Fires, Fitness & Self Image

Last night on Instagram, I saw a PCT-er refer to this year as "The Year of Ice and Fire." It's an apt description: along the west coast we've waited for snow to melt out into late July and wildfires have been raging from British Columbia to southern California since early August. The combination of these events, along with three weekends straight of car camping and birthday celebrations, I'm finding the impending arrival of Fall to be seriously jarring, as though summer has lasted forever but simultaneously slipped away without my realizing. Not that this is necessarily a lament that it's coming to a close (I've had some really good times), but that sometimes the changing of seasons catches you off-guard.

 Small beauty along the trail to Dry Creek Falls, OR.

Small beauty along the trail to Dry Creek Falls, OR.

 Seeing the PCT for the first time and falling instantly in love.

Seeing the PCT for the first time and falling instantly in love.

Today Seattle-ites are trapped inside from the smoke (again), and (again) my hope to be running and biking to/from work and hopping on a trail in any regular way are just out of reach. I'm a person who really benefits from a routine, and the last month has been a tailspin of making plans, having one good day, and then something going awry and immediately prompting a restart. The results of this: some weight gain, muscle loss, endurance loss, strained mental wellbeing, and being constantly exhausted.

Before the move to Washington, I never made efforts to simply "be outside." Once that clicked, the drive to be fitter for the sake of being more comfortable didn't turn off. At first, I tried a few fitness video programs and games (like Insanity and Just Dance). Then, I relearned how to ride a bike (I have to admit I'm still struggling with). In the last two years, I've become a regular runner and been working towards meeting actual weight lifting goals, eventually combining those two with obstacle course racing. In activity I began to forget what it was I looked like, what numbers represented my mass, and focused on how much I could endure.

This is the first significant period that I've gone without regular "exercise" in a remarkable amount of time. When not preoccupied with the next trail to run or working towards new lifting numbers and life slows down, it becomes very easy to be self critical. Especially as a person who has never lived their teen or adult life within dress sizes below double digits, I begin to see myself as I was before, and retreat out of pictures or attempt to make my imprint on others as small as possible.

Looking through pictures to put on my site in the time that I couldn't be outside was beneficial and harmful: on one side, it showed me that if I put forth effort, I'm not terrible at this, and on the other, it made me overthink every single image I appeared in. I hated my finishing picture for Summerland, and I spent two weeks struggling back-and-forth with feeling like an imposter outdoorist lump.

 Being a dweeb in a dressing room trying on tights and feeling sorry for self (left). Being a dweeb who is ridiculously happy after a trip out solo (right).

Being a dweeb in a dressing room trying on tights and feeling sorry for self (left). Being a dweeb who is ridiculously happy after a trip out solo (right).

This weekend I scrolled through my camera roll on my phone trying to organize ideas for posts, deleting goofed pictures and duplicates. Then I came across a dressing room selfie and stopped. This photo hit me with the realization that much my dip in confidence wasn't a reflection of reality. There's four weeks between these images, and even though I may feel like I've taken steps backward, they're not the total reality of my situation. How valuable is worrying about how an outfit makes someone look or the size on the tags when it's purpose is to accommodate dripping in sweat and dirt for multiple days wearing a 35+ pound pack? Wasn't my fire fueled simply by being able to "do" and not to "look as if I do"?

As I listen to podcasts, scroll through social media accounts and groups, and engage in meetups, this doesn't seem like a feeling that's isolated. There's a recurring pattern within the realm of outdoor and fitness hobbies where women are given the impression that if they're not trying to be "the best", "the smallest", "the fittest", then they are not doing enough. There's so much conflicting messaging ranging from encouraging, to patronizing, to unintentionally harmful (or intentionally harmful), to subversively self-serving (on the part of companies) in this area. The attempt to balance and find your own path while wading through the cruft is incredibly difficult. This theme is prevalent in my experience and I have more thoughts that I'm sure will make it to this space.

The sun is still bright red through a haze of smoke, but as all things do: it will pass. I look forward to the smell of rain, muddy runs, and the changing colors of Fall.


Special Note: Right now the town of Cascade Locks and the surrounding area of the Columbia River Gorge, including Multnomah Falls have seen devastation from a human-made blaze. This place holds a piece of my heart and is where my dreams of thru-hiking truly began. If you have a few dollars to spare, please consider contributing to the GoFundMe for OR professional and volunteer firefighters ran by PNW Outdoor Women: https://www.gofundme.com/PNWOWgivesbackOR