No pain. No Maine. Insane!

2,000 MILE DEMOLITION DERBY

As far as the human body is concerned, an Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike is 2,000-mile demolition derby. Just showin’ up with a pearly smile for this beauty contest might not be enough.

Frost that cake with the Biblical ordeals endured by this year’s thru-hikers – endless winter, viral plagues and human tragedy – and you have to ask yourself, “Am I really ready for this?”

Recently a potential thru-hiker on the class of ’14’s Facebook page wanted to know if anyone was doing anything extraordinary to prepare for their hike next year. The right answer to a question like that has an infinite number of variables involving hiking experience, current fitness level, age, gender, goals and individual circumstances.

I didn’t respond, but the Facebook post did cause me to consider the question.

Like most Baby Boomers, I have an accumulation of injuries and insults to my body as well as many of the standard age-related maladies. These are off set with experience, motivation, and a healthy case of attitude known as sisu in Finland. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Sisu

In pondering the question, the individual chronicles of this year’s hikers on http://www.trailjournals.com came to mind. More than half of them are Boomers.

Reading suggests that some of the Boomers projected the narcissistic mindset so often associated with our generation. We’re ageless with all-access passes to the Fountain of Youth. I mean we’re the folks who were never going to grow up or trust anyone over 30.

Sadly, along the trail this year, more than a few Boomers discovered a different reality. The Pepsi Generation is running into Mother Nature’s limits.

These natural limitations are compounded by the magnitude of the challenge we are attempting.

I will admit it. Reading about the class of ‘13’s travails definitely got my attention. I’d almost rather be hit by a NFL linebacker than endure some the trials and agonies they have recorded so far this year, and hiking season is only half over!

It’s no wonder that fate has so far forced hundreds of them to bite the dust and return home in the vertical and – tragically for a couple of folks – in the horizontal positions. Bless them all.

The take-away from all this caused me to rethink everything about my own hike from gear to my conditioning program. I need to improve my odds of success, but there’s more to that then meets the eye.

Since so many hikers are Boomers, a Boomer reality check might be helpful.

We’re still special, just not in the way we might fully appreciate. To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s plastic surgeons and hair colorists can’t stop time. That is unless your name is Cher.

For some of us, vanity is beyond passé. “Does your belly hang low? Does it wobble to and froe? Can you tie it in a knot? Can you tie it in a bow?” Humpty Dumpty was carrying his weight in all the wrong places. Maybe if his center of gravity had been higher or lower…

Even if you’re lucky enough to be still getting checked out, believe it or not Ripley, by now every Boomer has lost that fabled step or two compared to our more youthful counterparts. Try as we might, it just happens.

It works like this. When I “run” 10K races, stopwatch batteries die before I can finish, so now they time me with a calendar. ☺

That’s why I’m starting my hike in February. I may need the extra time, ‘cause my Maine squeeze isn’t going to wait beyond October 15 when the trail terminus at Mt. Katahdin closes.

Let’s dig a little deeper. As we age, our cardio capacity is reduced. Our less-elastic tendons and reduced bone density make us more vulnerable the orthopedic disappointments that frequently erase thru-hikers from the roles.

Even our eyesight is diminished. Everyone over 40 suffers from presbyopia. But, as TV pitchman Billy Mays used to say before he gave up the ghost, “…but wait, there’s more!”

I recently hugged my ophthalmologist when she told me that everyone over 60 develops cataracts. Oh joy! Did you know that cataracts diminish night vision acuity?

Just for kicks, imagine this: During those long cold nights sometimes prostate symptoms often force guys to wake up and get up. Add reduced night vision to an unscheduled pit stop and guess what? If you want to see where you’re “going”… better remember your flashlight.

So to sum it up, sixty is NOT the new 40. Who would ’a thunk that? OBTW, don’t trust anyone under 2 x 30…

Face it fellow Boomers, we’re about to star in a reality show that is more like a “Twilight Zone” episode inspired by the Bataan death march and the Shackleton survival ordeal, than Disney’s “Davy Crockett.”

As I sit here considering what I’m up against next year, the words of my drill sergeant long ago are echoing in my head, “Life is cruel. Get over it and give me 50 push-ups!”

Maybe if Mr. Dumpty had pumped a little iron and did his push-ups….? Just sayin’.

Exercising and pumping iron, working out? What a concept!

Don’t laugh. Long distance hiking is an extreme athletic event. Serious strengthening programs are insurance against the stress injuries that add up after 5 million relentlessly pounding steps and a couple of hundred turtles and face plants.

If we workout at all, most of us aren’t focused on climbing over boulders, powering up hills, recovering from falls, and in particular, controlling down hill movement where shin splints and patellar tendonitis love to live.

That heavy pack on your back? Its weight serves as an exponent in the joint injury and tendonitis equations. Packing less weight is good as long as you can be safe.

So then, if luck is when preparation meets opportunity, this year’s hikers taught us this. When adversity smacks you up side the head, being fit and strong can be better than trail magic, and that’s worth strong consideration.

Fitness Together helped me design a strengthening program appropriate to the challenges presented to AT thru-hikers. My bar tab at the Fountain of Youth ran out long ago, so I had no choice but to pay up front.

By way of full disclosure, I am a life-long athlete who will turn 65 somewhere along the trail next year. If I don’t make it, I want to know I did everything I could to be ready and Pam Stanfield, my coach at Fitness Together, was a big part of that.

If I crash and burn, I want to be able to get up, recover and hike on. Either that, or I’ll throw in the towel knowing I left it all on the trail and there was nothing more I could have done.

Irrational determination and perseverance is what “Sisu” is all about. Now all I have to do is eat my spinach and measure up. BTW, don’t discount dumb luck and the kindness of the good people I am going to need and hope to meet along the way. Thanks to all y’all in advance.

Sisu’14

Hiker Superhighway

Hiker Superhighway

Sometimes dark clouds do have a silver lining.

Yesterday fog smothered Shenandoah National Park. Mist and light rain took our trail maintenance project of moving ginormous rocks off the docket. That might have meant a long climb for a short slide given the wasted driving time.

But instead, Eureka! It turned into a gift of time to hike. Knowing a number of thru-hikers I’ve been following were in the park, I took a three-and-a-half hour southbound stroll on the hiker superhighway in hopes I might make a connection. No luck, but it was a great 14-mile hike. It also reinforced the need to keep upping my level of fitness.

I did stumble upon a ghost hiker though. You couldn’t have made this guy up – except Coleridge already did. His gaunt, frightening looks actually startled me as he materialized silently out of the fog. When I finally realized he was there, my first thought was that he was a lost crew member from the Flying Dutchman.

He looked more than spooky, featuring beady, burned-out eyes that peered out from the dark depths of his edgy anorexic cheek bones.

He was definitely a thru-hiker sporting the traditional grubby, sun-faded uniform. His standout fashion item was a badly distressed Nantucket red pair of hiking pants that were richly accented by crusty salt stains. Drying socks and shirts decorated his pack.

This tall and thin, cleanly shaven, gray-haired apparition really did look like death warmed over.

As a purely defensive move, I said, “Hi! How’s it going? Silence. “You okay?” In return he frowned, “Yes, thank you.” End of conversation.

We each kept walking in opposite directions. I didn’t see him on the return leg.

Rain Magnet

Rain Magnet

Was checking the weather in hopes for a dry night for the ’13 through hikers I’m following. What I found was alarming. The only place in the world it’s raining is on the Appalachian Trail. Sorry hikers. No doubt about it. The thing is haunted and this photo proves it. Perhaps you guys could find a  sacrifice to the trail gods?

To be or not. Story-telling on the AT. That is the question.

Image

Is less more or less?

Why tell your story? Who is the audience?  What’s the message? What’s the most effective way to communicate?

Enter technology.  Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, You Tube, Trail Journals, WordPress, Blogspot, photos, video, text, smartphone, tablet, camera, paper and pencil, all of the above?

Constraints.  Poor cell coverage, where’s the WiFi, phone it in?  What to say, when to say it, TMI?  Privacy? Who can see it?  Family?  Friends? Creepy voyeurs?  Is that a problem?  How to grow an audience?  Is that a good purpose?

How about a co-pilot?  Is there someone at home who can help increase efficiency?  You post it once, or send it in, and the co-pilot posts it everywhere else and in the various formats needed. Many hikers do this.

There’s a lot to think about before stepping off.  It’s much harder once the trek is underway.

Some hikers develop a fan base of hundreds, especially on Trail Journals.  They report that the encouragement and feedback reenforces their commitment to stay on task and strong.  They’re stunned that so many people care to share in their adventure.  They relish and are energized by the on-going conversation with their fans.

Every step you take?  Every move you make?  What’s the audience want to know? “Here I come.  There I go.  Pitched my tent and dug a hole.”  How interesting is that 180 times over 2,000 miles?

My favs are the thematic entries.  People write entries on single topics – milestones, hiking and camping routine, cooking, gear, weather, trail conditions, the interesting characters they meet, hostel and town reviews, food – food – food, unusual situations, their mental state, rain – rain – rain, shelters, views, the flora and fauna, rocks, archeology, thank trail angels, hopes and fears. They retrospectively review and prospectively anticipate. The list is endless. They also warn of danger and rip-offs.

Pictures and videos are worth a thousand words.  There’s nothing like seeing and hearing rain pound a poncho, the view obscured by the hiker’s foggy breath, to erase  gauzy romanticism and drive home the hard realities that define the AT’s epic quest.

Hope this wasn’t too boring.  I’m just trying to get a grip on how to share my hike next year.