In the mucky, hot, poorly maintained trails and portages of the Boundary Waters in the north woods of Minnesota, I learned that I could be tough, scrappy, and indomitable. I took a brutal pleasure in carrying the heaviest pack I could over long and steep portages, willing my toothpick legs to take one step, then another, then another, until I saw the blue expanse of the next lake peeking through the trees. That was all I had to work with: a willingness to push myself harder than anyone else, to charge headlong into the roughest terrain, and to ignore cold, rain, heat, bugs, and my own internal discomfort.
With the popularity of high-intensity workout programs, military-inspired training, and brutal adventure races, mental toughness is in the spotlight. The gold standard of a hardcore athlete is how much pain they can tolerate. But what about simple, plain old ruggedness? What does it mean to be physically tough, as well as mentally tough? Is it enough to simply be strong, or is there something more to it?
Strong But Weak
I will always remember the day I dropped in on a CrossFit class and went out for the warm-up jog with no shoes on. One of the other guys there, massively strong and musclebound, was shocked and asked me if it hurt or if I was scared of broken glass. I explained that I'd toughened up my feet over the last few years and it didn't bother me at all.