The Mental Push
Kenny Rodgers said it best: ‘You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.’
The trail has become 30% physical, 70% mental. Physically, my body has become very used to the routine. Wake with the birds, pack up camp, grab some breakfast while looking over the day’s goals, head out for the day. Hike a few hours, eat, hike a few more hours, eat again, judge how many more miles I can cover before the end of the day and then chase them. Arrive at camp, do the chores, eat again, crawl in the tent (hopefully before full dark), massage and thank my feet for the work they did, and finally relax a few moments before sleep takes me. Arise the next morning and do it again. It is a relatively simple life.
The hardest part comes when the body switches to autopilot and the brain starts going. Early on, I listened to a lot of music and podcasts while I hiked. Now I have that sensation of turning down the car radio when you’re driving in an unfamiliar place. Music seems too loud. Podcasts are too distracting. My brain is ready to talk to me, and boy does it have a lot to say. Out on the trail, there’s nowhere to go, nothing left to distract me from the internal work I had actually hoped to encounter. But man, some days it’s messy. Like a journey through Vermud of the mind.
I am starting to realize there are two VERY loud voices competing for the top spot in my mental health. The negative one is so very critical, the positive one is very nurturing. The negative one jabs at me every single time I stop, be it for a quick pee stop or a longer meal break. ‘You’re stopping because you’re slow. You’re getting passed by every other hiker you meet. Just look at how long you’ve been out here, and you’re not even in THE WHITES yet! How can you expect to get there if you keep stopping?!?’ The nurturing voice encourages me. ‘It’s OK to rest a bit. Good job listening to your body. Look at all the hikers you have gotten to meet today! Don’t worry, Katahdin isn’t going anywhere, and you have the luxury of time.’ Somewhere between the two is the right voice, I just haven’t been able to tune into it. Yet.
For a while, the negative voice drove me, and I paid the price. I pushed and pushed and pushed. Even when I could feel in my body something wasn’t right, I still kept going. I set these daily goals, and you better believe I was going to meet them. Deadlines to reach mile markers. Constantly pushing more and more miles every day. Not letting the fact that I wasn’t getting enough sleep distract me. 5am every morning, rain or shine, my day began. The negative voice was a constant whip at my heels, showing me how I wasn’t holding up compared to other hikers so therefore I must push harder. Forget it if I wasn’t able to reach a goal on a certain day. The negative talk was relentless.
I was ‘behind schedule’ when I reached Delaware Water Gap and the New Jersey border. But I was also physically wrecked. I had pushed huge mileage days through all of Pennsylvania, partly to navigate the scarcity of water, partly(ok mostly) out of some sort of competitive pride. All the tendons from my feet to my knees were sore. My right hand had developed either a pinched nerve or just tendonitis from all the micro adjustments of hiking over the rocky terrain, to the point that now my sleep was suffering because it was difficult to find a position that didn’t send painful pins and needles down my arm. Even my neck and shoulders hurt from constantly having to keep my head down to navigate the rocks. In short, I was a mess. I needed to take a day off and rest in the worst way.
Instead, I kept pushing.
The next 450 miles were familiar terrain, I was now entering the section of my 2019 LASH (long a$$ section hike). This next part will be easy, that voice said. Besides, I had a goal to chase: to get as far up into New York as possible before a family event I was going to get off trail a few days for. In the back of my mind, the only way I would ‘earn’ that time off was to complete the entirety of New Jersey and New York. 160-ish miles. In roughly 8 days. Mind you, I’m a 15-18 miles a day type hiker. That first day, I barely managed to make it to the Mohican Outdoor Center. It felt like someone was pulling ever so slightly on my pack all day. I tried to brush aside my feelings of defeat and disappointment, while still ignoring the building exhaustion in my body. And so went the rest of New Jersey; each day falling short of my goals, each day beating myself up more and more. I managed to have one very successful day in New York, through the constant rock scrambling section of ‘Agony’s Grind’ interestingly enough, but rather than sit back and celebrate in my success, that negative voice just kept on. ‘If you could do this today, you should have been doing this all along. You’re just hiking in place at this point.’ Yes, honestly, that inner voice is a total bitch. Instead of arriving at the New York border for my family event, I just (there’s that four letter word) made it up and over Bear Mountain. Exhausted. I needed sleep. I needed time off my feet. However, being a social butterfly that loves her family, I got neither.
Guess what happens when you don’t let your body rest? Your immune system crashes.
What I thought was a simple lost voice from chatting with family too much, turned out to be much worse. Even though I was now not feeling well on top of being tired, I got back on trail and continued to push. In the July heat and humidity. To say I was miserable would be putting it very mildly. I had a new goal. Just one more week and I would be able to see my kids. I just had to push one more week. Somehow, I made it to Connecticut. There were some delirious moments I blamed on slight dehydration so I just drank more water. I was sleeping well wrapped up in my quilt in spite of the humid 70 degree temps at night. That should have been a clue.
The morning I broke was surreal. I woke, packed up camp and took my time enjoying my coffee since I had reached my last few goals. Checked in on my mom as I got on trail with a quick phone call. Called the hubby next, and went from a positive hiker starting her day to a completely inconsolable mess in the matter of minutes. I felt outside of myself, not relating at all to this person who was now sobbing with every step. Tears on the trail aren’t unfamiliar, it’s all part of the internal work. This was next level however. The call dropped in the mountains, and when there was service again, I called my husband back and heard myself say the phrase I’d never thought I would utter:
‘Come get me. I’m done.’
No questions asked, my husband was there in a little over an hour. I got in the car and was immediately asleep. When we arrived home I showered and put on some comfy clothes and felt completely alien in my own home, but I didn’t care. I was TIRED. Forget my pack Meg, my body was weighed down with a deep exhaustion. Not even that negative voice could keep me awake.
Some people run until they hit a wall. My husband likes to say I run until the wall hits me. Too stubborn to stop, I’ll keep pushing until something really takes me down. Turns out, I had contracted Covid. No clue from where, but rest assured, that negative voice (combined with a healthy dose of Catholic guilt) has replayed who I had been around and could I have spread it up the trail, etc.. While catching a disease was not on my AT thru hike bucket list, it forced me to do what I should have done all the way back at the water gap. Rest. Which I did, like my hike depended on it.
Once I was able to get back to trail, I was a new person. My exhaustion had worn out that positive voice for so long, I had forgotten it existed at all. Sure, I still dislike sweating into my eyeballs, and the climbs are still tough. The cacophony of voices in my head have quieted down, for the moment at least. Going home showed me just how much I did NOT want to be there. I remember why I am out here, and while that negative voice is still along for the ride, that positive voice is there, too, and she looks after the physical body so we can do the mental work. Time to give her the microphone for a bit.
It’s not time to fold ’em. Nor walk away. No way am I running from this challenge.
Dandelions thrive in the harshest conditions, after all.
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