The Skunk Ape: How I Mentally Trained for My Thru-Hike

I am not a runner. You may mistake me for one, however. It might be because I run five days a week. Or it could be because I own a treadmill. You are probably confused because I have a running coach.  It also doesn’t make sense as I have friends in the running community and I am a part of running groups. But, I am NOT a runner.

I’m a hiker; a hiker who has tapped into running to help better prepare myself for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike.


If you recall my previous post, I detailed my “failed” section hike of the AT. I learned a lot of tough lessons on that trip. One of the takeaways was that I was ill-prepared for uphill walking. My legs were simply not acclimated to walking on an incline. Further, my cardiovascular strength left much to be desired.

Training for the Trail

After that first section hike, I knew I needed to strengthen my legs as well as build my endurance. I decided running was the way to go.

It began with the Couch to 5k app. A couple of mornings a week I would go for a 20- to 30-minute jog. As the weeks passed, I ran faster and faster. Don’t mistake that I could run fast; I simply mean that I made improvements.

Fast forward a couple of months and I had plateaued. I didn’t know it then, but, I would stay stuck in the same running pattern for years. Do you know why? Because I’m not a runner. Therefore, I did not know how to push through the plateau to make further improvement.

Hitting the treadmill with the AT as my motivation.

Making New Friends

Then I met Mike and things changed.

You’ll get to meet Mike too because he’s a SOBO Trek blogger. I hope you find him as inspirational as I have.

Mike is a self-motivated guy who lost over 100 pounds by changing his diet to keto and incorporating running into his regular routine. Unlike me, Mike IS a runner. Do you know what happens when you befriend a runner? They make you run with them! It was just the accountability I needed and the motivation to push myself that I had been lacking. Running with Mike was terrible. He’s a lot faster than I am. Hard as I tried to keep up, I often felt like I was dying after our runs. It was starting to beat me down.

Mike and me before the race.

I Needed Professional Help

Enter Holly, the running coach. After my boss had a serious bicycle accident, he switched from cycling to running and had employed the help of a running coach. Watching my 50-year-old boss run longer and faster than me really opened my eyes to how helpful a running coach could be. So I gave Holly a call and we started working together to improve my cardio strength and endurance. In just a matter of weeks I was running five, six, seven miles at a time. My speed had improved too.

What’s a Skunk Ape?

Then in January, Mike pitched to me this insane idea that I participate in the Skunk Ape nighttime 30K trail race. To this point, my longest run was eight miles. I had never run on a trail before, let alone run anything in the dark. How could I possibly run 18.6 miles, on a trail, in the dark with no experience?

I immediately declined. I felt like such a suggestion was a setup for failure. While I was open to the idea of running a race, even though I’m not a runner, I would think it more realistic to attempt something like a 5k or a 10k.

Mike’s response to my “realistic approach” was to point out that hiking 2,200 miles was just as crazy an idea as running a 30K. How did I think I could hike that far if I didn’t think I could run for 18.6 miles? He said running a 30K is a mental game more than a physical challenge, much like hiking 2,200 miles would be. As an ultramarathon runner, Mike might know a thing or two about mental games when it comes to running but how could he compare a trail race to hiking the Appalachian Trail? They’re kind of different.

The Story I Told Myself

I really struggled with Mike’s philosophy that running nearly 19 miles would somehow help train me mentally for my thru-hike. What really happened when he presented this idea to me was that I began to question my ability to successfully thru-hike.

I slipped into a brief depression. I didn’t talk about hiking for several days. I lost all motivation to train and I found myself stuck in my head. My self-talk during this time was very negative. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t do the AT, that while I may be physically strong enough, mentally, I was too weak to ever be successful.

I was pretty sure it wasn’t worth even trying. I resided to myself that I was a failure.

Coming To Believe

Thank the hiking gods, my desire to hike the Appalachian Trail won over my negative self talk!

After a few days of contemplation and repeating the same lie over and over to myself, that I cannot possibly handle the mental game that is the Appalachian Trail, I bounced back. This process in and of itself was great practice for my mental muscle.

As I returned from my mini depression, I reminded myself of the lengths I had gone to in order to ensure my thru-hike’s success. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try in an effort to better prepare for such a serious undertaking. That said, I was still skeptical of Mike’s idea that running the race would somehow help me mentally. Further, I still had my doubts that I could even run for that long.

So, I called Holly and asked for her input. Surely she would agree that running a 30K was crazy. To my surprise, however, Holly thought it was the exact thing I needed. She pointed out that if I can carry a 30-pound backpack and walk 20+ miles in a day that it is not a big jump to carry the weight of my hydration belt and move a little faster. To Holly, a 30K was not only realistic given my fitness level but advisable because I DIDN’T think I could do it. How else will I ever know I am capable if I don’t at least try?

With Holly’s approval and Mike’s encouragement, I signed up for the race just two days before it was to take place.

All smiles as I began the race.

Being Convinced

On Feb. 10, 2019 I ran 18.6 miles, in the dark, on a trail. I couldn’t believe it! With nothing more than a headlamp, a hydration belt, and an open mind, I did the very thing I previously believed I could not do.

Do you know why I was able to successfully complete the race? Three reasons:

  1. I tried.
  2. I kept a positive attitude.
  3. I never gave up.

This is exactly how I will complete my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Rocking my running bib.

I end with a quote from my favorite book: “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Feature image courtesy of Joseph Fuller.

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