Getting Back in Touch

The Unknown

On an early October night in 2008, I got out of my car at the Elkridge wayside in Shenandoah National Park. I had jumped into my car after coaching cross-country practice in Manassas, Virginia, and made my way to SNP as soon as the last kid was on their way home. I had just moved to Virginia and had taken my first job as a middle school science teacher and cross-country coach 1,200 miles away from where I had gone to college. I was bright-eyed, optimistic, and excited to experience a new part of the world. A new friend had recently told me about the Appalachian Trail, and I was intrigued. As a cross-country runner, I was excited at the idea of exploring the outdoors in a new way by trying my hand at backpacking.

After no research, and a shopping spree at Dick’s Sporting Goods, I was ready to head out for the weekend with a pack that was much too large for the two nights. Surveying my surroundings, my headlamp cut through the dark of night and disappeared down the path that would lead me to the Jeremy’s Run Trail just off the AT. “Well, here I go I guess,” I thought to myself and I started down the slope into the unknown.

The Journey that Followed

It’s now 11 years since that spontaneous, bright-eyed optimist ran off to the woods. While I would regularly go off on day hikes, I never returned to spend a night in the woods. For some reason, I just never took the time to go back. Time passed. After four years of teaching, I decided to chase a dream of a full-time position in sport. I quit my job and returned to school full time, and earned a master’s degree in exercise physiology at the University of Virginia, and a Ph.D. in exercise science from the University of Northern Colorado.

Unfortunately, when I exited the academic machine this past summer, I barely recognized myself.  After seven years of stressful, high-stakes work, a once fit, long-distance running idealist had turned into a sedentary, obese curmudgeon. Not only did I not recognize the person looking back at me in the mirror, but I realized that nearly everything that put me on the journey that followed that first post-college year was gone.

The Path to Purpose

During grad school, despite always being a “big picture” and “far-sighted” person, I had spent a lot of time just trying to survive the present, rather than looking to the future. Toward the end of graduate school, I started to realize that the career options that I had set my sights on when I returned to school in 2012 wouldn’t be available to me. I got a position as an exercise science professor at a small university, but I was restless. I had to start thinking about what was next and what would set me on a path to regain purpose.

Over the years, especially when I was putting off work, I started gathering information on the Appalachian Trail—routes, itineraries, gear, you name it. Even though I spent a lot of time sitting on my butt becoming a bourbon expert, the romantic notion of thru-hiking was always there. When I told my wife that I was considering training for and attempting an AT thru-hike during summer break in 2020, her immediate reaction was, “Well it’s about time. But couldn’t you make that part of your job?” That hadn’t occurred to me. After some research, planning, and a pitch to the dean of my college (that I half expected to get laughed at), I got the OK to organize a study of the physiology and psychology of AT thru-hikers as part of my job. And best of all, I’ll be allowed to leave in April, to hike my own hike.

Promises to Keep

I vividly remember eighth-grade, literature class. As a 14-year-old hopeless romantic, I was, of course, enamored with our study of poetry. I still remember being fixated by the immortal genius of Robert Frost, and, like so many others, found comfort in the closing words of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Maybe that stuck as a foreshadowing of my future self 20 years later. To date, I have secured four partnerships with faculty at universities lining the AT to help with the study, and for the first time in over three years, I’m exercising at least six days a week. As I see my fitness returning and the pounds melting, I’m starting to recognize myself more and more, not just physically, but I am finding that the lack of direction that had kept me pinned in a hole of self-destruction has started to lift. The path that lies ahead is long, and there is a lot of work to do still.

But I have promises to keep…

Promises to myself to continue the journey I started at the threshold of the unknown;

Promises to my wife to see this path to purpose through;

Promises to my colleagues to pioneer this exciting new opportunity;

Promises to get back in touch with who I used to be.


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Comments 1

  • Ruth Morley : Oct 11th

    Marshall, this journey and research of yours is fantastic in so many ways. Hurray for you, your supportive and clever wife, and the amazing support you’re getting from the university. This is a win-win for everyone. Ill be eagerly awaiting every blogpost.


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