Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 51 - Bobby O'Donnell - RUNNING WILD - Part 2 of 3


So, I mean, how does that process go? You go through a traumatic event in Boston and then you kind of make this commitment, I assume to yourself to go and go on this journey. How does that logistically come together?


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JESSE: So, I mean, how does that process go? You go through a traumatic event in Boston and then you kind of make this commitment, I assume to yourself to go and go on this journey. How does that logistically come together?

BOBBY: Yeah. A lot of it was meeting people other places and then at races and then them telling me about other cool things in the world. And like, that’s how I found a lot of the races. But it was towards the end of college. So, like, the timeline of it really was Boston 2013 was my freshman year of college, the spring of my freshman year, and I was running cross country collegiately at that time. And then once the fall came, I just couldn’t run anymore. I just didn’t want to. So, I stopped running collegiately and then decided I needed to go back and run Boston in 2014.

So, that spring of my sophomore year, and then had this high hopes that everything was going to fix itself. And then it didn’t. So, then took this hiatus from running until halfway through my junior year when I went on this mission trip to Nicaragua. And realized that I love trail running and running in kind of these beautiful places just because I loved it, not because I wanted a PD or I wanted a medal or I wanted anything else. It was just because I wanted to learn to love running again.

So, that was January 2015 was Nicaragua, and that was towards the end of my junior year at college. So, it was quite complicated at that stage, figuring out all right, I have this next summer now to maybe go on a trip or go do something. But then I still have another year of school left. And that’s kind of when traveling and these races opened up for me. So, I ended up going to Australia, New Zealand for that first summer. Went back, did my last year of college.

And then it was a matter of kind of figuring out where I wanted to go. And like I said it was just meeting these people and hearing about these races, a lot of time on Google, and you all these other places. But kind of how it worked in the way I did it is I was really lucky to be a paramedic, where I could work pretty– I was always able to get work.

So, it was a matter of when I was in the United States, it was working 70, 80 hours a week for two months, and then going to travel for four or five months. It was just making enough money until I could go to the next thing. And it was sleeping in my car between my bike and my skis or crashing on someone’s couch because I was just– I wasn’t here enough to get a lease for an apartment. I loved it. It was some of the best years of my life.

JESSE: Yeah. I have not personally done it. I’ve traveled a little bit, but I know people that have kind of lived that lifestyle. And from what I can glean, there’s just something freeing about not having anything, it’s just like, get up and go for the day. Like what are we doing today? And that’s all you’re focused on is– Assuming you’ve got enough to live on.

Because there’s some people that kinda become run bums and just like, do whatever to get by and don’t have that back and forth like you did. But yeah, I think sometimes that’s appealing to people that get, I’ll say it’s like a midlife stage.

And they think, why do I have like, a house and kids and a car and a dog? And like, do I really want all these things? Let’s just throw it all away and go on an adventure. So, I think it’s cool that you spent the time to do it and then you have that kind of under your belt. Not just in the sense that, yeah, you’ve got that notch but in a sense that I’m a believer that travel changes people.

BOBBY: Huge. Yeah, absolutely.

JESSE: So, it’s just like– And I also feel like, if more people traveled, we’d be able to figure out or like we’re not going to agree on things. We’re still gonna have things we disagree on. But I feel like after you’ve been a traveler, you understand a little bit more about, hey I’m in somebody else’s backyard like, I need to be willing to talk to them and figure things out, and not just be like, well, it’s my way or the highway.

BOBBY: Right. I think one of the most interesting things was when I hiked the Appalachian Trail, it was like, the ultimate equalizer for humanity. And I think you said like with any long trail, really, because what you go through that day, with your camp, especially the Appalachian Trail, which has a fair few shelters in [??? 04:36] which is commonly where people can [??? 04:39] water source there and things like that.

At the end of the day, you start talking to people, what you did that day, whether it was pouring rain, or it was a ton of vertical gain, they did that exact same thing. And I remember pretty early on in the [??? 04:52], it was either Northern Georgia or just the start in North Carolina, there was like a 22-year-old kid talking to this 45-year-old guy about [??? 05:01] and different types of gear.

And it turned out the 22-year-old kid quit his job at 7/11 and the 45-year-old guy was on hiatus as an ICU physician. And it’s like in what other circumstance in life would you see those two people interacting on that personal level. And I think when we take away all these distractions, and all these status symbols [??? 05:25] two jobs, the amount of money you have, things like that, we start to relate to people a little bit better. And I wish that we could do that more so outside of wilderness areas, and more so than in regular life.

JESSE: Yeah. Well, it’s like that moment where you’re both in an unfamiliar area, you’re going through this shared experience. You now have something together with a stranger that you wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise. And that gives you some ability to connect over like what’s happening. It kind of brings down that barrier whereas like, so much, especially right now, so much of our interaction happens over the internet and not even like– [crosstalk]

We’re basically hanging out face-to-face via screen, but just like anonymize forums, or even Facebook, which people kind of treat as relatively anonymous even if it’s not, you get, I think, sometimes you get I’ll say the worst of humanity being a little facetious, just because people don’t have that face-to-face connection to be like, oh, I can empathize with this human being sitting across from me and think, hey, maybe I shouldn’t like say these terrible things to them. Maybe they actually have feelings and they go through things that I do as well.

BOBBY: Right. I mean, all of these platforms kind of dehumanize it in a way. Yeah.

JESSE: Right. Yeah. It’s like if I had the option maybe I would say, “Okay. We’ll make you a tour guide and just be like, just start sending people out on journeys and be like, all right, Bobby’s gonna take you out and he’s going to take you across three continents instead of seven.

BOBBY: That’d be sweet. I love that.

JESSE: It’s just, I don’t know, man. It’s one of those things where sometimes I wish– we’re only people, single people individually. It’s like you can only touch so many lives. But it’s like if you can get enough people just trying to figure out how to connect on a human level instead of being like this is my agenda and if you don’t agree with it, forget you. We all have things in common whether we believe it or not.

BOBBY: Yeah, it’s huge. And I think it was really traveling is what brought that out of me when it was– Because I think the worst thing that parents teach their kids, and this is a blanket statement, but like, don’t talk to strangers. To an extent that’s horrible advice. And I think people focus too much on that sometimes and people aren’t able to open up for that reason.

And I heard a lot of really cool statements and sayings and phrases while I was traveling. But one of the ones that stuck the most with me was when I was sitting on a boat in Australia with this German guy, and we’re having a beer, and we were talking back and forth and we’re both traveling by ourselves. And he said it’s hard to be alone when you travel alone.

And when you first hear that it sounds so incredibly backwards. Because I think when I first went on my first big solo trip, it was me and my backpack and I was like, all right, I’m gonna be by myself for the next few months, that’s gonna be it. And it was the most social thing that ever happened.

Because once you do that, as humans, we’re naturally social creatures and we want to interact and we want to reach out and we want to relate to people. It’s something that I think we all crave, and it’s just a matter of getting outside of your comfort zone to do that.

And once you start and you realize that the world isn’t this big, scary place, you’re able to do it that much easier the next time because like I said, I had never traveled much really before I started going off on that first big adventure. And having not been exposed to much and being quite sheltered growing up really until I was 20 years old. I didn’t know much about the world, and then all of a sudden I was involved in the Boston Marathon bombing, and then the world was this big, scary, horrible place.

And I needed to let myself open back up to it again. And it very easily could have gone the other way. I could have just hermitted myself into God knows where. But I hate the Boston Marathon bombing happened to me, but on another term, I needed it to happen to be the person that I am now.

JESSE: It’s interesting to see people’s perspectives and how they approach traumatic events or terrible events. I was just speaking last week, so it’ll be a couple episodes ago from when this comes out, a gentleman who lives in Germany. And he’s a dermatologist but just about the current pandemic situation and my penchant towards almost eternal optimism where I’m like, I believe in the human spirit of like people can get through this. But there’s some people, like you said, go to that option where it’s like, I’m just gonna– like bad things happen. I’m just gonna stay inside, not confront reality anymore, and just stay in my safe little bubble. But then you like, at least in my opinion, it seems like those people limit the possibility of what they can become and the good that they can do when they kind of shut themselves off from the world.

BOBBY: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that’s a scary, scary thing when people shut themselves off from the world.

JESSE: Yeah. So, as you’re talking, it kind of made me wonder obviously, not literally, but just like, on your journey. I think we would agree that running has therapeutic events or therapeutic effects, there’s the word. But it almost sounds like connecting with people on the journey was more of like the medicine that you got rather than just the runs themselves. Would you agree that’s true?

BOBBY: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that’s what fed a lot into why I want it more and more. It’s like as soon as I got back from somewhere, I was counting the days until the next trip because I just knew that they were– I just thought it was the most amazing thing that there were so many people. Because a lot of my friends really when you think about, you know who your closest friends are. They’re people that you grew up geographically close to or people that you went to school with.

And then it was like there’s this whole other world out there of people that you’ve not met yet. And every time I go away, I’d come back with all these new amazing friends that I would go visit. And the best example of it really is– So, I’ve been living in Scotland for the last seven months. And I just came back because of the pandemic, really.

My girlfriend’s Scottish and we were supposed to hike the Pacific Crest Trail this summer. So, we’re supposed to come to America to start in April. And then it’s kind of the travel ban started happening. We booked earlier flights and came in the middle of March. And it was kind of like that middle of March where like everyday things changed, like with the greatest margins.

So, very quickly realized that we were going to be quarantining in New Hampshire, which is not– I mean, we’re in a great spot, we’re still able to safely self-isolate and make it to the White Mountains close by without having much of an impact. So, all things considered, we’re really lucky because neither of us were planning on having work for the next five months because we’re going to be walking the PCT. So, since everything happened, I’ve gone back to work in [??? 12:54] and we were out in the hill– mountains every other day.

So, all things here, we’re really lucky. But I live in Scotland, so, my last continent was Asia. So, I decided to do the Everest Marathon in Nepal. And that one in particular, like you get to know people really, really well because you have to be out there for four or five weeks to be climatized.

So, you’re interacting with the same people every single day. And two of my best friends in the whole world now we’re people that I met during that event. There was this woman from Scotland Fiona Smith, and this guy from Ireland, Tom Power, and she’s a reindeer herder and he’s an Irish police detective.

So, it’s like, and since then they’ve come to America, two or three times. Fi and I’ve gone to Ireland multiple times. Tom’s come over to Scotland a ton of times after that. And I was going to visit Fiona one of these times, and like helping her with the reindeer kind of living up there that I’ve met my girlfriend, and now it’s like my whole life has just changed so dramatically.

But it’s a similar thing where why would you ever expect a 26-year-old paramedic, a 34-year-old Scottish reindeer herder, and a 46-year-old Irish police detective to be friends? It’s just like the most hilarious thing. Like it would have never happened if I didn’t open myself up to that.

JESSE: Yeah. So, one of my best friends is a Brazilian import to Canada, I met in Montreal and he now lives in Newfoundland. So, we talk or chat probably every other day now. It’s been– I met him– I was 25. I’m 31 now so it’s been a while. But it’s like, I’d never would have met him if I had not decided, hey, like on a lark, I’m gonna go to Montreal and be there for a month by myself and just see what happens.

But it’s like there’s this– And this story happens over and over and over again for the people that just make the leap and meet these people that you make a connection. And friendship is almost one of those like, odd things where it’s like, why are you friends with somebody? You don’t share resources, you’re not related by blood. Like it’s a voluntary association with somebody that you both have to make an effort to maintain.

Yet somehow these things happen and it’s like you meet– Sometimes I think it’s like to be a little deterministic, like people you’re supposed to meet you meet them. But it’s almost like that thread of, again, just being willing to take that leap is enough to connect you to somebody else to be like, there’s something there that we both see and we can share. And then we can share all these other disparate parts of our lives that are interesting to each other.

BOBBY: Right. No, absolutely. Yeah, it’s such an interesting thing when you really break it down like that and think about it.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. Like you said, like that group of people you’re not– So, the Midwest is known for being pretty insular, like a lot of people are born here, stay here, don’t move anywhere, especially the small outlying towns from Kansas City. And it’s like, usually, my girlfriend, I talk about this sometimes, because she grew up in one of these very small towns, but as we moved here and traveled [??? 16:31], and just like, your whole desire is just to stay in this town of 1,000 people and never leave, just do the same thing over and over and over again.

Like, there’s such a big world out there to see and do and people to talk to. And yeah, I don’t know if it’s a matter of just, I guess, if that’s what they want to do, let them do it. It’s not like forcing them but I just feel like if they understood what they’re missing, maybe you would incentivize them to leave a little more.

BOBBY: Yeah, well that’s the thing. I wonder if it’s one of those things where you don’t know what’s out there really until you experience it. And I wouldn’t have known unless I got pushed out my front door.

JESSE: Yeah.

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