Prepping for the Appalachian Trail: Physical (Part 1 of 3: To Be Mandalorian-Adjacent, This Is The Why)

In which what’s past, as they say, is prologue.

You know how it is: you decide to hike a couple thousand miles and then you sit back and eat bonbons until the day arrives, only deigning to move anywhere if you are carried around in a litter by half a dozen swarthy manservants.

No? That’s not how it is?

Okay then.

Training for something like this is really interesting. Yes, it’s obviously an intensely physical endeavor. But if you spend ten minutes on this site poking around people’s blogs, you’ll see pretty much every body type and hiking style represented. People have done this thing in all different ways, with incredible stories of overcoming chronic injuries, disabilities, illnesses, emotional distress… you name it. I mean come on, a woman hiked the trail last year with all FIFTEEN of her biological children. You think maybe they dealt with some stuff?

The classic mantra is HYOH: Hike Your Own Hike. It’s got multiple meanings, but in this context I feel it’s another way of saying that people measure success at doing this in all different kinds of ways.

My Own Measure

Me in some killer PJs, shortly after my first surgery.

For me, the notion of doing this thing has from the beginning been tied to my heart condition, and the journey I’ve been on since my first memories of knowing that I was “different” in this way. From birth, my heart developed an abnormal ring of tissue just below the aortic valve (the final valve that leads out to the aorta and then to the rest of the body). This restricted the blood flow out of the heart, which in turn had to pump harder to get the blood through. It will probably not shock you to learn that this sets you up for all kinds of negative outcomes. I can recall, as a child, getting winded just climbing a flight of stairs. When I was nine years old, I had open-heart surgery to remove the offending tissue.

My early years after my first surgery were spent (fairly unwittingly; give me a break, I was nine) using my condition as a crutch, an easy excuse to get out of pretty much anything and everything physical. This was backed up by medical advice which at the time seemed pretty reasonable: low physical exertion, and in particular no long-distance running. The mile run in gym class? See ya suckers, I’ve got a doctor’s note. I’m gonna go play some more video games.

To be fair, I also had to deal with a sporadic but uncomfortable irregular heartbeat that developed after the surgery (the “abnormal ECG” image at the top of this post shows the only time we ever managed to record this; you can see where the pulse goes from normal to absolutely haywire for pretty much no reason). But for the most part, I allowed my condition to define and control me as I went through life.

Things Change…

To be honest, I’m not even really sure what made me decide to push back on this notion of frailty, but eventually I did. My body reached an equilibrium where my condition was still there, but seemingly not affecting me that much. I spent a couple of decades working my way up to eventually running a few marathons (I miss the days when the Boston Marathon allowed bandit runners!). A bunch of friends and I ran a fairly bananas 200-mile relay race through much of New Hampshire. Then we did it three more times. I shattered my conceptions of what was possible for me many times over, and it felt damn good.

Our first RTB relay team. Correct: our team mascot was a rubber chicken.

Over time, the conventional medical wisdom did a complete 180 and actually promoted long-distance running, so as it turns out I was ahead of my time. I was also eventually able to get the arrhythmia corrected through a separate, minimally invasive procedure.

…and Change Back…

Then, for reasons that still aren’t fully known, the ring of tissue started growing back. I didn’t realize it at first – I guess I’m just slowing down, that’s a bummer – but after some sedentary years and a massive weight gain, it eventually dawned on me: Hmm, this kind of feels like when I was a kid and couldn’t do anything.

And it felt like shit.

My primary care doctor, at a bit of a loss, referred me to a team of cardiologists at Boston Children’s Hospital who specialize in treating adults who have had heart conditions since childhood. They took one look and immediately whipped out a set of scalpels.

…and Change Back Again.

I don’t necessarily want to turn this into a commercial for my medical team at Boston Children’s – but at the same time, I kinda do. They literally changed my life. They recommended, and then performed, a second surgery. I of course hoped that it was going to make me feel better, but I didn’t really know for sure if it was going to make a difference. But I lay in my hospital bed afterward, listening as my heart remodeled its function without the obstruction, and I could literally hear the blood whooshing in my ears. There was untold power there. Remember this, the experience said to me. You let yourself forget, and here’s a second chance. So remember.

So, I have.

Newburyport Half Marathon.

I set about shattering those old conceptions all over again, and it felt even better this time. Literally: I managed to set new personal records in my half marathon and marathon times. I did Spartan races. I did triathlons. I went hiking in the White Mountains and sashayed up and down the trails.

Spartan Beast, Killington, VT. Fun fact: ski slopes are steep.

Probably the singular feel-good achievement of this whole time period was getting to do a triathlon with my lead cardiologist. It was a joyous, cathartic experience, a reminder that so many things are possible.

Preparing to rock the Dover-Sherborn Tri with my cardiologist, who has opened a Monsters, Inc.-level number of doors for me.

Back to that Measure, Then: It’s the Why

So the desire to do this is yeah, because I want to see if I can accomplish this crazy physical feat. But that wanting to see is rooted in something much deeper, this continuing celebration of this gift that was given to me. The gift of getting to want to see. It sounds ridiculously cheesy to say it, but there’s a very real sense in which my measure of success has already been fulfilled before I’ve even set foot on the trail.

But. I’m still going to try and whup some ass all the way from Georgia to Maine.

And that means a whole lot of actual hiking. In the next couple of posts, I’ll talk about what I did to prepare for that and how it went, and some of the milestones by which I measured my readiness. Maybe we’ll take a break along the way to talk about food too, because hey, everyone’s got to eat.

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Comments 3

  • Laura Bosarge : Mar 15th

    Late bloomer? I will be 60! In September, I understand the why, as everyone’s is different. How do I prepare? I am eager to keep reading. Congrats to you on many levels & good luck!!

    • Chris Wagner : Mar 16th

      Thank you Laura. Here’s to all the flowers. : )

      • Suzanne Kovic : Mar 18th

        What an adventure! I am so excited to follow your blog. Thanks for taking the time to document this quest!


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