A Dawn Hiking Workout Sets Up This Colorado Entrepreneur for the Day

For many, the thought of waking before sunrise sounds like punishment. But throughout the pandemic, Jay Palmer thrived by hiking up Mount Sanitas near his home in Boulder, Colo. “I knew if I started the day watching the sunrise on top of that mountain, it would set my day up for success,” he says.

Mr. Palmer, 43, is a franchisee of Floyd’s 99 Barbershop and operates nine locations in northern Colorado. He made the tough decision to close his businesses temporarily in March 2020, just before the state’s public health order shuttering nonessential personal services, including hair salons.

While figuring out how to keep his barber shops afloat, Mr. Palmer, who is divorced, also was helping to home-school his 17-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. “It was very stressful,” he says. “I realized the only thing I could control was my mind-set. Did I want to be happy, motivated, fit and confident or depressed and overwhelmed?”

Mr. Palmer switched to hiking from running to avoid knee discomfort.


David Clifford for the Wall Street Journal

Mr. Palmer typically rises between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. In 2019, he kept fit by training for a half Ironman but says the running took a toll on his knees. After his barbershops re-opened in early May, he kept the stress of constantly changing Covid rules at bay with workouts. In August, he started hiking the Mount Sanitas Trail, a 1.7-mile ascent with around 1,300 feet of elevation gain.

“Being outdoors and having the energy of the sun hit me when I reach the summit brings me so much happiness,” he says. To share the experience, he began posting photos of summit sunrises along with an inspirational quote on his personal


page and under the Instagram handle @sanitassunrise.

“Most people think I’m crazy and my golf buddies mock me to the point they sometimes take a photo outside of their window to send to me,” he says. “But I’ve had people see me in town and thank me for the morning inspiration.”

Mr. Palmer times his hikes so that he can see the sunrise atop the 6,863-foot summit of Mount Sanitas.


David Clifford for the Wall Street Journal

Mr. Palmer is committed to reaching the summit in all weather. “There’s a morning crew of at least five people I can always count on seeing, and we have a special camaraderie,” he says. “I feel like I’m showing up for them as much as for me some days.” When a recent spring snowstorm dropped nearly 20 inches of powder on the trail, he slogged through calf-deep snow to reach the top and descended some sections by sitting and sliding.

The mental benefits have been just as important, if not more so, than the physical ones, he says. “That mountain has been my altar,” he says. “Without it, I think I would have struggled.” Post-hike, he returns home to get his children ready for school and to write a daily email to his staff. “My morning email is meant to motivate my team and hold them accountable,” he says. “I find a lot of that inspiration in those hikes.”

The Workout

Mr. Palmer times his ascent of Mount Sanitas so he can reach the 6,863-foot summit by sunrise. Depending on trail conditions, he typically reaches the top in 30 minutes and says the descent doesn’t bother his knees the way running does. “I’m really focused on every step and where I place my feet,” he says. Some days he completes the hike twice. He’s had his daughter join him. “Getting a 17-year-old out of bed at 5 a.m. is not easy,” he says. And his son has accompanied him at sunset.

Friends of all fitness levels have tagged along. “One friend, a former college athlete, teased me that my hikes were glorified walks,” he says. “He joined me and was a good five minutes behind me on the trail. It’s a serious workout.”

He lives in a country club community with a gym. He rides the Peloton bike there for up to 40 minutes three afternoons a week. In warm weather he road bikes and mountain bikes. He lifts weights three days a week and does a daily 20- to 30-minute core workout including sit-ups, planks and bicycle crunches. In good weather, he golfs at least three days a week but says he doesn’t consider it a workout.

Mr. Palmer shares his photos along with a motivational quote under this Instagram handle @sanitassunrise.


Jay Palmer

Mr. Palmer says his hikes have helped him find positivity during the pandemic.


Jay Palmer

The Diet

Hydration: “I try to drink a gallon of water a day, which is actually quite hard,” he says.

Breakfast: Eggs and turkey sausage or a protein shake.

Lunch: “A big lunch slows me down, so I grab something light like sushi,” he says.

Go-To Dinner: Salmon and vegetables. He eats red meat once a week.

Splurge: Almond Joy ice cream from small-batch Colorado producer Sweet Cow.

Detox: Mr. Palmer indulges with a White Claw Hard Seltzer or two on the golf course. After a recent golf getaway he and four friends committed to a five-week, no-alcohol challenge. “There was a lot of heckling on the text chain but it was fun to motivate each other,” he says.

Essential Gear

Hoka One One Torrent 2 ($120) “They’re bulky for sure, but I have bad knees and they offer a lot of support,” he says. “I almost feel like Spider-Man climbing over rocks.”

Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6 ($130) are Mr. Palmer’s go-to sneakers for slick or snowy hiking conditions.

Black Diamond Access Spike Traction Device ($75) “Boulder is a very interesting climate because it can snow one day and then be 75 degrees the next, which causes the snow to melt and the melt often freezes overnight,” he says. “These spikes act like claws for my shoes so I don’t slip.”

Petzl Actik headlamp ($50)

Even a recent spring snowstorm didn’t keep Mr. Palmer from his morning trek.


David Clifford for the Wall Street Journal


“It’s a bit all over but all upbeat, happy music,” he says. Artists include Bob Marley, Kaskade, Odessa, Mumford & Sons and Big Wild. “Sometimes other hikers catch me singing and I’ve been asked to please continue,” he says.

Stepping Up Your Hiking Game

Hiking is far from a walk in the park. Mixing up your terrain and adding elevation to your workout can yield benefits similar to if not more effective than running, says Daniel P. Ferris, a professor of biomechanics at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“The type of terrain influences energy cost,” he explains. “For typical hiking paths, the metabolic cost is around 15% to 30% higher than a treadmill, and hiking usually has substantive changes in elevations, so the cardiovascular benefits add up.”

If running causes joint discomfort, he suggests transitioning to walking and hiking on dirt paths, then working your way up to sandy or rocky terrain and gradually adding elevation. If hiking downhill intimidates you, Dr. Ferris suggests descending at an angle rather than straight down.

“It will take more steps to get to the bottom, but the musculoskeletal forces on your knees will be reduced,” he says. “You always have an increased risk of injuring your ankle on hard, uneven terrain, but prolonged experience hiking or running on natural terrain can increase and strengthen your ankle muscles,” he says.

In addition to wearing sturdy sneakers and using hiking poles, he suggests adding ankle-strength exercises to your routine such as balancing on one leg while standing on an unstable surface, like a pillow, or flexing, extending and rotating your ankle against a resistance band.


How has exercise helped you stay positive throughout the pandemic? Join the conversation below.

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