Why I Named My Feet

In one of Harry Anderson’s old stand-up routines, he says something like: “If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you’ve never seen what you look like sleeping.” This line has been stuck in my head for the last week.

Because you can’t take yourself too seriously.

In thru-hike cliches, we’re often encouraging each other to hike your own hike, and that’s true. But while we’re trying to do that, we sometimes take ourselves too seriously.

This can be really easy to do when you have an injury or physical issue. With nothing else to think about, you can make your own hike a living hell obsessing over that one thing. Don’t believe me? Hike a whole day by yourself with a blister on your foot, or a knee that isn’t right, and tell me that you didn’t end up thinking about it over. And over. And over.

Case in point:

I have had problems with my feet.

When I say this, everyone instantly assumes I have blisters. I don’t.

What I have developed instead is Morton’s neuroma, which is basically like carpal tunnel for your feet: there’s a nerve that feeds into your non-big-toes and it gets irritated and inflamed and causes numbness or pain.

For me, that’s meant that I often feel like I have something stuck under the ball of my foot (either grains of sand or chunks of gravel), I’ll have numbness in my middle three toes, or I’ll have hot stabbing pain in them.

I had no idea this was a thing, or was a thing that thru-hikers got. My feet felt weird in Fontana Dam and so I took an unplanned zero to try to help them, but I didn’t know what was up. And then in the Smokies they just kind of became alien life forms attached to my legs that exploded in pain. They didn’t feel like my feet anymore.

I did still see views like this in GSMNP. No pain, no gain.

By the time I got to Hot Springs, I had spent days feeling like someone was stabbing my toes with hot pokers. I had emailed with my doctor, and Wayne at Bluff Mountain Outfitters confirmed the diagnosis when I talked to him. So I got new insoles and he gave me a chunk of an old insole to cut into pads to try taping under my foot.

The good news is that everything I was told to do has helped. The bad news is that, as with any inflammation injury, continuing to do the thing that caused it (such as hiking) doesn’t make it magically disappear. Shocking, right?

I hiked in a lot of pain through the Smokies, and have on some days still hiked with pain. I have learned to manage it. I have good days and bad days. I end up having to stop to massage my feet periodically.

Sassafras foot massage stop on a gorgeous day.

This has made hiking with anyone else pretty challenging because I take more breaks than a lot of hikers who hike the pace I do. I’ve seen most hikers I knew well in my first three weeks fly ahead of me while I take a little extra time to massage my feet, or ice them in town. That has felt isolating at times.

The worst day was probably hiking through ice and snow after it had poured all day the day before in Tennessee, and having my feet so wet that I had to stop to retape the insole pad three times in that weather. Because sitting down to take off your shoe and sock to peel wet medical tape from your foot and then reapply it when you’re getting pelted with ice pellets is, well, not really fun, per se.

Pretty looking, but not ideal for foot care

Needless to say, I’ve been pretty frustrated with the situation. I’ve had enough overuse injuries in the triathlon world that I don’t bother with “why me?”, but I have had some days when I was just frustrated at my body’s rebellion.

It was on that same snowy, ice pellets, windy af day that I decided to name my feet.

Because I needed to laugh at the situation.

Here I’ve been planning and prepping for this hike for forever and I end up with a nerve problem in my feet that kept me from hiking as fast or as long as I had expected. It forced me to *gasp* take breaks, and hike my own erratic pace independent of everyone else. And actually do self-care. I knew I was being a derp being upset.

So. How could I laugh at myself and just give myself the space to remember how absurd I look while sleeping?

Naming my feet, of course. What better way to give them pep talks? To tell them to embrace the hill and suck it up and I would baby them later?

My left foot is Gaston. I don’t know why. But, yes, it does often make me start singing “Beauty and the Beast” songs on the trail, and it’s hard to get too serious about anything while singing Disney.

My right foot is Zora. I suppose the literary part of my brain was thinking Zora Neale Hurston, but I honestly don’t know where this came from. My right foot has a ton of sass and attitude. She is bossy. She likes to dictate how fast I go, when I take breaks, and what my gait and stride look like. Zora feels appropriately unusual and independent.

Zora and Gaston enjoying a sunny day at Watauga Lake

So, after almost 40 days on trail, here’s my advice.

If you have a nagging injury or ailment, give it a name and talk to it.

Not necessarily when other hikers are around, or even aloud. But make the name something a bit humorous so it helps shake you out of obsessing or self-pity. Hike your own hike, not your injury’s hike.

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Comments 8

  • K. C. : Apr 25th

    One of the best AT posts I’ve read. Great attitude. Hope you make it all the way!

    • Kate Mueller : May 8th

      Thanks so much, K.C.! Doing my best!

  • stealthblew : Apr 27th

    Would elevating your feet at night or making sure you are sleeping with your feet uphill help? It has always had a restorative effect on me. Slow down, take smaller steps, shorten your gate and pace in order to minimize the pain and increase the joy en route.

    Slow and steady may be the ticket to recovery and a less painful experience.

    Good luck!

    • Kate Mueller : May 8th

      The perk of hammock camping is that I DO elevate my feet every night. I notice the difference when I sleep in a shelter or a bed, so yes, elevation does help a lot! And yup, I have had to slow down and make a lot of gait adjustments and take more breaks.

  • Dave Michel : Apr 28th

    I got that on my 2016 thruhike. Numb 3 toes. Took over a year after to go away. Didn’t have the pain you described. Or maybe was drowned out by Plantaar Fasciitis. From the ankles up, a hiking machine. Ankles down, not so much. I never named my feet ( great idea) but I did talk to them! Hang in there!

    • Kate Mueller : May 8th

      Nice to know other folks have had it and survived. It morphs as time goes by (now more numbness and way less of the toe pain, probably because I am managing it better). And glad to know I’m not the only one talking to my feet!

  • Jonathan : May 1st

    Ha! On a similar vein, I get stones and debris in my shoes all the time (because I usually can’t be bothered with gaiters) and instead of taking my shoes off every 10 minutes, I try to make peace with the intruders by giving them names.

    • Kate Mueller : May 8th

      Naming things is so powerful, no? But I would say that would motivate me to gaiter up all the time!


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