For the past few years I have joined a group of people who hike Mt Humphreys in Flagstaff, AZ, and I have had mixed feelings about it. At first, it was a challenge that I wanted to undertake. The peak is 12,633 feet high, and it works out to be a ten mile hike round trip. I knew lots of people did this hike every year, so I assumed I could do it as well. Yes, that was my ego talking, but I look at a lot of things through the lens of “if them, why not me, too?” It motivates me to try new things and overcome most of the trepidation I have for something I haven’t done before.
On my first trek up the mountain, I didn’t realize what I was in for. I had not done a hike of this length, let alone at altitude, before. Like, ever. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, and it showed by the time we were done. I felt awful by the time I was back at the car; my feet were killing me, as I had the wrong type of footwear on for a hike like this. My knees were throbbing, as they are not a big fan of going downhill. I probably didn’t drink enough water, and even though it wasn’t a hot day, the work load required more than I took in. I took too much stuff with me that I didn’t need, and yet there were things I should have had with me that I didn’t. Extra weight with no real benefit, not ideal. But, despite all of this I made it to the top anyway.
Next time around was a little better, as I had prepared to some degree for the task at hand. I have only very recently stepped onto a Stairmaster, despite having spent weekly time in the gym since the age of 15. I didn’t do it before trip number two either, but I did do some of my usual HIIT style workouts in advance of the annual trip. I had done this type of training throughout my entire racquetball career and beyond; it had served me well for most of my adult life. But, I had not ever really hiked before I met my wife, and I learned the hard way that this is a very different type of fitness. HIIT training is ideal for burst-and-recovery sports like racquetball, football, and many more. It is anaerobic, which is by definition short duration but maximum output. Hiking is aerobic, meaning long, steady duration of output at a lower rate. Think 60% output for a long time versus 100% output for 20 seconds at a time. Quite a contrast.
The second trip up, we got stuck at the saddle, about 45 minutes from the peak. A storm rolled in and on that exposed peak there is always danger of a lightning strike, so we called it good there. Despite not getting all the way to the top, I felt no better at the bottom of the hill. My knees hurt, despite wearing knee braces this time. I was wiped out, and I finished in about the middle of the pack within the hiking group. My wife was 30 minutes ahead of me to the car. She is an animal on the hills, and a very strong hiker, but it still bugged me. Yes, that’s my ego talking again, but it is how I felt. I vowed to make improvements.
This year’s trip was different. I felt great of some prep hikes that we did. I changed my training to include more long duration cardio training, Zone 2 training to be exact. I have been using some of Dr. Peter Attia’s training concepts in this area to make a big difference for me. I an not going to say that I enjoy this type of training, as it is quite different from what I am used to and I am not a big fan of endurance training in general. But if I want to be a good hiker (and keep up with my wife) I needed to make some changes. And truthfully, I am not sure that HIIT training is ideal for my training at my age of 52 either. I still do some, as I do believe the ability to sprint or give maximum output for a short time is a crucial life skill to possess, but I do far less than I have for the past 30 years. I have specifically done training to ensure my knees are more prepared for what I am going to ask of them as a hiker. I did some exercises like walking backwards pulling a sled at the gym. I did more stability training, balance work and more to get ready.
This year, I hung with my wife and the other fastest hiker in the group, all the way to the saddle and then to the peak. We reached the saddle in two hours flat; on my first trip it took three. We hit the peak in an additional 45 minutes, a very respectable clip. We could see a few others from the group in the distance, so we headed back and passed them on our way back the trail towards the saddle. I felt as good as I have ever felt up until this point; I was truly enjoying this hike instead of feeling like I had to dig deep to survive until the end. Almost everyone made it to their desired destination; not everyone in the group is going to make it to the peak. But we all had a good outing. As I came out to the parking lot where my wife was waiting for me yet again, I felt so much better than any other time I finished that trip.
I took about ten minutes more than she did to get down the mountain. I know that this is still my weakest part of the hike, and although I went faster this time around I was not able to keep pace with her and the other guy, as they finished about 1o minutes ahead of me. But, I was quite happy with my performance, especially compared to previous trips. Now…about that ibuprofen comment in the title…
I earned the pain that I felt on that trip.
In a weird way, the pain is the reward. It is a reminder of what was done, and just how difficult it was. That’s right, I WANTED to feel how I felt the next day, good or bad. I earned it. I also wanted to know if I could have done it again the next day, or if I was in need of a week of. Any type of anti-inflammatory pills are going to mute my body’s response, and I need to know. If we are going to do a hike that requires that kind of output several days in a row, like the John Muir Trail for example, I need to know if I can hang, and just how much prep work I need to do. The good news is that I felt pretty well recovered the next day. My calves were sore, but everything else was in pretty good shape. My knees were a tad stiff when I woke up, but this quickly subsided once I was up and around. I could have done it again if I needed to; probably not at the same pace as the day before, but I would have made it to the destination regardless. Clearly the work I had out in had paid off..
As I continue to make the changes in my body and my fitness to more of a endurance-based athlete, I will maintain some of the same thoughts I have always had. I will always be competitive about how I do, and who’s in front of me when I finish. I will continue to enjoy challenges that push me, and to some degree stretch my comfort zone. And I am guessing I will always have my outlook of improving at everything I do. I am not a fan of mediocrity, and therefore I will do the work to not finish in the middle of the pack at anything I do. I hope you can use some of the above to help guide your own thoughts and pursuits. trust me, the view is ALWAYS better from the top.
I wish you luck in your endeavors.