Where Sports Are What You Make of Them

Seattle’s only been a major pro sports town since the late 1960s — no, the Stanley Cup-winning Metropolitans don’t count — but it is a place where recreation is serious business.

I used to work on a team led by a quiet, mild-mannered, yet determined manager. He started a mailing list for people interested in weekend hikes and I joined. This manager sent out an invite for a hike up a trail on Mt. Rainier: 5,000 vertical feet, special gear recommended. I asked this manager whether he sent the right trail in the invite. Yes, he said, he did this all the time. It’s easy, he continued; once you’ve climbed up that far, you just slide down. Unable to tell whether he was joking, I declined.

I grew up on Long Island, where the highest point is about 400 feet above sea level. In Seattle, to go from Lake Union Park to Volunteer Park is to ascend 422 feet over about 2 miles as the crow flies. I like to walk, but when I came for my Amazon interview in 2006 I decided to walk from my downtown hotel to Amazon’s then-headquarters building atop Beacon Hill. Forty-five minutes later, having walked up and down a few lengthy slopes, I arrived sweaty and exhausted. I took a cab back to the hotel. I’ve since come to appreciate the walkability of the U.S.’s second-hilliest city, but it’s also important to know flat routes for when friends and family visit from out of town.

Last year I picked up cycling for the first time since I was a kid on my flat home island. Whenever I complain about my two-bus 3.5-mile commute at work, within minutes I’m told to buy a bike. (Biking to work is easy since it’s downhill; biking home is harder.) My retraining wheels are Pronto! Bike Share bikes, tank-like 7-speeds that I can take for 45-minute rides from station to station. When the weather is good I spend a couple of weekend morning hours honing my skills on the streets of Seattle. Unfortunately Pronto doesn’t have any stations near my office in Fremont, and with its membership dwindling and cash reserves draining, I’m not optimistic that they’ll expand anytime soon.

Washingtonians take the outdoors very seriously. People do not buy “sporting goods” here; they buy “gear.” REI is headquartered here and its flagship store is a tourist attraction for those in the know. Local news stories frequently take the form of “hiker missing on dangerous trail.” The Washington Trails Association web site lists over 3,000 trails managed by local parks and even Seattle Public Utilities, which has a beautiful trail near Seattle’s water source. WTA ratings are harsh by outsiders’ standards. I went on a hike rated 2 out of 5 for difficulty with my parents, who are outdoorsy themselves, and who couldn’t make it to the finish.

Friendly competition abounds here, and it isn’t just on social media feeds. I go to a fairly ordinary gym which sells special fitness trackers for use during a workout. Buying one gets your heart rate broadcast on monitors while you’re in the gym. Leaderboards track who’s been working out most often. I have a simple Fitbit tracker that doesn’t broadcast at my gym, but I know from working at Tableau that I can download and visualize years of Fitbit data with ease. My company even does an annual fitness challenge: for 6 weeks, hundreds of employees track their lifestyle and activity data for fun and (inexpensive) prizes.

Although I weigh more than I did in 2006, I feel like I’m in better shape now than I was 10 years ago, when I lived in Pittsburgh and drove most places. Not owning a car has motivated me to do more walking and biking. I can go up and down hills much more easily. Friends and coworkers put together hikes, runs, and bike rides. These are usually complemented with food and beer in lightweight, outdoors-appropriate packaging. At least it’s easy to burn off all those extra calories.

This is part 8 of 10 Years, 10 Things to Love, a yearlong series commemorating my 10th anniversary of moving to Seattle.