Building a Sustainable Adventure

Magdalena Donahue is an author, scientist, avid runner, wife and mother. Magalena is a 2-time Olympic Trials Marathon Qualifier and avid runner, hiker, and outdoorswoman. She has three children: daughters 9 and 6 years old, and a 22-month old son. She recently published Colorado Rocks, a book about 50 amazing geologic sites in Colorado. She is currently working on a book of the geology of New Mexico. Magdalena earned her PhD in geosciences from the University of New Mexico, where she studied landscape evolution of the Rocky Mountains. After completing her PhD, she cofounded Think Ubiquitous, a company that builds software tools and data analytics and visualization. Magdalena grew up in northern New Mexico, enjoyed running for the University of Oregon (go Ducks!) for college, and ran professionally for Brooks Running. Now, she spends her free time running, hiking, camping and backpacking around New Mexico and the West with her family and dog. She also coaches and blogs about motherhood, professional life evolution, and pregnancy/postpartum running at the regular and elite level. Her favorite foods are chocolate chip cookies and New Mexican green chile.

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I grew up loving to run. In college, I ran cross country and track for the University of Oregon. Post collegiately, I qualified for and ran in two Olympic Trials marathons. When not running, I adventured: hiking, camping, backpacking, climbing, cross country skiing. As a geologist, I fused my outdoor and professional pursuits. I work intentionally to build a sustainable life of adventure. My husband and I have three children, and we have continued in a lifestyle of adventure, excitement, and outdoor pursuits. Building this lifestyle of the past decade has taken intentional thought and development. I look now at the next decade of our life as our children grow older and am excited to see where our individual and familial pursuits will lead us.  

I find it fascinating when common threads in life become visible, or skills developed primarily in one domain become relied upon in others. One skill I see myself utilizing repeatedly, tying together my running, adventuring, parenting, professional development, and growth as a spouse is the ability to shift my frame of reference and timescale of thought.

As an athlete, it is imperative I develop the ability to prioritize races, seasons, and years, and adapt training as time progressed. It is not practical, nor healthy, to hang my confidence or satisfaction on every single race even every season. The ability to shift focus from a practice to a seasonal goal to a long-term goal, and back again is critical in the long-term success of an athlete. 

A question I am commonly asked is: How do I reconcile losing “my” running or hiking time? How can I get satisfaction from taking 2 hours to walk a one-mile loop? How are sandwiches and blueberries after a 30-minute hike a victory feast?

My answer is answered in simply in that my timescale of adventure goals is geared towards long-term active life sustainability.

For the last 10 years, I have hiked, climbed, camped, run, and walked with small sidekicks. My hikes have been shortened and my runs often utilize a stroller. One take is saying, “Wow, she used to be a great runner/hiker, she sure lost focus after kids.” I can laugh at that and gently offer a completely different take: I challenged myself and worked incredibly hard to achieve some great running (& adventurous) feats. I am confident and capable on solo mountain adventures; my husband and I are a well-oiled machine when it comes to backpacking, climbing, camping and other adventurous trips.

Once we had children, we faced a rapid transition to a lot more stuff and a lot less [predictable] sleep. My physical capabilities changed after giving birth, as did my risk tolerance. This gave me the time to pause and refocus my mental time frame of reference. It was the prompt to reexamine and rebuild the foundation of outdoor adventure skillsets that seemed second nature to me.

The truth is that the best way for me to build the lifetime of adventure is to integrate my children. In my support of their skill building, I accomplish my overarching goal of a lifetime of outdoor activity. “My” adventure time necessarily involves including my family. I see no better measure of success than to effectively provide the scaffolding for my children such that my role moves from instruction to supervision to quiet observation in these endeavors.

In this mental shift, years of competitive racing helped me to confidently segue into a new training rhythm with new goals. My timescale zoomed out: I deliberately shifted my mindset to take on a true long-term planning look to the “Olympic cycle” of a lifetime of adventuring.

I know flexibility and adaptability are major strengths. My time investment in “basic skills” now would directly pay off in a life-long ability to pursue diverse adventures. Taking the mindset shift from “I can’t do that; I’ll have my kids” to “Look what we learn today” is crucial. It’s not always easy: at first, with a new baby, I was so tired I could barely walk. Toddler years mean a “hike” is often playing 200m from the trailhead with cool rocks (luckily, I like rocks). Now, our eldest is almost 10 and she and her sister (almost 7) can out-hike me when I’m carrying a baby backpack and set up their own tents.

It is hard to remember that the skills you have today took years of development. Looking forwards, I agilely and flexibly utilize these skills to design a future filled with adventure and personal challenge.

As a parent, partner, or friend of those with small children, my athletic- and adventure-tested takeaways are here:

  1. Look long-term. Missing a weekend hike or long run or even a season of camping doesn’t truly affect the long-term goal of a lifetime of running or other adventures. Build toward the sustainable lifestyle of challenge you want.
  2. Reframe perceived limitations into opportunities to re-evaluate and update your own foundational skills. Break these into small, child-size learning moments. Even as an expert you never lose out when you spend time examining and communicating fundamental skills.
  3. Embrace adaptability. Kids are flexible. Mimic that bendy-ness and enjoy the hike you took instead of a run. Marvel when you google up the names of 15 different tree leaves during your 200m hike. Look for the peace you’ll find at 4:45 AM when you are up super early to run.
  4. Be excited. Share your goals and what excites you about being outdoors. Why would kids want to join or support you in something you have no love for? Show why you like running, hiking, or climbing, and why! Know you are a superwoman: You run early? They see mom as having supernatural morning powers. You spot them climbing up a boulder? You have superhero reflexes. You pull out fancy marshmallows at the top of a mountain? MOMS ARE MAGICAL.
  5. Reflect the best: Your kids watch your every move. They know what it feels like when they overcome the fear of jumping off a big step or climbing a tall tree, let them see you challenging yourself. This underscores that the challenge process and constant skill building goes on even with “grown-ups.” The resiliency skills they build overcoming the tiredness of that one-mile hike are the same that carry you through a marathon, and the same that carry your children them on through a lifetime of exploration. 

All this to say: remember the steps that got you to where you are and spend some time thinking about how you will take action to ensure that you’re active, adventuring lifestyle is sustained, both in you and in your children. Over the last decade, I know I’ve been blown away by how excited my kids are about my adventures, and how excited I am to adventure with my children. I sure hope I can keep up!

About the Author

Magdalena Donahue is an author, scientist, avid runner, wife and mother. Magalena is a 2-time Olympic Trials Marathon Qualifier and avid runner, hiker, and outdoorswoman. She has three children: daughters 9 and 6 years old, and a 22-month old son. She recently published Colorado Rocks, a book about 50 amazing geologic sites in Colorado. She is currently working on a book of the geology of New Mexico. Magdalena earned her PhD in geosciences from the University of New Mexico, where she studied landscape evolution of the Rocky Mountains. After completing her PhD, she cofounded Think Ubiquitous, a company that builds software tools and data analytics and visualization. Magdalena grew up in northern New Mexico, enjoyed running for the University of Oregon (go Ducks!) for college, and ran professionally for Brooks Running. Now, she spends her free time running, hiking, camping and backpacking around New Mexico and the West with her family and dog. She also coaches and blogs about motherhood, professional life evolution, and pregnancy/postpartum running at the regular and elite level. Her favorite foods are chocolate chip cookies and New Mexican green chile.

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