On my (seemingly never-ending) list of destinations to achieve is a set of mountain peaks and viewpoints. Some of them are lower down the list because when I came up with the idea of going there, a lack of physical fitness would be the first issue I would have to overcome.
So that I could shift some of the padding around my waist and offset some of the physical disadvantages of being tied to a desk for my working day, I began a fitness drive by stopping using the bus and tram. I don’t like thinking about “exercising” – slogging away in a gym or jogging my way into joint problems. Stephen Fry inspired me when he lost over 30kg in 2009 by walking around London, so I started by exploring the area near the office where I used to work – walking between tram stops for a photographic project and listening to audio books as I went.
A couple of years later, I bought a pair of shiny-white, super-padded trainers and started reserving more and more fine-weather lunchtimes for walking. After initially setting myself a simple and short route, I started to enjoy the walk for itself and began extending and varying my path. First a half-hour route around the hilly backstreets near my office. Then I started walking into the city and back. Then I took a detour specifically to go down to the river and back up again – a steep effort, as anyone familiar with the Aare at Bern will know.
I started going on bigger, higher and longer hikes more often when Jo and her brother began to put me to shame. From the Scottish Munros to the mountain across the lake, I was tantalized by their achievements. I’d occasionally huff and puff my way up a steep incline and do battle with my impatience – storming up a path to rapidly get out of breath and start seeing stars pretty early on in the walk.
With hindsight, it was this lack of lung capacity which precluded me from hiking more efficiently. When Jo encouraged me to slow down when we started walking together more regularly, I reined in my long-leg striding and quickly gained from her wisdom. Super-fit fell runners and mentalist triathlon athletes aside, the rest of us do better when we take our time; shorter steps with more regularity ensure that although we may get there a little more slowly, we get there with less effort and less exhaustion.
This was proven when I made it all the way up 800 (vertical) metres of the Niederhorn a few weeks back, and when Jo and I made it over 10km to the top of Great Gable and back. Comparing the hike-cum-scramble in England the weekend before last with the efforts a couple of years ago showed just how much of a difference preparation and good walking technique can benefit.
Walking to Green Crag and back left our leg muscles screaming in agony right into the following day in 2012; this year, a walk of around three times as far – and over much steeper terrain – left us only tired and a little achey. Practice and regularity makes… well, not perfect, but fitter. Speed comes with time, and I can already tell that I am gradually getting faster. Hiking in the Alps helps – if you have to overcome both gradient and the thinner air at altitude, hiking at near sea level becomes much less exhausting.
(Which reminds me: I must stop tinkering on stuff at lunchtime, and get back out to the routes I’ve missed over the summer.)