Amplitude is marking the unofficial first anniversary of the pandemic with this guest post from Bjoern Eser, who writes and podcasts at The Active Amputee. We shared some of Eser’s hiking tips with you last year, without realizing how thoroughly COVID had obstructed his path to the great outdoors. Between the virus and an obnoxious socket, Eser didn’t log much time on the trail in 2020—the exact opposite of what he’d planned. But, as we wrote in our first pandemic post last March, amputees are masters at adapting. Here’s how Eser rewrote his script for 2021 and put himself back on the path to fulfillment.

by Bjoern Eser

If you’ve read The Active Amputee or listened to my podcast, you know I love walking. Just love it—full stop. I enjoy the slow pace that allows me to fully immerse myself in whatever region I find myself in. Being out on foot provides plenty of opportunities to observe all the wonders nature has to offer—the big and obvious ones that stand out and catch your attention, as well as the small and easy-to-miss ones along the path. I love having everything I need with me, stashed away in my backpack, without depending on anyone else. And I adore the freedom it gives me to move independently, which is something I never take for granted as an above-knee amputee.

At this time last year, I began planning a new hiking project to carry me through to my 50th birthday—something special, something I haven’t done before, and something that would take me to new places.  After countless hours of playing around with wild ideas, burying myself in guidebooks, and putting everything through a bit of a reality check, I finally came up with one that felt right.

This project was going to take up to two years to complete. During 2020, I wanted to tackle four 100-kilometer sections of four different long-distance hikes here in Germany, doing one in each season. Germany has plenty of amazing long-distance trails, ranging from rather gentle strolls along rivers to very demanding and arduous adventures in the Alps. My itinerary included portions of the Bergisch Trail, the wilderness of the Eifel, an easy segment along the River Lahn, and a high-country trek in either the eastern region of the German Alps or the Harzer Hexensteig. Assuming this first year worked out, I planned to take things to the next level in 2021. I wanted to tackle another four long-distance walks, again in four different seasons of the year, but this time I would hike in four different countries. The highlight was scheduled for September 2021, when my 50th birthday occurs: I would hike in Italy, following in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi and enjoying some quality me-time to celebrate 50 years on this planet and be thankful for all that life has thrown at me so far.

That was the plan—a great plan, I thought; a plan I was really passionate about. And like so many plans, this one fell flat on its belly when it met reality.

A Global Pandemic and a Belly-flop of a Plan

When the coronavirus ran out of control last February and March, it jeopardized more than my hiking ambitions. The pandemic posed a major threat to the survival of my business. I work as a consultant, trainer, and advisor in international development. Most of my work depends on traveling and face-to-face interaction. With COVID-19 on a rampage, everything was suddenly up for grabs. All my work for the first half of the year was cancelled, and I needed to develop alternative, online-based services and products. And I needed to do so quickly and before I’d go bust. This meant working 70- to 80-hour weeks, convincing customers that online options would be available in time, and developing high-quality ways to meet their needs. It also meant finding new routines as a family, with three kids in homeschooling, battling with internet connections that were not used to endless—and often parallel—Zoom sessions per day, while at the same time trying to stay sane and optimistic.

But those were not the only challenges that threw a spanner into the wheels of my hiking project. In addition to the lockdowns and restrictions on movement caused by the pandemic, I was struggling with the fit of my prosthesis. The socket and I often were not on good terms. I had days when a long walk was not a problem and I was able to bag 20 kilometers easily. And I had days when the thing was just falling off, and making it to the grocery shop 500 meters down the road was a real challenge. There were times I literally grabbed the upper rim of the socket with my hand and held it in place. Not ideal to tackle a hiking project.

It soon became clear that the walking project needed to be shelved for the time being. And I had no idea when I’d be able to reactivate this idea in which I’d invested so much of my time, energy, and passion.

Hitting the Reset Button in January

Fast forward through the long months of the pandemic to late 2020. On social media I stumbled across Sean Conway’s 496 challenge. In order to get himself back into running, Conway came up with the idea of running every day of January 2021, increasing his distance each day. He started with one kilometer on January 1, then two kilometers on January 2, and three on January third . . . . you get the idea. By gradually increasing the distance to 31 kilometers on the last day of January, Conway would run 496 kilometers in the month overall. I came up with my own version of this challenge, teasing me out of my comfort zone while getting me fit at the same time. I replaced running with walking, of course, and I made one other change: I planned to increase my distance by one kilometer per day for the first 16 days of the month, then slowly decrease it again so that by January 31 I would be back at a 1k walk.

I knew if I could stick with this challenge, I would be back in the right mindset for my walking project. And stick with it I did. Each and every day I was out exploring the area I live in. No matter the weather, no matter my other commitments, no matter how I felt that day, I did my daily walk. And I loved it. The time I spent out walking by myself quickly became a cherished feature of my day. Some days I had to split the walk up between a morning session and an evening session; in between I’d get my work done and be there for my family. But about ten days into the challenge, I noticed that even a seven- or eight-kilometer walk did not seem like a big issue. I could easily get it done in about 90 minutes, and I was actually enjoying myself.

The January walking challenge was not only great for my fitness and my mindset. It was also a great way to learn more about my socket and how to adapt it to my needs. All these walks totaled close to 300 kilometers, allowing me to experience the socket in a variety of situations—early in the morning and late at night; on long continuous walks and on walks split into shorter sections; with various kinds and amounts of padding; and so on. While I always use my diagnostic sockets for a long time and try to put them through their paces, it’s fair to say that no other socket of mine has seen this much mileage in such a short time. My prosthetist and I learned a lot in those few weeks of January.

It’s now March 2021, a full year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. The virus still has a firm grip on our region, and we are still far away from a normal life (whatever that might be). But I’ve hit the reset button, and I’m ready to get started with my hiking project. In mid-March I will have a few days off, enough time to tackle the first hike: 100 km of the Bergisch Trail. In order to comply with the German government’s rules and regulations, I will return home each evening rather than camping overnight. But since the trail passes through our town, and all of the sections are very close to where I live, this is not a big issue. It will take away some of the beauty of being on a longer hike, but it will allow me—finally—to get going. Hopefully things will look even better for the second hike in May. If the situation allows, that will be a self-supported five- to six-day hike in which I spend the nights on the trail.

You can get all the updates for this project at The Active Amputee or via my Instagram feed. I’ll report regularly from the four regions of Germany throughout all four seasons. This pandemic isn’t over, but it’s not going to keep me from my goals for another year.

Images courtesy of Bjoern Eser.

Read more about hiking in Amplitude:

Amputee Hiking Hacks for 2020
First Person: Amputee Hiking, One Step at a Time
Climbing Cotopaxi With ROMP
500 Miles Through History on the Camino Francés