How I Fell in Love with Hiking after Hip Replacement Surgery

Triathlete Julie Moss poses in front of a HOKA banner

Julie Moss is a former pro triathlete who made big waves in the sport at her first IRONMAN event in 1982. Without training, she signed up for the IRONMAN as a project for her exercise physiology thesis. She raced comfortably in first place for most of the race––only to become severely depleted with two miles to go. On national television, Moss stumbled and crawled to cross the finish line, finishing in second place.

Moss’s fight to finish resonated across the world, launching her 11-year professional career as a triathlete and inspiring new athletes to join the sport.

Following her retirement from the sport, Moss returned to the triathlon as an age group competitor. After 40 years of intense competition, she found herself in need of hip replacement surgery. This is the story of how hiking helped her to slow down, heal and find a new kind of joy outdoors.

Julie Moss stands by her bike wearing Hoka gear

When people ask how I injured my hip, I proudly say, “I wore it out.” After 40 years of competing in the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run that make up the event, my hip had had enough.

By 2017, I had weakness in my left adductor muscles that reduced my range of motion. Nerve pain traveled all the way down my leg and, worst of all, I couldn’t sleep.

Like many stubborn runners, I tried to keep going. I didn’t want to make an appointment with the orthopedic surgeon to find out how bad it truly was because I was still able to train and race. Eventually it was the sleeplessness that became too much to bear.

Approaching hip surgery with mixed feelings

The good news: I was an excellent candidate for a total replacement of my left hip.

The bad news: My new hip was not designed to handle the extreme stress of training or racing an IRONMAN.

As a former pro athlete, this was life-changing news. The IRONMAN race event shaped who I am as a person, beginning with my debut race in 1982.

As I explored the option of hip replacement surgery, my doctor, Dr. Kase Ezzet, assured me that I could be quite active with an artificial hip, but the pounding action of running could wear it out and require more surgery to replace it.

I wondered whether I was willing to risk more surgery to keep racing triathlons.

As a triathlete, running is my favorite of the three sports. It provides the biggest bang for your buck, the best sweat return, the cheapest therapy session. Would I ever be able to run again?

What was life going to look like, feel like and be like with a new hip and without IRONMAN?

These questions brought about feelings of sadness, resentment, loss and doubt. Yet I held fast to an innate feeling that I’d run again. As a 23-year-old I ran my breakout IRONMAN race with zero experience, and I knew I’d figure this out, too. So I decided to go ahead with the surgery.

The timing had its challenges. Surgery was scheduled for June 4, 2020, one of the first elective surgeries performed at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, CA, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was told I’d be up and moving hours after surgery, but wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until I could use the walker to move down the corridor and climb a set of steps to demonstrate I could function at home. A full recovery could take as long as a year or two.

Triathlete Julie Moss stands and smiles with crutches

Hiking to the rescue

I spent five months of COVID lockdown recovering from surgery and eventually walking for exercise before I went to see my chiropractor and good friend Dr. Kathy Miller for a long-overdue adjustment. By then, I had built up my longest walk to eight miles and was averaging 25 miles per week.

Kathy mentioned she was getting into backpacking and was hiking weekly to get her legs strong for some summer multi-day trips. She asked if I’d like to join her. The timing felt right and we agreed to meet that next Thursday in November for a hike.

Finding a new community, connection and hope

One of the deep-seated fears I had of having my hip replaced was that I’d lose my triathlon community and the camaraderie of sharing group workouts. But seeing so many people out walking during the pandemic made me feel like part of a new community.

In the heart of the pandemic, it felt like we were out there collectively doing our best to make the most of a bad situation and maintain our physical and mental health. While it was different from the intense training I was used to, walking gave me a spark of connection and hope.

For my first hike with Kathy I wore my HOKA Speedgoat trail shoes. We planned for roughly three and a half miles of easy dirt track walking, no hiking poles required, a good thing since I didn’t have any.

We ended up adding an extra loop for a total of eight miles and my hip felt fine. Between the Speedgoats and learning to use hiking poles, I felt like there was now an unlimited range of places I could hike. We decided to make it a weekly event.

Excitement vs. anxiety

The moment my alarm woke me up on a typical hiking Thursday, I was filled with a mix of excitement and anticipation for a long, tough day of hiking. It was a surprisingly welcome change from the trepidation and adrenaline that I felt each morning before a triathlon.

During pre-race rituals I pretended to be cool, but the anxiety never went away until the gun finally went off.

Creating new challenges

The contentment I feel pushing long days on the trail gives me the satisfaction that I used to get from IRONMAN brick workouts. Although I’m not racing on the trails, I do get the satisfaction of pushing myself and feeling endurance endorphins.

Kathy and I added a new competitive aspect to our Hiking Thursdays by completing several hiking challenges offered in San Diego County, adding our own endurance twist.

My ego has found a new way to dig deep and I’m discovering a new community that supports me pushing myself, too.

My biggest take-away from hiking is the ability to look around, soak in all that nature has to offer, and still get an endurance rush from digging deep.

Slowing down to hike allows me to stop and smell the sage and pine, to try and figure out what animal made that rather large paw print in the fresh snow, and to try and name the islands sitting off the San Diego coastline.

Hiking is a feast for all the senses, but it's the sense of connection to nature and a new community that allowed me to fall in love anew.

The good news is that I have a functioning new hip. The bad news is I may never be able to run another marathon. But there's nothing stopping me from hiking 26 miles on a gorgeous trail.

In short, this new love affair with hiking fills me up physically and emotionally, allows me to move forward without regrets, and opens up the possibility of new milestones in my life.

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