Thursday, September 12, 2013

Portrait of a Winner: Freeing the Loser Within

Three minutes in to a five-mile hike, and there was one undeniable truth I knew about my future.

I was going to die. 

Now, I wasn’t exactly sure how, or specifically from what, be it heat exhaustion or an acute respiratory explosion, but with an overwhelming sense of inevitability, I knew my fate.

It was an uphill marathon, a 1,600 foot elevation change from start to finish. Even at 10 AM, the clear skies made it easy work for the sun to warm the state parks in Big Sur, California. I had said I wanted to hike; I had chosen this. Five minutes in, and I was resigned to the ultimate failure: a failure to survive walking.

We continued to climb, and if my challenged breathing was any audible inclination, I had never been more aware of every bone in my rib cage as my lungs attempted a prison break with every inhalation. Approximately four hours into this poorly thought-out quest, and by four hours, I actually mean 25 minutes, I thought I might throw up. Or pass out. Or probably both. Still, I pressed on, unwilling to admit defeat; stubbornly I stumbled down the road most travelled by literally thousands of people and so therefore I was gonna travel it, too, damnit.

“Hey, how’s it going over there?” my hiking partner asked.

“Great! Oh yeah, really good. Love this hike,” I said.

I hated this hike.

I hated the trees and the 60-degree incline I was being forced up. I hated the fact that the air in that stupid forest was so clean that it hurt to breathe. I hated that the whole debacle had been my idea. Let's go on an adventure, I had said. That was stupid, I hate adventure.

My hiking partner, who is in laughably better shape than I am, offered a break on a bench alongside the trail. Of course I declined – all I wanted was to get the damn hike over with, check the box next to it that said, “completed,” and move on with my life. I insisted I didn't need a real break, only the occasional pause when my lungs were so far exhausted that they began inhaling liquid instead of air, causing me to choke on my own spit, like a winner. Then, and only then, would I stumble off to the side and allow my body to rest. But as soon as the sensation of vomiting up my pancreas passed, onward into the fray I went.

There was a period in my life when I considered myself an athlete. And for what it’s worth: I genuinely was. I played tennis and swam on the swim team; I played softball for 5 or 6 years. I played for my Jr. High volleyball and basketball teams; I was on the track and field team. And in high school, I played basketball my freshman year. Even during summer breaks, I attended sports camps and joined private leagues to train in the off-season.

That was then.

Time warp ten years after “then,” and there was 26-year old me, three-quarters dead from an prolonged stroll.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

The pursuit of ambitions and aspirations has always been second nature to me.  Like unreliable, yet persistent, clockwork, I set the plan of action, and proceed to run down success like a lion in pursuit of a tasty, tasty wildebeest. I embrace hard work; I derive a strange sense of contentment in the blood, sweat and excessive tears that accompany it. My motto has always been, "if you're going to do something, do it all the way." This compulsive behavior has generally benefitted me – it gives my obsessive energy a means of focus and direction. 

Goals are neat like that. When utilized correctly, they motivate an individual towards the sunny land of self-improvement and personal growth. But, well, have you ever stared into the sun for a long time? (Probably don't try.) When you look away, you still see bits of sun instead of what's around you. Also, your retinas are burning. 

In a way, the need to accomplish tasks can burn your retinas, too.

I had decided to climb this mountain, to reach the top, to do something I had never done before. I pushed, and sweat, and wanted to cry, but I kept my mind focused on that “end of trail” sign; the plank of wood that translated to “mission accomplished, you’re the winner.” And several hundred steps in, when my head was swimming from a dangerous level of dehydration, I was on my way to achieving it. 

And you know what? 

I was absolutely miserable.

Any time the trail would start to decline, I would grow inappropriately irritated. I’m moving backwards, I thought, I already climbed up this dumb part and I’m going to have to do it again. I couldn’t let myself savor an elevation reprieve – I saw everything only as it related to the end game. The relief in the present was viewed only as losing ground for the future. If the top of that cliff was Kentucky fried wildebeest, an elephant could have stood in front of me with salt-and-pepper shakers tied to its trunk and I wouldn’t have noticed. The present, no matter how wonderful or elephant-like, was blacked out entirely by the lingering glare of the sun.

My hiking partner called it at a little over an hour into the hike. I had been seeing bits of sky for the last 20 minutes, though I was starting to think maybe we were hiking up Mount Olympus, rendering sky-bits irrelevant, seeing as how we were climbing into the clouds to meet Zeus. So, when she sat, I sat. Actually, it was less of a ‘sit’ and more of a sprawling collapse, but whatever.

“This hike won’t be any good if you have to be helicoptered to a hospital as soon as we reach the peak,” she said.

I could feel my body moving in waves as it fought to restore its normal temperature. My lungs eventually began to ache less like threatened pufferfish against my rib cage. And it was only once I stopped long enough to hydrate and eat a damn tangerine that I saw it: I saw everything.

The air smelled like what those car air freshener trees are supposed to smell like, but never do. The sun left racing stripes of dried dust across the trail where it broke through the trees. There was a freaking deer staring at us through the brush, probably judging me. It was magic, and I had been missing it.  

I was missing it because it wasn’t wearing the “end of trail” sign, or flashing “achievement unlocked: didn't die, but could have.” I was missing it because all I could see was the sun.

My career advisors would often describe me as “goal oriented” and “driven.” When they said it like that it sounds nice, and not at all crazy. In my professional life, it is a good thing; but frankly, in my personal life, when I’m trying to win at walking, it’s insane.

I have never truly mastered the “enjoy the journey” mentality. I prefer to live my life by a three-hits volleyball rule. Receive the play (1), set the play (2), crush the play into a weeping mess of defeat and self-loathing (…3).  It sounds pretty smart, right? Well, friends, it is; if I were able to control the environment I live my life in like a volleyball court, you’d all be calling me Queen Eleanor the Misanthropic by now. But, funny story, I don’t control anything, which is the main reason I’m not a queen. Also, I don’t look good in hats.

So I can receive and set the play all I want, but most plays in life are crushed on the 40th hit, not the 3rd. So what’s a girl like me doing in all of that meantime?

Well, getting terribly frustrated, and hiking herself into an early grave, obviously.

Those breaks that my hiking partner kept asking to take were step 2 hits, and I wanted to skip them. They weren’t worth any points, and therefore were to be deemed irrelevant. But see, I have a feeling that when all is said and done, and I get to whatever after life is waiting for me, no one is going to pull out a score sheet and say, "man, you achieved so many things, you get a prize for most things achieved in life."

Of course if that is a thing, I call dibs.

I didn’t go hiking to get somewhere in particular; if that were the case, that’s actually called a ‘trip,’ and I should have just flown. I wanted to hike because I wanted to explore, and the first rule of being an explorer is to pay attention to your course. Lewis and Clark didn’t really know where the hell they were going, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was that they wanted to get there first, and tell people how to get there again. And in order to do that, you have to notice things like rocks, and trees and creepy deer. In order to explore, you have to be in the present.

The tree we had sat on was only about 90 yards away from the top. I saw my end of trail sign, I got to say that I made it, and the view was well worth the near-death experience.

“I need to learn how to take more breaks,” I said, as we watched a group of humpback whales playing just off the coast.

“You need to learn how to want more breaks,” she said. I shrugged and threw a stone off the top of the cliff, never hearing it hit the ground below.

“Sure. Hey, let’s climb Mt. Diablo next,” I said.

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s what I meant.”