I work on the 7th floor of an 11 story building. On any day there is downtime Youre likely to find my laboriously wheezing my way up and down the stairs. I’m not particularly fit and the strain often makes me wonder if I’m having a heart attack. One of my coworkers asked, “What are you training for?” I replied, “Life.” I wasn’t trying to be oblique or difficult. That was the most honest answer I could provide. Despite having a job that requires a high degree of competence in communication I still manage to fail at basic conversation.
What I was feeling too lazy to say was that I don’t exercise with a specific goal in mind. I exercise because when I see the opportunity to have an amazing adventure it has always required me to push myself mentally and physically. The physical part is easy, more or less. I have little regard for my own comfort or safety so can walk up stairs all day despite the sense of impending coronary failure. It’s when my body is still capable but my mind says “No!” that it is difficult.
Realizing that my personal goals could be sabotaged by my mind was quite the startling discovery for me. It has really been a series of interconnected realizations that I don’t think I’ve really finished unpacking yet.
It started for me on my first mountain. A friend led a group of us up Mt. St. Helens. We had ample notice that it would be a long and difficult hike e.g. “You need to train” but I did not follow that advice. I assumed that like my entire college career I could put it off and catch up at the last minute.
As the day drew nearer I found myself focusing on the singularly most unimportant aspects of the trip. Should I bring a glass bowl for base camp? Is the expense of camping dishes warranted. Deciding it wasn’t I opted for the local Goodwill where I found that for a mere two dollars I could purchase a set of four faux Chinese dessert bowls. With only my companions in mind I purchased all of them, promptly washing them and placing them with my equipment. I similarly happened upon a mostly functional straw hat, a handkerchief, and a lovely set of earthen coffee mugs. Having so thoroughly prepared I added a few water bottles and my hiking clothes and considered it done.
After a nice night at the foot of the trail we woke early the next morning. After breakfast I set out with my more well prepared friends, eager and overconfident.
It first dawned on my that I wasn’t in great shape late in the morning as we were scrambling up the boulder field. Although I have always loved climbing things I was a bit out of practice and feeling a little run down already. To avoid falling or otherwise hurting myself I had to slow down. My mind began recycling self-criticisms about not being good enough or well enough prepared, despite the obvious fact that with a little attention I was managing just fine. As the day wore on the internal chatter continued.
The final stretch to the top is covered in the sandy ash remains of the mountain’s top. Every step results in a slight sliding back and down. For every step you took on a rock trail you need to take two or three on Helens. It was pretty demoralizing.
Being too prideful to call it quits in front of my friends I pushed myself. I would take a few steps and then stop. It wasn’t working. There was no way I was going to make it. Eventually to calm my mind and measure my progress I made a deal with myself. I could rest as long as I need to but if I started I had to take ten steps. It removed all questions. If I was resting I was resting. If I was walking it was for at least ten steps. It could always be more but at least ten steps.
As I approached the top friends and strangers began shouting down encouragement. I got there. It seemed unreal. Sweat pouring down my face I looked around at the amazing view before collapsing and proceeding to eat my lunch like a an undernourished stinger attacking a bag of Doritos. High fives all the way around, simultaneously exhilarating and underwhelming. I was so worn out that I had a hard time taking in the beauty. Predictably the top was gorgeous. The sense of accomplishment was great but had I really been able to accomplish the hardest physical task in my life up to that point simply by counting and ignoring my internal dialogue? Yes.
It was the first time I realized that a lifetime of taking the easy route had severely limited my world. I knew that I had many more mountains to climb to finish unpacking the lessons they hold.