Someone has to go first. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, about the experiences I’ve had outdoors in the water and in the mountains. I’ve been thinking about my friends who have dared to dream, who are now role models for others because they decided to take the first step into the unknown. Whether or not the goal was accomplished, taking the first step, choosing to go first in many respects is equally as important as the goal itself.
As I learn more about the forest and the mountains, entrenching myself with things that are new and make me uncomfortable, it’s really forcing me to think. I’m using my brain to make decisions, weigh the pros and cons, and evaluate risk in ways that I haven’t really done a lot of since I first started down my marathon swim journey.
When I first started swimming, everything was new. I didn’t know a lot about tides, currents, and sea life. I would sit on many occasions, look at the water, watch how it was behaving, and compare it to my research I had done the night before on location, hazards and approaching weather and wind. I assessed everything and made a decision based on my comfort level on which direction I would swim, internal check-points for time limits, emergency exit plans, and all the other little things that run through your mind. I still do this to some degree today with new bodies of water, but I’m a lot less risk adverse when it comes to the water because I’m so much more knowledgeable now of what to look for, about myself, and my own comfort level. I still proceed with caution, but my comfort boundary has moved, my outer limit has shifted, I am able to make decisions a lot quicker, and differently than I did before.
With hiking, the forest and the mountains, this is all new. There’s things to be aware of in these places that the water doesn’t have. There’s movement in the earth unlike the water where you have to be largely responsible for your own stability. There isn’t a body of water around you to protect you. Knees give out, rocks fall, feet slip, tree branches break, boulder grips break, the earth gives way. Then there’s weather and storms, which are much more real on the mountain than in the water because when you’re up there, you’re exposed to the elements in a whole new way. In swimming you can generally get out of the water at some point because you’re never truly that far from land or a boat onto which you can exit (or at least you shouldn’t be). In the forest and mountains, you’re just there and you have to deal with what the sky and winds decide to give you.
I think about this and reflect of my recent hike to Lake 22, among many. When I got to the lake, there was heavy snow and small avalanches cascading down the rock wall of Mount Pilchuck on the opposite end of the lake. Other hikers got there before me, about a dozen or so. They stopped at the bridge to take some pictures, which I did too because after all, it was gorgeous! But none of them started the trek around the lake. Why weren’t they going? Did they know something I didn’t? Am I that inexperienced where I’m blind to the reasons they aren’t making their way around? Why did they come all this way not to go around?
My inexperience caused me to question it for a moment and I didn’t have snowshoes (which seem all the rage), but I went anyway and then got to a point where I had to make a real decision. The shoe prints had faded away from the hikers the day before. I didn’t know exactly where the trail was or where it went. I could tell by the crevasses if the snow was weak and I fell through, it was at least 4ft down, but on to what? I didn’t know what was under the snow and if I veered off the trail onto a rocky area and fell through there was a real risk of breaking my ankle or leg.
I sat by the water…. well, more like ice’s edge…. under the sun and thought. I weighed my decisions, tried to think of all the unknowns that could happen, all that I didn’t know, and if something bad happened what I would do (since I left my InReach at home and I was alone – this is where, dad, you pretend you didn’t read that). Honestly, there was more negative for sure than positive, but then I saw something across the lake at the base of the mountain. After sitting for nearly an hour trying to make a decision and being that person who takes a million pictures of the same rock and tree, the sun moved and I saw what I thought was a several days old mostly melted set of footprints. These footprints, despite the obvious and rational move not to go made me realize, someone has to go first and so I went.
Sure, I wasn’t the first person ever (obviously), but I was the first person that day. Over a dozen other hikers were there before me and no one left the picture bridge. I took every step with caution for the mile or two around the lake, I made some mistakes, I post holed a few times up to my waist, but I never felt scared or in danger. I was happy and excited. I listed to the sound of dripping snow carefully planting each step. My senses were heightened, I was more aware and more in tune with my surroundings than I’ve been in months. Everything was better than I imagined all because I went first.
Maybe my aversion to risk I built from marathon swimming subconsciously altered my own perception of risk holistically. It took me over an hour to get around, but I made it and loved every minute of wondering if I made the right decision, of wondering if I made a smart decision. My decision may not have been for everyone, but it was the right one for me and as I reached the other side, I saw two others who followed my trail to the same spot I sat. I stopped, watched them and wondered if they were thinking the same thing I was.
They turned around, but just as they turned another couple came out from behind a pine tree cluster. The four talked for a while, they pointed to the tracks I had made, pointed to me across the lake and I waved. They waved back and the second couple proceeded forward. Someone had to go first that day. Someone paved the way for me days prior and I was able to pave the way for others that day who may not have gone otherwise. While Lake 22 wasn’t a monumental feat by any means, it was a milestone for me and my journey to hike-in backcountry swimming (though on this trip I only dipped a toe…. Spring is almost here, right)?!
I was really proud of myself for making the decision to go first, to do it with caution yet with wonder and enjoyment. Yet it got me thinking of all the things we don’t do, the goals we don’t set, the courage we don’t think we have just because we don’t know anyone who went first. What if we chose to be that person? What ideas and goals would others think to accomplish if we all took a little more risk, decided to challenge our perception of what is unknown, and took that first step to see what would happen?
Being a Triple Crown Swimmer is a feeling, a sense of accomplishment more than a title. It’s important to me in many ways, but specifically now as I start something new. I didn’t personally know anyone who swam the English Channel when I decided I wanted to do it, but I assessed and evaluated the risks and said yes, I’m going to go first of my group of friends. Along the way I met people who had swam it who told me about the Triple Crown, that no female currently living in the state of Washington or from my home state of Michigan has accomplished the feat. Someone has to go first and I’m going to be that person.
Because of this, I’ve met so many people who decided to take their own first steps and swim to the lighthouse, to do their first channel attempt, to take the wetsuit off for the first time, to enter into their first US Masters swim meet, to swim across Lake Sammamish, to swim on the other side of the lighthouse, or simply to get into the water for the first time. I’ve also met people who have ran their first mile, got on the treadmill for the first time, ran their first 10K, marathon and ultra. What’s great about choosing to go first is that you are able to help others form their own ideas of what they want to do, where they want to go (sometimes quite literally), and how they get there.
I’m really proud of my accomplishments, but equally proud of having the ability and the courage to choose to go first. However, I could not have done it without someone else choosing to go before me and meeting the amazing people I’ve met along the way. These people paved the path enabling me to form my own ideas about what I want to do with swimming and beyond. My boundaries are constantly changing, bringing new challenges and adventures, just as the tide brings new water and with the wind comes new air. If you’ve been thinking about a goal or wondering if you should do something, take a moment to stop and evaluate. Are you hesitating because the path is a few days old, overgrown or not traveled? Someone has to go first, it might as well be you.