that first big ol' hike, PART 2: Training and shopping.
Once I decided where to go, I really wanted to just be dropped out of a plane, with nothing but the clothes on my back, and only a train ticket from my destination back to the airport. I really wanted to survive, detach, and leave the bullshit behind. BUT, there's only so many askance looks a person can handle, so I agreed to use modern accommodations and allow myself to buy food along the way. It's more challenging than one would think to find hotels that are in a walkable route, even on a national trail system, but once that was done, it was time to prepare for the walk itself....
My activity background includes a fairly regular and enthusiastic pursuit of endurance fitness, like running and biking, but I've never hiked before, unless you count walking 10-15 miles a day in vacation places, like New Orleans. I could walk literally for days and days and days on vacation, but after thinking of all the places i've tramped around, they are all flat as pancakes. On one day in NOLA last December I walked 15 miles, and climbed less than one 'floor' according to my phone. Same with Florida, London, Chicago, etc. The biggest concern I had with the hiking in SW England was hills. Not exactly mountains, but I did enough research to know there would be significant ups and downs, and I've lived in Chicago long enough to know that we don't have ups and downs anywhere near my house. I got out and walked the forest preserves to break in my new boots, and to get used to hiking in the cold, but that wasn't going to help me climb from the beaches on the Bristol Channel up to the trails in Exmoor National Forest.
To start, I ordered a pair of leggings that have resistance bands built into the fabric, which worked surprisingly well. Check out www.physiclo.com if you are curious - they really seemed to increase muscular capacity when you don't have actual resistance to fight against. After that, I tried to balance the occasional 6-8 mile walk with a hike up and down my stairs. I booked the trip in February, and with a May departure, that gave me time to add a little weight to my pack and flights to my sessions each week. Fun Fact: it was surprisingly NOT boring to walk up and down my stairs for 110 flights, which takes about an hour. I got phone calls out of the way, *thought* I got adjusted to the weight of the pack and how to set the straps, and got quickly past the soreness that comes from walking DOWN 110 flights of stairs. Trust me, the downward parts will beat you up far worse than the uphill parts.
Next up I added exercises that I thought would prevent me from getting injured in falls and off-balance missteps. Many of these were learned in physical therapy after my pregnancies resulted in me not being able to stand upright for months. I had to rebuild my core and stretch out my quads, and I relied on those same plyometrics for my training. Regular planks, side planks, jump squats, and anything using weights or medicine balls while on one foot, got mixed into the stationary bike and treadmill walking workouts. I didn't do anything to adjust my food intake, just stayed with my usual gluten free, mostly vegetarian (currently all vegetarian) and high fat diet. Occasionally I'd quit diet coke and say I would treat myself with one after completing the trip, but I think we all know that never lasted more than 2-3 days at best.
Once I had the stairs going, and felt the little tramp around the neighborhood woods wasn't quite enough, I knew I needed to get more trail miles under my feet. For this, I entered the world of dog-borrowing. It seemed to be a safer way to spend a few hours in a wooded forest preserve, which I assume is full of serial rapists and opportunities for kidnapping. I might be being dramatic, or I might just have wanted an excuse to take Kirby on a long walk. It's nice to not be lonely on a walk near home, which I could already sense would be FAR lonelier than any walk thousands of miles from home in a place in which I knew no one and might go a whole day without speaking to a human. There was only one hitch to this plan, which caught up to me after I did it a few times - when you have a heavy pack on, and your arm is held up and out by the leash, it can really do a number on your shoulder and neck. Keep this in mind if you are planning to train with a dog, especially if you are short and the dog is tall. The longer walks on gravel/grass also helped me confirm that I needed gel insoles in the hiking boots. They made a world of difference, but often slipped out of place when I put my boots on, it took me a while to notice this.
A few notes about gear that I learned BEFORE I left: I learned to cover your car in a blanket when taking a big dog to the forest preserve in springtime. Very important. As for the life safety gear, I learned that there is a ton of stuff out there that is lightweight and malleable when it comes to use. I was shopping at the www.erewhon.com by my house, and found the two water containers in the photo. What I noticed about them right away is that they look like ice packs! I instantly had visions of me filling them up with ice in the hotel each evening and restoring my ankles, knees, etc. It would be heaven after a long day, and made me more confident that I would be able to manage injuries without having to find a bunch of plastic bags. Other gear I found was an LED flashlight with 'rescue flashers', water purifiers for all that river water I'd naturally be encountering and drinking daily - like all thru hikers, right??? - and laminated OS Maps. The maps gave me pause from the start, though, because they are big and heavy. I actually ended up leaving them at home, instead risking water damage and printing close-ups of my route in sections, to fold up and keep in my pocket. The online OSMaps service was worth the price of the physical maps, though... The last big thing I learned before I left was NEVER GO OFF THE TRAIL. I think the photo above explains it clearly enough. You're thinking 'oh, this is no big deal, it's just a harmless Illinois prairie, lets go investigate that old ruined barn!' Next thing you know you're walking home 2 miles with your legs on fire, and you're going to waste an hour picking burs so that you can save your pants. Also, ripstop fabric everyone, ripstop fabric. Leave the fancy leggings at home, for important work meetings or other dressy occasions....