“The loss seems so great to me, now that I’ve discovered the joys of the physical. During my youth, organized sports was a world separate from mine. Physical education was something dreary and threatening, smelling of stale sweat, sounding of jeers and challenges. Athletics were something you ‘went out for,’ something OUT THERE... This glow I feel now in a body a half-century old -- no gym instructor ever mentioned that. The football coach at Boys High stood before the student body and talked gravely about beating Tech High, as if a loss would bring an empire down. He never mentioned the sweet infusion of every limb that follows a long run. The sports pages told me of victory and defeat, climactic plays, statistics. They never mentioned transcendence. Even now, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness pushes physical activity on us like a prescription drug. It will make us healthy, prevent heart attack. It will, perhaps, keep us out of trouble. Not one word about those moments at the height of exertion when an unexpectedly graceful movement connects us to the turning of the planets.”
-- George Leonard, The Ultimate Athlete (Avon Books, 1974)
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Do you appreciate a good challenge? Not everyone seems to, although mastering difficult situations can lead to a sense of accomplishment and greater confidence.
Life periodically -- and inevitably -- bestows challenges on us, some relatively inconsequential, while others are a big deal and need to be dealt with promptly.
For more than a few of us, the appeal of hiking and communing with nature is to enjoy a refreshing respite from having to cope with everyday difficulties and stress.
At the same time, some of us enjoy stretching ourselves by doing something that’s physically demanding, like climbing a mountain on a steep trail. For others, a gentler workout on an easier trail over hilly terrain may be enough of a challenge.
If we’re in shape for it, a workout can feel great, especially in nature (if we’re out of shape, it’s wise to work our way up to it over a period of weeks or months).
Afterwards there’s often a warm, endorphin-enhanced glow, sometimes known as a “hiker’s high.” It can be a great motivator in getting us out on the trails often.
Challenges of a more serious variety are pretty rare on hikes. While there can be extra safety issues if you go alone or with friends, these are minimal with a group.
Yes, there’s always a chance of an injury on the trail (or at home!), although injuries are thankfully extremely rare on our hikes. Medical attention is hardly ever called for (beyond an elastic bandage for a twisted ankle, or a bandaid for a cut).
A slightly more common source of unexpected challenges on the trail is from weather-related issues. By definition the weather is never completely predictable, and an average of a couple times each year we encounter a major weather surprise.
Sometimes we know in advance that we’ll be out in somewhat extreme conditions, which happened back in early January, when we had two super-frigid weekends.
At least two of our hikes began in below-zero temperatures (which happens an average of once every several years). As you may have heard -- or could surmise if you viewed the weekly slideshows of those hikes -- everyone did absolutely fine!
And then there was our 1/13 hike, where we faced major stream flooding after two inches of rain had fallen (plus snow had melted) in 60 degree temps the day before.
If you watch this week’s slideshow and read the comments, you can see that our group braved the challenge of wading through deep water in below-freezing temps (it was late in a 10-mile hike and there were no available detours or other options).
Not only wasn’t it a disaster, but the only “harm” sustained was temporarily cold feet. Spirits were high -- and 2 hikers later e-mailed me asking that we do it again!
The fact is that after we deal with a challenge successfully, we sometimes find that our mood soars. Feelings of elation are common after meeting a hiking challenge.
Above all, during and after such a challenge, participants often report that the experience was just plain fun! Who would have guessed! Life is short, many of us work too hard… and surely there’s no such thing as having too much healthy fun!
-- Charlie Cook