When The Mountain Wins
I heard a quote recently that stuck to my brain like a prickly burr to blue jeans. It’s originally attributed to Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher: “those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” On its face that may seem ridiculous, even unattainable, not to mention more than a little cryptic (seriously, did these guys ever just say stuff like “I’m hungry?”). I think it’s fair to say that Lao Tzu was probably not at mile 38 of a 100K when he dropped that nugget of wisdom, yet within it lies a prescription for navigating perceived failures on the trails by learning the hardest skill of all–surrendering. To become a part of the whole, rather than apart from the whole.
I’m going to tell you about a time in my life when the mountain won. I remember the gut-tugging disappointment, and I remember what came after. I remember flowing.
It was a miserable morning when I set out for Cascade Mountain, one of the Adirondacks’ notorious 46 “high peaks” in late October of last year. The road gleamed in the rain as I drove, swaying, rising, falling around black lakes and forest so dense an arrow couldn’t travel 10 yards without striking wood. When I pulled up to the trailhead, the force of my thoughts reached a crescendo as I repeated over and over in my head that I’d be fine, this was fine, it wasn’t a bad idea to traverse muddy, rock-strewn, desolate trails with no cell service, while still being hobbled from the foot fracture that I had suffered in April. This wilderness didn’t bow for the weak, for quitters. Toughness was on tap. I tried to make myself believe through sheer force of will, taking these ideas and hammering at my sensibilities with them like a battering ram, as I pulled on my gloves and grabbed my handheld water bottle.
I tried not to let my eyes stray to the trail ahead, which looked like it had been churned in a blender and dumped back out, as I descended the steps to a scarred kiosk. Entering my information into the trail register felt like signing my own death warrant. “Vincent, 27, Hellertown, PA – the toughest idiot ever to have lived.” The rain was still coming down, and my bright red knit hat was damp, no longer keeping me warm, but at least ostensibly keeping me from being shot by an over-eager hunter. But I think my pace kept me safe. No deer moves that slow.
As I trudged around small puddles and negotiated my way gingerly over slick rocks, I felt my experience being shaped by absence rather than presence–joyfulness, enthusiasm, curiosity, were unaccounted for. I moved mechanically, doing just to do. I did not feel physically prepared for this summit, nor safe, nor connected with the experience in any way. What was this for? I found myself being honest for the first time that day, admitting that Cascade was a box to be checked, an instrument for stroking my ego, and nothing more. I’d lost sight of its power and was failing to give it the respect it deserved. My hubris had led me to believe that I could rise above a bulwark and exert my will on forces over which I ultimately had no control.
My decision was bitter but clear. I hadn’t made it a quarter mile before turning back. I signed off again, now the proud record holder of shortest sign-in to sign-out time in the Cascade trail registry. Disappointment tugged at my gut; the siren song of achievement tried calling me back, alternately sweet and taunting. While I was sure that surrender was the mature course to take, I couldn’t get over the sense that I had been robbed of an experience that was rightfully mine. The chance to move, breathing rapidly, heart jumping in my chest, amidst this primeval wilderness had eluded me. But as I climbed back up the steep steps to the pull-off area where my car was parked, I felt just that. My breath and my heart quickened.
Those who flow…
I walked back down the steps. Then I walked back up. Down. Up. The rain had now thinned to a fine mist that condensed on my face as I traversed this same flight, over and over, and with each repetition, the feeling of failure faded. I had found my medicine while maintaining the boundaries the mountain had set for me. I spent over forty minutes on the trailhead steps (which I found later, much to my chagrin, were not their own Strava segment) before driving back to my warm little room in Saranac Lake, showering, and having hot coffee out on the covered balcony amidst the gray.
The mountain cannot win, and neither can the runner. But the mountain flows. Any friction that arises between the two comes from the human effort to fight and resist, to buck and rage and fail to accept that winning, achievement, and goals are our own inventions. Perseverance is upheld as a cardinal virtue in our sport, and rightly so; the greatest and most inspiring performances in trail and ultra running often feature low moments, a refusal to quit, and the strength to power through as their themes. However, it becomes dangerous when perseverance is driven by pride. The manifestation of such pride is self-sabotage, a refusal to accept one’s own limits and the circumstances in which you find yourself, a refusal to flow with nature, with life.
If I had pressed onward that morning in October, I may have made it to the top of Cascade Mountain and back down to the bottom safe and healthy, and I may not have. But I am sure of one thing–to flow as life flows, to surrender, often requires courage. And on the other side of that acceptance is an alternate path, a flight of stairs, that will take you where you need to go.