This is a tale about a couple in their 80s who set themselves a tough challenge and pulled it off.
Joan and Willis are hikers, so setting a goal to walk a 10km trail with 600 granite steps in Yosemite National Park might not seem out of the box.
Except that she’s 84 and he’s 86.
The key to their accomplishment was their attitude and approach, and there’s something we can all take from that.
Joan and Willis live in California. I first read about Joan in a book on ageing and exercise by biomechanist Katy Bowman. (A biomechanist analyses movement. They study things like joint angles or the forces acting on a body part.)
Although she’d always walked, in her 70s Joan decided she needed to do more to address her pelvic prolapse, chronic constipation and foot problems, and started exercising with Katy.
What stood out was Joan’s curiosity about what her body could do and her commitment to improving at an age when most of us assume that’s not possible. At 78 she declared her balance was the best it had ever been, so much so that she walked barefoot across a log a couple of metres above a rushing river.
Willis has his own issues, including glaucoma. He’s also had his right hip replaced.
Nevertheless, in May 2021 they decided to hike Vernal and Nevada Falls at Yosemite in a year’s time and to do whatever it took.
They also agreed on why they were doing it: to explore and discover what they were physically capable of at their ages and in their conditions.
Like the rest of us, the moment they set an audacious goal the self-doubt leapt in. In her blog Joan described the way her internal voice went into overdrive.
“What?!?” she (the voice) screamed aghast. “You’re planning to do what?!? That’s insanity. Get a grip – you’re 83 and he’s 85 – you will be 84 and he will be 86 next June. He just had a hip replacement. You had two surgeries for pelvic prolapse. Are you crazy?!?”
And as we prepare, she is right there. For example, when I am using fallen logs as balance beams. “You better not do that – you’re too old! Watch out,” she shouts, “you’re going to fall and break your ankle/knee/leg/arm/head… and then you won’t be able to hike anymore, and you might even be brain damaged.”
Eventually, Joan chose to stop listening. The secret to dealing with doubt and fear, she concluded, was taking action — focusing on what she could do in the present versus worrying about what she might not be able to do in the future.
In this case, the action steps were about preparing and planning for the hike: experimenting to find the most suitable equipment, working out how to train over various types of terrain, looking for the kinds of hikes that would set them up for the Falls trail, ensuring their nutrition was as good as they could make it, and getting help to increase their strength, endurance and flexibility.
They got busy, hiking regularly to build their capacity, choosing trails with steps, and because the Falls walk is at high altitude (1.2 to 1.8 kms above sea level), training themselves to handle that. Joan also began wearing a weight vest to increase her strength.
But there were setbacks, including a hip injury that required two weeks off walking, vicious leg cramps that kept her awake at night, occasional numbness in her toes and feet, and pain in her neck and shoulder from a strained muscle, probably from the backpack.
When she couldn’t walk, Joan worked on her core and upper body strength, found things to read, watch or listen to that would keep her moving forward, and used the time for other things, such as catching up with friends.
Willis, meanwhile, had a back problem which affected the way he walked. And his left hip — the one that hadn’t been replaced — was sensitive during and after hikes.
But finally, after a string of injuries, aches and pains, fears, doubts and disappointments they proudly completed their hike in June.
They’re still deciding what’s next. But one thing is clear: their experience of preparing for and doing this hike has grown their confidence to tackle things they want to do that aren’t considered ‘normal’ for people their age.
Photo Source: Joan Allen