January 10, 2017, Jay
Sarah and I fell in love with long distance hiking while completing the the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2007 and again in 2008; and the John Muir Trail in 2009. I retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in February, 2011, and thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail that same year. Sarah, still teaching 3rd grade, joined me during her summer vacation for 500 miles. I then hiked the PCT during 2012. Again, Sarah joined me for several hundred miles during her summer break. I was pretty run down after the PCT hike, so I laid low until Sarah retired, but still hiked a couple hours each day. We did hike a section of the AT together (Springer Mt. to Roan Mt.) during the summer of 2015.
Both Sarah and I were in pretty bad shape by the time she retired in December of 2015. Sarah had a herniated disc in her lower back which caused her severe sciatica pain; I suffered from shoulder spasms; and we were both overweight. Beginning on December 17, 2015, we began hiking or cross-country skiing at least 4 hours each day (with one day off per week). We also began dieting on January 8, 2016.
By May, 2016 we had improved enough to hike from Springer Mountain, GA to Ocoee, TN on the Benton Mackaye and Jack’s River Trails. Sarah, however, still felt lower back pain. She returned home, while I attempted the Pinhoti Trail. I made it through Alabama, but in Georgia, I suffered a sacro-iliac ligament strain in my lower back, and the shoulder spasms flared up bringing me crawling dejectedly out of the woods. It was then that I realized something had to change.
After a few weeks in bed, I began day-hiking with Sarah again. During hikes in the Tahoe Basin, I was impressed by the athleticism of trail runners that flew past us. Noting that some were older than me, I wondered if I could learn something from them. I began to read about endurance running. I also began to run, very slowly, on the trails. My reading eventually led me to the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. This book inspired both Sarah and I to adopt a different style of walking. We bought zero-drop shoes and eliminated heel striking from our gait, landing on the balls of our feet (even on the downhills) to cushion the impact. Almost immediately, our lower backs began to improve.
We also read The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing by Dr. Philip Maffetone. Maffetone states that increased cortisol levels caused by anaerobic exercise, insufficient sleep, and other stresses prevents the development of aerobic capacity. So we followed his method of developing aerobic fitness for four months. This entailed hiking and running while using a heart-rate monitor to stay below our aerobic thresholds, and training no more than two hours a day in our target heart-rate zones. We both found that, by the end of four months, we could hike uphill faster at our target heart rates.
Maffetone also convinced us to improve our eating habits, so we adopted the diet described in The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. We stopped eating grains, legumes, refined sugars, and dairy products. We now eat grass-fed beef, fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, and fruit. We try to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, and less than 200 grams of carbohydrates (above what we burn working out) per day. Maffetone and Wolf state that reducing carbohydrates will train your body to burn more fat, a far better fuel source for endurance events. Our challenge will be to maintain this diet on the trail.
Instead of pushing through fatigue and pain, we will go as slow as we need in order to maintain our health. Maffetone recommends monitoring your resting pulse each morning. An increase in resting heart rate is the first sign of declining health. So we will reduce our pace as necessary to maintain our health according to resting pulse.
We will not use trekking poles. We were both amazed to discover that landing on the balls of our feet makes us sure-footed enough to no longer need trekking poles. This is something you will never believe until you try. Keep in mind that it takes a couple of months to develop the muscles needed for this style of walking.
Unfortunately, despite two cortisone injections and 4 months of physical therapy, I still have a lot of shoulder pain. I believe the pain is caused by nerve impingement resulting from carrying all of my weight on my shoulders while using trekking poles. So I purchased a properly-fitting pack (Zpacks Arc Haul Dyneema, size L) which should allow me to minimize the weight on my shoulders. This, and the elimination of trekking poles may allow me to complete the hike.
We will start in mid February rather than early April. The pros are that we will reduce the impact on the southern portion of the trail during the hiker bubble, we will have longer to complete the trail, and Sarah, who is already visiting her family in Tennessee, won’t have to return home before we start. The obvious con is the cold weather. Hopefully, our fitness level will allow us to dash between trail towns during windows of warmer weather.
It is now less than a month before our start date. Both Sarah and I are much lighter and more fit than we were a year ago. Will we complete the hike? Stay tuned to find out!