I Didn’t Finish the PCT and That’s OK

I hate participation ribbons. Hate.

I grew up playing youth sports and the bane of my existence was those stupid participation ribbons. You know the ones, the ones they give to losers to make them feel better about the reality that they lost. From far away, they look rather nice. A ubiquitously recognized congratulatory ribbon shape stamped with some cursive lettering, often in gold, usually with a few shooting stars or decorative squiggles. But when you look close, it spells out the most condescending of congratulations: “Participant!” which bluntly translates to “Congratulations! You lost!” I hate those ribbons.

I think the root of my hatred with those stupid ribbons isn’t the garish nature of the object itself, it’s what they stand for, what they fundamentally represent: that losing is so bad it must be rebranded into participation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with losing—I mean, someone has to. Don’t get me wrong; losing sucks. Bad. It makes you face the fact that you failed. But failure is a mark that you tried, that you attempted something hard. It means that you are striving to do more than you know you are certainly capable of. Failing doesn’t mark a lapse in character or a degradation of integrity; it is a mark that you are living at the edge of your abilities. That you are boundlessly seeking to grow. That you are jumping at the prospect of a challenge and throwing your best attempt at it.

I set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and I failed.

And so, I am admitting failure: I set out to hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail and I failed. Instead of 2,650 miles, I hiked 700. That is roughly a quarter of the trail. I politely decline your pat on the back or any response related to “You’re a winner in my eyes!” I failed. As I write this, I’m smiling. It feels oddly freeing, satisfying even, to admit failure. I set my sights on a goal and I didn’t do it. I failed. And in the same breath, I am so proud of myself.

I hiked 700 miles.

700-freaking-hundred miles!! I walked alone in the California desert for three weeks straight. I walked across an entire state that was covered in snow and inhabited by the most relentless mosquitoes I have ever encountered. One footstep at a time, I pushed myself harder than ever before. This failure reinforces the fact that I am living the fullest (and grimiest) life that I am capable of. I am throwing myself out there and giving it my all. I’m living at the cusp of my impossible. So here’s to a life full of adventure and love and laughter and failure. And please, dear God, I don’t want your participation ribbon—metaphorical or literal. Thanks, but no thanks. But if you want to buy me a “happy failure” beer, I will most definitely take it. Because—heck!!—I just walked 700 miles.

To be honest, I wonder if the inspirational ramble above is my conscious self’s attempt to assure my subconscious self that failure is OK. Maybe I don’t wholeheartedly believe the words as I type them, but I sure want to. Maybe stringing together those sentences is my attempt to convince myself to make peace with my failure to complete the Pacific Crest Trail this year. Maybe it is my attempt to coerce myself into believing that this failure somehow serves as a confirmation, not a contradiction, of my persistent and courageous spirit.

Who are we kidding. It definitely is.

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Comments 23

  • bp : Sep 3rd

    If you didn’t want attention you would not have written an article.

    • Paige Wagar : Sep 3rd

      Thanks for your comment! I wrote this article to share my experience and connect with other people who tried, and failed, in their thru-hike. I write to process my experiences and hopefully inspire people to share their own stories; for me, writing isn’t about getting attention.

      • Michael : Sep 4th

        I admire your decision even though I’m not sure why you stopped. If you still want to do it why not section hike it? There is a saying of run your own race or hike your own hike. It should be about what you want to do and not someone else’s dream.

      • Lance : Sep 4th

        Thanks so much . Just turned 55 in August . Trying the PCT in spring . Again , thank you

      • Toren : Sep 5th

        There is no self!

  • Rick Whitfield : Sep 4th

    Loved your commentary! Well said, and with a good message for the many youths growing up in this weird world we live in right now. Losing is what makes us come back stronger… we need to embrace this fact of human nature.

    • Paige Wagar : Sep 4th

      I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it!

      • John : Sep 4th

        That’s a he’ll of a lot farther than I got.
        I just looked at the trailhead as I rode past it
        On highway 70 in the Feather River Canyon
        On my bicycle!

  • Greg mckeever : Sep 4th

    Life is a continuous journey of experience. Everytime we push our limits we expand our horizons we learn more about so much.
    In this day and age people push so hard for the look good in the social mirror .
    Congradulations in your experience in humility. This is not incompletion. This is the beginning of a more important journey. There are no ribbons at all in this realm. There is understanding of how unimportant looking succesful is. Whats next?

    • William Boerner : Sep 4th

      Hey Paige I too failed.650 miles got off at Walker Pass early May.I too got lost in Mission Creek.I plan on starting all over again this spring.Good Luck with whatever you choose to do. Simpleman.

      • Paige Wagar : Sep 4th

        Mission Creek was one heck of an adventure– that’s for sure. Good luck on your future adventures as well!

  • Jeffrey Wong : Sep 4th

    My goal when I started on March 27, 2015 was just to walk until I couldn’t. To commit to 2650 miles just wasn’t in my DNA. I got flown out at mile 813 for high altitude pulmonary edema–I might have been acclimated from not having moved for two days before the chopper touched down, but I didn’t want to take the chance that I might get worse. A week later, I said, “Self, you were having fun. Go back to the trail.” I flew into Reno, got a ride to Echo and continued North until Old Station, right before the Hat Creek Rim. It was 105 degrees F, and I had neither my trekking umbrella nor ground sleeping gear, so I left the trail again.
    Once again, I heard myself talking and hiked all of Washington’s PCT, and went home from Canada.
    The trail called yet again, and I drove to Ashland, Oregon and hiked North to Cascade Locks. I flew down to Medford where my host in Ashland had dropped off my car and drove home–with about the same smile on my face as at the start on March 27.
    No, I didn’t finish the PCT, but I had a great time hiking it. That was the whole point. It was a walk in the wilderness. It was the greatest walk I’d ever done, meeting the greatest people ever (hikers, trail angels, etc) and seeing a piece of the world that I will hold to my heart forever.

    • Paige Wagar : Sep 4th

      What a journey! I totally agree that the trail seems to always call you back– I feel it too.

  • Maria : Sep 4th

    You hiked much farther than most people. Most people, myself included, never attempt to hike the PCT, or any other very long trail. Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking but I love a comfortable bed and bathing every day even more. My son and his girlfriend will be starting their hike of the PCT in spring 2020. I am not afraid to admit that I am feeling quite the range of emotions as April gets closer. Proud, excited, anxious but also fear and dread because it’s going to be THE longest 5 months of my life. On the other hand, I love him so much that being anything other than supportive is not something I am capable of doing.

    • Paige Wagar : Sep 4th

      They are sure to have one heck of an adventure, and they are lucky to have you back at home rooting them on. 🙂

  • Mike Rechtien : Sep 4th

    Great article. Really enjoyed it. I went out for a section hike – mostly JMT sectionsouthbound – during a month off. Gathering gear for next year. I really don’t care how far I get, just looking forward to having more time there. 2 questions, or 3, can you talk more about hiking the desert alone? I guess I am a bit worried about that. Did you start at Mexico border? Do you know if people start earlier from there, say Jan or Feb? I’d like to camp in Joshua Tree during the desert bloom (early March) and then start up again. Thx, Forty

  • Coral Stevenson : Sep 4th

    You didn’t fail. TBH my son finished. I sent him 26 boxes. I prayed for him every day and night that he’d bed safe, that he’d be protected, that the fires (in 2018) would be put out by God so he could finish. And by God’s grace, he finished. But here’s what, you do deserve a participation trophy for participating. Give yourself that one thing. Just give yourself that. Don’t allow the judgement of others. Jesus isn’t hiring. There’s always next year buddy!

  • jj : Sep 4th

    when it looks like you will fail to achieve your goal just change your goal, that way a lifetime of failure will lead u to happiness! for example, instead of putting one foot in front of ther other u could just post up on the pct and ambush unsuspecting hikers, rip their clothes off and shove them into the closest lake! make sure to throw their clothes in there too and when the laundry is done give them ribbons for successfull body and rags dipping, a rare skillset on the pct.

  • Andrew : Sep 4th

    Don’t let anybody tell you anything you where out in God’s country away from everything that’s what count finding peace !

  • David : Sep 5th

    “Determination is habit forming; so is quitting. Every time you quit, you make it easier to tell yourself that quitting is acceptable.”

    -Frank Sonnenberg,

  • Vick : Sep 5th

    Do not identify with your mistakes! That wil not help you go forawrd. Learn from your mistakes. Then look forward to a new better adventure with a good plan and better skills.

  • Michael : Sep 5th

    It’s not a competition Paige, you are out testing yourself to see what you could do, and you reached your limit for that trip. I was in the US Army and wanted so bad to be Airborne Infantry, I made it through 6 and 1/2 weeks of Airborne training and the stress fractures in my heels made my feet swell so much….I couldn’t get my boots over my swollen feet….I was a medical wash-out. I didn’t quit, my body told me it had reached its limit (and, didn’t want to jump out of airplanes). It was a learning experience for Me…so what did You learn?

  • MorKat : Sep 17th

    As I plan to hike the AT at 65 I am really enjoying your articles! As I see my grandkids involved in sports, etc I now have a great way to discuss failure. Most people and kids don’t even try something super challenging because they may fail so damn right you can be proud of 700 miles. For that matter 1 week would have been something to be proud of in my book. I like the idea of writing goals for my AT trip, of course 1 of my many goals is to finish but since I will have many more goals, if I make it less than 2100+ miles I can still be proud of myself that I achieved so many of my other goals. This isn’t easy for me to even think or believe in because it’s often been all or nothing. Win win win. So being content with “failing the one goal of 2000+ miles” may not be easy for me but it will help me enjoy every day in the trail as a gift . Oh btw, enjoyed the article on being a female on the trail and things you wish you had said. Well done!!!


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