The doctor suggested I take a statin. Hiking 85 miles through the Wicklow Mountains seemed a rational alternative.
It wasn’t an ostrich response—not exactly. I just felt lifestyle should lead medication. I was less fit than I should be; this wasn’t rocket science.
I amped up my walking, doubled down on my diet, and last week, walked 90 miles in seven days on the Wicklow Way into Dublin. I made it!
We had moved by bus from Dublin to Bunclody, a town near the southern terminus of the trail, in order to hike from south to north. The bus route paralleled the Wicklow mountains and gave me the first glimpse into just how far and hilly this walk would be.
The night before we set out, I lay awake. Had I signed up for too much? Was I fit enough? What would I do if I wasn’t? Our opening day was 14 miles over gentle hills, but in the two months of practice in Coutrmacsherry, I’d never logged more than ten miles in a single day.
The first day was difficult largely due to the length. I staggered into our B&B with a gait that hovered somewhere between Frankenstein and the Swamp Monster. My feet hurt, so did my back, my calves. Everything ached so much that I wondered how I’d ever walk the next day, but once we hit the trail, I loosened up.
Thankfully, the second day was shorter. But rainier. We hiked through sheep’s pastures and cattle fields—up and over turnstiles. A huge black steer blocked the trail at a narrow point. Pat checked his undercarriage. “Julie, be careful, that’s a bull.” We waited fifteen minutes occasionally tossing rocks up in front of him to get him to move. Eventually he did and we hurried past. Half way through the hike, I sat and pulled off my waterproof boots and wrung out my socks.
I was miserable.
Late afternoon, we came upon a 300-year-old pub, The Dying Cow, and stopped in to warm up, dry off, and have a drink. As I sat barefooted, Pat took my socks outside to wring them out again. We nursed our drinks for an hour before resuming the last mile to our base.
I learned that everyday—no matter how long or short, easy or hard–my gait became a stagger the last 250 yards. This, I concluded, is what my swagger had been reduced to. It was ugly, and painful.
That second night, as our boots dried atop the radiator, I mentioned to Pat that our penultimate day ended in Enniskerry. “It’s supposed to be the nicest village on the Way. Maybe we should explore there and take the bus to Dublin. We’d finish almost the same number of miles, and we’d have more fun.”
After all, the agency that put together our trip generally ends the trail in Enniskerry. Our directions stopped there. I’d be executing the plan, not giving up. Right?
“Sounds good,” he replied. I began to rationalize the new plan.
But then, hiking became easier, the hills grew larger, but less daunting. We summited in a spot where we could look down at the beautiful valley of Glendalough. I felt stronger and I told Pat, “It would be a mistake not to take this to the end. We need to get to Dublin.”
During the day, we talked—then lapsed into long spells of silence focused on the task at hand; it really was as simple as placing one foot in front of the other. I started to speculate that we should do this more often. Maybe bump up the mileage a bit. Perhaps hike the Camino or a route I once read about between St. Moritz and a village in Switzerland. “My only requirement is that we sleep in a bed—and not poop in the woods.”
The day we walked into Enniskerry was purported to be the hardest day of the trip. The night before, we slept in the village of Roundstone over a pub where a band played until one in the morning. Think of it as sleeping in Wembley Stadium during a Who concert. Still at seven, we were up and ready to go.
The climb out of the village was miles long, steady, unrelenting. Once we reached the summit, we walked for miles more on a raised wooden platform. To one side we glimpsed the mountains we had travelled over the last several days. To the other, the sea and a patch of Scotland. The wind whipped so hard, we at times fell off the boardwalk. That afternoon, we walked into the B&B completing the day in the shortest time so far. Of course, I was staggering; it was my new normal. Pat kept encouraging me, “Tomorrow will be great. The last day is always easy. I bet we skip at the end.”
Pat, it turns out, is a liar.
The last day of fifteen hilly miles into Dublin kicked my butt. We loop de looped through Marley Park looking for the Wicklow Way Trail Head, asking people if they knew where it was. Dubliners, it turns out, are a sedentary group. Few heard of the Wicklow Way; no one knew where it ended.
Finally, we gave up. We never skipped.
I had pictured fist pumps and tears in front of a statue. I had warned Pat to be ready with his camera. Instead, we rode the tram, the Luas, into the city. I forced the disappointment down and searched for the pride. Over a hamburger in a Dublin dive bar near the bus station, I found it.
There are so many things I’ll never do in life: compete on the Olympic team, become a brain surgeon, win the Nobel Peace Prize. Certain ships have sailed without me, and I have to accept this.
But the Wicklow has forced me to rethink those things which I have mentally nudged into the impossible column: write a book, learn a second language, hike 90 miles over mountainous terrain. If I can do one of those items, is it possible I could do them all? And if I can do them all, what else can I do?
I’m not sure. Perhaps my new-found bravado will fade. But I feel certain that one day, we will hike again.