Training Twists and Turns on the Way to the Balkans

My “about me” page of this blog, which I wrote back in 2014, describes me as a “mid-50s” person. Born in 1961 and about to turn 58, I’m hoping I still qualify. But one of the things I’ve noticed as I take this journey from swamp to summit – which started when I was 50 – is the subtle or not so subtle changes in my training activities over the ages. Some due to sheer boredom. Some, unfortunately, due to years, painful as that is to admit.

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When I first embarked on this journey, I was a regular yoga attendee, both Bikram and what I call “regular” yoga, two to three times a week. Then we decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2011 for my 50th birthday and it became clear yoga alone wasn’t going to get me to the top of that mountain.  Hence, my now famous office building stair climbing regime. That’s the one thing that’s remained constant, even though my office has moved to a different floor and side of the building, which mysteriously is one extra floor in height.

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But the rest of it? Not so consistent. After our experience climbing Mt. Elbrus, I realized I needed way more heavy duty cardio. (See Steps on the Summit for our adventures on Europe’s highest peak.) Thus, I swallowed my disdain for running and embarked on a regime of a long (I worked my way up to 6-7 miles) run once a week, combined with a treadmill 5K at least once a week. But then my Wednesday yoga class was pushed to an earlier time and it became well nigh impossible to fit in a 5k between work and yoga. And then, after Stok Kangri, I realized I was all out so bored with running I couldn’t stand it, not to mention I was starting to obsess over my pace to the point it was becoming really stressful. Thus, my invention of the walk – run.  Letting Up the Pressure – Running and Walking Through the Holidays – memorializes this latest training technique!

Bikram fell victim to the closing of the studio (which probably wasn’t helped by Bikram’s own fall from grace). Although I still love it, and there are a few classes here and there, the times are terrible, so I rarely make it. Instead I’ve picked up Barre to accompany my yoga classes. Of course, I do it at the Y, so there’s no real barre and we have to use chairs. I can only imagine what we look like to onlookers as we plié and relevee clinging onto the backs of our chairs.

Weights have been an off and on thing. Right now they are on – I learned after Kilimanjaro that the only way to strengthen your knees is to strengthen your quads and I think there is going to be a high need for strong knees in Albania’s Accursed Mountains.

But my newest invention is a treadmill variation that I discovered while watching mountaineer and photographer Cory Richards’ training regime on Instagram. He put the treadmill on its highest 15% setting, strapped on a heavy pack, and proceeded to walk uphill for hours at about 2.8 miles an hour, not holding on. At that incline, if you tried going any faster without holding on you’d probably fall off. Now, my dirty little treadmill secret had been that I was a “holder”. I reasoned it was all about the legs, right? But when I tried Cory’s technique , sans pack, no hands, I suddenly realized I was actually using a whole different set of muscles – and they were the ones you use on a real live mountain.

So I guess the whole point of this is ebb and flow and just go with the tide, to keep the metaphor going. Training is going to change depending on your age, the boredom factor, and where you’re going. I tend to be a creature of habit; at least I’ve learned a bit of flexibility on my swamp to summit journey.

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Chained To My Fitbit

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It looks a bit like I’m under house arrest and am required to wear an electronic monitoring device.  A one inch band of synthetic material wrapped around my non-dominant wrist, topped with a large rectangular watch face. A few weeks ago, my firm started reimbursing everyone $100 for the cost of a Fitbit, as long as you promised to participate in one unspecified company “challenge” in a year and generally to be a healthy person. It was unclear exactly how the latter was to be implemented, but given the difficulty of enforcement, the risk of breach didn’t seem too great, and the lure of $100 quite strong.

So now a considerable number of attorneys and staff alike at my office are roaming the hallways, eyes on their devices, exchanging updates on their latest step counts. You can’t tell if they actually have a destination in mind, or are just adding to their steps.  I’ll be curious to see what the correlation is between increased steps and billable hours.

As for me, I couldn’t resist splurging on the Surge. It is the top level Fitbit, and not only counts steps and floors, but also monitors heart rate, your sleep cycle, and tracks exercise, ranging from running (it has a GPS tracker) to yoga. I tried the running tracker yesterday for a four mile run and compared it to Map My Walk – they were almost identical, so it seems the accuracy is pretty good. I also loved the fact I didn’t have to run with my phone in hand as I could glance down at any point and see my pace, time and distance.

I’m about to try the Fitbit at yoga – we’ll see. I’m not quite sure what it’s going to track. Number of sun salutations? Downward dogs?

I also wore it climbing stairs  the other day.  Every 25 floors or so I got a cheery email from the Fitbit people awarding me a new badge. At 125 floors I received the Roller Coaster. I climbed 140, so I’m guessing I need to do 150 to see what comes next. Maybe the Big Eye?

I’ve found the Fitbit at night is a little distracting. As a restless sleeper, I have woken a couple of times with the imprint of the buckle mashed into my wrist and have had to change arms. But it’s still interesting in the morning to have information like “moved 11 times” in a two hour period.

The strangest thing about my electronic bracelet is at all times to have access to information about my own body that was previously the province only of my body and not in any way the business of my brain. But now those mysteries are revealed. You can check at any given time just exactly what makes your heart beat a little stronger. Who know the effect on the dating industry.

Narcissism? Helpful for training? Increasing the scientific understanding of your own body? Maybe a little of all the above. But, as I try to figure out the next mountain summit, I figure I can use all the help I can get.

Let It Go, Flow

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Apologies to Paul Simon for the title (“never look back, Jack”). I’ve been writing an account of our trip to Iceland in early March – a travelogue of driving adventures, Nordic history, and stunning scenery. But all good sagas need intermissions – a time to break out the mead (or whatever it is the Vikings drank), roast some lamb (or whatever they ate) – and just generally sit around the fire and stare at the sky.

And so it is with my Nordic epic. I started this blog almost a year ago because I thought it would be the simplest way to share our then upcoming trip to Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains with everyone who had expressed interest. But I rapidly discovered that I was getting something else out of it entirely – a chance to write outside of the tightly constrained boundaries of legal writing (my profession) and an opportunity to speak in what I like to think of as a more authentic voice.

Yet I can’t escape my Type A tendencies. As I faced writing this weekend about our final days in Iceland, I realized, “I really don’t feel like writing about that now.” And you know what? I don’t have to. I have to fight the impulse to turn everything into a homework assignment for myself, making this blog just one more weekly deadline to add to the numerous and all pervasive deadlines I deal with on a daily basis.

I’m a really disciplined person, in most ways. It’s what has enabled me to climb these mountains even though I started at age 50, and I’m soon to be 54. It takes a lot of will to climb up and down the world’s most boring staircase between two and four times a week almost every week since April 2010. No, I’m not kidding.

But it’s one thing to be disciplined and another thing to let it enslave you. The discipline of making myself write at least once a week here is one thing. But it’s another thing to feel I have got to write Part 4 of Iceland when I don’t feel like it, even when there’s no court or client demanding I do so. And it’s also another thing to feel compelled to publish this on a Sunday simply because I’ve arbitrarily imposed that internal deadline on myself.

So today I’m going to go with the flow. I did do my stairs today (in fact I wore my mountaineering boots and I’m sure I looked even more peculiar than usual), but I’m going to press publish tonight. Even though it’s Friday.

And how about you? How do you keep from turning things that are optional into obligations?

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The Armchair Climber – The Power of the Book

 

My parents' house
My parents’ house

As an English major and daughter of two now retired English professors, I was raised in a house filled with thousands of books. We didn’t just have one copy of a book – we would have triplicate, because, I suppose, you can never have too much of a good thing.

But reading  has always powered my imagination – and imagination is probably behind my  starting  this whole mountain climbing thing in the first place.  Well, to be more precise, it was a 1991 movie called K2 that I saw on TV.  In fact checking for this post, I discovered it was largely panned by the critics, but I still remember the drama of preparation (one of the climbers was a lawyer) and the critical moments on the mountain where one climber had to make the decision to leave his injured companion behind. The husband found the film absolutely appalling.  But for some reason, the adrenalin junkie in me found the battle of man versus the elements completely fascinating.

A good book about the mountains – or any adventure travel – brings you that one step closer to making the summit your own reality. Lots of books have given me that little last push up that extra flight of stairs. Here are some of my favorites and I’d like to know yours – I’m currently perfecting my Kindle reading technique for stair climbing.

The Seven Summits by Frank Wells and Dick Bass. This may be where it truly started. A work colleague of mine lent me this book back  in the 1990s, and, true confessions, I never returned it. It’s the tale of the original two who climbed the seven summits in one year, 1983, the year I graduated from university. Easy reading and puts the mountains within reach.

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer. The story of George Mallory’s fateful trip to Everest, starting with his days climbing church steeples. The mystery remains – did he or did he not summit?

Mark Horrell’s travel diaries – these are available  very inexpensively in Ebook format. He seems to have climbed everything and his very detailed accounts of mountains ranging from Cotopaxi to Elbrus are quite reassuring to a novice climber.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Need I say more.

And, to finish up, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Ok, it’s not about summits but it is about swamps., Possibly the most beautiful prose ever written about the adventure of hiking through the wild Florida of the Fakahatchee swamp and the search for rare orchids. Inspirational for swamp dwellers who want to see more than the concrete of Florida development.

Boots With Soul

Boots with soul
Boots with soul

This coming week I’m planning to lug the hiking boots back to my office so they can start to climb stairs with me again. They are full leather Lowa Renegades that I bought in 2010. You could tell back then if a climber was from Central Florida because those were literally the only full leather boots being sold in the area.

I figure that it’s a good idea to be back in hiking boot mode before the Mt. Washington trip in a few weeks. And I know my daughter, who is going along for this trip, is tired of me telling her to do some hiking in her hiking boots – but since I don’t think she has done so for any length of time since the Inca Trail in May 2012, I certainly think it’s advisable.

Each time I put on my boots I see just a little bit of dirt or dust from treks past. Some days after the Boston Marathon bombing occurred and the bombers identified, I was climbing up and down the stairs in my office building. We had just returned a few weeks before from hiking down and up the Grand Canyon – South Kaibob and Bright Angel Trails. There was still red, copper dust ground into my boots that reflected the rusty color of the stair rails. The burnt colors around me, and the cavernous recollection of descending down into the canyon converged and I was overcome with the tragedy of how the two brothers could have so missed the point of the mountains and sun and whether they even realized what they had done.

I dragged around dregs of Kilimanjaro for months on my boots. The husband and I hadn’t bothered to take advantage of the repeated offers to clean our boots when we were in Africa – hence, even when we returned, my navy blue boots had a grey ashy sheen that outlasted multiple rainstorms. Each time I put them on I felt a little bit again the magic of that moment if stepping on the summit.

Elbrus didn’t make as big a mark on my boots as it did on me. Probably because once at the Barrels – the converted oil barrels where climbers stay at 12,000 feet – we were in our double plastic boots and crampons. But my boots still bear a little dust of the Caucasus mountains, especially the fields of wildflowers on the observatory hike and the dried salty sweat from the horses as we went horseback riding. And I’m sure that somewhere hidden in the creases of my boots there is a bit of olivine sand from Green Sands Beach in Hawaii, or the deep rich soil of the Inca Trail.

I’m hoping my boots have a lot more miles in them – although when I looked at the soles they have lost a fair amount of their grip. But grip or no grip – they have a lot of soul.

The “What Nexts”

I’ve puzzled greatly what the next post topics should be post Elbrus. And as I am on what seems to be my never ending quest to climb stairs during the hamster wheel of my work day, I have come up with numerous topics, all of which are duly recorded on the notes section of my phone.

But I have resisted the urge for an in-depth examination of my sunburned lips (although an expose of the sunscreen industry may be forthcoming) – and I similarly am not going in the direction of laundry, dogs and calling the kids. Instead, I finally settled for some thoughts on what’s next.

The “what’s nexts” can come up any time – I’ve had it happen after a big case is finally over, after any milestone reached. But there’s something particularly difficult – yet exciting – about the what nexts after a climb.

For one thing, at age 53, there simply is no such thing as stopping the training. So that’s not a what next. Maybe I’m not lugging 23 pounds around on my back while climbing stairs at the moment, but if I stop climbing stairs altogether, I don’t think there’s any amount of time that could get me back to where I am. It’s like the Woody Allen line from Annie Hall – if a shark doesn’t keep moving forward it dies. OK, he was talking about relationships but you get the point.

But more than just that – there is a world of infinite possibility out there – tempered only by some reality of space, time, and physical ability. Time and space – I truly don’t see how, until I actually retire, I can take three weeks off work to climb Mt. Vinson in the Antarctic, for example. Two weeks is hard enough. As for physical ability – I have to recognize it probably is not within my being to carry 65 pounds and drag a 100 pound sled. Unless I quit my job, do Cross Fit everyday and invent some other form of training that presently doesn’t exist – that’s just out – which means Denali is too.

So – what next? There is Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Maybe trekking in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco? And I am still determined to summit Mt. Hood one of these days. Mt. Adams? And we are seriously discussing a trip with friends to Iceland in March. There has to be some fine climbing there.

I just want to use my ice axe again. Right now the most likely near term possibility may be a winter ascent of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. And maybe I can even convince the daughters to come along.

I’ll throw it open for comments – from the north, south, east or west. Which summit next?

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Training to train.

Four years ago, when I started to train to climb Kilimanjaro, I encountered the same problem facing anyone who lives in Florida and hopes to climb a mountain – how do you train to go up? As I worked (and work) in a 16 floor office building the answer seemed obvious – simply climb the stairs.

I started out in a basic fashion. I simply changed my work shirt for a t shirt, found the door to the fire stairs and started up. As my office is on the 10th floor there was some calculation as to how to count floors 10 to 16 (ultimately I decided that was half a set of the building but I could count a full set if I finished with 1 to 10). I spent a long time wondering if a 16 floor building is really 15 and not 16 floors because you start at 1, not zero.

As my number of sets of the building increased so did my methods for stair climbing. First, I realized an hour on the stairs really required a full change of clothes. Second, just keeping track of how many times you went up and down was difficult. So, I started a routine I keep to this day: set 1 – every step, 2 – every other step, 3 – alternate flights of every and every other. I’m presently refining the succeeding sets so they involve flights of side steps, every other, and yes, even walking backwards.

I’ll leave for another post scintillating topics such as: adding weight as you get closer to the actual climb, “how to read and respond to work emails while climbing stairs,” and how to explain to the security guard in your building that “no you are not a homeless person with a backpack who snuck into the fire staircase.”

But now it’s time to go off for what may be one of our last super long hikes before leaving for Mt. Elbrus. Happy Saturday!