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One of my favorite things about being in great shape is that I can enjoy hiking again.

I loved hiking as a child and young adult, but as an adult, I unlearned that love. I kind of started to hate it in fact. Because every time I went hiking I was made clearly and painfully aware of how out of shape I was. I could not keep up with my friends; I always felt like my heart would explode from exertion, as I panted heavily, gasping for air. It was not pretty. So I started avoiding it and continued to do so for years. On the occasions I found myself having to hike, I was anxious and self-conscious about how much more out of shape I was.

It continues to be a thrill to me that I no longer feel this way. One of the big activities from this past weekend was a long hike in Joshua Tree National Park. We picked the hike to be a challenging but not excessively so. We hiked Mount Ryan, a good three-ish hour hike (including lunch break) to a mountain peak and back down. Moderately challenging, but nothing crazy.

And that’s exactly what it was for me! I felt like I was getting a good workout, but I did not feel over-exerted. And I certainly did not feel exhausted, miserable or self-conscious. And it was glorious! I hiked the long uphill to the top of the mountain, consistently and comfortably at or near the front of our group. I was happy to stop and take pictures or wait for others, but I didn’t really need to. And when we got to the top, I was glad to be there, but it was not the near-hysterical relief at the end of an ordeal I have felt in the past.

I have been hiking in Joshua Tree before. The first time, just over five years ago, was also with a group of friends. I was at the back of the group the whole time, well behind most of the other hikers and deeply grateful that one of my friends was a heavy smoker, which…is a pretty messed up thing to be grateful for, but that’s how desperately self-conscious I was, how badly I didn’t want to be the most obviously, only person, trailing far behind.

I hiked in Joshua Tree again just over two years ago with Stephen. We picked a mostly flat and easy hike on purpose, so that I would not feel miserable the whole time.

At the end of our easy hike two years ago. I looked and felt different then.

At the end of our easy hike two years ago. I looked and felt different then.

This time, I did not have to worry about picking an easy hike or suffering through a hard one. I did not have to worry about slowing everyone down or making them wait (which I see now was probably not a big deal to anyone but me). I am in great shape now, so this time, I could enjoy the hike. I took in the sweeping vistas. I appreciated the work my body was doing and how it felt good to move. I appreciated the company of my friends. And when we got to the top, I felt, as I so often do these days, like my true, happy, and fabulous self.

I'm the King of the World!

I’m the King of the World!

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I get a year older this week. For years, ever since I could do so legally, I have celebrated my birthday with lots of drinking. From my 21st birthday when my best friend from childhood got me drunk at a gay piano bar even though we were just supposed to get one drink because my father was having his prostate removed at 7am the next morning to my post-college years in Boston when birthday parties were always at bars and the party was only good if we shut the place down to my first year out in LA for grad school when one of my friends made me a t-shirt that said “Go Bender,” there have always been drinks. Usually lots of them. In the past few years, this trend has started to please me less. I can’t avoid hangovers, and more and more often the actual drinking part isn’t as fun as I remember it being. But even as I’ve started to focus more on the dinners, there’s still been drinking.

Until this year. This year, I’m not drinking. Because my trainer says so.

Alcohol is one of the many things I’ve agreed to give up for the time being in my quest for better health. This is not to say I haven’t had a drink in the past six months; I have. But my goal is NOT to have a drink, so I’m certainly not going to build an activity around it.

Building activities around food has also gotten harder. I still go out to eat – probably more than I should – but where I’ll go and what I can eat is much more limited. And I’d rather not spend a celebration staring at everyone else’s butter/sugar/salt yums and working mentally on remember why I don’t, in fact, want that cookie.

Now, I realize that the simple answer to all of this is to just not have a birthday party because, you know, I’m not a little kid anymore. But I do not ROLL LIKE THAT. I LOVE my birthday. I love celebrating it. And I don’t care that it’s just a random year in my 30s. Or that some grownups just have a nice dinner and then go on about there lives. I have lived another year and it is AWESOME and I am GOING TO HAVE A PARTY.

It’s just going to be a different kind. Which is all a REALLY long-winded way of saying that I’m going hiking for my birthday. And this is noteworthy because, as recently as a year ago, if someone had invited me to a hiking party, I would have been like, “Hiking can go fuck itself.”

Because I did not like hiking. I liked the views at the top, and I liked being outside. But I did not like how puffy and red-faced and sweaty it made me. I did not like that half the heat in my face was from shame as well as exertion. Because I was so much slower and breathing so much harder than everyone else. It was a slap in the face as to how out of shape I was, and I preferred to not examine that reality very closely, thankyouverymuch.

I hated having to pretend I was less tired and out of breath than I was. I hated being the last person to get to the destination despite all my pretending. I hated how the embarrassment of it all made me want to cry and how that made it EVEN HARDER to catch my breath. I hated having to pretend like it was fun for me.

My ex-boyfriend made it even worse by dragging me up Runyon Canyon once in 100 degree heat at noon and another time when I was wearing a skirt. I didn’t feel like I could say no because it would just reinforce how out of shape I was. I had to act as if I liked the idea! The time in the skirt, I lost my footing, fell and skidded across gravel, ripping the skin on my right calf to shreds. After that, I was done, just done, with hiking. And I didn’t do it again.

Until my trainer made me.

I put it off for as long as possible of course. I knew it would be ugly. But finally, in mid-November, she announced that I would be joining her to hike Fryman Canyon that weekend. I could pick if I wanted to do it Saturday or Sunday, but that was the only say I had in the matter. So I went, and it was very hard. But I did it without stopping (mostly because I thought, even though it felt like my lungs would explode, that I wasn’t allowed to stop). The beginning of the hike is steep, and the incline lasts for awhile. By the time I got to the first bit of level ground, I was wondering if it would ever end. But I was also getting to see this gorgeous view of the Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains:

The trail didn’t level out for long, and the top seemed like it would never arrive, always disappearing behind a bend in the trail that led to another incline. But then it did arrive, and I felt great. And the views were wonderful still. And my trainer was very proud that I hadn’t stopped, that I had done it all. And then we got to walk down. And I liked it.

I’ve gone with her most weekends since then, sometimes twice, and it’s still hard. But it’s not nearly as hard. And during the hard parts, I am able to remember that 1. they’ll end and 2. that it will feel worth it when I get to the top; I will feel powerful and good and full of energy.

So last weekend, when I was still trying to figure out how to celebrate my birthday, I went on another hike up Fryman with my trainer, and as I was huffing up the last incline before the top, looking out at the clear and sunny neighborhoods of the Valley, I thought of how much I was enjoy myself. I thought that I’d like to start the next year of my life this way. And so that’s what I’m doing. A hiking party.

And I like it.

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