Hell’s Own Three Miles and the power of pushing your limits

I was over four hours into a hike and I’d covered about two and a half miles.  I’d been clinging to a boulder and scree strewn knife blade of a path high up on a cliff face along the northern edge of the Savage Gulf state park in Murfreesboro, TN. I’d been in the woods for 4 days and I had 25 pounds of gear and food on my back — everything I’d used to survive in the woods so far this week. I was nursing a knee injury and had blisters throbbing on both feet. There was at least another half mile to go before I made it to the campsite marked on my trail map. To my left was a rocky drop of over 50 feet. To my right was a sheer cliff that went up another 50 feet. The campsite was supposed to be at the top of that cliff. In front of me, the narrow trail disappeared around a curve of the cliff face.

Look guys! It's only 50 feet up!
Look guys! It’s only 50 feet up!

I took a deep breath and continued hopping from boulder to boulder. Sometimes they wobbled and I’d stop to get my balance and footing before I could take my next step, hence the slow pace. This is what hiking aficionados call a “technical hike” and I was getting close to hitting my limits. Still, there was no camping on this rocky path. The only thing to do was keep moving forward. My husband was a few feet ahead of me. We were both wincing with every step. His knees had taken a beating this week too.  When we rounded the corner the trail seemed to dead end into the sheer cliff face. We looked around confused and then noticed a trail marker halfway up the cliff and what could generously be called hand and footholds along the rock wall. They were  subject to rushing water in heavy rains judging by the amount of water erosion evident. I spared a moment to glance gratefully at the cloudless sky. It was time to climb.

Vertical climbing with 25 pounds on your back is a unique experience. Doing it after a long day of hiking, worn down by injury and too little food is another thing altogether. Another 20 minutes of climbing, slowly and painfully up that wall and we found ourselves at the top of the cliff with a wooded trail stretching out in front of us. We came upon a sign that said our campsite was close by.  Once  at camp, we had picked the perfect spot, set up the tent, stowed gear and made a canteen filling run to the nearby spring. We settled into building our fire and making dinner and stopped to consider the day we’d just had. It was the most physically demanding hiking either one of us had ever done and probably the most physically demanding thing I had ever done in my life.

You see, this was my first multi-night hiking trip.  I was 36-years-old and was only nine months into my first real efforts to get fit. This week long trip represented my trial by fire and that day’s treacherous hike along Hell’s own three miles was my final proving ground. To my utter surprise, I found that I had emerged more or less whole at the end of it, and had enjoyed it.

For most of my life I had lived well within my own safety zone. I never pushed boundaries. I never worked harder or did more than I knew I could. It was a safe and comfortable existence, but after 36 years it was also less than fulfilling. This trip into the wilds of Tennessee was my miniature crucible. I’d been steadily pushing past my comfort zone working out 3-6 days a week and we’d taken a few overnight backpacking trips before, but this trip was where I proved my own capacity to myself. I knew from the outset that the trails would scare that old, safe me. I knew the distances we’d have to cover on some days would have been deemed impossible mere months before.

Just one of the rewards of life on the trail.
Just one of the rewards of life on the trail.

On the last day of the trip we had almost 10 miles to cover and we wanted to get it done in 4-5 hours. This trail was relatively level and not very technical, but it was 4 more miles than I had ever hiked on a single day. I got up, tied up my hiking boots and trucked across the miles. My knee throbbed and my blisters oozed and all I could think of was how sad I was that my trip was ending. When we got back to civilization everything felt too plush and too loud and not nearly as good as sitting next to a campfire in the middle of nowhere. My old expectations for comfort were officially blown apart.

Since my trip, everything seems more doable. When I run up against a situation that would normally have made me hesitate or want to simply quit, I now find I enjoy pushing into and through that uncomfortable phase. That ability to be ok living with discomfort and risk has generally made me a better person. I’m more open to new ideas. I can try new things and see things from more perspectives, even the ones that feel risky.

Bottomline: Find your crucible and kick its ass.  You’ll be better for it.


Goals Check: One Month In

Planning my passion
Write it down and it will be done!

In January I set out my list of goals to achieve this year and shared my personal mantra for the kind of effort I wanted to put forward and the kind of person I wanted to move towards being. Part of that plan of attack was to be accountable. I had to lay it out in a public forum as a way to prod myself into continued progress.  Not meeting my goals would result in personal frustration, but also some public embarrassment for not having done or accomplished what I said I would. I’ve been tracking my progress personally with an amazing tool called a Passion Planner. I write it all down, block my schedule and slowly but surely I’m getting on top of my goals. At just shy of one month in I thought I’d share some progress, complete with stats!

Goal One: Stay fit, get stronger and lose that last 10 pounds

I’ve made it to the gym for my Core Fit class an average of 3.5 times per week. I’ve consistently gone up in weights used and difficulty level for most exercises. I’m dreading the days we run a lot less! After a long hiatus from illness and the holidays it feels GREAT to start getting my swole back.

I have also managed to lose two pounds so far! I just have to keep laying off the cookies and that is HARD. The girl scout cookies I ordered are going to devastate my diet plans shortly.

Goal Two: Write daily

I am making steady progress here, but I’m not even close to my objectives right now. Over the course of the last four weeks I have averaged 3.25 journal entries per week, a paltry 0.5 blog posts per week (as evidenced by the thin content around here) and a dismal 1.25 writing prompt exercises. One of those writing prompts was a 1,700 word frenzy I wrote in about an hour from a prompt I found on Reddit’s writing prompt subgroup. It could even go somewhere as a short story.

Goal Three: Finish revising that NaNoWriMo novel and start the submission process

Absolutely zero progress here and that’s pretty shameful. I opened up Scrivener once and then proceeded to do nothing.

Goal Four: Learn how to do some basic leather working until I can make my own archery armguards

It's a coin purse I made!
A coin purse of dubious quality workmanship.

There is some progress to report here. First, my husband and I finished setting up a usable and organized workshop space. That gave me the space to plan out and then execute my first tiny project. After lots of youtube videos and some spending of birthday cash I had enough knowledge and supplies to make a leather coin purse! It is of dubious quality, but I made it! The leather scraps I used were too thin for the snaps and thread I had. The whole thing feels a little slap dash, but it was a start and the final product is usable.

Goal Five: Get to be a good and reliable shot with my recurve bow

My lady bow has sat largely unused with the exception of a trip to our friends’ hunting preserve/farm to faux bow hunt. That technically took place the weekend before my tracking began, so I can’t really claim it. I’d like to say that the cold winter weather has been forestalling me, but I generally like to be outside even when it is cold. No excuses, just lack of effort.

Goal Six: Go on more adventures

Nothing specific to report that has happened yet, but we have lots of adventuring planned for this year. We’ll do more backpacking over spring break and hit the trails hard over the summer. In July we get to venture up north to Minnesota for a wedding and we’ll probably sneak in some hiking while we are there.

So there it is folks, all the progress and all the failures to launch for this first month of 2016.

Get action

“Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.” -Theodore Roosevelt

I have some big goals for 2016. I intend to push myself past my comfort zone and find achievement and from there success in a broad range of areas. The only way is to keep moving, to keep doing and become more than I was when I started. So this year I set aside how silly it might feel at first and adopted a mantra.

Teddy Roosevelt was pretty much the definition of a doer. In fact, he tended to shoot himself in the foot with his own manic desire to do. Still, his life is an easy one to admire and, in a measured way, to find inspiration to be your own version of a doer. The real challenge for me has always been in finding the balance between doing and being. How do you keep the self-discipline it requires to keep advancing on your goals without losing sight of what you need to just be.  Contentment and ambition are ever at war in my life. In spite of worrying about balance, I’ve decided this bit of no holds barred advice from TR to one of his former Rough Riders is going to my mantra for 2016.

So, in order of importance here’s my goals and intentions for 2016:

  1. Stay fit, get stronger and lose that last 10 pounds
  2. Write daily
  3. Finish revising that NaNoWriMo novel and start the submission process
  4. Learn how to do some basic leatherworking until I can make my own archery armguards
  5. Get to be a good and reliable shot with my recurve bow
  6. Go on more adventures