A long walk on the Kickapoo Rail Trail

The Kickapoo Rail Trail had its ribbon-cutting Friday. Jackie and I attended as volunteers for the Champaign Forest Preserve District. We walked a short distance that evening, but our feet were tired after spending a couple of hours passing out flyers and listening to local dignitaries speak, so we cut that walk short.

We returned on Sunday to make a proper walk of it.

We parked at the Urbana WalMart (which has said that it’s okay for hikers and bikers to park there, as long as they park in the northwest corner, which is where you’d want to park anyway).

Then we hiked pretty much the whole trail: From High Cross Road to the end of the trail in St. Joseph and back again. We had lunch at the Wheelhouse, a pretty good restaurant in St. Joe that’s right there on the trail, and is appropriately cycling-themed. The only part of the trail that we didn’t hike is the short stretch west of High Cross Road that runs to Main Street where it nips up to University.

It’s a great trail. As Jackie and I discovered when we hiked the Kal-Haven trail, that crushed limestone is a great surface—hard enough for even a skinny-tired bicycle, soft enough to be gentle on feet that are going to be getting a pounding over a long hike, relatively cheap and easy to maintain.

There were a lot of cyclists out on the trail; they outnumbered the walkers by maybe 20 to 1. I guess that makes sense. The round trip is over 13 miles, which puts it up close to what I consider a very long walk (anything over 14 miles), but quite a modest distance for a bicyclist.

Sights along the trail include this spectacular view from the bridge over the Salt Fork:

There are supposedly river otters along the Salt Fork now, according to the text on this sign, but we didn’t see any. (“They hide from you,” says my brother.)

We will be back to bicycle the trail very soon. I don’t know if walking it will be a regular thing or not, but at a minimum we’ll get out to walk the stretch west of High Cross Road that we haven’t done yet.

My dad has fond memories of the old rail right-of-way from when he was a grad student (this would have been the late 1950s) and his advisor brought students out to there to see prairie remnants. Seeing this land properly preserved is wonderful, and I’m very much looking forward to the expansion of prairie species along the path that will follow with proper management.

We’re very excited about future plans for the trail. It’ll be years before it connects all the way to Danville, but there are bits that’ll probably get done sooner—trails heads at Weaver Park and Kolb Park, a short extension that will take it a few blocks further through St. Joseph (to the road to Homer Lake).

If you’re local, you should get out and bike or walk it at your next opportunity. It’s a wonderful trail.

Feeling good versus feeling young

A friend of mine posted to her Facebook page recently criticizing a whole category of ageist comments along the lines of “You’re only as old as you feel.”

It caught my interest in particular because I’d been mentally composing a post about how I just turned 58, but I’m not suffering the aches and pains that supposedly go along with getting old. My friend’s post reminded me that referring to this as “feeling young” is problematic. And yet, I find that I come down on the other side of this issue. Sure, there is a certain irrefutable accuracy to say that your age is the current year minus your birth year, but age is many things besides a mathematical calculation—at a minimum it’s a social construction, and also perhaps a collection of biological circumstances.

It’s true that what I mean—and what perhaps I should say—is I feel good. Better, in fact, than I’ve felt in years. I’m stronger, more flexible, and more agile than I’ve been in longer than I can remember. I move with more ease, more power, and more control. I have more endurance. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin.

A lot of this is just good luck, of course—good genes, avoiding serious injuries and serious illnesses so far.

Beyond good luck I credit my movement practice for most of the rest. Taiji. Walking and hiking. Running (merely an adjunct, but one I enjoy in particular). After years of lifting with machines to little noticeable effect I now do almost all my strength training with bodyweight exercises and am having much more success. (The main exception to pure bodyweight exercise is doing kettlebell swings for my high-intensity interval training, which I ought to write about because it seems to be doing some good, and is also quick and fun.) Push hands I wrote about recently. Animal movement ditto. So new I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet, I did yoga for the first time last week.

But to bring this back full circle, I’m not so sure that it’s wrong to talk about “feeling young.” My friend is right—growing old is a privilege not everyone enjoys. It is indeed better than the alternative: dying young. But just as I can see her objections to denying age (as if refusing to acknowledge it meant something), I object to denying one’s felt experience. If someone says that they “feel young,” does an appeal to mere arithmetic justify correcting them?

Certainly I am not the only person to feel this way. There are always people trying to express health and fitness in terms of age. There are websites that will suggest a guess as to your physiological age vaguely based on your weight and your activity level. Various practitioners of various disciplines will measure specific things ranging from your maximum heart rate to the length of your telomeres and use the results to calculate a biological age.

They’re all pretty dubious, but I find that I do not object in principle to thinking and talking about concepts like health, fitness, and vitality in terms of age. Even though there are many unhealthy young people and many old people who are fit and vital, I think the notion resonates in a useful way.

As for me, I feel good. I also feel younger than I’ve felt in years.

Open workout tracking

I really like to gather and play with data from my workouts, but I dislike the way the tools I use to gather it tie me to their own websites for analysis and display—and in particular the way they always want to spin up their own scripts on my website when I want to display the data here. So, via Srikanth Perinkulam, I’m experimenting with WP-GPX-Maps as a way to display a workout with less use of closed software. This is a test:

Total distance: 2.32 mi
Total Time: 00:28:34

That’s my run from Thursday, along my most common route for a short run: Out on sidewalks along Curtis Road and First Street (around “The Place), and then the rest of the way on trails back through the Lake Park Prairie (along what we call the High Road—on top of the berm along the north edge of the prairie), over the weir across the creek that feeds into the Embarras River, past the little pond and down along the west and south sides of the Lake Park Woods, and back again across the weir.

If you’re a reader of this blog, your opinion is earnestly sought: Is that better than the workout sessions I used to share via Endomondo? Or did you never object to the closed tools in the first place? If you simply have no interest in my workout tracking data, that’s okay too.

Here’s one more test, the hike Jackie and I took at Forest Glen on June 11th:

Total distance: 5.56 mi
Total Time: 02:36:31

Ankle dorsiflexion turns out to be useful

For going on two years now, I’ve been working on recovering the ability to squat. I’m not talking about the exercise called the squat, although I do that too. I’m talking about the ordinary human resting posture of lowering your butt down near your heels and relaxing there.

The reason I’ve been working on it for two years is that I haven’t been flexible enough to get into a proper squat. My flexibility has been improving pretty slowly, but it has been improving—I can now get down into a pretty good squat if I have a bit of heel support.

The change that’s been driving the improvement, but (as needing heel support shows) the area where I still need to improve, is ankle dorsiflexion. (Dorsiflexion is pulling your toes up toward your knees. It’s the opposite of plantarflexion, which is pointing your toes away from your knees.) To improve my ankle dorsiflexion I’ve been doing a variety of calf stretches with both straight and bent knees.

I don’t really have a before picture, but my ankle flexion used to be just about zero. That is, my ankle would bend 90° (as in standing up straight) no problem, but bending it up further simply didn’t happen. I used to think that was normal, and didn’t really try to stretch my calf to go beyond that range.

Now that I’ve been doing my stretches for a while, I can manage a bit of dorsiflexion:

Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill
Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill

The thing that prompted me to write this post, though, is not that I’m a few degrees closer to being able to squat, but that this added range of motion turns out to be useful for other stuff. In particular, as demonstrated in this picture, walking uphill.

There’s not a lot of call for walking uphill in east-central Illinois, but you can find places where it’s possible to go up a hill. Jackie and I visited one a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself putting my new range of motion to good use.

See, if you can dorsiflex your ankle, then the heel of your back foot can stay on the ground as you stride uphill. This lets you use your glutes to drive yourself forward and upward.

If you can’t dorsiflex your ankle, then your back heel comes off the ground as soon as your front foot goes forward. Now you’re stuck pushing yourself up with your relatively wimpy quads and calf muscles.

I’m not surprised, I just hadn’t though of it. This natural movement stuff turns out to have all kinds of side benefits.

Tree identification workshop (and fitness)

Shagbark Hickory tree at Allerton Park
Shagbark Hickory at Allerton Park

Jackie and I attended a tree identification workshop at Allerton Park yesterday.

Both my parents are naturalists, and my brother took some botany classes as part getting his PhD in science education, so they all know all the trees we’re likely to see in any of the places where we’ve ever lived. They routinely identify the trees for me when we’re walking. If I’d had any sense, I’d have learned all that stuff myself long ago.

Sadly, I have a lazy brain—the sort that figures that if other people will identify the trees for me, there’s no need for me to learn how to do it myself. So, I had to subject myself to this workshop to try and catch up.

It was a very well done workshop. We spent about half an hour going over basic terminology of tree characteristics—alternate versus opposite, simple versus compound, pinnate versus palmate, petioles versus petiolules—then we spent about three hours hiking through Allerton Park on the south side of the Sangamon River, before breaking for lunch. After lunch we spent another three hours hiking on the north side of the river, looking at the trees found over there.

We learned to identify maybe 30 species, with enough repetition of the more common species that we might actually be able to remember them.

It was good.

With all the time and effort I’ve been putting into fitness of late, I’ve been feeling just a little smug—I’m in so much better shape than I was nine or ten years ago. But this outing showed me that any such smugness is unjustified—everybody in our group of 20 or so, including some people older than Jackie and me, held up just fine to the rigors of five or six hours on our feet in the woods, some of it hiking off-trail. Jackie and I held up just fine too, but I was pretty tired at the end. (And managed to jam my ankle at some point, which wasn’t a problem during the event, but got sore in the night.)

It was a good reminder that endurance is a very complicated thing. Being in shape to walk briskly for 10 or 15 miles is not the same as being in shape to alternate walking and standing for the same number of hours. Adding effort in a mental dimension—trying to learn the trees, keeping an eye out for things like poison ivy, nettle, and tripping hazards—also makes things more taxing, something that’s easy to forget.

Now we need to get back to Allerton reasonably soon—before we forget everything—and see how many of those trees we can still identify.

Deliberately hilly walk

I think Champaign-Urbana is great. The university gives it cultural and scientific amenities far beyond its size. It’s a cheap place to live, which not only enables my lifestyle, it enables the lifestyle of any number of clever creative people who choose to live where they can make enough from their art to support themselves.

Just about the only thing that CU really lacks is relief—that is, a variation in height from one place to another.

What I mean to say is: it’s really, really flat. Take for example, this image:

Looking toward Yankee Ridge

That’s the hilly direction. I’m looking toward Yankee Ridge, which is about three miles away from where I’m standing. It may not look like much, but that hill in the distance is a big deal when you’re on a bicycle. At least, it is if you’re used to riding in Central Illinois.

Given the terrain, we don’t get enough hiking on hills, unless we make an effort to go to the hills. So, that’s what we did yesterday. We drove to Fox Ridge, a nearby state park which has some hills.

I remember hiking in Fox Ridge last summer, shortly before our big Kal-Haven trail hike, and finding that we were in pretty good shape for dealing with the hills, despite our very limited practice. That was less true this spring. I was a bit tired from my unexpectedly fast run the previous day, and we were both a bit out of shape from a lack of hills over the winter.

Still, we did okay. We saw some spring wildflowers, like these dutchman’s breeches:

img_20160416_101623469_26401844861_oAnd this buttercup:


And this solomon’s seal:

img_20160416_110056171_26401892471_oTotal hiking was probably only a little over 3 miles, but the hills made it a very different sort of hike than our much longer hikes closer to home. Plus, we got to spend time in the woods.

So, that’s another bonus of Champaign-Urbana: We’ve got Fox Ridge State Park just 50 miles away.

Dayhiking the Kal-Haven Trail

Two years we trained for this particular very long hike, without getting it together to make the trip to Kalamazoo during the few summer weeks when the days are long enough to through-hike the Kal-Haven Trail in a day. This year we made it happen.

Two years we trained for this particular very long walk, without getting it together to make the trip to Kalamazoo during the few summer weeks when the days are long enough to through-hike the Kal-Haven Trail in a day. This year we made it happen.

At the trailheadWe meant to be at the trailhead by dawn which was 6:05 AM, but breakfast and final checking of gear took a little longer than we’d hoped. It was almost one hour later when we posed for pictures in front of the sign. We were walking just a few minutes later. Jackie started Endomondo at 7:06.

My brother, Steven Brewer, had offered to drive support, and did a great job. He drove us to the trailhead, met us at four or five points along the way to provide fresh, cold bottles of water, laid out a sumptuous, bounteous feast for lunch, and took pictures along the way. (He has written his own account of the walk.)

We made excellent time through the morning, clocking out a whole series of sub-18-minute miles, and reached Gobles a few minutes before noon.

The crushed limestone surface was great—smooth, level, hard enough for efficient walking, gentler than concrete. (There was one stretch in Bloomingdale that had been resurfaced with asphalt, which was much harder on the feet.)

photo_18363558004_oThere was one downside to the surface, though. Almost as it it were designed that way, my tread caught the limestone and pitched it forwards into my boots. I had to stop every few miles and shake a teaspoon of limestone grit out of my boots.

Still great for walking on, and kinda pretty.

I had made sandwiches, and Steven had gotten all sorts of stuff to go with them—german potato salad, red bananas, hummus, flat bread, raspberries, raw veggies, and brownies for desert.

Trailside FeastBehold our awesome lunch, served trailside, complete with cloth napkins.

It took some minutes to loosen up after we got started going again, but we were almost matching our pace, carrying on with sub-20-minute miles right along until we hit mile 25.

I was still feeling pretty good then. We had slowed down a bit, but as we passed mile 27, I tweeted, “Has blown through marathon distance and is pressing for 33.5 miles. South Haven here we come!”

Pretty much just about then, though, I started dragging a bit. We had walked farther than we’ve ever walked before, and the last few miles were tough.

We pressed on, walking at perhaps a 22-minute pace. Jackie held up better than I did, as you can perhaps tell from this picture, taken very close to the end of the trail. Steven had suggested that we smile, and both Jackie and I did our best:

Approaching South HavenAt that point it was merely a matter of trudging on. We wrapped up at 33.41 miles as measured by Endomondo, and Steven popped us into the car and drove us to the restaurant for a celebratory feast.

At about that point, my body seemed to have lost the ability to thermoregulate—I was shivering so hard my teeth were chattering in the slightly cool air of the South Haven evening.

Jackie wrapped her arms around me to keep me warm, and Steven got this picture as well:

18964591362_299df20f06_oAfter a good night’s sleep, a big breakfast, and a nap after lunch, I think we’re all largely recovered. I stiffen up a bit if I sit still, but am not really even very sore. In the morning we got out to play Ingress, and I was able to walk around pretty much as usual. I’ll take at least one more day off before I go for a run, but basically I feel fine.

We have no plans for even longer walks, but we’ll certainly keep walking, perhaps expanding to multi-day through-hikes of the sort where your gear is schlepped for you from B&B to B&B.

It was a great experience!