We started our preparation for Wilderness Trek with a weekend backpacking trip in April, my two daughters and myself, really just an overnighter in the Ozark mountains, about four miles round trip with too much gear in our packs. We had lovely weather and enjoyed cooking over a fire. Julia Rose loved it, though it felt too short to be a real test. The rest of the school semester was packed with her school, dance recital, and my teaching, but by late May we were ready to begin training in earnest, with just short of two months to get in shape to climb a 14er.
The Wilderness Trek packet suggested that in order to make the trip we should be able to walk two miles in forty minutes or run it in twenty. I felt pretty confident, since my natural walking gait is a twenty minute mile. In fact, I had been measuring distances pretty accurately for years, using that measure. Because of the heat and humidity of Arkansas in summer, and the lack of sidewalks where we live, Julia Rose and I woke up early every morning and drove into a quiet neighborhood with sidewalks. We took our dog, an Australian Shepherd named Zoe, and downloaded “Map My Walk” for my telephone. We sweated and chatted together, cursed Arkansas heat and humidity, and praised the cool subalpine temperatures and low humidity of Colorado. I told Julia Rose about my four 14ers—Bierstadt, Antero, Huron, and Sherman, two of which I summited and the other two had to turn back just short of the summit. On Bierstadt, my three legged Golden Retriever only quit because I made him—I think Dexter would have killed himself to keep up with me. And on Antero my friend’s dog, Taylor, wore her pads down on the talus slope, and we had to make a stretcher out of ski poles and parkas and walk her four miles down the mountain.
Not long after we started our daily walks the pain in my knees began to worsen. I kept both wrapped in neoprene braces, and I went on a steady dose of ibuprofen to manage pain. In addition to the walking, I’d set myself the long overdue project of laying both of my daughters’ bedrooms with laminate hardwood flooring, a couple of week’s work that kept me constantly on my hands and knees and walking up and down stairs to make cuts on the miter saw and haul up material. Most evenings I spent an hour or so with a heating pad tied to one knee, then the other, with an ace bandage. Because I have a fairly high tolerance for pain, I thought my knees would hold up for the climb. Then came the evening of the time trial.
The youth group ministers scheduled a time trial a month before the trip. The letter implied that they could prevent anyone who didn’t pass the time trial from going on the trip, but their real purpose was to get a sense–and give us a sense—of where we stood in our preparation. I showed up for the trial at the city park, confident that two miles in forty minutes was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and not stopping. With my normal pace, I’d easily have five minutes to spare. But the sadists I’d entrusted with my teenage children’s spiritual well-being, decided that the trial should actually be a run instead of a walk. They reasoned that if we could walk the two miles in forty minutes we could survive Wilderness Trek, but if we could run it in twenty, we would thrive on the mountain.
I haven’t run for sport or fitness since the 1980s, and the only time I’ve run since then was to jog along with my daughters when they were learning to ride a bicycle or they threatened to run out in the middle of a street. So I was troubled to learn that I had to run two miles with no training. The teenagers, youth minister, my daughter, and a couple of parents who ran a lot, left me pretty quickly. I managed the better part of a mile, jogging along, my feet slapping the asphalt and my breath rasping like a three pack a day smoker climbing stairs up the Empire State Building, before I began alternating walking and jogging. I got lapped by everyone except a teenage girl and another girl’s mother, a woman my age who didn’t run either. To my credit, I held off a double lapping, but that was probably only because the faster guys finished the two miles before they could catch me a second time. I finished the two miles a few seconds shy of 24 minutes, which I took for a moral victory, though I could have walked the same distance with a lot less pain and a lot more dignity in just eleven minutes longer. However, the pain in my knees was so great, and the soreness in my thighs and calves so painful, that I missed almost a week of training, and I never walked far without pain the rest of the summer.