40 Days to PCT and Zero Training. Argh!
How hard can the Pacific Crest Trail be with no training whatsoever?
2,650 miles over a five-month period, averaging 20 miles a day. It’s just walking… with a pack on… right? Well, I’m about to find out. Dropping below the 40-day mark until my kickoff at the Southern Terminus of the PCT, reality is fast sinking in. Between my work as a forest firefighter in Australia and commitments to two bands as a drummer I’ve done next to no training for the PCT at all. Things sort of just got in the way.
Backpacking forums and social media share lots of up-and-coming thru-hikers launching into pre-hike training regimes, strapping the pack on, and hitting up the hills. Hell, some even do smaller pre-hike thru-hikes for training to ensure they are in tip-top shape. I thought about doing the same, or to at least do some sort of training, honestly I did, but for some reason or another it just didn’t happen. Obviously having a good general level of fitness before taking on a trail like the PCT is going to help anyone, which I have. I just hope it’s enough.
My saving grace from lack of training.
It may just be the fact that a typical workday on the fire line involves walking off trail in the remotest of country, carting in a 20-pound pack and swinging hand tools for up to 14 hours a day in the heat. I’m counting on it being enough. Only time will tell. Thru-hiking Te Araroa in New Zealand two years ago I know what I’m in for. I’ve been at the starting line before in very similar circumstances, having had zero training under the belt, and I made it to the finish (at a reasonable pace by all accounts, too).
Starting at Cape Reinga within a day or two of several Triple Crowners and reaching Bluff with those same hikers to spray champagne around the place (shout-outs to POD, Disco, and Skittles) I know I can go the distance at a good pace. Hopefully hubris does not get the better of me this time around. Even if I considered some sort of training now, time has gotten away and I’ll have to settle for training along the PCT itself. So for everyone else with zero training here is how it goes down with no training.
The first couple of days are going to be tough. They always are.
On the morning of day one you show up to the starting line. The belly fat that you have been telling yourself is your buffer for the expected weight loss later along the trail spills over your hip belt and you start walking. The excitement of kickoff is all-consuming; the extra 20 pounds strapped to your back seem to float effortlessly. The miles fly by as you take in the sights and sounds, sharing your excitement with others around you. By lunch, it feels good to have a break, taking the pack off and resting in the shade but you’re still digging it. Emotions are strong. “I can’t believe I’m doing this! This is awesome,” you say to yourself. After lunch you throw your pack back on and start walking again. Your legs are a bit stiff on moving but loosen after a couple minutes and all is well with the world. By midafternoon reality is sinking in and you’re starting to feel the pain creep in. Shoulders start to ache, unaccustomed to pack straps digging in; your legs are tired and you realize you have muscles that haven’t been used in years. Thoughts start to falter. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. ☹” “Can I do this?” “Canada is so far.” (Don’t go there just yet; it’s only day one). By evening you are shattered, wanting nothing more than to be done for the day, throwing up a tent and cooking some food if you can be bothered. You sleep like a log, exhausted.
The following morning.
Those long-dormant back muscles scream out. Sore feet and tight calves make the first steps of the day a real challenge. Hoisting your pack on again shoulders burn and hips remind you they are not yet accustomed to the additional weight. Everything hurts! Especially your legs. Unfortunately, your belly still wobbles over your hip belt (you haven’t done enough yet to burn off that baby fat). Easing into the day your pace slows on the slightest of climbs and you pant for air. You question again. “What am I doing?” “Why didn’t I train?” Day two is always the toughest. Embrace the suck. Things will get better.
Week one mirrors day two to lessening degrees.
Your body slowly accepts that you are now walking 20 miles a day for the next five months and it starts to adapt. By the end of week two you’re a natural. The muscle pain has gone, mostly. Your pack becomes an extension of you, except with the added weight from your fresh resupply. Your pace still slows on ascents but your miles start to increase.
By the end of month one you are killing it.
Your pace quickens and miles seem effortless. Day-hiker’s dreams are crushed as you breeze by them on the steepest of climbs and you breathe easy. Fat is burned away and hip-belt straps need to be pulled in slightly. This continues for the next few months as the insatiable hiker hunger appetite kicks in. You can literally fuel your body on junk and crush out 30-mile days, ever tightening your hip belt all the while finding additional items you can cull from your pack in the race to get lighter. You are walking eight to ten hours a day, forever pushing your distance out. What better fitness program is there? Fifteen miles is a piece of piss, 20 swings by and 25 miles are looking promising. You cross the threshold and push your first 30-miler and 40 dangles like a carrot in front.
On reaching the finish line.
You have become a well-toned, calorie-burning, somewhat emaciated, superhuman machine who looks for rocks to throw in the pack before practically running up the steepest of hills, wondering what all the fuss about training was at the start.
This was my experience on Te Araroa and I expect similar on the PCT. Besides, the PCT has a few bonus features going for it. For starters, the Americans actually know what a switchback is (please explain this our Kiwi cousins) and it’s a purpose built, graded trail. New Zealand brought with it many days completely off track on the roughest terrain.
So don’t fret about training.
Unless you are trying to knock out a fastest known time or are really restricted to finishing the trail in a short time frame, there is no need to be in absolute peak condition. The PCT is long, really long, and if you ease into it you will be fine. Your body will adapt. You will get stronger, tougher, and you will go the distance. So while an average of 16 miles a day on the Te Araroa is a good pace I’m looking forward to being able to knock out 20-, 25- and 30-mile days before reaching Canada on the PCT.
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