So my wife got this crazy idea for an adventure for us to go, and I am writing this fresh off of the experience. We decided to take on the challenge of the Manitou Incline… (insert ominous sounding music here)
If you are not familiar, click here for the Wikipedia page to see just what this looks like. The incline is 2,744 railroad ties as steps, and it goes straight up the side of the mountain. I had some idea of what I was getting into, but nothing really prepares you for a physical challenge like this until you get there and start. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I paid the price because of it. We had done our annual hike up Humphrey’s Peak in Flagstaff AZ this summer, and I did fine. I kept up with my wife and one other person, the two strongest hikers in the group, the whole way up. My knees are not a fan of downhill hiking, so I did not try to keep up with them on the way down the hill. We did a training hike near our house a mere two weeks ago, and I felt good. I thought I was ready. I put in a decent amount of time (for me) on the Stairmaster in advance. I hate the Stairmaster, and I have never done this training before in my life. I have been an anaerobic athlete my whole life, first wrestling, then a lifetime of racquetball at a very high level. Burst and recovery training is my jam. In the past when I was in my peak athletic condition, I could hang with world class athletes from all walks of life, if they fell into the anaerobic category.
I always had it in my head that around age 50 I would make the transition to reducing the rigors of plyometric training and switch over to more of an aerobic and “Zone 2” Training approach. This is seemingly a better fit according to a lot of research out recently, and the training is much easier on the body. But apparently I am still in my transition phase of this, as the photo of my heart rate monitor clearly shows. Yes, you are reading that correctly, my heart rate was over 168 bpm for a whopping 103 minutes. THAT is crazy, even for me, I have never spent that long of a duration above 168 bpm. I am guessing if a doctor read this, they would admit me to the hospital for testing right away. I am not sure just how dangerous this is, as I have operated in this fashion for most of my life. Don’t try this at home, I am a trained professional.
As we started up the trail to get to the steps, I looked up and could barely see the top. It was intimidating to say the least, but I do like testing myself, so I was in. I wanted the challenge, and was ready to go. But before long, the gap between my wife and I was growing. She is an animal on the mountains, and knows not to wait for me. The only time she didn’t leave my side was when I bonked coming out of the Grand Canyon. I was in trouble on that trip, I didn’t take any electrolytes with me and after nine hours of hiking, some of it in very hot weather, I was feeling pretty bad. This was different, it wasn’t hot out, I wasn’t nine hours into a hike or anything like that. I was walking up flight after flight of stairs, and I was feeling the pain of it. Simple as that. I was getting leg fatigue and my heart was pounding in my chest. I was monitoring my heart rate through my Garmin watch, and I knew were I was at.
I passed a few people who were on their way down, and they asked how I was. I replied that I was ok, just struggling a bit. They looked concerned, and suggested that I turn back. I laughed at first, as I was Hell bent on getting to the top. I looked up to see my wife, far ahead of me, looking back to see how I was doing. She yelled down to me, and I waived her off, telling her I was ok. But I really wasn’t; at this point, I was counting 50 steps and stopping to rest. I was at at my limit after 50 steps. FIFTY! I couldn’t do more than that, and soon I was unable to get to 50 steps. I was taking my time, thinking if I just paced myself, I would get to the top eventually. At this stage I am at 1800 steps in, and I need to make a decision that could have some real consequences. One more person passed me by, and she asked how I was doing. I fessed up that I was struggling, and she hit me with a cold, hard fact: There was a guy who had a heart attack last week. I sat down for a moment to really think about whether or not I should continue on.
I decided that after three minutes of rest I was good to carry on. I started up the steps, that at this point were more like climbing a ladder versus just walking up steps. I went 25 steps, and I was done. The incline was worse than the lower level, and I looked up to see my wife standing there, looking back at me. She yelled: “You should turn around”. I was in no position to argue, and I agreed. I was 25 steps above the 1800 steps mark, the last bail out point on the incline. I had convinced myself I could plow through the pan and the high heart rate and still make it to the top. I was wrong, and that 25 steps proved it. I turned around and climbed down the 25 steps and back down to the 1800 steps mark. I conceded. I headed down the trail back to the parking lot. My wife went on without me.
I enjoyed the walk down the trail, in a strange place in my head. Part of me was disappointed that I couldn’t make it. I felt like I had failed. But after a while, I realized I didn’t really fail today, I failed a month ago in my preparation training. I didn’t get my ass on that Stairmaster often enough and long enough. Didn’t do enough lunges, didn’t do enough step-ups. That is the real truth…I was able to do exactly what my preparation had allowed me to do. This prep work was enough to get me to the top of Humphrey’s Peak, but not Manitou Incline. This was next level sh*t, and I am honestly not sure if I could EVER do this. But I do now know that I can’t do it with my usual preparation.
I also was proud of myself for a couple of reasons. One, I tried. I don’t know anyone who has tried this challenge. Lots of people have, and made it, but no one that I know. I didn’t back out of this, I didn’t get stuck in a loop in my head of “I can’t make it” at any real point. I didn’t crack, I didn’t break until that last 25 steps. I was willing to continue on, take more pain, keep grinding. I am still a cleaner. But I also was smart enough to listen to my body and understand my own limits. I turned around before I got myself into a mountain rescue situation. This is progress for me, as I wasn’t great about this throughout my life.
So I missed the target, but I didn’t fail. I was in the game, I just didn’t get to the finish line. I am learning not to beat myself up over things like this. Probably 99% of the planet couldn’t do this. I have been down this road before; I stood #18 in line in the world rankings on the Pro Racquetball tour, and I was mad that seventeen people were in line in front of me. It made my life miserable; I didn’t appreciate what I had accomplished, and I certainly didn’t enjoy the ride that I was on because of my mindset. I have tried my best to learn from that experience and am trying to ever repeat it. I didn’t create a scenario in my head that wasn’t accurate or reflecting the reality of the situation. I appreciated my effort and my output in that moment. I figured out where the real “failure” was, and what I should do next time. That is about as good as it gets, at least in this stage of my life.