Monday, June 25, 2012

Scaling Mt. Doom

If you generally think of yourself as a fit and athletic person, Seattle just might liberate you of that notion. It's a town where college students think nothing of kicking off their shoes for some barefoot ultimate frisbee when the thermometer dips below 40 and an icy rain starts to fall, where commuters routinely pedal 20 miles to work, each way, as an alternative to testing their patience in endless traffic or indirect public transit, where everyone knows someone who's training for a marathon, if not a 50-mile adventure race or a Seattle-to-Portland bike ride. Surrounded by so many rabid cyclists, earnest competitors, yoga instructors, paddle boarders, extreme alpinists and aerialists-in-training, you'd be hard pressed to make your athletic achievements stand out. If you want to maintain your athlete's ego, you should probably move to Arkansas (sorry, J.S.C.).

Unfortunately for my ego, I do think of myself as an athlete of sorts. I've run my share of long-distance footraces at a respectable clip. During my trail crew summers, I packed sledgehammers and 18-pound rock bars, three at a time, and rolled 300-pound boulders down trails for a living. When a friend invited me on a 30-mile day hike through the North Cascades, I didn't hesitate to go along, and when it somehow morphed into a 43-mile trek, I was psyched. I'd joined the ranks of Howard Blackburn, of Bob Marshall, I thought. I might not be fast, or exceptionally strong, or even very coordinated, but maybe I was bit tougher than most.

Or so I thought. Then I went to Africa for 16 months, where I sometimes went for days without leaving the walls of my expat compound, with colleagues whose idea of physical exertion was a 5 minute walk across town to the watering hole, where they would recover with a few gallons of Primus. (I wrote all about them here. Cheers, fellas.) 

When I finally arrived in Seattle, I felt like a shadow of my once-mighty self. As I peered out of the number 13 bus at a blissed-out couple sprinting up Queen Anne Hill,* I did not think, as I once might have, "Huh, that looks like a perfectly reasonable and enjoyable way to spend a morning." Instead, it was clear that these people were certifiably insane. Never mind that I'd conquered far larger hills in the past; now, that well-heeled slope  resembled something straight out of Mordor. 

*For those of you who have never seen Queen Anne Hill in person, the picture above is an extremely accurate rendering. Honest.

I've carried that image with me since last summer: Me, in the bus, agog at these foolhardy superheroes defying gravity, humbled and meek. Since then, though I've rediscovered pull-ups, bicycles, snowfields and hour-long runs, this feeling of mortality has stuck with me. 

Until this weekend. I'd spent half the day in a medical tent, saran-wrapping ice packs to weary marathoners' knees. I'd come home, exhausted, chugged a couple mugs of coffee and promptly collapsed into bed (as superheroes are wont to do). When I awoke two hours later, I knew that it was time. I donned my cape, strapped on my running shoes and pranced fearlessly to the base of the hill. I did not stop, but continued upwards, gathering speed. No one looked up from their cell phones, but this did not deter me. I ran all the way to the top, winked at the spot on the horizon where Mt. Rainier should have been, and blazed home in silent, satisfied glory. 

It's nice to be back.

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