Embrace the Suck: Mental Preparation

Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.


There is a famous saying among northbound thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, “no pain, no rain, no Maine.”

I’m sure there is a corresponding southbound saying but rhyming with Georgia is hard. I came across this saying while preparing for life on the trail and it framed my thinking around one of the biggest challenges – both mental and physical – that I will ever tackle. The trail, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, ” is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”

Learning to embrace the suck, I found out, is not just gritting your teeth and bearing it. Instead, it is finding something inextinguishable inside of yourself and using it to focus your mind on the journey ahead.

No such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing! Starting a hike in Shenandoah with temps in the teens.

Find your why.

One of the many gurus that helped guide me along the path of preparation is Mike “Energizer” Current. His YouTube channel, Old Man and the AT, was a constant companion to me during lunch hours, downtime, late nights, and early mornings. “Hey, it’s a great day” was a catchphrase that quickly became a mantra. Energy is contagious, and Energizer has a mindset of positivity that emerged from his own process of mental preparation. I knew, even in the early planning stages, that I would need to replicate this mindset.

In my opinion, the best piece of advice that Energizer gives is that you have to have a single “why” for your thru-hike. Hiking 2200 miles isn’t easy. It is going to test you and leave you thinking about quitting. This is where having the one single why that is inextricably linked to completing the Appalachian Trail becomes important. As Energizer describes in his video Mental Preparation, “at some point, when a thru-hiker is tired and cold, or hot and hungry, and wet, and covered in bug bites…  they will rationalize themselves right off the trail.” Having a singular why that is connected to finishing your hike will, hopefully, keep you on trail instead.

Just like Energizer, I won’t share my single “why.” I think that keeping this secret, a personal mission statement is an important part of the process. It makes it your why. It remains free from the influence of friends, family, or strangers. When the trail is at its hardest or when I am at my lowest, this idea will be the driving force to push on. Just gotta remember, “Hey, it’s a great day.”

Sometimes you just have to get going! The only way to do it is to go through it.

Clarity affords focus.

Arriving on your why is definitely not easy. Reading Zach “Badger” Davis’ Appalachian Trials is a great read for all aspiring thru-hikers. For me, it was his recommendation of creating lists of reasons for hiking the AT that helped me to arrive at my why. In his book, Badger asks readers to create three lists about their planned thru-hike attempt: “I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail because…”; “When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I will…”; and “If I give up on the Appalachian Trail I will…” These lists helped me to see the pattern in my thinking and provided the clarity needed to find the focus, which would ultimately become my why. I’ll publish my lists in my final pre-trail blog post.

Slow down and live in the moment.

One of my biggest weaknesses is how competitive I tend to be and that goes double when competing against myself. So, Zach, here I am repeating after you, “If I try to beat the Appalachian Trail, the Appalachian Trail will beat me.” Changing my mindset changed how I saw the trail. Beforehand, I found myself upping mileage in my planning document while saying to myself, “come on, you can do more miles than that, right?” Luckily, I was able to quiet this voice over time, and while reading up on the trail and looking at plans others had created, I finally understood that the old adage “last one to Katahdin wins” meant it was important to slow down and enjoy the view.

Slowing down also means remembering to enjoy the moment and to be present since in reality, this is a once-in-a-lifetime type of trip. This is something that I struggle with in my daily life. I am often planning ahead or reflecting on the past, but rarely live in the moment. While I am on the AT, letting little moments slip through my fingers or being preoccupied with the next milestone to mark the ever-nearing end of the trail will rob me of the greatest gift the trail has to offer; a nearly six-month window of life where the only thing that matters is the present moment. What a gift to experience life this way.

Nov 4, 2022, in Shenandoah National Park

Planning it all out…

I am a perpetual list maker, a planner, and a classic overthinker. I come by it honestly since apparently these things are genetic, and I can assure you that this apple did not fall far from the tree. Once I had my why focused in my mind, I set about planning out this whole thing. Plans go out the window almost as soon as you put that first foot on the trail, but I wanted to feel like I had some sort of understanding of the time and logistics it will take to walk from Georgia to Maine in a single hiking season. Planning everything out also helps me to visualize challenges along the trail and to start problem-solving from the comfort of my office chair instead of sitting on the side of the road in the pouring rain without cell service trying to figure it all out.

So, like a lot of overthinkers and planners, I made a spreadsheet. It is a document that I have spent over 1000 hours on while working on planning for this trip. A lot, of course, will depend on the day-to-day reality of hiking the AT: weather, health, and the hundreds of other things that can impact a plan come into play. I’ll share this document in my final pre-trail blog post since it is still a very living document and will be until I head down to Amicalola.

Out on the Cutler Coast Public Lands this past summer, northern Maine.

Putting It All Together

As of today, I am 25 days from arriving in Georgia for the beginning of my hike and the start of my great adventure. Between now and then, I will be tweaking my calendar, practicing my bear hangs some more, and getting in a few hikes. Then it is time to let go. All of the planning, preparation, and anticipation will build to the moment I walk past the first white blazes and the dream of hiking the AT becomes real. Standing on top of Springer Mountain and looking north, I hope that I feel prepared. I’m sure that I’ll be anxious, excited, and eager to hike. It is a moment that I have dreamed of for my whole life, and I plan to live in it for as long as possible. Hopefully, when stepping off for those first few miles, it’ll be a great day. But, one day, when it isn’t, and I find myself asking why, I’ll be prepared with an answer.

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