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Palm Springs February 2024

Tune-Up Time ‘24
Like the winter of ‘22/’23 in Palm Springs, this season’s 3-month desert retreat was over-focused on our health rather than full-blown fun. Last season, the emphasis was on enduring dysfunction and pain, this season was more heavily weighted towards thriving instead of only surviving.

Bill had his second, anticipated eye surgery and, fortunately, this surgeon stuck with her 2-week prescription of reduced, post-op activity. Last year, the surgeon inexplicably kept extending Bill’s down time by 2 weeks until it reached 6 weeks, the end of our time in Palm Springs, even though his recovery was flawless.

Only with dogged determination, did Bill finally obtain the cardiology evaluation he had longed for in January. The news wasn’t particularly good, with 2 different sources of abnormal functioning in his heart, but it was not a surprise. We both took the diagnoses and vague prognoses in our strides because we knew Bill had arrhythmias, but he had only been able to guess as to the prognosis.

The best news from the cardiologist was: “You will never have a heart attack!” Thank goodness Bill had been deflecting statin prescriptions for years. “Not beneficial” was music to his ears, which had been our conclusion from his stellar coronary artery calcium scores. His heart anomalies could be compounding his altitude intolerance, though there was nothing to do with the information.
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Barb’s new keyboard phone case & Bill’s new electronic stethoscope that connect to his hearing aids shown with its protective container from the kitchen.

Bill was in about the same place as he was before the cardiac evaluation except now, when other physicians wrung their hands while listening to his chaotic heart beats, he had a firm, though unusual, diagnosis with which to sooth them. He took his cardiologist’s suggestion and purchased a state-of-the-art, $450 electronic stethoscope which allowed him to run his own EKGs at interesting times, like when he had just summited a peak. It will be a fascinating study for Bill and the data will be a field day for his cardiologist next year.

We both received hearing tests and new glasses as well as weekly sports massages while in Palm Springs. Those were the more usual, welcome activities in our annual winter tune-up.

What continued to be totally missing from our lives, starting in early October, was TV news. Too much information about the horrors of the new war in the Middle East, piled on that of the old war in Ukraine, plus contentious US politics, completely overloaded us.

At Christmas, we brightened the dark TV screen with a hand towel featuring an embroidered snowman; in the New Year, a fresh tea towel sporting rows of fanciful sheep purchased in England as a souvenir covered the perpetually dark screen. Every now and then, we’d take a deeper dive into digital news, but not for long. The too-scary world out there further narrowed our focus on our health: at least we could have an effect on our fitness.

The desert hiking club uncomfortably competed for increasing amounts of our time this season, with the membership more than doubling into the 700’s post-covid. The club was attracting a higher percentage of inexperienced, unfit, and overly confident people than in the past. Our traditional vetting questions were woefully inadequate. In one week and for the first time ever, I walked 2 delusional, late-middle-aged men who had to turn-around early, back to the safety of their cars, one of whom labeled us all as “crazo’s”.

I did my best to respectfully coach the shoot-the-messenger-mentality new member on gradually improving his conditioning so he could keep up with the 70-year-old women that were dropping him on the hills. The other man had run 70 marathons, so in emails, seemed sufficiently fit for a 7-mile hike, but he was not. He also ground to a halt on the short ‘pop-ups’ of grade while the old folks dug their treads into the loose surface rock without missing a beat. At the trailhead, it wasn’t too hard to silently answer his rhetorical question: “I don’t know what happened to me?” It was surely that extra 50 pounds that probably crept in with covid’s arrival—he lacked the silhouette of a hardened marathoner. It was growing pains for him and the club as we struggled to adapt to the changing membership.

Moving Another Mountain
Little did either of these 2 stressed and distressed men know what stunning opportunities were hidden on these deflecting trails. The same week I was escorting them off 2 separate club hikes, I had moved a huge mountain of personal pain and dysfunction out of me when I slowly hiked alone 80% of the way up San Jacinto Mountain, doing 12 miles and 10,000’ of gain to the Palm Springs Aerial Tram while Bill had gone on to the peak.
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Our new, stubby, water reservoirs were a welcome upgrade for our big hike days.

Six weeks later, doing a much smaller out-and-back solo hike on the lower part of the same Skyline Trail, I moved another, perhaps bigger mountain of dysfunction when I successfully ascended and descended without pain. This was the breakthrough I longed for, to be able to get off a mountain without severe pain, something I hadn’t been able to do for over a year. Bill and I were ecstatic!

Four days later, I pressed for the double-the-distance hike on Skyline, the trail that had been breaking me on the descent. I scampered to our lower lunch spot in under 3 hours, whereas 4 hours had been my usual time of late. The drumroll came when it was time to descend because of the increased pressure on my lumbar spine. Past performance suggested I’d be fine for about 1/4th of the descent, a little over a mile, and then the disabling pain would creep in and escalate. Amazing, like on the much shorter romp 4 days prior, I was pain free the entire descent and didn’t limp home, which had become my norm for several years. Another victory! Upon awakening the next morning, I noted that my sense of self had shifted to that of being an athlete instead of an old woman in decline.

Knees have always been my most vulnerable joint but I’d been so effective, so meticulous over the years in caring for my knees, that my weak point had become my back. We were among the few club members who hiked on Skyline at all because the unrelenting grades are notoriously punishing on the knees and I was determined to reclaim and retain my capacity to do so.

Tipping Point
An intervention from my myofascial release (MFR) practitioner was what tipped me over the edge to finally, comfortably descending steep mountains again. For big-descent outings, Bill would administer the lumbar decompression technic on my sacrum for 7” the night before the hike, again the morning of it, and in the evening after the hike. I did my best simulation of it by draping myself over a tall boulder for 7” at lunch. Who knows if that regime was excessive or just enough, but it worked, it got me up higher on the mountain again.

Increasingly, I was convinced that our sports massage therapist’s work on my deep pelvic ligaments attaching the spine to the hip bone was essential for my body integrating the necessary MFR changes in my other soft tissues. Surely her work was restoring healthier movement patterns between these foundational bones. The struggles of deeper healing weren’t all behind me, but at least I was clearly at a very functional plateau on my way to a full recovery.
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We discovered the iconic old stove at Cowboy Camp had been crushed by a fallen tree on the all-day, all uphill, Guadalupe hike with Margaret and Glenn.

Restoring Our Flagging Fitness

With Bill’s eye surgery and uncertainty about his cardiac health behind him, and me being more reliable on the trail with my back issue stabilized, it was time to restore our flagging fitness. Our abysmally slow hiking times on San Jacinto in December underscored what we knew: our fitness was tanking. We’d kept hiking and walking 2,000 miles a year for years, but it wasn’t enough. The poor performance wasn’t a surprise but since I could now push harder, it was time to craft a more intense strategy.

Our athletic performance peaked in 2017-18 when we did 500,000’ of elevation gain while hiking 2,000 miles in a year, plus 1,000 miles of cycling. Last year, our cycling miles dropped to about 200, mostly on e-bikes; our elevation gain accrued on foot dropped to one half of that of our best year.

We’d been watching the numbers plummet on our Activities spreadsheet for years but felt powerless to reverse the trends. The instability and pain in my back that had slowly escalated, had meant there was nothing to push against: the power leaked out when applied. More than 2 years of antihypertensive medications had decimated my cardiac performance and then our athleticism was brought down further by covid restrictions that kept us out of the Alps and off the high peaks in Colorado. Wildfire smoke eventually drove us out of the lower mountains in Colorado one covid summer and out of Bend, Oregon the following summer. We knew all these external forces were amplifying our age-associated decline and we were desperate to fight back.

My sense of helplessness about our steady deterioration was abruptly halted in early February when my spinal health significantly improved, renewing my interest in the estimated VO2 max numbers from my Apple watch app. In the past, it was too much bad news: we both had had VO2 max values of almost 40 but they had plummeted to under 30. Feeling sturdier allowed my curiosity to prevail. My horror upon studying the diminishing numbers quickly reversed when I recognized a previously unrecognized opportunity: we could now increase the intensity of our exercise even if we weren’t darting up and down mountains.
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The Horsethief Creek crossing towards the end of the Guadalupe trek.

It was clear that in the past, we’d kept our VO2 max up, without noticing, by doing big elevation gains while hiking and biking. But I immediately understood that if we continued to be thwarted in the mountains, we could focus on VO2 max training activities, like run/walk hill work intervals and fast walking bursts. Those were hardly as engaging as summiting peaks in the Dolomites, but they would be effective.

Instantly, we recommitted to overcoming our resistance to resistance training to support hill work and HIIT (high intensity interval training). We weren’t pleased with the prospect of focusing on gym rat activities we’d be doing outdoors instead of burning up trails in the mountains and deserts, but it was a matter of thriving again.

“Why?” People would ask when we climbed San Jacinto or hiked between the Rims in the Grand Canyon: “Why do you keep repeating those hard events?” The short answer was “for sustaining good health”. These were not bucket list items to be checked off a list, they were highly motivating and satisfying fitness opportunities to sustain our optimal health year after year.

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that exercise is good for you. Unfortunately, the public health messages intentionally dumb it down for fear if they make the task too daunting, people will exercise even less. But the research, not the public health policies, is clear: more is better and a lot more is a lot better. Yes, some extreme athletes have identified the upper boundaries of health promoting fitness, but we’d always known that we neither had the mental or physical capacities to touch those edges. As one of Bill’s physicians prescribed, we could “go thrash ourselves” only being attentive to injury prevention and not overexertion.

Beyond the “Yadda, yadda, yadda” we’ve all heard about exercise being good for your heart, brain, and longevity, more recent research has also demonstrated that exercise is helpful in reducing occurrences and recurrences of breast and colorectal cancers. Perhaps those cancers are suppressed by more general byproducts of exercise, which are essentially a stew of healing substances released in excess. The best way to stimulate our own body’s “healing stews” of revitalizing chemicals is to exercise and exercise hard.

Hard exercise creates micro-fractures in your bones and tiny shreds in your muscles and other soft tissues. Alarmed by the distress signals sent out from these multiple, tiny injuries, the body triggers the manufacture of a flood of factors to clear out the damaged tissues and patch up things with other compounds, so they become stronger than before the stress. Additionally, as the body often does, it goes overboard, creating a surplus of healing goodies to be grabbed by other needy tissues.

And then there are the discouraging numbers:
..70% of all 70-year-olds aren’t strong enough to lift themselves off the floor.
..There is a precipitous drop in muscle mass and strength by 75 years of age, if not earlier.
..A researcher reporting on the many anti-aging drugs in the pipeline said for now, exercise beat them all.
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There was still snow at the 5300’ level on Skyline Trail.

Grabbing It All

Motivated to do everything we could to ramp-up our revised fitness program, we jumped at a podcast suggestion of going for a brief walk at sunrise and sunset to get the best wavelengths of sun rays for maintaining one’s Circadian rhythm. It seemed our rigid sleep schedule was holding us in good stead for our Circadian rhythms, but we knew that sunrises in Palm Springs were gorgeous.

Having been on a 4 am wake-up time since November to support the hoped for “peak bagging hikes” made it easy to pop out at 6:30 and then 6:00 for a 20” walk. We quickly discovered these morning strolls were a joy. They were an energizing addition to our morning routine and adding another walk near sunset easily gave us an extra 2 miles to our daily milage tally, which was routinely in the 7-8 miles range.

These outings trimmed our daytime fitness walks to 6 miles, which made them less time consuming. Additionally, taking 3 walks in a day instead of one long walk was a healthier habit because it interrupted our sieges of sitting at our computers. Our early and late strolls were nice resets for our hard-working bodies and time together to admire the changing light in the clouds was an effective stress reducer. The last walk also happened to catch more of our RV park neighbors out and about, adding a welcome social boost to the day.

Our arbitrary goal of 2000 miles a year had come under the microscope a few months earlier when Bill had a spectacular showing at the Grand Canyon in October. He sped across the Canyon between the Rims on 4 days over 9 days, clocking his personal best times with relative ease and sustaining no injuries. Bill was a direct beneficiary of my year-long recovery from acute low back pain: by some measures, he attained the highest fitness level of his life (though we were perplexed when he later struggled on San Jacinto). My training plan for myself of walking, rucking, or hiking 50-60 miles most weeks since June had made the difference for him too.

It was hard to miss that we needed to up our annual mileage to the 2,500-3,000 range. But the months of hiking or walking 50-60 miles a week I had been doing left me little time for anything more than the minimal chores of daily living and a few emails. I had become a “minutes monster,” hoarding every unaccounted-for minute for myself. We settled on a compromise: 6 months of the year we stick to the old training goal of 40 miles/week and from May through October, we bump our target up to 50 or more miles per week. We’d schedule the extra miles to support us for our peak fitness point of the year, the Grand Canyon and perhaps the peaks near Palm Springs.
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New purchases to reduce our microplastics intake.

To enhance our bodies on another level, Bill bought a reverse osmosis countertop system to remove microplastics from our drinking water and went back to wooden cutting boards for the same reason. With aging, it felt like we were piloting leaking boats and we were patching and optimizing as much as we could everywhere we could.

On Palm Springs mountain trails a number of years ago, I coined the phrase “Inspire & Be Inspired” as our guiding principle. Other hikers would look at our gray hair, ultra-light footwear, or our tempo and blurt “You are so inspirational!” and we too had our favorite stories to tell of amazing people who inspired us when they flashed by. But this December we learned that we need not have looked as far as the trails for inspiration: literally in our backyard, on the grounds of our RV park, we had all the inspiration we needed. The affable, ever-smiling Gertie, with her still-strong German accent, revealed that she walked 7 miles a day, every day, which is what we did most days. However, Gertie was soon to turn 88!

Ever since we started coming to Palm Springs over 10 years ago Gertie was the night manager, the hostess who received late arriving RV’ers. But, not long after sunrise, petite, ramrod straight Gertie, usually in gray-tone leggings, tunic tops, and wedge heeled sandals could be seen strolling the asphalt roadway, frequently stopping to chat.
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I’d made a point to cultivate a relationship with Gertie, to create a bit of continuity for us from year to year. Gertie didn’t have much authority, but she could fill me in on the latest bit of gossip suitable for us being in an outer orbit of her circles. I always made a point to wish her “Happy Birthday” in February. BUT, this year, Gertie revealed her stunning, almost 50 miles per week walking program. We felt like hero’s when in the previous months, we’d pushed our mileage from 40 to 50 or 60 per week.

Granted, all of Gertie’s miles were pancake flat, never attaining more than a few feet of elevation gain, but nonetheless, she was doing it. No matter that the temperatures would hit 120° in Palm Springs, Gertie was out there repeating incredibly short laps in the shade of a few building overhangs to log her miles each day, year round.

Likewise, a new hiking club member blasted our socks off when he had no trouble bounding up our beloved Skyline Trail ahead of us. He had the speed of a trail runner, but his training was about 40 years of daily walking in a flat city. He didn’t log every mile he walked on a spreadsheet like we did but knew that some weeks, he did 100 miles! Here we were, whimpering about pushing our mileage up to 50 a week 6 months of the year, and he and Gertie were already out doing us! “Inspire, Be Inspired!”

A Disrupted Departure
The last week of our 3-month stay in Palm Springs was wildly different than all other weeks there: Bill came through the trailer door after an all-day, 16-mile hike to the little Rescue 2 box on Skyline Trail and announced he was sick. It was his finale hike and the 2nd time he had done the exceptional hike in 8 days. I’d accompanied him to about the 4500’ level, then turned around according to plan in deference to my spinal recovery, while he went on to 5300’.

A taxing flurry of activity ensued, delaying our bedtime by 2 hours on this exhausting hike day. Our covid test kits were outdated, so he borrowed one from a neighbor, but it was also outdated. Bill drove to a nearby pharmacy for a fresh kit and tested negative. Meanwhile, I was calling nearby motels for availability on a Saturday night at the culmination of the wildly popular, 10-day Modernism Week, and rooms were slipping away. He reluctantly emptied his new backpack of hiking gear, refilled it with provisions for an overnighter and left on foot, committed to not infecting me with whatever it was, if possible.

Bill’s out-of-an-abundance-of-caution strategy for my health paid off when 2 days later, he tested positive for covid while I was still symptom-free, but our finale week in Palm Springs went up in smoke. Bill spent hours reading the latest on covid, its diagnosis and treatment, and whatever else he could find to aid in decision making. We canceled last appointments and made contingency plans because we had to vacate in 3 days.
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Darn it, anyway! Bill tested positive.

Bill had kindly been doing the lion’s share of food prep and grocery shopping for over a year so I could devote more time to treatments, self-care, and self-directed rehab for my spinal injury. Abruptly, my time for those priorities evaporated: suddenly I was doing all the kitchen chores and shopping alone. On our new sunrise walks, we would meet on the sidewalk to exchange bags: one of meals for the day for him and one of yesterday’s dishes he’d washed for me to refill.

At 48 hours, he retested and was positive for covid; I was still symptom-free. Fortunately, Bill’s disease course was relatively mild. There were no trips to the hospital, no ventilators, none of the nightmare scenarios of the more vicious, earlier strains. He had about 2 days of keep-you-awake cold-like symptoms and fatigue. Importantly, he never had a fever and never lost his sense of taste or smell. With the positive test, he obtained a prescription for Paxlovid within hours and his motel-stay was extended to 6 nights, with him ‘checking in’ to his trailer residence on March 1, our departure day at the end of our 3-month stay in Palm Springs.

There was no availability at our RV park to postpone our departure. We had to move on according to plan, even in the face of the unexpected: Bill had covid and we’d be driving into a fierce, several-day windstorm.

On schedule, we drove to Barstow for a 2-night stay employing covid precautions in the truck. We were both thrown into a tailspin on our arrival evening when Bill tested positive; he had felt so good that we both fully expected him to be over it, for the test to be negative.

Unfortunately, our ongoing need to have Bill isolate, now in the trailer, coincided with a drop in temperature and the arrival of the 2-day windstorm. We bundled up, kept the windows open on the lee, and had a ventilation fan running 24/7. Bill used our ultralight camping gear to sleep on the floor with his head at the opposite end of the trailer from me in our bed. Our leaky boat of aging had just gotten leaker and once again, our coming days on the road to Lake Mead and then the Grand Canyon were less certain.