It got me thinking about how much our environment affects our choices, decisions, fitness and health. My sister lives a pretty active life, especially by Ontario standards, and is very healthy. She makes her own granola, grows kale in the garden, dehydrates fruit, and bakes flax-sesame-pumpkin seed crackers from scratch. What she's quick to admit, though, is that it's because there aren't a ton of other options. Not very many restaurants to choose from, and certainly no fast-food joints in the small town. You have to drive out of your way to get to the Trans-Canada Highway for that. Judging by the excitement with which she did her shopping in Calgary when she dropped me off at the airport, there are clearly items that are harder to come by in a small mountain town. No wonder people grow their own, make their own, and use what they have.
Similarly, being active is just part of life, because it's right there in your backyard. If you don't have the gear you need, chances are your next door neighbour does. It's easy enough to come home from work and go for a mountain bike ride. The kind of ride that we'd never be able to do in my neck of the woods because, well, geography. Can't truly mountain bike if you don't have mountains. It was in getting the opportunity to test my fitness levels, to see if the efforts in the gym paid off in real life, that I realized how far behind we are when we don't have access to outdoor recreation. You can go on a one-week ski trip every year, and ski for 8 hours a day, but you still won't progress or practice nearly as much as someone who goes for an hour or two a few days a week. And it's how people are social. You don't go for coffee or dinner to catch up, you go shredding on your bike or you hit the slopes and chat on the way up the mountain.
So, my vacation became quite an adventure, because that's just what you do in the Rockies. The theme of the week seemed to be "doing new things" even if it was in places I'd been to before. In fact, I specifically wanted to go back to some spots so that I could do-over what I hadn't done four years ago. (Next trip, it will be "seeing new things" and we'll go places that are completely new to me). I conquered the mountain that kicked my butt last time. I rode a bike that wasn't stationary. I climbed. I rafted. And it was a really fantastic trip because I felt physically able to try. I said yes, despite fear and anxiety, because I knew I could work WITH my body, instead of fighting AGAINST it.
Two big firsts happened on this trip, both only because of an increased fitness level. Never would I have imagined myself even wanting to attempt to climb a rock wall, let alone having the guts to try it. On our way back from the Calgary airport (via an overnight stay in Canmore), we met up with my sister's boyfriend and another climber friend at Lake Louise, and the three of them talked me through my first outdoor climb. It was an easy one (rated 5.5) and it was called "My Little Pony" - not exactly a bad-ass name. But lemme tell ya: it was hard! Not as physically demanding as I expected, even where grip strength is concerned. You're able to stop and take a rest and call down to your belayer to "take" - meaning you're taking a break and they need to take in the rope. You take your hands off the rock and let them hang to get the blood flowing, and shake 'em out. No, the hardest thing for me was pure skill, using my toes, in particular the ball of the big toe, to balance and grip and lift. I've lost weight, but this is still an awfully big body for my big toe to have to push up, and there were a few times where I just couldn't do it. I was agile and flexible enough (barely) to get my foot up, and sometimes my legs could still power through to lift myself a little bit up, but when there wasn't a clear place for me to put my hands, I'd drop down. I didn't have the mind-body coordination yet. Climbing is much more a mental game than physical, though it's clearly both.
At one point I was stuck. I just couldn't see where I could put my foot and hand to move myself. I tried a lot of different ways. The gang at the bottom called up to give encouragement and advice. Perspective became apparent: what looked to them like good footholds did not look like anything to me. Partly it was because I was looking closely, and from above, and they were looking from below. And, partly, it was because they had experience and understood that there WERE no perfect foot holds, no ledges that my whole foot would rest on, or any particularly comfortable hand grips. I was ready to give up. The girl leading us climbed up beside me to help guide me, and finally said, "well, we don't do it often, but when you really get stuck, you can get your belayer to haul you up a bit and you climb the rope just a few feet, until you get past the point you're stuck on." So, that's what we did, and that's how I got to practice the rope-climbing move which I may face in the BadAss Dash.
The second big "first" that happened was that I got to go white water rafting. It was not planned. My sister just got a text from a photographer friend saying that he was doing a shoot, needed two more people to fill the boat, and would we like to come - for free. Well, you don't say no to THAT kind of opportunity when it drops in your lap, especially when it's been on my bucket list for awhile. The Kicking Horse river is at the low end of the season, so it was more of a pony, really. Still, it was a ton of fun. Not something which I can directly relate to fitness, though the ability to stay upright in the raft, and relatively balanced through all the bucking and bouncing, made me realize what it means to have a strong core. It's not just about abs you can see, it's about being able to stay in the boat!
Those were the two big adventures of the trip, in addition to reaching the mountain peak. Beyond that, the hiking, walking, and bicycling that I did daily with my sister made this a dramatically different trip than the one four years ago. Especially because I was able to experience her daily life with her, actively, and less as an observer. I can't think of a better gift that fitness has given me, beyond increased health.
Both activities reinforced a lot of lessons. (I know, I know; everything's a metaphor with me). No matter what, you can't do it alone. You try climbing without other people and you fall? You get seriously damaged. You try paddling a boat down a river on your own? It will swallow you whole. You have no control on your own, but as a team, you do. Whether it's someone holding the rope at the bottom, giving a little more pull when you need a hand, or six people paddling together to get safely down some rapids, trying to do it on your own doesn't work. Neither does trying to get healthy by yourself. Whether it's a support system at home; friends who encourage healthy choices rather than enabling bad ones or shaming you for declining something; a fitness coach who watches out for your ups and downs and catches you before you fall too far off the wagon; coworkers who say "let's do something active before we go out for that beer/coffee/lunch"; regardless of who it is, you can't do it alone. You also have to take it one step at a time. I found myself telling my feet to keep going on a hike that went longer than expected. "One step at a time. Just keep going." It's how I got up to the top of the rope, where the chain was mounted, in rock climbing. I almost gave up, twice. But with the perspective and suggestions of the more experienced climbers, they got me through and I could make it to the top. The big difference being that I didn't WANT to quit. It was old me vs new me, and new me won. The old habits may still surface, the fears are still there, but you can get past them. In both rafting and climbing, whether you're going up or going down, sometimes you just gotta hold on to the rope.
In a year of ups and downs, where I've aimed for balance, this was a great break from reality - a vacation in the truest sense - where trying new things and facing fears led to having some exceptionally memorable adventures. My sister noticed the difference. When I lamented that I had gained weight, and was not as thin as I was last summer (meaning the comparison photos were not as dramatic as I'd have liked), she said, "oh, but there IS a big difference. You're willing to try. You can go a lot longer, a lot further, and I can take you places that I couldn't before." It was my attitude that she noticed the most. Fitness and health, they're not perfect and they're not stable, but in the pursuit of them, I've found a confidence I didn't fully understand until this trip.
I can be up.
I can be down.
I can be.
As long as I keep on trying new things, trying things that scare me, trying things I think I won't like.
As long as I keep on trying.