Trekking to the stars

Isabelle Sheardown has a healthy glow about her, with eyes that twinkle with the exuberance of someone ready for anything. To prove it, she’s celebrating her birthday by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Sheardown, who turned 70 years old in March, is a real estate agent and wellness consultant, sits on the board of directors for the Alliston and District Chamber of Commerce, is the vice-president of the Simcoe/Muskoka Chapter for the Randonneurs of Ontario and volunteers on the Bruce Trail, where she builds bridges in her spare time.

These days, more and more doctors are prescribing exercise instead of drugs as the best medicine. And while the media often touts the benefits of exercise for younger and middle-aged people, evidence shows that physical activity is beneficial at any age. According to Health Canada, regular exercise can extend years of active independent living, reduce the chances of disability and significantly lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, bowel cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and obesity. Equally beneficial are the psychological aspects, which include lowered levels of stress, anxiety, depression and a better overall sense of well-being.

p>Despite the obvious benefits, older adults simply aren’t getting enough exercise. According to the National Population Health Survey (NPHS) data, 14 per cent of seniors were sufficiently active, 21 per cent were moderately active and 65 per cent were inactive. The challenge facing many aging Canadians seems to be getting started, rediscovering that active zest for life long since forgotten.

To get to the point where she’s ready to hike to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding peak in the world, Sheardown displayed a staunch commitment, pushing herself to take the painful first steps to prepare for the climb.

Oddly enough, it was the events that occurred on another mountain nearly 30 years ago that would ultimately change Sheardown’s life. She had been skiing with her three children when she suffered a nasty spill, badly damaging her knee in the process. It would prove to be a crucial turning point in Sheardown’s active lifestyle. “That’s when I realized I had to start working out,” she explains. “So I started running and getting fit, joining the gym and all those kinds of things.”

Those kinds of things included a switch from downhill skiing to cross-country, which has far less impact on the knees. She also began to set goals for herself “because if you’re just going to the gym to work out, then you need a reason for doing it. So I think it’s always good to set goals. If you set them ahead of time, you plant it in your mind and, someway or another, everything falls into place.”

Whether Sheardown set herself the goal of finding love is uncertain. Nevertheless, the relationship with Keith McEwen, 61, fell into place when the pair met through cross-country skiing in 1983. One year later, they were married and on their way to Honolulu to celebrate their honeymoon by running the Honolulu Marathon, the result of an idea planted in Sheardown’s mind five years earlier when she read a book about marathon running. Unfortunately for Sheardown, this would be her last marathon, as the heavy impact of running on an already battered knee would prove too much. After having her knee scoped for a second time, she was faced with the unsettling prospect of losing total function in her knee within four years.

Sheardown speaks matter-of-factly of the injuries and adversity. “When you hit those snags in life,” she explains, “you can’t think that life is over. Sure, I don’t run anymore because it’s too much heavy impact but, you know, I just transferred all that energy over to bicycling. You just have to find something else that works.”

And it has worked beautifully for Sheardown. By switching her focus to cycling, Sheardown extended the life of her knee 10 years beyond what doctors had told her. In doing so, she found a new passion and has since competed in numerous long-distance bike races, including the National 24-Hour Challenge, a gruelling competition in Grand Rapids, Mich., which she has entered 14 years straight — with a medal to show for each one. And when Sheardown wasn’t busy breaking national records on her bike, she was meeting new friends along the way. Active friends.

In 2000, two years after an inevitable knee replacement, Sheardown, along with husband Keith, biked her way across Canada. From Victoria to St. John’s, Nfld., they rode through pounding rain, relentless heat and anything else Mother Nature could throw at them. And though it may have just been another goal she had set, this time for her 65th birthday, it was an indication that, despite her injuries, Sheardown wasn’t slowing down for anything.

“It felt great,” she says smiling, “I’ve never felt so fit in my entire life.” Reflecting upon the journey sets Sheardown’s eyes ablaze with enthusiasm, and she’s ready for the next challenge. Kilimanjaro? “Actually, I don’t know where that idea germinated,” says Sheardown, “but when you’re with people who are active, everyone’s doing these sorts of things. You get to the point where it becomes an everyday occurrence. It doesn’t matter where I do these things, I always seem to run into people I know.”

It’s doubtful Sheardown will be running into anyone she knows while making the trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, but she will be armed with advice from friends who have already done it. “One gal in particular,” explains Sheardown, who admits she would have been hesitant to go unless she had recommendations from personal friends, “said there were about of 20 of them doing the climb, and only three of them made it to the top that last day. All they needed was one more day to acclimatize to the thin air, and they would have made it. So we’re taking an extra day.”

The extra day will make it seven in total for Sheardown and her group, which includes husband Keith, James and Elizabeth Griffin (67 and 64), Judy Watt (57) and Anne Schmidt, 50, a personal trainer and close friend Sheardown met while cross-country skiing.

“For me, this whole trip is about a spiritual connection,” says Schmidt. “It’s not about a race. It’s just about being out there in this amazing part of the world and making these connections — and, hopefully, not being eaten alive by bugs or chewed up by a big snake!” Doubtful. As far as mountain climbing goes, Kilimanjaro ranks low in the danger department. It may be the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, but it’s also the tallest “walkable” mountain in the world and is generally considered to be very safe.

Located in the northern part of Tanzania and along the Kenyan border of an otherwise featureless part of East Africa, Kilimanjaro rises to a peak of 5,895 metres and is an agglomeration of three extinct volcanoes. From the bottom to the top, it’s one extreme to another — intense heat to biting cold. About 30,000 visitors flock to Kilimanjaro every year to subject themselves to these conditions and test their endurance, all for a chance at that exhilarating moment when they triumphantly reach the summit.

“I don’t care if I have to go on my hands and knees,” exclaims Schmidt. “I’m planning to get to the top.” Much like Sheardown, the determined Schmidt exudes a youthfulness, which gives the impression of a much younger woman. “But I know I have to slow down because I have a habit of going too quickly.”

If all goes well for Sheardown and her intrepid group, they will reach Uhuru Peak on the seventh and final day of “being on the go,” somewhere between 5 and 6 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 26 — perfectly timed for sunrise. Whether the group reaches the peak in the end, though, is irrelevant. Judy Watt wants to do it to help motivate her recovery after being hit by a car last year. Elizabeth Griffin wanted to see the look on her family’s faces when she told them she was doing it. It’s not about the distance. It’s about getting yourself out there and doing it, taking that first step. That is the great accomplishment. After that, the results will always take care of themselves.

“It makes such a difference when you’re out there with good health,” says Sheardown, who’s starting to get that exuberant look on her face again. “I always tell people the advice my mother gave to me: ‘Look after your good health because nobody else is going to do it for you.’ And if you have good health, nothing is impossible.”