Friday, October 15, 2010

Diary of an old man's long walk

Staff and heart patients from the Ross Memorial Hospital rehab centre who joined me on a five-km section of my four-day fundraising walk for the hospital. That’s me, fifth from the right, in the black hat and white tee shirt, and that's my Joan on the far right. Photo by Karen Scott.
Saturday, October 2/
A crushing personal failure seems to suddenly loom in front of me. For a year I have been training for a four-day, 120-kilometre, fundraising hike in support of Ross Memorial Hospital here in Lindsay. I’ve walked more than a thousand miles (1,600 km) to prepare. I’ve blogged about it, written about it in the local newspaper, and even the hospital has hyped it. In just five days I’m scheduled to start that hike—but suddenly, I’m not sure that I can.
     The problem is not my impaired 79-year-old heart. Because of a cardiac arrest in 1989, each stroke of my heart pumps out only 70 percent as much blood as a normal, healthy heart. But exercise and careful diet have largely overcome that. Last year, I was among a few thousand who managed to climb 1,776 steps to the top of one of the world’s largest buildings, Toronto’s CN Tower, in a fundraising event for the city’s United Way. And just six days ago, on September 26, I walked 42 km on my first marathon, a fundraiser for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.
     The problem is that my legs ache. Big time. They also ached after my marathon. But that was not a problem. In three days the pain had disappeared.
     Yet now they ache again, and I know why. Because of a strange quirk of my physiology, my first symptom of an impending cold, flu or some other ailment, is aching legs. Will this knock me out of my walk? To ward it off, I’ve been resting,  drinking buckets of juice, water and sodas, and gobbling vitamin C pills and a patent medicine said to speed recovery from a cold.
Wednesday, October 6.
The cold has been checked to a few sneezes, sniffles and a little blowing. The pain has subsided. Nothing to stop me walking. Because they seemed to make me a little groggy, I took no more of the cold medicine pills on Monday or Tuesday, but took them again today.
     A group of Ross Memorial cardiac rehab patients is scheduled to join me at 2 tomorrow afternoon for the final five km of my day’s walk. I’ll need to start at 6:30. Joan will drive me to the trailhead at Bethany. We’ll need to be up by 4:30. We’ll see.
Thursday, October 7.
A miserable start. I had spent a depressing night, feeling overwhelmed by the seeming difficulty of some tasks that confront me. And the ache in my legs had flared again. I now blame that on the cold pills; they seem to exacerbate the ache.
     But misery lifted with the morning mist. Difficulties loom largest in the dark of night, and muscles ache worst first thing in the morning.
     The sun had not yet appeared and daylight was dim when I started walking at 6:45. As the sun rose, so did my spirits, while the ache abated, at least until the end of the day’s walk.
     October in Ontario is the best time for hiking. The bugs that bugged me in the summer are gone, and so is oppressive summer heat. When I hiked the Bethany-to-Lindsay rail bed of a former CPR branch line in June, squadrons of deerfly harassed me. They landed on the half moon opening at the back of my adjustable baseball cap. I constantly banged the back of my head, and killed a vicious fly with every swat, sometimes two or three. Now they are gone to wherever they go in October.
     For most of the distance to Lindsay, the route is flanked by bush and the sluggish Pigeon River, with just a few glimpses of farms and rolling hills. The scarlet and orange of the maples and aspen are near their glorious peak.
     Daylight brings clarity to more than just the scenery, and solitary walking is the very best way to think things through. Well before reaching Lindsay, I had clearly resolved in my mind how to handle the tasks that had seemed so overwhelming in the night.
     The final five kilometres of the day’s walk marked the start of the 90-km rail trail of the pioneer Victoria Railway, which ran north to Haliburton. I was joined on this section by the three young ladies who manage Ross Memorial Hospital’s rehab centre, and eight of their heart patients. I enjoyed the company.
 Friday, October 8.
joan had picked me up and driven home by 4 p.m. after yesterday’s walk. I had 12 hours to rest my aching legs, soaking in a hot tub, sitting with my feet propped up, and lots of time in bed. But—as they would for me with any 35-km walk—they ached again by the time I reached the tiny village of Burnt River, on a gloriously scenic route.
Saturday, October 9.
This was my shortest day, 15 km from Burnt River to Kinmount. I was joined by my son Gordon and Gordon Zimmerman, a recent heart attack survivor and Ross Memorial rehab patient who had walked the final five miles on Thursday. It was a leisurely stroll to Kinmount. We took almost four hours and it helped rest my legs for Sunday.

Sunday, October 10.
A sign midway along the route informs me that the rail trail from Kinmount to Haliburton is 40 kilometres. It is the longest of the four-day walks. With very brief stops to take a few photos, it took me nine hours. My daughter Carol and son-in-law Brain walked down from Haliburton to accompany me on the last four kilometres. We arrived at the park in downtown Haliburton by 5. The four days of walking was over. Joan was there to drive me back to Lindsay, a quiet dinner to celebrate, and home to bed and rest for the legs.
Walking is simply the world’s best exercise. It offers the greatest combination of health, psychological, emotional and intellectual benefits; plus the gains from outdoor activity and sunshine. It’s easy for most people to do, the cost is low, and so is the risk of injury.
     “The best sports for fitness are the ones in which you exercise continuously, those that are least likely to injure you and the ones you enjoy most,” Dr. Gabe Mirkin, a leading expert in sports medicine and fitness, writes in Dr. Gabe Mirkin’s  Pocket Guide to Fitness and Sports. He must be talking about walking when he adds: “The best sports for fitness use your legs because the blood vessels in your legs are so much larger that you can circulate far more blood with your leg muscles.”
     As for safety, Mirikin writes: “The safest sports are low-impact aerobics, walking, swimming and pedaling a stationary bicycle.”
     Yet you can, however, injure yourself even walking: with painful blisters, by stumbling and falling, by twisting an ankle. The ground on the two rail trails to Haliburton provides relatively easy hiking but with some stony, loose gravel or sand, and muddy sections that require lightweight hiking boots. Unobtrusive rocks protrude an inch or two above the roadbed to stub an unwary toe, causing me to stumble a few times, and fall on one stumble. More rugged trails require heavier, waterproof hiking boots, high enough to cover the ankles and help prevent twisting them. Good walking or running shoes, however, are all that’s needed on thousands of miles of trails, such as the fabulous Trans Canada trail. And as with any aerobic exercise, it’s always possible to injure your muscles by pushing yourself too far—which we’ll talk about a little later.
“It is exercise alone that supports the spirit, and keeps the mind in vigour.” Cicero, 65 BC.
     Our brains begin to shrink at about age 40, but “brisk walking” can reverse the process and grow a bigger brain, according to a study reported in the November, 2006 Journal of Gerontology by University of Illinois researchers Arthur F. Kramer and Edward McAuley.
     Researchers had earlier confirmed what Cicero suggested, that exercise keeps the mind alert. It improves your mental ability by bringing blood and oxygen to the brain. But the discovery that aerobic exercise (but not strength training) can grow the brain was new. The researchers used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging to study the effect of brisk walking (up to 45 minutes, three times a week) with a group of 60- to 79-year-old sedentary volunteers. “After only three months, the people who exercised had the brain volume of people three years younger,” Kramer commented. Later studies support the finding that exercise can grow the brain and reverse age-related decline of mental ability.
 “Spending time outdoors seems to have discernible benefits for physical and mental health,” reports the HealthBeat letter from the Harvard Medical School. The sunshine will boost your vitamin D levels and your mood; your concentration will improve, and you may heal faster. And what better way to spend time outdoors than walking?
     In England, the “Green Exercise Research Team” at the University of Essex has for the past seven years been studying “the benefits of engaging in physical activities whilst simultaneously exposed to nature.” The team’s study of The health benefits of walking in greenspace included significantly improved mood and self-esteem. “Feelings of anger, depression, tension and confusion all significantly reduced and vigour increased,” the authors write.
You can, however, always get too much of the even the very best things. When it comes to walking, that too-much line gets closer every passing year. I feel that I came close to it on my four-day hike. After a year and more than a thousand miles of training, long walks of 30, 40 or even 50 km, are not now a great problem: doing them on consecutive days can be. My legs ache after long walks walks. That can be a good thing. “Go for the burn,” said Jane Fonda. “No pain, no gain.” Aching muscle grow stronger when they recover while resting, doing easy exercises, or exercising other muscles, medical authorities assure us. But vigorously exercising aching muscle can take them past the point of pain to injury and set you back for months. Five days after my walk, my legs still ache. I don’t think I pressed them to the point of injury, but I’ll be a bit more cautious next time.
     Next year I hope to do another long fundraising walk for Ross Memorial, on the magnificent Trans Canada trail. I might be wise to limit the longest days to no more than 30 or 35 km, and to follow those days with easier walks of no more than 15 km.
     TAGS: Walking, Physical health. Mental health. Emotional health. Mood. Aerobic exercise. Strength training.

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