There’s a locally famous hiking experience here in Vancouver, aptly named the Grouse Grind. It is a steep 850 meter ascend by a 3km climbing trail, from the bottom to the top of Grouse Mountain, itself a renowned skiing and tourist destination.
The name might strike fear into the hearts of newcomers, as it should. It is a challenge that requires physical stamina and more importantly, endurance.
This past Saturday, I conquered the trail for the second time this summer. It also happened to the second time in my life that I have ever ground my shoes into the dirt and stone. I did pretty well for a beginner. 1 hour and 10 minutes well.
However, even if I had done the trail in 2 hours or more, I would have still been proud to have made it all the way. I don’t know about other hikers, but both times that I’ve done this, there were numerous times in which I wanted to give up and go back down. These thoughts of abandoning the challenge were especially prominent and plentiful before the half-way mark.
It is so hard at times to lift my legs even one more step. They felt like they would give away underneath me. Any time, at any moment, I would be send flying back in humiliation and defeat.
There were times when I had to pause on the side to catch my breath, to quell the fire inside my lungs, and banish the defeatist thoughts inside my head.
I no longer cared how loud I was breathing, how low my head hung, how red my face were. Pass the quarter mark, I started to walk like a deeply drunk idiot that had unlearned the art of walking. I was stumbling. I was tripping. I was slipping. I was using my hands to crawl at times. It was unseemly.
If the adrenalin had not been rushing through my veins, if my mind had not been so singularly focused on reaching the top, I might have let my perception of what others thought of me buried me alive, like it did so many times in so many different situations in the past. But I wanted that personal improvement. I wanted triumph over myself.
There was no one, no amount of self-doubt or self-consciousness, that could have stopped me.
I began to see fellow hikers as kindred spirits rather than competition. I dropped the mindset of comparing myself to others. That would have poisoned my resolve. Instead, I looked at the clock and thought of only one thing: to beat myself. I wanted to strike away my first record of 1 hour and 15 minutes. I was the only competitor I needed.
Of course, that did not meant blindly charging forward without giving any thought to how much my body could handle. I paused frequently to quench my thirst, to regain an even breath, to let my legs rejoice in the momentary rest. In these ephemeral instances, I got the chance to take in all the beauty around me. The wondrously giant trees that offered shade and cool temperatures, the distant shimmer of the Fraser River that cradled my home, and the other hikers, young, old, and younger.
I saw white-haired couples puffing and huffing their way slowly upwards. I saw golden-haired little girls being encouraged by their dads, and sometimes carried by them when it got too difficult. I saw a mother with a new-born baby wrapped in front of her chest. I smiled at the enthusiasts that whooped and yee-ha’ed their way up, urging others with their smiles and “come on, you can do it!”. They were my encouragements. Of course, Eminem shouting into my ears with his angry rap words helped too.
That’s how I heaved myself up and conquered. Although exhaustion pierced every fibre and bone in my body, a wide-toothed grin spread across my face.
The feeling is incomparable. Standing there on top, the first gulp of fresh water since the half-way mark when my supply ran out, all the others who made it and who were smiling so brilliantly because they were victorious. Walking the final stretch, on both sides were hikers nodding at you, their grins congratulating your effort. It’s like a grand reception at the end of a marathon. It was so worth it.
Despite all that, ultimately, it might be the thrill of pushing yourself to the limit. Up on that side of the mountain, you have nothing but your own two feet and pure will to depend on. And when you hit your goal, when you have broken your own record, when you have surpassed yourself, it feels incredible.
You feel invincible.
In a way, this experience is a microcosm for life. Life is a grind, like it or not. It’s the ultimate challenge of endurance. It will take your breath away. You will collapse some days. You will want to stop and give up. But you will also meet people who will encourage you forward. You will learn to stand on your own and endure. You will, hopefully, take pauses and appreciate all the beauty and joy around you. And in the end, you will have nothing but your own two feet and pure determination to make it through.