How my AT NOGO Hike Made Me a Runner
March 11, the day sports were suspended in 2020, was the day I flew out to hike the Appalachian Trail. By March 20 I was on my way home to Maine, wondering what in the world I would do with myself now that thru-hiking, and pretty much everything else, was off the table.
I really like the Apple ‘health’ app. It shows you how many steps you’ve taken, how many miles you’ve walked, how many flights you’ve climbed, and more. In the beginning of my hike, for that one glorious week on trail, my average mileage per day had jumped. From walks to and from the parking lot and around the lodge of Sugarloaf Mountain where I worked as a ski instructor, to miles over bare ridges and lush green valleys in Georgia. Let’s just say that while my phone was riding in my hip belt pocket, it was very impressed with me. Sitting on the coffee table while I sat on the couch? Not so much.
Working from home.
So, what was I supposed to do about it during a nationwide lockdown? Say F-it-all and go for a hike? Learn a language, do that thing I’ve been putting off forever? No. I needed to find something that I could do alone, locally. Something to get my body moving, to escape life for a bit. To maybe feel like I’m getting some human powered adventure in my daily routine. To feel like maybe I didn’t lose so much of what I was looking forward to. Yoga?
LOL, nope. Although I did practice yoga during quarantine out of sheer social obligation, that just was not going to cut it.
I didn’t realize it then, but what I needed more than ever was to do what I had been visualizing for years– to push my body and mind to an extreme, to see what I’m made of.
A few coincidences later…
It was in Hiawassee that I made the decision to leave the trail indefinitely. I visited the local gear store, Trailful, three times. First, wondering if I should resupply. Second, to cry. Third, for inspiration. Once I decided to leave, I figured I would buy some books to try to support the shop. We all knew the pandemic would prove difficult for trail businesses, especially new ones. At the recommendation of the folks that own the store, I bought “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.
Back in Maine a while later, I saw a Youtube video of somebody in the mountains, not wearing a backpack, but wearing a funny looking vest. Okay, weirdo. That’s a bit too ultralight, don’t you think? But wait. The idea of an incredibly challenging, adventurous endurance sport started to take shape in my mind.
There’s a thing called ultrarunning?
Full disclaimer, I was not prepared to just run 50 miles out of the box. By the time I seriously entertained the thought of running, I had been sedentary for a month. But, what I had learned from hiking happened to make running make sense to me.
I’ve always really loved the idea of Triathlons, and used to participate in them as a kid while my dad was training for Ironmans. I thought I would end up pursuing them in my adult life, but as I began to fall in love with adventure sports like climbing, hiking, and skiing, the thought of swimming 2.4 miles, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, then running a full marathon seemed like a different kind of beast, one that I didn’t have the time to tackle in between mountain pursuits. That’s really what kept me drawn in so often– the mountains. What if I could run them?
It took the idea of ultrarunning, of distances beyond 26.2 to more like 100, and the idea of running these distances in the mountains, to make me so excited about the sport. Remember, I’m trying to simulate something as jaw-dropping as the 2190 mile walk that I was supposed to be taking.
Connecting the dots between my couch-potato-butt and running up and down literal mountains would take some time. But I learned a lot, in both my AT research and from people on the trail, that taught me how to get started and keep going.
What I learned about running from the AT:
Ah, yes. The notorious phrase, “Hike Your Own Hike.” If you’re not familiar with it, you can check it out in the Trek’s AT glossary here. In my experience, it can stand in to communicate everything from “leave me alone, I’m not buying an ultralight hiking bidet just because it works for you” to, simply, “I don’t want to compare my experience on trail to yours.” HYOH is a doctrine that empowers hikers to do their own thing, and to not impose their beliefs on others. It’s beautiful, really.
When I took this philosophy to running, I felt so free. I found gear that worked for me, ran at paces and distances that worked for me, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t always trying to get better. It just meant that instead of basing my success on others’ stats, I decided to focus on my own.
This was huge for me. I’ve given running a chance at a few points in my life, but I’ve always been so preoccupied with how fast I was running or how much mileage I could do straight off the couch. In hiking and running alike, that’s just not sustainable.
My first day on the trail, I met a seasoned triple crowner named Bamboo out for his second thru-hike of the AT. He was making his way to the top of Springer Mountain with two friends, also past thru-hikers, that were sending him off. Bamboo was humble and soft spoken, and his crew breezed by me in no time, but they still mentioned one piece of advice to me. They agreed that if you wanted to last on trail and not blow up due to injuries, you should start slow. Their recommendation was to stay under 10-15 miles a day for the first few weeks, and after about three weeks of finding your trail legs, you can start to test yourself with some bigger days.
Increasing pace and mileage slowly can feel tedious, but it’s necessary if you want to stay healthy. My first run was not pretty. I tried a familiar loop– 2.2 miles through my tiny hometown, with very little elevation change. I even took my little brother, who was training for high school cross country, with me for good luck.
We set out fast, headphones in. This is fine, I can keep up. At mile 1.5, I stopped running and was hunched over clutching my left abdomen. I had a cramp unlike anything else. I couldn’t even run 2 miles? Thanks Netflix!
Calling it quits doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
I had to step back and realize that going for that run, and others like it, were not failures. Just getting out there multiple times per week was a win, and would create a solid base that I could then build on. Patience truly is a virtue if you want to enjoy hiking, or running, for months.
Most of the time after a run, I’m revved up on endorphins and feeling way better than before the run. But on the rare occasion that it felt unreasonably hard or I was downright miserable, I had to do some serious reflecting.
How I decide when enough is enough.
If it hurt enough to change my gait, as it did with the cramp I described, I would stop immediately. This has only happened twice, and I’m glad I stopped both times. It’s not worth getting an injury or putting up with extreme suffering just to run an arbitrary distance or time. It should feel good: at least that’s my philosophy. There’s a difference between discomfort when you’re pushing your limits and pain.
I’ve also stopped runs because my heart just wasn’t in it. You know the feeling. You’re just too preoccupied, too busy, too stressed to make time for the thing you usually enjoy. Sometimes I’m too wrapped up in my own thoughts and I can’t relax into a run. And that’s okay, because it doesn’t happen every time. If your body is trying to tell you that you need something else, listen. I’m not training for anything specific, so I do what I can and forget what I can’t. It’s not worth stressing over.
It was tremendously difficult for those who made the decision to leave the trail this year due to the pandemic. But I wholeheartedly believe that the decision to stop hiking is not a failure, especially this year. It’s important to listen to your body, and to make the decision that’s best for you, even if that isn’t hiking from Georgia to Maine. That’s something I had to come to terms with, even before I started the AT.
Take care of your feet.
We hikers know this. But, something wonderful happened when I took what worked on trail to the streets. Before, I had been cramming my feet into whatever sneakers I had, usually some small, worn out street shoes. Before starting the AT, I did research for months on which shoes to buy, tried them out, wore them around the house and to and from work to break them in, and really took the time to listen to my feet.
On my attempt of the Long Trail, I used hiking boots, and they made my feet erupt into soggy mess of painful blisters and red, hot tenderness. To the LLBean employee that I spoke to just two years ago, who told me I should buy some Salomon trail runners instead of the Merrell Moab II ankle-high boots that currently take up space in the far corner of my closet — you were right. I should have listened.
It is taking every fiber of my being to not geek out about gear right now, so I’ll spare the folks online from the long explanation and lingo, and I apologize to all of my friends that have had to listen to me rant about gear. On trail, I use Altra Lone Peak 4s, which have a wide foot box and no change in cushion height from heel to toe, unlike the sneakers I used before. My old running shoes had a drop in height from the heel to the toe, as most sneakers do, which I think had something to do with the way I so clumsily sprained my ankle in a parking lot just a year before.
Since I already had my broken in Lone Peaks that I didn’t have issues with on trail, I figured they were just as for running in town for the time being, and it worked. I have since switched to Altra Escalante 2 road shoes for running on pavement.
Listen to your legs.
This one was tough at first. In my dramatic past with high school running and soccer, I had always ended up with shin splints one way or another. Again, I was going too hard too fast in many of those cases, but there’s not too much you can do to prepare your knees and bones for the harsh surface of pavement.
I completely avoided pavement at first. On that first run when I got that cramp, it just didn’t feel good to run on the road, so I ran in the unpaved shoulder. I also tried to run mostly at local land trusts so I could stay on trails.
As I started a seasonal job and had to transition more to road running, I alternated between running on the pavement and running in the dirt shoulder during runs, and kept track of how long I could stay on pavement and how that felt.
Get excited by what you can do!
One of the best things about hiking is that you get to see how far your body can take you — on a map of the country! That’s one of the biggest draws of thru-hiking for me, at least. As I started to run longer distances, I found that it was just as exciting to see how far I could travel in one run! Plus, it became a great way to explore and experience my local area in a new way.
It was important for me to always keep track of my progress to stay motivated. I use the Strava app, that can keep a detailed record of each run, from the perceived exertion, to elevation change, to the route, and it let me write personal notes and add photos. It’s always exciting to see how much I can improve or what I can do in just a few weeks of training.
Community is key.
One of the biggest draws to the trail for many of us is the community. The ability to share the highs and lows with people that truly understand was one of my favorite parts of having a tramily. The pandemic obviously made finding a running community challenging. So, instead of finding a running group, I turned to a virtual community where I can track runs and upload them in a feed where my friends can see. Not only did this motivate me a little extra, it also helped me find new areas to run!
Coming full circle.
This past weekend, I got to participate in the Sugarloaf Uphill Climb at the mountain’s homecoming. Running a race at the mountain I called home before I hit the trail, after over half a year of running, was bittersweet.
It was a 2.5 mile race with 2500 feet of elevation gain, and just when you think it’s over, beer and chili are waiting back at the bottom, which you then need to make your way down to on foot. It’s exactly the type II fun I had been searching for. Oh, and did I mention that Sugarloaf Mountain is on the AT?
I was the very last person to sign up online, so I took my place in the fourth wave of runners at the start of the race. On the way up, I got to giggle at tons of signs, like one that said, “Smile, you paid for this.” And, of course, I got to enjoy the vibrant fall foliage in Maine’s mountains. I hadn’t been training for this specifically, but I finally got to do the thing that motivated me from the beginning: running up and down literal mountains.
I felt really good when I looked up and realized the finish line was right in front of me. So good that I ran past the finish line to the summit. I couldn’t stop laughing. The last time I got to take in that view was two days before I left for Georgia. The weather was about the same, minus the snow. It was 30 degrees at the summit. The high winds whipped through my thin running shirt and stole the heat from my bare, flushed legs. I had to lean against rocks at the top to avoid getting blown over.
Despite the cold I felt warm with excitement, with a sense of accomplishment. But the most fulfilling part about running up that mountain was knowing I was so much stronger than when I left. I had the courage to give up the AT, an experience that meant everything to me, and throw my heart into something new. I found something that checked most of my boxes left empty by the trail. Above all, I discovered a lifelong hobby that made me happy, even when it felt like the world was falling apart.
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