Directors of Toughness: Alaska – Turn Going Into Growing [SPONSOR CONTENT]

This is the first of three sponsor content blog posts featuring the adventures of Columbia’s Directors of Toughness, writer Lauren Steele and photographer Zach Doleac. See more photos from this story in a takeover on our @natgeoadventure Instagram feed.

Before we got back to camp after a day spent ice climbing on the Knik Glacier in Palmer, Alaska, I could feel the bruises already spreading themselves across my knees. Ice is unforgiving to a clumsy girl. And I didn’t realize how cold my hands were until I tried to unlace my boots and had to unsnarl my fingers with brittle effort. I already didn’t want to go on a run the next day. My legs hurt. My mind was tired.

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Ice climbing on the Knik Glacier was an adventure unlike anything I had previously experienced. There were no maps, no pre-determined routes. Handholds were anywhere I drove my ice axe into. The faces we climbed might look entirely different a month later. And the deep blue landscape was so incredibly unique. My mind was blown and I think I found a new hobby. Photograph by Zach Doleac

The conditions weren’t perfect. But they never are.

So I got myself to a trailhead. It was called Ermine Hill. Beyond what I deduced about some sort of elevation gain from the name, I had no idea how long it was, where it went, what I’d find, or how difficult it would be.

Turns out it is three miles one-way. It goes up to Kesugi Ridge and around Ermine Lake by way of switchbacks that give you fine views of Denali. And it’s a challenging trail full of bears. It took every step across single-track wooden planks winding through swampy bogs, clambering around the edge of a muddy lakeshore, climbing up sharp root ladders, and tiptoeing around fresh piles of bear scat to find out.

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Kaktovik is a little town on Barter Island, north of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea. Population 239. During our stay, the Polar Bear population was 36. Why? The Inupiat Eskimos practice subsistence whaling. After harvesting the whales, they leave the carcasses on the outskirts of town for the bears to feast on. This is a welcomed source of calories before they head out onto the ice for winter to hunt seals. The stress-free food source makes for healthy, social bears that were even kind enough to pose for a photograph every now and again. Photograph by Zach Doleac

Maybe my legs still hurt, but I don’t remember. All I remember is my own two feet earning my eyes the delight of being atop Ermine Hill and seeing Denali in the golden 5 p.m. light. Despite the fatigue and ache, I had gone on a run. I always do. Because as the old runner’s adage goes, “If you wait for the perfect conditions, you’ll never go.” And I’ve learned that to never go is the most aching feeling of all. It stunts you from being the strong, resilient, motivated, enduring runner you can (and want to) be.

Just like on the days when your body pangs and the season seems too cold to go out and run and explore, there are days when your mind seems mindless and your heart is disheartened–but always choose to go. Always remember that we must face the choice between what is right and what is easy. And it’s never easy to be uncomfortable. But growth is never comfortable. That’s why they‘re called, “growing pains.” They don’t always feel good, but they always make you better.

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Weather in Alaska can be unpredictable. We picked this particular hike to try and get above the fog and catch a glimpse of the mountain peaks. Just as we made it to the top of the trail, the clouds began to part and we got the 360-degree view we were hoping for. Photograph by Zach Doleac

So don’t be afraid of buying the plane ticket that seems too expensive. Don’t worry about signing up for that race or that competition that seems a little too challenging. Don’t hesitate to ask a question, or tell a story, or shake someone’s hand. The act of “going” will expand your heart and your body. And your mind will thank you.

You may wake up with an ache in your legs and the chill in the air may cause you to reconsider. But go. No one gets to the top the Ermine Hills without a few bruises. These bruises will remind you that you didn’t wait for conditions to be perfect. These are the marks of a good runner.