Zooming In and Zooming Out

I wrote an article for a ski patrol newsletter recently.  It was specific to patrolling but I think the idea can be applied to ultrarunning, race directing, and life in general.  I’ve modified it slightly to make it appropriate for this blog.

In my previous life I used to be a rock climber. I enjoyed all kinds of climbing from bouldering, to multi-pitch cracks, to big walls, to sport climbing. Climbing, like most sports, requires attention. It is different from the other sports I’ve done or do in that it could consistently focus my attention without much effort on my part. Tie in, start climbing, and I could be right in the moment immediately, not thinking about what I was going to have for dinner or issues at work. This is generally a good thing as climbing is a serious activity that requires one to control emotions while also executing athletically, with potentially serious consequences for errors.

But, sometimes that focus can be a detriment. One of the mental techniques I used to employ, thanks to author and climber Dale Goddard, was the concept of zooming in and zooming out. When doing a difficult move that required complete concentration and focus I needed to zoom in, ignoring everything else. All of my attention would be focused on the tiny edges of rock my feet and hands were on. But spending all my energy executing single moves could have resulted in missing good rest opportunities or not knowing where I needed to clip the protection. Should I climb above the pro, clip, and then come back down and rest? This type of attention, while equally important, required zooming out, or changing the focal point of my lens to a perspective a little farther away from the tiny edges I was standing and holding onto. Finding that perfect combination of zooming in and zooming out is when I would climb my best and what I always strived for.

I pulled out this climbing reference last weekend at a senior patrol medical training session where the emphasis is on managing medical scenarios with multiple patients and/or distracting bystanders.  Not sure I did a good job articulating it, but I wanted to get the point across to the candidates that this technique could be used when leading multi-patient scenarios. Zooming in for their assessments, when listening to patients, or splinting a broken bone. Really paying attention and focusing. But they can’t stay zoomed in indefinitely as they have other things going on which also require their attention. Zooming out to make sure they have a plan for the whole scenario, and evaluating if it is working or not. Is the other patient crashing? Do all their helpers have a job, and are they working efficiently? I suggested that they needed to be able to zoom in and zoom out many times during their 20-minute scenario. It’s finding the right combination of the two that is the tricky part.

Can this same technique be applied to ultrarunning, either training or racing?  How about race directing?  Or life in general?  Are you good at plugging away at the day to day minutia without paying attention to the bigger picture?  Or perhaps you can’t zoom in and focus long enough to concentrate on the now?

What do you think?  Who’s zooming who? Or is that whom?  Should I leave this philosophical stuff to AJW?


  1. Great post! And, certainly applicable to ultrarunning. In my experience in running and in life zooming in is essential in times of crisis and uncertainty while zooming out helps to avoid crisis in times of calm.

    Metaphorically, if you zoom out between Robinson Flat and Devil’s Thumb you can moderate the zooming in that will be necessary from Green Gate to the Finish.

    • Or you might find yourself completely zoomed in on your own problem while on a cot at highway 49 and then zoom out to ask questions from a bigger perspective.

      From my WS 2010 report: “The next 90 minutes were frustrating for my crew. I didn’t know whether to drop or continue. I had 5 1/2 hours to get a silver buckle, 11 1/2 hours to get a yellow one (that would be bronze not gold, Katie). I was getting stiff, cold and my stomach wasn’t improving. I was asking for everybody’s opinion on what I should do. What was best for the race? Continuing on, risking a repeat of what I just went through and stopping somewhere between aid stations where medical/race resources would need to be used to get me out? Honoring and respecting the race and competitors by walking in? What was best for me physiologically? Was this just a fuel, dehydration or sodium problem or was there something else going on? Why was my breathing so shallow and rapid? What was best for my crew and pacer? Sit and wait? Pack up and drive to the finish? My crew was divided. Some wanted me to make a decision, others wanted me to just chill out, rest or take an 8 hour nap if needed and walk it in. Maybe the rest alone would allow my body to reset itself. No reason to make a decision now, my wife reiterated several times. I was talking, air was going in and out and blood was going round and round. Quads and kidneys were fine. The latter sounded like the way I should go, but I wasn’t doing anything to get fuel or fluid in so that added to the frustration for the crew who had to just sit there and wait. I also considered my quest for 10 finishes, the ten-year bet with AJW and the penalty of 32 hours for a DNF here (100/93 x 30 hours), the Pickle Puff bet with Alan. The efforts of my crew and pacers to get here. Lots to consider.”


  2. Great post, Craig! This is one I’ve thought a lot about in relation to running, and having been a big climber at one point in my life, I really like the climbing analogy.

    In terms of running, I’ve thought of it a lot in terms of the distance of the race. In my track days, running shorter distances required almost exclusively zooming in. You didn’t want to lose track of what the other runners were doing, but they were all generally pretty close. In a marathon, there is more time to zoom out. If you spend the entire time super focused, you will become exhausted by it. (I do think the truly elite marathoners can probably do this though – I don’t know.) As far as ultrarunning? Hmmm, not sure. I do best when I am simply in the moment and not thinking too hard, but that is one of those things that just happens – I can’t seem to make it happen.

    I think an inability to zoom out in rock climbing was always what made me a crappy trad leader. Too focused on the small picture. Also, too chicken.

    I’d be curious to read your original piece if it’s much different. My husband is a patroller and paramedic (and climber) and I know he will appreciate this one. I think his strength at zooming both in and out is probably one of the things that makes him so good at his job.

    Thanks for the great post!

  3. Another interesting post with running and life application.

    A fellow health care colleague, a sport psychologist, once told me a story of a firefighter who used an alarmed timer device as his “zoom-out cue”. Without it, he can become so absorbed at the task at hand, he will fail to realize life-threatening external issues, such as the changing environment of the fire or running out of oxygen.

    In ultras, this can manifest itself in getting off course, or having fun on a flat/descent and failing to adequately fuel before a major climb*.

    (*Roes, WS 2010?)

    But “life” is where this is most applicable. Most people do “stupid s##t” — substance abuse, fraud, adultery, or worse — not in a single act of terribleness, but in subtle errors that build progressively over time, until the “Oh S##T” moment. And like the climber, it’s much easier to see the progression in a big-picture “zoom-out” from the ground, than it is when your face is 2″ from a rock.

    For the individual, finding a personal “alarm system” to remind us to zoom out is important.

    Ultimately, it takes a “Team” to keep people safe; to have someone that will let you know it’s time to zoom out, or who will help do that zoom-out for you. That’s the ultimate value of great friends, family and loved ones.

  4. Training … more days than not … I need to zoom out. Not think specifically about the race six months ahead but instead zoom out and focus on the process. The process of training will define the result. Focus on the result and you may lose your ability to reach the goal. Big picture. Lace em up. Get out there. Move.

    It gets tighter and tighter in the funnel … even in the race. Race day you are WAY more zoomed in than you were in January, but you can’t even zoom in then too much at the start line. You need to be more zoomed in than you were, but zoom out to focus on the process of the race … let it come.

    Then zoom that thing in hard.

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