April 24: Tackling the Iron Way

If you’re new here, you may not have read some of my previous musings about hiking and exploring, and the ongoing negotiations I have with my body as we navigate these adventures. There was that time I almost lost it while squeezing through a slot canyon, that time I did lose it on a short little uphill, and as recently as this past fall, that time I felt all strong and limber as I scrambled around the desert.

In and among those big moments are a thousand smaller ones where I have run, walked, swam, hiked, stretched, yoga-ed, lifted things, tried to cook, and generally done any number of activities intended to make my body work better. Like any good “journey-not-destination” cliché, I will always claim that I’m on a quest for health, not just weight loss. And that’s mostly true. Health as a goal is so much more, well…healthy…than just wanting to be skinny (or if we’re being realistic, less fat). Health means things like improved mood, mobility, strength, sugar levels, good blood tests, lack of pain, etc.

But weight loss. Gah. It is such an ingrained desire in anyone who’s never been thin. And until recently, I was doing ok with it. It was happening sensibly, without dieting or anything extreme. Then March 2020 came, and life as we knew it changed. When I went to see my doctor in June, and saw a few pounds had come back, we agreed that it wasn’t worth getting too upset given that all of my tests were good and #pandemic.

Then January 2021 came, and I lost my job. Even though I got through that with my mental health (kinda sorta) mostly intact, combine it with a sore heel that reduced my running miles, and I definitely paid the price around my waistline.

Fast forward to earlier this month, and the first day of a new adventure with my regular travel partner, Shawn. We were near Roanoke, Virginia, hiking an easy 5 miles to Bottom Creek Gorge (which he dubbed Phat Bottomed Gorge, which just makes me laugh and is so very appropriate for this post). There was a short little very steep section, and as I trudged up it, calves protesting, I thought: “Oof. I’m feeling every one of those extra COVID pounds.”

There would be several other moments during this trip where I had a similar thought; where I wondered what it would be like to be hauling a smaller personal load up some of the hills we were climbing.

But here’s the thing. Even though I was feeling it on those hills, it wasn’t the kind of shame-inducing struggle that I’ve often experienced. It was just…a hill…something to be climbed, with an end point that I would get to eventually.

There was a moment when we sat at the base of a gorgeous waterfall (see image above), and I watched a bunch of fellow hikers scramble up a steep shortcut out of the canyon. I turned to Shawn and said “I kind of want to do that…and I kind of don’t.” True to form, he was totally game, so up we went.

There was a long, steady uphill on that same hike, where I played some mind games with myself and found myself at the top without my usual struggle; even Shawn noticed that I was doing better than usual. :) I’m not sure he understood my need to imagine that I had a bunch of balloons tied to my shoulders (a la the house in UP) in order to keep myself light on my feet, but hey, whatever gets you through, right?

There was a moment in the scramble section of Old Rag, an iconic Shenandoah National Park hike which is known to be a bit of a challenge, when I found myself stymied by a boulder squeeze. Shawn vaulted through like the mountain goat he is, and I got partially through, then realized that my belly might get in the way of a successful finish. I squirmed to a stable position but had to take a moment to figure out how to get out of it; I eventually just resorted to a beached whale-style rollover, probably the least graceful moment in a hike chock-full of non-graceful moments. Shawn, who’d been trying to offer solutions no doubt steeped in good technique, just chuckled and said “Or, that works too.” There was a time when such a situation would have had me crying inside and wanting to die of shame. But not this time; I just laughed, climbed to my feet, dusted myself off, and continued on.

And then there was the via ferrata. The “iron way” - a quasi-rock-climbing course in rural West Virginia. 1000+ feet of vertical climbing to be conquered with the help of steel rungs bolted into the rock, cables to clip in to, and a 200-foot suspension bridge, among other obstacles. I’d never done anything like it before, but Shawn had, and it sounded fun.

It was loads of fun. And also terrifying.

The rational brain understands that the gear and cables are safe. It understands that even if I were to fall, I wouldn’t die.

But the emotional brain doesn’t buy that. It, quite simply, doesn’t want to fall. It doesn’t want to acknowledge being unable to do something. It doesn’t want to fail.

Shawn – being made of different stuff than I, and also having done a via ferrata before – seemed unfazed by the course. While I was busy clinging precariously to a vertical cliff and trying not to panic, he was climbing ahead and looking back to take pictures. When I saw them, I went through a gamut of emotions that boiled down to these: holy crap, what an amazing adventure…and I can see all those extra pounds, dammit.

After spending some significant mental time on this, I eventually came to peace with that dichotomy. It was an amazing adventure…and I did it even with the extra pounds I carried. I didn’t let them stop me. And more importantly, I didn’t let them stop me from enjoying myself. I squirmed and squeezed and adapted and wriggled my way through every single obstacle. I My body and I got through together. And we had a blast.

So, as I look forward, I feel confident that, as my life comes back into focus with a new job and hopefully less #pandemic stress, I’ll get the pounds under control. But here’s the thing, the thing I wish I could pass on to everyone struggling with similar issues. Even if I don’t lose the pounds, I will do my best to NOT let them keep me from having adventures and having fun. I’m going to keep reminding myself that health has many parts, and I need to work on all of them. I’m going to do everything I can to enjoy my life, the people in it, and the pictures they take. ;)

This is a new feeling. It feels like a victory of a different kind, one that means more than a number on a scale. It feels good, and I do better at all of it when I feel good. I’m not sure if it’s the definition of body positivity, but if it is, I’ll take it.


Thanks for reading!

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