds you that you are an animal that has animal needs. Oxygen and warmth, water and food. Spend some time in horrible weather and you appreciate the little things.
Train at Night
One of the biggest obstacles to urban training exists in your head. It is the self-consciousness caused by other humans.
Self-conscious about doing hill repeats in your neighborhood? Don’t want Mrs. Hawsworth seeing you puke in the gutter? Think someone might call the police thinking you are a suspected suicide bomber in your weight vest? Just feel damn funny carrying a canoe down the road with your friends?
Welcome to the club. So much of my personal training gets derailed because I’m self-conscious about doing it in public.
I’m beyond this fear now. But it was a long process that involved me training at night.
Training at night is difficult. It’s colder. It’s, well...dark.
But conquer that taboo and you are a human who can now operate 24/7. That’s pretty cool if you ask me.
Embrace the Crowds
You get better by training with people who are better than you. Well, the good news about densely-populated areas is that you should have no problem finding people who can kick your ass. Embrace this.
It’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond. In the city the pond is huge and full of fish.
Expose yourself to people who are better than you to get better. Do this all the time. You should always feel like you are last in the class if you are truly pushing yourself.
Strengthen Your Will
Temptation can make you stronger when you resist it. Embrace the fact that everywhere you look there is something telling you to go easy on yourself. Look at the fast food around you...and walk on by. Look at the escalator and walk on by.
Learn to thrive in abstention from that which will make you soft.
This is an opportunity I never had when I lived far away from the civilized world. I was soft because I was never tested. Learn to be grateful for the hardship of comfort. If you can beat it, you will be unbeatable.
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