Temporarily Benched

My feet hurt.

That’s how it started. It was actually pretty funny. Every other morning, when it was my day to get the bear bags, I would slip on my shoes, push myself to a standing position, and hobble out of my tent to retrieve breakfast. My hiking buddy Beast liked to watch this little drama and laugh a little at my funny gait. By the time we hit Pennsylvania though, he was mostly retrieving the bear bags every day and I was mostly trying to convince my feet that they were fine.

We’re hiking 2,200 miles. Things are bound to hurt! I thought a little pain in my feet was normal. When it started with some irritation in my toes during the Smokies, I acknowledged that my feet had grown more than anticipated and that new shoes were in order. Despite this, I made it to Pearisburg, VA before switching to a pair of (already broken in) Oboz. The Oboz were horrible, but I had to hobble 65 miles through blisters and more blisters to get to the next decent outfitter in Daleville. In Daleville, I had so many blisters I couldn’t tell which pair of shoes was comfortable, so I trusted my gut and a “No Blister” guarantee from Italian shoemaker Salewa.



The Salewas are ok. Now that I’m home, they’re ok enough to walk around in on flat ground. On the trail, however, it was like every little rock was poking through the soles. I called them “Princess and the Pea” shoes and quickly grew to dislike them too.

In AWOL’s guide, the Harpers Ferry outfitter is touted as being, “A full outfitter with a complete selection of shoes” (wording inexact, sentiment exact). So I wore those Salewas all the way to WV in the hopes that in Harpers, my foot problems would be solved. Except, dear AWOL or dear outfitter (whoever writes the blips in AWOL), you should be ashamed. Just downright ashamed. Five pairs of shoes is not a complete selection. Especially when two of the choices are . . . OBOZ.  Now, I understand shoes are a personal preference, but I’m in dire straits in Harpers Ferry. My toes are mostly numb, the bottoms of my feet hurt all the time, and the rocks feel like they’re attacking through my shoes. But you know, we’re walking 2,200 miles. Everyone has things that hurt.

Made it to Harpers Ferry!

Made it to Harpers Ferry!

At the Harpers Ferry outfitter, I procure the shoes with the thickest sole, thinking this will alleviate some of my pain. I put on my new Go Lites and hope for the best. But now I have a new problem. Now my back hurts whenever I hit level ground. On hills, I’m good. On flat, I try to lift Baby Deuter (my pack) off my back with my arms as much as possible, to get as much weight off my legs as possible . . .not that it does much good, but I liked to imagine it was helping. Oh and as far as the hills go, I mean now I’m in the West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania stretch. It’s mostly flat. So my back hurts all the time.

It’s ok though! We’re walking 2,200 miles! No pain, No rain, No Maine! Toughen up cookie!

About 10 days ago, I walked into Boiling Springs, PA. My feet hurt. My back hurt. My tolerance was wearing down. A kind man at the outfitter here told me the problem was probably with my shoes – did I have good insoles? Thank you sir for that bit of common sense, but no, you’re right – the insoles in the Go Lites are flat as a pancake. At lunch, I trolled the web for information about insoles. In the end, I had paralysis by analysis and didn’t know what to do. Duncannon, PA was just a day’s walk ahead. I decided to do some more research that night and then place an order from Duncannon which I could pick up in the next town. It seemed a foolproof plan until I was about a mile out of Boiling Springs.

Made it to the Mason Dixon Line!

Made it to the Mason Dixon Line!

Between Boiling Springs and Duncannon, we hike through a stretch of land on which no camping is allowed. More specifically, between Boiling Springs and the Darlington Shelter – a distance of 12 or 14 miles. I hike at a pace of about 2 miles/hour and I didn’t leave Boiling Springs until 1:30, so I’m already a little panicky about getting to the shelter quickly. I’m also upset because I hurt. It seems that everything hurts. My back hurts, my ankles hurt, my toes hurt, my heels hurt. There’s no way to limp or gimp or favor one side or the other because it all just hurts.

I put on a podcast, put my head down and walk. We’re walking 2,200 miles. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. And as Zach Davis has said, and as Beast constantly reminds me, you can’t quit on a bad day. So I walked. I walked to a highway overpass where I sat down and called the captain of my support crew (namely, my boyfriend Kraig). He reminded me how many times I’d called him crying and in pain recently and told me that if I wanted a break, he would come rescue me for a week and then dump me back on the trail. Good man. I told him I was fine, picked myself up, and kept limping towards Darlington.

About 4 miles from the shelter, I found Beast waiting for me. I’d asked a more quickly moving section hiking to carry a message forward to Beast, letting him know I probably wouldn’t hit Darlington until 9 or so that night. Beast decided if my pace was that slow, something was probably up and being the awesome hiking buddy that he is, he decided to make sure I made it to the shelter and didn’t just sit down in a field and give up somewhere.

Hiking buddies don't leave hiking buddies behind

Hiking buddies don’t leave hiking buddies behind

These photos pretty accurately capture the Beast and Outlaw hiking duo.

These photos pretty accurately capture the Beast and Outlaw hiking duo.

I walked behind Beast with tears streaming out of my eyes for the two hours it took to get to Darlington. When I stumbled over roots and rocks, it hurt worse. When we had to climb a giant hill at the end of the day, it hurt worse. When we had to stop to get water, then restart, it hurt worse. But what can you DO? You just keep walking.

Then I had the trifecta of terrible.

You get the feet. That was part 1. Part 2 was a cold I picked up somewhere. An awesome summer cold that makes your head ache, your nose run, and your throat hurt. The kind of cold that makes you curl up with a movie and a bottle of Dayquil at home. But, you know, on the trail, you can’t do that. Just keep walking, Buttercup.

Part 3 was the spider infestation. Little tiny baby spiders all around my tent. I could feel their webs when I got into my tent and spent a few minutes assiduously crushing the ones I had dragged in with me. But they were tiny. So tiny they were everywhere. So tiny they could get into my tent. And they seemed to love my tent. They just kept coming in to say, “Hi hiker! Get out of our forest!” Or maybe, “Hi hiker! Get off our nest!” Whatever they wanted to say, I don’t know. Just imagine dozens of little spiders running rampant around your tent. Every time I flipped my headlamp off, I would just imagine them on my body and in my sleeping bag. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep. I waited for the sun. I wished for sunrise with all my heart. I killed spiders.

When the sun finally came up, I spilled out of my tent in a bevy of tears. Yes, there was a lot of crying right before I went home. You want to know what can possibly be bad enough to drive a thru-hiker off the trail? This is what it looks like.

I sent Kraig a flurry of texts. “I call ‘Uncle'”, I wrote. “I need some time off.” “I can wait in Duncannon until you can rescue me. Call me when you wake up.” The little bubbles that indicate he was in the process of texting something flitted onto my screen. I called him. “You’re awake!” I said. Pretty sure that was the last coherant thing I said.

Fast forward. Kraig rescues me from the trail that afternoon (because he’s amazing). I go home for a week. The podiatrist diagnoses me with plantar fasciitis, capsulitis, and nerve damage to the toes.  Basically, I have inflammation all along the bottom of my feet. The bad kind. The kind that doesn’t like to go away. Doc says with some proper insoles though, I can hike as long as I can tolerate the pain.

Here’s the true love bit of the story. This is the bit where Kraig drives me to PA, hikes with me, and then drives me all the way back to Ohio so I can actually heal. That’s about 16 hours of driving for anyone whose geography is a little fuzzy. That’s amazing. Anyway, here’s how it went down:

Last Friday, after a week off my feet, Kraig helped me get all my gear trail-ready again. He drove me to PA. And we hiked. We set out to do a 16 mile slackpack over flat (but Rocksylvania-style rocky) terrain. Things were great for the first three miles. I cruised. I sailed. I had New Jersey in the bag. I had New York in the bag. I was all over this thru.

By mile 4, I had some dull aching in my feet.

By mile 5, I was tripping over rocks and roots.

By mile 6, I’d added a couple Advil to the Aleve I’d already taken. I don’t recommend this, kids, but it had to be done to get me out of the woods.

By mile 6.5, I told Kraig I was considering a flip flop. Maybe my feet needed more time.

By mile 6.75, I was crying because I knew my thru was (momentarily) dead. This is a horrible feeling. Dreaming about, then planning, and then actually attempting a thru is a big deal to those of us on the trail. I thought about mine for a solid decade before I bought a planning guide and got serious about it. I poured over gear specs, I tried on a dozen puffy coats, this is the only thing I want to be doing right now. From start to finish. From Georgia to Maine. Without stopping. That was what my thru-hike was supposed to look like. And now it didn’t. Now it looked like a hobbling mess, a tortured slog, an endless fight with my body. But going home seemed worse. Seemed to be admitting defeat, giving up, becoming a section hiker (nothing against section hikers mind you, I’m just not one of them on this particular trip).

By mile 7, I decided there was no point trying to walk a full 16 mile day. My spirit was shattered, my feet were shattered, my heart was shattered. It sounds overly dramatic doesn’t it? But my other thrus, if they’re reading this, they’ll understand.

At mily 8.5, we hit a road crossing and a lovely day hiker let us hitch back to Kraig’s truck.

The hardest bit was telling my hiking partner. Beast and I walked over 1,000 miles together and we had plans to finish together, too. When we found him in town, he wanted to talk logistics for the next day, resupply, how’re the feet – how far can we walk? And I had to tell him, you just go ahead and ‘Beast mode’, I’m out of the game. It was heartbreaking all over again.

So now what?

Now I’m home. I’ve been here for several days. I’m doing rehab with a wonderful woman named Rachel Maynard and I’m making plans. I may have to SOBO from Katahdin if I can’t get back on the trail until August. Or maybe I can still NOBO if I can get back on in July. But here’s the thing – I’m getting back on. Knowing that as a certainty has helped me stand up a little straighter and work on my rehab a little harder. I’m still a thru. It’s going to be ok.

We’re walking 2,200 miles. But it shouldn’t hurt that much. My mom always said, “Take care of #1,” but I forgot to do it with Maine only 1,000 miles away. It took me hundreds of painful miles and a spider infestation to realize that the trail isn’t supposed to hurt this badly. And to everyone out there still spouting, “No pain, no rain, no Maine,” just remember that the person next to you might not need to hear that again. The person next to you might need you to remind them that the trail isn’t going anywhere and that their trail family will still be with them, in spirit if not in body, when they get back.

I started here. I'm finishing in Maine.

I started here. I’m finishing in Maine.

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Comments 7

  • John Goldsworthy : Jun 8th

    Good job hanging in there as long as you did! I also commend you on knowing when to pull the plug and seek assistance!! I say this from experience. I did hike in 2004, but that hike is really inconsequential to my response. I’m also an ultra runner and I picked up plantar fasciitis last fall. I tried to fight it on my own for a couple months and finally broke down and went to the podiatrist. While I’m still not completely cured, a keystone in my recovery plan has been dry needling. It has done wonders to ease the pain, and also control it for me. Just throwing it out there if you’re open to various treatments.

    Anyway, hang in there! As you said, the trail will be there when you are ready to return. Take care of yourself, so you’re able to completely enjoy your adventure(s) on The Trail!

  • Scott Cunningham : Jun 9th

    You passed me when I was thru hiking just south of Max Patch and I knew you were a trooper and would make it to Maine. I’ve followed you here ever since and still believe you’ll make it all the way. Take care of yourself and I look forward to seeing you get back on the trail

  • Nelly Real : Jun 10th

    You’re Mom is right take care of #1 first, cause the AT will always be there tomorrow, next month, next year! Walking in pain is not fun, I feel your pain. Last year I had a knee replacement, I’m a Section Hiker, and this year I tried to do 5 days and was only able to do 3. My surgeon told me, rehab takes a while. My knee is solid like a rock, but everything else around it hurts, foot, toes, calves, ham, etc. I wanted to continue cause I’m NO QUITTER! But I learned to listen to my body if I want to continue what I love and that’s Hiking! You Hike your hike! As long as you make it to Maine it doesn’t matter if is in one try, to sections, three sections, flip flop, you will still be doing 2200. Hope you get better, keep rehabing and keep trying different shoes and insoles until you find your spot!

  • Connie Hutzel : Jun 10th

    Rachael, I was recovering from plantar faciitis last year before going on just a week-long trip in August. The guys I went with asked if it would slow me down. Of course not, I told them. So, I sucked it up & hiked. In pain. Without letting on that I was in pain. I’d been going to a podiatrist getting injections. Took away some pain but it seemed the pain had plateaued. I did some on-line research and came across Active Release Therapy (A.R.T.). Found a chiro in Cincinnati that does sports rehab & the A.R.T. Method. Google it. Really, it was like magic the relief I felt after just one treatment. Had to have a few, but it was like a miracle. Now I am pain free in my foot. Honestly, I was shocked at how much it helped. Hope you find some relief. On the trail, your feet are your wheels and it’s hard to limp along on a bum tire.

  • Mark Stanavage : Jun 10th

    I have to agree with Nell. The trail isn’t going away. Listen to your body before you seriously hurt yourself. Go slow, enjoy the scenery. I section hike until the time is right to go for it. No shame in section hiking. If it helps, consider yourself a LASH (Long Arse Section Hiker) Point is, you are already a hero when you step on the trail. Most people cruise around parking lots because they can’t walk the extra 50 yards. Please don’t beat yourself up.

  • Michael Hesleitner : Jun 11th

    Thank you for the article, it was something I am dealing with as well. I am a current AT Thru hiker doing it solo who is forced off the trail due to injury. I was hiking then after doing so many miles, muddy, and worn out shoes my feet was starting to hurt and the top of my toes had bruises/rub burns. After getting to Demascus, VA I bought a new pair of shoes (from trail runners to Oboz) which felt good. I stayed the night at Woodchuck Hostel and went back out the next day, looking back a zero might have been a better idea. Getting back out there my feet was hurting more severely, my pace was way down, and doing low miles. While out there I tried icing it in the stream, vitamin i, kt tape, rubbing my foot, and wrapping with ace bandage at the end of the day. After hiking a week in pain I arrived at the Partnership Shelter fed up with it hurting. Which I got a hitch into Marion and decided to go to the hospital hoping for good news. They decided to take an x-ray and I was told I have a stress fracture in my foot and need to stop to let it heal or risk further damage which surgery would only fix. At that moment I was confused, disappointed, upset, heartbroken, and just hoping I can recover so I can get back on the trail. I slept at the shelter that night and my parents drove down from New Jersey the next day to bring me home. I made an orthopedic appointment, he put me in a boot, and now I wait. I am hoping to recover fast so I can return and to complete my thru. I can’t stand being home when I should be out there and feel like I’m missing out on the adventure. But I know I have to heal and I have to keep in mind the accomplishment of making it 500 miles. I am hoping to return so I can complete it this year…. unfortunately it looks like I have to go from being a NOBO to Flip-Flop. Wishing you a fast recovery as well.

  • Solace : Jun 30th

    The AT will never leave us.. and we, never leave the AT … take the time you need.. heal well… and keep your spirits high!!! You inspire more people and hikers than you realize.. keep fighting the good fight, and eat alot of ice cream, it may not help the pain, but it will sure taste good!! Happiest of recovery & hiking!!!


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