Years ago, if someone had asked me what my relationship with food was like, I would have responded, “Normal.”
It’s normal to fear calories because they might make me gain weight, right? It’s normal to cut out carbs and fats from my diet because protein is the only path to weight loss and muscle gain, right? And it’s normal to eat mostly prepackaged foods because, according the labels, they’re packed with just as many nutrients as “real” foods...right? ...right?!
Fast forward to now, and while I can clearly see that my feelings toward eating for over a decade were a far cry from normal, they are becoming increasingly common in our modern, fast-food-craving yet model-figure-obsessed society. Magazines, marketing, and even health class textbooks will tout the righteousness of a 1,700 calorie-a-day diet, reminding everyone that the time is always right to lose ten pounds, yet they fall short on teaching us why we eat in the first place: to nourish and fuel our bodies with the best food possible in return for all of the incredible feats we pull off each day, both mentally and physically. Food isn’t some fattening punishment for being hungry; food is nature’s most miraculous process that we get to enjoy multiple times a day. It might be one of the most joyous parts of life, but I wouldn’t come to understand this until I was in my early 20’s - when I rediscovered my passion for being outdoors.
I grew up in the mountains, and have always spent a large chunk of my time running around somewhere outside. Growing up, I hiked a lot, rode my mountain bike as often as I could, and nordic skied in the winters. For a mountain kid, being outdoors was just as normal as being at home or being at school; however, no amount of time spent outside could combat the typical struggles of growing up in a body-image-crazed society. As a female, I felt the omnipresent pressure to try to maintain a slim figure, but as a student athlete, I also felt the pull to balance my strenuous workouts with enough calories. I constantly felt like I was caught in the middle of some metaphorical tug-of-war, with nutrition on one side and body image on the other. As a result, I started turning to more and more prepackaged foods that held promises of “more protein, less calories.” Perfect! Just what I needed to fuel my muscles for my athletic endeavors while striving for the unachievable figure I was supposed to have.
As I transitioned from high school to college, my time spent outdoors dramatically decreased as I spent more time indoors studying for classes, working multiple jobs, and using my free time to train with my triathlon teammates. While I loved my studies, various jobs, and team workouts, I got more and more caught up in the crazed college lifestyle and any healthy eating habits that I had managed to cling to were vanishing with every passing day. Sounds familiar to most any college grad, right? As I started to train harder for triathlons, I became hypercritical of everything I was eating: since I was tracking my miles and minutes logged each week, I figured I should log all of my caloric intakes too - it only seemed logical. At a point, I felt like I needed to record absolutely all physical activity and meals. I dreaded all of it, but I felt like I wasn’t a “real athlete” unless I did it. Since real food like produce, legumes, and meats didn’t come with nutritional labels attached, I started avoiding them because it required more effort to figure out their nutritional content. To say that my relationship with both my body image and the food I ate was on the rocks would be a wild understatement. It was sheer insanity - yet at the time, I felt like my habits couldn’t have been more normal.
I wasn’t giving my body the right nutrition, and my daily recreation had become some combination of swimming laps, riding the stationary bike at the gym, or logging miles on the elliptical machine - all for as long as I could go until I couldn’t handle the lack of mental stimulation anymore. Sure, I could have trained more outside, but my busy class and work schedule were more conducive to rapid fire sessions at the campus gym than traveling into the foothills for more extensive workouts. I loved the team and I felt like I needed something to “train” for, yet somewhere deep down I knew there was a major lack of something in my life - but what was it?
Fortunately, the answer came to me during my junior year of college; unfortunately, it came in a crippling way that would mystify me for over two years. I was studying in Spain at the time, and I spent my weeklong fall break walking the last 100 kilometers of the famous Camino de Santiago. It was a cultural and scenic dream come true, with one minor problem: the five back-to-back days of walking along cobblestone roads had destroyed my knees. By the end of the trek, I couldn’t kneel, walk up stairs, or do anything active that engaged my knees (i.e., basically everything) without knee pain so searing that I half-wondered if someone hadn’t implanted knives into my knees during one of our nights on the trail.
In the months that followed, I visited multiple doctors, had several x-rays taken, and religiously followed a physical therapy routine. I iced my knees every day, wore braces while attempting light exercise on the elliptical, and took all kinds of crazy supplements to help with knee pain. Formally, I was diagnosed with patellar tendonitis, yet the prescribed remedies did nothing to help. Heartbroken, I left the triathlon team and resigned myself to a depressingly sedentary lifestyle. My most rigorous form of exercise came from my walks between classes; anything more sent my knees into excruciating pain. A full year went by in a sluggish drag; I focused intensely on my studies but felt like I was losing my identity as an athlete.
The following fall, I started a new job - and met a coworker who needed to be active just as much as I did, loved the outdoors, and - the most revelatory - adored cooking. As we began to spend more time together, I stopped eating so many prepackaged meals as Jake taught me to make a variety of dishes from fresh food. I spent more time in the grocery store each week than I ever imagined I could have, and I unearthed cooking skills of mine I never knew existed. Since I was no longer on the triathlon team, Jake encouraged me to join him on short hikes around Chautauqua, our closest trail system. He was patient with me as my supposed tendonitis prevented me from making it up inclines very quickly, but I started to notice that my knees were giving me less problems than they used to. Assuming that it was just a fluke and the pain would return as it always had, I didn’t think much of it.
Roughly two years after I walked the end of the Camino de Santiago and a year after Jake and I had been dating, he approached me in the kitchen one evening with a wild idea: we were going to eat a plant-based, all-organic diet for several weeks. I laughed heartily and rolled my eyes; what a classic Boulder thing to try. I thought it was ludicrous - stupid, even - but Jake was always the most gung-ho about meal planning so I figured I had no choice but to suck it up for a few weeks and go along with it.
We made veggie soups, vegan chilis, stir-frys chock full of plants I had never even heard of, and ate fresh fruit for dessert. Though my body wasn’t used to eating so much fresh food every day and felt a bit off, I certainly didn’t hate the diet and I was trying to be open-minded about how many hours in the kitchen we were now spending. I did not have the overnight revelations that some people on new eating regimes have; on the contrary, I often missed the ease of eating a protein bar in lieu of cooking for an hour. But, I kept on - mostly out of support for Jake.
During this time, the long August days made getting outside much more feasible, and Jake and I were taking longer and longer hikes. I felt my identity as an athlete start to creep back in one day when I took my road bike out on a leisurely 90-minute loop outside of Boulder - almost two years since I had even ridden a bike. My knees twinged at the end of the ride and I spent the rest of the day icing them just in case, but when I woke up the next morning and felt minimal pain, I knew that things were changing for the better - I still just wasn’t sure why.
About a month and a half after the plant-based diet experiment had begun, Jake and I had started incorporating meat and dairy back into our lives in small amounts, under his rule that the products had to be from free-range, local, rBGH-free, and grass-fed animals. Again, very Boulder, but I rolled with it - especially once I noticed a massive taste difference from the animals products I had been eating throughout college. My palate was changing, and my indifference about the whole shift in eating had turned into excitement.
Each day, I felt more of a pull to be outside in nature, and in turn, my knees seemed to feel less and less pain. I summited Flagstaff, Green Mountain, and Bear Peak in Boulder for the first time. I started to regularly bike longer loops outside of town. I took Jake up his first 14er, slowly leading with the aid of my knee braces. I felt better every day, and I started to remember who I was before I ever counted a calorie, recorded all of my workouts, or steered away from carbs. Now, I got outside whenever I could, with no urgency to go a certain distance or record my time afterwards. I ate a lot for every meal, but felt refueled and satisfied - not guilty. I had stopped quantifying every little thing in my life and I hadn’t seen the inside of a gym in months, yet somehow I started to feel stronger than ever.
On a warm, beautiful fall day that September, I hopped on my bike with the intention of just riding to Chautauqua and back. Once I turned onto Baseline, however, a wild idea entered my brain: what if I rode as far as I could up Flagstaff, the 6,983 foot tall training ground for many of the best cyclists in the area? If I could hike Flagstaff, I could surely bike it, right?
The steep grade kicked my ass, and I found myself swearing out loud the whole first half of the ride. How the hell do people make this look so casual?! But my knees felt strong, and with each pedal stroke, I thought to myself, ‘This is farthest I’ve ever biked up here!’ and thus found myself addicted to going up just one more switchback, just one more...until I could see the final turn-off for the summit in sight. Elated, I hammered my legs as fast as they would go until the pavement ran out, jumped off my bike, locked it to a tree, and ran the last quarter mile of winding trail to the final overlook. As the final view of Indian Peaks and Rocky Mountain National Park emerged in the distance - the view that let me know I had indeed made it to the top - tears streamed down my face and I sobbed unapologetically. I might have looked like an over romantic sucker for views to passerby, but the truth was that in that moment I felt like I had gotten my identity back, and more importantly, finally put together so many of the pieces that hadn’t made sense before.
I was never meant to recreate on a machine in a gym; the little electronic screen with stats such as ‘miles traveled,’ ‘minutes logged,’ or ‘calories burned’ felt degrading - not empowering. On a dirt trail, on skis, or on a bike, I can lose myself in the flow of the experience and feel not only physically challenged but mentally stimulated. When I’m out on a trail run now, I no longer think about how far I still have left to go or what my splits are - instead, I’m too busy whooping and hollering with glee as I hop over rocks and roots and I cruise up and down hills to even worry about such trivial matters.
Now, I get outside for the whole experience: sunshine, fresh air, solitude, and a good physical challenge. I no longer view exercise as a means to a “perfect” physique, which I now realize doesn’t exist anyway; instead, it has become an awesome byproduct of something much greater: outdoor adventure. I don’t worry about how much I weigh - I wonder how much farther my legs can carry me today than they did yesterday. The size on my clothes doesn’t matter, as long as said garments can keep me warm in gale force winds and dumping snow on top of a mountain.
As for how the food experiment fits into all of this? I discovered that if you respect the food you put into your body, it will respect your body right back. Meaning: if you eat food that was planted, cultivated, picked, and sold with compassion for the earth, it will help your body move just as nature intended it to. In a big way, I suspect my knees were simply ravaged for years because they never received the proper nutrition in response to such a demanding trek. I might have been eating protein bars and other packaged foods that touted “optimal nutrition” and “all natural ingredients,” but in reality these were empty claims invented by corporations to make my body feel even emptier - and thus in need of even more of their packaged foods to fill the void.
Of course, everyone’s body is unique and responds differently to various physical activities and types of food, but in my own experience, I have discovered that nature is always the answer, whether for recreation or nourishment. In the outdoors, we forget about the man-made parameters of “success:” mileage, speed, a number on a scale, a diet with a certain number of calories. Instead, we shift our focus to the present by relying on our senses: “How do my legs feel as I ascend this mountain?” “Am I drinking enough water to stave off a headache on this 14er?” “I’m pretty tired after climbing that last pitch - I think I need to eat.” The wilderness doesn’t care what you look like; it doesn’t even care if you make it out alive. But it will teach you that if you are self-sufficient and choose to prioritize the way you feel rather than the way you look, the world is your oyster - and the backcountry is your playground.