This morning I set out with a couple of buddies on one of their regular adventures and was reminded of a column I wrote a couple years back about free soloist Alex Honnold. Honnold is known as the climber who eschews ropes and other protection — “free soloing,” it’s called in climbing circles.
The following originally appeared in October of 2013. We re-run it today, updated, with a tweak or two
“Uh!” Kathy groaned about three quarters of the way up the grinding march up to Moore’s Knob at Hanging Rock State Park. “I wish I’d started doing this when I was younger.”
“Better late than never,” her sister Judy offered.
“Yeah,” I added, “and hiking is something you can do for another 40 years.”
Kathy looked at me like I was nuts. “I’ll be 60 this fall!”
OK, maybe another 20 years. The point, as sis so eloquently put it, it’s never too late to start an activity, especially when that activity is health-friendly hiking.
According to a 2005 report (the most recent year for which I could find demographic information for free), the average age of a hiker was 38 and nearly a third of the nation’s 76.7 million hikers were 45 or older. That’s about 25 million hikers — 25 million smart hikers, considering a 2009 study found that the decline in our level of fitness begins to accelerate after age 45. Because of the constant impact of hiking, it’s especially helpful for women trying to stave off osteoporosis. The additional health benefits of hiking are numerous: hiking regularly can lower your blood pressure by four to 10 points, reduce your chances for cardio vascular disease, reduce your odds of getting diabetes, help you keep weight off, lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels and, perhaps most importantly, clear your head and help you maintain your sanity.
And it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age.
Take Emma “Grandma” Gatewood. In 1955, at the age of 67, she hiked the entire 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail. That was the first time she hiked the AT; she did it again in 1960 at age 72, and again, when she was 75, in 1963. Lee Barry became the oldest person to thru-hike the AT when he completed the trail in 2004 at age 81. The oldest AT section hiker was 86 when he finished wrapped up the trail.
Closer to home, Triangle hikers have been trying to keep pace with Rod Broadbelt since he started his monthly hikes, mostly at Umstead State Park, in the 1990s. Rod goes anywhere from 8 miles (in the dead of summer) to 22 miles (in the briskness of February) on his hikes, which often leave much younger hikers gasping for breath. On a hike in 2012 he said his goal was to continue leading the hikes after he turns 80. He was 78 at the time.
And lest you be an older hiker and think you don’t have the knees for hiking, we have two words of advice: hiking poles. For just as full-suspension bikes have extended the riding lives of many an older mountain biker, and the over-sized tennis racket meant more control and less darting about the court for aging tennis players, so have hiking poles made it possible for the weak-kneed to keep on hiking. Plus, with poles, not only do you still get a good cardio workout, but your upper body gets to share the toning benefits of a hike.
We can’t blame Kathy for wishing she’d started hiking sooner; think of all the great places she’s missed seeing. But then, think of all the great places she’ll visit in the next 20 years.
Early on, I made my living as a writer telling readers about places to go and explore. I still do that, but three years ago I thought it might be fun to actually take people to the places I wrote about. That experience has been more rewarding than I could have imagined. In part, that’s because many of the people I take out are my age — 60 — or older
In more than two decades of writing about health, fitness and outdoor adventure, last night I did something I’ve never done before.
I covered an activity without participating in it.
The activity? Parkour.
Parkour, as one of the dads at Enso Movement in North Raleigh told me, is a “young man’s game.”
I’ll be writing about parkour in the next week or two for The News & Observer. For our purposes today, suffice it to say parkour is a way of gracefully going from Point A to Point B in a straight line, obstacles be danged. Participants gingerly vault, leap, climb and hurdle their way through an urban landscape, refusing to acquiesce to stairs and sidewalks. It sounds dangerous; it is the antithesis thereof. The class I watched — five boys and one girl ranging in age from 12 to 16 — spent the first 20 minutes warming up and getting loose. Instructor Alan Tran spent the remainder of the 75-minute session working on technique for safe launches and landings. This ain’t about Russian teens drinking a fifth of vodka, then blithely skipping from one skyscraper rooftop to the next.
It’s also not about a 58-year-old guy using one hand to hurdle a three-foot wall. And I knew it.
Usually, when I call to ask about covering an activity, I get an invitation to join in. In reporting on everything from rock climbing to parasailing to cave diving, I’ve put down pen and paper to partake. When I approached Enso Movement, there was no mention of coming prepared to join the fun. A young man’s game, it was presumed.
When I asked Tran who their oldest student was, he deferred to fellow instructor Nick Faircloth.
“Late thirties, maybe,” Faircloth said with an air of awe. “Maybe even early 40s!” (Tran noted that in Europe, where parkour has been big since the early 1990s, there are senior parkour classes, “for 65 and up.”)
After the warm-up, as the teens began navigating plywood obstacles in Enso Movement’s warehouse gym, their antics took me back to suburban Denver in the 1960s. Full of energy and flexibility, my pals and I would roam our neighborhood, hopping fences, leap-frogging ashpits, using street signs as stripper poles. I was also reminded of how incredibly incompetent I was at this type of movement. Ever beyond my grasp was how to leap a fence with only my hands touching, or how to gain sufficient liftoff to clear that three-foot brick ashpit. As Tran showed his aspiring “traceurs,” it was as much about technique as strength. Maybe if he’d been my neighbor back on South Boston Court, I would have been a more effective — and less bruised — navigator of the night. Alas, I realized, my time had passed.
Sidelined for the first time in my participatory reporting career wasn’t a milestone to relish. It wasn’t one to despair over, either. Maybe I can’t hurdle a fence.,
But I can still ride a skateboard.
As I was poring over the results of Sunday’s Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell, I was surprised to see that of the nearly 400 riders who finished the 63-mile race, only five were older than me. (I was less surprised that all five finished ahead of me.)
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been; at 56 years of age, you might think that wisdom would finally overpower the need to punish one’s self, thus keeping contemporaries away.
I became curious about my fellow silver cyclists and discovered that, indeed, we are not becoming sedate and reflective in our golden years. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, the number of mountain bikers age 55 or older grew by more than 41 percent in the past decade. In 2011, there were 383,000 mountain bikers who were eligible for 10 percent off their curly fries at Arby’s, up from 271,000 10 years earlier. (Curiously, the overall number of mountain bikers dropped 5.5 percent during the same 10-year span.)
Mountain biking was no anomaly. The number of 55ers working out at gyms climbed 614 percent during the period, the number of 55+ kayakers rose by 350 percent, the number who did aerobic exercise increased by 226 percent. Growing interest in these more active pursuits outpaced growth in activities typically associated with a graying population: golf, darts, fishing and bowling, to name a few.
This week, Ultimate Hike Raleigh began its recruiting sessions in the Triangle and, again, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the number of people in the audience who also looked like they remembered “Fernwood Tonight.” At the end of Tuesday evening’s info session Tuesday at the North Hills REI I struck up a conversation with a 50-year-old woman who had signed on for the 28.5-mile hike to benefit pediatric cancer. She spoke about taking challenging hikes in the Smokies with her 20something daughters — and about how both loathed the experience. Neither were out of shape, she said. They just didn’t like hiking for that long.
We speculated as to why mom enjoyed the hike, her young, fit daughters not so much. Are you more accustomed to suffering the older you get? Do your performance expectations diminish to the point where you don’t care if it takes all day to do something? Or does it take so long for your body to get warmed up that when you finally get there you simply don’t want to stop? Does it really matter, since we’re the ones happiest with epic adventures?
Again, apparently not. Perhaps reflective of another benefit of aging we concluded that time was short and dropped the topic in favor of one more appealing.
Our one day, 28.3-mile Ultimate Hike.