Last week, I was on what was supposed to be an invigorating, adventure trip to Great Smokey Mountain National Park. I was going to hike 6.7 miles up a mountain to stay at a lodge on top of the world, where supplies are delivered by llama. The goal of such a big, wide adventure was to throw open the shutters, shake the dirt off by putting more on, and do something fantastic as I re-enter a life that does not consist of staring at the same walls of my house for another excruciating year.
But a half mile up the trail, I cracked. I was panting, sweaty and gross. My usual firm strides shook. The challenge up ahead didn't feel like fun. It felt like tilting at windmills.
Old me, the one who once ran a 50K and two marathons in a three-month span, would have easily made the trip. Except I'm not old me. I have been, like many people, emotionally and physically wrecked by this pandemic. My body doesn't feel like my own anymore. I have thrown it at challenge after physical challenge, hoping that if I push myself enough, beat myself up enough, everything would snap back into place, as if the last year plus had never happened. But it did happen. I am me now.
At about a mile in, I stopped and put down my pack. I wasn't going to make it. There, at the base of Grotto Falls, I quit.
I've been doing that a lot lately – not just on a mountain trail. In early March, I quit my weekly New York Times column, which I had been writing for almost four years. The last one ran on April 17. It was a tough call to make, because no one did anything wrong. I felt I was letting my editor down, and my readers down, especially since I couldn't articulate exactly why I didn't want to do it anymore.
My editor was great, and not just because she let me cover just about whatever I wanted. The money wasn't bad either, but if it was just about the money, I would have asked for more. For a long time, writing that column had been fun, invigorating a work – until it wasn't anymore. This small part of my freelance business was taking up more and more space in my head. Writing a new running topic every week during the pandemic (because it affected everything about the sport) became daunting because I felt a heavy responsibility in trying to guide a few hundred thousand people on what to do, what would happen, what wouldn't happen and on and on and on. I knew this work wasn't on par with the traumas other reporters were covering, and told myself that I was one of the lucky ones, that this shouldn't be getting to me, to suck it up because you're tougher than that. I was tired (SO tired) but I thought I should just soldier on instead of giving up such a prominent, weekly spot.
When I got horrific, threatening emails because I said I got my first vaccine shot in a February column, I started yanking on the "this doesn't feel right" strings to see where they went, which was deciding not to do it anymore.
This isn't a "I quit my job and [whatever] YOLO!" story, because I can't afford to do that. I'm a one-income household, and unless my dog picks up a modeling contract, it's going to stay that way. I can quit because the rest of my freelance business is robust, and while that work too is almost entirely about the pandemic, it doesn't also come with the bonus of getting screamed at every week no matter what I write (did you know I'm responsible for independent running stores closing because I said you don't need a $700 GPS watch?)
No, isn't a YOLO. It's giving up one gig that I loved for a very long time because it didn't fit me anymore. And it's scary! I don't know what'll happen next. Maybe the two new clients I signed last month won't work out; maybe the agent I've been talking to won't be interested anymore. Or I'll keep writing features for the Times like I used to, and no one will really notice the difference.
But I can tell you what happened when I quit that hike. I stood at Grotto Falls, which itself is a popular hiking spot because you can walk behind the waterfall, and relaxed. I took pictures of families who came up the trail, and a stranger took my photo for me too. I walked back down the mountain with a young woman who immigrated to the U.S. 10 years ago, and was still trying to figure out where in this country she really wanted to live. We ended up exchanging information because we really got along, and I had some ideas from my years spent wandering this country. On the drive from the trailhead, I stopped at a random spot to regroup and found another smaller waterfall. I took off my shoes and socks and put my feet in the water to see how cold it was (very!) And felt much better than I had sweating up the trail.
Then I zipped over to Asheville and used a few of those free hotel stays I had that have languished during the pandemic, and booked myself into a fancy spot. I walked miles up an down the city's hills, bought some art, had a margarita with lunch, then a coffee I bought at a parked double decker bus. I wandered around a jumble shop, which has been on my post-vaccine to do list, and found a signet ring and a scarf for a friend, which I can't wait to show her. I slept in a big, fluffy bed, read a book, and watched movies while eating room service. It was exactly the kind of thing that the me I am right now needed (and it probably the safer bet too – on the day I was scheduled to hike down, temperatures, with wind chill factored in, dipped below zero).
Quitting isn't always a bad thing. It opens you up to possibilities that meet you where you are right now. As people – hikers, runners, writers, whatever – we're constantly changing, and our needs and abilities do too. I know a lot of people are reassessing their lives right now. I am not the same person I was in February of last year. I imagine you aren't either. If you're also rethinking your life, hanging onto who you once were may not be the right move. If you're able, I hope you can open the door to what might be the right step for you now.
For new readers, this isn't typically the kind of stuff that I write here. For long time readers, I'll get back to the regular format next time.
(I almost wrote "Run Well," which is how I signed off the running column every week. It's going to take some getting used to).
Until next time,
Jen A. Miller