‘Hiking makes me feel vulnerable but the mountain doesn’t care who you are’

A year after Rachel Flaherty realised her relationship with food and fitness had to change, she finds herself on the mountain top

No matter how my weight has spiralled and yo-yoed through the years, one exercise I’ve always loved but never done enough of, is hiking.

Hiking can be difficult and challenging whatever your weight and fitness, and the changeable weather is often a battle, but it’s always worth it. I’ve always felt a rush of excitement and adventure going to explore a mountain.

I was adamant when I was more than 5st (32 kg) overweight that my weight was not going to hold me back doing an activity I loved. I headed off one day convinced my fitness was “fine” and I could do it. Whatever my fitness was at that time, it most definitely wasn’t enough for climbing steep hills, but I got there - albeit with my legs screaming at me for most of the punishing six hours.

The mountain does not care who you are, what you do, what you weigh, where you are from, it treats everyone the same and demands respect. Hiking mountains has a way of making me feel vulnerable, knowing if I do not watch out for my own body and wellbeing the consequences can be severe, and then incredibly strong when I persist, make it to the end and get that sense of achievement.

On the steepest inclines that day, my heart felt like it was beating out of my ears, my back ached from my backpack (or possibly my lungs almost exploding) and pretty much everything hurt. Fellow hikers were friendly and encouraging as they passed in the opposite direction saying, “keep going” and “not far to go”. Their words of encouragement were welcome and helped. I took my time and by focusing on it step by step I got there. Reaching the top was truly satisfying. My thoughts about my body and eating were suffocating at the time and hiking was a temporary release and freedom from them. Walking down was more frustrating than difficult and a challenge of patience. When I’d finished the hike, I felt both exhausted, re-energised and happy. The hike was hard work but worth it. It also was the start of a realisation that my worsening unhealthy relationship with food and bad fitness habits could stop me from doing to things I loved to do, or wanted to try, in the future. I had stopped pushing my body to do activities that were particularly uncomfortable. My mindset had been changing for the worse and I needed to tackle that regardless of what my weight was. Completing that one hike had restored some self-belief to the changes I could make.

Putting the boots back on

More than a year later and 3½ st (22kg) lighter with a more positive mindset about what I can achieve, I’m back to tackle my first hike of 2019. It had been about six months since my last hike and after a small injury (not exercise related) I was feeling a bit nervous about what my capabilities were. I chose Djouce in the Wicklow mountains to ease back into it.

Djouce Mountain has a summit of 725m with a steady moderate incline all the way to the top. I was excited to get my bag ready with all the essentials and head off for a few hours. My poor hiking boots had been abandoned for far too long. As soon as I started, I knew I would enjoy every minute of this walk. The views were hampered by the rain and mist, but Lough Tay couldn’t be hidden, looking dark, mysterious and spectacular as I walked by.

The hike went through woods and part of the trail up the mountain had a boardwalk made of old railway sleepers. The weather didn't disappoint - it was sunny, light rain, heavy rain, sleet, bitterly cold strong winds to calm and breezy at other times. It all added to the experience. I couldn't resist walking onto the snow in the parts it had accumulated near the top. I'm always prepared to turn back if weather becomes too severe but luckily it didn't get that extreme. The summit almost arrived too soon but I felt good standing on the highest point –although there was no view as the heavy rain belted against my face and the wind burned my skin. "I can't feel my face anymore," a man laughed while looking a little worried as he rubbed his cheeks. Seconds after he said it, some of the clouds cleared and the sun shone through, the wind calmed down and we all grabbed our phones to take photographs. It was a nice bonus. Seeing Ireland from a different perspective always feels like a special privilege. Minutes later sleet and fierce winds returned reminding us we were visitors. Crouching down for shelter to eat my well-earned squished and tasty sandwich from my bag was a novelty I'd missed. I'd also missed the aches in my legs, the changeable weather, the steep hills, the muddy ground, the clingy heather and of course the feeling of elation at reaching the top – all of it.

Walking down the mountain, which normally is my least favourite part of a hike, I had a renewed sense of freedom. Hiking is no doubt a physical workout, but mentally it always brings me clarity and peace. By the end, I knew some of the next goals I wanted to achieve. Hiking with a group, something I’d avoided as I was unsure how my ability compared with others, and tackling different summits with varied terrains, are goals I’m now ready to achieve this year.


Part 1: I lost 3st and I'm stronger now
Part 2: Stuck in the weight loss plateau
Part 3: Friend called my fitness holiday a fat camp
Part 4: My plan is driving me up the walls
Part 5: It is slow and fluctuates but has stayed off
Part 6: Why are we doing this? This is terrifying
Part 7: I want to form new habits
Part 8: I gained 4lb. My fear of failure returned
Part 9: It's time to face my nemesis – running
Part 10: Losing weight without trying
Part 11: Letting go of the shame and guilt helped
Part 12: Habits have led to weight loss
Part 13: I've fallen in love with running
Part 14: The mountain doesn't care who you are

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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