Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Art of Endurance

I meant to write this post about two months ago. It was while I was on my stomach, sweating buckets in a Bikram yoga class, wanting to murder the instructor who held us in Eagle just a moment longer than usual. It was during the week that Robb came with me to class to see what this Bikram yoga thing was all about. (Though he had never done yoga before, and he was awfully shaky in the balancing sequence, he participated in every posture and never once sat down, which I found incredible). It was also during the time when Megan was about to have her baby, and we talked on the phone about what delivery would be like. Could she do natural child birth? She knew she would try. She knew she would insist. She knew that her mother and her grandmother, and every mom on the planet before not so long ago, had had natural childbirth (and many, in fact, lived to tell the tale), but no one--not even her mother or grandmother--could tell her what it felt like. No one could tell her what type of resources she would need to tap into to prepare, to endure. It seemed that will was the main factor, as it seems to be in just about all of life. 

I don't know that anyone is born with more will or internal strength than another, but I do think that some of us are lucky to have been given an opportunity to test our strength (and win) at an early age. My first memory of this was on a backpacking trip when I was eight years old. That summer (and for the next several that followed), my parents would pull down backpacking gear from the rafters and spread it about on the garage floor, making lists, checking and double-checking that each of us had one canteen, one sierra cup, one fork, one knife, one spoon, a flashlight, a pocket knife, enough clothes to stay cool and warm (but not too many clothes). There were ropes to tie the food in the trees away from the bears, tiny futuristic stoves that weighed about a pound, and filters to turn stream water into drinkable water. And when it was all in good order, they would start to pack, seeing what would fit. I can't recall how much Erin and I carried (I'd guess between 20 and 30 pounds), but I do believe my dad carried a 50-pound pack, which is insane. Once we were all set, off we would drive to the Sierras to meet three or four other families, where we would pick up the next leg of the John Muir trail, hiking 40 or so miles in about a week.

To pass the time on particularly grueling switchbacks (those are trails on mountains so steep they traverse the hillside horizontally, going back and forth in a zigzag up the mountain), us kids would often talk about fast food, dreaming about how many taco supremes we were going to get from Taco Bell once we got the hell off this mountain. One time we crossed paths with a guy riding a pack mule and he handed us a warm Coke to share...I will never forget the delicious burning sting of my two sips of hot soda.

Around day four of one of these trips, we left our tents and our packs and took a day trip--our goal was to climb to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite. This was supposed to be a great day...what we had all been looking forward to the entire hike. We had all gazed upon Half Dome from the floor of Yosemite valley, but not one of us had ever stood on top of it (and with good's a pain in the ass and a motherfucker of a hike). That's the part I didn't know. When I heard "day trip" and "leave your pack at camp," I was filled with glee, but upon realizing that this side trip was an 11 mile hike with a wildly steep incline...well, something in me snapped. First, I stopped talking. With every step I was filled with a wild rage, wondering why the hell we would be walking anywhere that did not take us closer to the cars. I do believe there were words exchanged with my mom. There was a long sulky sit-down on a boulder where I decided that nothing would change my foul mood. EVER. AGAIN. But seeing as turning around was not an option, something not unlike an ignition turned over inside of me, and suddenly I was off. Fuck this mountain, fuck this trail, fuck all of you who made me come here, I will get to the top of this mountain and I will get there faster than you. 

My mom told me later that she was worried I was going to hyperventilate, I was walking so fast. But I didn't. Instead, the most miraculous thing happened. During my solitary hike up that mountain, my footsteps turned into some sort of meditation, and by the time I reached the final rocky switchbacks leading up to the plateau at the foot of Half Dome, I didn't feel angry anymore. 

This is my first memory of endurance. 

And this is what I find so interesting. I don't think endurance is a physical thing. I think it is the story we tell ourselves when we are in an uncomfortable moment--no matter how big or small. It's how we talk ourselves through it. It's how we distract ourselves. Or how we allow ourselves to stomp our feet, and how we eventually listen to an inner-voice that tells us, frustratingly, that it's going to be okay, that it can't go on forever. I know it sounds crazy, but I think about this sometimes when I'm knitting and it feels like I will NEVER finish the back of the sweater. I think about this all the time when I'm in yoga. When it is 100 degrees and I can't imagine holding my leg straight and my foot in the air for another moment. But then I do. And oh, how wonderful it is when the breeze blows into the studio and I think, why do I even need television when the universe gives us such amazing gifts as the combination of sweat and breeze? 

As we climbed up the backside of Half Dome, I do believe we all felt a bit of this same sweat-and-breeze sense of wonder. How could you not? Looking at our smiles in the photo above (I'm second from the front, going through a chubby, awkward phase--note the pink sweatshirt with teddy bears and heavy bangs), you would not exactly suspect we were four days out in the wilderness and had just hiked 11 miles. Oh, but the view from the could you not smile?
This week, I return to Bikram yoga. I haven't been in three weeks and I'd be lying if I said I weren't a little bit scared. I suspect it will be a lot like starting over, and my anticipation of discomfort is sky high. But at some point, I plan to remind myself that the instructor will open a door and there will be a breeze. That the next class will be easier, that I will get stronger, and that an hour and a half cannot last forever. At that point, I do believe, I will have persevered.


  1. That is a great story - and well told.

  2. A) I'd totally forgotten how ANGRY you were on that hike. Ha! Now I can distinctly remember you marching up that trail. Didn't you, like, march right by a deer and not even notice it or something? (I also remember thinking how f-ing kick-ass my little sister was for making it up to the top.)

    B) This post couldn't have come at a better time for me. I've been really struggling with my mental endurance with running and you just put a whole lot of stuff into perspective.

    C) I always think it's crazy how much Mom looks like me (I look like Mom?) in that top photo.

    D) You don't actually look chubby at all, but dear God, that sweatshirt. And the bangs. I'm so sorry.

  3. I'm so sorry about the shelf bangs! Loved this memory, sweetie - beautifully written. You really were angry, weren't you? One favorite memory was making snow cones from the glacier patches & crystal light. Unforgettable!

  4. I love how you both remember my ANGER! OK, actually, on closer inspection, I am not smiling in that photo. But I choose to believe that I was no longer angry about the hike...I was just perpetually pissed off about the bangs. They're so THICK. And WIDE.