Tag: Body Image

My One-Year OCT Anniversary

My One-Year OCT Anniversary

Today marks one year since my completion of the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT), a 367-mile journey the entire length of the Oregon coast.

A year ago, I hiked 14 miles from Gearhart to Fort Stevens with my dad to complete my south-to-north journey on the Oregon Coast Trail. A year ago, I stood at the South Jetty Observation Tower in Fort Stevens State Park with my parents, overlooking the confluence of the mighty Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. A year ago, we had a meaningful yet quiet celebration before I unceremoniously fell asleep on the couch around 8 pm in our hotel room.

OCT Finish
I hiked the final 14 miles of the trail with my dad and my mom met us at the finish. She presented me with a thoughtful gift: This custom-made medal! © Naomi Denekas

A year ago, I felt that I had both completed and begun something. Accordingly, I was hoping that this anniversary would bring a renewed sense of pride and an opportunity to reflect upon a year well-spent.

My feelings on the matter, however, are much more complicated.

I will be bluntly honest: I have cried a lot today and yesterday.

I feel like I wasted the fitness I had built up on the trail. I had originally planned to run a marathon in late 2017, and to backpack a lot. I didn’t.

I feel devastated that I have STILL not found a job, nearly a year after interviewing at a nonprofit that I used to fastidiously volunteer for. It was May 10, 2017. I remember because I had to rush back from long-overdue family time on the coast for an early morning interview slot that they insisted upon. I found out during the interview itself that it wasn’t going to work out. Job hunting since then has been fruitless and discouraging.

Above all, I feel like I should be stronger than this. Wasn’t my time on the trail supposed to be about healing and getting myself ready to face my life again? What is with all this crying and metaphorical paralysis? What will it take to get me to feel functional and capable again?

Some of this speaks to the post-trail blues that many thru-hikers face. Finding a new path, and finding success on it, can be daunting after putting your heart and soul into a singular goal for so long. Then you have to factor in the loss of the daily endorphin boost of hiking several miles with a huge pack – and, in the case of the OCT, no longer hearing the daily exhalations of waves and wind, which were a balm for my seething thoughts.

Tiny House in Seal Rock
My AirBnB in Seal Rock, while on the OCT. This tiny house was simple yet beautiful, and a welcome break from camping in the rain. Aside from wanting to keep hiking and all, I desperately wanted to just live here! I still kind of do… © Jenni Denekas

In contrast, the city is loud, jarring, and not at all like the small towns and secluded campsites of the trail. It also felt so odd to return to a closet bursting with clothes, after spending 45 days with two outfits. Accordingly, I have pared down my possessions and sold or donated a lot of clothing and extraneous items. Similarly, it feels odd to be in a spacious apartment after tents and tiny homes and cheap motel rooms. I am thankful to have my own space, but it feels strange nevertheless.

It has taken me a while to adjust, and honestly I don’t know if I will ever fully reintegrate into city life. Part of me is still on the OCT.

Some of my discontent runs deeper – actually, no, shallower. Definitely shallower.

I have realized that, shamefully, I wish I could keep adding to my metaphorical trophy case. It’s a bit of a let-down to not have a litany of stellar accomplishments from the past year to point to on this anniversary. But what the hell is the point of that?

The whole point of a thru-hike, and the whole point of anything of substance, is not to check a box and say “I did that!” The point is to immerse oneself in the journey and to learn deeply from it. And the biggest learning opportunities are the ones that you don’t plan for.

Perhaps that’s what this past year has been trying to teach me.

Indeed, I didn’t just lose my post-OCT fitness through sloth. I was excitedly running and hiking better than I had in a couple of years… until I sprained my ankle badly last June. I remember that crushing moment, panting from the pain, sitting on a rock next to my boyfriend while I mustered the energy to shuffle the final mile back to the car. In spite of my high pain tolerance, it felt almost unbearable. I was convinced that I must have broken my ankle. It was a relief to discover it was merely a sprain, but it still was a long road back from that injury. And of course, when it finally felt strong again, I sprained the other damn ankle. Just my luck.

I have also been slowed by gastrointestinal issues (which fortunately turned out to NOT be parasites from my trip), headaches, nausea, horrific depression and anxiety, and, most recently, random ovarian pain that forced me to spend a couple of days curled into a ball. It has not been an easy year for me, physically or mentally, and as much as I wish things were different, I consider myself lucky to still be here.

My depression and anxiety were really that bad for a while.

In that context, I feel silly for lamenting my weight gain and my lost fitness – which, of course, are not one and the same, as I explain here. I should focus on being thankful for surviving – and for those who helped me to pull through.

Love is bringing your asthmatic girlfriend a particle mask and chocolate while her favorite place burns
My boyfriend is a wonderfully supportive and kind person, and I feel so much love and gratitude for him. © Jenni Denekas

My wonderful boyfriend in particular has been there through all the ups and downs of this year. He helped me to get through the worst depressive downturns, to take care of me when I was ill, and to smile (a bit) when the Eagle Creek Fire tore through my favorite place on Earth. I feel so lucky to be with someone so caring and kind.

When my health allows, I also have been slowly but surely trying to find a job. I recently had an interview again – my first in nearly a year. I feel a glimmer of hope again.

As a stop-gap, and as part of the fulfillment of a longtime dream, I founded my own greeting card brand in fall 2017, Borderline Cards. It’s been an enjoyable and fulfilling endeavor, not the least because it has gotten me back into the habit of drawing regularly. But it was also somewhat born of my diminishing trust in my ability to ever find a job.

It’s also been a struggle to trust people. And perhaps not many deserve my full trust. Perhaps that has been my mistake before.

Accordingly, I have been paring down my inner circle since I completed the trail. I am done with expending more emotional energy and effort than I get in return. In turn, that gives me more time and energy to dedicate to those who deserve it. I have made a point to focus on the people who bothered to be part of my journey, and who generally give me as much as I give them.

Indeed, on this anniversary, I am reflecting gratefully upon everyone who was part of my journey on the OCT. It took time, effort, some unintended side effects (like trench foot, and the death of a cell phone), planning, caring, and commitment to make that happen, and I am very grateful for all of your contributions. Thank you, Dani, Aaron, Steph, Rosemary, Charissa, Joe, Stacey, Susan, Mom, and Dad.

And again, I feel so thankful for the beautiful relationship that my boyfriend and I have built over the past year, which has its roots in the OCT. When Aaron joined me for a weekend on the southern coast, we felt something beginning. We got together shortly after I returned from the trail, and we will be celebrating our first anniversary later this week.

Love
Aaron and I in December 2017 at a friend’s beach birthday bash! © Stephanie Hughson

Aaron has always been a dear friend, and became my rock during the horrible winter that drove me to do the trail in the first place. He joined me on a portion of my journey on the OCT, and stayed in touch with me throughout the rest of my trip. He has always been a calm, consistent, kind, and humorous source of support. (And to be clear, we do have a lot of fun together! I’m not always a crying mess!) I am truly grateful for, and humbled by, his love.

This anniversary of my completion of the OCT marks a year of unexpected events. Many were – and are – ugly and frustrating. But the truly beautiful surprises – including my relationship with the sweetest person I have ever met – are better than anything I could have planned.

And that’s the thing: Life unfolds as it sees fit, and all we can do is embrace the good that it gives us.

I will finish by quoting one of Cheryl Strayed’s many pearls of wisdom from Tiny Beautiful Things:

You don’t have a right to the cards that you think you should have been dealt. You have the obligation to play the hell out of the ones you are holding. And my dear, you and I were granted a mighty generous hand.

Banner Image: Two people who look suspiciously like me and my boyfriend embrace in a burnt forest. Image drawn by yours truly. The Eagle Creek Fire was another devastating loss in the past year, and like everything else we’ve faced together, my boyfriend and I helped one another to stay strong through it.

Redefining Fitness

Redefining Fitness

Ditch the scale, ditch the measuring tape, and focus on something real. Fitness is not about taking a perfect mirror selfie; it is a set of physical capabilities.

People so frequently talk about fitness – and the process of attaining it – and yet definitions of that term vary widely. I often hear people talking about “getting fit” and reducing their caloric intake in the same sentence. People often talk about their appearance and their “fitness” in the same sentence. The list goes on. So this begs the question…

What does fitness mean to you?

I describe it as a diversity of well-honed physical capabilities. As in, I am fit when I can run, swim, climb, hike, backpack, lift, and do various other activities with relative ease and competency. Gaining fitness, to me, is a process of becoming more physically capable.

A corrected fitspiration image. I can certainly attest to the fact that, yes, there are bad workouts. When I was a young athlete, I sometimes pushed myself too much and paid for it. I am much wiser and more cautious and methodical now, and I taught my athletes accordingly as a coach.
A corrected fitspiration image. I can certainly attest to the fact that, yes, there are bad workouts. When I was a young athlete, I sometimes pushed myself too much and paid for it.
See what I mean? This was one of the first images I came across with a Google image search for fitspiration. Ew.
See what I mean? Ew. This was one of the first images I came across with a Google image search for fitspiration. Sounds like a thinly-veiled exhortation to develop an eating disorder.

This may sound straightforward, but it took me a long time to arrive at such clearly-defined terms.

Our society has such strange attitudes about body image, fitness, weight, and more. This is an especially fraught issue for women, and women athletes. I invite you to read about female athlete triad and to think about all the damaging “fitspiration” bullshit that circulates around the fitness world. It’s hard not to get sucked in.

Fortunately, sports have been (mostly) a positive force in my own life. From an early age, athletic endeavors encouraged me to look beyond my appearance and to take pride in my abilities. In particular, I have always prided myself on being physically strong, a trait that my awesome dad has encouraged me in. He taught me how to lift weights safely and healthily, in our little basement workout room. We still sometimes do push-ups together and arm wrestle. He has always complimented me on my strength, and has always meant it.

I have always felt proud, too, of my body’s ability to put on muscle. When I’m strong, I look it and feel like it. I also have jokingly said many times that I am dense – physically, that is. That of course is because muscle weighs more than fat.

Even when I have looked thin, I have not weighed as little as some of my friends who wore the same sized clothes. I was often told by doctors that my BMI was too high, including when I was running track in college (pictured). But many times when my BMI said I was borderline overweight, I was strong, I felt good, and I don’t think I could have lost any more weight without causing myself harm. Professional athletes often face this problem as well. I have learned, slowly but surely, not to worry about the number on the scale for these reasons.

But all of this is easier said than done.

Fitness?
A photo of me competing in college. I may look thin and “fit” here, but I was severely anemic and battling other medical issues. © Naomi Denekas

Although I have always been proud of my strength, and although I (slowly) learned that BMI was a stupid and incomplete method of measuring health, I also have always worried about my weight. More accurately, I have always worried about my APPEARANCE, i.e. looking thin enough. Our society all too frequently correlates the two. I just caught MYSELF correlating the two. It’s hard not to in our society. It’s also hard not to worry about these superficial things in our society, especially as a woman.

And when I look back on my old track and cross country photos, I lament that I was so concerned.

For one, I looked fine. More importantly, worrying about my appearance was such a waste of time and energy – non-renewable resources that would have been better spent enjoying meets with my teammates instead of worrying about how I looked in my uniform. And MOST importantly, my health is much better now than it was when I was in college. At the time the above photo of me running track was taken, I was struggling with undiagnosed endocrine issues, I was severely anemic, and I was developing allergy-induced asthma. I may have looked thin and “healthy,” but my health was taking a nose dive, albeit a hidden one.

The irony is that my weight is much higher now, but other numbers indicate that I am much healthier. My iron levels, thyroid levels, blood pressure, and everything else are well within the normal range now. What’s more, I am not suffering bizarre symptoms these days. It’s pretty cool to not get exercise-induced migraines every time I try to run, I have to say! I’ve also healed from multiple severe injuries, including a concussion from a thirty-foot fall and a torn ACL, both of which I successfully rehabbed. I’d say that’s a success story in and of itself, and yet there is no good “before and after” picture that can capture those changes. Oh well. *insert sarcastic sigh*

The most important thing is that I feel grateful for how far I’ve come.

Baker Beach Friends
A much more beautiful photo: My friends and me while I trekked the Oregon Coast Trail in spring 2017. I am proud of my determination and strength, and thankful for my good health and the meaningful relationships in my life. Better things to focus on, right? © Joe Dudman

However, I will readily admit that I have felt frustration about my weight/size/shape in the past few years. My self-image took a hit when I first began gaining the weight (during my concussion and exercise-induced migraine days), but my concerns have been tempered by ongoing personal reflection. Chiefly, I know that I want my life to be about more than my looks, and I have worked hard to make it so. Dumping a superficial ex, surrounding myself with supportive people, and dating someone who actually likes how I look have all helped me to build a more meaningful life. Additionally, my experience coaching athletes – and thus being privy to a lot of other folks’ body image issues – has prompted me, time and again, to question my definitions of fitness and to ensure that what I am saying and modeling is healthy and helpful to those around me.

Indeed, it is important to remember that body image issues can be contagious. Correlating your own fitness and appearance can negatively influence others. If redefining “fitness” for your own well-being is not a compelling enough reason, perhaps the impact it has on others will be a stronger incentive. I know that has been the case for me, as a coach and as a friend.

Fitness?
I know what you’re thinking: She’s hot, right? I’m thinking: I can probably knock her down easily. WordPress Stock Photo.

It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve gotten even stronger in the past few years. In fact, I believe that my increased strength is partly related to my increased mass. I have more “oomph” behind my lifts now. When I’ve attended self-defense classes and dabbled in kickboxing, I’ve found myself capable of moving even a really heavy punching bag, and easily knocking over an opponent.  That makes me feel powerful and proud.

I am not saying that I’m complacent; I want to regain my running fitness. I would ideally like to shed some of the weight that I have gained. BUT I am content for now. I am not sweating those details, especially because I feel fit in some ways that I am very proud of. I also am well aware that my worth is dictated by far more than the number on the scale or the size of my pants.

Bottom line: I want to remind you all to consider deeply what you define as “fitness,” why, and whether it’s really serving you – and others.

I think it is vital for us to remember what we were always taught in grade school: That one’s appearance doesn’t matter as much as what is inside. That may sound corny, but when you truly value your abilities more than your appearance, to paraphrase the late, great John Wooden, you don’t become corny. You become a better, stronger person.

Cultivate strength, of body and character. That’s what matters.

Need some daily inspiration to redirect your focus from how you look to what you’re capable of? Check out my Facebook page Cut the BS – Athletes Against Body Shaming!

Check out more Reflections and Moments!