My good friend and trail brother, Ken Brenner reached out to me the week of Thanksgiving 2016, asking me if I wanted to hike with him on Black Friday. Ken is an avid hiker, stays in shape, and he can really move down the trail.
He proposed an out-and-back hike on the Benton MacKaye Trail, from Wilscot Gap to the Shallowford Road bridge crossing and back, for a total of 15 miles. His text message said “It’s not too tough, as I recall”. He had hiked the section some years before.
I immediately said yes, but in the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t in the kind of shape I needed to be in to hike that distance in the hills of North Georgia. Over last summer, Cathy and I were hiking machines, and we put in some respectable miles, both on day hikes and backpacking trips. If a hike wasn’t 10 miles or more we considered it a short hike. In between hikes we put in some work conditioning nearly every day.
However, once Cathy’s summer was over and she returned to teaching school, our conditioning became more sporadic. Cathy puts in a LOT of time as a teacher, and this year her classroom dynamics have been particularly challenging. After leaving for work at 6 AM and not getting home until 530 or 6 PM, she was having trouble finding the proper motivation to get out and condition. Being the lazy bum that I am, if she wasn’t going then neither was I.
I told myself “well Ken said it’s not too tough, so maybe I’ll be okay.” First mistake. I imagine that after Ken summitted Mount Everest, he’d say “That wasn’t too tough.” I fooled myself into thinking I’d be fine. And, at first I was. I started strong, was able to keep up mostly, and felt decent but found that the hills really got to me and I was breathing really hard. I made it to our lunch spot on the Toccoa River in decent shape, at the midway point.
Once we ate lunch and started back, it wasn’t long before I started having trouble. My legs were just plain dead, aside from the fact they were really sore and achy. I simply couldn’t make them move as fast as I needed them to. And as the hike progressed, I found that it was becoming difficult to draw deep breaths, like there was some kind of constricting band around my chest preventing full expansion. The last few miles of the hike was really a suffer-fest, and it was a supreme effort of will just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Ken pulled farther and farther ahead, and I just couldn’t keep up. Several times he stopped and waited for me to crawl back within eyesight, making sure I was still moving and OK. Frankly it was embarrassing.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I enjoyed the hike. It was beautiful country and weather, and a great stretch of trail. Ken’s a great friend and hiking partner. That said, I could have enjoyed it much more had I been in better condition.
You can get a sense of how beat down I was in the video by the commentary I made at the end of the hike. (See video below.)
This hike provided me with the wake-up call and motivation I needed to get serious about conditioning again. I started walking around my neighborhood, pushing as hard as I could. It was tough at first but thankfully it got easier pretty quickly and I was able to see improvement. I also committed to getting out more with Cathy, at every opportunity. She’s just now starting to get back into the groove as well, and we’ve been on a few day hikes and plan to do more as time and opportunity permit.
A month later, during the break between Christmas and New Year’s, Ken proposed we do the Coosa Backcountry trail with some detours, another 15ish mile hike with some pretty good elevation changes. The difference between these hikes was night and day. I felt better from the very start and stayed strong the whole hike.
The bottom line and moral of the story: it gets tough. Life gets in the way. Some people may be just plain lazy, like me. But, the journey from Couch to Trail is not a one time journey, it’s a journey that needs to be traveled constantly, whether you go to the gym regularly, walk around your neighborhood, or condition in your home. As I found out the hard way, staying on the couch does not help you out on the trail.