Thursday, June 7, 2007

For Hikers in a Hurry to Get Fit Fast

Speed Hiking In Boulder, Colo., members of a trail-running club demonstrate relentless forward motion on the trail.
Photo by: Stephen Collector for The New York Times
Source: New York Times June 7th, 2007
Author: Matt Villano

SO many trails, so little time. With summer around the corner in the Pacific Northwest, Dan Lauren, 48, faces this frustrating state of affairs every weekend.

Most weekends, Mr. Lauren, a technology manager at Weyerhaeuser, a timber company in Federal Way, Wash., gears up for at least one heart-thumping trek of 10 to 20 miles. In March, he and four friends from a mountaineering club accomplished an even greater feat, powering through 31 miles and more than 14,000 feet of elevation between 5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m.

The goal, Mr. Lauren said, was simple: to knock off as much elevation and as many miles as quickly as possible.

“This was not a scenic, ‘go see the beauty of the wilderness’ outing,” Mr. Lauren said. “Instead, it was: ‘How fast can we get up and get down? How can we maximize our conditioning?’ ”

The party of five christened their hike — which crested four storied peaks of Washington — the Quadburner.

Outdoor adventurers call this pastime speed hiking. It combines the muscle-building benefits of altitude gain with fast-paced aerobic activity, which keeps heart rates high. Fast hikers usually wear lightweight footwear and hydration backpacks and minimize what they carry. Most trips are done in a day.

No organization tracks how many hikers hike for the speed of it, but a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts are hiking for fitness, and many have turned to speed hiking for results, said Clint Wall, the research manager at the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group in Boulder, Colo.

Scott Gediman, a park ranger at Yosemite National Park in California, said that he noticed more hikers on the park’s most heavily traveled trails quickening their strides.

“We’re seeing large numbers of people do trips that traditionally were overnights in a day,” he said.

For example, the 17-mile round trip to the rock formation known as Half Dome has become one of “the most popular routes to speed through,” Mr. Gediman said. Many of the 1,000 hikers who reach the famous granite peak each weekend day are swift day-trippers.

The first speed-hiking race, to be held on Aug. 11, is perhaps the best indication that the sport is taking off. Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vt., will be the host for the event, the roughly 16-mile Herc Open, which has a purse of $25,000. Only 75 participants have registered, but Amy Mayer, the race coordinator, predicts the number will quadruple.

“We’re helping to define a new subsport,” Ms. Mayer said.

Pace alone distinguishes speed hiking from outdoor pastimes like hiking and trail running. Most ordinary hikers stick to walking and average 2 miles an hour, while most trail runners clock 6 to 10 miles an hour. Speed hiking usually falls somewhere in the middle, right around 4 to 5 miles an hour.

Still, in the relatively laid-back world of hiking, these distinctions are fluid. Bob Phillips, 45, a speed hiker from Somerville, Mass., noted that because there are no official rules, some speed hikers jog downhill to take advantage of momentum. Other speed hikers might sprint across flat stretches of trail.

“It’s all about maintaining a pace at which you feel comfortable,” said Mr. Phillips, a bookstore manager. “As long as you’re out there breathing heavy and having a good time, you’ll take away something from the experience.”

For die-hards, mileage is the top priority. Jeff Kunkle, 32, a systems analyst in Colorado Springs, said that when he hikes through the wilderness, he tries to log at least 30 miles in a day, sometimes starting and finishing hikes in the dark, with the help of a headlamp.

That was the case in April, when Mr. Kunkle and friends speed hiked the Grand Canyon, 48 miles rim to rim in just under 14 hours.

“It was go, go, go,” he said, adding that they stopped briefly once an hour to hydrate and refuel with fried chicken sandwiches or energy gel. “Yet, I feel I was able to thoroughly enjoy the park as much as someone who does that trip in four or five days.”

Speed hiking isn’t for everyone. Plenty of hikers still prefer hitting the trail leisurely with heavy boots, a hefty backpack and enough trail mix and gear to spend nights under the stars.

Jane Huber, the author of “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: San Francisco,” is a traditionalist. In an e-mail exchange she argued that a leisurely pace allows more discovery. “I like to stop and smell the manzanita bushes,” wrote Ms. Huber, who also edits Bay Area Hiker, a Web site, “The slower I hike, the more I see, hear, smell, even taste (during blackberry season).”

But on any given day there’s little time for dawdling, time-pressed hikers say. Some fast hikers don’t bother tackling epic journeys. They stick with quick jaunts to boost fitness.

After nearly a decade of gymgoing, Morgan Phillips, 43, gave up last year, choosing an intense workout on the steep and deserted Vasquez Trail in Garland Ranch Regional Park in California. The trail climbs nearly 2,000 feet in a mile, and Mr. Phillips, a sommelier at Sierra Mar, a restaurant in Big Sur, hikes up and back in roughly 40 minutes. He pants. He groans. And by the time he returns to his truck at the trail head, he’s dripping with sweat, energized for a night of work.

“Regular hiking would be too slow, and running would be too fast, but this pace is perfect,” Mr. Phillips said, noting that Gus, his 4-year-old Boxer mix, usually accompanies him.

Some speed hikers mix in running. Every Wednesday, Art Messal, 28, leads a dozen members of a Boulder trail-running group into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. They hike out quickly and jog back.

“The whole idea is to provide people with the opportunity to get out there and combine being out in nature with working out,” said Mr. Messal, a software engineer in Estes Park, Colo. “Most of us can’t run 30 miles up a mountain, but we can move quickly.”

Moving quickly on uneven terrain has its pitfalls, though. It’s relatively easy to fall and to bruise your hands or injure your forearms. Out on the trails many hikers call this injury “foosh,” for “fell on outstretched hand.”

Ryan Jordan, the publisher of Backpacking Light magazine in Bozeman, Mont., said he and backpackers he knows have suffered their share of twisted ankles, pulled hamstrings and strained quadriceps.

Mr. Kunkle, the speedster who hiked the Grand Canyon, offered this advice. “The whole idea of speed hiking is relentless forward motion, but at the end of the day if you’re not feeling right, there’s no harm in slowing down.”

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