What is it about long walks?

For months I’ve been obsessing about walks – long multiday walks, in some locations and circumstances considered to be pilgrimages – Buen Camino, peregrino! I’ll get to that post soon, my purely speculative idea as to why people are drawn to these walks, or at least some people even though I think the same feelings are in the hearts of almost all people.

But this post is simpler, just an observation about walking I do. For 1702 days I have been keeping meticulous records of my walking, 891 sessions, 1904.97 miles taking 729.8 measured hours. That’s on a treadmill, of course.  My average has been 6.18 miles in last 30 walks (covers the relatively reduced level of the end-of-year holidays) and 5.77 miles, per walk, in the last 365 days. My long-term average is now 2.15 miles, but that includes the first couple of years of this where I was still working and didn’t have the time for long sessions, but even after I retired my walking only increased some and then I got the Camino bug and have subsequently boosted my distance a lot.

In the meantime I’ve also walked the entire length of the Keystone and Papio trails (urban paved trails mostly in Omaha) and now the one-hour’s drive away MoPac trail. These are real walks, not the in-the-basement reading Kindle trudges on treadmill. (by for the last 25 months I’ve also done 12,033 miles on stationary bike and 259.8 miles on real bike, so I now only walk, usually less than 1/3rd of days each month (more biking days, some rest days).

So that’s all the preface to my point, if there is one, of this prelude post. Walking on treadmill is hard to do, not physically (although sometimes I really crank it up to get some cardio, not just endurance), but mentally. IT’S BORING! I alleviate the boredom as much as I can with iPod and Kindle, but that only helps some. OTOH, walks outside seem to fly by, or sorta, so what’s the difference?

First, the basement is visually unstimulating, outside, even though not exactly scenic, my field of view is constantly changing, albeit in minor way (not like real fascinating trails). At least there is something to look at. But also real walking has some sense of landmarks, a curve up ahead, a person I’ll pass or one coming the other way, a place where the trail crosses a road, whatever, so one’s mind can actually: a) break that walk down into a series of chunks, and, b) get some sense of satisfaction (better than just digital readout on treadmill) of progress. IOW, there is some positive feedback to buoys my spirits and makes the minutes and the miles go by easier.

Second, there is only walking. Both the trails I do outside don’t have anything along them to trigger me to linger (while neither is hardly a wilderness trail, they are restricted right-of-ways). So it’s walk or else. No every now and then there may be a bench for resting, but those are few and far between. OTOH, in the basement I have a nice comfy chair surrounding by a pile of books (I like reading many books at once, sorta like the classic male channel flipping with the remote). So when I stop the treadmill, I have something to do; on the real trail there is nothing to do but walk. While I can often go 5 miles without stopping on the real trails it’s a challenge to go even just 3 miles on treadmill, even though my calorie burn rate is higher (I regulate this on treadmill, just take what comes on real trails which are almost dead flat). But I think, when there is nothing to do, except walk, walking becomes easier. Taking the breaks makes it take longer and makes getting the miles in harder (btw, I rarely walk on treadmill, all day, in multiple bursts, as much as my real outdoor walks, esp. the one I have to drive to find since I kinda have the attitude of wanting to get as much out of the walk as possible).

Third, outdoors is refreshing. Well sorta, not so true here. My wife likes to talk walks around the neighborhood and I resist going. Well: a) it’s purely on pavement, b) the aroma of cars (and other aspects of human modification to landscape) is everywhere, so how is that more “natural” than the basement. Yep, sunlight instead of artificial light – kinda like that. Breeze and fresh air vs HVAC, kinda like that. But unless it goes a bit further toward “natural” there’s not much difference. And here, with this weather, esp. summertime humidity, thank you I’ll take the HVAC (on my outdoor trail walks I mostly doing this in relatively cold times of the year, once even hard winter with lots of snow and ice on trail, but sweating in the Gulf heat, no thank you).

But, there is something to this. Even though it’s a moderate drive (and I feel bad about burning gasoline and creating CO2 to then be doing something green) I much prefer the MoPac over the Keystone. I’ve hiked in a lot of places with week+ backpacks in mountains and love heading to Wyoming for a month of camping, so nothing within 100 miles of Omaha is going to be very exciting, BUT, the MoPac is way better, for me, than the Keystone and I’m trying to think of why I feel this way. First, the Keystone is mostly concrete “fake” trail (but glad to have it, as many others are as well) whereas MoPac is an old reclaimed railroad grade now “paved” (if you can call it that as it is gradually weathering away and gets little maintenance) with crushed limestone. Now enough feet and bicycle tires pack it down, but still some grass grows in the middle and in places it looks like classic double-track jeep trail and at certain times of year it’s muddy or frozen or whatever – IOW, real walking (albeit much easier than most wilderness trails).

So I much prefer MoPac over Keystone and only slightly prefer Keystone over treadmill and so I think it is mostly the physical condition of the trail itself. But even though the MoPac is hardly the majesty of the John Muir (or almost any of the AT or PCT, or even the Camino) it has a feel that allows it to sorta feel like wilderness, namely the country there is slightly rolling hills and the old train tracks, of course, wanted a completely level grade. So much of the MoPac trail surface itself is depressed from the surrounding land in the old cuts of the grade. And the immediate area around the trail, presumably owned by the conservation district, has been allowed to go back wild. So there are parts of that trail, that do match the classic AT description of “green tunnel” (at least other than winter time). So while it’s all farmland 50m beyond the your footsteps (and the unremittingly identical monoculture farmland) you are, most of the time, isolated from that. And guess, what, there are critters, plenty of birds, both visible and by sound, snakes, frogs and toads, and a fair number of deer (and mostly detectable by smell, domestic critters). So again, not exactly the John Muir but closer, by a lot, to that end of the axis, than a treadmill in a basement.

Fourth, and one more physical thing. On either the Keystone or MoPac (where I carry my handheld GPS, not exactly for navigation (hard to get lost) but to record my trip since you can tell I’m a numbers freak) I usually average about 6kmh (3.6mph) and peak at around 8kmh and rarely drop below 5kmh. OTOH, it’s tough for me to handle cranking up the treadmill to 3.6mph, so typically I average about 2.9mph. Now, OTOH, as I said the two real trails are almost dead flat and on treadmill I usually average 6° slope, often peaking all the way to its 15° max, so it’s probably true I’m actually doing high Mets on the treadmill than a real walk (of course on real walk I also have a small backpack). But on treadmill 3.6mph is just too fast (not for my physical ability, I can crank way above that, but my attention and stability). I feel very unstable at 3.6mph and that kills reading and that makes walking even more boring, yet outside I stroll along at 3.6, often where I really can stumble, and it’s a breeze. So I think this plays a role why I enjoy the real trail more.

So, that’s about enough of this boring chatter, but what kinda raised it for me (in the context of my overall obsession about talking a long walk) was a specific tidbit in the latest book on the Camino I just finished. The fellow there practiced doing 18-20 mile training walks (around Houston, like here, no hills and on streets not rough trails), but couldn’t manage to do that for real in Spain. In fact his typical daily distance is what I consider to be a fairly easy stroll on the MoPac, my typical distance, and usually less than 3 hours, even with a few breaks. Now when I used to backpack a lot of the daylight hours were walking, even with a lot of breaks, so if I were doing the Camino I have this notion I’d probably being doing at least 18 miles/day, just because what else is there to do, esp. at the albergues usually don’t open until late afternoon.

So that’s what triggered this specific post. A major impediment to my doing a real long walk is my fear of the daily distance required, rarely less than 20 miles/day and often as I read other people’s logs stretching into 30-40 miles/day. That’s almost inconceivable that I could do that (yep, on bicycle sure, not walking, no way, way beyond anything I’ve ever done). Yet this most recent story of the Camino, with those relatively short days and meanwhile surviving the shared facilities kinda push me more in the direction of considering the Camino over the few other possibilities I’ve considered (although various places in the British Isles look possible). Like this peregrino, who’d never done anything like that before (even any kind of travel), I have lots of reservations about REALLY doing a long walk, but boy would I like to, so trying to get a handle on my own physical limits is a critical step and that’s the point of this post – maybe real walking would be a lot easier than the training walking I’m doing now.



About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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One Response to What is it about long walks?

  1. dmill96 says:

    One other thing I realize, partly as result of today’s stationary biking, is that real walking (or especially real biking) automatically has some change in the intensity of the workout, i.e. due to terrain or just due to pacing (easier to vary than on treadmill). I’m learning that sometimes when I’m tired and don’t really feel like doing stationary biking the solution is to do a bit of “spinning” (the pure spinning in clubs is good, but not quite for me). The point is that my doing a burst of high intensity (like climbing a hill) requires more focus and dedication, but then makes the in-between steady state parts easier. IOW, varying the load in the workout, which occurs more naturally on a real walk, helps the time and miles go by.

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