Coming soon: Getting on the trail in Arkansas

Just one of the views from Magazine Mountain, Arkansas.

Like a lot of you, I have a need to find wild trails for awhile, be it on a multi-day excursion or a simple trail run. I can find these in other states, or down the road minutes from my home.

One thing that I’ve considered a personal failure was having never done much exploring in Arkansas. The state line is only a couple of hours from where I live, and everything I’ve heard about it seems to indicate that it’s a worthy haven for the outdoorsy set.

I finally remedied this error, spending three days in northwest Arkansas with a hiking buddy of mine, Craig, who agreed to drive down from Kansas City to meet me there.

It was time well spent. It was great catching up with Craig, one of my partners on an attempt to climb Longs Peak two years ago, and see how he’s been doing. We both had one thing in common: A need to take a break from everyday life and to unwind on the trail.

In the coming days, I’m going to publish some posts about what we discovered at Mount Magazine State Park – loads of hiking, great camping, and opportunities for a whole lot more. And I think you’ll be blown away by how beautiful this place is. I certainly was.

So stay tuned. In the next few posts,  I’ll be going over a classic Arkansas mountain hike, examining the features of the state park, and add a little more about some of the great things you can do in Arkansas.

Bob Doucette

Six hot-weather training tips for runners

This guy will make your outdoor training a little tougher in the summer. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Summer is rapidly approaching, and it’s a time when a lot of us are thinking about vacations, backyard cookouts and time at the pool.

But for the running crowd, it’s also an opportunity to take advantage of extra daylight hours to get in our miles.

One problem: The heat. Most places will begin seeing temperatures rise significantly within the next couple of weeks, and things really get cooking in July and August. Fun in the sun is great and all, but when you’re training, heat can wreck you. It can beat you and your workouts into submission, and if you’re not careful, cause serious health problems.

But if we only went out in perfect conditions, there is a good chance we’d achieve almost nothing. So my advice is to make peace with summer and learn a few things about hot-weather training to get by, at least until things cool off in the fall.

So here are six tips for training in the heat:

Hydrate. A lot. Before you go to bed, drink some water. When you get up, drink some more. And throughout the day, be drinking more water. Bring some with you (hand-held water bottle, hip belt or hydration pack) or be sure your route has drinking fountains available. Don’t wait till you crash to stop for a water break. Heat-related illnesses and dehydration are no joke. Is a gallon a day excessive? Not if it’s summer and you’re outside training.

Shade your face. A ball cap will help you keep a little shade on your face and direct sun off your head. If it’s a moisture-wicking cap, it will help you stay cool.

If you can, pick routes with trees. I love trail running, and many of my trails are in wooded areas. You’ll lose some of the breeze in the woods, but the shade will help keep you cooler.

Pace yourself. Your body will not be able to maintain the same intensity at 98 degrees as it does at 78 degrees or 58 degrees. But you will still be working hard, and that’s what you’re going for — putting in some hard work. Which leads me to the next point…

Watch your heart rate. Whether it’s just listening to your body or wearing a heart-rate monitor, those beats-per-minute will be very telling in terms of how hard your body is working. In the winter, you burn more calories because your body is trying hard to keep your core temperature up. But in the summer, it’s fighting — and losing — the battle to keep you cool. If your pulse is pounding in your temples at 180 bpm or more, maybe it’s time to slow down and walk a couple of blocks. No shame in that.

And finally, and this might go without saying, pick a cooler time of day to run. This means running pre-dawn or after sunset during the summer, but those hours will be cooler and easier to manage.

So there you have it. Use these ideas during the hot months. Or succumb to the treadmill. Your choice.

Bob Doucette

Picking the right shoe for your next hike

Hmmm. Which should I wear for my next hike…

As we move closer to Memorial Day weekend, a lot of people are looking toward bigger hikes through the summer and into fall. Many of you are all-season hikers, but a good set of people lace up their hiking boots in earnest once the warm weather seasons settle in.

This is the crowd I’m talking to. And the main topic in this post is going to be about footwear.

Millions of words have been written about all kinds of gear you might need or want for hiking. I’m not exaggerating about that. But when it comes to hiking gear, it always starts with what you slip on your feet.

Plenty of stories about newbie hikers getting in trouble on the trail include references to blisters, frostbite or injured ankles due to inadequate footwear. For most people, the wrong shoe or boot can become a painful nuisance. In more extreme cases – injuries, infections or other maladies – what you wear can be the difference between a great day outside and a major crisis.

But not every trail or outing requires heavy-duty boots. And some trails require more than a light shoe.

Let’s keep this simple so things don’t get too complicated. Basically speaking, you’re looking at three types of hiking footwear: a light shoe, a light boot and a heavy-duty boot. Here’s how I’d describe them:

Light shoe: In short, these are shoes for trail running. They’re going to be light, they’ll drain water quickly, and unlike regular running shoes, their soles are going to be more rugged as they’re designed to protect a runner’s feet from protruding rocks, roots and stumps. While designed for running, they are fine for hiking and desirable for people who are trying to cut weight in what they wear on the trail.

Light boot: Meant for hiking. These will have more rugged construction in the upper and the sole than a light shoe. Though you can run in them, they’re going to be heavier than is comfortable over longer distances. Instead, light boots are made to provide comfort and protection for your feet, but will not be so bulky to weigh you down. Light boots are designed for day hikers who might do some off-trail hiking or walking on more rugged, demanding terrain than a light shoe would warrant. Many light boots are low-top in design, so ankle support would be similar to a light shoe. Some will be mid-top for more support.

Heavy-duty boot: Meant for hiking under demanding conditions, including steep slopes, uneven or loose terrain, bushwhacking and possible water crossings and snow travel. These boots will have sturdy soles and uppers. A decent boot will also have some sort of waterproofing, and many will be fitted in a way where crampons can be strapped on when needed. The best of them will be puncture resistant to things like cactus, rocks and roots. The bulk of these boots will have a mid- to high-top for more ankle stability.

What you choose to wear is going to depend on where you’re going, your goals, and even your level of hiking experience. Here are some general scenarios and then recommendations. Keep in mind, no recommendation is absolute. Here goes:

A short hike on a good trail meant that I was fine with wearing these.

Short day hike on well-maintained and easier trails: Comfort is key to enjoying a hike like this, so lighter footwear is called for. Go with the light shoe.

Day hike on hilly, more difficult terrain: In this case, performance is what matters. You’re going to need to protect your feet, keep your footing but still have enough comfort where the hike is enjoyable. The light boot is a good bet here, but a light shoe can be work if you’re confident in your hiking abilities or have a higher degree of familiarity with the route being hiked.

Exploratory hike that might include off-route bushwhacking: In this case, you’re going to be on uneven terrain with a high potential for encountering tripping elements like rocks and roots, and possibly puncture hazards like cactus, sharp rocks and broken or sharp limbs. Comfort and protection will be key, so light shoes are out. You can get away with a light boot, but a heavy-duty boot would be a better bet.

Below this summit were snow slopes. A heavier boot that could handle crampons was called for.

Mixed-terrain hiking that includes water crossings and/or snow travel: These types of hikes often include the same pitfalls as the exploratory hikes, but throw in the added problems of keeping your feet dry when encountering stream crossings, standing water or snow. The snow issue becomes more acute when the route is on a steeper slope or up a couloir, when the snow might be deeper. Postholing also becomes an issue, as you might be punching through snow and into unseen, uneven ground. In these situations, you’re going to want footwear that is waterproof, has ankle support and rugged overall construction. You can get away with wearing a light boot, but you’re better served with a heavy-duty boot that can handle the rigors of the route and keep your feet dry.

Long-haul hiking or backpacking: This could be anything from multi-day backpacking to thru-hiking. Your footwear is going to need to be engineered to protect your feet from everything listed in mixed-terrain hiking, but also must be comfortable and light enough to help you sustain extended periods of hiking while loaded with backpacking gear. The boot in question will also need to be durable enough to handle these demands over several days or weeks without breaking down. The heavy-duty boot is called upon here, but you’ll want to shop carefully to make sure that it meets all your demands while being as light as possible. If this is your game, you’ll want to research thoroughly and prepare to spend more on a high-end, heavy-duty boot. The extra money spent here will be worth every penny when you’ve been on the trail for a few weeks. Or months.

So there you have it. Any good hike always starts with what you put on your feet. Enjoy the trail!

Bob Doucette

Ueli Steck dies in a fall in the Himalayas

The mountaineering community suffered a huge loss on Sunday following a fall in the Himalayas that claimed the life of Ueli Steck. He was 40 years old.

Known as the Swiss Machine, Steck was well known for a high number of speed ascent records all over the world. He’s spent the last few years going to the Himalyas trying harder routes, and is credited with being the first to ascend  Annapurna’s south face solo. In 2015, he climbed 82 4,000-meter peaks in 80 days. He’s a two-time winner of the Piolet d’Or, mountaineering’s highest honor.

This spring, Steck was attempting to climb the Lohtse-Everest traverse, gaining Everest’s summit by its notoriously difficult west ridge. He was acclimatizing near a neighboring peak, Nuptse, when he fell 1,000 meters to his death on Sunday, according to Reuters.

For more on Steck and Sunday’s accident, read this report from Outside Online.

To see more on his planned project this spring, watch this video.

It’s National Parks Week: Here are some photos from two of my favorites

Time in our national parks can be some of the most rewarding you’ll spend. Sunrise at Rocky Mountain National Park.

The last couple of weeks have been heavy on the fitness side, so what better way to break back into the outdoors by paying homage to National Parks Week?

If you’ve been a reader of this site for any length of time, you know where I stand on our public lands. They are definitely a treasure, and they’re most beautifully preserved in our national parks.

I’ve been to a few, and two of my favorites are tucked inside some of America’s great mountain ranges: Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So in this post, East meets West with photos from these great American landscapes.

THE SMOKIES

The Appalachians have had a long time to perfect their allure, and the monarchs of this range are in its southern reaches. Great Smoky Mountains National Park packs a wallop when it comes to scenery.

For instance, take a look at this scene from halfway up Mount LeConte…

Alum Cave Bluff.

As you hike these mountains, you’re going to pass through ecosystems that range from low-lying broadleaf forests to spruce-filled woodlands more than a mile high.

Looking out from Tennessee’s high point, Clingman’s Dome.

And just about every overlook has a surprise waiting to be discovered.

This how the range and the park get their name.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

In the lower 48 states, no mountain range is as mighty as the Rockies. And I think that’s what people were trying to encapsulate when they designated a specific slice of Colorado to become Rocky Mountain National Park. Big, burly mountains and alpine landscapes dominate the land.

The Keyhole on Longs Peak.

The park’s centerpiece is one of the state’s iconic mountains, Longs Peak.

Longs Peak, the sentinel of Rocky Mountain National Park.

If you want to feel small, hike here. These mountains will do the trick.

Rugged, forbidding, haunting, and beautiful.

 

So there you have it. The weekend is coming up. If you’re in range of one of our national parks, do yourself a favor and go. Breathe some clean air, see some cool places, unplug and take advantage of a wonderful piece of our national heritage.

Bob Doucette

Mountain Reads, part 2: ‘Sixty Meters to Anywhere’ by Brendan Leonard

Imagine sinking so deeply into your vices that your immediate future included jail time, and your long-term prospects would likely involve sickness, heartache and succumbing to your addictions.

Then imagine detailing it, warts and all, to anyone willing read about it.

That’s not the entire scope of Brendan Leonard’s memoir “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” but it is the foundation of this unapologetically open account of how he spent his younger years, and the series of events that turned things around.

Leonard is best known for his popular outdoor blog semi-rad.com, and his debut book, “The New American Road Trip Mixtape” was a hit among the outdoorsy set. And for good reason: That was a book in which he bared his soul while colorfully retelling the journeys he took – literal and metaphorical – across the American West while living out of his car. Leonard’s prose is spare, and I mean that in a good way – absent are the clunky mechanisms that trap a lot of wordy writers, leaving behind sleek, fast-paced storytelling. (You can read a review of that book here.)

In “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” Leonard’s toolbox is the same and with similar effect: You get a style of writing that is stripped down yet chock full of imagery as he describes his descent into substance abuse, hitting rock bottom, and then slowly climbing out of it during post-graduate studies, far from home and isolated from his family, friends and the demons of his Iowa hometown.

It’s no real spoiler to say that he discovered something to fill the void of the troublesome fun he found too often at the bottom of a bottle – the outdoors. Those familiar with his writing (aside from his blog, he has credits in Outside, Climbing and Backpacker magazines, among others) already know he’s an accomplished climber and outdoorsman. But how he got there is the essence of what lies behind “Sixty Meters.” Baby steps into the mountains, followed by a particularly fortuitous gift (the name of the book comes from the standard length of climbing rope he received), not only gave Leonard a new way to channel his passions, but also a path to fundamentally change who he was and avoid the sad story of what could have been.

Leonard doesn’t shy away from his shortcomings and doesn’t glamorize his accomplishments, and he’s careful to include the ways in which his actions hurt others. You find yourself rooting for him while also appreciating the people who stood by him over the years. It’s that sort of honesty that has won over his fans.

The outdoors has proven to be a haven for people who bottom-out in life, and Leonard’s story embodies that. I’m sure it has — and will — resonate with a lot of readers.

NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series called Mountain Reads. Part one can be read here.

Bob Doucette

When life was falling apart, it was running that put me back together

Me and Mike on Mount Elbert. I miss this dude.

I got into an online discussion with a friend who was trying to weigh her desire to join her running buddies in a longer road race versus the time commitment needed to train for it. She’s a busy gal, with a full-time job, lots of family around and plenty of things to worry about.

Something she said struck me. She said that when she runs, it clears her head. And that over the past year, it may have saved her. “I think I would have fallen apart without it,” she admitted.

That resonated with me. I’ve had similar thoughts, sometimes recently, and it became even more clear as a dreaded anniversary crept near.

Six years ago, my oldest brother died. And when everything settled down and I was left to my own thoughts, it was the alone time pounding the pavement or coursing through wooded trails that pulled me from an abyss.

Running may have saved me, too.

***

Mike and I were close. Some of it had to do with the fact that we shared a number of interests. We loved the mountains. Fishing for trout was a favorite, and later on, I got hooked on climbing Colorado’s high peaks after hearing his tales of high mountain summits. We climbed a few peaks together, including my first three 14,000-footers, and made a thing of it with all the brothers – Mike, Steve, and myself – are few years back.

From left, Mike, me and Steve on the summit of Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike and I were also gym rats. I bumbled around the weight room with a little success while he mastered the art of weight training and bodybuilding. Naturally, we’d talk about all things lifting, and more often than not I’d be the one doing the listening as he offered tips and told of his experiences. Years later, I still can’t sniff the PRs he managed on the big lifts.

But I keep plugging away, and sometimes I’ll learn something new or set my own PR. Instinctively, I look around for my phone, thinking about shooting him a text or a phone call to talk about it. But that gets shot down pretty quick.

Shit. I can’t call Mike. I can’t call him because he’s gone.

***

Around the time when Mike was diagnosed with cancer (it was a blood disease similar to leukemia), other crises were afoot. My job was going down the crapper, and as he got sicker, my own prospects worsened. In January of 2011, I flew to Denver to visit him, not knowing if he’d make it for the next few days or if he’d pull through. A couple days after arriving, Mike grew stronger.

But then I got a call. My employer had a layoff, and I was caught in it. Twelve mostly good years there were over. It’s a hell of a thing to learn you’re on the street via a long-distance phone call from a hospital hallway.

The silver lining was being able to spend more time with Mike. I hoped he’d pull out of it, recover and then we’d be back at it, hiking up mountains and traveling the West. But it was not to be.

Mike’s condition eventually won. His death was slow – agonizingly so – and from everything I saw, miserable. Cruel, even. The whole family was there when he passed. The final moments unleashed our sorrows in a flood of tears and hugs, all of us hating the fact that he was gone yet glad he wasn’t suffering anymore. In the hours and days following Mike’s passing, we shuffled from here to there, buying clothes for the funeral, heading to the church to say our last good-byes, and then settling into the finality of it all.

A few days later, after being out of work for four months, I got a call. The guy who is now my boss, Tim, wondered if I’d like to interview for a job in Tulsa. I said yes, and we arranged for an interview time. I got the job, which necessitated a move. So I moved up to Tulsa while my wife Becca stayed in our soon-to-be ex-hometown east of Oklahoma City to get our house ready for sale. I’d come back on the weekends, then drive back to Tulsa before my Monday shift began.

During the week, I stayed at my sister-in-law’s house in a Tulsa suburb. She and her family had moved to Texas and were trying to sell their Oklahoma home, and they kindly let me stay there until we found a place of our own. The house, somewhere short of 3,000 square feet, was empty – no furniture, no TV, nothing. I made my home in the master bedroom, a cavernous space where I occupied a tiny sliver, sleeping on an air mattress and playing Angry Birds on my phone or reading a book when I got home from work. Aside from the job, I had a lot of alone time, time to worry about the future and mourn Mike’s death.

Before work, I’d head to the gym, and then two miles down the road I’d go to a local park that had a gravel trail a little over a mile long. Work was a great distraction, but my demons were there in that empty house on those long nights after work. I fought back on the trails. Running, it seemed, drove them away.

***

Running became a sorely needed habit — and refuge — during one of the more challenging periods of my life.

I’d gotten into a running habit before Mike got sick, but things took off once I moved to Tulsa. It was cheap – the price of shoes, socks and some tech clothes. It turned out to be a great way to explore my new hometown. Every slow, lumbering run was interesting. I’d see something new, work up my miles and get a little faster.

Not long after, I discovered a park that had a huge network of trails that ran wild through wooded hills that were left as close as possible to their natural state. I’d run plenty on pavement, but this trail running thing was brand new. I learned that trail runners were different. Most runners obsess over mile times, distances and splits. Trail runners get into vertical gain a little, but mostly run hard, have fun and replace all the calories they burned with burritos and beer. This was something I could get into.

For a brief period, I ran with a weekly run group, but most times I explored the trails by myself – in the furnace of the Oklahoma summer, in the rain and mud, and even in the snow. I’d run myself ragged on big hills, trip over tree roots and rocks and go through the painstaking process of tick-checks. I spied snakes, lizards, deer and hawks. Squirrels and rabbits, too. I watched sunsets through the trees, breathed in the scents of fresh redbud blooms and listened to cicadas blast their noisy calls on sweltering summer days. I loved running with friends, but these were experiences I mostly had on my own.

These were the times I’d think. Sometimes pray. I’d rage at God for how Mike died, then calm down and express gratitude that I was still healthy, and able to enjoy these runs on the trails when so many others couldn’t or wouldn’t.

I’d like to tell you that I found peace and healing inside the folds of a new church congregation, but it never worked out that way for me. Too many places of worship were too busy fighting the culture wars for my taste. But I found God anyway. God was in those woods, tolerating my griping, reminding me of my blessings, and listening in. Being there when I was unlovable. That sort of thing matters when you reach a point of being a jerk, something I can testify to rather well. Sometimes I’m not the easiest person to be around, prone to poor judgment and selfishness. Things that Mike wasn’t but I was.

Over time, running became bigger. Slow two-mile jaunts around the neighborhood turned into five-milers. And then 10. Or 12. Within a few years, I was knocking out half marathons, 25Ks, and on a bitterly cold November day, my first marathon. The process was one that required some mental toughening, sharpening your mind in the middle of 20-mile training runs, and the day-long recovery periods that followed.

But I found something out there. I found a rhythm, a meditative cadence that cleared my busy mind of the stresses and insecurities that confronted me daily. I’m not one of those crazies who pounds out 80 or more miles a week, or runs insanely long races, or any of that. But I miss it when I stop. Normally I come back from a run feeling spent, and in a good way, like I went to war with my demons, beat them back and stood atop a hill looking at the battlefield when it’s over, me still alive and my foes in retreat. I’m not one to make easy war metaphors; that dishonors real warriors. But when negativity and grief and self-loathing and worry rage at your gates, it feels like a fight. You use the tools at your disposal in order to win.

***

Sunset in the woods at the end of a fun trail run.

Mike wasn’t much of a runner, at least not in his final years. More of a cyclist, a hiker and a lifter. But I think he could appreciate it just the same, like he would after a long day in the mountains or right after coming off the saddle after a 30-mile ride through Denver. He’d get it. He battled through plenty of his own struggles and won them all except for the one that finally claimed him.

I was thinking of Mike at the end of my last trail run. It was a short trip, just a few miles on mostly empty trails near dusk. When I got through and reached the trailhead, the sun was dipping into the horizon, setting the skies and their clouds afire with hues of yellow, orange and red. I snapped a photo with my phone and suddenly got the urge to text it to Mike. Look how beautiful it is out here, dude! And then I’d remember.

But I grinned anyway. I knew that Mike would understand, that he knew running for me was a gift from God, the salve I needed – and still need – in this stage of life. I was sweaty, dirty and spent and more content than I’d ever be, even if only for a few minutes. I was at peace.

I hope my friend decides to do that longer race, mostly because I know where she’s at, and have felt that calming, inner-warmth that comes from a good run.

Bob Doucette