Last weekend, I had the chance to escape the city for a few days and head to the mountains about an hour or so to the north. It was beautiful, and mercifully cooler than the summer heat that’s been laying flat on top of us down this way for weeks now. At one point while there, I decided to head out into nature and take a run. About half a mile into it, I realized something very important.
My city is flat. The paths and sidewalks and alleys I run through every day are pretty much at zero grade. If it’s possible to go downhill both ways on a circular run, that’s about what I’m doing every day. Is it good for me? Sure, yeah. Is it the same as basically climbing stairs without the stairs? No. No it is not.
Now, because nature has a sense of humor, you know that run started out downhill, and of course it did occur to me what I was setting myself up for on the way back. I had all the confidence in the world on the way down, though. It won’t be that bad, I thought. The challenge will be fun.
Fun isn’t a word I’d use to describe it. My legs were like, whose body are we attached to right now?? What happened to the way we used to do this running thing? They were decidedly unhappy. My options were fairly limited, though. Deal with it and find a way to keep going, or live in the woods forever. Well, at least until someone came by on their way to Target.
I’m not much for hitchhiking in rural America, so it seemed that finding that internal reserve tank was the way to go. There was a time in my “running career” (ahem) when I used to run the occasional race, including a few half-marathons, some of which had some truly brutal hills. Those once-buried memories gave me a flicker of hope. The only issue was remembering how I survived them.
Then it came back to me. I had a strategy I would use for the meanest of those hills – the ones that show up at the worst possible moment in a race, when you feel like there’s no way you can take them on.
To conquer those mini-mile-12-mountains, I used to turn my gaze down to my feet, so I couldn’t see the length of the hill. I’d tell myself that each step was one less step I had to take to get to the top of the hill. One more down, one more down, and then one more down, until eventually, I’d realize I was there. The mountain was climbed, and the terrain leveled out again.
It might seem counterintuitive, this idea that not knowing how much farther you have to go would make it easier to go the distance, but it worked. It worked in many races, and it worked last weekend. The reason, I think, is because it took my head out of any story I may have written about where I was on the climb, how I was doing, whether there was “too much” left, and whether I would make it. It took me out of the future and into the present moment. This step, then this step, then this step. Nothing more, nothing else.
We climb a lot of hills in life, some of them steeper than others. When we’re grinding our way through, looking for the exact measurements of the hill and grasping for a sense of when we’ll be back on solid ground is tempting. Sometimes we may think we see it, and then suddenly there’s a curve, and there’s more to it than we thought.
We never know, though, right? All we really know is where our feet are right now. There’s nothing wrong with looking ahead and making plans — we need to do that, actually. But when things get challenging, sometimes the surest place to be is exactly where you are. If you can’t see the finish line, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and vice versa. It doesn’t matter. It’s all just ground, waiting to be covered one step at a time.
Photo credit: Bruno Nascimento