Cruising into Manitou, the Incline comes into view. Once an old railroad, the narrow path is etched with more than 2700 railroad ties – an intimidating and seemingly endless stairway to heaven. It’s less than a mile to the top, but the distance isn’t the threat, it’s the steep and severe grades of incline. We were three brave souls on our drive, but now, peering toward the sky, we begin doubting our readiness.
The August sun is menacing, but other adventurers march ahead and we take flight with them, making bets as to how long before we stand like kings at the top. We agree to one rule: we are here together, but we journey alone. I make a personal rule: no breaks, just constant motion. Slow and steady, or even slower and steady – but always steady.
Eight minutes in and I’m sweating as if the sun’s only target. Accustomed to running in the fire wind of a Phoenix July, I remind my screaming muscles they’ve felt worse. I keep climbing. Before long, it’s my lungs complaining, heaving in and out as if they’re being crushed, and in truth, they are. I want to breathe deeply, but the thin air burns my nose and insides, making me want to empty my lungs completely, but when I try, I choke. The elevation is a menacing resistance. I’ve no music on this trek and I’m forced to step in time with my own wheezing, and my lungs and legs find harmony in the rhythm of their discomfort.
I’m careful to check my form often, pulling my core tight, never letting my shoulders slump, and I know my back will thank me tomorrow – if I can move tomorrow. I pass the climber ahead of me and the boost lifts my heavy legs for a few dozen stairs, or at least until I hear breath behind me. A runner, certainly no stranger to the Incline, quickly catches up, his feet effortlessly floating over every step, but I don’t observe his enviable deftness too long for fear of losing my balance; I just keep on.
For a while, there’s space between me and anyone else, and I allow myself to hum softly between gasps. I create games with beats – step one, two, three, hold; step one, two, three, hold. The recovery of each small hold refreshes my body and mind.
Then I see it – the false summit. I’d read of this unfortunate phenomenon, and physical exhaustion begs me to believe what my eyes behold, but I focus instead on what I know to be true: this finish line is an illusion. But it’s also a marker of hope, the point of the climb promising two-thirds is behind me.
My game of beats slows to ‘step hold, step hold’, but I don’t linger on the hold. More and more climbers are taking perch on a stair, collecting their strength – maybe their courage – and I’d like to join them, but how can I stop in the final quarter? I begin to count minutes. One minute closer, a half minute closer, and then like an epiphany, the sky breaks open and reveals the finish. It’s so close and so far, with many stairs to endure between here and there, but I settle on the word ‘closer’ and keep plodding.
There’s a sudden sweetness above me. The victors rally at the top, but rather than publishing their praises, they cheer instead for those in the final stretch, and the relishing of victory becomes the deeper joy of reviving weary souls. These strangers, now comrades of the climb, are calling me in. I’m welcome on this mountain.
Their words strengthen my bones and fuel my aching muscles, and I bound the last few stairs with the strength of the first few stairs, and applause echoes in the big, wide open. After securing my feet and equilibrium, I turn slowly to see where I’ve been. It’s breathtaking – the beauty, the vastness, the view of the challenge from way up here. I’m content in this finishing place. I consider what brought me this far and I’m thankful.
Then I do as I must and become the encourager, welcoming others to finish well. I don’t know names, but I know the journey, and though my words are simple, they bubble from an understanding place. I watch postures straighten and paces steady, and I know one thing for certain – kindred words are living words.
I’ve often recalled the Incline during arduous weeks and sometimes hopeless hours. There is a peak and it can be reached, and it’s not brain or brawn between start and finish, but endurance – the overlooked strength of one step, one step, and one step more. It’s the steady pace of want and the good form of will; a rhythm one must count alone.
But in those enduring places, encouragement is the push or pull that makes all the difference. Lonely rhythms are refreshed by heart songs, the very breath of God floating in a stranger’s compassion, a friend’s good word, and the wisdom of someone close for a season. Kindred words lift the heaviness and resurrect tenacity. And when I’ve regained my breath, it’s my turn to encourage others well.
Michelle Stiffler mentors at a nonprofit for vulnerable women across Phoenix, and teaches classes on getting unstuck, establishing boundaries, ditching insecurity, finding courage, and other useful skills never taught in school. She’s a wife and mother of 4, a rogue chef, voracious reader, fitness enthusiast, and a sucker for bike rides and sunshine. She's also an unwavering believer in the power of prayer and reflects on truth, faith, and being human at onemoretruth.com.
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