Getting Ready, I’m in the Best Shape of My Life

About a year ago I committed to and started planning to thru-hike the AT as a NOBO for the year 2019. I devoured AT how-to books at a staggering pace, signed up and read every post on The Trek, and researched all kinds of equipment. I also became a regular at our closest REI store in Winter Park, FL. I signed up for a number of hiking classes at REI and joined Meet Up for networking and day hikes. I meet two thru-hikers and one section hiker who just completed the trail. Most books I read seemed to suggest that the majority of hikers would plan just a few months on average prior to starting the trail. I was wondering if I was too far ahead of the curve and it seemed like a long way off before I would start. What to do with all that time? I was surprised that physical training wasn’t heavily advocated, After all, your trail legs happen on the trail.

Fortunately, our oldest daughter wed in June and planning and preparation for the wedding kept us focused on this joyous event.
I wanted to declare my plans for this epic journey but decided to do this after the wedding so the focus on the biggest event was where it should be. The week before the wedding in our preparation, I had time to hike the Approach Trail to Springer Mountain—Southern Terminus. The wedding was in Georgia, so it was a short ride to Amicalola lodge. I had my pack and some gear by this time and filled the rest of my pack up to simulate my guesstimate weight of 35 pounds. I had already planned to not include the approach on my thru-hike, so my anxiousness to hit the trail was satiated by hiking the approach. With dirt on my trekking poles and trail runners, I was in heaven. I felt somewhat soothed by this hike. After the wedding I let everyone know my plans and increased my training even more. Starting right after my first AT book I created a plan to work out. I started fairly modestly by biking six to eight miles a day and started to learn and do yoga. I gradually increased my yoga, stretching, and exercising every day for about an hour. My bike rides became longer, to 12 miles a day, rain or shine, seven days a week. When I started even my modest exercising, I felt like I was in good shape as most of my career I worked outside as a hands-on grounds manager, so physical hard labor was an everyday reality. I have a balanced, good diet and normally walk after work 1,000-1,300 miles a year. Being retired going on year two, I took up bicycling and continued walking to stay active.

Late summer I increased my biking to 14 miles a day as well as an hour of yoga. Hikes as often as I could and walks with my wife every day. We traveled to our relatives and friends in upstate New York to help with a few home projects. I budgeted enough time for daily bikes and some mountain hikes in the Catskills. The cooler weather invigorated me to bike farther and faster. Now most of my excursions included a full backpack. In November I had the honor and privilege to meet a AT thru-hiker I followed since Pennsylvania; I was introduced by a friend and looked forward to MavErick’s daily posts on Facebook. My new friend lived three hours away on the west coast of Florida. So, post hike, my wife and I visited with him and downloaded his hiking brain for the entire day; he gave me a great shakedown and shared so much information. He was only about a month and a half off the trail. He was excited to share information, and when I asked him about training, he said what I was doing was good, but I should really turn it up a notch. Like a sponge I jumped on all his advice as it pertained to planning, gear, and exercise. The same week I joined a gym and pushed myself and increased and varied my exercise program. I increased my biking to 16 miles a day and focused on cardio by adding 40 to 50 wind sprints for 100- to 200-yard intervals, and focused on improving my time. Before I knew it, I biked in the highest gear, never downshifting, and pushed till I was biking 16 miles in 50 minutes. Still doing exercising and yoga for an hour. The next day was gym day—15 minutes on the StairMaster at level ten, which equaled 1,200 steps. Elliptical for 15 minutes on hill climb mode on 20 setting—all with a 35-pound pack. Next was circuit training, including ten step stations with 12 reps and ten weight machines for various muscle groups for a 30-minute workout. Day three is flex day, when I might trail hike full pack seven to eight  miles or bike the 16 miles, push my wife two miles in a wheelchair with pack, and run stairs 16 sets with pack. On the trail in Florida, because we lack any real ups and downs, I focus on quickness and am working a 16-minute mile with full pack. Repeat every day—no zeros, rain or shine. In between I did my shakedown hike of 45 miles, and walk one to two miles a day with our dog and my sweetie—of course, with my pack.

Is this guy crazy, you’re asking? Well, considering a 2,200 mile, 5 ½ month journey should clearly answer that question. I am 55 years young and have always been active in my career and always in sports while I was in school. I learned the importance and advantage of training for a competitive edge. I’m not competing with anyone, but my goal is to be as conditioned as I can be for my age. I want strong knees, ankles, back, hips, etc. I know the trail will kick my butt and I look forward to it, but I want to be the best prepared as I can be. The 25-year-old version of me would just be concerned with gear and go, but even at my young age I feel preparation will give me my physical edge and confidence. With all this training, I feel amazing. I know as a fact that I am in the best shape of my life, even better than my teenage years, and man does that make me feel awesome. I feel being prepared physically will also strengthen my mental fortitude. The other benefit is that with all this training, time is flying right by.


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Comments 11

  • Travel Lvr : Jan 7th

    Wow great work JC! I just hiked for about a week in Joshua Tree National Park and I live at sea level in NJ and am 48.My job is sedentary and I sit for about 8-9 each day plus my 45-minute commute each way. I’ve been working steadily on body weight exercises and got myself on a running streak since just before Thanksgiving, which worked out to a month of running 2-3 miles everyday until I left for California. Hardly close to the work you’re doing, but I felt great on my hike and even scrambling (which I never thought I’d do)! Sounds like you are ready to get after at! Have a great time!

    • Catmando : Jan 7th

      Thanks – I appreciate it!

  • Deb Lingford : Jan 7th

    Wow! Good for you! I’m 58 and will be starting a Flip Flop Thru Hike on April 28th. Winters in Wisconsin don’t afford me much outdoor training for my hike, so I joined a gym to at least keep my legs in fairly decent shape. But my workouts are FAR from what you’re doing. I’ve been mainly doing hills on the treadmill without my pack, and expect to begin working out with the pack soon. You’ve made me a little paranoid that maybe I’m not doing enough to get ready! haha. Well I’m not retired yet so I’m doing what I can. I’ve always been athletic and remain in pretty good condition for my age compared to most of my peers. I guess I’ll just take it slow at first and let my trail legs develop as I go! Best of luck to you!

  • Chris Dillman : Jan 8th

    Nice work! You are well on your way. I completed the pct in September, at the age of 53. My training consisted of 3 to 4 mile hikes 6 days a week here in Phoenix. Start slowly once the big day arrives, and in a short time you will be cruising with those half your age.

  • Double H : Jan 11th

    Great post and impressive work! I had to get off trail last year due to knee issues and now think that could have been avoided if I had followed a similar routine pre-hike. I’d be interested in leatning more specifics about your stretching and yoga routine? Which stretches, exercises etc?

    • Catmando : Jan 11th

      I am a huge fan of Yoga by Adrienne, she is on YouTube and it is free. Most of my stretches and exercises are for my lower back, I have 2 compressed discs and 7 bone spurs, my chiropractor showed me some and some are yoga stretches – downward dog, balasana, cat and cow, bridge pose, cobra pose,. I do planks and leg stretches and twists. I also started to stretch my IT band, though I’ve never had problems with it. My regular routine I do every day, when I hike I like to be a little warm, so I stretch once I am up a bit, take down my tent and stretch on my tent footprint. I try to stretch at the end of the day too. Hope that helps – it has been a life saver for me and my back health. Thanks – happy trails!

  • Rick W : Jan 11th

    Wow!!! You are way more prepared than most on any trail; at your rate, I have a feeling that you will find the trail itself easier than your actual training is. The difficulty will be more mental and emotional than anything else. But at your rate, you will have great success. Thumbs up!!!

  • John C. : Jan 13th

    Ive been fortunate to know JC VanEtten since high school and can say without a doubt he is the most driven yet balanced person I know. My friend JVE as I call him has always been an inspiration to all who know him. His get it done attitude is infectious !! Im sure that as challenging as the trail is that he will be triumphant in completing it. His mental toughness is surpassed by few. He locks on to a goal and it gets done !! JVE as the time approaches to start your journey along the trail I wish you well throughout it with safe travels and incredible memories !!

  • Nikki : Jan 27th

    Looking forward to following you on your journey this year! I am hoping to join the AT thru hiking class of ’20, and am focusing on a lot of areas you are, specifically physical therapy.
    Do you have a yoga or stretching routine you plan to implement on the trail?

  • Ophelia Standard : Feb 1st

    I am a veteran who has ptsd and am training my dog Buster for service dog training with paws of war in Fl. I love reading of your hiking plans and will enjoy reading about your daily trials. You have inspired me so I thank you for your determination .

  • Rick (Quiet Man) : Mar 17th

    Thanks for the article, Catmando! I have been reading a lot of planning articles moving towards a thru-hike in 20xx (year TBD) and most are about gear or logistics as you note. This was the first physical conditioning piece I’ve come across. I especially appreciate your comment about doing yoga on the trail. From 2000-2015, I was running marathons and other races and found yoga to be a great for both flexibility and core. I hadn’t thought about doing yoga on the trail until now and will start to think about how to include it in my daily routine.


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