Today I climbed to the top of Cowles Mountain and back down again.

Top of the Mountain

It’s not the first time I have achieved this goal, but it’s been over fifteen years since I attempted it. It’s not a very big climb compared to most: a coastal desert mountain rising a little under 1500 feet. As a child, I climbed it with my mother and sister a few times. One harrowing trip with my elementary school put me off this climb altogether. My adult PE teacher had us walk from the school to the mountain, up the mountain, down the mountain, and back to school again. Let’s just say that a classroom of comparisons and a steep incline do not make for a happy camper. I was not in great physical shape at that age. I was artsy and creative, not active and competitive. All the other kids seemed to be fine with this enterprise, some running ahead of one another to see who’d get to the top first, while I struggled with breathing and my legs felt like lead weights. The feeling of defeat and dread of that day stuck with my for a long while after. I told my mom I was sick the next time this field trip came up. For years to come I would abstain from climbing. When we drove past the mountain I would glare at it, recalling the sensation of lungs on fire,  being defeated by a hunk of rocks.

As an adult I can see metaphor in this. Childhood obstacles are part of our lives; yet so often the things that should be our great achievements are lost in the measurements. Children often compare themselves to peers, and lose their sense of self in the process. I never felt graceful or athletic. While other kids made great strides, I felt trapped in an awkward place. No one ever said “Everyone did their best” it was all about accolades for the greatest athletes; that competitiveness killed my desire to participate in P.E. Team effort wasn’t the focus: it was win it or lose it. If I could go back and tell my younger self that pushing yourself and doing your best is what matters, to hell with first place, I would. For years I struggled with body image. I was always a little overweight, always a little less able than the people around me. It didn’t matter that it’s ridiculous to compare yourself with everyone else; the invisible measuring stick is still stuck in the ground where you stand next to your classmates. Rather than embracing what I could do, I gave up on myself. I made excuses for my lack of motion; If I couldn’t run with the best, why run at all? There was no reward in it that I could see. Where I excelled was intelligence; I made it through high school and University by sticking to my smarts and ignored a big chunk of my life that would eventually catch up with me.

Funny things can happen if you reach a certain point of a summit. A quarter of the way through my life, some realizations made me change a lot of things. I was reaching some dangerous weight extremes, not diabetic, but on the way. My husband, who was a medical student at the time, took me on a walk and told me he was “worried” about me. I thought he was being paranoid; denial is the first stage of most arguments after all. He asked me if I had ever tried calorie-counting, I responded that I didn’t think I ate that much. I wanted to shoo his concerns away. I made excuses, forgetting that my husband was a better debater than I was (and nearly a medical professional), but his facts were undeniably true. I stuck to my guns, feeling my pride sting. Hadn’t I made it this far doing things my way? So what if I was still a little unhappy with my figure, I managed.  Anecdotes would not deter him from the truth. I love this man because he said something I couldn’t ignore, “I love you, I don’t care how you look, but I’m concerned about your health.” This statement made me stop and take a moment to reflect, even though I felt indignant about the whole thing. My health was something I counted on, but I was dealing with mounting minor health complications, and there were things that I missed about being in better health. I chose to listen to my better half, albeit grudgingly.

I tried calorie counting for a week, a little out of spite, but discovered I really wasn’t eating well. Average diet is about 2000 calories; I was anywhere from 2500 to 3000 on a given day. If I didn’t change what I was doing, I would eat my way into depression and obesity. I wasn’t in school anymore, there was no competition standing next to me, only the roadblocks in my own mind. No one could change that except me. I gradually started to change my daily diet and became more active. It didn’t happen overnight, but within six months I started noticing things that I took for granted were changing to my benefit. Suddenly physical activities that were hard became easier. I could move faster. My back injury didn’t flare up very often. I wasn’t getting colds, flu, or stomach bugs as often. My dress size was shrinking. Over two years I lost 35 pounds and reached a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI). Today I think back to that moment when my husband and I had our talk, and I’m grateful that I stopped covering up my longtime insecurities. There is no first place when it comes to taking care of your body, just a good place, and if everyone can be reach a good place then it doesn’t matter how quickly you get there.

This year has been about discovery for me. I seek adventure where I didn’t before. My feet are traversing paths and trails that they haven’t touched since I was a child, along with some I’ve never tread. A sense of wonderment and joy for the beautiful place I was born has been rekindled.  Today I climbed the mountain I hated, and while I saw people running past me, it didn’t make me feel inadequate. I took my time, enjoyed looking at the landscape and admired the view. When I reached the top I could see my world laid out around me. As I went down the mountain, I stretched out my arms and at times I pattered along the path like I was flying, free and without limits.

Today I conquered the Mountain.

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