Orientation week is wrapping up for DU Sport Psych. The energy from the newcomers is contagious. Nervousness, excitement, anxiety. All of it pulses in the room.

Graduate school in itself is a performance that helps us empathize with our clients. But being in Denver, surrounded by mountains, sets us up for many lessons that can be transferred into our time in this program.

Rewind to September 2015. I had just moved across the country from sunny Florida to Colorado. Everything was different. The weather, the people, the scenery, my job. And I was about to begin a Master’s program. Terrifying to say the least. During breaks at orientation, I was frantically Googling career prospects in the field of sport psychology. I spent the first month telling myself,

“They made a mistake. You don’t belong here. You’re not good enough.”

From DU’s campus, you can clearly see the mountains in the west. After months of staring at them, I decided I wanted to see them first hand. I decided I was going to hike a 14er. Alone. In November. Thinking back, definitely not the wisest decision, but

SPOILER ALERT: I did it.

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Mt. Bierstadt, 14060 feet

Don’t get me wrong. I have learned so much already during my time in this program. But the lessons I learned on this mountain both humbled me and motivated me to keep going.

I’m a huge fan of trail running, so as soon as the trail flattened out, I took off. My lungs quickly realized that I was not yet equipped for this kind of cardio, especially at 11,000 feet. I also had 6 miles to go.

Lesson 1: Energy management

When I was a kid, I hiked in the Smokey Mountains every summer. I was used to well-maintained trails and helpful signs everywhere. Bierstadt’s trail was covered in snow. Everywhere I looked there were multiple footprint trails towards the summit. I only knew I was going the right way every so often, when I would see little piles of rocks to mark the trail. (Seriously, so thankful for those cairns.) I found myself constantly looking ahead towards the summit, and when I would look back down at my own feet, I quickly realized I had gone off the trail.

Lesson 2: Know where your end goal is, but hike the trail one step at a time. Also, be sure to stop a lot along the way to catch your breath.

Hours later, I neared the summit. It was windy and snow covered the rocks that I would have to scramble up to reach the top. I saw others coming down from the top, encouraging me because I was so close. I reached the summit alone, unsure that I was where I was supposed to be. There was no sign. No markers. But I felt like I was as high as I could go. With frozen fingers, I managed to snap a few pictures (and a selfie), but my heart was racing and I was really ready to get back down.

Lesson 3: Goals are great and so is reaching them. When you do, take the time to thank yourself and soak it all in. Even if you’re freezing and hungry and tired.

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The view from the summit

I scrambled back down from the top. I was totally alone. The wind was picking up. I have never been so genuinely scared. I felt sobs welling up in my chest, but I stopped myself. (Remember Lesson 1?) I didn’t want to waste my energy crying. I took a deep breath and gave myself the permission to cry back at the trail head.

Lesson 4: Let yourself feel your feelings, but sometimes, you gotta tuck them away for later so you can perform at your best.

I safely made it down to a flatter part of the trail. I took a moment to eat some almonds and looked back up to where I had been. It was then that I began to realize how badly I was shaking and just how tired and cold and wet I was.

Lesson 5: Be prepared for the journey back from your summit.

Lesson 5.5: Always bring snacks. And an extra pair of socks. 

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Looking back at the summit. Yikes. 

The trip down Bierstadt was very different than the way up. The sun was finally doing its job, warming me up and melting all the snow. I slipped in the mud a few times and the once-frozen river required me to jump from rock to rock to cross it. But I knew that the worst was over. I could rest a bit. I sang to myself and wrote letters in my head to the people who were no longer in my life. This hike felt transformative. Something about this adventure had brought me a new clarity and I felt strong. Or maybe it was just altitude sickness.

I reached the trail head and kissed the sign. I had done it.

Being a runner, I was used to a grander finish. Balloons and people with signs and an announcer calling your name and hugs from your friends and free beer. But now, I stood in the parking lot alone, to go back to my apartment alone, with no medal to show the world what I had done.

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The big picture

Sure, bragging rights are great. I’ve definitely told this story a few times before. But I didn’t hike Bierstadt for a finisher’s medal or a new profile picture on Facebook. I did it because I wanted to see how resilient I really was. I wanted that mountain to show me who I was. And it totally did.

Lesson 6: Life, like this program, is what you make of it. Try new things. Be uncomfortable. Push yourself. (Not necessarily on a crazy hike because 14ers can actually be super dangerous, please be safe, friends).  

There will be plenty of summits in your life, and plenty of valleys, too.

Enjoy the hike. All of it.

– Sarah Hudak  –

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