It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m hovering approximately 20 feet above a small crowd of people I’ve just met. OK, I’m not actually hovering—it’s more like a dangle of sorts, attached to a complex system of ropes in the middle of Castle Rock State Park in northern California. I’m a first-time climber, but thanks to a friendly climbing guide, I know what I’m supposed to be doing: Find the crevices in the earth that I can use—along with the intense grip of my climbing shoes—to pull me higher. Unfortunately, at the moment, I’m motionless, paralyzed by fear… and the slight hangover that’s been plaguing me all morning.
Realistically, I know I’m not in danger: I'm in a climbing harness, shoes, and helmet, and the intricate belaying system is secure and already proved its strength earlier when I lost my grip. Instead of falling to my death, I only skidded several inches lower. Despite this awareness, I have an incredible urge to give up. My head is pounding, my muscles are aching, and the ground below seems very, very far away.
If you’re wondering why I’m surrounded by strangers in the middle of the woods, hungover, literally hanging by a thread (a very durable, incredibly thick thread, but a thread nonetheless), it’s because I couldn’t pass up an invitation to the CamelBak Pursuit Series. The adventure-filled weekend in Sanborn Park is designed to give adventure-curious people like myself the opportunity to dip their toes into the vast world of the outdoors—like adventure sports, wilderness survival skills, and, blessedly, portable coffee.
I consider myself an active person: I’ve run marathons, finished an Ironman, and am a run coach. So when the call of the wild came, I answered it from with a resounding "YES!"—even if it meant living without the social crux of WiFi or a decent phone connection for three days.
At the moment, though, my stoked-ness levels are not so high. I’m feeling the repercussions of a three-hour time change, a happy hour the previous evening, and a 5:30 am wake-up call for a surfing expedition. The negative self-talk unravels: You can’t do this. Why did you drink so many beers last night? You should just ask to come down and not show your face for the rest of the day.
A voice from below snaps me out of my trance: "You got this, girl!"
I recognize Kimmy’s voice—one of the recent-strangers in my expedition group, with whom I chatted briefly during the mile-ish hike from our drop-off point at the park to the climbing base. I respond with a groan. My arms are quivering and small beads of sweat are starting to trickle from my armpits, though I’m unsure whether they stem from work or fear.
I’m still thinking of asking to come down. After all, unlike my coveted marathons and triathlons, there’s no prize or medal at the top of this climb. Without a Verizon signal, there will be no photos captured for Instagram, either. And to top it all off, none of these onlookers actually know me, meaning I can return to the East Coast and simply pretend this surrender never happened.
Proving myself—to loved ones, acquaintances, and now onlookers on social media—has always been important to me. Checking off boxes, bringing home awards, publishing bylines, crossing finish lines, and racking up heart-shaped notifications on Instagram makes me feel validated. Exactly what it is I’m proving is unclear, however: Maybe that I have something to show for my 28 years of life, or that I’m someone worth paying attention to. Maybe, more simply, that I am enough.
It’s easy to fall into validation-seeking traps, posting our accomplishments online, showing one glossy facade after another, asking for approval from friends and strangers—all while refusing to reveal anything less than stellar. This undertaking is deceiving, misleading, and an inaccurate portrayal of life, but we continue to do it, literally filtering our lives.
Sharing a photo of my successful climb would only reveal the parts of my life where rugged excursions, new friends, and adventure are involved. In real life, I also make mistakes, I’m introverted and shy, I have one too many beers sometimes, I question my worth—but I never post any of that on Instagram.
Before I submit to my pathetic thoughts, my belayer and a few others begin to echo Kimmy’s sentiments, relaying words of encouragement. I think again about how they don’t know me, and instead of seeing an out this time, I see opportunity.
If this random crowd can believe in me, don’t I owe it to myself to believe in me too?
I decide I do. Using my left leg as a launching point, I reach for a higher, seemingly unattainable crevice. I brace myself for the slip of grip and a subsequent slide, but instead, I find myself a little bit higher. With each reach and pull, I gain another couple of inches, which soon become feet. Before I know it, I’ve reached the top. Below, my new support group cheers.
Though different from my typical feats, this climb was by far the most challenging thing I had done in months—and the most rewarding. There’s no hard evidence of my experience, and there never will be—but I’ll never forget how the small success made me feel. I may not have had anything to prove, but I had everything to gain.
Pictures may be worth a thousand words (and often hundreds of "likes"), but there’s also something to be said about the feeling of doing something for you, and only you. And I may be going out on a limb here—or rock crevice (pun intended)—but it might be infinitely more rewarding.
Erin Kelly is a writer, triathlete and RRCA-certified run coach living in New York City. Her talents include waking up insanely early to create room for more activities, running long distances, and authoring The Runner Diaries, an ongoing series featuring the trials and tribulations of life as a runner at every level and age group. Head to her personal website, Running From My Problems, for more musings, insight, and running advice.