Keeping Active at Any Age: Conquering the Grand Canyon

Updated on August 27, 2020

It was bone-shattering cold.

How in God’s good name could the Grand Canyon be an ice box in May? The Springbar canvas tent was literally frozen shut, like a car door after a snowstorm. Tucked into the Mather Campground along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, me and my buddy, Jed Fisher, were gearing up to do something silly. Actually, Jed was getting ready to do something stupid, I was just along for the ride.

For the last three months, Jed had been planning to run the rim–to–rim–to–rim of the Grand Canyon. Abbreviated to R2R2R, this harrowing 47-mile adventure featured 10,000 feet of descent (and ascent) with grades as steep as 61 percent. It was a chance to run down to the Colorado River, cross the Grand Kaibab Bridge, and climb to the top of the North Rim. And if that wasn’t enough, do a U-turn and do it all in reverse.

Welshmen from Swansea are crazy, and Jed clearly fit the mold. Our wives were on the North Rim, waiting to set Jed up with provisions. My job was to hike down to the Colorado River, wait for Jed, and escort him out of the deep canyon.

Like I said, we were getting ready to do something stupid.

Getting Old Doesn’t Mean Slowing Down

There’s a moment in life when getting out of bed isn’t as easy as it used to be. Things tend to ache a little bit more. You still have the fire in your belly to go out and tackle adventure, but your recovery time is just a bit longer than it used to be. More candles on the birthday cake simply means you’ve got the experience to make the changes to keep doing the things you love.

Jed invited my wife and I to help him on his adventure three months earlier. We were inseparable in college, but time, distance, and life made it tough for us to get together as much as we’d like. Those old campfires and cheap beer after long days of hiking and fishing are some of my fondest memories. So, when he asked me to fly to Arizona, drive to the South Rim, hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and supply him with water, food, and company as we climbed out of one of the natural wonders of the world, there was only one answer—”hell yes!”

Since I’ve known Jed, he’s been a runner. He’s got the tight, lean body that looks more like a gazelle than a man. I, on the other hand, am built like a bulldozer. Even though I’d kept active my entire life, time caught up to me and I had the knees to prove it. While planning out our adventure, Jed warned me it was going to be a hell of a hike and I better be in shape before I take one step into the Canyon.

“Going down is optional,” Jed said. “Getting out is mandatory.”

I heeded his words and took the opportunity to really focus on my health. Part of the fun of any hike is to be fit enough to meet the challenges. The last thing I wanted was for poor Jed to have to drag my butt out of the canyon—especially if he’d already run 60+ kilometers. A fitness freak, Jed offered the following advice to help me prepare for our adventure.

Power Up on Good Food

My Achilles’ heel had always been my diet. I love cooking a big meal for my friends and family. And even though we eat healthy, my portion control was nonexistent. An average dinner at home was a salad with blue cheese dressing, some sort of meat, vegetables, a starch (rice, pasta, or potato), and something sweet to end the meal. I also enjoyed a couple of beers while cooking and a glass or two of red with dinner.

While the food in and of itself was not bad, the quantity was too much. I decided I needed to make some small changes, and it started with the size of my fork.

Leaning down meant eating leaner meals. I gave up on ribeye steaks and starting grilling chicken and fish. The blue cheese dressing was swapped out with olive oil and lemon. I doubled up on my salad and grilled veggie portion, but got rid of the starch and dessert. And worst of all, I decided to say no thank you to the beer. I’d have a glass of wine with dinner, but beer is packed with carbs and calories. I’d save those for after the hike.

It took time, but eventually I got used to my new normal. I started calling it the Common Sense Approach. Simply put, I thought about what I was putting into my body. Drive-thru meals and sugary treats didn’t make the cut. Fresh fruit and vegetables did. There were a couple of cheat meals—a BBQ and a couple of dinners out with the wife—but I focused on being mindful of what I was eating, why I was eating it, and making sure I was honestly hungry. Nothing throws a diet out of whack like plowing through a bag of chips because you’re bored.

Focus on Sleep

If you plan to attack the next day, you better get your rest the night before. I used to think sleep wasn’t important. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I was younger, I could bang off a couple hours a rest a night. As I’ve gotten older, I need my rest to help my body heal.

Sleep is when your body repairs itself. It helps you become more productive and able to concentrate on the task at hand. Even with every intention to wake up and put in a full day, things can go haywire when you’re not rested. Your training sessions are stunted, and you might be an agitated jerk at home and in the office. Lack of sleep makes it easier to let your diet slip, weakens your immune system, and basically, can turn you into a disheveled heap.

History has proven repeatedly that I perform better when I’ve had a decent night’s rest. My goal was to get seven hours every night. I started with a set bedtime and the same wakeup time—even on the weekends. No TV or screens in the bedroom. It was tough at first, but eventually my body found its rhythm to meet my needs.

Pound the Trail

There’s no shortcut to getting your legs ready for a brutal 14-mile hike. You have to go out there and get your steps in. It was slow going at first. I started with just extending the walks with the dogs. I usually trekked about two miles in the morning before work. Looking at almost 5,000 vertical feet of elevation gain, I knew a quick walk wasn’t going to cut it.

The first thing I did was double the dogs’ walk. I took them out in the evening after dinner. Surprisingly enough, all three of us slept better after these night excursions. On the weekends, my wife and I would head to the forest and go on long hikes. The progression naturally got longer each trip; five miles became ten in no time. My legs got stronger, and my recovery time was getting shorter. Things got even easier when I added USANA Procosamine® to my daily regimen. It’s a joint health supplement that really helped with recovery.*

Small, consistent changes have big effects. Because I was losing a little weight, sleeping better, and getting my steps in, it wasn’t tough to start adding weight training. All of these changes reminded me that I can take control of my life. I might not have looked as good as I did when I was younger, but I had the confidence of somebody who cares about himself.

Into the Canyon

Jed and I shook hands as he descended South Kaibab Trail. I shouldered my bag and followed, albeit at a much slower pace. Within five minutes, he was out of sight and I was on my own. Slow and steady, I hiked down the trail, reminded of the journey that got me to this place. The brutal cold air of the desert warmed as the sun rose. I felt good, strong, and ready for the challenge.

Every step down was a reminder of the brutal hike I had ahead to get out. But that’s why I trained. I made it to Phantom Ranch—a historic horse ranch along the banks of the Colorado. My legs were sore, but still working. Looking at my watch, I figured I had three hours before Jed would be heading back my direction.

Three hours became five before Jed came limping in. He looked like cooked hamburger. He had fallen about a mile back, and his ankle was pretty swollen. Our options weren’t great, as Jed had reminded me—”getting out wasn’t optional.” After soaking our feet in the frigid river, we put on our boots and made the slow, painful hike up the canyon. I was gassed. How Jed was even standing remains a mystery to me.

It took four agonizing hours to reach the top. Our wives were waiting for us with champagne and a ton of questions: “What took you so long?” “What happened to your ankle?” “You’re not planning on doing this again, are you?” We celebrated with drinks, a campfire, and baked beans. I was asleep seconds after crawling into my sleeping bag.

Age is Just a Number

The key to feeling young is to keep challenging yourself to reach new heights. And these heights don’t have to be seven miles in the middle of a canyon. Looking good starts from the inside out. Make sure to eat a good diet, get proper rest, and exercise. It’s not much more complicated than that.

Friends like Jed are great mentors for tackling the second half of life with zest and excitement. I’m not training for monster hikes anymore, but I’m still focusing on portion control and lots of activity. I miss those training runs, but I’d much rather take the dogs on longer walks. I encourage you to find your next adventure, even if it’s a quick bike ride around the block.

We all know life moves pretty fast. Make every day count. At the very least, you’ll have a lot more stories to tell when you decide to slow down.

Ben Raskin is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. He enjoys fishing, biking, and the occasional salad with blue cheese dressing.

*This medicine may not be right for you. Read the label before purchase. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, worsen, or change unexpectedly, talk to your health professional.

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