At the risk of sounding like I’m 24 going on 90, for around 18 months now I’ve been unable to go hiking without – at times severe – pain. Predominantly in my knees, that squishy, unstable sensation has wracked my legs on every downhill for over a year. As someone who loves hiking and the outdoors, and indeed moved to an area inundated with hills in order to get out and enjoy them, needless to say it’s not been a great time. Pulling on my hiking boots has led to feelings of dread, the anticipation of pain, and quadruple checking there’s an adequate supply of ibuprofen in my rucksack. At my age, I shouldn’t really need to think like that.
Back in February I had an MRI that confirmed I have a bulging disc between my L4/L5 vertebrae and it’s pressing against a nerve. It’d been suspected for a while, but the confirmed diagnosis made me even more determined to make a change and not let this get in my way any more. There’s the possibility it’ll never recover, but being young and active there is always hope.
For the last 6 weeks or so I’ve been going to the gym before work. Managing around 3-4 times a week, I’ve been alternating between swimming and using the equipment. My focus has been my legs, as I realised the last year of back pain which has led to inactivity means my quads are incredibly weak – of course having the knock-on effect of making my knees absorb all the strain. The first leg-press I attempted was a measly 20kg… shockingly low and not nearly my own body weight. But after 5 weeks, I’ve got up to 60kg at 3 x 10reps. An improvement that reminded me what my body can actually achieve when I try.
Two weekends ago we went for a long weekend to the Lake District with my in-laws-to-be. Wonderful sunshine, a gorgeous cottage, lots of wine, and of course plenty of hills to get stuck into. On the Saturday, we planned to take my future brother-in-law on his first scrambling adventure in the area.
This was to be a test – had my new-found gym bunny attitude started to make a difference? The way up is always fine, and a lot of scrambling and jelly babies later we were on top of Old Man of Coniston. Gorgeous views, perfect weather, the scrambles just enough out of my comfort zone to feel the adrenaline-induced satisfaction of a well-rounded day out. It’s the way down that’s the killer, even with both hiking poles on the go. From the start of the descent I knew I’d have take it easy, give my body time to work itself out, and my muscles a chance to engage in a way they haven’t done for an embarrassingly long time.
Taking it steady, I nevertheless felt a strength in my legs. My knees weren’t screaming at me, and there was a smile on my face. I started striding out, picking up the pace enough to feel like I was actually walking again, not just staggering my way down. I can’t remember the last time I felt that sensation – having taken advantage of all the years of pain-free walking, I now relished in the simple ability to enjoy the view rather than stare at my feet. For the first time in over a year, I remembered why I loved hiking. And with this came a renewed determination to get even fitter, even stronger, so I don’t lose that again. Or at least not for a good few decades.
It would’ve been easy to give it all up, stop hiking, and just accept that my body no longer coped. But that would have been a waste of the countryside, and a disservice to my 24-year-old bones. They just need more help to keep them in place, and my muscles need to be better trained. But that’s fine – it’s also helped me rediscover (again!) my love of swimming, and being in the pool only adds to my happiness.
There’s still a long way to go, and it’s something I’ll have to work on probably forever to keep my spine in place and my knees healthy. But if the reward is more days out with a smile, and less time irritating Simon with my whining, then it’s all worth it.