30 days to go; mindset and recovery

As I near my early June AT SOBO start date it feels a bit like uncertainty is the only constant. The gear is organized(ish), non-perishable food has been getting piled up for months, and reservations in Millinocket, Maine have been made. My last day of work for the end of May is creeping closer and closer. My mind knows what to do. I’ve done this before for two-day, four-day, and 7-day long trips.

With all that said, my trail preparation hasn’t exactly gone as planned.

Historically I wouldn’t have classified myself as injury-prone. I’ve been an athlete and (short-distance) runner for most of my life. However, those who have been following along the past few years might disagree. Perhaps jumping back into running and high-mile weekends last summer during my section hike of the Fingerlakes Trail/Conservation Trail from Niagara Falls to Pennsylvania finally caught up with me?

Why shins, why you gotta do me like this?

Of course there’s a hesitation to admit to overuse injury out loud. Admitting pain before heading out already feels like defeat. Full transparency I did end up canceling my shakedown hike of the Susquehannock Trail System, an 85-mile loop in central Pennsylvania, in lieu of recovery. I’ve been having off-and-on shin splint pain for the past year, and without getting too deep into the weeds I have a few theories on why. With that said, there’s still hope to use the tools available and give the AT thru-hike the ole college try.

A scientific comparison of tapes

Here is where the uncertainty is at play. I’m a recovering planner turned go-with-the-flow backpacker.

There are SO many things that can take a hiker off-trail. People show up to thru-hike with zero backpacking experience and make it from Georgia to Maine. Some have lifetimes of experience and twist an ankle. Others take a month off to heal broken bones. Boredom. Missing home. The Trek founder Zach Davis wrote two books on this (Appalachian Trials and Pacific Crest Trials). Accepting that is just part of the journey. Injuries, aches, and pains are to only be expected when walking 2,200 miles for 4-6 months.

These are the legs I have right now.

So instead, I’m focusing on shifting my mindset.

  1. Break this enormous task into small goals. If I hike Maine and New Hampshire, these areas are totally new to me. That will be an adventure in itself. Aim for two weeks of hiking, and then another two.
  2. I’ve budgeted 5-6 months and a certain amount of money to go towards an AT thru-hike. If something happens to derail the AT, I have the ability to re-assess and then come up with a new game plan. There are so many trails and ways to explore!
  3. Injuries are frustrating, expected, and an opportunity for growth. That’s an eye-roll worthy statement. Now that you’re eyes are back level, hear me out. Overuse injuries typically only highlight pre-existing issues. I went to physical therapy in April of 2020 for right knee pain which turned out to be back related. Then again in October 2021 for left knee IT Band Syndrome.  Each time I go back to physical therapy or talk with other athletes (hikers are athletes), I learn more about the connectivity of muscles and how we can better prepare our bodies for mechanical use. Tough love, but I’m better prepared today than I ever have been.

Active Recovery

For the past 4 weeks, I’ve also been focusing on active recovery. Icing at least once a day, stretching, following a new-to-me strength training program designed for hikers (Base Camp Training), and adding in a bit of YouTube yoga for mobility (Yoga with Adriene). Walking short distances.

I’ve also caved and gone back to physical therapy. For a while my stubborn self was making excuse after excuse. I can solve this at home. Doctors cost money. Shin splints will eventually go away. The pain isnt that bad. And the most overwhelming factor: I knew if I were to go back to physical therapy I’d want to find a new physician. This time around I looked for an office that offered a range of treatments including sports medicine and medical massage and so far, after my first visit, it’s been a hugely positive experience.

For nutrition I’m trying to add in more calcium and vitamin D to help strengthen bones. KT tape and shin compression sleeves are now in regular use. And I’ve tried on every pair of shoes in Western New York.

The problem with trying shoes as a hiker is that they immediately get dirty. 

I think about all the things I could have done differently – there isn’t much, really. Life is about learning.

What are my goals for the AT? I want to meet people along the way. Discuss ways to stay adventurous while in a relationship or as a (potential future) parent. I want to visit new places. Experience life on trail for more than one week.

In the meantime I’ll continue debating what rain jacket or base layer leggings to bring. It’ll be a last-minute decision. I’m looking forward to embracing the uncertainty.

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