Photo courtesy of Cara Birnbaum
I'm sitting on a concrete slab in Tinqui, Peru, a strangely ghost-townish village in the Andes. This is a place where otherwise sane people start and end a massive 55-mile hike around a skyscraping mountain called Ausangate. And as I squint through the morning sunlight at the horseman loading my red pack onto a pony, it occurs to me that I am one of these people. Against my better judgment, I have signed on—along with eight other women and two men—to do this climb. Three sinewy French trekkers who have just returned from the peak stand next to me peeling off layers of Polartec fleece. They smell like acrid sweat and describe their experience only as "very cold at night." All I've done today is step off a bus, and already I'm exhausted. I am not an athlete.
This, in fact, was my mother's stock answer when strangers inevitably asked if her gangly-limbed, five-foot-eight daughter played basketball. She'd feign exasperation, throwing her arms up for effect, but I always sensed her relief. Thanks to my congenital klutziness and fear of flying round objects, she and my father, with their graduate degrees and New York Times–smudged fingers, would never have to spend an evening in the high school gym bleachers, enduring bad acoustics and the tedium of watching me dribble an orange ball up and down the court.
I came of age during the mid-eighties, a decade and a half after the 1972 passage of Title IX, which essentially brought competitive high school and college sports for girls into the mainstream. But at 13, I was wholly uninterested in chasing a ball. I was, however, fascinated by the girls who did. During what was for me the single most awkward year of a pretty awkward life, they blossomed into warriors with powerful bodies and lips that curled ruthlessly into fierce shapes when they cracked their bats across softballs. They had sleek ponytails that bounced when they walked. In high school they grew into the Jockettes, an amorphous clique of girls in Reeboks and oversize sports jerseys. Meanwhile my crowd passed the time at thrift stores or in dimly lit rooms listening to the Sex Pistols. We didn't do softball. Or field hockey. Or lacrosse. My aversion to all things sports related became etched into the loops and whorls of my social fingerprint.
True, I'd turned into the kind of adult who dutifully drags her ass to the gym and slogs through the same 25-minute jog three times a week. I write fitness stories for a living, and I know how many calories are burned every minute on the treadmill. But with each Nike billboard I pass on the highway, every blurb I read about the growing legions of women surfers, every once-mortal friend who is suddenly hauling off to triathlon practice (triathlon practice!) five nights a week after work, I'm reminded that I've never once tested my body's limits. Never once fractured a bone or bruised my shins or crossed a finish line. And if you reach your 30s without doing any of that, your chances of ever doing it are pretty slim.
So when Miriam Nelson, PhD, the director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University, invited me to cover a trek she was leading through Peru's rugged Cordillera Vilcanota mountain range, my first thought was, "I am not that kind of girl." I'm not a marathon runner or a world-class ice climber, like two other women on the trip. I've never felt a burning desire to sleep—and pee—close to nature. Or climb mountain passes at almost 17,000 feet. Or breathe air so thin that I'd have men with horses and tanks of oxygen at my disposal, just in case.