“Wow, Kilimanjaro. How are you training for that?” That was pretty much the question I heard from everyone leading up to what was a trip of a lifetime. See I live in Chicago which is not exactly known for its mountains, altitude or well any sort of non-flat terrain. Of course my answer was simple – “Easy, I’m training for Ironman 70.3 Indian Wells which is a few weeks before.” It seemed to appease most people, though a few did point out that maybe some altitude training would be good. And I’m sure it would have been if I had figured out how to add more time in the day and days in the week. But in the end, the training for the race actually prepared me more than any climb could have.
There is nothing more critical for a race than packing – to the race and for the race. The art of it is making sure you have exactly what you need and nothing more or nothing less. I’ve become a master of using gallon size Ziplock bags to make sure everything is together, organized and water proof (nothing worse than soggy socks because your transition bag sat overnight).
As I tried to figure out exactly what I would need for a 6 day climb, 3 day safari and 6 days at the beach I used all of those race day skills. Lay everything out. Organize it by event. Go through and make sure you have what you need but don’t take anything more than that. I should probably note here that I was also attempting to take everything I needed in my backpack and carry-on, because with 4 different flights there I wasn’t willing to have lost luggage.
Looking back I must say this was maybe the best idea I had. First, if you take all the air out the bags double as compression sacks. Second, when you go through security over and over and over again it is much easier to repack a few Ziplocks into a backpack than every piece of clothing. Third, I knew where everything was over the hike and could quick grab that extra layer.
There is always that line in coach Sam’s race plan – if you can’t eat at least keep taking in fluids. While I packed all the bars, gels, electrolytes and salt tabs a girl could want, when the altitude hit I couldn’t stomach any of it. On summit day I managed half a bar before calling it quits and focusing on how many Pepto tabs I could chew. But I never stopped drinking water/electrolytes because I knew if I couldn’t eat I at the very least needed to drink. So somehow I managed to hike for 11 ½ hours on a half a bar and 4 liters of water. Which brings me to…..
Moving on Tired Legs
I’m pretty sure learning to move on tired legs is the epitome of triathlon training. Spin for 4 hours and then go run for 30 minutes. Two –a-days, brick work, speed then distance – all of it teaching us how to move on tired legs. This was the second most important application of training for the hike (I’ll get to the first next).
Since we were on the 6-day hike, it meant that within the 48 hours of the summit we ended up hiking for about 24 hours. I’m completely disregarding the 3 days of hiking to even get to this point, but those 48-hours were brutal. It started with a 3 ½ hour hike up (more like a rock climb) over a wall to lunch, then a 3 hour hike to base camp. We had a few hours to “sleep” before dinner, eat dinner and then a few hours to “sleep” before waking up at 11 pm to start the summit climb at midnight. Needless to say sleeping didn’t happen.
From midnight to dawn you pretty much question your sanity a few hundred times. It’s dark, cold, windy and you are moving at a snail’s pace (at least I was). You’re tired. Your legs are tired. But you keep moving until you reach that peak. I can’t begin to describe how amazing that point was – the mental, physical and emotional challenge to get there overwhelms you. The views and the beauty cannot be captured in a photo. Of course once you take this all in, the realization that you have to get down the mountain sets in.
Down to base camp was almost as hard as up to the summit. By now the sun has been up and the ground is no longer frozen so you end up skiing down sand. As you’ve spent the better part of 8 hours climbing up, you become unsure of your legs going down. Hitting a gravel spot every so often doesn’t help with confidence. But this was my sweet spot. I was tired but I knew this place. You just need to keep focused and keep moving.
I’d like to say that was the end of moving on tired legs, but after an hour to rest we had to keep going to lower camp. This meant 6 more hours of hiking. But I was prepared for this. It was like a two-a-day or a long weekend brick. I had just gotten off the bike and it was time to run. Though in this case the runs was more of a slow 6 hour walk.
This was the most important aspect of triathlon training that came into play when climbing. Determination and focus was just as important for the climb as it is in every race - part of getting to the top was wanting to get there. Of course there was also the ability to come out of a dark place and reset to keep going. I was well-versed here after Indian Wells – a freezing swim, three issues with my rear tire, and a small crash will teach you how to feel the pain and then put it aside to keep moving forward. There were many dark places along the hike, not just on the summit day. I can’t count the times that I had to let myself feel weak, tired, and sick and then push those aside, re-frame to a positive mindset and move forward. Luckily the friend I hiked with and I took turns falling apart, as it always helps to have someone else pull you back to reality.
Bonus Training: Run Your Own Race
Okay so one more bonus aspect of training for a triathlon that really helped – run your own race. It can be so easy to get caught up in how fast (or slow) you’re moving compared to everyone else. Early on the summit day you see people coming down the mountain – those who couldn’t reach the top for any number of reasons – and people passing you by as if you were standing still. It becomes hard to stay focused on your climb, your pace and what is best for you when you are faced with the question of “can I make it?” as others seem to be doing it easily and some clearly had their day called early.
Pole pole (Swahili for slow) was our plan – and you always follow the plan. It was hard at times to know that if we moved a tiny bit faster we would get there sooner because even though on the way up I didn’t quite know how long the day would be, I still knew it would be a long day. But keeping to the plan would get us to the top, so at all costs I had to block out what everyone else was doing and just focus on the my race (errr climb) plan.
Looking back, would I have trained the same way if I could do it all over again? Probably. Maybe I would have found time to visit the high altitude training room I learned about only after returning. Maybe I would have taken the difficulty of the climb more seriously. Maybe I would have signed up for a 7 day trek. But the truth is, that every bit of the Ironman 70.3 training that got me to the finish on race day, got me to the top of Kilimanjaro and I couldn’t have asked for better training than that.