by James “Sisu” Fetig

Physical Preparation for the Older Hiker

April 27, 2016

Historically mass media events have correlated to substantial increases in the numbers of hikers, especially thru hikers, on the Appalachian Tail (A.T.).  Informed observers expect that the two recent Hollywood movies related to hiking, “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods” will do the same.

There is one caveat.  The stars of “A Walk in the Woods” are expected to appeal more to baby boomers than any other demographic.  We boomers are aging whether or not we like to admit it, and older hikers face special challenges from which youth, or our lack thereof, no longer protects us.

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

Some suggest that anyone can hike themselves into shape; that they only have to start slowly and the rest will take care of itself.  That’s a risky strategy and success is far less likely as we age.

A recent academic survey of thru hikers found that hikers listed physical problems as their second greatest challenge – right after weather and climate conditions.  For one, when you hurt physically, everything else that may not be going well compounds.  Vince Lombardi was right.  “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Reading hiker blogs suggests that some of the Boomers are afflicted with the narcissistic mindset so often associated with our generation. We tend to think of ourselves as 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 every year, more than a few Boomers discover a different reality when the Pepsi Generation slams into Mother Nature’s limits. These natural limitations are compounded by the magnitude of the challenge a long distance thru hike presents.

It’s no wonder that fate forces hundreds of older hikers to bite the dust and return home in the vertical and – tragically on rare occasions – in the horizontal position.

All of this caused me to rethink everything about preparing for my own hike from gear to my conditioning program. I needed to improve my odds of success, but there’s more to that then meets the eye.

Since we’re talking about 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 put us back together again. That is unless your name is Cher – of course!

For some of us, vanity is beyond passé.  Muffin tops, especially those the size of truck tires, are lot to lug around.  Worse, for hikers on rough terrain, they severely alter your center of gravity. 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 look good enough that attractive people still check you out, believe it or not Ripley, by now every one of us 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, I’m so slow that stopwatch batteries die before I can finish.

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.  This is gender neutral in its application.

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 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 if you are considering hiking the A.T., you are about to star in a reality show that is more like a “Twilight Zone” episode inspired by the Bataan death march than Disney’s “Davy Crockett.”

When I contemplate the physical challenges of a 2,200-mile trek, the roar of my long-ago drill sergeant echoes 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 …

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

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.

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 bunch of turtles and face plants.  I estimate that I fell nearly 50 times.

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

So then, if luck is when preparation meets opportunity, past 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 pondering.

My bar tab at the Fountain of Youth ran out long ago, so I had no choice but to pay up front.  I changed my workouts to focus on hiking.  This is a link to but one of may informative websites where specific exercise and routines can be found.

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.

By way of full disclosure, I am a life-long athlete who turned 65 on the trail. With my athlete’s mindset, if I didn’t make it, I wanted to know I did everything I could to be ready.  If I crashed and burned, I wanted to be able to get up, recover and hike on. If I threw in the towel, I needed to know that I left it all on the trail and there was nothing more I could have done.

As it happened, my rigorous physical conditioning paid off in spades.  I started strong and got stronger.

James “Sisu” Fetig is a successful member of the A.T. thru hiker class of 2014.