Living a new and improved story… thanks MPC!

I am feeling incredibly nostalgic, emotional, proud, excited, emotional, incredulous today.

A year ago, this month, I got off the couch. I thought it was just so I could climb munros in Scotland like Sam Heughan did. I thought I was probably going to fail (again) at the C25K program I was starting. I didn’t have a lot of hope or confidence in myself.

But apparently there was enough of something (desire? desperation? hope?) to ignite a flame that has yet to burn out. (Sure, it flickers and looks like it is going out sometimes… usually when I am lounging on the couch again, with pizza and chips scattered around me. But it still doesn’t go out.) One small success after another of not failing, of not falling back into my “old ways” led me across the world and to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

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(click on the image to go to the recorded episode)

Last night, I was interviewed by a life and business coach, Mark Schall, in New York on a radio show called “Mark My Words.” The first half of the show focused on my personal couch-to-kilimanjaro journey (basically the content of this whole blog), and the second half was about my time in the Congo meeting Esperance and the broader cause of trying to end violence against women in warzones. I was a nervous wreck going into it, but quickly began to enjoy being able to talk about the things that I was most passionate about and was actually surprised when we ran out of time and didn’t even talk about actually climbing Kilimanjaro. 🙂 I said UM and UH and YOU NOW about 1346 times, but other than that (and some bumbling that I am trying not to kick myself over) felt really good about the interview.

And talking through my story again just made me all the more grateful for this time in my life, and for the “players” that have contributed so profoundly to the changes that took place over the last year.

Outlander. Sam Heughan. My Peak Challenge. Peak Warriors. Hiking. Mountains. #C25K. One Million Thumbprints. Esperance.  CrossFit. Kilimanjaro. ALL GAME CHANGERS IN MY BOOK.

Here are some topics from the interview that I feel need a bit of expounding… 

On becoming a fangirl** at 36 – I would have never in a million years thought I would become a fangirl. Of anything. I have always been a movie buff since a child, but never really got into the YA series of books and shows that had a significant fan following. So imagine my surprise in January of 2015 when I fell into my first fandom, Outlander, at age 36. Today, though, I wear that label with pride because of how much this experience has enriched and changed my life. I don’t think other fandoms are quite as full-service as ours (though I wouldn’t know otherwise). Sam Heughan has definitely outdone himself in using his relatively overnight stardom and platform for good. And I am the direct beneficiary of making a whole new group of friends (a support group, really) with a common love for all things Outlander, Sam, and fitness/health.

**And by fangirl I do NOT mean hyperventilating-frothing-out-the-mouth-plowing-over-children-animals-and-grandmas-to-get-to-see-or-touch-sam-or-any-other-human-being kind of fangirl (of whom there are many of this variety apparently). I mean mature, fun-loving, whisky-drinking women of all ages and stages who happen to be great fans of Diana Gabaldon’s books, the Starz Outlander show and/or the actors (Sam, Tobias, Cait et al).

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And just for kicks and giggles, here are my (shameless) top 3 fangirl moments and memories: 

  1. Sam commented on a couple of my posts in the private MPC Prep program Facebook group. This is serious fangirling fodder. He and John Valbonesi are considered our “coaches” and we (all 3000 + members) get giddy with excitement when either of them comment or like what we share. When I wrote about the tattoo I wanted to get (quite an emo post), he commented with a “Just perfect.x” and that made my day. We all have such deep and profound respect and appreciation for those guys creating the MPC program and taking the time to encourage and challenge us to new heights and goals… and to living a much better life story.
  2. After summiting Kilimanjaro with the 2014 MPC flag (lent to me by the BAM Strength girls), Sam commented with a congratulations in the Facebook group and then tweeted my summit photo and congratulations.*drops dead* I remember being in the Tanzanian hotel post climb in the one area of the hotel that had spotty wifi at best and saw that he had liked my tweet about summiting which made me “squee” (fangirl internal screaming). And then the wifi went out. And when it came back on, my phone was blowing up with all these retweet and like notifications on Twitter (I have like 300 followers so this was not normal). My friend, fellow climber and fellow fangirl, Joy Beth, silently screamed across the room from me when she saw his tweet. It was an amazing moment. 🙂 FullSizeRender 13 FullSizeRender 14 IMG_6408 IMG_9290
  3. Earlier this month, many of my fellow fangirl (see above description of fangirl) friends were planning to spend a long weekend in NYC for the Tartan week, Outlander Season 2 premiere and the Tartan Parade. I knew that after such a long trip to Africa, my family probably wasn’t too keen on me checking out again for a few days, but I did manage to talk them into letting me take a long day trip up to the city for the parade. Sam was going to be the Grand Marshal of the parade and I knew so many friends going. It was going to be so much fun. A friend and I hopped on a bus at the crack of dawn and landed in rainy, cold NYC in time to walk around and take in all the Outlander promotions… costumes in the Saks Fifth Avenue windows (absolutely mind blowing work by Terry Dresbach) and the Outlander S train between Grand Central and Times Square. Whoever came up with the marketing idea to outfit an entire train out with Outlander promotional images and decor should get the biggest freaking promotion of their life. Just brilliant.  12973309_10153541013306765_1930227453776901946_oIMG_7199Before the parade started, I got a text from one of my friends asking if we wanted to march with her in the parade with Laphroig (arguably Scotland’s best whisky and also a sponsor of the parade). YES. I knew we would miss out on seeing Sam march by, but I thought, “When will I ever have the opportunity to march down 6th Avenue in NYC with thousands of Scots?!?” (answer: probably never) Laphroig was an absolute joy to march with. They outfitted us with t-shirts, hats, flags and shots of whisky to toast before we marched. It was seriously one of the most fun experiences I have ever had. The energy and camaraderie of this community of Scots and Outlander fans was pure perfection. We DID get to see Sam up on the promo bus at the end of the parade route. We cheered him on and he cheered us on. And then a group of us dashed off to a local pub to get warm and dry. After our meal, my friend and I walked back to the bus stop, and slept all the way back to Maryland. Fantastic day! IMG_7218  12473958_10153541024976765_6735910866565210822_o 13002514_10153541025106765_3029383857711589827_o 13007169_10153541026396765_6135287682164066417_n IMG_7262

On the powerful nature of a support group when trying to change your life – I have been so grateful for the MPC support groups I have become a part of in this process (namely the Peak Warriors). I have never been a part of a support group of any sort before now. But as I reflect back on why I was able to meet goals and overcome obstacles this time around, I realize that it was probably largely because of these groups. Both groups have been the safest and most uplifting and challenging (in the best way) of groups I had ever encountered online.  When you have a group of 500, 800, or over 3000 that are mostly women, you just wonder how “great” it can really be, because most of us have seen how nasty adult women (and men) can be online. Well, these two groups (the MPC Prep and Peak Warriors) have been quite abnormal. Women truly celebrating other women and cheering them on in their goals, successes, milestones and achievements… empathizing with and supporting one another in their failures and struggles and even challenging each other towards greater goals and successes. You simply don’t find this online anymore. It is a gold mine and I have been the beneficiary of so much love and support I can hardly stand it at times. Fortunately for me, I live in an area where there is a large local representation of Peak Warriors and other Outlander fans so we have had many happy hours, hikes, parties, dinners, events together in real life. While I was climbing Kili, a group of Peak Warriors were climbing a mountain in Maryland in solidarity. Truly amazes me.

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On the power of storytelling in the work of advocacy and activism – I was able to share Esperance’s story in the interview. And then the story about meeting Esperance and watching and photographing her and Belinda (founder of One Million Thumbprints) reunite. I could have talked about the issue of violence against women in conflict zones in terms of numbers and statistics. UN reports. But who is going to resonate with that? Next to no one. Its just noise at this point, online and offline. Big, huge global issues that don’t directly affect me will remain big, huge and DISTANT global issues unless I can relate or connect with the issue in some way. And that is where the power of storytelling is going to literally change the fabric of humanitarian work, advocacy, activism. When I tell you about violence against women in warzones in the context of a woman’s personal narrative, her story, you will most likely connect with the issue. She is human. You are human. She is a mother. I am a mother. You have a mother. When we see each other through the lens of a shared humanity, we start to listen, to see and to respond from a level of empathy and understanding that numbers and statistics will never be able to create. Esperance shared her story with us, with me. She gifted me with her story so that I would “tell the world.” All I can do is keep sharing her story in hopes that the mothers and grandmothers and daughters and sisters of the world will see themselves in her pain and her courage and will lean into these big issues for the sake of our shared humanity.

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I know that my story isn’t anything truly extraordinary. I could tell 10 stories right now about people on my Kilimanjaro team as well as people in the MPC program whose experiences and transformations would truly blow your mind. Extreme weight loss, beating cancer and other debilitating illnesses, overcoming severe demons of the past and emerging with more strength and fortitude than ever… and on and on. But the point isn’t whose story is the most extreme or jaw-dropping, is it? The point is that we are all LIVING A STORY. The point is that we get to share and celebrate our stories. We get to help and support one another to live the best stories we can. And when there are those among us whose stories are not being told (but desperately need to be), we get to step up and use whatever platform, whatever opportunity and privilege we have to amplify those voices and stories.

So what kind of story are you living?

What stories are you sharing?

Whose voice can you amplify with your privilege and platform? 

 

 

 

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Want to climb Kilimanjaro? With your camera? For women?

(This is my #couch2kilimanjaro story. Follow along by chapter: Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5, Chapter 6)

 

I can’t really remember how this conversation first went down in real time. Was it on the phone? Over coffee? Email?

What I do remember is this.

 

My friend Belinda sat me down at some point and asked me to consider joining the growing team of women who would climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in early 2016 with One Million Thumbprints. And not just join, but fulfill the felt need of a campaign photographer/storyteller.

So let me get this straight… 

Climb an epic mountain? For a cause I am already very passionate about? As the climb/campaign photographer? To share stories of dignity and hope and courage?

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Dreams do come true. They really do. Sometimes they come true with no effort of your own, just luck, fortune, blessing from Above. Other times you work hard for your dreams, and it pays off. In spades. 

Belinda told me that she had been watching me over the last few months… running, climbing, training – dedicated to improving my health and fitness. She said that if my doctor gave me the green light (asthma wise), she would be thrilled if I could join the team as the team photographer. I am pretty sure I cried.

So, yes, this opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro is a gift from Above on so many levels. It is also something I worked very hard for, even though I didn’t know what “it” was.

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I am so very, very thankful for this opportunity. I get on the plane in 3 days. We sit with the very woman who inspired this movement in 7 days. We start up that mountain in 10 days. We stand on the roof of Africa in 14 days to proclaim PEACE for women experiencing the violence of war… on International Women’s Day.

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And I really need to pause and say something…to my Outlander/MPC people: 

Outlander, Sam Heughan, My Peak Challenge, Peak Warriors… these are the people who got me off the couch less than a year ago. They were the inspiration and the motivation. And now they are the loudest cheerleaders in my “squad.”

Throughout this journey, my MPC/Peak Warrior “fanmily” has been the most supportive of this adventure/goal/dream by far. Perfect strangers have continually expressed heartfelt encouragement and support and even financial donations! I have been brought to tears on several occasions already by the people who have rallied around me at this time. People from all over the world (Norway, Germany, USA, and elsewhere), all walks of life, on various MPC journeys of their own. People who take the time to comment and email and message their best wishes and go-get-em’s!

Local MPC friends have even scheduled a “solidarity climb” on the weekend we will be heading up Kilimanjaro! They are literally going to “walk with us,” up a mountain.

I am profoundly grateful that I fell into this “fandom.” It has quite literally changed my life in the best of ways. I aim to stand on the top of Kilimanjaro and hold the MPC  #BAMflag with the greatest pride and the deepest gratitude for helping me summit my mountain.

I would absolutely love it if you would follow along. I will be posting, blogging and the like at a few places for the team. I am hoping to post as often as possible here, but Instagram and Facebook might be the best way to track with us.

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Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina – my first mountain

(This is my #couch2kilimanjaro story. Follow along by chapter: Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3, Chapter 4)

My first mountain….

Three years ago, I started taking my three girls on long, cross-country road trips each summer. In 2013, we drove from Maryland to Colorado to Wyoming and camped in the Great Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. It was an epic journey on so many levels. The summer of 2014 took us from Maryland to Prince Edward Island (Canada) to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and back. And last year, we drove from Maryland to Texas and back. These adventures are as much for my sanity and survival strategy as for the actual travel.

On our way to Texas this past summer, we stopped in North Carolina for a few days. My mom, “Grammy”, joined us and we explored the NC highlands. We happened to rent a cabin just a few miles from Grandfather Mountain, one of the most popular tourist sites in the state. There is the “Mile High Bridge” and two visitors centers on the mountain. It is absolutely gorgeous. I started researching hiking trails when we got there and found one called the “Grandfather Ridge Trail.” It had rave reviews and said it was a “strenuous” hike.

I was ready to test myself physically. I had said I wanted to climb mountains, right? That was what had gotten me off the couch 3 months prior, and I had been steadily working towards that goal. I had participated in some local hikes in Maryland, but nothing with a mountain top involved.

However, some problems arose from the get-go:

  1.  I had no one to hike Grandfather with. My mom and my children were not physically able (or interested) in participating in this hike.
  2. I had a specific time constraint… I had to get up and down the mountain by dark as per the rules (and common sense). I did not have a head lamp with me.

I decided that I would be fine hiking alone and that I would just try my best to get off the mountain by dark. I had a cell phone with me that I was sure I could find service at some point on the trail if needed. In fact, I felt better about hiking alone. I wanted to do this at my own pace, my own way. This was going to be a big test of my endurance and ability.

And so, we meandered up the mountain via vehicle, did the mile high bridge together, visited the animals at one of the visitors center, and then my mom and girls kissed me goodbye and wished me good luck. I had a general idea of how to get to the trail and what path I was going to take down the mountain. I had water and some snacks.

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Some nice woman offered to take a photo of me at the trailhead sign. I was feeling super confident and excited about it at that moment.

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I figured with a name like “ridge trail” that since I was already so high up the mountain it was just going to be a short climb to the “ridge” and then a scenic jaunt along the ridge looking out over the mountains.

Wrong. 

It was at least 2+ miles of going up, up, up… and then up some more. And not just up a trail. Up a face of a rock with a cable. Up another face of a rock with wooden ladders. Scrambling up over boulders and up through caves.

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It was easily the most physically challenging 3-4 hours or so of my life thus far. (I have had a very, very easy life, I know) At every new ladder, new face of something to scale, I thought “Maybe I should just go back and call mom to drive up and pick me up at the bridge….” But then I would grit my teeth and slowly climb hand over hand, rung after rung and get to the “top” only to see that there was something else to climb. And then something else.

Finally, at some point, I did reach “the top.” Somehow, some way, I did it. I hadn’t done any strength training at this point. No CrossFit… just 3 slow jogs a week. It was incredibly difficult, both mentally and physically.

But the top… the summit! It took my breath away (what breath I had left at that point).  You can’t be at any vista in the North Carolina highlands and not think of Jamie and Claire Fraser. I thought of them at every viewpoint on this hike. How fitting. Diana Gabaldon’s characters had been the seeds that had germinated over months and emerged, gloriously, into this unforgettable moment for me. Truly. 

 

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Somewhere near the top, I met another solo lady hiker and we joined up to head back down the mountain together. I have to say, it was nice to have the company at that point. She also knew the trail so I didn’t have to figure it out on my own.

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We walked, slid and chatted all the way down the mountain. And we arrived at the base trail head right at dark.

I limped to the car where my mom and my three watching girls were waiting for me. I had not been so physically exhausted in years. But my soul was soaring. And I couldn’t stop smiling.  I had conquered my first mountain. The summit, the peak, made the journey, the pain, the fear,  all worth it. I must always remember that.

And I knew, then, that this journey I had started in April was the right one for me, and was a lasting one. Mountain tops were my destiny. 

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Postnote: The next day? I hurt from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet something fierce. I don’t know if I have ever been that sore in my entire life. But each wince reminded me of such a huge victory. This mountain trail may have been a breeze for some people, but it was my Goliath at the time. And I conquered it. I was on my way…

The Munros are calling and I must go….

(This is my #couch2kilimanjaro story. Follow along by chapter: Chapter 1, Chapter 2)

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What the heck is a Munro? And where can I bag one STAT?!

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(all images from Sam Heughan’s Instagram)

I can’t remember the exact date that I discovered Sam’s IG account. But after seeing the above photos, I sat up and said to myself, ” I want to climb mountains.” It wasn’t just a passing thought. It was the birth of a vision, a mission.

In Scotland, any mountain over 3000ft. is called a Munro. Summiting Munros is called ” munro bagging.” It is a thing over there. There are somewhere around 286 (??) Munros and many a mountain enthusiast has set out to bag them all. You can bag 1 or 5 at a time. Whatever your stamina and the weather allows. I poured over the websites, and ordered books.

So, sometime in March 2015, I decided I was going to climb mountains. Why mountains? From as far back as I can remember, I have loved the mountains and they have called to me. As a small child in Texas, I would often yell at my parents to stop the car so I could go “climb that mountain.” I guess the hills looked mountainous to me. And I wanted to climb them. All of them.

As I have gotten older, I find myself longing for the mountains. I live about 2.5 hours from the Shenandoah National Park and I have been known to throw the kids in the car, drive the 2.5 hours to the park, meander up or down Skyline Drive, and then drive 2.5 hours home. Just because I needed to be in the mountains.

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(this print is on my living room mantle)

When I decided I really wanted to climb mountains, this meant something significant was going to have to change in my life. I couldn’t even walk up the street without wheezing.

Around this same time (March 2015), Sam’s fitness/charity campaign, My Peak Challenge, was just wrapping up. I was intrigued with the whole movement, but it was too late to join in for the final challenge that month. I started researching my next move.

How was I going to move off my couch and up a mountain/munro?  

Enter the Couch to 5K running program.

Confession: I had started and quit the C25K program 3 times before this. I honestly did not have much faith in myself at this moment in time. Well, I had faith that I would start well but quit again… just like all the other times.

And I did start well. But I didn’t quit. Not this time. It took me about twice as long as the prescribed 9 week program, but I finished. There were weeks that I had to repeat because I would have an asthma attack halfway through one of the runs and not be able to complete it. The old Chelsea would have just shrugged and jumped off that wagon without so much as a “next time!”

The new me was determined. Focussed. I had my eyes set on Sam’s Munros.  I repeated Week 4 twice and then Week 6 a couple of times. I repeated runs that I didn’t finish well. But I kept at it. And I finished training. I was able to run 5k without stopping. Even all through high school, when I was most athletic and played basketball, I could barely run a mile without falling apart.

Why success this time? I am convinced it had to do with the support system I had stumbled into… again, thanks to the Outlander fandom and Sam’s My Peak Challenge community.

I finally found my tribe, my people. Women of all walks of life, varying ages and professions, diverse political/religious beliefs. Two things we all agreed on: our undying love and appreciation for all things Outlander (show and book), and our determined quest to take control of our health and fitness.

I found my Peak Warrior sisterhood. 

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(photo source)

Yes, Outlander.

(This is my #couch2kilimanjaro story. Follow along by chapter: Chapter 1)

Truly.

On January 1, 2015, I picked up this book called Outlander that had been sitting atop a pile of books I had yet to read next to my bed. The only reason I picked it up was because of a “best books of 2014” post I read on The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s blog and Outlander was one of her favorites. (Actually, I think it was Voyager, but whatever.) I guess it was time to pick it up.

Reminder: I had never heard of Diana Gabaldon or any of her books before.

I posted a photo of the book on Instagram saying “Diving in.”

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It didn’t take long to get hooked. Minutes?  Hours? Soon after, a kind soul of a friend messaged me an important question.

Her: “Have you seen the show yet?”

Me: What show?

Her: Oh girl. GIRL. You have to come over. Like tomorrow. We will watch all 8 episodes. You will never be the same.

Me: Ok. We are talking about a show, right?

One fateful day in mid January I drove 1.5 hours south to my friend’s house and we, no joke, watched 8 episodes in one day.

And just like she said, I was never the same. 

By mid January I was on The Fiery Cross, book 5 of the Outlander series. By the end of the month I had finished MOBY, the 8th and last published book of the series (Diana G, Herself, is currently writing book 9).

Have I failed to mention that each of these books is between 800-1500 pages long (mass market paperback size)? When I say I “read” all 8 books in a month… it was more like guzzled. Yes, I guzzled them. I bought the subsequent 7 books after Outlander on Kindle because I would inevitably finish one at around 1:54am and could not bear to go to sleep without starting the next one. Thank god for Kindle.

(What? Oh, you want to know where my kids were while I spent all this precious time reading and not sleeping? They were very busy feeding themselves, watching Netflix and generally entertaining themselves. And they survived. And I don’t hold a lick of guilt… because, seriously… they are all girls and someday I get to be the one to introduce them to Jamie and Claire and they will then worship the ground I walk on. At least that is how it plays out in my head…)

So, what does this long, drawn out monologue about Outlander have to do with Kilimanjaro?

Everything.

Because without the book, there would have been no show. And without the show, I would have never heard of this actor named Sam Heughan. And without Sam Heughan’s Instagram account, I would most likely still be sitting on my couch…

Couch to Kilimanjaro – literally

March 4, 2015 – Location: Maryland, USA.

I am completely sedentary, stuck to my couch. I am depressed, battling a variety of respiratory ailments (asthma, allergies, sinus et all) and generally in a dark and unhealthy place.

March 4, 2016 – Location: Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania, AFRICA

I will have my teal Kelty daypack on, camera bag strapped to my front (to offset the weight on my back), hiking poles at the ready. My Asolo boots will have been mostly broken in (I hope), and I am guessing my stomach will be a mess of nerves, ranging from “omgomg this is so exciting, let’s GO already” to “OMGOMG do you SEE that freaking enormous mountain?! what have I gotten myself into?” This is day 1 of our 5 day trek up the infamous Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.

 

So, how did this approaching-middle-age, suburban, American mother of 3 go from a couch potato to a mountain climber in the span of a year?

Short answer: Great question.

Long answer: Well, it all started with Diana Gabaldon’s book, Outlander…..

Stay tuned….