Peter Shelton

Pacing oneself from beginning to end

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Watch columns by pshelton on August 12, 2010

Gone are the days when I could go flat-out in the mountains for hours at a time, and have enough left in the tank to go hard again the next day. Back then pacing yourself was for the old and the less-than-fit. Nowadays, pacing is my god.

Actually, the opening sentence above is b.s. I could never go flat-out for hours. I tried once in an extreme situation, when I was called on to race up Lizard Head Peak from the pass, four miles and 3,000 feet below, to assist a fallen rock climber. His partner had kept him alive for a time but knew he needed to seek help. I was the first person he ran into, and while he looked for a phone to call search-and-rescue, I took off alone in hopes of maybe saving a life.

I was 28 and as fit as I’d ever been. I half hiked half ran the first two miles before the hallucinations set in. I was convinced I was hearing the bleating of this man’s spirit as it left his body on the ridge above me and sailed out and through the billowing clouds of August.

The sound turned out to be sheep grazing in the next basin over. But as the terrain got steeper and the rock looser, it was clear I had to back off the gas pedal or my head would explode. I needed to get there, and in one piece, and that meant finding a sustainable pace.

When you’re little, the circadian rhythms of your day do the pacing for you. You wake up and go like mad until you collapse. I see this in my grandson, Alexander. His favorite game is to chase or be chased around and around the living-room couch. Tour de Couch, they call it. Alex could do it forever, or until he loses focus and faceplants. Or falls asleep. Nap time is not an arbitrary construct when you are two.

When I was in second grade we moved to a house near a sandstone cliff above the ocean. It wasn’t a dune, but it had places where the wild plants gave way and the stone degraded into funnels of cascading sand. With a running start, I could leap off the top and sail like a parachutist to a forgiving, shin-deep landing. I could do this over and over after school, scrambling back up through the deep sand to jump again out and down until darkness, and supper, finally forced me in.

In high school, it wasn’t really cool to exert maximum effort. Training was something only the swim team nerds did, and they had to be in the pool before school every morning. Yuk! I did, however, experience near-limit exhaustion while paddling, frantic to get over a series of cresting set waves that caught us surfers inside. The first wave would be big; the third was usually the biggest. Sometimes there was a fourth. If we made it over all of them, we lay panting like hooked fish on our boards, spent from the effort.

In college, the candle was made to be burned at both ends: staying up to watch the sun rise; driving 20 hours straight to ski at Alta; playing Frisbee until you dropped to your back on the grass. One friend and I got so we could keep three Frisbees in the air between us. It was a form of park-scale juggling, requiring sprinting and throwing-and-catching skills that, following a long sequence, left us empty and exultant.

Now I’m old, and pacing is everything. Or maybe that word, pacing, is just a euphemism for going slow and liking it?

Finding a good pace is a pleasure in itself. The deliberate placing of one foot in front of the other, every step, or almost every step, in balance adding to an accumulating chain. I used to enjoy ski-skinning with Lito Tejada-Flores, who had this figured out long before he got old. “Watch me snail over this ridge,” Lito would say.

The young man who fell while leading the climb on Lizard Head didn’t get a chance to find out very much of this. He never regained consciousness. I think of him occasionally, and thank my lucky stars that I am able to listen to my heartbeat working inside the exercise. It is matched in a kind of old-guy harmony by lungs and muscles of similarly reduced capacity. But together they can still deliver a kind of grace only the living, and the moving, can know.

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