Trip Start Sep 02, 2011
Trip End Sep 11, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Thursday, September 1, 2011

I spent nine months reinventing myself as an athletic outdoorsy type instead of a nerdy bookworm who reads about athletic outdoorsy types. All for an eight day trip. Here are some of the highlights of those months.

Early May

Julie has done nothing to prepare since our hike in January. Now that the snow has finally melted, she's ready to heft her pack and tramp 3.5 miles around Lake Calhoun. I’ve been working out for five months and I’m imagining how I’ll be leaving Julie in the dust, the way she left me back in January.

Our packs are just shy of 20 pounds. It’s about 40 degrees and overcast. I start the hike in high spirits, even managing to ignore the stares of the joggers. Lake Calhoun is a popular exercise locale. Forty degrees feels balmy after a long Minnesota winter, and joggers and walkers are out in force, half of them wearing shorts. Julie and I are a little more sensibly dressed, wearing polar fleece jackets. Or maybe that’s a little overdressed. I’m pretty hot by the time we’re only a quarter of the way around the lake. I spend most of the trip pulling off layers, and then putting them on again when I get too cold.

By the time we’ve finished circumnavigating the lake, I’m wiped out. I plan on crawling the four blocks home. Since I’m in such good shape, I’m sure Julie must be feeling the same. She looks down the lakeside path and says, "I could go around again. Want to?"

It takes weeks to get over the humiliation. Obviously my workout routine was deficient—if I can’t hike 3.5 miles with 20 pounds on my back, how am I going to hike 7 or more miles a day with 40? And Lake Calhoun is flat. Isle Royale is not, and the Minong trail, according to everything I’ve heard and read, is very strenuous. It’s recommended for advanced hikers. I have yet to go on a single overnight backpacking trip.

Thank goodness we postponed the trip until September. That gives me another three months to get ready. I kick myself for wasting the last six.

I join a gym and spring for a personal trainer after a free training session demonstrates that a trainer will work me much, much harder than I’ll ever work myself. On my own, I was keeping my heart rate at a comfortable level, rarely getting over 125 or 130. My trainer tells me I need to build endurance by getting my heart rate up to 150 for at least 180 minutes a week. I’m certain this is going to kill me, but I decide to put my faith in the trainer and do as I’m told.


“Are you insane?” Julie asks as I set my alarm for five am. I ignore her. The only way I’m going to get my exercise in is to do it before work, and that means getting up really early.

I’m in the pool. The water is cold and I just want to get out and climb into the nice warm spa, but I’m on a mission. I do a couple of backstroke laps to warm up. I’ve set myself a completely arbitrary goal of 30 laps in 30 minutes, even though I haven’t been swimming for nearly fifteen years.

I start out with a strong stroke and do four laps. Then I have to stop and catch my breath. I make myself do six more and then I rest again, panting like a dog in the sun. Six more, and six more, until I hit thirty. Then I push myself to do ten more. It took longer than 30 minutes, but I did it. I swam a kilometer. I’m feeling pretty pumped.

Every weekday, I get up at 5 and go to the gym. I was told to do 180 minutes of cardio a week, so I do 270. I take Saturdays off and on Sundays I do some kind of exercise with my pack.

One day I’m showering, and I notice something new and strange about my butt. There are muscles in it!

My trainer is Aleasha. She works me hard. What I hate the most are the “cardio bursts” that she has me do as part of our sets. Things like jump squats and switch lunges, and running up and down the stairs holding an 8-pound medicine ball over my head. My heart pounds, I sweat, I have to catch my breath. I’m sure I’m about to die.

But I don’t.


Julie and I go to Denver (see my blog about that). We bring our packs and hike in the Rocky Mountains. The altitude makes it much harder. I’m panting after even minor exertion. One day I take a mountain biking excursion. We’re biking up this hill and my heart is just slamming. I look at my heart rate monitor. It shows 175. And I’m not dead.

I’m not dead!

I’m pretty much cured of my fear of dying of a heart attack while working out after that.

I’m swimming again. Swimming is kind of boring and to occupy myself I break each lap down into its prime factors. It’s not particularly difficult, after all, nearly half of the numbers under 20 are prime, and it’s not much of a challenge to do these relatively small numbers. But it keeps me from thinking about how tired I am and how my arms hurt and how I should just stop now. I do seventy laps with one break.

By the end of the month, I’m exhausted. I can’t fathom how I manage to stay awake enough to perform my daily routine. I start to lose my defensiveness. I’m just too tired to care whether people like me or are dissing me. It’s all I can do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Scott accidentally takes the network down doing an upgrade and I figure, “shit happens.” Julie says something in a tone of voice I would have bristled at before, and now I just can’t be bothered to take offense, and I ultimately realize that no offense was intended. I wonder if this is why boot camp is designed the way it is. Long, hard hours of exercise, no privacy, sleep deprivation. It breaks down your walls, your ego. Then you bond together against a common enemy: the drill sergeant. In the end, you’re a team.

Or maybe not. It’s not like I’ve ever been in the military.

It’s my first night in a tent. Julie pitches the tent in the yard at the cabin. I’m the first one in. I’m nervous. Up North, it’s pitch black outside, unlike in the city. Stepping even a few feet from the house makes me imagine things in the tall grass, watching me. Hungry things. Scary things.

I don’t normally spend time outside at the cabin at night.

The tent isn’t far from the house, but it’s still really dark out. From inside the tent I can’t see anything outside of it, even when I shine my flashlight through the mesh.

Suddenly I hear this horrible noise to my left, a cough-bark, similar to the sound a cat makes when hacking up a furball, only much louder. Chills run through me. “Julie?” I squeak. “Help?”

It’s probably only a raccoon, maybe pissed off to see a giant human-stink thing in the middle of its territory. What if it’s rabid? What if it charges the tent? I grab my brand new Buck knife, just in case. I hear the sound again, and it has moved into the woods on the far side of the house. My breathing slows, but I sleep with the knife at hand anyway.


My first camping trip! We’re going to Lake Maria (pronounced Mariah) State Park, which is a bit more than an hour northwest of Minneapolis. The weather report predicts severe thunderstorms.

We park as far as we can from our campsite, with the intention of hiking about 5 miles before settling in. My pack is almost what I’ll have on Isle Royale and weighs thirty pounds. Julie’s is about twenty-seven.

The hike to the site turns out to be only about two and a half miles, but I’m really glad because my back has started cramping. This is the first time in all of my training that my perennial back problem has reasserted itself. I lean on my poles like an old lady on her walker. Julie is far ahead of me, running and waving her arms. She looks like she’s dancing for joy, but really, it’s the “I’m being eaten alive by mosquitoes” dance. I’d be doing it, too if my back didn’t hurt so badly. The little f***ers are biting through my shirt and my torso is covered in itchy welts. I decide that $85 for a Buzz-Off shirt is not extortion after all and add it to my more-gear-I-need-to-buy list.

The campsite is by a small lake, and consists of a tent pad, fire pit, picnic table, and food box.

We’ve never used our camp stove before, and after the fireball that erupts upon lighting it, decide that perhaps we shouldn’t use it on top of the picnic table. Dinner is dehydrated Pasta Primavera, and it actually isn’t too bad. 

Dinner over, I look for something to do, but there’s nothing. Nothing to watch, nothing to read, nothing to write on or with…. I can’t even sit at the picnic table because it’s covered with our gear. “Why do people do this?” I ask Julie.

“Do what?”

“Camp. There’s nothing to do.”

Julie isn’t sure, but suggests that they build fires and sit around with friends and have a good time. She, on the other hand, is going fishing. Except that when we push through the reeds to look at the lake, we discover it’s so covered with duckweed and lily pads that the mallards are standing on it. Now Julie doesn’t have anything to do either, so we take a walk.

While we are out, the thunder starts. It’s weird thunder, because it never stops. Just rumbles on and on. It sounds far away yet, but we head back to camp anyway. I’d packed the food and much of my other gear in stuff sacks, figuring that keeping like things together would make it easier to find in the pack. But the stuff sacks aren’t waterproof, and neither I’m sure, is the food box. Another lesson learned: screw stuff sacks, ziplock bags are the way to go. With the food in the food box, packs in their rain covers and stashed in the vestibule, the two of us climb into in the sweltering tent. I strip down to my underwear and pull out my iPhone and see that I have a signal. I watch the approaching storm with my radar app. It looks bad, with lots of red areas bearing down on us, and the yellow box denoting a severe thunderstorm warning just off to our west. I hope that the big tree near the tent has a strong root system. Julie goes right to sleep, but I play Words With Friends, periodically checking up on the status of the storm. By some miracle, it breaks apart around us, and all we get is light rain.

I spend a lot of time tossing and turning during the night. Now not only does my back hurt, but so do my hips and shoulders. My pad just isn’t cutting it. I’m going to have to supplement it somehow.

In the morning, a tree has fallen on the path to our site. I didn’t hear a thing. I guess I slept better than I thought.

We spend the morning hiking about five miles through the park. When we get home, I jump onto to order Buzz-Off shirts, really big ziplock bags, and a secondary sleeping pad.

“You’re insane!” Julie says as I set my alarm for 5 am. When I wake the next morning, it’s still ringing in my ears. It is so hard to get up. I just want to lie here and sleep. I almost do just that, but at the last minute I drag myself to the gym.

“You’re insane!” Julie says again that night as I set my alarm for 5 am. When I wake the next morning, I still hear her saying it. And I think about everything I’ve done over the last few months and I realize that this hasn’t just been physical preparation. In fact, it’s more a mental exercise than anything else. Proving that I can do it. That I can push myself and push myself and push myself further than I ever thought I could. I get up and push myself some more.

The next night, Julie doesn’t tell me I’m insane. But I’ve also decided I proved my point and I need a break. I take a week off. But I’m back at it on Wednesday for my training session.

At my last training session, I push myself through the cardio bursts with no fear. When she suggests doing the last set of lunges with no weights, I insist on using them anyway. When I tell her I’m 49 years old, she’s shocked. She thought I was about 38.

I think I’m ready for Isle Royale. 
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Neil on

It's amazing how much longer it takes to get in shape as we age, isn't it? Way to go sticking with it Michele!

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