Dawn splashed the low clouds with scarlet and spread across the horizon. It was around 38 degrees at six in the morning, up at 6400 feet in Red Rocks canyon near Denver. Even at this early hour, there were plenty of us running or hiking the stairs, greeting the day, variously huffing and puffing in this famously fit state of Colorado.
I was back after a brief hiatus, having gotten my rib fractured by a fractious horse during an adventure trip in Turkey. Rather than run the 2400 steps today, I had to walk them. No matter. You begin where you are, and you work back up. I was chuffed to be on the stairs, merely a month after the accident. I was headed for Norway and Greenland in six weeks, and training was an imperative.
“You Can’t Train on Stairs for Kilimanjaro”
What came to mind this morning as I steadily made my way up and down, back and forth, was when I had begun my training for my Kilimanjaro summit back in 2013. I’d already been running at Red Rocks for several years. The folks at the Colorado Mountain Club, despite all my best efforts, had snubbed all my attempts to join local hikes (I was sixty at the time) and I’d been given references to some ancients who were no longer hiking. Really? Honestly?
One man who at least returned my call told me flatly that “you can’t train for Kili on Red Rocks.”
I was running 2400 to 3700 steps up to four times a week. In addition I cycled 25 miles, hit the gym three times a week, swam three times a week, did yoga six times a week, put on a 40-lb weighted vest and hiked eight miles several mornings a week. I could go on. Periodically I’d go hike a fourteener as a training run. A training run.
I had so many people tell me- a 60-year-old woman at the time and a damned good athlete- what I couldn’t do- that I just took that as my mantra.
“What Have You Done Lately?”
Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski, the 23-year-old Cuban American Harvard genius who, at 12, single-handedly built an entire airplane from scratch for her father, told her teacher what she had done that summer. The teacher responded by saying. “That’s nice, but what have you done lately?” Pasterski, widely acknowledged as possibly the next Einstein, has adopted this as her mantra. What a woman.
And this is my whole point.
Folks love to tell us what we can’t do.
The breathtaking arrogance and condescension demonstrated by this young genius’ teacher is a picture perfect example of why some of us never reach our goals. We give them permission to body slam us because of their insecurity, inadequacy, or, as in Sabrina’s case, the only thing they have to wield is implicit authority.
I’m expected to bonk
My safari planner, loathe to send me on the trip without a companion (come on man, we have guides, porters…..) sent his 30-year-old wife up with me. I was sporting a 25-lb pack on the summit attempt. She had a much lighter version.
She nearly bonked halfway up to Gilman’s Point. Half my age. Carrying half the weight.
This isn’t about bragging. This is about recognizing how other peoples’ limited versions of who you are and what you are capable of often have nothing in common. People sometimes judge us out of their own fears and insecurities, based on what they can’t or wouldn’t do. However, that’s not YOU.
I cancelled my membership in the Colorado Mountain Club. I went on to do Everest Base Camp and the iconic Macchu Picchu hike and then the Everest Base Camp within a few months the following year. In addition I’ve done some brutal hikes in places like Myanmar. There, my 30-year-old male guide gives me the stinkeye and asked, not without a level of sarcasm,
“Are you sure you can do this hike?”
I have video of this guide and his cousin, in the 114-degree heat and 98% humidity, barely making it up the mountain. This is some 20 minutes after I’ve had to stop and wait repeatedly for them to catch up. Come on, man. These are your mountains.
Another much younger guide told me I couldn’t do a hike across four mountains — he said it would take me five hours rather than my stated claim of three- because I was “too old and a woman.” I did it in two. When I got back to the base he was in total disbelief.
“Zaw, you have a nine-year-old son, right?”
“How would you feel if I told him he’d never amount to anything?”
“I’d be pretty angry.”
“So would I. Now, how is that different from your telling me I’m too old and a woman?”
“I never thought about it that way.”
“Precisely. This is why I do what I do. Someone is always telling you that because you’re a girl, a woman, Burmese, Black, too old, this that or the other, here’s what you can’t do. Based on THEIR fears or limitations or versions of you are. That’s Crime Number One.
“Crime Number Two is we believe them. Whether as children or as adults, we buy in. Then we spend the rest of our lives living inside the cages that others — or that we ourselves- have built around ourselves, never living up to our immense potential.
“When someone says to me ‘You’re too old and a woman,’ I say,
Imagine, just imagine if 14-year old Sabrina Pasterski had been beaten down by her teacher’s arch, arrogant put down. What a loss to the world. But bolstered by her immensely supportive family and her own good humor and limitless brains, she has gone on to blaze trails. She is a comet.
How about Chaeli Mycroft, the first women quadriplegic to climb Kilimanjaro? Can you imagine the crap she heard?
So can we all be inspirations: for our kids, our friends, our families, ourselves. By never, ever giving anyone else permission to define our possible. You and you alone determine this. By surrounding yourself with yay-sayers, not nay-sayers, by superb coaches, and taking delight in erasing boundaries.
Oh, the places you can go.
What’s your mantra? What will you give yourself the freedom, the joy, the exquisite pleasure to achieve by never ever letting anyone else define what’s possible for you?
What cages will you break out of today?