Getting in shape

I’ve been dreaming of hiking the 2,659-mile Pacific Crest Trail for a couple of years now, but after a few painful false starts on the Cape to Cape and the Bibbulmun Track in 2016 I decided to get myself into hiking shape before tackling it.

Job one was to fix the pain I experienced in the arches of my feet, which felt like they were being stretched apart on long hikes. Ouch! By the fourth day of a five-day hike from Sullivan Rock to Mundaring Weir, I was walking with my toes curled downwards and both feet rolled almost comically outwards just to avoid putting my arches in contact with the ground. Not a good omen for a wannabe thru-hiker.

When I returned to civilisation I visited a podiatrist, who diagnosed me with moderate to sever overpronation and said I needed either over-the-counter insoles (cheap, but not guaranteed to be effective) or custom orthotics molded to the shape of my feet (eye-wateringly expensive). A pair of orthotics cost nearly $800, but I decided to follow some good advice I’d got from other hikers: Never skimp on anything that goes between you and the ground. That includes your tent, your sleeping mat, and your footwear. If any of them are crap quality, you’re in for a baaaaaaad time.

My lizard lunch buddy approves of my Salomon XA Pros with quick laces.

But man, have those things been worth it. A few weeks after having my foot scanned with a laser, I received a shiny new pair of ultra-comfortable orthotics that completely eliminated my arch pain. What a relief! Lots of chronic conditions require countless hours of stretching, bending and foam rolling just to be managed, never mind the thousands of dollars on physio consults and all the other palava. To fix such a painful problem for a simple one-off cost with very little ongoing management is a win in my books.

I did have to learn to stretch my quads and calves more, because orthotics force you to use those muscles – as the body is supposed to do – instead of rolling on your feet to push yourself forward. It took a long time to loosen them up, but I went from barely being able to reach the middle of my shins to touching my toes without too much difficulty.

Next step in the bodily tune-up has been to get down to a healthier weight, which was something I struggled with since late high school. For virtually all of my adulthood I’ve been a steady 100kg, and it took well over a year after I first got into hiking before I noticed any significant weight loss.

Me in chubbier times.

For that first year, weekend hikes and the occasional multi-day were my only exercise. It just wasn’t enough to counter my unhealthy diet. The catalyst came last August, when I walked my (then) longest-ever stretch of the Bibbulmun Track: an eight-day, 170km hike from Balingup to Pemberton, via the beautiful old mill town of Donnelly River Village.

It was pretty amazing.

I didn’t actually lose much more than a kilo on that walk, but the prolonged exercise for eight days straight got me into a rhythm that I felt motivated to continue when I got back home to Perth. I joined a baseball team and then a gym, and started being a bit more conscious of what I ate. I didn’t stick to a formal diet, but I tried to keep fast food to a minimum and calories low.

Baseball and the gym was a great combo for summer, when it’s too hot (and unsafe) to go hiking in my part of the world. I felt motivated to work out often at the gym to make myself a better baseball player, and also a better hiker.

Beisbol!

On my first day at the gym I tried to pick up where I’d left off on the C25K program (which I’d tried and abandoned many times), but found that I was able to push for further distances than what I’d been doing when last I used the app. I decided to keep going until I ran out of puff, and ended up running the whole 5K in about 27 minutes. So much for that program! I guess that hike had whipped me into shape more than I’d realised.

Over the next couple of months I lost 15kg surprisingly easily. I think the trick is consistency in your workout routine and your diet, even if you’re taking it relatively easy on both counts. I didn’t starve myself and I didn’t run any marathons – I just kept tabs on how much I ate, and made an automatic habit out of packing my gym bag each morning before work. I lost another 5kg on a 16-day section of the Bibbulmun last month (hiker hunger is real), and am now a pretty comfortable 80kg and feeling way better for it.

I had a minor scare when I experienced some knee pain after getting into cycling over the summer, but a foam roller and a few simple stretches (mostly to the IT band and glutes) suggested by my physio have allowed me to keep on top of it. I still get a minor twinge in my right knee occasionally on hikes, but I survived 335km over 16 days without it becoming an issue. Hopefully it stays that way!

I set out on that hike to prove to myself that I could take a respectable stab at the PCT. Now to make it happen!

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