The Mental Game (AT Mile 239.1 -> 864.3)
It’s been a minute (and some miles!) since I’ve had a chance to blog! So much has happened in these last hundreds of miles, including entering Virginia, catching some awesome sunsets and sunrises, making new friends, pushing bigger miles, and getting a taste of some real heat and humidity. Most importantly, though, I have been navigating the mental and emotional side of this thru-hike. I want to focus this blog post on that, since many would agree that the mental part of thru-hiking is one of the hardest parts, and mental health is important to talk about!
A brief logistical update
Since I haven’t blogged in a bit, I figured I’d start out with a logistical update on how the hike is going. I’m currently in Virginia, the longest state on the AT (~550 miles!) and I will soon be approaching Shenandoah National Park and the 900 mile mark! On average, I hike around 15 miles a day, and my tramily and I have done a couple 100-mile weeks! This blows my mind as a former cross country runner who could only handle running 35-40 miles a week at the most!
My typical daily routine looks something like this: wake up anywhere between 6 and 8 am (depending on how tired I am that morning), pack up and eat breakfast, leave camp after about an hour, hike until 12 or 1, stop for about an hour lunch break, and hike again until 6, 7, or sometimes even 8 pm to get to the next campsite. Sometimes I like to stop and cook dinner before getting to camp for an extra energy boost!
As for the people I’m hiking around, my original tramily is currently a bit spread out along the trail, but I have made plenty of new friends as well! The amazing community and relationships I’m developing out here are honestly a big part of what keeps me going every day.
Despite what some people may say, Virginia is NOT flat! I honestly feel like some of the most difficult and steepest climbs of the trail so far have been in Virginia (although I don’t have the empirical evidence to back that up). Maybe that’s just my perception, but all that to say, Virginia hasn’t been easy physically!
I have plenty of aches and pains, I’ve gone through two pairs of shoes so far, I’ve gone two weeks and 200 miles without a shower, and I have experienced the full range of weather, from 30-degree nights to 90-degree afternoon heat and humidity. At the same time, I’ve seen so many beautiful blooming rhododendrons, an amazing sunrise from McAfee Knob, done yoga in the green grass under a bright blue sky, laughed so hard I’ve cried with my friends, enjoyed town food to the fullest, and had wonderful conversations with strangers. This is truly a loaded experience and I go through so many highs and lows each day.
The mental game
A lot of people throw around the phrase “Virginia Blues” on the AT. Before starting my hike, I just understood this to mean that by the time you get to Virginia, the newness of the trail wears off, and you’re in the state for over 500 miles so you don’t feel like you’re making much progress without crossing state lines. As we humans do, I thought my experience would be different, and how could I be subject to the Virginia Blues?! I love the outdoors, I love hiking, and this is an amazing, once in a lifetime experience – how could I feel sad about it?
I’ve come to realize that the idea of the Virginia Blues as just being in one state for a long time is a reductive explanation, and there’s actually so much more to it. It is important to note that not everyone’s experience is the same, and the following is an explanation of my personal experience!
First, I will admit that the newness of the trail does wear off after awhile. This is the case with anything, though – after a couple weeks or months of something new, most people tend to settle into routines and become more comfortable with the thing, so it no longer feels novel. As a result of becoming more comfortable with the trail and developing routines, I’ve discovered that I have a lot more time to think. Honestly, there is wayyyyy too much time to think. And this is coming from someone who usually loves to think and spend time with herself! With 10-12 hours a day to think, I have found myself getting stuck in negative loops, or bringing up old issues and getting stuck in the past. Some days this is so exhausting that it affects my physical ability to hike.
Second, I have learned that you bring your full self with you out here. Specifically for me, this includes anxiety. For about the first month on trail, I had no issues with anxiety, which was amazing considering the fact that my anxiety was the worst it had ever been before leaving for this adventure. I thought that nature had solved all my problems for me! What an amazing phenomenon that would be… but unfortunately that turned out not to be the case. In my second month out here, I started to struggle with anxiety once again. It mostly shows up when I am in situations where I can’t get any time to myself (in hostels, for instance), or when I develop expectations of how far or how fast I “should” be hiking.
How I’ve learned to cope!
Like I said earlier, you bring yourself with you out here. You bring yourself with you anywhere you go in life. I’ve tried to run away from problems in the past, whether that was through moving to a different city, or traveling with the idea that it would solve my issues for me. This had never worked, and it’s the same on the AT. Though I didn’t come out here with the idea of running away from problems, it has still driven home for me that I can only work on things by confronting myself. I cannot escape myself and expect things to fix themselves.
Expectations are suffocating. There are no “shoulds” out here when it comes to mileage or pace. Everyone is hiking their own hike, and it’s really important to listen to your body. Letting go of expectations has been instrumental in reducing anxiety for me, and listening to my body helps me to feel better both physically and mentally. Sometimes that means hiking 18 miles and taking a lot of breaks, sometimes that means cutting it short and hiking 8 miles, and sometimes that means taking a zero.
As for getting stuck in negative loops, I’ve had to actively intervene in my thoughts and reframe them. My tramily and I were lucky enough to stay with a trail maintainer, Corndog, and his wife, Cruise, a few weeks ago, and I was talking with Cruise about feeling slow and struggling physically on the trail. She could relate and said she was slow when she thru-hiked, but the pace doesn’t matter- we’re still doing the thing, and we’re badass hikers! Ever since then, when I’ve been struggling or feeling down, I reframe my negative thoughts and tell myself I’m a badass hiker! I also work to tell myself that just because I struggle up a climb or have a difficult few miles, that doesn’t have to define the rest of my hike. Reframing and practicing positive thinking has helped me immensely throughout some difficult times on trail.
As challenging as my hike has been recently, I’m thankful for how much I’ve already learned and grown through the challenges. I’m also thankful for my supportive, uplifting community that has helped me along the way! I’m excited to keep evolving throughout this wild and thrilling journey.
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