The Perils of Practise: Part 1.

Once upon a time I was reasonably fit, and I remember it well. It was a Tuesday in 1991. Great day. A time when REM, Genesis, and Michael Jackson ruled the UK album charts, Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves topped the box office, Nintendo Super NES was the king of gaming, and I had youth and vitality in my bones.

Since then, life has become softer and a little more pear-shaped, and much to my annoyance, I discovered you can’t get fit by watching telly. And if that bombshell wasn’t enough, the proverbial brownness hit the fan when a health hiccup changed the game a few years back, the sort of hiccup that meant getting poked and prodded and scanned by doctors, and having lights shone where they didn’t need to be shone.

Then I found myself opposite the neurologist and cardiologist as they studied my ECG heart trace – funny how the ECG looked like the AT’s elevation profile from where I was sitting. And they looked at their screens, nodded, looked at me and said that I might live longer if I got up and moved about more.

Either I'm pregnant or my heart's fine. My head's fine too. And Grandma, what big eyes you have.Either I’m pregnant or my heart’s fine. My head’s fine too. And Grandma, what big eyes you have.

So I did, and joined the ranks of amateurs everywhere intending to start out slowly and build up as my body told me I could push a bit more. Sometimes I listened and the plan worked well, and sometimes I thought I knew better than the plan and paid the price. Oh well, you live and learn.

But once this crazy AT notion flicked my switch and I started taking the plan more seriously, training became a necessary evil, a means to an end, a way to improve my chances of traipsing through the woods for six months. Although it came as a surprise when the training started to bite back. Which brings me to the perils of practise I’ve encountered so far:

Pain.

Once you’re out there walking the good walk, and especially as your mileage, elevation gain, and pack weight increase, you’re going to twinge, hurt, niggle, or feel the burn at some point. It could just be a blister reminding you who’s boss, or a simple muscle strain, or something worse if you’re unlucky, but it’s coming.

And whether it’s because you tried too hard (guilty), or pushed too far (guilty again), or because you just weren’t ready for what you were trying to do (thrice guilty), pain will likely knock on your door and won’t take no for an answer. I know. I’ve felt it. And I didn’t like it. Over the past few years, I’ve hurt in more places than I’ve got places, and what makes it worse is that I volunteered for this.

A friend of mine completed the Camino de Santiago Frances last year (he’s a hiking machine and thought the first 550 miles were just the warm-up lap, then realised he’d forgotten his red jam sandwiches and walked back to the start to get them – Smoke him a kipper, he’ll be back for breakfast. What a guy!) and offered this pearl of wisdom: Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. Maybe. And what about the AT favourite – no pain, no rain, no Maine? Hmmm.

Others have said that pain is just weakness leaving the body, in which case I’ve been leaking weakness for years. But as someone who previously had an over-developed sense of lethargy that had kept me safe, sound, and pain free for years, I think pain is my body’s way of telling me to sit down, have a cup of tea, and rethink my life choices. But I just don’t listen.

Bikers.

My part of the world is pretty flat which makes it challenging to get the trail legs into shape – the biggest hill close to home is usually what my neighbour’s Great Dane leaves behind an hour after breakfast, and I’m not stepping on that!

But I know a mountain bike track that offers a decent hiking work out if you go round enough times, and it’s a multi-use track so the lowly hikers, dog walkers, and runners of the world are welcome too.

Although a few bikers don’t understand the multi part of the multi-use track, and many naughty words have been floated in my direction when I didn’t hear the wheely crowd speed up behind me. I always walk on the left of the track to give them space, and I’m happy to step aside and let them pass, but is it too much to ask them to ding their bell and let me know they’re coming?

Then the battle took an interesting turn when a biker stopped at the side of a trail for a drink and was kicked over by a passing runner for no apparent reason. Rather peed off about the sneak attack, the biker caught up his fleet-footed nemesis and skidded his back wheel into the runner’s ankles. Lots of shoving and shouting and swearing ensued, and I left them to it.

Pigeons.

It’s best not to walk under a pigeon filled tree in new hiking gear. I did, and the stains won’t come out. I’ve no idea what those pigeons eat, but I ran the gauntlet and lost.

And although I lived to tell the tale of aerial bombardment and survived unscathed, I cannot say the same for my rain jacket, now forever destined to look like the victim of a painter with a sloppy brush.

Golf.

Someone once said that golf is a good walk spoiled. Maybe they’re right. And bike tracks aside, I’ve also put in a few miles yomping around the local golf course (it’s a public course surrounded by public woods and criss-crossed with public paths, so I’m allowed to walk there too). But sometimes it’s like being at the wrong end of a driving range.

I once stood behind a tree while a guy teed off 150 yards away, and of the billion square feet of golf course he could have hit, he hit my tree and the ball landed five feet from my Salomons. I breathed a sigh of relief and hiked on.

Same course, different day, the sort of day where you lean into the wind at 45 degrees, when a 20ft tree branch crashed down just in front of me. And they say walking is supposed to be relaxing.

Drums.

I had my gear on, my game face on, and my music shuffling though an eclectic mix from Dolly Parton to Nirvana. Then it happened when Phil Collins’ big drum solo kicked in midway through In The Air Tonight – I started air-drumming in the middle of the woods. A few drum sounds may also have sneaked out.

Now where did that come from? More importantly, did anyone see me? I looked around but the coast was clear. Oh, the shame of what you do in the woods when no one’s watching.

Coincidentally, the song came on again while I was in town last week, and while the air-sticks remained holstered, there was a definite shimmy in my shoulders as Phil hit his stride. This time I smiled and didn’t care who saw me.

Towels.

Towels wrapped around water bottles have provided the much-needed bulk and ballast for my backpack during training hikes. And all was well until K discovered I’d repurposed her best fluffy bath towels. I told her I’d be using fewer towels on the actual trail, but it cut no ice. It was not a happy day, and the bottles are now wrapped in old jeans.

Self Defence.

You never know what may happen on trail so I thought I’d get in some self-defence practise, specifically against angry and/or amorous bears* (the result of which is likely to favour the bear in either case). We don’t have any wild bears in the UK, and zoos frown upon using theirs, so I got creative and asked K to slip into a Chewbacca onesie.

She wasn’t best pleased with the plan and was even less pleased when I decided this bear had been a menace to society, tranquilised her, and dropped her off in an unpopulated area**, although she did make it back home in time for tea. There have been no bear self-defence lessons since.

*Not really.        ** This may also be untrue.

Tech.

Who knew tech would take such a prominent role in a simple walk through the woods? Not that long ago, it was a simple case of left foot, right foot, repeat, but time ticks on and technology likes to play the game.

But I don’t mean the never-ending development to tents, tops, and trail runners, rather the tech needed to get the words from the depths of my head out into the world, namely this blog. And it’s not that I don’t like tech, it’s just that I don’t understand it, and it doesn’t like me.

That said, I’ve learned a few things over the years and can now successfully turn on the telly, game on the PlayStation, and check emails, but much beyond that and I’m a gibbering fool. And in the highly likely scenario of a tech malfunction, I have a three-pronged recovery strategy.

1. Turn it off and on again.    2. Ask my children to fix it.    3. Buy a new one.

Cows.

Ok, so cows don’t have quite the fear factor of the bears and rattlers on the AT but walking through a field of moo-machines can be like tip-toeing through a minefield, albeit with less bang and more squelch. But don’t make the mistake of getting between the man-cow and his lady-cow entourage. I did, accidentally, and the big man wasn’t happy.

He stared at me for a bit, and I stared back, quietly confident no one had ever died in a staring competition, and wondered if I could use Crocodile Dundee’s hypnosis trick to make him lay down. Apparently not.

Then he stamped and snorted (although it could have been a sneeze, it was difficult to tell) and I backed up, turned around, and double-timed it from the field as fast as my hiker legs would carry me. My heart is still racing.

It’s a bad day when the cows are laughing at you.

Cold.

The cold is not my friend. Never has been. Some people enjoy the chills of winter, but I’m not one of them. I’ve always preferred the heat of the sun with a book one hand and a beer in the other (which makes turning the pages of the book a bit awkward).

Someone once said there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing, but I wonder if that someone has listened to the weather report lately. And it’s not the daytime cold that’s the problem – I’m fine if I’m layered up and moving, it’s sleeping below freezing that’s the fly in the frozen ointment.

I’m a back sleeper in a starfish / figure-4 legs kind of way and use a wide X-Lite sleeping pad topped with an EE Enigma 20F quilt. But in the cold, I’m trussed up to keep warm, and that’s where the problem starts. If I’m trussed up, I can’t starfish. If I can’t starfish, I can’t get comfy. And if I can’t get comfy, I can’t sleep. And if I’m not trussed up, I get cold and can’t sleep anyway. Lose lose.

And side sleeping is so uncomfortable it’s a non-starter, although I have bundled up, scooted down, and curled into the foetal position on the coldest nights, but didn’t sleep then either.

On the other hand, maybe I’m worrying about nothing, right? Because the night-time temperature on the southern AT in April is about 65F, right? So, no problems, right? Wait, what?

Maps.

A few years back I planned a hike in the Peak District, England (no GPS watch, no Google Maps, and no smart phone for me at that time). So, armed with a map I’d printed off the internet, I locked up the car, walked out of the car park, and turned left. Wrong.

Turns out that maps printed off the internet aren’t quite as detailed as they need to be. Or I was reading it wrong. Either way I was lost within ten yards of the car park. Could be a new record.

Panic.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy said it best: Don’t Panic. Great advice, problem solved. Although William Burroughs came a close second with: Panic is the sudden realization that everything around you is alive. If you’re new to sleeping in the woods, you’ll realize truer words have never been spoken.

But I’m a bit of a worrier by nature, and the older I get, the more I worry. So, with my carefree days of youth long gone, the older, wiser me now sees problems that may or may not exist.

And with time ticking down to the big AT kick-off, my mind is a spiral of doubts, concerns, and apprehension (with maybe just a little bit of excitement sprinkled on top) as my pre-trip to-do list seems to be getting longer.

Have I trained enough? Do I need to know more than three knots? Can I use my undies one more time before they need a wash? If bears have colour vision, should I use a black line to hang the bear bag so the bears can’t see it at night? Are nine pairs of socks enough? Do I really smell that bad?

If all the scented stuff goes into the bear bag at night, will my minty fresh breath and freshly balmed lips still attract the beasts of the night? Should I practice digging and, er, filling the cat-hole? Do I really need to tighten my hip belt and re-jig my pack twenty times a day? What about cash / cards, overseas phone contract, flights, shuttle, meds, and fantasy football?

And breeeeeeathe.

    The book that says it all.

All of which brings me to the end of today’s story. Maybe you can relate to some of the perils I’ve faced so far, and maybe you smiled. Or maybe your own perils are hiding in the bushes and waiting to pounce. Only time will tell.

Toby

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Comments 11

  • Crossword : Feb 12th

    Very enjoyable read! Look forward to reading about your progress along the way.

    Reply
    • Toby : Feb 13th

      Hi Crossword,
      Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  • Pengeboyz : Feb 12th

    Very accomplished, very fine writing, thank you. I hope you enjoy the hiking as much as you (and we) enjoy the describing.
    A nit to be picked from your title: practise is a verb; practice is a noun — see advise vs advice.

    Reply
    • Stargate : Feb 12th

      I came here to say the same. It’s embarrassing how much it bothered me 🙂

      Reply
      • Toby : Feb 13th

        Hi Stargate,
        I feel your pain, shame, and embarrassment.
        I will now go and stand in the corner and reflect on my mistake.

        Reply
    • Toby : Feb 13th

      Hey PengeBoyz,
      Thanks for the kind words, and for the constructive feedback.
      Can’t believe I got that word wrong. I try so hard not to do that. And in such a prominent place. Oh, the shame. I’ll try harder.

      Reply
  • Chris : Feb 12th

    I was once reasonably fit as well,.. good times, good times.

    Ohhh and cows. I was once attacked by a lady-cow on Maui at the beginning of a hike (Waihee Ridge Trail.) So, watch out, those lady-cows can be aggressive too. And in case you’re wondering, I did finish the hike and was awarded with a cloud-obscured view.

    Reply
    • Toby : Feb 13th

      Hi Chris,
      Fitness and cows – it’s a strange life we lead.
      Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  • Simon : Feb 13th

    Hi Toby

    A hilarious read very much in the Bill Bryson style which is a style I enjoy very much and it is he who made me aware of the AT. For me though it was way back in 1997 when I read A Walk in the Woods. I’ve re-read it numerous times since and still love it every time. I admire the fact that, unlike me, you’ve actually done something about it!

    I’m a little late to the party in that I only found your blog yesterday and not pre-Covid which is strange because I’ve followed hikers on Trek for many years now and obviously missed yours in 2020. I have however caught up.

    Being from little old England myself I can identify with lots of what you have said about the hiking world and cows. As others have said, lady cows are a problem too if you’re between them and their little cows.

    I’ve not hiked the AT, well not all of it any way just a day hike in Massachusetts, but it’s on the bucket list and given that I’m also a similar age to you, possibly closer to mid 50s instead of early, it may need to be soon so I’m very much looking forward to following your hike to see how it goes.

    Looking forward to following along. I’m interested to know where you’ve been training, the Lakes? Peak District? Coastal paths? Wales? Scotland? Up and down stairs at home?

    Reply
    • Toby : Feb 16th

      Hi Simon,
      Bryson-esque style? Kind of you to say so, and glad you enjoyed reading it.
      As far as training goes, I’ve put in a few miles on the North Downs, a few wandering across the Peak District and the Lake District, and managed Hadrian’s Wall Path. But most of the up and down miles have been around the local mountain bike track mentioned in the post.
      And good luck if you ever make it back to the AT.

      Reply
  • Elizabeth Pageotte : Feb 26th

    Awesome read . Good luck on the AT. I look forward to reading your future posts.

    Reply

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