Like any Goddard College student, there are three words that have a sort of mystical presence in my life:
Trust the process.
This little sentence is given to new students who are struggling to come to terms with a way of learning that requires them to write an extensive study plan, rather than taking classes and being graded. During my first residency someone found me in tears and at the point of hitchhiking from Vermont back to Nevada, and gave me a hug, patted my back and told me to “trust the process.”
To me, trusting the process means taking the next few steps, even though you don’t have a clear picture of where you’re going.
The photo at the top of this post is of three friends walking along the path at Goddard from the main campus to the library. I’m behind them, because I couldn’t keep up. It had nothing to do with my weight and everything to do with the fact that for the last several years the most exercise I’ve gotten was walking around the grocery store once a week.
Yesterday I took my fourth weekly outdoor walk. And like the other three, it sucked donkey balls. It was not fun. It was not joyful. It was cold and windy and hard and miserable. I had to coax myself, ten steps at a time, to finish the first mile–which is always uphill and for some reason always with the wind blowing directly into my face. My legs felt like two huge lead pipes, heavy and inflexible. And the worst part of the walk is on the highway, where dozens of cars full people drive by and see me struggling. Some stop to make sure I don’t need help.
I had to fight this kind of panicky feeling that I was wasting my time. If a mile–one single mile–is this hard, how can I ever do the things I want to do?
At the end of the mile I can see the dirt road up ahead that is 1.6 miles from my house. If I walk there and then back home, I’ll walk an outdoor 5K. It would be not so hard. It’s straight downhill. But then I think about having to walk back up again and nearly breakdown.
I turned around to come home instead. The second mile is always easier. It’s downhill with the wind at my back. But I’m exhausted by time I start it and I just want to be home. So imagine my joy when I see Kevin turning in our car down a side street a hundred yards ahead of me. He’d picked up Ruby from school and gone the long way home so that they could see me on my walk. He’ll drive me home! A mile was enough for today. There is zero doubt in my mind that I’ll get in the car. I can feel the relief in my legs already. I waved. He didn’t see me.
I’d gone further than he expected me to, and he didn’t look in the rear view mirror for me. So I walk home.
And realize that I just walked 2 miles in 39 minutes. Slightly faster than 3 mph. Definitely faster than any walk I’ve taken thus far. It took me 45 minutes to walk 2 miles at the gym earlier this week. On the treadmill I slow down long before I feel the way I do on my outdoor walks.
I take off my coat and open a window because I’m so hot now I feel like I’m burning up. I feel the pings in my leg muscles that mean that I’ve worked them just right. I love those pings. They are one of the things I miss the most from my younger, very athletic days. I also miss the feeling of knowing that I’d worked as hard as I could, physically. And reaching a personal best time? Euphoric. Those are the rewards for the misery during the actual work.
It’s hard not to let how difficult it is to walk 2 miles off of a treadmill (much harder than even walking a 5K on a treadmill) get me down. The voice is hard to shut up. It says, not even quietly, what are you doing? You shouldn’t be doing this. You’re never going to be comfortable doing this. I reminded myself that my first outdoor walk, I could only go about half a mile before I had to turn around and literally limp home wishing I had my phone so I could call Kevin to come get me. This time it didn’t start to suck until about 3/4 of a mile in and I didn’t limp at all. While most of the walk was not fun, it also didn’t hurt the way that the other three did. That helped.
As I was trying to focus myself to get through my walk yesterday, I thought about how this was my process. That taking a crappy, horrible, awful walk once a week is what I have to go through to get stronger. And that if I trust that the walks will get easier as I get stronger, then these first several are worth it.
I’ve had this process before. I can still remember my first few serious swimming workouts. Two straight hours of swimming laps. It took me months to be able to do it without feeling like I was going to die. My coach let me leave early the first day and told me it wouldn’t happen again. I had to decide to return the next day knowing that I would be expected to finish that day’s work, even though it would not be fun.
It got easier, and pushing harder to get faster was never as difficult as going from zero to being able to comfortably swim for two straight hours.
I’m still figuring all this stuff out. And I’m still working on decoupling exercise from weight loss. Most of the time I do well with it. Most of the time, when I move it feels amazing and I know that I want to do it, even if I never lose a pound. But once a week, I push harder–past the point of pure fun–and those are the times when I have to sort through my head and decide why pushing hard to get stronger is different from punishing my body for being fat.
Those are the moments when I have to have a little bit of blind trust of the process. I have to believe that in the end, it is different. Because I don’t think there is any other way from here to triathlons or roller derby or hikes at Lake Tahoe or any of the other things I really want to do. I have to train myself to be able to exercise outdoors, to be able to work as hard as I can for an hour or so at a time, and I have to trust that the training to do that is not the same as beating myself up to lose weight.
Here’s the difference, maybe: I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to push myself to the point of muscle pings and knowing I’ve worked as hard as I could. I could do much less and still improve my health. I could even choose not to improve my health.
And another difference: when I walk outside, on those weekly awful walks, I’m not thinking about size 10 jeans to motivate myself. I’m hearing a different voice, one that says, “Shaunta Alburger, you are an Ironwoman.”
I have permission from myself to turn around and go home. Or call my husband to come get me. I don’t, because I’m an athlete. And I’m an athlete because I want to be. I’m willing to go through the process involved with being one.