Dierdre Wolownick (Mother of You Know Who) Surprised to Find Herself an Inspiration

Are you inspired by Alex Honnold? So is his mom, who is the oldest woman to scale El Capitan. Here she shares her thoughts on how essential a little inspiration can be.

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This morning, on my usual training run of about three miles through neighborhood streets, I passed two women walking two small dogs. They were intent on their task and never raised their heads as I passed. I greeted them with my usual cheery, “Good morning!” but they didn’t seem to hear it.

Off I went, intent on my own task, down to Walnut Avenue and around the smaller blocks to head back toward home. I passed them again.

One of the women, the smaller one with a large mop of dark hair, was also heading back—but this time she was jogging. That was clearly something new for her. She ran irregularly, head down, hair flopping, bent over the way I feel when I’m gasping for air at high elevation.
“Good morning!” I sent another greeting from my side of the small street to hers.
Her head bobbed up instantly, and a broad smile lit her face.
“You inspired me!” she shouted, and ran on past, still smiling.

When I left for my run this morning, I felt anything but inspiring. The climb I’d done with my son, Alex Honnold, in Yosemite the previous weekend had left me drained, exhausted, feeling feeble all week. I’d dragged myself off to class, dragged home, done nothing but cope. I napped, I ate copiously, and gradually my energy came back. Today’s run was the test. Were my reserves refilled enough for a run?

Some get inspiration from Alex Honnold. His mother, Dierdre Wolownick, was surprised to find someone receiving it from her. The two on the summit of Matthes Crest, Tuolumne, California. Photo: Amy Mountjoy
And then, unbeknownst to me, I passed a woman ready to be inspired. Maybe jogging or running had never occurred to her. Maybe she was overwhelmed with chores and kids and never had time. Maybe she’d been told all her life, “You’re not the athletic type.” Maybe she was at a pivotal point where she needed an outlet of some kind, something physical, someone to show her she could. Lots of maybes. We never know who, out there, is ready for inspiration. Who will see what we do, or say, or write and be at the right crossroads in their lives for it to matter.
We never know.
Like my son. When we climb together, for him it’s like babysitting. He never even puts on his climbing shoes when he leads me up something. But for me, watching him climb—and trying to follow him—is as inspiring as watching a beautiful ballet. He has no clue; he’s just doing what he loves.
Like my morning run. For some, I may be the least inspirational, most humdrum person on the planet. But for that one person out there who needs to read this, or see what I do, or think about it—for her, or him, or them, I will continue to adventure, and to write.
This September, I’ll celebrate my 70th birthday up on top of El Capitan. El Cap is the most inspiring place imaginable, and as a climber I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be on this day. But I won’t climb the wall this time. I’ll go up the way every climber comes down, in reverse—the endless hike from the Valley floor, then the six fixed ropes, and finally the daunting East Ledges scramble. On the summit, I’ll raise my little bottle of champagne to the adventure—of learning from my kids, both extreme athletes. Of getting outdoors to heal from life’s blows. Of being inspired by others, and of the privilege of being a source of inspiration for those who are ready.
Like that newbie jogger. I hope she’s still out there, running, next year, the year after. Maybe doing marathons. And inspiring others she passes.