Couch to Running 45 Miles Across the Grand Canyon | Humanizing Work ShowIn October 2022, Peter ran across the Grand Canyon, not just once, but twice in a single day. In October 2019, Peter could barely run a mile. In this episode, Richard interviews Peter about this huge transformation in his life and the lessons for individuals and teams who want to create their own sustainable, positive changes.
To see a quick overview of the actual Grand Canyon run, check out https://youtu.be/jd0ePneIOZo
Episode page: https://humanizingwork.com/couch-to-running-45-miles-across-the-grand-canyon/
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For 45 years, I told myself a story that “I’m not a runner”, which helped me feel psychologically safe, because it gave me permission to not try, until I realized that wasn’t serving me anymore.
In October 2022, Peter ran across the Grand Canyon, not just once, but twice in a single day. In October 2019, Peter could barely run a mile. In this episode, Richard interviews Peter about this huge transformation in his life and the lessons for individuals and teams who want to create their own sustainable, positive changes.
For the curious, here’s a quick animated map of the Grand Canyon run
Welcome to the Humanizing Work Show. In today’s episode, Richard interviews me about my running and how I went from not running at all to within three years’ time, completing a 45 mile double crossing of the Grand Canyon. We talk about the lessons I’ve learned from this experience, both personal ones and ones that can be applied at work and that I have applied at work, including the stories we tell about our own identity, the development of habits, going slow to go fast and the importance of patience in any large change effort.
If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review it in your podcast app or if you’re watching on YouTube, subscribe, like and share the episode. We appreciate you tuning in. Now onto the interview.
Peter, you’ve made some major changes in your life over the last few years. And I think the way you’ve approached those changes has some valuable lessons for individuals and teams who’d like to make their own sustainable, positive change. So I want to talk about that story and some of the things that that you’ve learned along the way and that others can learn from it.
So, to set the stage, what did you do last Friday that would have been completely incomprehensible to 2019 Peter?
Last Friday I ran a route in the Grand Canyon known as the “rim to rim to rim,” or the “R 3” or the “double crossing.” And I started at the South Kaibab Trailhead, ran down into the canyon, across the canyon and up the canyon, 21 miles to the North Kaibab trailhead, took a quick break, turned around and ran it back, going up the Bright Angel Trail. That’s 23 and a half miles, so a total of 45 miles, 11,000 feet of gain and descent. And I’m still feeling it a little bit today.
You were still smiling in the photo I saw from the end. So, what happened a few years ago that kicked off this whole process that led to you running the Grand Canyon twice in one day?
Yeah, I think a little back story on my athletic ability or lack thereof might help paint the contrast a little bit there. In my teenage years and in my early twenties, I was pretty fit. I was fairly athletic. I played a lot of pickup basketball, kind of my game of choice, and stayed in pretty good shape doing that and other, you know, exploits.
Then in my thirties and forties, as I began traveling more, work just kind of started eating more and more into the time I had to exercise or the time that I invested to exercise. And by the time I was in my early forties, I really wasn’t doing anything. I was not exercising. I had adopted the diet of the frequent traveler, which is to say lots of restaurant food, getting what you can get while you can get it because you don’t know when you’re going to eat again.
It wasn’t a healthy lifestyle. And all of those were sort of undercurrents. I wasn’t worried about them. I wasn’t focused on them. And then in the fall of 2019, my little brother Mark gave me a call. My little brother is 22 months younger than I am. Mark and I growing up were always good friends, but also very competitive. He called me to let me know that he and a college buddy of his were going to be running a marathon in my hometown. He planned to fly in and his buddy was flying in from Oregon and they were going to run this marathon together in February. He just wanted to know if he could stay at our house.
Of course I was happy to see him and to meet his buddy Cody and I hung up the phone. Because we’re pretty close, we often prank each other a little bit, and I got this idea for a prank: What if, on the morning of the race, as they were getting ready to go, I just walked out of my bedroom in full stereotyped running gear, with the old seventies headband and maybe a poofy hair or something like that– just walked out and said, “Hey, I decided to run this little race with you guys. You want to carpool?” Just to totally surprise them; because Mark was a cross-country guy. Mark had run and successfully completed several marathons. He had even invented his own training method called “the rest method.” If you know Mark, you know that’s very tongue in cheek. In his twenties, he could kind of just rest leading up to a marathon and do well.
And so I thought that that would be a great prank and it just sort of passed. But then the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Oh, that actually might be kind of fun if I could pull it off. Is it even possible to run a marathon with no training? And I looked at the calendar– it was like four months away.
So I Googled it. “Couch to marathon in four months” to see if there’s a training plan out there. And it turns out that there were a couple of “couch to marathon” training plans, but none in four months. There were six-month plans, though, and I thought, “Well, you know, that’s pretty close. Maybe I could survive it.”
Maybe I wouldn’t be fast, maybe I wouldn’t feel great, but maybe I could survive the marathon. And what I realized as I started thinking about that, like a whole bunch of other things in my life started kind of pressing on me. I was about 45 pounds heavier than I was when I would say I was in shape– when I was fit.
I was asked to go help a youth group do a little mountain biking exposition for an hour and a half up the local hill, and I had to bail out halfway up the hill because I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t even pedal the bike uphill for half of the distance; and it wasn’t that long a hill. And so there were all these other things going on under the surface. I was like, “Let me try it.” So I downloaded the training plan and started going.
And how did that go?
Well, it’s interesting. We’re almost exactly at the anniversary. October 9th, 2019 was day one of the marathon training plan. Luckily, they ask you your level of fitness: where are you starting from? Because day one training was two thirds of a mile. Run two thirds of a mile today.
And so I pulled it up on my Strava account. Those of you who are runners or other athletes that do distance training, look it up on Strava Marathon Training Day one. Two thirds of a mile at about a 13 minute pace. I thought I was going to die at two thirds of a mile. It’s just really hard.
The training plan goes six days a week, but the next day is shorter, and then you build up to a slightly longer run, and there’s a method to the madness. Within a couple of weeks I started feeling a little better, like, “Oh, okay, maybe I could do this thing.”
What made it possible for you to even make it a couple of weeks? Because I know people who have tried programs like this and on those first two days of even short runs, they’re feeling pain when they walk up the stairs. They give up on it.
I think it was still that sort of off the cuff idea that “I’m going to totally mess with Mark here.” I think that was my motivation for the first couple of weeks. I think it was that and partly “I can try anything. I can do anything for two weeks. No matter how painful this is, I can do it for two weeks and just see if it works for me.” That’s what I remember about the early days– it did get a little bit better. I think that was part of it. I saw that by day four, I felt a little better than day one. And even going back now and looking at the data, my pace was picking up a little bit even by day four. I still wasn’t going long, but I could run a little faster, so I probably noticed some slight improvement. And that was combined with really wanting to mess with Mark, and just the discipline to say I can do anything for two weeks. It was probably some combination of those three factors.
That’s interesting to me, because you didn’t really have a strong purpose or crisis. Often, when people make big changes, it’s like “I realized my health was falling apart and it was just affecting my whole life and I had to make a big change and it mattered.” In your case, it was like, “Well, this could be fun,” and “Let me delegate my discipline to this training plan for a couple of weeks and just start building a new habit.” It seems like you found a larger purpose as you started seeing larger benefits, but you didn’t need to have a strong purpose to motivate yourself into this and get up every day. What’s your reflection on that?
I think the purpose was there and I didn’t want to admit it because that would mean I’d have to do something about it. I think those concerns about my health were floating below, just underneath my conscious mind, because if I actually admitted that I was pretty badly out of shape and that it was probably causing long term problems for me, then I would have to do something about it– and I didn’t want that. I started to discover, as I started to see that very early minimal progress, that I could possibly actually do something about this. I think it allowed the true crisis, the health crisis that I had been kind of ignoring and hiding from, to affect me a little bit more.
Part of the big story for me is the stories we tell about ourselves, like identity– the kind of stories like “I’m not a runner” or “I’m not disciplined,” were two stories that I 100% believe were true about me in early 2019. I discovered that these were completely made- up stories. For whatever reasons, we make up these stories about ourselves, but they’re completely self-limiting stories.
I told those stories for 44 years, and I think I was unlikely to even consider that I might be capable of discipline. And by discipline, I mean “I can make a commitment to do something every single day and follow through on it without giving up.” I just didn’t believe that was me. I said, “I’m not like that.”
You’ve done that as a musician.
No. Highs and lows. As a musician, you would think so, right? But as a musician, I was very blessed that I got very good at the trumpet very early and very quickly. And the way I stayed in shape for most of my career was to get enough gigs to stay in shape– because I was not a disciplined practicer. I never have been. So I would use actual paid gigs as “This is how I’m going to stay in shape.” I’ve never been great at practicing. That’s part of my story. It has reinforced that story about myself, even as it applies to something I love, like playing the trumpet, I’m not disciplined enough to do anything every day for a long period of time.
So you accidentally did the “immunity to change map” kind of process where your couple of weeks of initial training were a safe test of those hidden assumptions and competing commitments to “I’m not a runner, I’m not somebody who follows plans like this” and by not taking it too seriously, you tricked yourself into “Well, let me take a couple of weeks and see if maybe those things aren’t as true as I thought they were.”
Yeah, I haven’t thought of it through that lens of The Immunity to Change Approach | Harvard Graduate School of Education, Kegan and Lahey’s “immunity to change model.” But I think the competing commitment was “I’m spontaneous and creative.”
So, then I have to ask, have you lost some of that spontaneity and creativity because you’ve adopted this discipline?
No, that’s the cool part of the story. Those are, again, self-limiting beliefs. If I’m disciplined about this thing, then I can’t also be spontaneous and creative. And the reality is that the discipline and the habits create more options for spontaneity and creativity because you’re more capable as a human being.
That’s the underlying model of “we should challenge those assumptions because maybe they aren’t true.”
All right, so we talked about the first couple of weeks. Did you make it to the marathon?
Yeah, I made it to the marathon, but with some bumps along the road. October 9th was the first run and the marathon was February 8th of 2020. In the training plan, I had a half marathon, kind of as a training run, and I found one that was in mid-December called the Holiday Half in San Diego. All the way up to the Holiday Half, the training was just feeling like this: getting better, getting faster, getting better, getting faster. And through that half marathon, I felt pretty good. A couple days after the half marathon, my right knee started hurting and I didn’t know what was going on. In fact, I think we were at our annual retreat in Tucson when it really started flaring up and it got really bad at a run in downtown L.A. There’s a running club called the Downtown L.A. Running Club.
When I was there for some work in January, I went out on a nine-mile run, because now I was doing longer and longer distances with this crew. But halfway through that, there was so much pain in my knee, I couldn’t keep going. I didn’t know what that pain was. It turned out, after a lot of research, that there was an IT Band syndrome, ITBS, which is a very common injury for runners in particular who are going too far too fast and things start tightening up and causing things to pull and rub where they shouldn’t rub.
And you build up a repetitive use injury. Really the only real way to recover from those is to stop doing that activity. So this is about a month before the marathon. I said I kind of discovered it because I went to an orthopedist to see if it was some kind of structural issue. I went to a physical therapist, and in fact I actually went to the physical therapist a week before the marathon.
By the time I had figured out it was IT Band Syndrome, I had learned that it doesn’t cause more damage to run a marathon. My orthopedist said, “It’ll hurt, but you won’t do more damage.” So I found a physical therapist to see if there’s anything I could do to loosen it up a little bit. She said, “Well, we can get you going, but it’s not going to be a fun run.”
And I actually did finish it. At that point I could run about 2 hours without the band really hurting, and then it just starts hurting. I finished in 5 hours, 45 minutes. That’s a pretty long marathon time, but I finished it. And here’s the funny thing:
Mark had used the rest method and he discovered that at age 43, the rest method didn’t work as well as it did in his twenties. He suffered even more than I did during the marathon, and he finished it. But I actually beat my runner brother in that marathon because he had really not had time to do any training for it. We’re not nearly as competitive as we used to be, but I still had that little “Hey, I beat Mark in a run” moment. That was cool.
So by this point, your story about yourself has changed a little bit; now you’re a runner.
I still did not call myself a runner.
I’m trying to make sense of how the IT Bend Syndrome and your changing identity intersected there.
As soon as I heard that I couldn’t do more damage, I already had so much invested, I trained for so long, and it was going to be with my brother; and then it turned out that my sister-in-law Corine, who lives in town, was going to be running the half marathon that day. So it was going to be this fun, cool family thing, and I was kind of all in on the commitment side of it. So I thought, if I can finish it without doing damage, I’m going to finish it. I put so much effort into it, probably the sunk cost fallacy plays into it a little bit there. “I have sunk so much.”
Which can be a useful thing for change sometimes, actually. Sunk cost fallacy is the negative version. “Skin in the game” is the positive version. I’m invested in this. I want to see it through.
Yes, and then I knew that I’d have to recover after that. I knew I would have to take time off my feet, like, not running, maybe swimming, maybe doing something else. There’s a fluid packet that builds up with IT Band Syndrome, and it just needs to shrink down and get reabsorbed and then you need to deal with the structural issues that caused it to be too tight in the first place, which is almost always hip strength.
Have you been able to do that?
Yeah. I did take some time off, and then I really wasn’t sure what was next. But a friend of ours in our local community messaged me and said, “Hey, we’re all going to hike across the Grand Canyon in October. A bunch of us are going. Do you want to join us?” And I thought, “Well, that’s just hiking. I could probably do that.” And so that summer after I had kind of let the IT band calm down and I had started working on some stretching and strengthening, I started hiking and I don’t remember now how much running I was still doing. But in the summer in Arizona, most people are not running. So it was like early morning hikes to prepare for the Grand Canyon.
That October was exactly a year from when I started running. We did the first Rim-to-Rim, which is North Kaibab down to Bright Angel. So that’s a 23 and a half mile hike and took about 8 to 10 hours. It’s just gorgeous and beautiful. And again, it built on some of the habits and disciplines from running and applied them to a slightly different activity.
Hiking is different from running. You’re doing different things. It’s different on the body. So I think that was a good build for me, to realize that I could handle these hikes. Toward the end of that training block, one time I was going downhill, and I just started jogging because it felt easier to run than to walk because you’re kind of braking yourself anyway. I thought, “Oh, this is fun. It’s fun to run downhill.” And that just sort of stuck with me. Like, I like running downhill. This is fun. And, to make a long story short, the next year when that group did the Grand Canyon, I ran it and did it in about six and a half hours. It was the same run that had taken 10 hours the first time. And at the end of that run, I still felt good. After crossing the canyon once I felt good. So I went back down into the canyon several times to meet other people and walk them out and even to help somebody who was struggling as it got dark; to help get them up out of the canyon. I realized I did a lot more miles than 23 and a half. And that day I said, “I’m going both ways. I’m going to start training hard and go both ways.” And so a lot of training went into that. Since then, by the way, I’ve run the marathon twice more.
During COVID, I ran it by myself. I printed out my own little runner’s bib called the Peter Green Invitational Marathon. There can be only one, so I gave myself bib number one and ran a marathon distance in like 4:45. So I’ve kept doing the marathon and I think now these are my two milestone events during the year. I did the Grand Canyon in October and I’ll do the marathon in February. Those are six months apart. And it’s a nice way to bookend the year; for me to think about what I am training for.
Let’s talk for a moment about that. The point where you achieved your initial goal, the one that got you going, when you didn’t have another one.
Yeah. And I mentioned that I still didn’t feel comfortable saying I’m a runner. The way I described myself through that time was “I’m a stubborn jogger.” I didn’t want to admit that I was a runner because I felt like I was getting there but had not arrived.
And then the injury setback made me think, maybe I’m not really a runner– and I’m not fast. I mean, any runners out there, if you’re wondering about my time, I’m pretty slow still, relative to the body of runners. I’m sometimes in the middle of the pack in some races and usually towards the back. So, I didn’t feel comfortable saying I’m a runner until I ran the Covid marathon. The ”There can be only one” marathon. When I finished that one, I had been on my own– there were no aid stations. There was nobody else. (Well, actually, there were some other people running a similar course that day because we ran it on the day that it was originally scheduled before it got canceled. I saw a few other people out and about.) When I ran that one, I think I started saying, “Why don’t I feel comfortable calling myself a runner? I just ran a marathon FOR FUN. I think that means I’m a runner. I’m running 30 or 40 miles a week. I think I’m a runner.” And I’m not sure what caused the switch. But this is, I think, one of the big lessons for me. I told this story for years. I’m not a runner. And I think it was to feel like I don’t have to compete with Mark because Mark was a runner. You know, we have these origin stories. I don’t know where these stories come from. That’s my guess. I don’t want to compete with Mark at running, therefore I’m not a runner, therefore I don’t have to try.
And that lasted with me for 44 years, 45. And then eventually I realized that was just made up. I just made up that story because I can be a runner. Maybe I don’t run today, but choosing that as an identity, “I’m not a runner,” helped me feel psychologically safe until I realized that’s not serving me anymore. Being willing to step into a new identity, I am willing to say I am a runner.
What does that say about me now? That implies things about how disciplined I am. That implies things that I now have to live up to that new story I’m telling. And I think sometimes the reason that we hold on to those old self-limiting things is because if we were to tell the new story, we would have to accept the responsibility that comes with that new story that we’re going to tell.
I am a runner. I am disciplined. Now I have to live up to it.
Where else has that happened in your life, now that you’ve discovered you can make that kind of switch?
I’m capable of delivering a podcast once a week, every week, (every week, every week) which can be hard given the way our business works with our schedules. And, you know, we both have families and lots of other commitments, including athletics and music. That discipline story has been pretty big for me because a big part of my story was about “I’m creative, I’m kind of up and I’m down.”
I’m capable of doing big, long, hard charges towards a finish line and then I rest and recover. And having that as my only mode of operation was fairly limiting, recognizing that I can be disciplined. The other part of this is just in general habit development. For example, when I started exercising, then I kind of needed to change my diet for the exercise to go well, or I would feel really poorly and start craving different things when my body really needed those nutrients. I started craving healthier food, so I slowly started shifting my diet.
I don’t remember when this book came out, but Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep came out and I remember, hearing a few interviews with him on various podcasts and deciding to buy the book and literally weeping at one point in that book, when I started to realize another story I told about myself, which is, “I don’t need sleep, I’ll be fine.”
I remember being really concerned about that one. I think I was pushing you to read the book at the time.
You may have been one of those influences. And that was just, again, another identity: “I don’t need sleep.” But I remember getting halfway through that book when he talks about the strong link between a lack of sleep and Alzheimer’s, which has destroyed older generations of my family and is currently making its way into the generation right above ours. I remember weeping when I realized, “Oh, I’m doing this to myself. I’m like, almost guaranteeing that that will be my fate if I don’t change things.” And so that was a huge turning point for me when I realized I have to change that story immediately. That story I’ve been telling is just wrong, that I don’t need to sleep.
That’s just not true for 99.99% of the population. There aren’t exceptions to that rule. You’d need to sleep. I also started changing hydration, like all of the other things that support exercise. So exercise was the keystone habit for me as soon as I started exercising.
What does Keystone Habit mean?
Keystone habit, I think, comes from Charles Duhigg. He talks about a keystone habit as a habit that makes other healthy habits easier.
For example, you get up and make the bed immediately. Psychologically, it makes it easier to develop other healthy habits. You get this quick little boost; “Hey, I accomplished something. I got something done already today.” It opens some psychological space to do other things. So a Keystone Habit is one that makes other habits easier. For me, running was a keystone habit that made it much easier for me to shift my habits around diet, around what I drink, around how I sleep. So all of those habits were based on that keystone or laid on that keystone of exercise.
And then they seem to be mutually beneficial for you.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s a cycle, right?
Yeah. So finding that, I guess, is what Josh Hillis calls a strategy; like a collection of habits that support and reinforce each other.
It seems like you have that in a way that makes your change more sustainable in each of those areas.
Yeah, it turns into a flywheel, right? Where as long as I keep nudging the flywheel forward, like looking for the next growth edge in running, looking for the next improvement in diet, looking for the next way to build capacity– as long as I keep just nudging, the flywheel doesn’t take a lot of energy to keep it going and you just get better and better and healthier and healthier.
So that’s been important for me.
Before we wrap here, what advice do you have for people or teams who would like to make a sustainable, positive change for themselves?
I think teams tell stories about themselves too. So I would start with “What stories do we tell about who our team is? What are we capable of?” Are there self-limiting ones? “Well, we’ll never be able to achieve that, because we’re not that kind of team.” Think about the stories that we tell about our teams as well as ourselves as individuals.
For me, patience turned out to be a big part of sustaining the change because of the injury. And I’ve learned since then that this is completely common. It’s not unusual for somebody to get into running, go too fast and think that “I need to run fast to get faster” and it turns out that there’s this maxim in the running community, which I think is true in a lot of cardio development, which is that if you want to run fast, you have to run slow.
And it turns out that just running at a low heartbeat where you and I could have this kind of conversation while we’re running, is the thing that builds up the capability for people to actually run fast. So you do almost all of your training at a slow speed. I think there’s something in that for teams as well, which is like heroic efforts are not the thing that make you a great team.
It’s slow and steady. We develop capabilities to make things easy, capabilities to where we’re just at a completely sustainable pace and then when we need to, because we’ve built up that engine, we can go fast if we need to. If there’s a pivot in the market, we can address it–largely because we’re not burnt out from always being heroic.
When this thing happens to us, we have the capacity and the capability to do it.
You could sprint right now if you needed to in a way you couldn’t before, even though sprinting is not what you train.
Today would be hard since I’m still just a couple of days out from the Grand Canyon. But I actually did it. It was kind of funny. Somebody forgot something in the car yesterday and I just, without even thinking, started running and I said, “Oh, I can run again!” because it was really hard for me to run or even walk yesterday. My calves are pretty tight.
My son commented on this a couple of weeks ago, when we were running our conference up at 9000 feet in Vail. I was walking around on crutches because of ACL surgery and wanted to see what was on a sign 50 feet away, to see if I could park in a particular spot. And as my son put it, “Peter was standing next to us and then he was over there at the sign.”
And three years ago, you didn’t move like that. So you have a different freedom even in those little things, because you’ve built habits in your life. I see this with teams like the team that can run at a sustainable pace, can collaborate well on everyday stuff. When an interesting challenge comes up, whether that’s something difficult or an opportunity, they’re able to rally around that in a way that they couldn’t if their normal mode of working was just to wear themselves out with bursts.
Yeah. So I think building up that sustainable energy engine is big. And then I think if you’re interested in improving things, which probably anybody listening to this show is, a huge lesson for me is captured in a Bill Gates quote:
“There are so many quotes about this!”
“Most people overestimate what they can get done in a year and underestimate what they can get done in ten.” [Bill Gates] And I think that the ten-year boundary of that is way longer than it needs to be because it’s been three years since I started running and I just ran 45 miles back and forth across the Grand Canyon in 15 hours.
That’s just crazy. That kind of distance is not normal. And I just slowly and slowly built up to it. We started this podcast episode that way: “What did you do on Friday that you wouldn’t have even considered?”
I didn’t even know that thing existed three years ago. So, with three years of effort, it’s just a category change of what I think is possible in my own life and what I’m aware of out in the world.
I think this is true of teams as well. You’re probably anxious to make change, and you’re going to develop the team version of IT Band Syndrome if you try to go too fast. You’re going to burn people out. You’re going to create friction where it shouldn’t be. And so be patient in the pace of change, because if you stick with patient, sustainable, “a little bit at a time, a little bit at a time” change, you’re likely to see the same kind of three-year difference that I have seen in my capability: massively different.
I remember seeing this on teams that I’ve worked on where if you look back three years ago, you think, “Wow, remember when we used to do it that way? That’s crazy. I can’t even imagine doing things that way anymore.” And now it’s just the way it is. It’s just habits now, these new agile ways of doing things.
So I think that’s a big lesson for teams as well. It’s probably going to be slower than you want, but you’re probably going to look back, three years from now, and say “Wow! Look how far we’ve come.”
Peter, thanks for sharing and reflecting on your story. I think this will be useful to a lot of people.