How I trained for the steepest day climb in America

Posted on May 22, 2017

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According to Wikipedia the Cactus to Clouds trail has the greatest elevation gain of any day hike in America. Nearly 11,000 feet in 18 miles. It’s been rated the fifth hardest day hike in America by Backpacker magazine. “Hard” is hard to measure, but never mind the 18 miles, in the first 10 miles you climb 8,000 feet; it’s been averaging 10 rescue missions and nearly a death per year.

-> Providing us another opportunity to illustrate smart people being dumb in the health world, as some deaths had PhDs.

I discovered this trail while looking into Brett Maune, after watching The Barkley Marathons and getting more into endurance activity the last few years.

-> Some exercise advice for former football players (worried about CTE)

While seeing those Barkley lunatics inspired me, and besides loving a masochistic challenge, the past year I’ve been doing activities aimed at showing ACL and meniscus patients what can be accomplished post surgery. (I’ll have a post on that after this.) Most hiking for most people can be accomplished without an ACL. Cactus to Clouds? While,

1) I figured if I’m going to hike, let’s HIKE

2) I wouldn’t have done this while my ACL was torn. Primarily because once you’re into this trail, you basically have to go 12 miles.

The biggest recommendation, once on the trail, is do not go back down. Palm Springs tends to give the sensation of being locked in a car on a summer day. As you go up, you’re going into cooler temperatures. Because so many issues are going to be heat related, it’s better to keep going than turn back into the heat.

I found other’s reports helpful so I’ll give some background on training, what it was like, and why I’m even more dubious of wearable accuracy.

Training

This had been on my mind for about a year. In June 2016 I decided I wanted to do it, but after looking into the weather discovered it’s advisable in spring or fall. Spring was gone. By the time fall came around I had been preoccupied with doing other activities and didn’t feel ready.

Come late March this year, I got a hair up my ass and decided I was going to solely focus on it, aiming for a mid to late May event day. Roughly seven weeks to prepare.

An important note is while I had been dicking around for a couple months before this training wise (my daughter was just born), I had been very active the past year (and my whole life). Running, playing sports, lifting weights, didn’t need to lose any weight, etc. For an everyday person who has been sedentary, seven weeks isn’t enough.

 

The hardest thing with training for anything of this distance is the time commitment. The general scheme I did was one long distance day on the weekend, which is what basically every non-professional athlete does for these things (like marathons). What I did differently is during the week go based on how I felt, where I knew I wouldn’t go as far, but I’d try to make up for it in some other manner.

For weekends I found the steepest hikes nearby and went,

  • 5 miles
  • 10 miles
  • 15 miles
  • 10 miles
  • 15 miles
  • 18 miles
  • Event day (~21 miles)

I waved the volume up quickly, but then backed off to deload, then working back up. This was an insurance policy in staying healthy. I didn’t have any particular pace in mind during these days, though I did pay attention to it. My assumption with event day was to be no more than 10 hours- a little faster than a 2 mile per hour pace.

Because the distance days are the most important with this type of work, they got the focus of the progression. The distance days tend to beat you up the most too. This is one reason to go during the week based on how I felt.

I would go anywhere from 1-3 workouts. If the legs felt good, I might do three. If I was busier that week, or a little worried about e.g. some achilles soreness, I’d do less.

While all the distance days were outside -I’m not doing 15 miles inside- the other days were on a treadmill. If my legs were out of it, I’d make up for a lack of treadmill with some biking.

I specifically did not track these days because when I track something I too easily fall into constantly trying to beat that metric. My biggest concern was staying healthy. Even though I was in generally good shape, like I mentioned I don’t have this type of endurance background. I didn’t know how my body was going to react after going something like 15 miles.

Practicing outside vs inside

The other reason to go outside is to better approximate event day. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this. Dealing with the sun, the heat, water / food intake, using GPS, the mental stress of knowing you can’t merely stop whenever you feel like it, such as on a treadmill.

-> GPS does work when you don’t have service. Turn by turn directions won’t, but the maps will. GPS uses satellites, not cell towers. I used the All Trails app to see the trail and my location, then tried to insure my dot never ventured off trail. (Pics below.)

For instance, I realized it was better to bring multiple, smaller water containers rather than one big one. I could carry a smaller one in my hands, lessening the load my shoulders had while carrying a backpack. (Shoulder fatigue was surprisingly an issue for me.) Rather than have two gallons of water on my shoulders, I could have 1.5 in my bag and 0.5 in my hand.

I also wanted to play with using chocolate milk for calories rather than chewing food. This worked well.

-> This provides hydration and calories, whereas, bars for instance, are basically only calories. I could carry a gallon of water and a half gallon of chocolate milk, rather than carry 1.5 gallons of water along with food. I haven’t done the full math on this yet, and I would not recommend carrying all chocolate milk with no water, but it worked well and it was, at least on first glance, a way to lessen how much I had to carry.

I had also read numerous reports of people having trouble chewing and digesting food during intense hikes. This avoided that potentiality.

Lastly, I realized sunblock was better than a farmer’s hat. The hat made my head feel unusually warm. It took me a few hikes to realize the hat, not dehydration, was giving me a headache.

The tradeoff with Cactus to Clouds is outside can’t simulate the trail. There isn’t another 18 mile, solely up trail, with a tram car down. That is, if I were to do 18 miles in practice, half that would be downhill, like a normal hike. I tried to make up for this during the week with going 1-3 hours of up on the treadmill. I would try to make these extra miserable to make up for not going as far or long.

  • Made the treadmill incline either the average incline of Cactus to Clouds and went faster, or made the incline higher
  • I wore sweats in a gym that was already 77 degrees
    • We’re talking hands got pruned from so much sweat

I did a good deal of trying to make the workout hotter because of how gentle the temperatures were in San Diego (where I live). I even started wearing black clothing on my outdoor hikes. I was getting concerned Palm Springs would be ~30 degrees hotter than what I was used to, and wreck, if not kill me.

Corrective Exercise

3-5 days a week. Stretches, making sure joints are healthy. See 6 Weeks To A Healthy 10k for a more thorough example.

What it was like

Bruuuuuuuuutal.

About halfway in I said “I’m never hiking again.”

A few miles later “I’m never walking again.”

For the first time my thighs cramped. I’ve had typical calf cramps, but never the entire thigh. I had to stop multiple times to let them relax.

This was all despite getting fantastic weather. The high was 84 degrees, yet over 100 a couple days later. This allowed me to start at sun up, rather than in the pitch black. I’ve exercised in enough heat to know anything below 90 degrees and I’m fine.

-> On fatigue, not dehydration, causing cramping.

There has always been a lot of nonsense in the fitness world in terms of what people claim they do. (The new trend is big lifters stating they can run a mile faster than olympic level decathletes. Sure you can.) These days it’s too easy to give some proof of what you did, where if somebody isn’t, they’re probably lying.

I merely took some screenshots of my location as I went along (click to enlarge),

  • I started before the green dot because I walked 1.3 miles from my hotel to the trail
  • You’ll see I went off trail. This happened a few times. One point, I was bear crawling up a hill.
  • You go past the black dot, which is the tram, then come back to finish

Lastly, you’ll notice I didn’t get to the end. I came up about three miles short. I was pretty stunned when I saw the three miles to go sign to the peak, thinking I only had about a mile left.

At that point, if I were to go all the way and finish, with the fact there was more and more ice, I was thinking best case scenario I could get done in another 2.5 hours. That would have put me at over 11 hours to finish (when I originally thought 10 hours max, I didn’t expect losing the trail and stopping for cramps!), where my girlfriend and daughter would have been an hour past the “Why isn’t he here?” moment. Because I didn’t have service and didn’t want to freak them out, I started going back.

Plus, I had texted them earlier saying I was at a faster pace…

Wearable accuracy

Apple Watch at the end of the day:

Apple Watch steps cactus to clouds

Like I mentioned, I checked my watch before the trail and it said 1.33 miles. I got off trail a few times, to where, at most, I’d say it took me an extra mile. (A couple times I think it saved me mileage.) That’s 2.3 miles, meaning I hiked 21 miles on, according to Wikipedia, a 20 mile trail. WTF?

First, Wikipedia is probably off. From looking at other people’s reports, there GPS’ consistently come in at ~22 miles.

Second, if I went 21 miles, yet turned around at the 3 miles to go mark -meaning I needed to go over SIX miles to get back to the tram- uh, what the hell? That would have put my Watch at nearly 30 miles of trail covered.

In reality, I did ~15 miles of the trail. Yet my Apple Watch says I did six more than that.

Four days before the trail I did 18 miles, and for some reason paid more attention to the mileage signage at the park. I started to have a bad feeling the watch wasn’t as accurate as I thought, but chalked it up to not being able to do math in a fatigued state.

My inclination is the motion sensor these devices are using are two dimensional. So when you say, move side to side to overcome rocks, like you know, can happen every ten feet on parts of hikes like this, the step / mileage counter is including that side to side movement in the total mileage. But in reality, relative to the trail, you’re not as far as it says. The trail only cares about one dimension- forward and back.

Point blank- this fucked me. The entire training period, on the distance days, I was off by mileS. The day I went 18 miles in training, thinking I only had to go three more on event day, not knowing I actually needed to make my watch say ten more.

I’m sure some software engineer could retort “But you covered X amount of miles. The watch is thus accurate.” But that’s not how we measure these types of activities. If you’re running in a mile race, you don’t get credit for that mile when you run into the second lane, thus running extra mileage, to pass somebody. You still have to cross the same finish line.

After ~8 hours, once I started heading to the peak, after seeing so many mountain lion signs saying 1) don’t hike alone 2) make noise (to where I’m regularly yelling “WOOO!!!”), to find you have more than six miles left when you only thought three, is killer.

Said another way- on what I thought was an 18 mile training day, it took me six hours. To go 15 miles on event day took over eight hours. While I was thinking on event day I’d need to go another two hours to go from 18 to 22 miles, I actually would have had to nearly double the amount of time on my legs.

For most, this type inaccuracy isn’t a problem as they won’t be doing something this intense. For the serious athlete, or even serious rec athlete…like Apple’s commercials have been tailored for…this is astronomically bad accuracy. We humans have a way of continually improving these things, but either Apple screwed the pooch algorithmically and can easily fix this (doubtful, as they look to be moving to GPS tracking, which is also imperfect), or despite the amount of computer power already in use, to be this far off, maybe we’re not going to get there. Where the analog of reading park signs may always be superior to the digital, as Apple is always estimating what the tape measurer says.

The people who most care about accuracy are not going to tolerate much more than 1% error. Whether athletes or disease harborers. 10+% is a joke. If this doesn’t get ironed out, there needs to be quite an increase in skepticism in Apple thinking they have any shot at any impact on the health world, like using their data in research studies. (And the lawsuit radar is shooting up, as I guarantee they know about this. Such a case has already happened to FitBit.)

-> One study using Apple Watch tells us some form of stress is responsible for 78% of seizures in epilepsy patients. Talk about an exponential insight #Sarcasm.

I’ve gone from thinking these things could be great for helping predict and detect all kinds of events, to moderately concerned, to convinced people will be hurt by this. My broken pride is already filing a lawsuit.

->In all seriousness, if I died on that hike, could Apple have been sued? Ah, that’s right, there’s probably something in their Terms of Service saying we agree to them murdering babies.

-> Don’t forget using the calories burned can be a terribly poor way to base a diet too.

Recovery

If you’re somebody who has worked out long enough, there are certain workouts you always remember. One summer football workout session our high school gym flooded. The strength coach proceeded to have us do walking 100 meter lunges, then sprint back. The nightmares tell me we did that for an hour. My vomit stained the track until winter.

This trail was up there with that. Due to the duration, it was probably the worst nine hours I’ve had.

The recovery was…easy. I played in football games that left me sore for a week, but after the trail, I had a little nausea for an hour, ate all the fatty and fried food I could get my hands on, took a nap in the car ride home, went to work the next day, wore sandals for a couple days, and was fine. Just some mild calf soreness.

I’ve seen reports of people being out of it for days after this, if not weeks. The preparation was off then. While this was hard as hell, and let’s be real, the reason people do this type of stuff is because of the risk of death, I was never anywhere near a risky scenario.

With these types of challenges, as much as possible, the training should suck; the event should be fun.

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Need help training for something? Take a look at this.

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