Author: kenwhilton

How Do You Know if You Have it Figured Out?

What does it mean to have it figured out?  That term gets tossed around with the “it” of course referring in some way or another back to “life.”

“He/she has it figured out.”

People say that, but what does it really entail?  It could be in reference to the young to middle-aged, fit looking guy wearing well-fitted clothes who rolls up in an Audi and sips his single malt neat.  On the other end of the spectrum it could be the guy who only owns two pairs of pants and lives out of the back of his truck/van so that he can climb/kayak/ski/snowboard/bike all the time.  Maybe it’s the girl who just got accepted to the prestigious law program she has been working towards since she started building a CV at age twelve.  Who has it figured out?  Anybody?

Most of the time I feel like I don’t really have it figured out yet.  I mean after all, I’m largely not sure what I’m doing with my life.  I work at a job that I like well enough, but it’s by no means a career.  My lifestyle is comfortable, but far from lavish.  There are plenty of things that I like—running, cooking, climbing, traveling, reading, writing—but I have yet to figure out how to make any of those into a living.  So it seems as though I don’t really have it figured out.

But then something happens that makes me stop and think, makes me look at it from a different perspective.

Walking down a dirt road in Vedauwoo, my daughter on one side, my girlfriend on the other, and a pack full of climbing gear on my back, I am struck with an overwhelming feeling of happiness.  Under a bright blue Wyoming sky, I have just spent one of the first truly warm days of the year doing something I love with two people I love in one of my favorite places.  In that moment I feel happy.  And that’s it.  There isn’t the faintest trace of anything else on my mind, no thoughts of work the next day, the career I don’t have, none of it.

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It’s not until I think back on that time that I have a sort of realization.  If I can put my life together in such a way as to have that feeling, if even sometimes I can find myself in the right place, with the right people, doing the right thing to be happy, maybe I’m on to something.  I usually wear jeans and drink beer, and I might well be a weekend warrior at the crags, and I most certainly bailed on state university grad school after two semesters, but despite all that, perhaps even because of all that, I can be happy.

So, do I have it all figured out?  Not a chance in hell.  But I’ve figured out how to spend a day outside, with people that are important to me, doing something that is important to me.  And I’ve figured out that that makes me happy.  And I think that’s enough.

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Vices to Fuel Vices

Coffee.  Beer.  Running.  Climbing.

“Fueling” is a big buzzword among endurance and mountain athletes these days.  Hang around a race or read an article about some big, cutting edge climb and you’ll be sure to hear it.

“I decided not to fuel during my last half.”

“By the time I got to the feed station I needed some serious fueling.”

“We stopped at the base of the ridge to fuel up before the summit push.”

What does it mean?  Eating and drinking basically, giving your body the “fuel” it needs to perform.  This act is certainly necessary, all the more so if you’re out pushing yourself on the roads or in the mountains.  Our bodies need food to function, and wherever there is a need (real or perceived) there is an industry ready and willing to fill that need.  The highly tuned modern mountain athlete has a bountiful harvest of science backed, performance tested products.  Bars, gels, chews, powders, electrolyte drinks, recovery drinks…

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All that may be well and good, but when it comes down to it I am no highly tuned modern mountain athlete.  But I am a man with a few intense vices.  Coffee.  Beer.  Running.  Climbing.  I would estimate that in the last two years, I have left the house for a run without finishing a cup of coffee on the way out the door less than 10% of the time.  I can’t even remember the last time I drove to the crag without a cup off strong, dark, life giving coffee in my hand.  While some runners pack along energy gels to fuel during a long run, I set up my road runs to take me past a local brewery that will pour a 6oz beer to give me the fortitude to finish my loop.  Trail runs end with a can of cold craft brew stashed in a cooler at the trailhead.  And while I would never advocate climbing while intoxicated, few libations satisfy the same way a crag beer does.  There is something ineffably right about the feeling of a cold can or bottle in an abused, tape-glove encased hand.

So while the gel slurping, electrolyte replacement beverage quaffing super athletes may have science on their side, I like to think that my method has its own advantages.  I’m not winning races or putting up cutting edge ascents, and that’s exactly my point—choking down “high performance fuel” is not going to change that.  I’m 24 years old, have never climbed harder than 5.11 and on a good day my pace is barely competitive in a small town race.  Clearly I’m not in it for the glory.  I do the things I love, running and climbing, for the experience.  And what I use to fuel those experiences doesn’t come with a sports science backing, it comes from what I actually like.  Coffee and beer.  Running and Climbing.  Vices to fuel vices.

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Reclamation

Every time I take my daughter to dance class I go running.  Her class is short, just 45 minutes, but more and more that time feels like 45 of the most crucial minutes of my week.  So, I take those 45 minutes that my daughter spends twirling and leaping in dance class to run.  Sometimes it’s cold and snowy and I take it easy, try not to suffer too much.  Now the weather is changing and on the exceptional early spring days we occasionally enjoy here at 7200 feet I can push myself, find that intoxicating mixture of nausea and adrenaline that only the right kind of physical activity can produce.  I relish that feeling.  I savor the sweat, wobbly legs and swimming head.

Just because I enjoy the run and the way I am left afterwards doesn’t mean I always want to do it.  On Monday afternoons and Saturday mornings sometimes it sounds far more appealing to post up at the coffee shop to unwind after working with junior high students all day or to take a long, slow morning at the start of the weekend.  It’s easy to decide to go for a run on days when I have the whole afternoon or morning to myself.  I can take my time getting ready, hit the snooze button one more time, or eat a sandwich while I check Facebook before I head out.  It’s different during my dance class runs.  On those days I have just enough time go running, just enough time to make the right decision, because even though I would love to sit at the coffee shop and read or chat with the baristas, I know deep down in my guts that there is no better way to spend those 45 minutes than with my legs and heart pounding.

When I decide to lace up my shoes and make it happen in that barely adequate window of time, I’m deciding to start the week off on the right foot, or trying to erase the stress of working, raising a kid, taking care of a house, and trying to be a person.  The fact of the matter is that while I take pride and satisfaction in the physical aspect of running, what I stand to gain and why I depend so heavily on this stolen time to run is almost entirely mental.  Whatever biological or chemical devices are at work, I know taking that time to move and to breathe gives me the best possible shot at keeping my head on straight.  What I’m really reclaiming during those dance class runs is more than just time.  By deciding to use that time for myself, time that I could so easily spend being idle and passive about life, I am salvaging more than just time.  In those 45 minutes in between dropping my daughter off and picking her up in a room crowded with other wiggly kids and busy parents, what I am truly reclaiming is my mind and my self.

Remember How to Have Fun

Taking kids outside is important.  It fosters a sense of adventure and independence, helps develop a relationship with the outdoors, and insures that there will be future generations that give enough of a shit to take care of the wild places we love.  I toss these ideas down as facts because I believe them to be so, but what I have realized is that taking kids out to experience the mountains is important for a different and somewhat more selfish reason: Kids know how to have fun, and if we pay attention we might be able to learn how to have fun too.

I recently had the chance to go skiing with a group of junior high age students at our local ski hill.  Conditions that day were, perhaps not surprisingly, very windy and the snow was mostly icy hard-pack.  The student that I was spending the day with informed the ski instructor that he was “intermediate” and that he had skied before.  I found this highly unlikely as I spent the day watching him struggle to hold a snowplow, tip over while standing still, completely loose control on numerous occasions, and take a number spectacular, yard sale inducing diggers.  Without a single trace of hyperbole I would say that during the first half of the day this kid spent just as much time flopped down in the snow or tumbling ass-over-teakettle as he did on his skis.

In short, the conditions were less than ideal and this dude was struggling.  What was truly remarkable was that while I’m all but certain I would have quickly devolved into a foul mouthed and fouler tempered recreationalist if I were in his position, the kid picked himself up (with difficulty, and to be honest I usually had to help him), dusted himself off, and kept going with the same absurd grin as he started with.  Despite the conditions on the mountain and his own complete lack of skill, he was having fun.

Riding back to town on the bus, I found myself thinking about how much fun this student had, in spite of sub optimal conditions and somewhat grim performance on the slopes.  He salvaged a day that I could have easily lost to frustration or disappointment.  Following this train of thought, I remembered a day I spent bouldering with my daughter the summer before.  I didn’t have a climbing partner for the day and thought that we could head out together so that I could do an easy bouldering circuit and she could play in the dirt.  It was a simple enough plan in conception.  However, what I failed to take into consideration when making this plan is that I typically neither enjoy nor excel in any way at bouldering.  I remembered this in short order, and after only a few poorly attempted boulder problems I was making excuses to myself for my lack-luster performance and becoming increasingly negative.  At this point I apologized to my daughter for dragging her along on my misadventure and asked if she was bored and ready to go home.  To my surprise she responded that she was having fun throwing pinecones and showed me “a very, very pretty flower!”  While I was loosing myself in goals, ideas, and self-judgment — completely missing the point of spending a day outside, my five-year-old life coach was having a total blast just existing in nature.

I promptly bailed on my bouldering plans for the day, and we spent the rest of our time not even really hiking, but meandering around in the brush.  We followed a deer for about fifteen minutes; something that she later told me was “sooooo fun,” and talked about it for days.  Again, a kid’s outlook salvaged a day that would have all too easily been chalked up as failure by my adult point of view.

In the end I think the lesson that I took away from both these experiences is a simple one.  Simple enough that it feels a little ridiculous to say it: don’t forget to have fun.  Instead of getting wrapped up in performance and conditions, setting a new PR time on a loop, sending a project or mastering a tele-turn, relish in the simple fun of being outside.  Pick flowers, jump off logs, be psyched that you are skiing, even if you’re no good.  Watch kids play outside and try to be more like them, they know how to have fun.

Have fun like a kid.

Have fun like a kid.

Resolutionaries and the Birth of a Weekend Warrior

It’s been a long time since I’ve written, and an even longer time since I’ve finished something and decided to put it up here. But check the date: December 31st, the day people across America are deciding how they are going to make 2014 better than 2013 by throwing down the resolution gauntlet.  A quick, non-exhaustive and unscientific search of the web shows some popular resolutions with the most common by a large margin being weight loss.  Other popular choices include better practicing financial management, working out more, quitting smoking, eating healthier, volunteering, getting a better job, improving relationships, setting aside time for yourself, drinking less, managing stress levels, and traveling.  Another quick search turns up a survey conducted by an East Coast university that reports less than half of “resolutionaries” (a name coined for the vast quantity of new faces I used to see in the gym each January) keep their resolutions past six months.  Not at all inspiring.

Now I myself could make any number of resolutions, any one of which would in theory foster some sort of improvement in 2014.  While weight loss isn’t really my thing, I could certainly work out more.  Financial management? That would be good.  I don’t smoke, but drinking less wouldn’t be a terrible idea.  Volunteering or getting a more lucrative job couldn’t hurt.  I drink an awful lot of coffee; cutting back on that would be a decent idea.  Stress?  I have that, and I would be thrilled to have less of it.  And I know I should write more.  However, the problem with most of these ideas as well as a good many of the other popular resolutions is simple: They suck.  They represent fairly major lifestyle changes, which are all good ideas, but which are also all difficult, ambitious and sometimes ambiguous (How much weight? How much money are you saving? HOW are you going to reduce stress).  I imagine that this is why the attrition rate of resolutionaries is so high.

Now, I wanted to have a resolution for 2014, but I also didn’t think that starting a new year off by setting myself up for failure and disappointment would be all that productive.  Faced with this quandary, I came up with, or rather plagiarized from a co-worker, the following New Year’s Resolution: 52 weekends outside.  Before I explain exactly what I mean by this, I’ll justify my choice.  While I would surely benefit from any of my aforementioned possible resolutions, I feel like I have the most to gain from this one.  Why? Because I like love playing outside.  Why then, do I need to resolve to do it?  I, like many others I’m sure, have fallen into the trap of tricking myself into thinking I’m too busy to do what I really love.  I like to think I’m a goal-oriented person, so if I make pursuing my passions into a real-deal, codified, written-down-on-the-internet-so-it-must-be-true goal, hopefully I can make it happen.

As for the details of this resolution, here is what I propose: In every weekend of 2014, all 52 of them, I will do SOMETHING outside.  For me that could mean a day out cragging, a long trail run, snowshoeing or hiking with my daughter, skiing, a backpacking trip, climbing the Grand, camping at Vedauwoo- any manner of things.  It doesn’t have to be something epic; it can be as simple as a day hike or morning ski tour.  (On that note, things that don’t count: mowing the lawn, riding my bike home from the bar, sitting outside to drink coffee/beer/bourbon…)  My goal is that by choosing this resolution, one that I can actually stick to, I can foster success in other areas of life and implicitly tick some of those other pesky resolutions.  Playing outside is almost always good for your health, sharing the mountains with people you care about builds the strongest relationships I’ve ever known in life, it’s hard to spend money when you’re away from the hustle and flow of life in town, and I can’t think of anything that is better for stress than sun on my face and fresh air in my lungs.

So, here’s to 2014 and 52 weekends outside.  Let’s bring the ruckus.

How Being Sick Reminded Me Just How Good My Life Is

I recently spent ten days or so sick and in bed.  Historically, I’ve been one to blow off illness; pretend it’s not happening, and sooner or later you’ll be better.  Keep running with the cough, climb four days in a row with swollen, infected tonsils—if you can just act as though everything is fine, you still get to have fun and eventually you just get better.  This has always been my strategy, and for the most part it has worked out well enough (although I was admittedly crushed after the tonsillitis climbing trip).

This time, that shit wouldn’t fly.  Maybe it was for all those times when I’ve faked it through whatever bug is ruining everyone else’s day, but this time I got straight up clobbered.  Body wracking cough, high fever, muscle aches that felt like I had spent the day off-widthing then promptly got my ass kicked in a bar fight, night sweats, a headache that kept my head locked in one position.  It was grim, and I couldn’t pretend like it wasn’t happening.  So I sat around inside and did nothing for over a week.  No running.  No climbing.  No bikes.  I sat and watched the weather be beautiful and I was incapable of capitalizing on it.  It didn’t take long for the mental effects of being trapped inside and staying basically stationary to become just as painful as whatever godforsaken illness I was suffering from, maybe even worse.  I was awash in negativity and generally just a grumpy pain in the ass.

After I finally caved and went to the doctor, who was baffled as to what was wrong with me but also somewhat alarmed at my state, I was pumped full of science (read: medicine) and I realized something.  That hell I was trapped in where I was stranded inside and inactive, knowing that the sun was shining and that the rock was dry and the trails were empty, a state that was pissing me off and filling me with negativity, is what everyday life is like for some (maybe even most) people.  I realized that some people have to sit inside and wish they were doing something else maybe five days a week.  What I perceived as my own personal hell might just be what it’s like to sit in a cubicle all day.  This thought terrified me, depressed me, and made me grateful all at the same time.

I was terrified and depressed that people could live like this and that there was a possibility, no matter how remote, that I could potentially end up that way too.

But I quickly remembered that that was not my life.  Thankfully I have the good fortune to feel the sun on my face and the sweat in my eyes more days than most.  So often I am able to get out and do what makes me happy that after only ten days of being kept from that, I longed for everything about the mountains with all that I had.  Even on days that I find myself at work all day with no time to climb or run, I have my ride to and from work, and I look for every possible opportunity to step outside to run an errand or take care of something in another part of the building, always trying to stay in motion.  I know that even when I work full time I’m up and moving most of the day, and always trying to sneak in an after-work run or quick dash out to the crag for evening climbing.

All in all, I suppose what I really learned through the haze of my fever and isolation is that I love living the lifestyle that I live.  I’m happy that I miss everything that I do outside as soon as I can’t do it.  I think that means I might be doing something right.  I want my day-to-day life to enable my passions.  To me, that means that life is good.  When the habit is being out and doing and the exception is opposite, life is good.  I’m on the mend now, which means tomorrow I’ll be tied into the rope again.  And again, that means life is good.

Wyoming Renaissance

It’s been awhile since I last wrote.  At that point I was full of motivation, ready to lay out written word feverishly and in prodigious quantities.  It was not but a couple days after that first post that I stumbled into what was, to date, the closest thing I’ve ever had to a full time job.  So that whole writing thing didn’t happen.

But now public school is out, the sun is shining, and my lawn is dying.  It’s surely summer here in Laramie, and after spending the last three days thoroughly wallowing in the awesomeness of summer at 7200+ feet I find myself once again compelled to write.

Summertime here is, to me, like a sort of renaissance.  After the dark ages of winter when the days are short, it’s always cold, and just being outside (let alone running or climbing) becomes a production; summer arrives in time to remind me why I love this place so much.  The days are long, the town is empty, and when you can go outside to play during the week you’d think that nobody else even realizes that the mountains are there.  There’s not much that I can actually write about this because I think that trying to describe the feeling and experience will most likely result in cumbersome figurative language rife with adjectives that serve only to cheapen and marginalize the experience.  Instead, I’ll just throw down a few ideas that came to mind over the last few days:

Running in the mountains without knowing where you’re going is a great thing to do.

Trying hard hurts and makes you bleed, but is indescribably fun.

One more route or is always a good call, even when you’re tired.

When the trail is good, going a little farther is the right choice.  Always.

Here’s a parting shot:Image

Now go out and play.