Strength in the Outdoors
Am I strong enough? This is a question most outdoors people have asked themselves at some point when planning an adventure. Especially when planning an adventure with someone you know to be a machine. Tomorrow I’m going on a 10 mile run with 4,000 ft. elevation gain, no trail and lots of bushwhacking in the Alaskan backcountry with my boyfriend. He is someone who has well earned the title of “machine”.
I want nothing more than to not care about keeping up and just enjoy the run for myself. However, I can’t seem to get the vision of me, panting, hurting, and slowing down while my boyfriend, Wes, frolics up the ridgeline, out of my head.
I have been in this spot before. I learned that at the front of the pack, I do not get tired. With this lesson came the knowledge that at the back of the pack everything feels infinitely more difficult. It’s such a spiral one way or the other. It is easy to overvalue physical strength in a culture that teaches us to judge each other based on physicality.
After one mile into the Alaskan backcountry my inner monologue went from “I can keep this pace. I can do this. This is supposed to be hard. Hard is good.” To “Okay. Yup that’s it. I definitely cannot keep this pace”. So I spoke up and we both slowed down.
I love pushing myself. I love hurting and sweating and changing my limits. But as soon as the feeling of trying to “keep up” is in my body I feel myself weaken. In the past, my solution to this had been to just run and train alone. But I love Wes, and I want to share adventures with him. Above all, I want to overcome the fear of not keeping up, which is intertwined with wanting to feel good enough for myself.
Bending Old Beliefs
The dominant way (in my experience) to view strength in a hardcore outdoor culture is simple: the more you can endure, the better and the stronger you will become. This mentality led me up mountains, through a marathon, to overuse injuries and a miserable cycle of never feeling fit/strong/capable (insert positive adjective) enough. After one particularly long trail run a few months ago the truth became apparent. I sat at my desk with my legs propped up, forehead crusted over by sweat, unable to walk, and completely wrecked. At that moment I realized I was doing this whole adventure thing wrong. I needed to change.
For the Love of Moving
I needed rest, food, and a morale check. The bottom line was I needed to really, truly, care about myself. This hard mindset of pushing through all pain led me to destruction. This fire was fueled by self hate and seeing only one path towards my dreams of ultrarunning and mountain guiding; continual suffering. So I made a promise that day that I would only train if I could easily answer the question “Am I pushing myself from hate or love?”
At the beginning, my honest answer was hate. I was terrified of losing fitness and sight of my goals, but I kept my promise. Over the next few months my body and fitness fluctuated dramatically. I had to constantly remind myself that I am in this for the long game. And that it is going to take time to build a solid foundation again. A few months passed and I now find myself guiding in Alaska, feeling the healthiest and happiest I have felt in years, running the Pinochle ridgeline.
As Wes and I gained elevation and stopped for some views, I mentioned I didn’t want him to slow down. Emphasizing that he should feel free to run faster through the Alaskan backcountry. With complete assurance, he said he didn’t want to run ahead because “that’s not what this is about.” And I melted. That was exactly the reminder I needed. Of course our first off day adventure together wasn’t about racing or splitting up, it was about being together in one of the most spectacular places in the world. Simultaneously, pushing each other because we care about each other. Any fear of not being strong enough was quickly disappearing. Running when I could, walking when I needed to, and watching Wes in his bright berry-purple sun shirt jogging in front of me, I could not help but fall in love.
I am sure Wes and I will have adventures where we do want to split up and find our independent paces. I am sure we will have more adventures that are about being together. And that’s okay, in fact that’s beautiful. Any stresses I had about “keeping up” were a waste of energy. That is not what it’s about. I have found so much strength and freedom from listening to my body and honestly answering the question “Am I doing this out of hate or love?” And holy cow was my answer love on that ridgeline. I will never get used to the sheer beauty, immensity, and humility the Alaskan landscape swallows you with.
I will always have a desire to be the strongest, and I will always want to be faster, fitter, (insert positive adjective-er). More importantly, I will always have grace with myself. That is how I can find sustainable motivation, and have the mental space to experience adventures as much more than a hard day outside. Instead of remembering Pinochle Ridge as a stressful test of my strength, I will remember it as the place where I fell in love with Wesley.
I am not a hardo, and it is going to be a long journey towards my goals of mountain climbing, ultrarunning, and adventuring, but I am going to love every step. I will soak in every adventure and listen to my gut throughout my path. The Pinochle Ridgeline run through the Alaskan backcountry was a big step in this direction. And, I am so profoundly grateful for the experience.