In January, our instructor encouraged us to explore our comfort zone; not just to test our limits, but to understand why they are there in the first place. This past weekend, I did just that.
Our class backpacking trip began at 7:45am Friday morning with a Shakedown in the gym. My backpack had been thoughtfully packed so that I could locate anything inside at the very moment it became necessary. At 7:46am, everything was spread on the gym floor for a 2nd year student to analyze and question its purpose, at which time, I threw out half of everything and crammed the rest back into the pack. We split the group’s common equipment, added it to our packs and off we went for a weekend of adventure.
For the next three days we worked hard, we laughed and got to know each other. We set up our tarps, cooked our meals, hauled water from the creek and went through the chore of filtering it and held contests to see who could raise their bear bag up the tree first. Paul had hoped for educational weather (cold, pouring rain, maybe snow). Instead, it was clear and sunny; the night sky full of stars and a nearly full moon.
We climbed mountains and hiked for hours and hours every day, sang crazy songs and told our best jokes. By the end of the second day, we were worn out. We ate our dinner quietly and went to bed early.
Day Three was, by design, the most difficult day. Jokingly, we all agreed it wouldn’t be so bad because we had eaten all the food – our packs would be light. This was not necessarily true.
The morning would take us to the London Bald Junction at 4,124 feet. The challenge lie in the nearly 1,000 foot 1/2 mile ascent on a path teetering alongside the edge of the mountain. Rocks scattered from under our boots and tumbled down the steep slope below. And, it was hot – educational weather after all.
This was a trail less traveled – covered in a thick layer of faded leaves that hid the sure footing we sought. Our pace was slow, methodical. We stepped, tested the spot for slippage, pulled ourselves up, sometimes slipped back down, caught ourselves, started again with the other foot. At times the trail became so narrow there was hardly room for both feet. One bad step would send us rolling down the mountain.
There were three false summits where we stopped and waited for the whole group to gather and catch our breath. Clayton and Mike had been singing the day before, belting out a verse of this song or that in a way that made us all laugh. There was no singing the morning of Day Three.
Mike was in front of me when my foot slipped and the full weight of me and my pack depended on a small rhododendron tree limb to hold us to the edge of the mountain. Mike’s footing was too high and fragile to help me, the rest of the group too far back to reach me. In the few seconds that I clung to that limb, my mind raced through the finer points of one thought. Why am I doing this?
I wanted to be angry at the backpack and everything in it. With every step I had realized I did not like the danger, the risk, of falling down that mountain. I was mad. I wanted to cry, scream or both. Instead, I had to either pull myself up, or quit and flunk the class. I had discovered the edge of my comfort zone.
Being physically challenged did not put me there, and there was no fear of heights. This was an emotional challenge – the stress and struggle of not falling off the mountain combined with the extreme physical effort of pulling my overweighted body up the slippery slope that had tested my limit. This was not just a test of physical endurance – it was an unfair battle against the very earth I was asked to negotiate.
I have recently discovered Bruce “Buck” Nelson. He is a retired wildfire fighter and a “Smokejumper” from Alaska who solo thru-hikes, paddles or bicycles 2000+ miles at a time. He writes about the common characteristics of a successful thru-hiker, which includes among other things:
- The greatest is an unshakable dedication to completing a thru-hike,
- Confidence in, and knowledge of, themselves,
- The ability to maintain good morale in tough conditions.
His advice on succeeding sounds oddly familiar to the advice given to marathon runners:
- Spend several weeks getting in good shape before the hike. Ease your way into it…
- Don’t push too hard during the first days of your hike. Above all, don’t hurt yourself!
- As you get in shape, increase your mileage. Get in the habit of setting goals for the day.
- No Rain, No Pain, No Maine. If you never hike thru the rain and the pain, you’re not going to see Maine. That said, hike through discomfort, but don’t continue to push when you’re doing damage to your body!
- Remember to take the time to look around you. See and appreciate the forest, scenery, wildlife and people you meet.
- Hike your own hike. Don’t be concerned if others aren’t hiking up to your standards. Being a thru-hiker doesn’t make you better than other people or the center of the universe.
- Take zero days when you need them.
- Know yourself.
Now substitute the word hike for run, or any other word that represents your personal challenge, and you’ve just received excellent advice for life.
It only took me a few seconds to answer the question for myself as I held onto that tree limb. The answer was that this challenge was no different from the last six miles of the marathon, or day two for a smoker trying to quit, or the third abnormal blood test for a surviving cancer patient…..hospital stay number ten for a young diabetic – that point where its beginning to really hurt and you know the choice to continue is yours alone.
What gets you through those moments is personal, but I like to categorize it as inner strength.