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Finding Our Best Path and Pace in Hiking and Life

Whether it’s on a hiking trail or in life, trying to move at the pace of people speeding past me doesn’t work. It’s debilitating to think I must.

Every person is unique, a new tile on the mosaic of life. We come in different sizes, shapes, colors. Some are shiny, complex, even neon. Others are solid rectangles in muted tones. Each has a place and purpose. Some are meant to walk with you for a time, then one or another of you moves on. Some slow only for pleasantries. Others breeze past or fall behind at a pace so quick you barely notice each other.

The best hiking pace is different for each of us, just as our careers and life are meant to travel on different trajectories.

Finding the paths that we most enjoy and on which we can best succeed is part of our challenge. Some of us are better scramblers, adapting quickly to changing surfaces. Others are fearless climbers, willing to pull themselves without support below. Some speed along quickly, but only on flat surfaces. Others can hike inclines far longer than others, as long as the mountain isn’t too steep.

Even when we find our best path, moving too quickly can cause us to stumble, blowing out our legs before we reach our objective.

When out hiking, I could spend my time focused on how unfair it is that many others get to the end first. Countless trail runners and hikers blaze past me in any given day. They finish faster. I take comfort in knowing my pace allows me to absorb the beauty that surrounds me.

Sometimes I move too fast, missing what would have been a great moment. I did this hiking past a husband and wife, after brief conversation, on the way to Surprise and Amphitheater lakes in the Grand Tetons. Later, as I returned, they told me that a small, independent black bear had planted itself on the trail behind me to gorge on a huckleberry bush. It was so food focused that the bear gave assembling hikers only a passing glance as the group finally decided it was large enough to pass safely. As a solo hiker, bear encounters aren’t high on my list of desires. But I would have enjoyed watching a bear in that particular setting.

I could have become upset seeing a younger woman fly past with two miles still left to go up Pikes Peak. She was carrying only a large water bottle, wearing tight shorts and an array of tattoos. She was also running at a pace I couldn’t sustain on flat surfaces, let alone on a trail climbing 7,800 feet in the 13 miles up.

If I tried to speed up to follow at her pace, I would have blown my legs. It would have taken me longer, using more recovery time, than my body could handle to complete the hike in one day.

Sometimes, I pass other hikers. I don’t look on them with any air of superiority. I never know why I might have passed them. Sometimes, it can be as simple as I trained longer and harder, perhaps because I had fewer competing responsibilities. But often, the story is far more complicated. They may be recovering from an injury. They might have hiked further, or been on their fifth straight day of hiking. They may be older. They may have had an impediment handed to them at birth that adds to their challenges. This might be their first hike, or their first day at altitude.

On the hike up Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome trail.

Sometimes, the reason for a struggle is far clearer. As my youngest brother and I started hiking back down Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome trail, we saw a young woman standing on the side, hands on hips and appearing deeply pained. Her distress caught our attention long enough to hear her yelling ahead to her boyfriend, pleading with him to slow. She tried walking again, but could barely move. That’s when we noticed that she was carrying only a single 12-ounce plastic water bottle, emptied so long ago that even the water residue had evaporated.

He had told her that she had enough water when they started. He considered whether she could make it solely in the context of his own preparation. He was wrong. Fortunately, I had extra water bottles stuffed in my backpack.

A few hours later, this same young woman and her boyfriend passed us near the end of the return hike. She saw us and stopped: “There’s no way I would have made it without your water. Thank you so much.” Clearly, she was capable of moving far faster than I could, with the right fuel and equipment. But she had been immobilized by poor guidance and preparation. So often in life, it’s not fundamental skills and desires that derail careers. It’s inadequacy of preparation, or an absence of strong mentors willing to share their wisdom. (There are both public policy and personal responsibility implications here, but I leave those to your individual consideration.)

While hiking, I’ve had people check to see if I needed help. I’ve offered help to others. It’s part of the instant community that makes the outdoors a gratifying place to spend time.

Because I must move at my pace doesn’t mean I don’t ask questions. When I find an experienced hiker, I might ask about equipment choices, nutrition strategies or training plans. I try to figure out what they’re doing that might help me, just as I learned from literally hundreds of others during my government and corporate career.

But I don’t dwell on envy. It ruins the joy of the experience.

I learned long ago that I’m my best self mentally when I’m grateful for what I have rather than distressed at what I’m lacking. I need to find my best path, and travel on it at the pace I’m prepared to handle.