Are you prepared for a 50-mile “Kennedy March”?
JFK thought every adult American should be able to walk 50 miles. Can you?
The San Francisco Bay is home to the infamous “Three Bridge Fiasco” — an annual yacht race in which skippers must round at least one span of three bridges: the Richmond, Bay Bridge, and Golden Gate. The “Fiasco” gets its name from the difficulty of navigating the currents and fickle winds of the Bay Area winter.
Until recently, you could only complete the circuit by boat, but the recent additions of pedestrian walkways on the Richmond and Bay bridges now allow one to walk an almost complete circuit (at least theoretically). Plotting the route on Google Maps, I discovered the never-before-travelled route to be almost exactly 50 miles. So I set out to be the first to walk it.
In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt issued a literal 50-mile “marching order.” He wanted his officers battle-ready, should the need to go to war arise. They were to complete the march in three days, and less than 20 hours of walking time.
52 years later, President-elect JFK wrote an essay in Sports Illustrated titled, “The Soft American,” rousing the nation from its “slothful ease.” With charisma, soaring rhetoric, and a tinge of approbation, Kennedy invited young Americans to join in a “New Frontier” that included the outer space. At the same time, he called for the creation of an official U.S. Physical Fitness Test. What good is a rocket ship if there are no astronauts with the stamina to venture into outer space?
Soon after, Kennedy discovered the original 50-mile march and called on the military to once more take up the banner of the “strenuous life.” However, as Roosevelt had feared would happen in his time, many top-ranking men under Kennedy apparently were softened by the post-war peace and economic boom and postponed the march indefinitely.
Although JFK never attempted the hike himself, he inspired countless Americans to best each other for time. His brother, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, completed the hike in leather Oxford shoes — persisting through snow and slush, even after his last aide dropped out at mile 35.
The urgency of these words from Kennedy’s Sports Illustrated essay has only grown:
“Of course, modern advances and increasing leisure can add greatly to the comfort and enjoyment of life. But they must not be confused with indolence, with, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “slothful-ease,” with an increasing deterioration of our physical strength. For the strength of our youth and the fitness of our adults are among our most important assets, and this growing decline is a matter of urgent concern to thoughtful Americans.”
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Another 55 years later, in 2017, The Art of Manliness brushed the dust off this nearly-forgotten chapter of history — keeping a semi-centennial tradition alive, and promoting the idea in the context of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” speech. The ethos of pushing back against the excessive comforts of modernity has been expressed many times and in many ways. It can never be exhausted because of the cycles that permeate society. As apocalyptic novelist G. Michael Hopf said, “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”
As America continues in the longest period of peace and prosperity since the post-war boom, we might pause to consider whether we are headed for hard times once again.
The San Francisco Bay is a natural harbor. That makes Clipper Cove a harbor within a harbor, where boats frequently anchor for a few days at a time. The same cove that was once used as a runway for the famous WWII PanAm seaplanes is now home to the Washed Up Yacht Clubs famous “raft ups”.
There was only one other sailboat anchored on the morning I arrived.
I reached shore at 10am, planning to march a steady 4.2mph — a brisk walk but not a jog — and arrive in San Francisco by 10pm.
This pace was ambitious, but I embarked with optimism — taking in views of South San Francisco Bay as I crossed the Bay Bridge’s Alex Zuckermann pathway.
11:00am — 8 miles walked
Soon I was striding past the East Bay Municipal Utility District — a sprawling wastewater treatment plant wedged between the Port of Oakland’s distinctive “AT-AT” cranes and the MacArthur Maze. Sewage used to be discharged directly into the Bay, but now EBMUD chlorinates, dechlorinates, and discharges 70 million gallons a mile from shore daily.
Some garbage still finds its way into the Bay — especially during storms — but I was surprised by how pristine the shoreline looked. The San Francisco Bay Trail between Oakland and Richmond provides an ideal habitat for cranes and other shorebirds which thrive in these shallow tidal marshes. While their numbers are greatly diminished from the days when the Ohlone tribe stewarded this land, it wasn’t hard to imagine myself transported back to a time when native people fished and hunted in canoes made from the ubiquitous tule reed.
Midday — 2:15pm
A 10-mile stretch of scenic Bay Trail gave way to an industrial zone leading up to the Richmond Bridge — a six-mile span built in the 1950s to accommodate the swelling population in Marin County to the west.
Ascending the gradual slope to the second span of my journey, I queued up Ravel’s Bolero to keep in step with my desired pace. Army marches are used to keep soldiers motivated and in sync during long treks, and it’s easy to see why. The music boosted my morale and eased the strain of the uphill battle.
The descent was even more difficult than the ascent, as the monotonous pavement-pounding sent shooting pains through my toes.
I passed perhaps one walker and one biker during the entire hour. It would appear that the pilot program of the pedestrian lane on the Richmond Bridge is unlikely to be extended barring a major revival of kinesthetic culture in the Bay Area. Groups like San Francisco Bay Trail are working to draw attention to the path — which boasts amazing views — but the sedentary lifestyle carries a powerful inertia.
Fortunately I had the company of a friend by phone.
Nathan Amado, a trainer and creator of Original Human Movement, had recently completed his own milestone trek — a 27 km hike for his 27th birthday. Nate’s hike was inspired by an annual tradition inaugurated by biomechanist Katy Bowman to walk as many miles as there are candles on her birthday cake. Bowman is also the creator of the FIX YOUR FEET DVD seriesand author of Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear, Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief, and Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement.
Nate and I were just two days away from co-teaching a webinar on deep breathing techniques for efficiency, power, and relaxation —techniques I was beginning to rely on to power through my fatigue. With each breath I sought to discharge all unnecessary muscular contractions and refine my march to the most efficient stride possible.
I joked that the online workshop would contribute to my recovery from the walk, but feared that more likely I would be incapacitated if I actually managed to complete it.
The Failure of Progress & the Return of the Strenuous Life
It’s worth noting that the two American Presidents who did the most to promote the “strenuous life” were themselves ill throughout their lives, and especially as children. Teddy Roosevelt suffered from asthma while Kennedy is now known to have had Addison’s disease, a hormonal deficiency that cripples the body’s normal response to stress.
Those who have health often take it for granted. Neither TR nor JFK had that luxury. Roosevelt attributed his recovery to vigorous activity. While a certain school of the medical establishment always prescribes bed rest for the weary, wisdom suggests an opposite approach.
Ivan Illich brilliantly captured the phenomenon of iatrogenesis, i.e., medically-induced illness, in a journal article titled “Medical Nemesis,” published by Lancet in 1974. According to the myth, Prometheus invited Nemesis — the goddess of retribution — upon himself by stealing fire from the gods. In Illich’s analogy Nemesis is the backlash of technological progress. He must appeal to myth because of the sheer tragedy of the modern reliance on technical cures for technologically-induced illness. After trespassing the limitations of his humanity, the former hero became the victim of the gods’ vengeance.
Most public health professionals are now technocrats tasked with managing the human condition rather than healers of the sick. This makes sense, because it is more profitable to make us sick in order, such that we need the cure. The argument in Medical Nemesis is not a conspiracy theory, but rather a rigorous explanation of how institutions grow and metastasize when they begin to “breed the therapist’s client in a cybernetic way.”
There is no secret cabal plotting to keep us sick and weak. It’s worse than that. We have unwittingly constructed an entire “medical civilization” made up of “make-sickening” institutions, commercial products, and daily stressors that force our unconditional surrender to an elite caste of biological technicians.
According to Greek myth, Prometheus suffered at the hands of a vulture who ate his innards. But the real tragedy stems from the gods’ healing powers, which restore Prometheus’s eviscerated guts every day such that the excruciating ordeal could repeat itself ad infinitum.
Most man-made misery is now the byproduct of enterprises which were originally designed to protect the common man in his struggle with the inclemency of the environment and against wanton injustices inflicted by the elite. The main source of pain, disability, and death is now an engineered — albeit non-intentional — harassment. The prevailing ailments, helplessness and injustice, are now the side-effects of strategies for progress.
Is this not just another way of describing what Kennedy wrote 14 years earlier? Cursed by the “slothful ease” of modern progress, our physical and mental health deteriorates.
Even our fitness products — from FitBit to shock-absorbing shoes — treat the ancient art of marching as a chore to be checked off with a daily step quota. The natural, beneficial stress of walking on the earth has been replaced by a plodding jog that jolts the knees and hips with unnatural torque enabled by the “technology” of cushioned shoes. We forget how to walk and run with the appropriate effort of our ancestors and fall into one of twin traps: either neglecting our bodies or trying to brutalize them back into shape.
The high priests of medical civilization demand a strict diet coupled with treadmill penance, which by no coincidence keeps their patients over-worked and undernourished — ready to embrace whatever pharmaceutical rituals and remedies their strong gods demand.
Dusk: 5pm — 29 miles hiked
With just over 20 miles to go, I was plodding along through my old stomping ground of Marin County.
10 years ago, I had driven this road dozens of times in search of a cure for what ailed me. As an otherwise healthy student studying economics at UC Berkeley, I posed a puzzling case to my childhood doctor across the bridge.
We had all but ruled out mononucleosis as the source of my ongoing fatigue, sore throat, and general apathy. I suggested Chronic fatigue syndrome — an ill-defined cluster of symptoms linked to the lymphatic system — but my avuncular physician smiled and offered a simpler explanation in line with his old-school sensibilities.
He was already on guard against my hypochondria. A few years earlier, I’d come back from Costa Rica with an infected mosquito bite where my sandal had rubbed against my foot. I could have sworn it was the flesh-eating sub-tropical disease, Leishmaniasis, but once I stopped wearing flip flops the rash went away in a few days. This time it took a few appointments and three inconclusive blood tests for him to reach his devastatingly simple diagnosis:
“Sometimes I see patients who become sick for a while, and eventually they just sort of lose the will to live.”
At 20 years old, I should have been feeling excited about life. Instead, I felt feeble and flaccid. He was 100% right. Had he taken the more typical approach of more blood panels, referrals to specialists, etc. I likely would have persisted in my delusion of victimhood.
Instead, I began to see how my lack of vitality bred demotivation and sedentarism, which resulted in a downward spiral in strength and stamina. I needed a shot in the arm — a way to jumpstart the old “will to live.”
First I tried jogging, but became exhausted after 50 meters. It felt like something was constricting the blood supply to my head.
My last remaining enthusiasm was the world of ideas — I read economics blogs and listened to podcasts like it was my job, but it all seemed pointlessly abstract. From this place of desperation, Art DeVany’s EconTalk podcast on Steroids, Baseball, and Evolutionary Fitness came as a godsend.
DeVany, an econometrician pushing 75 years old at the time, was in far better shape than I’d ever been, and had maintained his Olympian physique through short, intense “caveman” workouts, and a diet to match broad principles in line with our paleolithic ancestors (hence, “evolutionary” fitness).
For an agnostic like me, it was a story of Paradise lost, and rediscovered.
Something deep inside me resonated with this story of a fallen world in which humans had been tempted away from their true nature by the comforts and convenience of agricultural society.
The Art of Manliness notes that besides obesity, heart disease, and cancer, the main drivers of reduced life expectancy are drug addiction and depression (suicide) .
My biggest challenge was not eking out a subsistence from the soil, but rather in confronting the social pressures of eating and drinking with a degraded will-power. With each passing day of going “against the grain” — limiting my consumption of bread, alcohol, and sugar — I felt my vitality returning.
I could soon sprint down the block, and each bout of intense exercise brought new strength and possibilities for adventure —more reasons to live.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was rediscovering the “strenuous life” that periodically reasserts itself in times of comfort and decadence.
Re-Learning to Walk
The main test of a 50-mile march is grit. Sheer determination is really all that’s required (especially if you allow yourself time to rest) to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Walking is a simple skill. Most have sufficient skill to do more or less continuously. However, there are two advanced techniques that anyone attempting a speed-march should learn.
The first is the natural marching method of Georges Hébert — an early 20th-century French Naval officer who observed tribal people as the models of a rational fitness protocol for his countrymen and fellow soldiers. La Methode Naturelle emphasizes marching as the most natural means of locomotion and the most “economical way to move using the legs.”
“To know how to march doesn’t just mean to walk fast. One should be able to also progress economically, meaning expending as little muscular effort as possible, either in order to cover long distances, or to cover any distance with minimal fatigue…
Experience shows that economical speeds correspond to a cadence varying between 110 and 130 steps per minute. Those speeds, properly broken up with sufficient rest, can be maintained for a relatively long time without producing excessive fatigue.
— The Natural Method: Functional Exercise, from Georges Hébert’s Practical Guide to Physical Education (translated by Philippe Til)
Hébert’s instructions belabor a few simple points:
- The back leg should be extended as far as possible with each step.
- The longer the stride, the faster you go. This conserves energy more than the alternative of increasing the cadence (students of barefoot running technique will notice that this is the opposite principle as that used for running, where a fast cadence and short stride is preferred).
- Weight is transferred from the ball of the rear foot to the heal of the leading foot, but the ball of the leading foot should land immediately after.
- Breathing synchronizes with the steps (roughly 5 or 6 steps per breath cycle) — “It can also be made deeper by long, frequent breaths as well as singing.”
Finally, Hébert makes several important points about shoes and hygiene. Beyond the obvious need for clean, intact socks, he suggests a wide-toed shoe. I prefer Lem’s — a minimalist shoe with a wide toe-box, which come in several styles from sporty, to casual, to elegant. For this hike, I wore my trusty running shoes, the Primal 2.
The second technique is Esther Gokhale’s “glide walk.” Gokhale, a former yoga model, has developed her own method for improving posture through natural movement, which is among the only effective treatments for advanced back pain. Studies by Stanford University researchers confirm the Gokhale Method’s superior efficacy compared with more intensive remedies like hip or spinal surgery.
Glide walking adds nuance to the lengthened strides recommended by Hébert, emphasizing the “push” from the gluteus maximus and rear leg that accompanies the “pull” from the forward foot. The free foot glides over the ground, minimizing impact upon landing.
Both Gokhale and Hébert drew their inspiration from “primitive” populations that have so far escaped the notice of Nemesis.
Hébert first encountered humans who were “strong by nature” while on tour of the islands of the West Indies. Like Hébert, Gokhale developed “ancestral walking” into a rational method after noticing that tribal people maintain impeccable posture and technique well into old age.
“Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey.”
– Zeno the Stoic
By the time I reached my hometown of Corte Madera, the sun had set behind Mt. Tam and the first stars and planets were appearing in the sky.
I switched my soundtrack to Gregorian chant for the dark and lonely trek over the wooded Wolf Grade into Mill Valley. Passing by a small parcel of deer on the hillside, I paused the music to enjoy the night’s silence mixed with the soft hum of the nearby Highway 101.
By now, the hotspots on my feet were turning to blisters and the nerves of my toes were shot through with… what? Not death, but life! The pain — awakening all 200,000 receptors in each foot from their long slumber — was forcing new adaptations and musculoskeletal pathways. The strenuousness was unlocking the ancient epigenetic codes our ancestors used when they needed to seek out new hunting grounds or flee from war or natural disaster.
Paradoxically, by weakening ourselves through intense effort, we become stronger. This is the ancient secret of hormesis — forgotten in this age of decadence but known especially well by the ancient Stoics, like Zeno, who after being shipwrecked once by accident, recreated the wreck every so often just so that he would not take his comfort for granted.
As of the 35-mile mark, I had only stopped once in San Rafael to rub my feet, change my socks, and eat a cold egg-and-cheese burrito I’d prepared some 12 hours earlier while groggily preparing to embark by sailboat for Clipper Cove. Treasure Island felt like another world, despite being just 7 miles away (as the marlin swims).
The next stretch of Bay Trail between Mill Valley and Sausalito provided much-needed relief in the form of a small dirt path on either side of the pavement. I found a small park bench to scarf down my last provisions: sardines, dried seaweed, and half of a large Hass avocado. Hunger was a minor issue as my body had made the leap to fat-burning mode hours ago — adapting to the long-distance activity by consuming my own fat stores to produce heat and energy.
Every time I stopped moving, I felt a sudden cold set in, urging me onward to at least finish in under 13 hours. The last 12 miles would require a different kind of mental fortitude.
The only comparable experience for me was the fifth of five “Pilgrim Paths” I walked during the summer of 2017. “St. Patrick’s Way” was a 37-km route through fen and lea, culminating in a hike up and over “Croagh” Patrick. Coming on the heels of four other hikes in one week across routes of Ireland’s most elevated Saints, my feet were starting to say “no!” to the incessant command to keep putting one-in-front-of-another.
Now, as then, I made recourse to the saints to aid me in my time of need. I pondered taking my shoes off, as I had done on the 750-meter ascent of the holy green mountain. But the paved sidewalks of Sausalito were a far cry from the soft soils of the Emerald Isle.
I quickened my stride — taking solace in the fact that hard ground hardens soft people — and tried to make up for lost time. My speed peaked rounding through Sausalito’s tourist district — the first point in many miles that gave me a view of the Bay, the San Francisco skyline, and my starting point on Treasure Island.
Here I discovered that an exaggerated swing of the arms could marginally extend my stride, increasing my speed per Hébert’s rule of efficient walking: increase stride length, not the cadence. I had finally found the rhythm most conducive to speed while minimizing fatigue.
The climb up to the Golden Gate Bridge also came as unexpected relief as the incline allowed me to transfer weight from my tender heels to the fresher balls of my feet. Glutes activated and rear legs fully extended, I powered past the 40-mile mark to the entrance of the final span.
The Golden Gate Bridge loomed like the final boss in a video game — the final obstacle to becoming the first and only person to walk across all three bridges in one day. Battered, broken, and with dwindling phone battery, I started to make contingency plans in case I couldn’t make it to my final destination.
Night — 9pm. The Gate.
A sun kissed miss said “Don’t be late!”
That’s why I can hardly wait
Open up, open up, open up that Golden Gate!
California, here I come!
– Al Jolson
Those who follow me on social media were able to track my location. Some who were following along started to text me as I got closer to the Golden Gate. They had watched the little blue dot traveling 41 miles between 10am and 9pm — from Treasure Island to the Golden Gate, on the brand-new walking paths of the Bay and Richmond bridges.
And yet little dot stopped short of the Golden Gate Bridge. Apparently, it has been closed to pedestrians after 6:30pm for some years as suicide prevention measure.
I tried to explain to the security guard on the other side of the voice box where I’d come from, and why, but he was having none of it. I probably seemed like just the kind of desperate late-night “hiker” the gate was designed to keep off the bridge.
Suicidal depression is one horrendous symptom of a culture devoid of vigor. I don’t mean to scapegoat the real victims of depression, or imply that they are at fault for my failure to plan to arrive early enough to cross. However, the shut gate was a fitting metaphor for the societal currents I sought to swim against in embarking on my hike.
I thought about waiting for a bike to pass through and making a run for it through the opened gate. But considering that I could barely still walk (let alone run), I instead called Lyft to take me across the bridge.
It was a disappointment in some respects — while certain failures function as excellent hormetic stressors, I think the whole “failing your way to success” mantra is over-done.
I draw my inspiration from men of courage like JFK and Georges Hébert, who aimed high and followed through.
However, I’m taking my own personal Three Bridge Fiasco in stride. It was a beautiful day to be outside. I adapted my walking technique under pressure from the sheer distance to improve the efficiency of my gait. Not only that but since my feet have recovered they feel stronger than ever.
But the story is not over. My second attempt will take place on March 22. This time I’m recruiting a company of marchers to promote the vigorous physical culture embodied by Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” and the Kennedy March.
Will you join us? Even if you can’t make the full commitment, you can still lend moral support by joining for part of the journey, or by following our progress on Google Maps.