The way became steeper as I slowly picked my path up the ridge of giant clast. The abbreviated summit of Mt. St. Helens had grown much closer while I’d had my head down scrambling over rock the past 90 minutes. It was a perfect late morning in June and I was climbing the fields of treacherous sharp dacite purged from the volcano in its famous 1980 eruption.
But 2000 more feet is still deceptively far on the scale of mountains. My eyes trailed the summit snowfield down to the ridge, and then the curve of the ridge down to where I stood. From where we’d begun at 5:30 am, a few more hours and I’d be there! Before the past three hours, the fact that the USFS permit was for “climbing” instead of “hiking” hadn’t caught my attention. But I was all caught up now. Under the full glare of the sun, I once again began to carefully maneuver myself up the jagged black rocks. Trees and shade were two hours behind me down the mountain.
It was easy to take “short steps” going up–I had to. And it felt good even if the going was slow because I was getting closer and closer to the summit. But later on coming down, exhausted, my legs feeling more than a bit like jelly from the rigor of gaining so much altitude in so short a distance, my smallest halting steps were a frustrating necessity in order to survive the treacherous descent.
My client, Kenny, years ago who ran marathons in his fifties, told me his secret to running hills: short steps. He explained, when you go up, you want to get there fast. So naturally you take longer steps to cover more ground more quickly. But physiologically the body has to produce more energy to the muscle at that fast wide cadence and will potentially bomb out much more quickly. At the very least it leaves us more tired. “If you want to conserve your energy for your endurance because you’re doing long runs,” he told me, “take tiny baby steps up the hills.”
I tried it then. I loved hills but they did tire me out fast. So on my next run, I met my first steep incline of about 100 yards and shortened my steps to a mincing dance up the hill. At first I was self-conscious about my strong stride suddenly turning to a baby pace. But something miraculous occurred. Kenny was brilliant. I made it up the steep hill in nearly the same amount of time as taking long steps. And I wasn’t winded at all! It felt pretty much the same as running the flats. Short steps have been a staple of my active endurance ever since.
In the past year, I had a number of unrelated losses and traumatic experiences happen. We don’t plan these things. In the months following, I observed that my bandwidth was almost zero for the extras: extra patience, extra endurance, extra focus, extra discipline, extra everything. I fought it mentally because this was a crucially important year, but I was losing that fight at nearly every turn.
One day, sitting in my silent meditation only focused on my breath for an hour, I slid into that beautiful space of timelessness. I saw an image of me showing my sister on Mt. St. Helens how to take the short steps on the steeper parts of the trail. As the picture flashed through my mind I suddenly saw those past months of struggle with the clear thought, “This is a time to shorten your steps, Carmell.”
It was an aching thought. I love to cover ground of every kind, quickly. It gives me so much joy. But some times of our lives ask for us to pause and then to catch up to where we are right now–and to take the shorter steps.
It isn’t a failure, it’s an act of grace and understanding. It can also be an act of surviving.
I learned years back, what I teach now, that Life is not one thing. This means that when I’m going fast and strong and suddenly get upended and thrown out of my momentum, or even thrown off course altogether, that it’s all part of the mixed-bag journey we are all taking. I can’t expect my life to unfold the same every day, or for me to run at the same pace every day. That isn’t reality. But in our minds we definitely try to do that. We try to make everything fit the way we’re used to, our days playing out relatively the same. And yet, Life is not one thing.
So I recognized that day in the midst of my meditation that I was on an unexpected and extremely steep mountain in my life. It was not part of my plan. And yet here I was, facing not a few but many near-vertical moments in front of me daily. And looking up, even the summit had become clouded and obscured. It happens.
And here I am. I look down at my feet. I know the summit is inevitable; I’ll get there. Deep breath in. I take the next short step.