A Cautionary Tale of Statins, Thru-Hiking, and Rhabdomyolysis

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I am writing this as a cautionary tale to all those thru-hikers who, like me, have been prescribed statins on the advice of their doctor. I took two kinds of statins on my doctor’s advice, and it cost me my thru-hike and nearly much, much more.

But before I get into just what happened and how, I want to put things into context and tell you a little about me. On the advice of my doctor, I began to take statins some five years ago. We (that is, generally older people) take statins to manage otherwise high cholesterol levels. I was prescribed a combination of statins: one to decrease bad cholesterol and fats and increase good cholesterol in my blood, and the other to reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed by the body from the food I eat.

Ed. Note: We are hikers, not doctors. This advice is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. 

The Plan

I had planned to hike the AT in 2020 and secured a US visa. It allowed for a continuous stay of six months at a time and was valid for five years. Great! But like many people, COVID and the travel restrictions that were imposed put paid to that. So, I set my sights on 2021 and then 2022. In early 2022, all the signs were looking good; airlines were opening up and borders coming down. I went along to my doctor.

I told him what I had planned and asked if I needed these pills at all. He assured me that I did. I asked if they would be OK given what I was planning. He was unambiguous. “No worries,” he said. So I went along to the pharmacist, secured a six-month supply, and added them to my pack.

But how wrong he was!

The author at the start of the Approach Trail, Amicalola Falls, GA, April 10th, 2022. Courtesy of David “High Route” Mason.

I started the AT on April 10th and decided to leave the trail on June 10th at Route 60. According to AWOL, I was at mile 809.1 and still 1384 short of Mt Katahdin. Why did I get off? It seems that the mix my doctor prescribed was actually, slowly and inexorably, poisoning me.

I got off because I was as weak as a kitten, my muscles melting from my body and pissing Coca-Cola. At night I sweat and woke wet, smelling of ammonia. And how did I end up like this? Because I was poisoning my body with doctor-prescribed statins. Every morning, I would take a pill that was supposed to lower my cholesterol count—but instead of saving my life, it was killing me.

How do I know this? I know it because I have run 75-minute half marathons, marched with the French Foreign Legion, and walked across Australia. In other words, I am pretty familiar with what my body can do.

On the AT, I was hiking around Hobble-it and Dingleberry, Bumblebee, Cricket, Strider, and Sonic. Great guys who were gentle with me. They would discreetly check in on me with questions like, “man, how much weight have you lost,” “are you having trouble,” or “are you OK?”

“I should have listened to my body.”

And me? I could not understand what was happening to me. I was fit before I left Australia and in the early part of the AT was in good shape. But somehow, instead of getting leaner and stronger, I was getting skinnier and weaker. Of course, if you are like me (and I know many hikers are like this), you question your own assessments. What’s causing this? Surely I can’t be getting weak. It’s all in my head. Maybe I’m just getting soft and old.

But I should have listened to my body. And I should have asked for medical help. I didn’t, and I got worse. So bad, in fact, that when I got to Stanimal‘s place in Glasgow, I tried slackpacking for the first time. After all, I thought, if I could only be a bit gentler on my body, it would recover. Good thinking, but no such good outcome. Charlie dropped me off at Route 60, and I hiked back to the pickup near the footbridge across the James River.

The James River Foot Bridge, Amherst Co., VA (2018 photo).

Along the way, I realized I was done. Just after the Lynchburg Reservoir, I had to stop, and it was then I became frightened. My body was even weaker, and I was doubting whether I could make it the 20 or so miles. My legs felt like rubber, empty of the power to drive myself forward. But I did keep going dragging myself beyond Bluff Mountain and greeted Anvil, Sunny, and Luna as they passed by me headed north.

I just made it to the pick-up point and waited a short while for Charlie. I sat by my pack a shattered, disappointed, and empty man. Was I really finished? I knew I was. I was headed home, back to Australia.

The Aftermath

It was after a few days, sitting with a doctor in the local clinic, that I had the news. I told him about what had happened, including the symptoms. He asked me if I felt OK now, and I had to say I was feeling much better, but then I was not hiking or even running. My wife said I had to put on 20 pounds before she would let me into bed with her.

He turned and brought up my file on his screen. He stroked his chin, pulled at an earlobe, and said, “well, umm, it seems that we have given you something we should not have.” According to him, there’s a link between some statins, some people, and extreme physical activity that can dissolve your muscles—a condition known as rhabdomyolysis. He took me off the statin that reduces the body’s ability to absorb cholesterol, instructing me to have a blood test in six to eight weeks and see him a week after that. So I did, and you can be certain that I nervously awaited the results.

Ed. note: Rhabdomyolysis is a rare side-effect of some statin drugs and can also be brought on by extreme physical exertion (among other possible triggers).

On the day of my follow-up, I sat in reception and for too long wondered whether my kidneys would be OK. After all, the statins in my body had caused my muscles to dissolve into the bloodstream to be filtered through my kidneys. No wonder I’d been pissing Coca-Cola. Too often, a rhabdomyolysis diagnosis means damaged kidneys and even the need for a transplant. I did not want to think too hard about that.

Fortunately, the doctor sat me down and told me I was once more a picture of health. Everything was working as it should. After all, “kidneys are very good at regenerating themselves.”

So I am OK. Sure, that’s great, but it does not change the fear and uncertainty I carried for too long. And if there’s anything I have learned, it’s this: if something untoward, unusual or unexpected happens to your body, do not be a complete idiot and ignore it. Don’t think that you are soft. Get advice!

And the second thing I have learned is to do your research, ask questions, and if you think you need to, get a second opinion. Your life might just depend on it.

About the Author

The author at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, VA, June 15th, 2022. Courtesy of David “High Route” Mason.

David “High Route” Mason is a 62-year-old Australian lawyer, ex-Foreign Legion paratrooper, and officer in the Australian Defence Force Reserve. He is also the first and only person to have walked across Australia at its widest points.

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Comments 10

  • Dottie Rust : Oct 1st

    I too was prescribed meds to lower high cholesterol. Meds were statin-based. After some time I began to have sudden onsets of feeling like I was suddenly going to pass out, these occurred especially while driving. Very scary. Long story short: my eye doctor was the medical person who immediately understood what my statin meds were doing…my eye muscles were weakening. She recommended stopping the cholesterol meds, wait 6 months & she would check my eye sight again. 6 months later eye muscles strong again. She recommended I ask my doctor for non-statin meds to control high cholesterol. Another 6 months & blood tests were much better, my eye muscles strong & no more sensations of blacking-out.

    I am 66, excellent health, hike (AT completed 2016), bike, swim & lift weights regularly (yup, I’m retired).

    Glad you listened to your body & hope all is well now,

    • Trisha m : Oct 3rd

      I want to thank you so much for writing this I am 65-year-old woman and would like to have my cholesterol lowered unsure of what medications to take after reading what you have written has helped me a lot and I thank you now when I go to my doctor I know to ask him for statin free meds again thank you and God bless you!

      • Bill Downey : Oct 3rd

        Get several opinions. Possibly diet change & exercise can be adequate.

    • David : Oct 3rd

      Can you remember the statin that caused problems?
      I take statins but I don’t take LEQVIO, and I am think that I am doing ok…so far


  • Doug Schmidt : Oct 2nd

    I too was on statins to raise my good cholesterol. They almost crippled me. The medical literature says about 10% of the population is statin sensitive. The first one caused plantar fasciitis. The second one caused my toes to splay. The 3rd caused generalized muscle weakness across my whole body. I am now off statins and changed what I eat to keep my cholesterol in check. High cholesterol for most of us is not inevitable as we age. The quick fix of pills manage the symptoms but do not cure the underlying cause of diseases.

  • Michael Wiegman : Oct 3rd

    The first time I was placed on statins my leg muscles became weak and painful. Years down the road and not taking any statins my cardiologist said you need to be on statins. When I told him about my muscle weakness and pain he told my to take CoQ10 a supplement to help with pain and muscle discomfort. This has helped alot and currently on a statin for over 2 years and no symptoms.

  • Bill Downey : Oct 3rd

    Was placed on Statin, checkup blood work after a upper body workout had me in a $300 argument with ER Doc over my assertion the workout caused abnormally high CPK. Off Statin immediately. But I now believe statin use is the main contributor to Type 2 Diabetes. Hard to exercise when your body is ok but digestion is functioning poorly. The Doctor checked the box, got insurance money and I’m paying the load. Still want to walk AT & PCT in segments. Climate change, notwithstanding.

  • Ralph : Oct 4th

    I’m 53 and have been on statins for over 20 years. I have a genetic condition where my liver does not convert LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) to HDL cholesterol (the good stuff). Changing my diet won’t help with my cholesterol. I passed the average age of 1st heart attack for a male with my condition about 5 years ago possibly in part because of statin meds. I’m very aware of the possible side effects and am always conscious of rhab-blah-blah-osis (I’m not making fun of the name, I just can’t pronounce it or spell it). So far I have not had any issues from taking statins. I see my doctor regularly and try to pay attention to what my body is telling me (mostly it says “you’re not 21 anymore!”). I’m grateful for the science of pharmaceuticals that helps keep my LDL low, but I’d really love to quit taking the stupid pills! If you have high cholesterol, definitely talk to a medical professional (not all doctors are “medical professionals” IMHO) about options to avoid statins (or pretty much any drugs because they ALL have side effects). Thanks for the excellent article and warning about side effects of meds. Happy hiking!

  • Bart : Oct 7th

    It’s a controversial subject. But I thought this YouTube lecture was one of the best I’ve seen so far on the topic. Not much has changed since this video came out.

    YouTube: David Diamond- Demonization and Deception in Cholesterol Research

  • Skay : Oct 8th

    Given that doctors call cholesterol good and bad, without even understanding the fundamental difference between HDL, LDL, VLDL, let alone that no pathology tests actually measure LDL (it’s estimated on a best fit algorithm), I wouldn’t trust most medical professionals opinions on the safety of statins.

    Cholesterol, like glucose, glucagon, leptin, ghrelin, etc are highly dynamic molecules and change minute to minute, every day, and yet doctors seem to think a single snapshot with an imputed value (LDL) is valid. For purported people of science, their collective and slavish adherence to pseudo-science is worse than religion.

    I’m glad you are on the mend, but the half-baked mea culpa you received is a slap in the face considering the personal cost in lost opportunity. Here’s hoping you have a full recovery and future opportunities.


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