Colin O’Brady is known for moving fast and far over the most harrowing terrain on the planet. As an explorer and endurance athlete he has set ten world records, including becoming the first person to cross Antarctica solo and unassisted. Which is why his new book, The 12-Hour Walk, might come as a surprising change of pace. The man who holds the speed record for summiting the highest point in all 50 US states is advocating for the life-changing power of a very long stroll?
O’Brady, a longtime meditator, knows full well how meaningful it can be to engage in contemplative action. After all, the balance required to stay calm when navigating a perilous river crossing, the resilience we call upon when one more step—let alone one more mile—feels impossible, and the embodied presence we discover when waiting out an afternoon thunderstorm in the wild, can all be cultivated on the meditation cushion. Mindfulness and nature have a mutually informative relationship that can enrich and embolden our engagement with the outdoors.
In order to find out more about how an intentional commitment to such an endeavor can challenge and inspire the explorer in all of us, we caught up with O’Brady to find out more.
Where'd you get the idea for The 12-Hour Walk?
When I was crossing Antarctica alone in 2018 I was pulling my sled in silence for 12 hours per day. In the latter half of that crossing I felt deeply connected to mind, body, and spirit. Despite my body being worked, despite my ribs protruding, despite the frostbite on my face and limited food, I found this sort of flow state, this connection to purpose and fulfillment. I thought I could take that with me forever.
Then March 2020 came. Everyone's locked down, everything’s canceled, there’s terrible news every day, people are getting sick and dying. I got myself in a deep hole of depression, anxiety, fear, and doom scrolling. Finally, I was like, 'I’ve got to do something! When was the last time I felt super connected in my mind, body, and heart?' It was when I was walking across Antarctica alone, pulling that sled. So I said to my wife, 'Tomorrow morning, I'm going to get up and I'm going to go for a 12-hour walk here on the Oregon coast.'
I walked out the front door, put my phone in airplane mode, and engaged in the walk with no distractions, completely in silence. It was an incredible feeling. I tapped back into that flow, that depth, that purpose. When I got back home that night, my wife, Jenna, looked at me and said, 'Your back.' I said, 'Yeah, I'm back. I finished the walk.' She was like, 'No, you're back. I can see it in your face.' And she was right, I had returned to center.
What made you think that this could be meaningful for other people who aren't adventurers like yourself?
During COVID, we all knew all sorts of people that were going through the same thing as I was in that moment: trapped in their houses, lives disrupted, totally isolated. I started suggesting this walk to people of all ages and fitness levels. It’s not a crazy endurance challenge. My 77-year-old mother-in-law did the walk and what that looked like for her was going one time around her block and sitting on her front porch for an hour maintaining stillness and noticing the sensations around her, then going around again, for 12 hours.
As all these different people reacted to the experience, every single person would come back to their front door feeling better, feeling less stuck, feeling stronger in their own mind, body, and spirit. People were on a path that they hadn't been on and this reset was so necessary. That was really the aha moment.
How can big endeavors—like a day spent walking—bolster us physically and mentally (and even spiritually)?
We live in a time where we're hyper-connected, and there's so many advantages to technology. Being able to FaceTime my family on the other side of the world is amazing. But there's also a time to just sit back and say you need a physical and mental reset. This walk connects you to your body and mind as a human. We were hunter gatherers a long time ago. It's hard-wired in our DNA to move our bodies, to be outside, to not be connected to devices. A 12-hour walk is a way to shake loose a lot of those habits.
Everyone I've ever known to take the challenge has had such a positive benefit from it, which is why I'm such a strong advocate for people reading the book and taking a walk of their own. It's free, it's accessible, and anyone can do it.
Your mindfulness practice has been an important part of your training. What parallels are there between meditation and the 12-hour walk?
Meditation has been the key to unlocking so much of my inner strength. When people ask me, 'How did you cross Antarctica solo, or climb Mount Everest twice, or rowboat across Drake Passage?' what they're generally asking is a question about physical demands. I love to say the most important muscle that any of us have is actually the six inches between our ears—our minds. If we want to get our biceps stronger, we lift weights, we hit the bench press. But too often we forget that if you want to make your mind sharper, you have to do reps on the mental bench press. The way I started to really cultivate that strength in my mind was through meditation.
The walk is an example of unlocking what I call a possible mindset, an empowered way of thinking. It is in effect a 12-hour walking meditation. Some people are adverse to the idea of meditation or mindfulness, but whatever you want to call it, walking and being alone in silence, observing your thoughts, that's a deep cut. A lot of people aren't used to spending that time in silence by themselves. To sit there on a meditation pillow for that long could be challenging. The walk is challenging in its own way, but you don’t have to know how to meditate. You know how to walk, so walk out your front door and see what happens. Take the risk of being alone with your thoughts for one day and I promise you that the results you will see will be exponentially positive.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take on the 12-hour walk but is concerned about the time and effort commitment?
People are held back by limiting beliefs. When you ask somebody, 'Why are you not living your best life?' they'll generally answer, 'I'm not strong enough' or 'I'm afraid to fail' or 'I don't have enough time' or 'I don't have enough money.' I've struggled with all these same limiting beliefs.
The true answer is you do have the time to commit to growth. Self care is not selfish. Self care is how you show up the best for your kids, for your colleagues, for your work. It requires having a deep awareness. Although the 12 hours might seem like a long period of time, think about how many days this past year that you can't even remember what you did. You will remember the 12-hour walk—this will imprint on you in a deep and meaningful way.
The advice I would give is if you want to grow, if you want to evolve, you need to step outside of your comfort zone. This walk might be a little bit outside of your comfort zone, or be a little difficult to schedule at first. But if you make the time there's absolutely no doubt that this walk will have a lasting and positive impact on your life.