Crazy Woman’s Guide to Health: On Walking, Trekking and Self Care

Shaun Pennington
Shaun Pennington

I will come clean right at the start. For the almost 30 years that I thought of myself as a “runner” I looked down my nose at walkers.

This, despite my younger son’s observation that I never actually ran much faster than most people walk. What we mean when we say running is subjective. As I read somewhere once, the difference between jogging and running is the outfit – joggers wearing the more colorfully coordinated ones. By that definition, I was unquestionably a runner.

No matter the pace, those years of pounding the trails and pavements in my running mode, such as it was, did what I needed them to do. They assured an aging process that won’t include osteoporosis. Both bone density scans I have had met with the comment, “You have the bones of a 23-year old.” (My memory might be slightly exaggerated, on the exact age.) But after the second one, the doctor did say I never needed to have another one.

As my belief in karma would have it, my years of thinking myself superior brought me to a crashing halt with a meniscus tear (in two places). No matter how hard I tried, pain caused me to consider that I might not be able to run anymore.

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That coupled with determination to keep on moving forced me to consider walking as a legitimate form of cardiovascular exercise.

There was another factor aside from injury – because I tried even with those two tears in my cartilage to run again with dismal results – that changed my pace.

I wanted to be able to walk, in the long term forever, and in the short term long distances. The reason: a trek in the Himalayas in the shadow of Mt. Everest I was planing to make this past fall.

But even before the Nepal trip came into view, I had considered making the 500-mile pilgrimage in Spain known as El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. I was aiming for fall 2018.

The Himalayas came up after that because some friends who are experienced trekkers were doing the Everest Region in October. After looking at and gauging the itinerary, I was in! The same friends who have trekked the world recommended I start walking hills – eventually with a pack on my back. For most of my running years, I had avoided hills. “Screws with my calves going up, and my knees going down,” I said, after several attempts at tackling the roads of St. Thomas with those unwanted results.

But faced with training for a hilly trip – to say the least – I started with Tropaco Point. I wore a knee brace that I felt would protect me going down. As for going up, as long as I warmed up before and stretched after my walks, my calves cooperated.

It may seem obvious, but I must say walking for me has been very different in practice than running. First of all, I have always unapologetically run with music. I tried, because I do have purist bones in me, to run without music and failed. Music always provided the rhythm of the run. Without music, running was hard and rather pointless. With Bruce, Marvin, Aretha and even Jackson, running became a joyful, uplifting, even meditative, in a rock n roll kind of way, pursuit.

The other difference between running and walking is running provided a healthy endorphin high that is hard to get that much of by any other appropriate means.

Walking, on the other hand, calls to me for quiet. Much more time to appreciate the surroundings. Be in the moment. See the moment, feel it. That is what walking, hiking and trekking is about as I experience it.

As for endorphins, hills provide the sweat that makes me feel like I have actually DONE something. Walking has its own rhythm, but it’s not a rock beat. After a long walk – at least an hour – I feel better. But to compare it to the high from running is the difference between aspirin and say, crack. Perhaps a slight overstatement, but you get it.

But here’s the thing. Walking made me strong and since I was walking much longer than I ever ran, often two or more hours, walking gave me stamina.

The first time I went biking after I had been walking for a while, I was rewarded with much greater ease in taking the WAPA hill in Subbase for example. The difference in my strength and endurance was significant.

So, with months of walking and two major hurricanes under my belt, off I went to Kathmandu, which is at roughly 4,500 feet, prepared to make my way over several days and after one hairy airplane ride to 12,500 feet.

Having hiked and lived at “altitude,” I was not concerned about the thin air aspect of the journey. I had been 1,500 feet higher, to nearly 14,000 feet, eight years earlier at Dead Woman’s Pass on the way to Machu Picchu in Peru without incident.

I had also practiced in Taos, New Mexico, in July with a three-hour hike at 10,000 feet.

It turns out, in Nepal I was to be undone by cold, not thin air. On my last day of trekking, after climbing the full 12,500 feet to Tengboche, it rained, it snowed, it froze. With a torn meniscus in my knee and torn ligament in my wrist, I made an adult decision to not trek down the 2,000 feet we had climbed that day and risk falling on the slippery rocks doing damage that could negatively impact my exercise life at 68. The helicopter ride back to Kathmandu was spectacular, as was the Yoga retreat I was able to attend instead of trekking back to where we started in Lukla.

But the big payoff came back here on St. Thomas. The strength I had built up through my months of training coupled with hiking in the thin air at altitude has flung open the door to running again.

Something told me to try it when I got back and to my great joy, I ran again after two years of abstinence. I am mixing the running with walking, hiking and deep water running, but I have been able to pick up the pace in my running mode without pain and with new-found lung capacity.

The moral of the story is never give up, even if it means, walking instead of running or even if it means taking a helicopter so you don’t have to ever give up – due to avoidable injury – the joy and life-giving rewards of regular exercise.

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