As her marriage was ending, Amy McCulloch began wondering what her future might look like.
“The path I thought I was going to be walking just disappeared,” the 36-year-old author of the book “Breathless" who lives in London told TODAY. “I was really at a loss and I just realized I had two choices.
One was to curl up in my duvet and wallow — which was a really tempting proposition — or I could try to do something good for my body while I was working through this big change.
”While the marriage lasted just about a year, she had been with her ex-husband for about a decade. As she started re-imaging her life, she Googled “longest walks” and stumbled across the Kerry Way, “the longest way-marked trail in Ireland.” The next day, she landed in Dublin and started her adventure. At the time, she had no idea this was just the beginning of years of adventures.
“It was quite ambitious. It was a 250 kilometer walk (155 miles), which I did over two weeks,” she said. “You just walk along this trail that was very clearly marked but also took you really off the beaten track and to some incredibly beautiful places in Ireland all along the coastline.”
A physical feat became a lesson in mental resilience
As she watched the scenery transform from “luscious green fields” to mountains to jagged coastline, she felt better able to face her emotions.
“My body was physically exhausted, which gave me the ability to sleep,” McCulloch explained. “It also made me be more present within myself, which I really needed at that time.”
Instead of wondering what was next or combing over the details of her divorce, she noticed she was transforming in unexpected ways.
“It was physically difficult, but I also enjoyed what was happening to my soul,” she said. “I also thought that the type of person I was was going to be the person who was going to get married and have a family and that was going to be my future. And so I realized if that wasn’t going to be true maybe there were other things that weren’t true as well.”
She remembered a trip she took with her ex-husband to Machu Picchu. She recalls “huffing and puffing” to the site feeling badly about it because it was something that many tourists did. As she struggled, she watched her husband walk ahead of her.
“He was tired of waiting for me and I just realized I never really wanted to feel that again and so what Ireland did when I was walking there … I realized I was more capable,” she said. “I didn’t go out and become like this super fit person but I decided to make walking part of my everyday life.”
Just walking then jogging in her neighborhood helped her become stronger and fitter. A few months later, she embarked on another hike in the mountains of Nepal.
“I went to Nepal and did the Annapurna Circuit, which is one of the really classic trails out there and that’s when I discovered that I handle high altitudes really well,” she said. “It’s a lot about your mental resilience and your mental strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to keep going even when you feel like you’ve reached your limit.”
Exploring the world on foot: from the highest mountains to her own backyard
Applying that mentality to life meant that McCulloch could tackle all sorts of extreme physical feats as well as deal with daily life stresses. She summited Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, with a man she met on a date.
“I honestly just had such a magical experience and that’s where I started calling it summit fever,” she said.
She then summited Aconcagua, the highest mount in the Americas. The guide from that was leading an expedition to Manaslu, the eighth highest peak in the world, and asked if she wanted to join as part of his team. He was trying to climb the 14 highest mountains in the world.
“I knew that this was a chance to watch history being made,” McCulloch said. “So I agreed to join him and that’s how I ended up on Manaslu.”
That man who took her to North Africa, Chris, became her new husband in January 2022. During the pandemic, McCulloch took to exploring her neighborhood with the same zeal as she did in foreign countries.
“There really isn’t that much countryside around here but there are a lot of parks, which are really beautiful and I discovered some incredible locations,” she said.
When lockdown lifted she wondered what she could do now and she signed up for the Marathon de Sables, an ultramarathon in the Sahara Desert that takes six days and covers about 156 miles.
“(It’s) this ultramarathon through the desert, again kind of an extreme leap to make, but what really appeals to me about it was the chance to go to an incredible environment that I wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise,” she said. “Also the fact that almost everyone who does it says that it’s not necessarily about how good of a runner you are but about how much mental strength you have to just keep going day after day, mile after mile.”
She needed that strength when she trekked through a sandstorm, peering at a compass to try to orient herself.
“About 15% of the runners dropped out of the race because they got into difficulty during the storm or other elements,” she said. “But it was magical because you’re out in the Sahara Desert and there are moments where I was completely alone.”
Being alone with her thoughts as she navigates tough terrain prevents her from being stuck in her head.
“You do have to be really present in the moment in order to be aware of the risks that are around you,” she said. “You’re just left with your own thoughts and your own forward progress, your own next step.”
She believes that anyone can learn from her experiences — even without scaling mountains or running through the desert.
“I never thought that I would be capable of doing any of these things that I’ve accomplished in the past few years,” she said. “All of them has started with putting one foot in front of the other.”