To Keep Moving Forward: How Doing Hard Things Can Help Us Heal

The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much, and forgetting that you are special too.

– Ernest Hemingway

I left the Bay Area. I left thinking that I needed to find a way to not be someone who trusts people so easily, who bends so willingly to make people happy, and who gives people second, third and fourth chances. I thought those things were weaknesses that left me too vulnerable and too easily hurt. I came to Costa Rica to escape the cycle, to take a break from my life and to figure out how to turn myself into a stronger person.

I came to a small town on the Pacific coast of Guanacaste. I ran on the beach, swam in the warm ocean water, and let the sun heal my broken heart. But after a few weeks I needed to do something to fill the empty spaces that were still there. I needed to feel something new. I flipped through my guidebook and came across the section on Cerro Chirripó. It said most people would take two to three days to hike Chirripó, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica, staying in a basecamp five kilometers from the summit. I decided to run up, and down, Chirripó in a single day.

Mountains

The entire trail, there and back, would be 40 kilometers. I’d gain 3,000 meters in elevation on the ascent alone. And the summit was at 3,820 meters.

I’d been running at sea level for weeks, and the heat had kept my runs on the short side. Sure, I’d climbed some hills in Guanacaste, but I wouldn’t call that “training” for this particular challenge. And even before coming to Costa Rica, the furthest I’d run in maybe a year was fifteen miles. But none of that mattered.

A few days later I rented a car and drove to San Gerarldo de Rivas where I’d booked a room in a small hotel. I used all the Spanish I knew to finally find the Chirripó National Park Office to get a pass to enter the park. And that night I went to bed at 7pm, listening to rain pattering, then pouring, on the roof as a storm passed through. I woke up around midnight and made some instant coffee, ate a few cookies, and tried to rest for a little longer. At 1am I got dressed and walked outside. After a few steps from the hotel, I was engulfed by darkness.

 

Related: Learning the Language of the Mountains

 

Walking up the hill I could still see flashes of lightening in the distance. The trail was muddy. Really muddy. I could only see a few feet in front of me, so it was nearly impossible to pick out the least slippery side of the trail as I began trudging up the mountain. I slipped all over the place. I’d take a few steps and then have to turn back to get to the higher side of the trail to avoid impassable mud puddles. To call this first part of the run “slow-going” would be an understatement. I was soon covered in mud.

Every kilometer on the Chirripó trail is marked. I’m sure they thought this was a great idea, but I hated it. Those were the longest kilometers ever. And I could never forget how far I still had to go. I wanted to turn back. I wanted to go back to bed. I wanted to watch TV. I ate a few sport beans, drank some water and kept going. I told myself,

The only thing I have to do today is keep moving forward.

A whole day with only one thing to do. No one was expecting me. I didn’t have anywhere else to be except on that trail putting one foot in front of the other. I kept moving forward.

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I was already above the tree line by the time the sun started coming up and the sounds of birds filled the air. Even though I was pretty high at this point (8,000 feet or so), the running was easier. It was dry and rolling, rather than muddy and steep. It was actually the best running of the whole day, until I got to the last big climb before the basecamp. As I started up, my head began hurting. I took some advil, drank some water, and ate some potatoes and cookies. I hadn’t been at elevation in weeks, but I hadn’t had altitude sickness in years.

That last climb was killer and at the top you’re above 10,000 feet and you can feel it every foot of elevation. Even if you don’t have a headache, the air is thin and breathing is hard. I was starting to feel lightheaded. The only thing I had to do was keep moving forward.

The last five kilometers of the trail to the summit are beautiful. Its slopes are gentle and it follows a little creek for a ways. I ran a little, but my footing was unsteady and my head was still hurting. I had moments of dizziness. I kept moving forward at the quickest pace I could manage: slowly.

 

Related: A Glimpse from the Tallest Mountain in the Americas

 

Finally I crested a hill and saw the peak, a Costa Rican flag waving at the top. At that point there were other people on the trail who’d started that morning from the basecamp. A group from the States heading back down reassured me that I didn’t have far to go. I’m sure I looked haggard. I hadn’t had a night to acclimate to the altitude and had already been on the trail for over 6 hours. I drank some water and kept moving forward.

The climb to the summit is a steep little scramble. Maybe second class. Why was I using my hands to steady myself? I’m a rock climber! But by this point I was getting more light headed and unsteady. “It’s fine,” I told myself,

use your hands, but just keep moving forward.

When I got to the summit no one else was there. I wanted to cry and scream and jump up and down. But I didn’t. I was only at the halfway point.

I stayed there for a while, watching the clouds whip around me in the wind, catching glimpses of the valleys and mountains below as they parted and then came back together. I sat down and took it all in. I’d made it this far, but I had to keep moving forward.

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As I started down I realized I was feeling better. Maybe it was the food or just the rush from reaching the summit, I don’t know. But I could run again. I ran past several people I’d seen on the way up. I ran past the Americans who’d reassured me I was almost there. I took one more look at where I’d been, then I turned and kept going forward, heading back to where I’d started.

The run down the mountain was, for the most part, more fun than the run up it. My headache went away and even the steep downhills seemed doable. I just had to keep moving forward. But I was sick of potatoes and cookies and sport beans. I wanted waffles and vegetables and a beer. The muddy trail was easier to navigate in the daylight, but the bugs were out in full force. I had to run just so they wouldn’t bite me.

I started timing myself, trying to run each kilometer a little faster than the previous one. And this kept me occupied for a while, until I glanced up and saw a face in a tree. I stopped and stared for a long time, not believing I was seeing a sloth. It was too high to take a picture of it, but it was a sloth. Wasn’t it? I wanted it to move so I could be certain. I waited and waited. It might have moved, I don’t know. I remembered hearing on Planet Earth or somewhere that sloths move so little and so slowly that plants actually grow on them. I was wasting my time. It had to be a sloth. And I had to keep moving forward.

The last 5 kilometers of the run were hell. Everything hurt. I could tell that I’d lost at least one toenail and it was throbbing in my shoe. My knees and quads felt wobbly from the miles and miles of steep descent. I couldn’t even think about potatoes anymore. But I was so close. The only thing I had to do was keep moving forward. I started counting each step outloud and after a little while, the counting became rhythmic and meditative and pushed everything else out of my mind. Until finally I was back where I started.

 

Related: The Alpenglow Meditation

 

No one was there. No one cheered. No one even asked what I’d done that day when I got back to my hotel covered in mud and sweat and bug bites. I wanted to tell the guy who sold me a bar of soap that I’d just run up and down Chirripo. I wanted to tell the bartender who handed me a beer that I’d just done this crazy thing all by myself. When the waitress brought me a big bowl of pasta and vegetables I wanted to tell her that I felt like something was different. That I was euphoric and that I was changed. But no one asked and all I said was

gracias.

I don’t know that I will ever have the words for the intensity of this experience. For how proud I was of myself for pushing through the pain, the sleepiness, the darkness, the altitude sickness. How far from fun that run was, but how incredibly happy I was after finishing it. Something amazing happens when you push the limits of what your mind and body can handle. It strips you bare. It leaves you utterly exposed and allows you to know yourself in a way you never could have otherwise.

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And at some point that day, something shifted within me. All I had done for thirteen hours was move forward, even when it was hard and I didn’t want to and everything hurt. And that’s what life is all about. We just have to keep moving forward, even when it’s painful. Maybe especially then. That’s the only thing we have to do. And sometimes, like on Chirripó, you end up right back where you started, but you are different when you get back there.

The thing that I realized when everything was stripped away from me on that run was that this is the person I am. But I am not weak. I can be someone who is open to people and who bends for them and who believes the best about them even after I’ve been hurt, and still be strong and independent and capable. Because this is who I am. And I can climb mountains.

 

Related: In Search of New Mountains (From Yosemite to Denali)

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