Carl “Professor” Stanfield: Reflections on the Calendar Year Triple Crown
In 2022, I set out to backpack more miles in a calendar year than had ever been done. My goal was to average nearly 30 miles a day over 365 days for a total of over 10,244 miles. In the end, I averaged just over 24 miles a day over 352 days for a total of 8,451.7 miles, including all three Triple Crown trails.
You may be wondering at this point why I would choose to undertake a hike of this magnitude—and what it was like. I’ll endeavor to describe the journey and its aftermath in this post—but first, the “why.”
Why I Set Out for the Record
Before getting into the story, I want to address the “why.” This is the question I spent the most time answering over the course of the last two years, dating back to my initial declaration of my intent to take on this challenge. And, for the most part, the answer(s) stayed the same.
1. To Find My Limits While They’re Highest
One of the things I have enjoyed the most about thru-hiking is achieving something I wasn’t sure I was capable of. Completing a standard thru-hike was enough to check that box when I set out to hike the AT and then the PCT for the first time. But after that, my confidence in my ability to complete a 2,000-plus-mile hike was pretty high.
As I neared the age of 30, I figured my youthful athleticism was nearing its peak, so I wanted to try something that felt both highly difficult and just possible while my body was still biologically functioning at its best. I wanted to seize a very real moment in my experience as a human.
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2. To Spend an Entire Year Doing My Favorite Thing
I did want to snag an all-time backpacking record, sure, but even more than that, I wanted to get to experience a year-long backpacking trip.
“I’m attempting a world record” is catchy and made what I was doing much easier to explain to people I met along the way. Instead of spending time explaining the nuance of thru-hiking, all I had to say was that I was trying to hike a record distance, and people could jump on board. It made it simple to communicate my excitement to anybody I came across.
3. To Reconnect with People I Love After COVID
I hate to even mention COVID, but it did play a factor in creating this adventure. One of the most important things in my life is my relationships with people from all the different chapters of my life, and after a few years of hindered traveling and visiting, I really wanted to get out to see people that I loved.
I wasn’t sure I’d have much time to invest in socializing, but I put a call out on social media before I left and hoped to sprinkle in some quality time with important people over the course of this journey.
4. To Make a Name for Myself in the Backpacking World
Ever since my induction into the world of long-distance backpacking in 2018, I’ve been nothing short of obsessed. All I’ve wanted to do ever since my first thru-hike has been more thru-hikes. I have so much respect and admiration for the folks in the community who have done huge things on these trails, and I wanted to try to do something notable in the field myself.
I never thought FKTs were my speed (I’m not actually a particularly fast hiker by those standards), and yet I felt I did have an abnormal level of endurance I wanted to test. I’m also deeply motivated by a desire to be unique and carve my own path, so I decided I wanted to craft my own “impressive hiking attempt.”
I wanted to join the ranks of famous thru-hikers, and I wanted to do it my own way.
I wrote extensively about my plans and hopes for this adventure in an article before I set out, so I won’t go too far into detail about what I thought this hike would look like here, but I will outline how it did go. Basically, my goal was to hike all three Triple Crown trails for the bulk of this record mileage and then hike where I could in the shoulder seasons to get the rest of the miles.
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I wanted to hike an extension of the Appalachian Trail starting in Key West to utilize the winter months hiking in a part of the country that would be pleasant that time of year, as well as to get a running start into the most physically demanding trail of the year.
I planned on finishing the year hiking in North Carolina on the Mountains to Sea Trail to get in the rest of the miles I needed, though that part of the adventure never did come to be.
January 1-June 7: Key West to Canada
This first leg ended up taking a bit longer than I’d hoped by about a week or two. I knew June was too late to start at the southern terminus of the PCT, but the snow and ice in New Hampshire and Maine significantly slowed my progress on the AT.
I ended up being the 4th person to complete the AT in 2022 on June 5th, and it only took me another 2.5 days to get to the Canadian border from there.
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June 8-17: Summer Vacation: Knoxville, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama
The northern end of the AT took a major toll on my body. I knew this would be my only chance to try to squeeze in significant rest for the remainder of the year, so I spent a week and a half laid out by the pool eating ice cream and trying to put on some extra weight.
June 18-August 16: Kennedy Meadows South to Canada (PCT)
I knew I was too late in the season to safely start at the southern terminus of the PCT, so I figured I’d jump on where I expected most of the bubble would be and planned to come back to finish the desert in the fall. This plan would allow me to get to the northern terminus of the CDT quicker so that I could hopefully get south through Colorado before winter arrived.
I averaged my highest miles per day throughout the PCT, though I did end up having to skip 100 miles due to the Lionshead fire closure in Oregon.
August 18-October 28: Canada to Mexico (CDT)
My CDT experience was unique in that I ended up doing a lot of the trail by road. I walked every single step from Canada to Mexico, but in order to save time and avoid some potentially hazardous and slow winter hiking, I took a lot of road walks.
This shaved my CDT hike down to just under 2,000 total miles. It made my timing work but left me lots of miles to make up for the record. The decision also left me battling over whether or not I even really “hiked the CDT.”
Ultimately, it was a sacrifice I felt I had to make for my record to stay possible, and I stand by letting the experience be what it was. I felt I made the right decisions for myself based on my goals and what I felt was safe. Even so, it was probably the thing I battled with mentally the most as I continued on with my yearlong journey. I struggled internally with what I felt I could let myself claim.
October 29-December 18: Lionshead Fire Closure in Oregon & Kennedy Meadows South to Mexico (PCT)
I did my best to fill in the miles that had been closed earlier in the season in Oregon, as well as complete the desert section of the PCT. I was slowed by snow, short days, and a struggling mental fortitude after throwing in the towel on the record attempt.
My pace grew slower and shorter, and I took a lot of zero days. But ultimately, I caught up to the last trail family of thru-hikers for the year and was able to walk to the southern terminus with friends.
My final stint on the CDT in late October was 80 miles of road-walking in 36 hours to the alternate southern terminus at Puerto Palomas. This final push completely decimated my feet to the point I thought I might break one.
I had missed 100 miles around a fire closure in Oregon and wanted to connect my footsteps, so I flew back to Portland the day I finished the CDT to close that gap. It took everything in me to pound out just over 30 miles across some of the easiest terrain in the country. And, at this point, I needed to average about 40 to get the record.
What I needed was a nice long break to refuel my tank, but I’d cashed in all my budgeted rest days and then some. With a heavy heart, I recognized that the condition of my body was at an all-time low, and this record attempt was over.
That next morning, what should have been the end of my connecting piece in Oregon, I ran into a wall of snow. I had a friend waiting on me who had taken off time from work to drive me all the way to Southern California that evening.
I had already accepted that my hike wouldn’t be quite what I wanted it to be, so I did the smart, safe thing and bailed, leaving a small hole in my footpath caused by fire closure and snow: in short, the essence of the modern PCT.
After getting back on trail to hike down to Mexico from Kennedy Meadows South, I hopped into the town of Ridgecrest to rest and recalibrate. By then I was convinced that I would damage my body to an unhikable extent if I attempted the 40-mile-a-day pace necessary for the record.
But I also recognized that I was not yet so far damaged that I couldn’t hike at all. So, 10 days of hotel hopping later, I was back on trail with a new finish line. The end of my journey was now the Mexican border, which would represent the completion of the Calendar Year Triple Crown.
The Last Stretch
Even though the pace was much gentler, my last month and a half on trail was one of the most difficult parts of the year. For one thing, the conditions were difficult. There was less daylight each day than I’d experienced all year. These short days, paired with my coldest temperatures of the year, made me especially ready to finish up and head home.
In addition to the physical conditions, my headspace was at its lowest point of the year. I had a very difficult time grappling with this mixture of failure and imminent success. I hated having to call it on the record. And yet, as I looked around, the only person who seemed to be upset was… me.
Everyone in my community was nothing but kind and supportive. I was scared of what other people would say about my inability to reach my lofty goal, but it really felt like the only person voicing disappointment was myself.
Although I had failed at my record attempt, I was still on pace to reach virtually all of my underlying goals: I found my physical limit, made a name for myself, was on my 12th consecutive month of backpacking, and had seen or at least communicated with what felt like almost every person in my life who had ever meant something special to me.
The record attempt was over, but everything else was a success. My hike had gone exactly as I’d hoped it would in one profound sense: it had resulted in something I hadn’t expected whatsoever.
The hike itself was, as somewhat expected, completely different from all my expectations. Early on, the trip began to take shape as a highly social experience. I wasn’t necessarily interacting with many folks on trail in the beginning, but by the end of the first month, I’d already stayed in half a dozen different homes in a state I didn’t expect to have contacts in.
I had hoped I would get to have an occasional check-in with a friend, but by the time I got to Canada in early June, I’d spent more nights indoors than outdoors due to the hospitality of friends, family, and complete strangers all the way up the east coast. This experience took shape as an extremely social one, and I let it.
Though the frequency dropped on the less accessible trails out west, the general trend continued: I went on to meet up with folks in all eight remaining states that comprise the PCT and CDT. I still haven’t finished adding up my tally, but I expect that I met up with over 100 people in some capacity during this trek. There were many days when I sacrificed miles I could have made in order to squeeze in one more meetup at a road crossing.
Over time, this took its toll. I was averaging roughly 25 miles a day on the year instead of the 30 I needed for the record. I kept telling myself I’d make it up over the last few months when I really needed to. But those social experiences were the parts that were fulfilling and rejuvenating me the most, so I continued to let them happen.
The reason I had so many social opportunities in the first place was entirely due to social media. The only two platforms I use are Instagram and Facebook, and regularly updating those was enough to grant me the extraordinary experience I had. My Instagram following grew from 1,600 at the start of the year to nearly 14,000 by the end of it. And I noticed the difference almost daily.
For one thing, the longer I was out there, the more frequently trail angels and trail-adjacent hiking enthusiasts reached out to me. Even though I spent very little of the year in the bubble, I was treated to trail magic often.
Complete strangers brought me food, took me into towns, hosted me, everything a hiker could want. And friends, family, and friends of family were reaching out to help, too. The social media experience really was WILD.
Efficiency of Fame
In addition to all the people off-trail, my newly acquired social media affluence was a massive advantage on trail, too. By the time I got to the PCT, I was getting recognized on trail almost daily. While, sure, this was a lovely ego stroke, it was also a massive social advantage: in a year In the midst of a remarkably solo journey, it was extremely easy for me to make quick friends.
I found that I rarely had to “waste time” introducing myself and explaining what I was doing for the thousandth time with other hikers, and instead got to jump right into getting to know and talk with them. When you often only have a few hours or minutes to talk with another hiker, it was a massive advantage for so much information to already be known, and it allowed me so much more time to get to know other people.
People wanted to talk with me, and I wanted to talk with people. In that way, social media greatly enriched my experience.
But of course, it wasn’t all good: I think social media was actually my greatest source of both joy and stress on my journey. In order to continue to get the meetups and recognition on trail, I had to continue to post and update. While this wasn’t always too hard to keep up with, sometimes it was. And the addictive nature of social media I found to compound as the audience continued to grow.
I lost countless hours of sleep regularly over the course of the entire year from staying up late to write out updates and scroll through responses and likes. So while I do feel the good ultimately outweighed the bad, I think it’s worth sharing that social media was absolutely a massive source of stress and anxiety for me over the year.
But even so, I felt like I had one of the most amazing and positive experiences possible with social media. The supportive community that grew up around me was only ever that, and the encouragement of friends and strangers often helped me find the strength to carry on.
In planning, I expected that at some point during this year, I would finally reach such excellent physical conditioning that 30 miles a day would become a breeze. This was not the case. My cardio was the only component that met this expectation. Meanwhile, the wear and tear on my body added up.
I began suffering Achilles tendonitis when I arrived in the AT’s Damascus, Virginia in the middle of March. In hindsight, I believe this to have been caused by the quick transition from flat Florida miles to averaging 8,000 feet of daily elevation gain in the southern Appalachian mountains.
I’m also now wondering if my beloved zero-drop shoes didn’t factor in as well. Fortunately, this overuse injury never progressed beyond persistent pain. One day it was just there and hurt like hell, but it never seemed to worsen.
Effect on Pace
I powered through for as long as I could (nearly a month) before resorting to daily ibuprofen. I made a deal with the devil to lessen my pain, but it still hindered my land speed and ultimately slowed me down. The only folks I saw on the AT after this condition started were weekenders and flip-floppers, so I didn’t notice much of a difference in the speed of hikers around me.
However, I could definitely tell a difference when I got out west to the PCT. Conditioned hikers were absolutely flying past me the length of the trail. The fastest hikers could spend a day around four mph, but I was doing well to get in a few hours out of an entire day at 3.
In order to put in the often 35- to 40-mile days I needed, I was hiking well past sunset and back on trail before sunrise. No, I couldn’t hike fast, but I found I could put up big miles consistently on four to five hours of sleep.
Just a Little More Pain
My knees also proved to be an issue on the northern bit of the AT, but the pain of downhills virtually resolved when I switched to traversing pack-animal-grade trail out west.
The other physical issue was with my feet. I never did see a doctor, but I can say with some degree of confidence that I was dealing with Morton’s Neuroma.
This is a thickening of the nerve leading to the toes that feels like having a sharp pebble underneath parts of the ball of the foot. I played around with a variety of different insoles and specially placed support to help mitigate this issue, but it was frustrating, painful, and persistent.
I began coping with the end of the journey during that 10-day hotel stint in southern California. My method of doing so: dissociating. Thanks to excellent cell service in the Mojave desert, I was able to spend massive quantities of time on my phone, zoning out in the world of social media—an excellent tactic to avoid being present and grappling with the weight of all I was feeling.
The affirmation and affection from my online community was a sweet distraction as well. Not only was I avoiding processing what had just happened, but I was also straying from thinking about the future.
Post Trail Depression
Post-trail depression is, I believe, an inevitable component of thru-hiking. It hits some harder than others, but there’s just no denying that anything after the most exciting period of a person’s life is… less exciting. The freedom, the beauty, the wildly open road mean that while every moment isn’t glamorous, the possibility of a better one around every corner is real and constant.
I’d already had a rough time during the periods after my previous four- to five-month thru-hikes and felt I knew a bit of what to expect. I was not looking forward to coming out of my year-long fantasy world where money didn’t matter, everyone was kind, and I let myself be completely selfish to soak it all in.
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A return to the normal world meant a step down from the glamor. I needed to reintegrate (at least to some degree) into a society I don’t care much to participate in.
I remained in a dissociated state for the first few months of 2023. My wonderful family spread across the southeast hosted me as I bummed around living with various folks. I spent long days staring at screens playing video games, watching Survivor, and putting off getting back into functional shape, both physically and mentally.
Much like my mental state, my physical one had also begun to turn while still on trail. My metabolism had become so hyper-efficient that I found myself gaining weight at a rapid pace while still hiking.
In order to finish the PCT at a comfortable rate, I slowed down to 20 to 25 miles a day. In comparison, my daily average had been 30-40 for the majority of my time on the western trails.
My body had grown used to processing calories so efficiently that I managed to gain no fewer than 25 pounds over my final seven weeks on trail. The human body is truly amazing.
Based on my rate of weight gain on trail, my dreams of a trail body for any amount of time after getting home were hopeless. I had gained weight at an alarming pace while being active all day every day: I didn’t like the thought of what it would do when I was stationary and eating southern holiday food for weeks.
And continue to gain weight I did. By the start of 2023, I had gained an additional 15 pounds, meaning I had now gained 40 pounds in nine weeks and was more than 10 pounds heavier than a year ago when I took my first step of this journey. Needless to say, this didn’t exactly leave me feeling ~great~.
But, after a few months of soaking in my Nothing Time, life started to pick back up. I had recovered enough that I could run again, I did yoga, I secured a summer job, I stumbled into a love interest.
Even though I still wasn’t living a “normal” life, things felt like they were starting to fall into place and take shape. I began shifting my focus from what I’d just experienced to what I wanted to experience now.
The aftermath of this year-long endeavor left my heart, mind, and body all heavier than I’d have liked. I think part of me hoped that by doing my favorite thing for a whole year, I’d end it completely clear-minded, free, and ready for the next even-bigger thing. But instead, I was left tired and with more work to do. And I now constantly remind myself: that’s OK.
After accomplishing something tremendous and failing at something even greater, I’m left with a mixed bag of emotions, and I think it’s so important to acknowledge and share my actual experience with that.
I’d like to also share that I’m not upset whatsoever with this outcome, nor do I think that it’s “bad.” Honestly, I think these results are directly in line with thru-hiking itself: a beautiful balance of hardship and euphoria.
The good of thru-hiking only exists because of all the difficulties that come up along the way. All these difficult concepts I’m left to wrestle with are scaled right along with the enormity of this journey. And the biggest thing I’ve learned is that the bigger the challenges I’m faced with, the more I grow and the better I am in the long run.
And so, though a lot of this season has been tough, I know that it is but a necessary step in the process of growing, changing, and experiencing the beauty of all that life has to offer.
So, what IS next? How does one top the year I just had? Am I throwing in the towel? Will I go for the record again? Am I going to go hike somewhere else?
The only thing I know for certain is that there is definitely more hiking in my future. In fact, even since I began this write-up, I’ve managed to squeeze in a 340-mile thru-hike of the Sheltowee Trace Trail in Kentucky and Tennessee, this time with a few buddies.
And although I was perfectly content and fulfilled being on my own last year, I think it sure could be nice to have a long-term companion if I’m going to keep chasing Adventure like this. And, to be candid, I think I may have found one.
So what am I doing with my time now? In addition to excitedly pursuing a new relationship, I’m figuring out how to make a life of Adventure sustainable in other ways.
I’m working on putting together a book to share the full details of my experience last year; I’m going to Alaska this summer to make some quick money processing fish; I’m living a cheap and slow life that keeps my cost of living down.
To summarize: I’m trying to find ways to live my life off trail as happily and simply as I can, and in a way that honors and builds on all I’ve learned from the extraordinary experience I’ve had the fortune of getting to live.
Featured image: Photo courtesy of Carl Stanfield; Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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