Yesterday, I conquered my fears and completed the Grouse Grind for the second time. It had been over two years since my first (and only) grind back in June 2013. For those who don’t know, the Grind is considered a Vancouver classic hike, almost a rite of passage. It consists of a 2.9km (1.8 mile) steep climb up the side of Grouse Mountain. Despite its short length, it packs a punch. Nicknamed “nature’s staircase,” the grind contains a whopping 2,830 stairs and involves an elevation gain of 853 metres (2,800 feet). It’s a brutal cardio session that can only loosely be defined as a hike, more closely resembling an outdoor stair-master session. The hike is so steep and narrow in some places that hiking back down the trail is forbidden (you instead take a gondola ride back to the ground from the summit). In short, it’s a rough trek.
When I first moved to Vancouver, I was intent on making new friends fast to create a new life for myself. The easiest path seemed clear—I needed to befriend my new coworkers. A traditional way to bond with new coworkers when working for the company is to go on what we affectionately refer to as “sweat dates,” where pairs or groups of friends go exercise together. This was the context within which I experienced my first grind. I was beyond excited. It had actually been a lululemon-produced video celebrating the first grind of the Summer 2012 season that first planted the seed within me that I wanted to move to Vancouver, so participating in the Grouse Grind was high on my list of must-do’s. My new coworkers wanted to make sure that I knew what I was in for. As an avid hiker, I assured them that I would be fine and wasn’t concerned. Getting out into nature and hiking is one of my favorite ways to practice mindfulness and I was pumped to already be exploring the hiking that Vancouver had to offer a mere few days after my move.
My first grind was simply a complete disaster. Not long after the “warmup” section, I was wheezing my way through each step, the repetitive motions already creating a bit of burn in my leg muscles. I kept going, with a goal to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s when I reached the 1/4 way mark and my heart sank. I hadn’t been aware there would be markers like this and was secretly hoping it was already at least half over. It became abundantly clear that I had overestimated my ability and underestimated the task at hand. I had also made the severe mistake of (unbenownst to me) choosing two of the fittest, most competitive athletes out of my pool of new coworkers to hike with. I assured them that I would be fine and sent them on ahead, committing myself to finish the brutal trek solo with my brutal negativity riding shotgun. It was horrible. I was so ashamed and so mad at myself for my shortcomings. Every time I took a short break, I felt like a failure. Every time someone came from behind and passed me, I felt worthless. I let it crush me emotionally. It took me what felt like half a lifetime to get to the top but eventually I made it, face red and swollen and back drenched in a thick layer of sweat, to rendezvous with my coworkers who had been relaxing at the summit cafe without me. I laughed it off in the moment but that hot burn of embarrassment is a feeling I can still remember today.
Safe to say, I wasn’t plotting my return to the grind anytime soon. It had bested me, and marked the beginning of my descent into a minor depression upon moving to Vancouver. I was so focused on how long it had taken me to reach the top, my horrible time (about an hour and a half), and assuming I’d made such a bad first impression on these new friends of mine that I couldn’t even celebrate the fact that I did it and made it to the top despite the hardships. In many ways, it was a perfect metaphor for my struggles making the transition into my new life in Canada—I expected it to be easier, felt extremely discouraged and overwhelmed to learn that I was struggling, and wasn’t ready to embrace the vulnerability involved in admitting to that disconnect. From that day forward, the grind loomed large in my mind as a reminder of my failures.
And then came Chris. Chris and I worked together at lululemon and we bonded over our initial struggle in moving to Vancouver and trying to carve out a place for ourselves at lulu lemon’s flagship store. Despite the fact that we haven’t been coworkers for almost a year and a half, we’ve kept in good touch since. As a passionate Grinder, Chris has been encouraging me to come with him for a grind every time we get together. I I oscillated between a polite decline or evasively promised a maybe for months, not ready to return to the emotionally traumatic experience of my first grind; however, when we got together last Friday for a catch up breakfast, I heard the word yes tumble out of my mouth. Shocked, all I could do was nod when a beaming Chris said that Tuesday he’d pick me up at 8am and that he was excited to finally get me on the grind.
As Tuesday neared, the panic began. I was worried about repeating my traumatic experience, this time with an actual good friend. Chris knew I exercised frequently; what would he think if I took forever to get up the grind? As an avid grinder, would he wait for me? Should I assure him that I’d be fine and send him off up the mountain to make sure he wouldn’t be mad at me for holding him back? Basically, my “not good enough” alarm was sounding and I was terrified of embarrassing myself; however, I knew I had to bite the bullet and do it. I’d spent too long letting fear keep me from getting back on the horse. I knew that this time around my expectations were managed and I was in a better overall emotional space, now that I was more settled into my life in Vancouver. I’ve also been back into the practice of consistently doing yoga again and—while not great cross training for the intense cardio of the grind—I knew that the practice of mindfulness and breathing techniques would probably help me out.
Tuesday morning had arrived. While it had rained all through Monday, Tuesday boasted a few clouds but was overall sunny which I took as a good omen for the day. Chris picked me up and we headed out to North Vancouver. I was a bundle of nerves but I found myself pleasantly excited to finally be trying this for a second time. I knew it couldn’t possibly be as bad as last time and I placated my fears by repeating that assurance over and over again in my head like a mantra as we reached the trailhead and began the hike. The physical exertion was just as difficult as I remembered. This time I made it a point to focus on mindfulness the entire time, recognizing that one of the biggest challenges last time was my mental game. I felt my heart pounding rapidly in my chest. I felt my breath coming fast and jagged as I made a conscious effort to take deeper, slower breaths. I felt the sweat beginning to pool beneath my backpack. In short, I celebrated the fact that I felt alive. This made all the difference in the world. I concentrated on making my breathing as even as possible and I allowed myself to take breaks when I felt like I needed them, forgiving myself for needing to stop. I let others pass me without cursing myself and my inability to keep up with the average pace, instead recognizing that everyone is different. I recognized the strength in my body’s ability to quickly drop my heart rate back down to normal within minutes of taking a pause. I was alive. I was healthy. Best of all, I had showed up.
The difference between my mental game on Grind 1 and Grind 2 was night and day. I felt stronger, happier, prouder, and more calm. I was at ease despite the physical exertion. The ache in my legs didn’t serve as an example of my inabilities but rather as an exciting demonstration of the fact that I was pushing out of my comfort zone on a journey to bettering myself. I was slow, but I was steady. I stopped less frequently than I wanted to, only when I felt my body sending me signals that I needed to take a second to recover and rehydrate. It was slow going and uncomfortable, but I was proud of myself the whole way through. Chris was obviously more adjusted to the Grind and would frequently venture further ahead, but he always paused and waited for me to catch up. I let go of the fear that he would feel I was holding him back, choosing instead to trust him when he said I was doing great and that he was happy I had come. He served as a motivator to push myself a bit further and faster than my brain was begging me to go and I was able to keep myself from comparing my abilities to his own, a piece of my downfall on my first trek up the grind.
Finally, we were at the top--I had made it. Chris had been tracking the time and while I had told myself it didn’t matter, I found myself fixated on him as he checked his watch to report we’d made it up the grind in just about an hour and a half. My heart sank. As much progress as I’d made in keeping positive through this process, I’d been secretly hoping for closer to 1:15 or 1:20 and to beat my last grind time. But then I stopped myself. I realized fixating on the time was irrelevant and unfair. I had just sullied the moment I’d worked so hard for over the last hour and a half. I took a deep breath in and breathed out those expectations. I had finally showed up, faced my fears, and made it up the mountain.
In life, that’s really all you can do. You recognize when you have a pit in your stomach of something unknown or something you fear and you force yourself to confront it. We have these little moments in our day to day all the time. We are creatures of habit, gaining confidence through comfort, through building connections and maintaining them. The true growth always lurks on the other side of the difficult struggles, but we can’t selectively numb. In order to experience the true joys of self discovery, we have to enter into the arena and fight our demons and our insecurities head-on. In the end, no one would want to settle for living a comfortable life if they knew the version of themselves that waited on the other side of the risks and struggles. We must do our part to face our fears, not worry so much about how others will perceive us, and measure our success by a factor of which we have total control—our ability to love and forgive ourselves and celebrate our own victories. While I don’t think I’ll become a regular Grinder anytime soon, I’m glad to have a happy memory on which to concentrate when I consider my trek up the mountain. Sometimes, that makes all the difference.