Seven Unconventional Ways I’m Preparing for The Appalachian Trail

While I’m engaging in the more traditional modes of thru-hike preparation, such as shakedown hikes and gear research, I’m also thinking outside the (bear) box to increase my mental and physical preparedness. These unconventional methods—though seemingly unrelated—have unique benefits that can be applied to the challenges of the Appalachian Trail. Here are a few such ways:

Camping for basketball tickets

At my school, Duke University, attending basketball games is free, but students must pay with our time. To get entrance to our rivalry game against UNC-Chapel Hill we have to live in tents in front of the stadium for anywhere from a couple of weeks to almost two months. Yeah, it’s a little confusing to normal people.

While not every tent member has to be in the tent every night, I got a good handful of stays outdoors in conditions that I predict are more difficult than on trail — I mean, I’d rather dig a cat hole and listen to raccoon shufflings than use a portal pottie when I’m awoken up by a loud bullhorn three times a night to ensure my group has enough people in the tent. This experience helped me get a first test of the lower limits of my sleeping gear and allowed me good practice for setting up and down my tent quickly.

My lovely tent group

Running in the rain

To build mental toughness, I’ve not modulated my outdoor workouts according to the weather as I’ve often used to. As long as it isn’t storming, I’ve tried to brave the elements on outdoor runs. Unfortunately, the weather has proven relatively fair, so I think that wetness without respite is something I’ll have to fully get used to on trail.

Krispy Kreme Challenge

Nearby NC State students put on a yearly race from campus to the local Krispy Kreme donut shop and back. The race is a mere five miles with an hour time limit, but participants must eat a dozen donuts in the middle. I competed this year and finished in the top ten women because I ate the donuts in four minutes—my running speeds were nothing to write home about. My fastest mile split was the one directly after the donuts.

The home stretch

As an ultra runner, I have experience eating while running and a lot of trial and error about what foods my body likes—donuts are obviously way up there. I think this will help me fuel properly as my body gets used to hiking daily, and I hope it can help prevent fatigue and illness. The Krispy Kreme Challenge—and the relatively uneventful aftermath—make me confident that I can put down a good amount of calories when necessary. Suffice it to say, I look forward to completing the half-gallon challenge soon into my hike.

Self-supported 50k

My running club conceived of a 10-lap ultramarathon around our school’s cross-country trail a couple of years ago. Last year, I was just getting into running and joined the event to complete a half-marathon, which was a 5-mile distance PR at the time. This year, I was busy on the day of, so I did just two laps with the group. As the trail is one of my favorite routes near campus, I felt I needed to do the ultra before I graduated. So, when a 6-hour timed ultra I was going to do in January got canceled, I set about attempting an Al Buehler Ultra (ABU).

It wasn’t the longest I’ve ever gone, but it was the only ultra-length run I’ve done with just the vest on my back. This run was one of the most challenging I had ever completed for a combination of the physical difficulty, elevation and technicality (3,451 feet over 31 miles), and just the sheer monotony of doing the same loop ten times. However, it gives me confidence that I can keep going even when things are hard and the only person holding me accountable is myself.

Strava, or it didn’t happen, right?

Ultramarathon relays

With my school running club, we’ve done two relays this semester: a 100-miler in the Outer Banks with a team of six and a 150-miler in Chillicothe, Ohio, with eight. While the total distance I did at either of these was much less than a marathon, the structure of running multiple shorter legs in one day is a unique challenge in managing soreness while still trying to race.

Donuts at the finish line? Heck yeah!

At the relay in the Outer Banks—aptly named Blackbeard’s Revenge—I took my first leg much too fast and struggled through lactic-acid-filled legs on the second one hours later. For the Buck Fifty in Ohio, I paced myself slightly better across the three legs and ended strong, albeit exhausted. These relays have cemented my need to start with low mileage for my thru-hike; while I know I can do twenty miles in a day, I can’t do that two days in a row just yet. I’ll get there when I get there—my hike, at least, isn’t a race.

Me after the race


I’ve known how to swim since childhood, but that has mostly meant I can safely splash around in the pool whenever I go to a hotel or a friend’s house. I started swimming more regularly last year for cross-training for running, but I think it will also be helpful for thru-hiking. For one, it gives me more confidence in river crossings; if any are super high, I know I can keep myself afloat if I slip.

Additionally, when in the pool, I’ve no choice but to be alone with my thoughts. While I am an avid AirPods user when I’m exercising outside alone, I think it’s important to be able to be comfortable with silence at least occasionally. Lap swimming is an exercise in entertaining myself with only my interiority.

Zero-drop shoes

Like many others, I am planning to hike in Altra Lone Peaks. As a former soccer player and generally calf-dominant individual, zero-drop shoes make sense for me, as they put more stress on your lower legs when compared to shoes with a greater differential between the heel and toe heights. I find Lone Peaks very comfortable and natural-feeling, but I know the transition from walking in shoes with larger drops is not instant, so I’ve been trying to spend more time wearing zero-drop shoes recently to ease myself into wearing them daily for double-digit mileage.

When I had to wear heels for an event recently, I woke up in the middle of the next night with Charley horses, so wish me luck for the marathon of three days of graduation events a week before I start the trail! Until then, I’m trying to make the most out of my last days of college without wishing them away as I anxiously await the start of my thru-hike.

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