How do we know whether what we’re being asked or asking ourselves to accomplish is even possible? It’s a question I’ve asked myself thousands of times on the trails. It applies, though, to every aspect of life.
So often in life, at work and in mental health challenges, transformational achievements come from deep struggles.
However, accepting pointless pains—with no conceivable chance of success—adds to the length and difficulty of life’s path. Our brains reward us when we accomplish goals. Failure offers no such boost. If we can develop lessons from a failure, the attempt still offers purpose. But when neither lessons nor success are possible, we are left simply with damage to self.
Even on trails I know I can hike, a voice repeatedly begs me to quit when fear, boredom, sore muscles or nasty weather intervene. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve considered stopping before reaching a summit or a planned turnaround.
The whisper to quit became repetitive and increasingly aggressive during long day hikes in the Grand Tetons, while battling up Barr Trail to the summit of Pikes Peak, on the Half Dome hike in Yosemite and during far less formidable hikes. Some days, it comes even while walking my neighborhood.
Near the summit on Flagstaff’s Humphrey’s Peak, I could traipse just 50 feet at a time before needing to gasp and wait for my heart rate to slow. I hadn’t prepared hard enough or long enough to make this hike. Every step was a struggle. At least a thousand times, I wanted to turn around and go back down. No one was with me. No one had to know I’d failed. But I would know. That was enough.
People who hear me talk about the pain involved in long hikes sometimes ask why I don’t just turn around when it gets tough. For me, moving through this deterrence is part of the reward.
There were times in my life when I was so consumed that my thoughts focused not on whether I’d end my life, but how. The rewards from making it decades past those points have been well worth enduring the pains I felt in those days, weeks, months, even years.
The same is true of hiking. The rewards of fighting through to reach a stunning mountain lake or a summit with 360-degree views are more than worth the struggles—both along the way and certainly once I get there.
Still, desire to reach a destination isn’t always enough.
No matter how much I want something, there are days my body and mind simply can’t make it happen.
I certainly felt that way when I tried to double up the Seven Mile Hole Trail and the Mt. Washburn Spur at Yellowstone National Park. Even going just twenty feet at a time up the steepest incline section of Mt. Washburn, I felt the burning. It’s a feeling I had glimpsed as a fan watching the mountain stages of the Tour de France. There, world-class cyclists who press past their capacity and preparation can bonk, or hit the wall.
That happens when hiking too. Sometimes, thirty minutes of rest and some stretching removes enough muscle waste to continue. At other times, the only answer is letting my body and mind recover overnight, perhaps longer.
I can push my body and mind past discomfort, but not past inherent and trained capacity. As much as I want to move forward every day, there are times when the right answer is to step back, recover and then work to strengthen my internal building blocks.
When I start a new trail, particularly one tougher and longer than I’ve tackled before, I don’t always know what to expect.
Is finishing the trail something I can never achieve? Is it one I can achieve, but only after better preparation? Is it simply just a difficult, but achievable trail if I fight through fears, pains and outside forces?
Differentiating between never, not yet and now doesn’t come easily. Often, never is really not yet and not yet is now with a fight. The best days have been those when I thought I’d never make it and it turned out that the answer was now.
As you face your next challenges, are you exhausting your energy on a “never” when plenty of “not yet” and “now” opportunities deserve more attention?
Can you turn what feels like a “never” into a “not yet” with better preparation?
Is there a “not yet” that can become a “now” if you press to the very end of your limits?
It’s worth fighting forward to find the answers.