I live in a small mountain town with access to a wealth of outdoor recreation. Before I moved here, I imagined "outdoorsy" as, perhaps, going on hikes once in a while. I had a vague understanding people did things like backpacked in the woods and rock climbed and biked trails and kayaked rivers. That was about it.
The naïveté can hardly be overstated.
Mountain towns like mine attract a certain breed. As I settled in, I was quickly awakened to a veritable buffet of athletic feats.
Years into living in the west and into my own journey as an outdoor athlete, I'm still very much a student of what's possible. I continue peeling back layers, astonished at what I learn is possible year after year. It's inspiring to be in proximity to such incredibly motivated, knowledgable, and accomplished people of the wilderness. It's also, at times, pretty intimidating.
Although I've developed a wide range of skills and experiences, I feel pretty firmly average in an exceptional place like this.
It's hard not to get caught up in that. Do I really belong? Am I "legit" enough, whatever that means? Do my experiences and passions amount to anything?
Unspoken assumptions course through my subconscious: more technical is better. More skills in more sports is better. More complicated and hazardous is better. No one will take you seriously unless you raise the stakes continuously. As a woman, it's easy to feel like I'm already at a deficit of legitimacy when it comes to sport and the outdoors. I'm hyper-conscious of the ways in which I feel I have to work harder to earn credibility and legitimacy in outdoorsy circles.
It's a swirling stew of imposter syndrome, the comparison trap, and a pinch of ego.
Yes, it's on me that others' accomplishments can sometimes feel like a judgment on my own. It's on me that I feel pressure to prove myself.
On the one hand, nobody's actually saying those things to me.
On the other hand, looking around me, it can feel like the culture kind of does say those things.
As I wrote in my last post, there's a strong tendency in outdoor culture to laud those who exhibit specific traits and a certain style. The culture gravitates toward the stories and social feeds of those with accomplishments at the fringe of human performance in the most demanding environments. We filter different athletic pursuits and stories through a pre-determined rubric of what constitutes better and more respectable. And sometimes, it's easy to feel a little left behind.
When the outdoors is a passion, it's natural to want to conform to the existing norms and play by those rules. We're social creatures, and so of course we might want to be considered valid and successful in the spaces that matter to us.
It's easy to see how that can quickly devolve into appeasing our ego and doing things for questionable, half-baked reasons. I've been guilty of this, certainly. The knee-jerk reactions happen so fast, I sometimes don't even realize what impulse I'm reacting to until later.
Would I want to run 100 miles because I want the problem-solving, soul-searching experience of running to the very edges of my capacity? Or because it's the thing to do, some sort of mandatory checkbox for "true" ultra runners?
Would I want to mountaineer because I want to interact with those particular wild spaces? Or do I just assume that sport in harsher, more dangerous environments makes a statement about my legitimacy as an athlete?
It's also true that learning new skills can open up whole new worlds and ways of interacting with our environment that wouldn't otherwise be possible. Stretching ourselves out of our comfort zone can be an edifying, rewarding process. I'm certainly not here to say that expanding our repertoire as athletes is in any way a negative thing.
Rather, I'm working on pausing and examining my own intentions before I take steps toward a new goal. I'm striving to create more space for myself to opt out of something because, for whatever reason, it just don't stir my soul. It's ok to express a relationship with nature that doesn't look like something faster, stronger, riskier.
Developing an identity as an athlete and outdoor recreation enthusiast is a tricky maze of self-reflection. Articulation of and alignment to your values is a continuous process, not a one-and-done task. It's not only about finding your "why", but about defending that "why" against the scope creep of messages that sneak in below the level of consciousness.
And in the midst of it all, regardless of whatever level of intensity you decide to opt into or out of, your story and your experiences matter.