Our portable, outdoor ring workout.
#7 Home & On To Italy (May - June 2014)

"And On The Rings Is…"
I love following the thread backward to understand how 'one thing lead to another' and that was again fascinating this spring when we seemingly impulsively purchased a pair of gymnastic rings. When hiking over a year ago in Death Valley a man half our age mentioned that we might like CrossFit gym workouts. I'd heard the name but knew nothing about it. Last fall, another athletic fellow hiker mentioned that her partner was always trashing his knees and back from pushing too hard at CrossFit. Then in April, when on our bikes in Albuquerque, we rode by a CrossFit 'box' (as they called their gym) and I suggested that we peek in the open glass garage doors.

The 2 buff but bored young trainers invited us in and gave us the pitch and a tour. Then, only days later, 2 young men in our Albuquerque RV park set up gymnastic rings in a tree like we'd seen at the CrossFit box. That was it--I was online reading about ring training before the lads finished their workout. Only days later, Bill ordered a pair to greet us when we arrived home.

As I had been warned by the first man to mention CrossFit, it is expensive, which was a turn-off. And of course, it is indoors in a gym, a setting I try hard to avoid. And I don't need any help injuring my knees. But….we both have old shoulder injuries and there tends to be nothing better for wounded wings than strength work from a new angle. A few YouTube video viewings was all it took to determine that we could extract a choice bit of a CrossFit workout for the price of a pair of rings (about $30). With our own rings we could do the targeted workouts outdoors when at home and on the road in the camper at our own, moderated rehab pace.

Darn! Back to doing modified dips with bent knees.
We were thrilled when the rings finally arrived and immediately took them for a quick trial spin. The news couldn't have been better: we both had sufficient strength in the right places to actually do a few reps of the 3 foundation exercises. That meant that there was no pre-work needed, like for pull-ups which I still can't do, and that instead we were instantly on our way to more fully developed shoulder strength.

What's cool about rings is that untold numbers of little muscles must activate to hold the rings still while performing an otherwise familiar exercise. I can bang out sets of dozens of push-ups with little trouble but 8-10 is my limit when performing push-ups in the rings. The same is true with dips: multiple sets of 15-20 with straight legs is readily achievable for me with a stable support for my hands but 3 sets of 3 dips with bent knees like when sitting in a chair is all I can muster on the wiggly rings.

Mission Accomplished: with almost no effort we had another new way to increase the sophistication of our conditioning, another way to keep it interesting with little money spent and without going someplace special. We hung them on a swing set frame in a city park for our first trial of the rings and the next several weeks we suspended them from a disused pull-up bar in a school yard near our apartment. Once on the road in the camper in the fall, we'll have our radar on "ring mode" scanning for sturdy structures in campgrounds and community parks for our new workout equipment. It's so quick and easy to set-up the rings and we tire almost as quickly, so it doesn't take much time at all to do enough reps to feel it the next day. And just maybe the strength work on the rings will enable me to do my first-ever pull-up one of these days.

Conditioning Challenges
Darn it any way, but Bill collected the first injury of the year that was a potential show-stopper for our Ortisei mountain run shortly after arriving home in early May. An unusual presentation of shin splits and a displacement of 2 bones in the ankle was the diagnosis by our sports massage therapist. No doubt the problems had been brewing for some time, but it was picking up the speed on a long descent in the Columbia Gorge that tipped them over to "Ouch!". Ironically, it is the descents that serious mountain runners hate because of the risk of injury and I had selected the Ortisei mountain run for our first because it is only uphill. But, with few exceptions when hiking, the only way to train for going uphill is to also go downhill.

The great view of Mt Hood from Larch Mtn wasn't worth the injury.
Bill's shin splints were bad enough that even slowly walking a block sent him packing for the ice bags 4 days after they started screaming on the trail. He went into what we call Project Mode, which is to throw everything at the injury and often. No "wait & see" when in Project Mode. We were wrapping his lower leg in ice packs several times a day; he immersed his foot and lower leg in a bucket of cold water once day; he popped ibuprofen for the visible redness; and we dug-out an old electric massage tool to supplement the work of our massage therapist. And just in case, he used a less intense treatment program on the other ankle to nip any brewing problems there.

It was hard enough to maintain our conditioning at home and then with this injury Bill couldn't be on his feet much, even to do yoga. And worse yet, even pedaling his bike was too much strain on the injury. We assumed that he had plenty of time to recover for our July event but our massage therapist underscored that with this particular injury that Bill needed to get it right the first time because recovery was much, much slower the second time.

Bill's healing course was at about half the speed that had been predicted and then suddenly at just over 2 weeks, it was significantly better. By the 3 week point he had done a 4 mile hike on steep terrain, but with a very slow descent, and a short, hard-driving bike ride. Our mountain event in Italy was still almost 6 weeks away so it looked like he had time to reclaim most of his conditioning. And since it was uphill-only with a lift ride back down, he could push on his critical uphill training and conclude with more meditative descents.

And speaking of meditative, I was stunned to encounter 3 Buddhist monks in flowing orange robes on the final minutes of one of my last hikes in the Columbia River Gorge in early June. It was a sunny, Sunday afternoon about 2 weeks after the reopening of the historic Multnomah Falls bridge that had been damaged by a rock fall over the winter. I was surprised to hear that English was definitely the minority language spoken among the mobs of visitors but Buddhist monks? Buddhist monks with iPads? Just not what I expected to see at the end of my 16 mile hike.

Our 5+ week transition from being snowbirds in our camper to becoming overseas hiking-cyclotourists was suddenly over. But the stay had felt better than any of those that had come before. A number of unrelated changes had made our visit more peaceful and more productive, which was a joy. We didn't quite meet our training goals, but had come close enough. We didn't spend a lot of time culling our stuff, but spontaneously ushered enough items out the door to be pleased with the ongoing 'lightening up the load' process.

We finally arrived at the Colico train station.
In addition, we were delighted with the indulgence in extra massage work we had scheduled to tune-up our bodies that had broken through old limitations while hiking in the SW this winter. And lucky Bill, he met with 2 new health care providers who found easy 'fixes' for problems that others had deemed "as fixed as they could be". We left for Europe feeling that we were at the top of our game and hoped the glow would last for years.

Missing a Beat
We spent the extra money this year and flew from our European entry point of Amsterdam to Milan rather than take the less expensive, scenic German trains to connect the dots. Everything went like clockwork until we arrived in Milan. After a better-than-average first night of jet lag recovery there, the ticking stopped: there was a strike in the Italian train system. Seemingly, only the train that went by Lake Como, our destination, was affected. Perhaps it was the 90°+ temperatures in the city on a Friday afternoon on a route headed for the nearest big lake retreat not served by buses that made it the delectable target for the industrial action.

We'd had a few near-misses with Italian strikes over our years of travel but this was the first time we were inconvenienced by one. Even sorting out why our noon-time train was "cancellato" took a while but learning that is was a strike was actually good news. Strikes in Italy and much of Europe are scheduled and this one was to conclude at 5 pm the same day. Strikes are choreographed but "cancellato" due to damage to a track, an accident or the like would be totally unpredictable.

Given that it was Italy, we were advised to return for the next scheduled train at 2:20 pm just in case the strike ended early and again at 4:20 for the same reason. In the process of milling around in hopes of picking up a hot tip at 2 pm, we noticed that all of the English speakers were being advised to return for the 6:20 pm train, not the 5:20 train, which was the first post-strike option. That dashed my hopes that extra cars would be added to the train to compensate for the day's worth of passengers that had accumulated in the steamy train station.

No doubt the train rep was diverting the tourists unfamiliar with the detailed schedules listed on the big paper billboard to the later train to take the pressure off of the first available option. But that underscored that in addition to being alert for misinformation, that we'd need to muster the aggressiveness of soccer players to get our bodies and bulky bags on the first train.

Though we'd never needed it, this strike reminded us as to why we ALWAYS scheduled an extra transit day when departing Europe. It's next to impossible for a tourist to know about such matters as planned strikes and airlines are unforgiving these days about missing your flight.

At 4:50 pm we left the relative comfort of our hotel's unlit and barely air conditioned lobby for the 4th time and scuttled to the nearby central train station with too much luggage to watch and wait. The reader board didn't display the proper destination but Bill knew our town was on the route for a 5:20 train so we gambled on it. As with the previous 3 phantom trains, there was no track number on the electronic reader board, which was worrisome. But we hoped for the best and joined the crowd that had already gathered on platform #8, the usual track for our Lake Como train.

As the crowd grew on the platform, knots of people formed under the few electronic reader boards displaying information for the next scheduled departure. With heavy luggage to muscle up the narrow train doorways, we gambled on staking our position in a low density area between the boards. We were so grateful that we wouldn't be attempting to board with our bikes which were still in storage in the mountains. That would have been an onerous task--an exercise we'd done amongst similar crowds in the past. Italy is a country in which sharp elbows are released from their sheaths even in the bread stores and we knew they'd be out in numbers at boarding time.

On the doorstep of our vacation house above Colico.
We and the others waited like statues while a steady supply of sweat continuously welled up and joined the rivulets that already found their tracks down our flesh. We silently begged for a hint of an early evening breeze to give a sense of coolness to the still air under the shade of the platform's glass roof. We took turns strolling down to the reader boards hoping not to again see "cancellato"; not to see our train scroll off the board at 5:20 without comment. The continuous ticker message at the bottom of the screen describing Milan's mayor's 'agitation' with the strike seemed like such a trifle after so many hours for so many.

I gave Bill a half of a thumbs-up about 5:15 when "10 minutes late" was displayed on the board even though we still didn't have a track number. We knew from prior experience that a stampeding crowd coming towards us would signal a platform change so there wasn't really any need to stare at the screen for that information. A bit later, the number in the "Ritardo" column changed from 10" to 20" but still no track number appeared. We received the further delay as though it were good news, that the train really would be coming.

Apparently we missed the update for the 30" minute delay that must have occurred when I heard the train's destination mentioned in a loud speaker announcement. Our destination was all I could decipher but I noticed some in the crowd leaning over the track as though they expected to see a train. I mimicked their gesture and caught sight of the dull, pea-soup-colored top of an ancient Italian engine rumbling towards us.

I shouted to Bill who was standing with the bags and we were on the move to the track's edge as soon as I joined him. Our plan had worked: our thin-spot in the crowd had held and we scrambled to position ourselves where we hoped a door would be when the train finally came to a stop. We managed to be one of the first on the train and quickly found seats and places for our luggage. Hot to the touch from sitting in the sun, we and others opened windows hoping to cool the car down. We all ignored the admonition to keep the windows closed in deference to the air conditioning that we knew wouldn't come.

Our contentment from boarding the train and getting situated with relatively little stress was eroded a bit by not actually knowing that we were on the right train. We had voted with our feet and grabbed seats instead of checking the distant reader boards for the track number. We saw several people that had clustered around the train company staff member at noon boarding with us, so felt slightly reassured.

The next day we ate carry-on leftovers for lunch in our jasmine-scented garden.
After a few minutes, we asked the young father across from us about the train's destination. With a typical Italian shrug, he said that he didn't know, that we must trust we were on the intended train. Our sweat pooled as we sat in our coveted seats for half an hour hoping the train would eventually depart. Our neighbor said it would likely be an hour wait but that they weren't allowed to display such a long delay under "Ritardo" on the board.

Our improving luck held. A mere 45 minutes late and about 6 hours after we were originally scheduled to depart, we were leaving Milan for the Lake District. And as customary, once we were moving the conductor's announcement of the route reassured us that we were indeed on the correct train. But the spirit of the strike still lingered: the 3 toilets I located were all mysteriously out of order; only a few of the many stops were announced; and no conductor came through to check tickets once the people packing the aisles had cleared out.

We'd arrive at our Lake Como tourist apartment well past dinner time and would be tucking our time-zone-confused bodies into bed later than we'd hoped, but at least we wouldn't fret about attempting the journey the next day with strikes on our minds. And luckily my 'abundance of caution' when packing food for our flight and first day would get us through to breakfast the next morning. We'd be able to stay nourished on our ultra-low carb/low FODMAP diet--a diet that was continuing to keep our guts calm and probably was the reason for an exceptional good night's sleep our first night on Central European time.

Picnicking above a home with a grand view of the Lake Como area.
Transitioning in Colico on Lake Como
Our centuries-old stone cottage above Colico with its 3'-thick walls that was completely renovated 2 years ago exuded charm. Tastefully furnished from Ikea's show room and decorated with the strong citrus colors typical of the northern Italian Lake District, we were in heaven. And taking in the intoxicating scent of our jasmine hedge while we admired the surrounding rugged, snow-splotched peaks from our tiny yard underscored that we had indeed transported ourselves to another world. But unfortunately, the week in our soothing Colico apartment was over all too quickly.

We regretted feeling our first days in the Lake District disappear into the haze of jet lag, a time during which sitting for 10 minutes too easily consumed an hour. But we reminded ourselves that that had been the plan: to be somewhere lovely, someplace quiet and tranquil while our brains and bodies came to terms with our jangled internal clocks. Bill's minor calf injury on our first hike became yet another reason to give into the slow pace. Hard training in Colico would be out for him, though we enjoyed 2 additional hikes on the mountain towering above our apartment at the end of our stay.

"All the young people go to the lake, not the forests" was the comment in Italian from the aged wood-gnome we encountered twice in one day in the forests overlooking Colico. When we first spotted him on a trail above us, we assumed he was talking to his dog but we were wrong, he was talking to his cats. Frustrated that our Italian wasn't up to speed, he revived his rusty French and began telling his stories.

With a grin, he slowly bent over to lift the unopened quart box of whole milk for the 2 cats from his reusable shopping bag for us to see. Once the milk was nestled back into place, he slowly lifted the quart of boxed red wine from the other end of the bag, chucking that it was for him. A bit later, we'd see his small pile of empty wine boxes leaning against a tree on the trail's edge. He made some comment about Bill's shirt and offered Bill a jacket from his shopping bag.

One of many old stone houses slowly disappearing into the forest.
Simultaneously pathetic and charming, we enjoyed the "This wouldn't ever happen at home" moment and did our best to follow his conversation in French and Italian. A couple of hours later we again encountered him on our descent. He hadn't traveled far but looked quite refreshed. He was sitting on a log in his bright yellow rubber boots reading the newspaper. There was no sign of the cats and he was game for more conversation in Italian about how the world had changed.

In between our encounters with the wizened man whom we guessed to be between 50 and 80 years old, we took other dips into the past. A labyrinth of ancient stone foot paths in ruins and of narrow, 4-wheel-drive-quality rocky roads cut through the forests, all of which were mercilessly steep and were surely stream beds in the rainy season. Donkeys, dirt bikes, and odd wagons that looked like they were propelled by rototiller motors rolling on belted wheels or tracks were the preferred mode for hauling on these difficult paths.

Several tiny, ancient stone-cottage villages and a crumbling 400 year old watch tower were amazing looks into the past on these hikes. Sometimes while still pondering an old hillside village with slate roofs, our sense of time would boomerang into the present when our foot path crossed the occasional rough concrete road encroached upon by a more modern home. About half of the old buildings we encountered were crumbling and overgrown with the remainder being split between those that had been recently gentrified (like ours lower down in Colico) and those that were occupied and had received some modernization years ago.

An unexpected new picnic table by a disintegrating stone house above Colico.
Life in these woods almost half way to the 8700' peak must have been unimaginably hard and we had to wonder why people had lived there at all. We'd seen hay being cultivated on absurdly steep slopes in the Alps but there was little sign of pasture land cut into these forests. One open area was named something like "place of cherries" though it wouldn't have been a sizable orchard. A few people were currently raising goats, which may have been a mainstay in the past. Life in the dense deciduous woods far from usual resources with the foot paths turning to mud much of the year looked decidedly uninviting. But it indeed had been "a nice place to visit--wouldn't want to live there" experience, an experience that underscored that we were already immersed in the Italian mountain scene that we love.

Going Higher
No strikes monkeyed with our departure from Colico, which was a relief. A straightforward, on-time train ride to Milano and an overnight stay there set us up nicely for a 2-train-and-a-bus trip east and north into the Italian Alps, the Dolomites. We'd stay 1 week in Ortisei, the lower village of Val di Gardena, and then move up the valley to the highest village, Selva, for 2 weeks. At the end of those 3 weeks, we'd have collected our bikes and returned to Ortisei to participate in their 3rd annual mountain run, an event we'd been training for for a year. Peaking for the event instead of hiking our hearts out would be the agenda, one which would give our time in Val Gardena a different feel from prior visits.