Rough Start to Your Thru-Hike? It Could Be Because of Your Diet
The following guest post was written by Terry “Finder” Rice.
“The trail will teach you what you need to know.”
That simple truth was shared with me by a former thru-hiker the day before I started my SOBO thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in July 2021, shortly after my 50th birthday. Although I did my best to ignore it, the trail did teach me something critical in its own unique way.
All my adult life, I’ve been someone who is constantly hungry. I eat two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners. If you can’t find me at work, look in the kitchen. Once, my wife actually scolded me for taking food off my kids’ plates when they were small. (OK – that’s not great but we both knew they weren’t going to finish those tater tots.)
As I got ready for the AT, I was worried about a bunch of things: the back spasms that had plagued me for the past 5 years…carrying too much weight…finding a trail family…FINISHING! Once the hiking started, there was so much to do. There was all the nervous energy to contend with and all the logistics of packing and camping and navigating. Find water. Stay dry. Avoid injury. But, no, I would not have a problem wanting to eat.
Eat often, eat more, eat again, people said.
Yet…my appetite virtually disappeared after summiting Katahdin and I never noticed. I was so busy with the other imperatives that I just didn’t notice that I wasn’t hungry. I did notice that I didn’t need all the food in my resupply during the 100 Mile Wilderness and that I had started sleeping more. In time, I realized that I couldn’t get up switch-backs without stopping. I watched all the people who were passing me, but I could not understand how they were doing it. The trail was trying to get my attention, but I wasn’t listening.
The most alarming thing I noticed, however, was that I did not like hiking anymore. I was exhausted, frustrated by my slow pace, and very, very mad at whoever had blazed the trail in southern Maine. And finally, I discovered that my body had changed. As I ran my hands over my chest and legs in my tent one night in the White Mountains, I felt … well, bones. I felt bones that I didn’t know I had. My butt, not big to begin with, had disappeared. After almost six weeks of halting, difficult progress, I realized that my hike and I were both in big trouble. I finally heard the trail shouting at me, You need to eat a lot more and right away!
“The old me finally came to the party.”
The solution was simple enough but the recovery back to my baseline took another six weeks. It took as long to get back up as it took to slide down. I started adding peanut butter and coconut oil to my meals and I doubled up on dinner portions. I really went big on snacks and set my phone alarm to ring every 60 minutes so that I would be sure to eat between meals. At first, I had to overcome my lack of appetite. It’s hard to eat when you don’t feel like it, but as my strength returned, my appetite woke up.
The old me who was always hungry finally came to the party—as did the big mileage days, my positive attitude, and my love for hiking the trail. Instead of calling it quits after eight or ten miles, I found myself saying, “Hey, let’s not stop here. It’s just a few miles to the next shelter!”
“By the middle of Virginia, an incredible thing happened.”
As the days got shorter and I hiked longer, I discovered that I loved night hiking. With clear skies and a bright moon, there was often no reason to stop. Night hiking was like a brand new day to hike a trail that was invisible during daylight hours. The most amazing thing was that I could finally keep up with other hikers. And, by the middle of Virginia, an incredible thing happened: I found my trail family. This completely changed the complexion of my hike. Far from hating hiking, I started wishing it would never end.
I don’t fully understand why this happened or why it took me so long to hear what the trail was telling me. I don’t know if what happened to me was predictable. Maybe I just ignored the warning signs because, in my mind, they should not have applied. What I do know is that the situation nearly derailed my hike and everything I’d worked for.
If you are preparing for a long-distance hike, there are plenty of good ideas out there for how to plan for food and the calories that we all need to sustain ourselves. Surely, there are better life-hacks than the ones I settled on. Still, if you can find here one lesson that I Iearned the hard way, it’s this: listen to what your body does not tell you as much as to what it does. It’s one of the ways that the trail will teach you what you need to know.
About the Author
Hi, Finder here! In June of 2021, I turned 50 and called a timeout on myself. I completed my 2021 SOBO thru-hike of the AT in late December and have been suffering withdrawal symptoms ever since. The real world is pulling me back to gainful employment, but not before I try to write about a few of the things I experienced on trail. Anyway, my old mantra “I’m NEVER doing this again” is quickly transforming into “hmm, the Arizona Trail is only 800 miles…” Who knows, but I’m pretty sure that I’m not done hiking!
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