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How Martina Prepared for Kilimanjaro

Learn about her training program — and get tips for your next hike

En español | In early December, tennis legend Martina Navratilova and a team of hikers began a trek to the "Roof of Africa," Kilimanjaro, which at 19,341 feet is Africa's highest peak. Their goal was to raise money for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, an organization that promotes social change through sports and community development programs. During the journey, hikers walked through five climate zones. On their way up the mountain, the Laureus group encountered heavy fog, rain, sleet and snow.

On the fourth day of the six-day journey (Dec. 9), Martina abandoned the trek after feeling unwell and experiencing difficulty breathing. Porters helped her down the mountain, and she was taken to a hospital in Kenya. Doctors diagnosed her with high-altitude pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid in the lungs. After treatment, she made a full recovery and was discharged Dec. 12.

In October, Navratilova, who is AARP’s health and fitness ambassador, talked about how she was preparing for the trek and gave tips for hikers who have set their sights on more modest peaks.

Q: Why are you climbing Kilimanjaro?

A: Well, I’ve always wanted to. I thought I would do it with some friends, but as it turned out, it was a charity that asked me.... I’ve been just across the border from Kilimanjaro, but I never saw the mountain. It was always in the clouds. When I was in Tanzania 10 years ago, I flew over Kilimanjaro, and I just barely saw the tip of it. So I didn’t really believe it was there. So, I’m like, OK, I’ve got to stand on it before I believe it.

Q: What are you looking forward to the most?

A: I’ve spent about six months in Kenya, so I know a lot about the wildlife, and I’m looking forward to visiting old friends, you know. For me, it’s magic just to hear the animals, to see them. I really got into birding when I was in Kenya because the birds are just phenomenal. I’m also looking forward to the change of climates going up the mountain, walking through it rather than driving or seeing it from an airplane. I’m sure I’ll be happy when I get back to the bottom, but it’s going to be a great experience.

Q: Have you worked with Laureus programs in Kenya or other parts of Africa?

A: I’ve been to our projects in Kenya, South Africa, London and in the States, as well. So, I’m pretty familiar with different programs. The one in Kenya is in the slums in Nairobi. We have 20,000 boys playing football. Kids get points for cleaning up [their communities]. If they win a match, they get extra points. So it’s not just about sports; it also teaches them life skills.

Q: What do you think will be the toughest part of the hike?

A: The last day is a long day. We go up the last 3,000 feet. We start at midnight because you’re walking on a kind of shale, loose rock, and to get up there it needs to be frozen. After you linger at the top, you go down about 6,000 feet.

Q: Do you think living in Aspen, Colo., will give you an advantage?

A: I don’t know how much that has helped. But I went to [The Altitude Centre] in London a couple [of] days last week, and they tested me to see how I would react to high altitude. I was told that on inhalation, I have the lungs of a 25-year-old, and on exhalation, I’m a 30-year-old. So I was pretty happy — and am thinking I need to practice my exhalation.

Q: Will you change your training based on those results?

A: No, I’ll just escalate it, do more and longer distance. I’m doing an hour-and-15-minutes run now and want to get up to a two-hour run. I did the stairs the other day, and my calves were killing me for three days. They’re better now, so I’m going to do the stairs again today.

Q: Are there any comforts of home that you’ll miss?

A: I’m used to managing out in the bush. That’s not a new experience for me. I love sleeping under the stars. I think the biggest thing will be staying warm enough at night. [Part of that is] training the bladder so you don’t have to go in the middle of the night. You don’t want to leave that tent!

Q: Will you be carrying a pack?

A: I’ll be carrying something — we’re supposed to train with a 5-kilo, or 10- to 11-pound pack. About 15 years ago, I went hiking for a week in Utah, and we carried everything on our backs. So I’m used to carrying a 60- to 70-pound pack.

Q: What’s the one thing you always pack?

A: Normal traveling, I travel with a pillow my mom made from old duvets. So my head always hits the same spot every place I go. It’s a very light pillow, and it doesn’t take up much space. I might take that with me on the hike. And just really good, warm thermal clothing, obviously.

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