Trail Prep: Training My Body and Tricking My Brain

My training for the Appalachian Trail has consisted of a whole lot of thinking about how I should be training, checking the weather app and seeing 30-degree rainy days, and deciding instead to drink coffee snuggled up on my nice warm couch.  I had big training plans when I came home to Maryland in December.  The weather was pretty mild, so I took advantage of the 50-degree December days and chipped away at my 5k personal record, hiked as much as I could, and spent a ton of time outside.  Once January hit, I got bogged down in my barista job, the sun setting at five p.m., and the general lethargy that hits me every winter.  I was bummed out, and my training reflected that.

It really hit me that I needed to focus when I realized it was March, and I was really truly driving down to Georgia in a little over a month to hike over 2,000 miles.

I am lucky to live in Maryland, just a few minutes away from multiple AT trailheads, so it was an easy choice to train on the AT itself. Maryland is considered to be one of the mellower sections of the trail, so I loaded up my pack with most of my gear and set out for some shakedown hikes.  My dad joined me on all of these hikes, and we stationed one car where we planned to end for the day and shuttled the other car to the trailheads.  The first day we hiked from Harpers Ferry to Gathland State Park, and for it being my first time hiking with my new loaded pack, it was pretty cruiser.  We decided to break up the Maryland section into a few day hikes and complete the whole state, going from Harpers Ferry to Gathland, Gathland to Washington Monument State Park, Washington Monument to Ensign Cowall, and Ensign Cowall to the Mason-Dixon Line.  As of the time I post this blog, we’ve hiked about 55 miles of the trail from Keys Gap in Virginia to Rattlesnake Run Road in Pennsylvania.  I think the best way to train for the AT is to hike on the trail itself, and it also gives me a bit of buffer room – if I am running behind schedule, I’ll be able to leapfrog past the miles I’ve already hiked and continue on into Pennsylvania this summer.

First Encounter with “The Trail Provides”

On the final Maryland section, Ensign Cowall to the Mason-Dixon Line, my dad and I both miscalculated the mileage we would be doing that day.  Somehow, we both interpreted that we’d only have an 8.5-mile day, a welcome shorter day after 12-ish miles the day before.  Instead of the 8.5 miles we’d anticipated, we found out mid-hike that we’d actually be hiking another 12-mile day instead.  We had both somehow misinterpreted the map, reading our start at a different road junction than the one we actually started at, and I was PISSED.  It was definitely an unwarranted amount of anger, but that mixed with me being hangry sent me over the edge.  I started rage walking onward, because what was the point in standing there when our hike suddenly increased by 3.5 miles.  After about two miles, we approached what appeared to be an overlook, and I realized the trail knew exactly what I needed.

I wasn’t sure if the overlook was worth the scramble up the graffitied rocks, but something pulled me to the colorful rocky outcropping.  I dropped my pack, propped my trekking poles on a log, and started scrambling.  At the top, I was amazed at the sweeping views of the Maryland countryside and rolling hills that I call home.  It was gorgeous, and exactly what I needed to power myself through the final remaining miles.  I was immediately humbled again by the steep rocky descent down the mountain, but I think I learned a valuable lesson.  The trail is going to beat me down, I’m going to be a baby about it sometimes, but it’s going to provide when I need it the most.  I’ve always read that the trail is going to give you your highest highs and lowest lows, and although my experience was on a minor, day-hike scale, I think I’m starting to see how true this statement will be.  And damn, crossing the Mason-Dixon Line felt really good.

Mental Training

I decided officially that I was going to attempt the AT this year in November of 2021.  Something I didn’t share in my last blog post, however, is that I had actually been planning on thru-hiking in 2021.  I didn’t set myself up for success in 2021 – I continued applying to jobs with the park service, keeping a “Plan B” that I knew I would automatically default to when I got scared of the trail.  I also didn’t factor in the continuation of the pandemic.  In mid-January 2021, with no vaccine in sight, I decided to call off my thru-hike and pursue a seasonal position back at Sequoia National Park.  It was comfortable, I knew most of my park friends would be returning, and I honestly was worried about getting major FOMO.

Both the pandemic and the familiarity with seasonal employment aided in my decision to bail, but I also now realize that my anxiety bullied me into abandoning the trail.  I have always struggled with anxiety and imposter syndrome, and there was a voice in the back of my head that kept lying to me about my capabilities.  I have often not been kind to myself, and at the end of the day, I listened to this voice.  Although I regret this decision to some extent, I truly think I am in a much better place to thru-hike than I would have been last year.

Given this context, I know that my biggest struggle on the trail will not be physical, but mental.  I have been practicing all kinds of tactics to combat the mental challenge, my favorite so far being mantra repetition.  Through short, simple affirmations, I am able to trick my brain into thinking I’m confident and having fun when I’m actually struggling.  Even with these tools, I know true mental strength will form with more time on trail.  As I continue completing my goals in spite of my anxieties, I am gaining more and more confidence in myself and my abilities.

One of the reasons why I’m thru-hiking is to prove to myself that I can mentally and physically do hard things, and through my training so far, I have realized just the beginning of what that might entail.  I’m excited to learn what the Appalachian Trail has to teach me, and am excitedly/anxiously counting down the final few days until Springer!

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