I saw an article in the NYTimes about extreme fitness today, and it got me to thinking: I don’t go a to a gym. I don’t (can’t) go running. I rarely get to get ride my bike these days. I spend most of my free time trying to do as little as possible. But I’m still an athlete. It just takes a different form. After all, I do manual labor for a living, and get paid for it.
No, I don’t get up early to work out. But I get up early to go outside to work.
No, I don’t lift weights. But I do lift an 8lb sledgehammer (doublejack for all you trail dogs) over my head repeatedly to break rocks into smaller pieces.
No, I don’t flip giant tires or carry sandbags. But I do flip rocks end over end, and carry buckets of dirt for my tread.
No, I don’t do trail running. But I do carry a nearly fully 40liter pack and sometimes tools such as 14lb rock bars whilst hiking up a hill to work each day.
No, I don’t row on ergs. But I have pulled rocks and I-beams into place with a come-along on a Griphoist (see above).
No, I don’t use an machine that uses electricity like a treadmill to stay fit. But I can carry a generator around to power the tools I need to cut lumber.
No, I don’t have a coach to work on my technique. But I’ve learned how to have proper form when swinging cutter mattocks to chop a root or shovel gravel for hours from my crew leaders in the past.
No, I don’t go backpacking. But I have carried a 20lb propane tank two hours up to camp.
No, I don’t wear sneakers or quick dry clothing. But I can still move freely in my hiking boots and heavy duty cotton work pants.
No, I don’t wear a helmet. But I do wear a hardhat.
No, I don’t do a warm-up and a cool-down. But I do start my morning with the crew doing stretches and end my day stretching in my tent before bed.
No, I’m not your typical athlete. But I’m one, nonetheless.
I don’t know how I’d stack up against your average CrossFitter or weightlifter, or any of those programs ostensibly meant to prepare oneself for anything. Maybe my fitness doesn’t translate. Does it have to? Does theirs have to translate to mine? I think those programs can be empowering, and I imagine I’d be a participant were I desk-bound at work. I think we’re too coddled in America. Maybe we need more people to do some time in conservation. Get down in the dirt and try to set a rock a dozen or more times before it finally becomes stable. Pull invasive plants in the rain. Carry steel I-beams up a hill with your co-workers. Stop being soft. But don’t forget to take care of yourself. You only get one body, and it’s the most important tool any conservation worker has in their arsenal. Lift with your legs, drink your water, etc. A pick mattock can’t loosen that rock in the tread without a strong and capable person to use it.
I spent my high school and collegiate years as a student-athlete. It was easy to give up being a student, but I think part of the appeal of conservation work is still getting to be an athlete. It just takes a different form, that’s all. It makes me proud to contribute to the construction and maintenance of the trails weekend warriors use. After all, we’re both pursuing the same goal: making ourselves better.