A bit of spring color on Mt. Lemmon.
#4 Battered, Bloodied, & Defeated in Tucson, AZ (Late February-Early March)

Hike 'til You Drop
After hiking 25-45 miles per week for 2 months in Palm Springs, we managed to drive all of about 40 miles to Cahuilla State Park on the day we left. Our first visit to this little park allowed us to sample the trails on another side of the local mountains with minimal driving.

Five nights later we had Tucson, AZ in our sights for several more weeks of hiking in the unseasonably hot weather. We were itching to head north for places like Sedona, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe but their harsh winter weather kept redrawing our 'red line'--a line too cold to cross. Too late to get reservations at the scenic Catalina State Park south of Tucson where we had based before, we headed north to the RV resort closest to Mt Lemmon. Unexpectedly, we seemed to have met our match when hiking on the trails near our Tucson suburb, Rincon, on this, our 3rd visit to the area.

Skidding Forward
Our first day of hiking from Tucson was spent in Saguaro National Park where I spun-out while jogging for 30 minutes at the end of an almost 9 mile hike. I had managed to deftly navigate the bits of stair-like, jagged rocks on the steep part of the descent but crashed on a smooth and nearly flat segment of the trail minutes from the parking lot. I didn't even know what took me down, but I hit hard on my left side.

My trusty sun gloves spared my palms from shredding though the impressions of the grit remained on my hands for hours, which spoke to how hard I had landed. Having tweaked my back a bit, I asked Bill to remove my pack and help me up. My pants were torn, my left knee was bleeding, both knees were slightly sore, my hip was bruised, and my forearm was scuffed and a little bloody. Nothing serious, but it took about 10 days for the crankiness in my back to make its final exit and over 2 weeks for the broad, shallow scuff on my knee to heal. We often trip and stumble on hikes and probably average at least one controlled fall between us on an outing but we rarely get bloodied up like I did on our first full day in Tucson.

Calmer moments at Window Rock.
Falling Backward
Only 6 days later it was Bill's turn for a far more catastrophic crash. About 2 1/2 hrs into our descent from a difficult, all-day hike peaking at Window Rock, his feet slid out from under him on a steep patch of dirt and he went down backward. His shrieks and what I saw of him pivoting around his extended right arm that was too far behind him had me immediately concluding he'd dislocated his shoulder. Fortunately I was wrong.

The inner side of Bill's right upper arm, about in the middle of the biceps muscle, had come down hard on the pointed end of a downed snag on the trail's edge. That motion was what I assumed had unleashed the string of screams but they instead were triggered when his left thumb jammed into a rocky slab behind him, which I didn't see happen. He was immobilized where he fell on the ground and inconsolable with pain for many long minutes. There was nothing to do at first but to sit down on the trail behind him, remove his pack, and wait while he moaned in pain.

Once the tsunami-like waves of the distinctive pain of a joint injury finally rippled out of his body and he could again both think and move, we began assessing the damage. Fortunately it was the joint below the nail, not the base of the thumb as he had thought, that was injured. It soon became sausage-like with swelling and purple from bruising, but there wasn't much to do for it but tuck it inside his glove to immobilize it and prevent further injury. A few minutes later he popped some ibuprofen for the pain and swelling.

The wound to his right arm proved to be relatively minor but it was frighteningly unfamiliar looking to me. By the time we'd assessed his thumb and pulled up his sleeve on the other arm, there was an egg-sized swollen lump above the wound and what appeared to be a small but nasty looking puncture-gash in the center of a "T" shaped cut. What really upset me was that the wound was in an oddly depressed area below the swollen lump. It was like nothing I'd seen before and I was flummoxed as to what to do with it. The oddly juxtaposed bulge and pit were framed by a large area of scuffing like the 'road rash' I had on my knee. Amazingly however, there was very little external bleeding.

I couldn't make sense of the weird look of his flesh wound but the scenario was clear to Bill even though he wasn't able to verbalize it. He immediately knew he had broken a small artery in his arm and that profuse bleeding into the muscle had caused the egg-sized lump, which in turn resulted in the disturbing depression beneath it. His untorn shirt reassured him that the small but ugly wound could be cleaned later and he settled for a bandaid over what looked like a hole. We topped the bandaid with a pad of folded paper towel to soak up any oozing and then firmly wrapped his entire bicep with a wide exercise band I'd started carrying in my non-traditional first aid kit.

It was easier to deal with now that it had flattened out.
About an hour later we stopped to examine his arm and the deliberate compression from the stretchy exercise band had worked wonders. The goose-egg swelling was completely gone and the dark purple center of the wound had cleared. The broken skin was much easier to clean now that it was flat, which is what we did. We re-wrapped it as before and he left it undisturbed until he showered a several hours later.

It was the first time we'd used the green exercise band for first aid and it worked like a charm. The 4" band was a quick way to get serious compression over a big area while still being easy to fine-tune the tension on it. It was perfect for stopping the arterial bleeding without cutting off the circulation in his arm. His bicep was still very swollen from all of the released blood when we checked it on the trail, but it was clearly beyond the crisis stage.

I'd envisioned using the exercise band to provide support to a strained ankle or knee or perhaps to make a sling but it was dandy for compression. From the moment I had thought of it, it was appealing to carry the band because it's light weight, wide and long, stretchy, durable, reusable, waterproof, and so versatile. The exercise band is definitely a 'keeper' in our minimalist first aid supplies after this event and on several subsequent hikes Bill asked "Do you have the green band?"

Amazingly, Bill's back and lower body were completely unscathed in his fall. No doubt all of his daily twists and stretches in our morning exercise routine prevented injury to his core despite the hard landing. He had no trouble at all walking once he got up. When we finally resumed our descent, he walked for 1/2 hour or more with his arms crossed in front to support them both and of course he walked more slowly than before the fall. Probably after an hour or so he was swinging both arms normally and was once again going fast enough to challenge me. And luckily, he found nothing amiss in his back or legs during morning exercises the next day, which was very good news. That day was scheduled as a rest day and the day after that he was back hiking like nothing had happened--at least to his lower body.

The whole event slowed our descent and our long day ended with us arriving at the trailhead parking lot during the last minutes of daylight. Ten minutes later, it was completely dark. We had headlamps and flashlights but were happy not to use them. Once back to our camper, Bill submerged his swollen thumb in ice water and wrapped his biceps with 1 of our professional-grade gel packs to reduce the swelling while we ate a long overdue dinner. Then it was off to the RV park shower house to give his wound a thorough cleansing and then the first of several doses of topical antibiotics.

The shallow wound on Bill's bicep that bled very little externally looked like it had been inflicted during a knife-fight. And the 15" band of black, blue, and purple from below his armpit to below his elbow added to the drama. But as long as he didn't do any stretch or strength work with his arm, it didn't bother him at all, even that night when he slept. And the same was true for his thumb. Plump from swelling and horribly discolored for days, he iced it a few more times and taped the joint to prevent re-injury for about 2 weeks. Though not uncomfortable or painful, we assumed both injuries would require months of healing before the tissues would return to normal.

Amazingly, his more dramatic injuries were less annoying on a day-to-day basis than my more trivial injuries from my earlier fall. For about a week we had injury inspection and taping sessions morning and night. Bill had been bandaging my knee for me twice a day because I couldn't see the wound when my knee was deeply bent--the position I wanted the adhesive fitted to. Likewise, it was easier for me to tape Bill's thumb and bandage his bicep than it was for him to do so. And added to the list of monitored injuries was a 2" long, near-blister I had gotten on the inside edge of the arch of my foot on the day Bill crashed. It only needed abrasion padding but it too was a taping challenge.

The lower reaches of the pretty 7 Falls Trail.
The Trip & Jerk
Less than a week after his big bruising event, Bill had a nasty stumble stepping up over some rocks on an easier trail. No torn skin or clothing, the event jerked his back like I assumed he'd done on his backward slide days earlier. We each had stumbled more than a dozen times as we pushed to maintain a very brisk tempo on this 7 Falls trail but he came down hard on his feet on this one.

We took 10 minutes out so he could partially recline on boulders to let his back muscles release, then continued walking at half our previous speed. Still unstable feeling, he finally off-loaded a bit of the weight from his pack into mine to relieve some of the strain. Fortunately the gel packs were no longer needed for our other injuries and 3 icing sessions over the next 18 hours completely quieted the irritation to his back muscles.

We could hardly believe our string of scrapes, bruises, abrasions, and muscle spasms from commonplace stumbles and slips. But the series of mishaps also underscored why we tend not to take time off for injuries: if we did we wouldn't get much exercise and we would be woefully out of shape when we did.

And bodies weren't our only casualties: a forced rest day came when Bill gently rolled out of a yoga pose the wrong way and heard a crushing sound before he came to rest. It was his glasses: the lenses were intact but the frames were history. Luckily it was Monday morning in the city and not a weekend in the wild, so he had new frames, lenses, and a new prescription in service by dinner time. He'd thought his vision correction was out of whack and indeed one eye had substantially improved, so it was timely though unplanned and the event morphed the hiking day into a townie day.

Window Rock--Almost
The battle scars in Tucson weren't only to our flesh and belongings--our egos and intellects took a beating as well. The day after my knee injury, which was our 2nd full day in Tucson, we set out to do Window Rock. Expected to be about 10 miles round trip and about 3,000' gain, we didn't anticipate it being a big effort even though our hiking buddies from Palm Springs had reported being defeated by it. Being in a little better condition, we did it the day after a 9 mile hike and didn't give it a second thought, but we should have.

The elusive Window Rock.
We were about 4 miles into the route when we encountered a lone hiker that was descending from the Window. He told his tale of discouragement, which included almost giving up on his hike, and then set us straight about the spec's. Our 10 mile, 3000' gain hike was really closer to 15 miles and 4,400'. It was clear to us that we didn't have enough food, water, daylight, or energy to complete the hike, though were baffled as to why we were so exhausted at that point.

My previous day's crash may have taken more out of me than I had realized, but we both had felt a bit weary from the get-go. The temperatures in the high 80's were certainly a drain, but we'd recently done long, steep hikes from Palm Springs in similar heat. On those hikes, we could speed up about 4,400' in 2 1/2 - 3 hours. But at Tucson, we were starting at 2,500', not 450' above sea level. There were lots of little excuses, but we couldn't really understand why this particular hike was so hard. We were indisputably pooped and then we were told we weren't any where close to the destination. We pressed on to the next trail junction that was 1.2 miles and 1,000' from the top, ate lunch, and then begin our descent in defeat.

Four days later, the day Bill crashed on the descent, we did make it to Window Rock. We started 90 minutes earlier on what was forecast to be the coolest day of the week; we took almost 4 liters of water each instead of 2; and we packed twice as much food. We stashed almost half of our water at 3 different points on the way up to enjoy on our return--a trick we'd employed when doing our 8,300' gain hike at Palm Springs to diminish the weariness from the weight of the additional water.

We made it, we felt better doing it, but we were still baffled as to why this hike to the Window was so hard. We ruminated on the reasons endlessly: elevation, heat, steepness, and rockiness but were never convinced that we fully understood the problem. In part it was an academic exercise to find an answer, but an answer could also contribute to keeping us safe on future long hikes if we could more accurately predict the challenges and their outcomes.

Our only consolation was that everybody we talked to found the Window to be a hard hike. The man we chatted with on the trail during our first attempt was ready to turn around when a descending man told him that he was almost to the junction, which spurred him on. Young marathoners that our friends had talked to on the trail the day they were defeated had also turned around in failure, blaming their shoes for their lack of success (which seemed unlikely on the uphill).

This look through Window Rock had to wait.
We had encountered a Germanic 4-some in their 30's about 45 minutes into our descent from the Window. Friendly, cheery, and quite capable looking though pooped, they were politely chagrinned to learn that we were actually whipping them on the trail. They had started 40 minutes later than us and we estimated that they were now close to 1 1/2 hrs behind us (which included our lunch break). They grilled us about our times, as they should have, because they were still heading up and needed to be concerned about running out of daylight. I mentioned to them that it was our 2nd attempt, which was being made with an earlier start and more water (hint, hint).

The encounter with the 4-some half our age underscored to us that EVERYBODY had a hard time on this trail, that everybody needed more time to complete it than they expected. I wasn't quick enough to ask what they thought the issue was for them with the route, though I'd loved to have known. After parting ways, we hoped that they would be quicker than us on the downhill because they were already at risk of finishing in the dark. But even with our subsequent 2 first aid stops and Bill's initially slower pace after his fall, we never saw them again. We exited the trail in the last bit of light, which meant that they would be descending at least part of the treacherous trail in the dark.

Our best guess at the time as to the huge effort discrepancy between the 2 seemingly identical hikes is how the steepness is distributed on the Window trail. The Palm Springs trail to the tram that we did in part several times is pretty consistently steep whereas the Window route has long segments of flat or rolling terrain. Perhaps when the Window trail gets steep enough to make up for the flat stretches, it demands more than most of us have trained for and so we get unexpectedly depleted. It wasn't a very convincing argument, but it was the best I could come up with. When we revisited the lower half of the Window trail for a 3rd time a week later on a much cooler day and experienced far less weariness, we again wondered if it wasn't instead the heat and elevation that had been so overwhelming the first 2 times on the trail rather than the steep intervals.

Tucson Finale
Bill didn't reveal until after the fact that his goal in planning our last hike in Tucson was to punctuate our recent training in a memorable way. I had heard to be prepared for a big hike, as in 'big for the week,' but our 18.5 mile loop up Bear Canyon and down Sabino Canyon was epic-hike class for us. He'd estimated it to be 17 miles, which was 2+ miles farther than we had knowingly hiked before. We were out on the trails for 8 hours though only walking for a little over 6 of them. Never mind the extra miles, we were delighted to move into new performance territory and doing so underscored how successful our 'winter training camp' had been. And better yet, we managed to stay on our feet well enough to get home for the night from our last Tucson hike without being battered, bruised, or defeated.

The upper trail of Bear Canyon.
The rough plan for 2013/14 had been to revisit Big Bend, TX for hiking and to explore new venues on the way but the succession of arctic blasts had made staying put in warm, sunny Palm Springs irresistible. Being roosting snowbirds instead of migratory ones made us feel like wimps and we barely saved face in our minds by labeling Palm Springs as our winter training camp. In hind sight, our training camp became far more than we imagined.

While in Palm Springs, we pushed hard and exceeded our previous highest gain hike of 5,000' by 3,300' the day we hiked to the upper tram station. In addition, Bill had been very diligent about meeting our goal of increasing our average pace when hiking and I kept the pressure on to increase our jogging to a 30 minute effort almost once a week. And then Bill capped our achievements by increasing our distance in Tucson with the finale grand loop of 18.5 miles. What a winning combination it had been to pair our goal of doing the Ortisei mountain run in the summer with the unplanned long stays in Palm Springs and then Tucson. For the first time in my life I felt entitled to call myself an athlete.

Being able to use the 'a' word was made easier the next day when we shopped at Traders Joe's. The young clerk was eager to talk hiking with us and as soon as I mentioned our 18 miler, she knew the route. She said the loop Bill had crafted for us was the favorite route for trail runners and that this was the height of their training season. And indeed, about 2 hours before sunset runners were passing us going both directions on the trail. We almost felt like junior members in this elite club: we were doing their distance with more weight but at a far slower speed. In our hearts we knew that we'd never be more than trail runner groupies but hey, we were twice their age.

Lunch at 7 Falls on one of many lovely days in Tucson.
Lingering Longer
Just like when in Palm Springs, we extended our stay in Tucson rather than meander north because yet another arctic blast hit as we were about to poke our heads out of our turtle shells. The early March storm that caused severe flooding and landslides in California and brought snow and ice to the East dropped temperatures in Tucson as well. But our plunging day time highs only dipped down to the normal range of the mid-60's and the cold snap dusted rather than dumped snow on the mountain peaks. The 24 hours of off-and-on drizzle and then downpours further encouraged us to stay put. "Why would we go where it was cold?" was the ongoing, unanswerable question.

But once again the need to slowly begin heading north and eventually home overcame us. Last spring we'd planned to spend 1-2 months in the Albuquerque/Santa Fe area this year to hike and bike and then spying the July mountain run in Italy last summer made those destinations even more enticing. At 5,600-7,000' above sea level, we were beckoned by the opportunity for altitude acclimation on the edge of these New Mexico cities.

Even though we'd theoretically lose our acclimation in the 6+ weeks from the time we left Santa Fe until we arrived in the Alps in June, we hoped the time at altitude in the US SW would help anyway. We'd be at altitude in the US long enough for some of the acclimation changes in the blood to occur and wanted them to linger. And we also knew from the past that recent familiarity with the distress of exerting at altitude when unacclimated gave us a psychological edge: knowing that you only feel like you are going to die and not that you will actually die makes it easier to press on.

Reluctantly, we loaded our camper back onto our big truck and headed northeast to Albuquerque, hoping to ease into colder days and freezing nights. But like most of this traveling season, things didn't go quite according to plan and we were again happy for the deviations.