When Jessica and Patrick were set up last Thanksgiving by their mutual friend Steph, she included a little teaser in her email to Patrick about Jessica’s status as a travel editor: “She’s always flying somewhere cool and can almost always bring a plus one . . .” He had no idea being a plus one would involve chasing her up seven consecutive African mountains. But, after Jessica took him to Mexico for his birthday in April and showed him the ins and outs of boutique hotel lounging, she asked, in her off-handed way, how interested he’d be in giving Seven Summits Africa a shot. Lulled into a false sense of safety by the Mayan luxury spa, it was easy to say very. It wasn’t until a few months later, however, that he thought to ask about training.
“Well, when I climbed Kilimanjaro in January, I did some treadmill running classes . . . that seemed to work,” she said. “But maybe we should do something more than that since this is seven mountains.” Incapable of believing almost anything until he also reads it in a book, Patrick reached out to some friends in the books world and learned that Training for the New Alpinism was supposedly the ultimate new text for preparing oneself for alpine endeavors.
Within days he was on the couch with the book, audibly geeking out over what he was learning: Namely that his life spent training for soccer, or marathon running, or triathlons, had largely been wasted. Thankfully though, at least according to the book, he wasn’t alone. It would seem that the majority of what normal people are taught about working out is 90 percent wrong. As the day progressed he proceeded to drive Jessica nuts with a steady stream of fun facts about physiologic responses to stress, training, and altitude.
Living with a hard-charging magazine editor, you quickly learn to be careful what you say out loud. Mention Tom Brokaw? Jessica will have him on e-mail within the hour. Recall a fond memory of watching the U.S. Open on TV? Soon thereafter she’ll have you sitting next to the woman who won the tournament the day before as the three of you watch the men’s final together courtside. It hadn’t even been a week after Patrick’s reverie on the couch when Jess called to inform him that Scott Johnston was willing to take them on as athletes.
“Cool,” he replied over the phone while feverishly painting the walls in his Minneapolis bedroom in advance of the first real estate showing for his house. “Scott who?”
“Scott Johnston! The author of Training For New Alpinism?!?!” Like it was no big deal, Jessica had e-mailed Scott and simply said that we’d been invited to do this trip and did he think it was possible and, if so, did he have any training advice? This was a man who cut his teeth training Olympic cross country skiers and elite mountaineers, counting Steve House as his business partner and Killian Jornet as his advisee—two of the best alpine athletes of all time and some of the fittest human beings alive. And we were asking him whether he had any tips for a team that includes the guy whose proudest moment was carrying a case of Cold Smoke beer up 7,000 feet for a camping trip in Montana?
To our great fortune, his response was overwhelmingly positive. Yes, he did think we could pull this off, but we needed to fully commit to training to do so, and right away. And, bonus: Did we want him to privately coach us? His willingness to take us on, according to him, was based on the surprising sales success of his book. Knowing the alpine community like he does, he realized that there simply weren’t enough elite climbers in the world to explain the large number of book sales he was receiving. The only thing he could figure was that amateurs were picking up the book. In the two of us, he found willing subjects to test his training methods on decidedly amateur bodies.
We’ve both competed in long-distance endurance events (we’ve run four marathons between us along with participating in countless triathlons), but Scott begins our first conversation with a real zinger: “I’m going to assume you’re both aerobically deficient. Jessica’s high intensity training classes haven’t been working her aerobic range and Patrick’s erratic workouts aren’t doing much either.” Where to begin?
That, dear reader, we can’t fully reveal to you, since we want to tell the entire story of our African adventure in a big way after we’re home. (On that note, please allow us a shameless self-promotion moment: If you’re a book agent or a magazine editor and you want to get in touch, you can contact us here.) But we can reveal this: The basis for our training was a metabolic efficiency test that showed that in pretty much all of our workouts, Patrick would need to keep his heart rate below 143, and Jessica had to keep hers below 165, to remain under our aerobic threshold for work.
So for the last four months, Scott put us on a workout regimen that involved, at its core, a lot of running—since we now live together in Manhattan, where there are no mountains. But have you ever tried to run and keep your heart rate below 143? Let’s just say we were shufflers. Teenagers walked past us as we “ran” 13 minute miles. Small children snickered. We even heard a pack of runners say, “I don’t understand why they don’t just walk!” And between runs we did zany workouts that included jumping up and down on one foot, vigorously shaking water bottles while standing on one leg, passing weight vests back and forth at the gym, and fist-bumping each other for the 16th time we crossed paths during a two-hour apartment building stair climb. The results were . . . well, we’re going to Africa, aren’t we? The proof though, is, as they say, in the pudding, or, in this case, in the seven massive rock formations.
This past Saturday was our last training trek after five months of near-daily workouts, our goal to walk for three hours in our mountaineering boots with weighted packs, 20 pounds for Jessica and 30 for Patrick. We were visiting our families in Minnesota and staying at Patrick’s parent’s house in Minnetonka, Minnesota. As we walked out into the 32-degree weather Kathy, Patrick's mom, wondered whether or not our strange appearance would garner a note on the local neighborhood watch app. People certainly were staring, there's no question about that.
As we walked out to the main road, Jessica remembered Patrick joking the previous night about walking to a new pastry shop instead of walking the hills closer-by. A quick search showed that Bellacour, the hottest new restaurant in town that slings pastries by day, was one hour and 30 minutes away by foot. “It’s fate,” we almost said in unison, and began our hike to Wayzata, five miles away (pictured above, with Jessica guffawing out front). Two hours later, headed homeward with almond croissants and almond milk lattes fueling our steps, Jessica turned to Patrick and said, “One year ago, would you ever have believed you’d be on a three hour hike around your hometown, carrying a weighted pack down Highway 101, with your girlfriend whom you live with in Manhattan, on the hunt for almond croissants?”
“Probably not,” he said, “but I couldn’t be happier about it.”
If you’d like to learn more about the training we’ve been doing, Scott’s web site uphillathlete.com is an incredible resource to learn more. We’ve included links to some articles we like, but we can’t recommend Scott’s book highly enough. Whether you want to climb mountains, get fit, or simply geek out on physiology, it’s an incredibly well-done book.
If you want to sample some of our favorite free articles from Scott and his collaborators, we’ve attached links here.
And for a real doozy for all of you who are wondering why doing periodic 5Ks and 10Ks is leaving you feeling weaker rather than the opposite, we recommend the following aptly named article: https://www.uphillathlete.com/the-weakened-weekend-warrior/