Walking on Fire

 

The fire ablaze.

The fire ablaze.

Why did I want to do a firewalk?  That was the question everyone asked me when I mentioned I was doing one.  I still don’t know the answer.  Curiosity.  An interesting experience.  To know what it feels like.  Conquer fear.  Know that I can do it.  To see how my nervous system responds.  Those were all a piece of what intrigued me, but when I tested those answers on different people none seemed to satisfy anyone. 

I don’t have an answer.  What makes anyone want to do anything?  I don’t want to bungee jump or cliff jump even though that might help me get over my fear of heights and would be an adventure. I’m not a thrill seeker.  Firewalking isn’t like a rollercoaster ride.  I don’t want to do an ultra-run, but I can understand why someone would feel compelled to run in an extreme environment for days.  I hadn’t thought about the why at first because I naively assumed everyone wanted to firewalk.  As it turns out most people don’t.  I told Dan Glynn, our teacher and firewalking expert for the evening, that I could get fifteen people—not an easy task—to join in the fun.  A lot of people have absolutely no desire to walk over hot coals with bare feet, which made me wonder why I wanted to more.

Most of my fellow adventurers were in it for the journey.  The “why not?” factor.  For one friend, much like it was my childhood dream to swim in Jell-O, it was her dream to run off to the circus where her famous act would obviously be firewalking. 

Firewalking has been practiced by a variety of cultures since at least 1200BC.  It’s used for healing, as a test of faith, for team building, as a justice system (burn and you’re guilty, unsinged soles and you’re innocent), as a rite of passage and for rituals.  Even Oprah Winfrey has done it.  Although, the setting of our walk was nothing like the one Oprah did with Tony Robbins.  Ours was far more serene. 

When you walk across the burning embers they are about 1,000-degrees or higher.  Scientists have a variety of explanations for how humans can walk over burning coals.  Wood embers are not great conductors of heat.  And apparently the water in our body and blood in our feet help transfer the heat across our foot so we don’t burn.  It’s basic physics; no gimmicks; nothing supernatural.  You can get burned if you shuffle, run or don’t keep moving.  Still, it borders on magical, because while physicists think they can explain it, no one really knows for sure. 

When we arrived at Dan’s home to do the walk, he had already amassed the wood for the fire in a pile approximately two-feet wide and twenty-feet long.  We crumpled up newspaper and filled the gaps between the wood, doused the wood with canola oil, lit small torches of paper, and together set the wood ablaze sending fire dancing fifteen feet into the sky.  The heat was tremendous.  We stepped back and Dan talked about the history of firewalking, his experiences, and technique. 

Legos and other assorted prep.

Legos and other assorted prep.

As the fire burned down we did a few exercises to prep our feet and help us focus.  We walked across Legos, shells, rocks, sweet gum tree spikes, and nails.  The Legos were the worst, as you know if you’ve ever walked across a room and found a stray Lego unexpectedly beneath your foot.  After assorted items came these very tiny sharp spikes.  The goal was to stand on top with both feet, balance on one foot or spin around slowly.  This was worse than Legos.  Nearly everyone struggled.  I didn’t think I was going to be able to get both feet on the spikes, putting the pressure into one foot to lift the other hurt so badly.  Dan reminded me, “Focus on your back leg.”  When I did, it drew my attention away from the pain of the leg already consumed by spikes.  I was able to get both feet on.  The profound moment here was Dan’s suggestion.  Where I placed my attention made a huge difference in how I felt.  Still, my feet would tingle for the rest of the night. 

The spikes! Yikes!

The spikes! Yikes!

Following the spikes we walked across broken bottles of glass.  Psychologically this was the most challenging.  Looking at the sharp shards and hearing the glass shatter beneath people’s feet made me cringe.  A small shrapnel from a piece of broken glass in my kitchen that got missed by the vacuum will lodge in my foot and cause constant discomfort.  And yet, the glass was fine.  It was the easiest to walk across. 

By the time I got off the glass I was ready to walk across the fire.  I’d arrived a little nervous—partly for myself, partly since I’d organized the event I knew I would feel guilty if anyone got hurt.  Now I was ready, arguably cocky.  I felt confident everything would be fine.  I thought glass would be terrible and it wasn’t.  Legos hurt, but they were manageable.  That’s what the fire would be like, I presumed.

Walking across fire...don't let the camera flash fool you...those embers are glowing red hot.

Walking across fire…don’t let the camera flash fool you…those embers are glowing red hot.

Dan raked the embers—glowing, each like their own mini world of fire.  Fire is beautiful.  Perhaps, it is the pyromaniac in me that was really called to walk across the fire.  Maybe fascination drew me in.  It seems unreal.  Humans shouldn’t be able to walk on fire.  It’s like running on oobleck—a solid and liquid in the same moment.  It was time.  We gathered in a circle around the fire.  There was no pressure.  If you decided you didn’t want to walk, you did not have to.  There was no order.  When you felt ready you walked to the front of the fire and went.  Dan went first.  Then he decided to rake down the coals again—it was a little too hot.  He tried again, and announced it was our turn. 

People started walking across the coals without hesitating.  They all survived and ended with a round of applause from the group.  I was ready.  I went to the front of the fire, took a deep breath and stepped somewhat fearlessly onto the coals.  “Holy, Fuck,” I thought by my fourth step.  “This is hot.  My feet are burning.  It hurts so bad.  I think the coals are stuck to my feet.”  And then the ten steps were over.  I was across.  I don’t remember hearing applause.  I was too busy trying to assess the damage to my delicate tootsies.  I was pretty sure I had blisters.  The entire foot was stinging and about five specific spots really hurt.  Ouch.  Why had I wanted to do this?

I was so disappointed.  It wasn’t what I’d expected.  Clearly, I had thought there would be some level of pain-free magic in the moment I stepped on the coals.  Instead it felt like, well, walking across burning, red, hot, 1000-degree-plus coals.  And now I was more afraid of firewalking then when I’d arrived.   You can walk on fire, but it really does hurt.  It bothered me that I suddenly had such intense fear.  So when we all finished and Dan said, “if anyone wants to walk again, you can.” Most of us laughed.  It was worse than we’d expected. 

What was I afraid of?  The fire?  Burning my feet?  What was the worst that could happen?  If I got blisters on my feet I might not be able to run for a week and I’d look foolish in front of all my classes when I hobbled in on sore soles.  But I was also now afraid of the actual pain.  There was a part of me that was really frustrated that a piece of my goal was overcoming a fear and now I was going to leave more afraid.  I decided to do it again.  It was unlikely I’d ever firewalk again.  If I didn’t try one more time I knew I’d be disappointed later.  It couldn’t possibly be worse than what just happened, and I could live with the pain I was in.

I went to the head of the fire again and walked.  It was warm, but it was like walking across the softest, finest, warm sand you’d ever touched.  Pockets were hot but it didn’t hurt.  When I finished this time I was euphoric and couldn’t wait to go again.  That was my experience.  Some people went a second time and it hurt just as much as the first.  I went a third time and it felt just as good as the second.  Maybe my feet are tough.  Maybe I’d lost all sensation after the first go around, when my nervous system decided I was behaving too irresponsibly to feel anymore.  Maybe I randomly stepped on cooler spots.  Maybe the embers were cooling fast.  I don’t know what accounts for the different experience.  I think a big part is the ability to keep your balance, roll evenly across the foot and maintain somewhat even weight over your foot as you move.

My last time out, somewhat timid and fearful that I was pressing my luck, I walked the twenty-feet across, turned around on the coals and walked back, for a forty-foot fire walk.  It only hurt during the last four steps.  I was thrilled.  Satisfied.  I’d come to do whatever it was I still didn’t know I wanted to do.  But I knew I’d done it.  Firewalking was exhilarating.  Nerve wracking and exhilarating.  It woke me up.  I announced to friends on the ride home, “This is the first time I’ve felt awake in five years.”  That’s adrenaline for you.  But it’s not true.  I have felt that alive and that awake surrounded by butterflies migrating in Mexico.  I have felt that invigorated when a mother and baby whale swam under my small boat.  I felt that alive when I swam with dolphins.  If felt that elated when I saw Machu Picchu in the sunrise after hiking for four days through the high altitudes of Peru.  Perhaps that is the answer to why.  If an adventure appeals to you, you’ve got to try.  It just might become a permanent, imbedded memory of joy, even if there is pain.  It’s a reminder that what is hard and what hurts can be valuable.  I remember watching one of my friends give birth.  I was overcome by the intense pain that instantly transformed to love when that new baby was out in the world.  I was one little person, standing on a small spot in the world, and I got to see the energy of the world change in an instant.  Perhaps that sounds cheesy or dramatic, but we only get so many moments in life that rock us that intensely. 

As an added bonus, I now feel truly bonded to the people who attended.  They all knew why we’d all come even if none of us could articulate that.  They all knew how it felt.  Most understood the need and desire to do it again even though it hurt like hell the first time. Or they knew that one go around was enough for them.  They had all conquered something they needed to conquer that night.  I know I did.

Truly Happy, Dirty Feet.

Truly Happy, Dirty Feet.

Note: My feet are blister-free and there will be additional blogs to follow on the firewalk because I feel like this is just the tip of the iceburg…

Read More:

The story of swimming in Jell-O with a link the video that has been watched over 42-million times.  That’s right.  People have watched me swim in Jell-O 42-million times.  Sigh.

Watch me race my brother-in-law on oobleck.

Maggie gets out of her comfort zone at Comic-Con.

Inspired by a coma.

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2018-05-09T18:07:11+00:00

About the Author:

Maggie Downie
Thank you for giving your time to stop and read my blog. I hope it encourages you to keep moving. Move and the body will be happier. And when you're moving you can hike, run, swim in Jell-O, race over non-Newtonian fluids, travel the world or build igloos--if that's your thing. If not, you can watch me do it. This is just a spot to try and feel good about life.

2 Comments

  1. Dan Glynn May 24, 2016 at 10:12 pm - Reply

    Wow Maggie! What a terrific blog. I’ve had some “glowing” reviews in the past, but your piece was the most in-depth exposition of what a first-time firewalker experiences both physically and psychologically. So sorry your first walk was so painful. Your description of the roller coaster ride of emotions from disappointment to euphoria were brilliant! You are indeed a brave sole. And look… no blisters! Thanks so much for posting.

  2. […] Katy also recently took on the challenge of completing a fire walk. (Read about Maggie’s firewalk experience here. […]

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