Into every life uphills and downhills must fall. In no case is this more true than when visiting the National Zoo in Washington DC. The grounds were laid out by legendary American landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead. Olmstead believed in creating natural environments where you designed in harmony with the natural surroundings, not against them. At the time he worked, this was revolutionary thinking. It lead to the design of such American icons as Central Park in New York. His design for the National Zoo in Washington is a masterpiece of sweeping curved paths that meander through a section of Rock Creek Park. You find yourself following the terrain down into the depths of the zoo, observing pandas, elephants, tigers and a variety of native fauna. It’s not uncommon to encounter deer of an early morning as they cross through the zoo on their way to feeding grounds.
Did I mention down into the zoo? In a moment of brilliance, the planners for the National Zoo decided it was both smart and clever to plop the zoo onto one of the few genuine bits of hill you can find in Washington. You wander down the paths, enjoying the sights until you reach the bottom. Where you realize…there’s a bit of a hill on your walk back.
More than one tourist family has discovered this when they are down by the Great Cats, with a cranky toddler who insisted on walking and who now is no longer interested in being a big girl. Locals warn visiting friends and family. Without fail the visitor replies, “it can’t be that bad.” It is, and soon they learn.
We often use the description of hills when describing transformative fitness programs to others. The explanation is that your initial transformation is akin to climbing a mountain. The end of the challenge is you on top of a high peak in triumph! Then we direct people to the next mountain, explaining that the brief downhill they experience post challenge is normal. It’s just a way to build up momentum for the next event. When people fall back into old habits we exhort them to push back up the mountain again. The assumption being that being at the bottom of the mountain with no momentum is somehow a sign of failure.
Well it’s not. You will be healthy, fit, and have your head screwed on straight and find yourself at the bottom of a hill. How did you get there? Easy! You walked. It wasn’t a negative, it was actually the direction you wanted to go. If the tigers and baby goats are at the bottom of the hill, you eventually have to walk down to see them. You’ll wander around and snap tons of pictures. You will enjoy every moment of the trip. Eventually though, you realize that it’s time to go unless you want to get locked in with the bears. You’ve been at a dead stop all afternoon. There’s only one way back out. Start walking. It’s a nice steady grade back up the hill.
It’s hard. You feel every muscle as you pull yourself up the hill. It’s frustrating because you know that you can bench 200 pounds easy, but this little walk is killing you. There’s no way to quit. You simply have to push. There’s no cheering crowds, just you. No big motivational moment. Just a long slow climb.
Every downhill has an up. Sometimes it’s an easy trip back up. Others it’s just that long slow pull to the top. Both are part of your life. Both will happen. Not might, will. The key is understanding what the long slow pull up teaches you. It shows you that no matter how hard it looks, you have the power to make it up. You may have to stop and rest. That’s okay. You still get up because you don’t want to get stuck in the zoo, locked up with the animals. Look at them, caged, no true freedom, bound by the walls around them. Remind you of any folks you know? So get up and keep climbing. Long and slow, your calves burning as you push yourself up and out.
End of the day, you will escape the zoo and be ready to move out into the world.