Adventure On: Five Lessons I’ve Learned from Setbacks on Trail
I’ve been on the grid, but unplugged for the past 2.5 months. In December, I had to step away from the Appalachian Trail and pause my thru-hike due to circumstances beyond my control. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’m familiar with the feelings associated with leaving the trail since I had to step away in August due to a concussion and Lyme disease diagnosis.
To my surprise, leaving the trail felt a bit easier this time. There were definitely tears, but the tears came from a place of love, rather than fear. The truth is, I knew I’d return to the trail. I have every intention of finishing what I started. The fear of failure still creeps in, but each setback has made me more grateful for this adventure, the incredible people I’ve met, and for all of the beauty that has surrounded me since I began my SOBO journey on the AT in 2019.
In a few weeks, I’ll be returning to the trail to hike 470 miles from Damascus, Virginia, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. Once I reach Georgia, I’ll fly back to Boston to run the Boston Marathon for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in acknowledgement of my 10-year cancerversary. After the marathon, I will finish the final 395 miles of my trek in the mid-Atlantic (A section I skipped over due to my earlier derailment with Lyme disease and my desire to beat winter in the Smokies. Spoiler alert; winter came incredibly early and all of the SOBOs dealt with a significant amount of snow).
It’s an aggressive goal, a lot can and will go wrong, but as one of my friends said, “It’s only an adventure once things start to go wrong.” I believe that’s true; every setback has taught me so much. Here are five things I’ve learned from navigating setbacks on trail:
Flexibility is key: It’s obvious, I know, but flexibility is critical to navigating the daily setbacks one can experience on the trail. There are so many factors outside of your control. You’re constantly pivoting and adjusting plans to meet or react to the reality of each day. I intrinsically understood this, but failed to realize that flexibility needs to extend beyond the day to day. I set out on trail with the goal of finishing my thru-hike. When I was diagnosed with Lyme in August, I thought my thru-hike was over. Bedridden for close to a month, I couldn’t see a way forward. The truth is, there were multiple ways I could still complete what I started, but first I had to let go of the ideal vision I had for my thru-hike. My goal hadn’t changed, but the way I would achieve it had to.
Progress is not always linear: This may sound counterintuitive given your sole purpose is to put one foot in front of the other until you reach your goal. There are days on trail that you’ll feel on top of the world; you’ll crush miles with ease. Then there are days where you’ll slack pack and wonder if you’re doing it right because the miles feel incredibly difficult. Listen to your body, know when to push, and when to let up. Be aware of the weather and be kind to yourself if you have to retreat back for safety or hop off trail to avoid an impending snowstorm. I have a love/hate relationship with zero days, but it’s important to honor what you need physically and emotionally to be successful in the long run.
Perspective is important: It’s easy to let your frustration get the best of you. The days are long and the trail is unforgiving. Falling for the 10th time on wet rocks, waking up to your shoes frozen solid, or being unable to stop walking because the mosquitoes are so aggressive can make for a pretty miserable day. It could always be worse, though. To be clear, I’m not saying that I don’t get agitated. I trip A LOT, I get hangry easily, and I have fallen more times than I can count. I curse at rocks, roots, and the AT often; my feelings in those moments are completely valid. Perspective reminds me that the trail is not awful, that more often than not I am enjoying myself on trail, and I am grateful for the ability to be out here pursuing a lifelong dream.
Be kind to yourself and lean on your support system: This one is hard for me; you can ask any of my hiking partners. I struggle to ask for help and I am rarely kind to myself. There have been a lot of unforced errors on my thru-hike. I started to become paralyzed when decisions needed to be made, for fear the outcome would be less than optimal. I eroded my own confidence by replaying every decision that had a negative impact on my hike. It’s important to reflect on what could have been done differently, but it’s also important to acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can with the information and resources you have available. Give yourself grace, laugh it off, and soak in all the beauty that is around you. Remind yourself why you started this trek and ask for help. Asking for help, leaning on your trail family, or reaching out to your friends and family back home when you’re struggling is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.
Hindsight and silver linings are invaluable: Over the past 2.5 months, I’ve re-read my journals from my trek thus far. I’ve looked through photos and can vividly recall the pain, frustration, and feelings of pure defeat. I can also feel the joy, laughter, and sense of blissful accomplishment. Every obstacle prepared me for the next challenge and every accomplishment propelled me forward on the days I wanted to quit. These moments are not only epic trail stories, they have defined my thru-hike and all the lessons I’ve learned. Throughout every up and down, my greatest silver lining has been the amazing support system I’ve had each and every step of the way.
I have a little less than 900 miles left and undoubtedly will face more challenges, but the one constant is my determination to finish all 2,192 miles in 395 days. To some, it seems silly, to others, it won’t even count as a thru-hike, but to me, it’s the culmination of an incredible trek—one where so much has gone wrong, but that’s what makes it an epic adventure.
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Solid advice like this refreshing to see.