My pace slowed to a crawl as we rode our mountain bikes up a steep section of singletrack. For a moment, I actually wondered if I might just tip over. Tipping over might not actually be so bad, I mused, At least then I’ll have a reason for being the last one up the hill.
“I crashed,” I would announce stoically. I imagined showing off the dust and cheatgrass on my shorts, pointing to the chain grease on my calf. It was a fairly typical outing last summer—and I found myself struggling to keep up with the group.
In the end, I made it without incident to the shady spot where my friends were waiting, looking utterly refreshed and as though they might have had a chance to sneak into town for a shower and a cold drink in the time it had taken me to move my sorry carcass from Point A to Point B.
This wasn’t my first mountain biking experience; this isn’t a story of my epic transformation from newbie to badass. This is the story of the Last Friend Up the Hill.
And it has long been a point of insecurity for me. I regularly have to bite back the apology on the tip of my tongue as I roll up to my companions, who—I assume—are doing their best to maintain composure in the face of my enduring slowness.
“Sorrysorrysorry,” I want to exclaim whenever I tardily rejoin the herd. I used to apologize constantly: Sorry I’m so slow. Sorry you’ve been waiting. Sorry we’re going to get into camp late. Sorry.
My friends have waited for me at the bottom of the ski hill; I’ve been the friend you’ve just started to worry about when the silhouette of my backpack crests the horizon. Running partners have occasionally circled back to say they’ll meet me at the next trail junction.
You know that awful phenomenon where you finally, with lungs ablaze, catch up to the group, and everyone immediately starts moving again? Yeah. That’s happened to me a few times.
No matter how strong and fit I am, I’m never going to set any speed records in the mountains, unless we’re keeping track of how quickly I can do away with a slice of pizza—the finest of recovery meals—in which case I’m your gal.
It’s not my shoes, or the weight of my pack, or that my skis need to be tuned, or that my bike is ancient and rickety. Frankly, it’s not even that I’m out of shape. It’s that I have only one speed—and it’s not very fast. My sprint is more of a shuffle; my jog could be fairly described as a plod. Like the fabled tortoise, I can steadily cover great distances, but a speed demon I am not.
As a chronic over-apologizer, I’ve had to work to reframe my approach to group dynamics, because I just don't think it's that fun to play outside with people who seem like they aren’t having fun. These days, I’ve been asking myself: If I’d been waiting, would I be annoyed?
When I taught my husband to ski, did it bother me when he made wide, slow pizza turns and eventually arrived, grinning, at the bottom of the slope? When I took my mom backpacking for the first time, did it irritate me when she took a little longer to stuff everything in her pack? When it’s me sitting in the shade at the top of the hill, do I mind having a moment to catch my breath?
The answer, of course, is almost always No.
So it’s back to the drawing board. Instead of, “Sorry I’m so slow,” I’m starting to say, “Thanks for waiting.” In lieu of a sheepish “Guess it’s been awhile since I took the bike/skis/running shoes for a spin,” how about “Wow, I can tell you’ve been training!” I’m working to replace self-deprecating jokes about eating too many donuts with gratitude instead.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to apologize to your adventure partners: Sorry I forgot the fuel. Sorry I called you a doofus when we couldn’t agree on a campsite. Sorry I didn’t fully rehydrate those beans and now our tent smells unbearable.
But my pace—like most things about me—is just me. Sometimes it’s on par with the group; other times, it’s ten minutes behind. This isn’t an insult or a slight, it’s just where I am on any given weekend. And the thing is, someone will always arrive at the destination first, and so by necessity someone must be last, if only by a thin margin. So, why not embrace that happily and enjoy being the sag wagon personified?
I’ll probably never be the friend who arrives at camp first and has the tent set up and dinner on the stove before everyone else arrives—but I’m great for a pep talk. I’ll clean and bandage your cuts along the way, produce a thermos of coffee when you’re cold and tired, hold your trekking poles while you futz with the straps on your pack. I can change your flat tire while you have a snack, and I’m pretty adept at MacGyvering those broken ski bindings.
So as much as I’m tempted to say with a wink, Sorry—did you see me yard sale back there? I’m learning to just say, Hey, how great is this? And trust that when all my friends—those proverbial hares—get back to the car way ahead, they’ll remember their trustworthy tortoise and save a cold one for me.