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 28

  • Avatar
    bp : Sep 3rd

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

    Reply
    • Avatar
      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.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        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.

        Reply
      • Avatar
        Lance : Sep 4th

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

        Reply
      • Avatar
        Toren : Sep 5th

        There is no self!

        Reply
    • Avatar
      Bruce M Gelman : Sep 17th

      You are a badass.I hiked about 100 miles hit a massive snowstorm and ditched.Good for you! Dont let stupid men ever get in your way.Not ever.Temember there are a few good men out there who RESPECT!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    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.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paige Wagar : Sep 4th

      I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it!

      Reply
      • Avatar
        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!

        Reply
    • Avatar
      Bruce M Gelman : Sep 17th

      Hiking 700 miles of the PCT isn’t losing.Its beautiful.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    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?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      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.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Paige Wagar : Sep 4th

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

        Reply
      • Avatar
        Bruce M Gelman : Sep 17th

        Please everyone stop thinking that not hiking 2000 plus miles is failure.Every moment you are out there is precious.Nature loves you and doesn’t care, doesn’t keep score.LOVE HER BACK.

        Reply
  • Avatar
    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.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Paige Wagar : Sep 4th

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

      Reply
  • Avatar
    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.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      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. 🙂

      Reply
  • Avatar
    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

    Reply
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    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!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    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.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    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 !

    Reply
  • Avatar
    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,

    Reply
  • Avatar
    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.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    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?

    Reply
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    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!!!

    Reply
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    Jax : Sep 19th

    Hey, I’d totally buy you a beer if we found ourselves in the same place. Your words really echo what I told myself when I stopped hiking the west highland way in Scotland 3 years ago. I did 40 miles in three days – which is a lot for this fat old broad – and then had to quit because my knee gave out on me. It was a tough decision, but ultimately I knew it was the right one. It took a year and a half for it to heal as it was. I’m hoping to go back and do that trail again in 2021.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Michelle : Sep 21st

      Careful, this one will take your comments of praise as sexist. This one will make excuses for everything in her life to be about how men ruin it. This one can’t just see how her own perceptions warp the simplest of compliments.

      Paige you did fail on the trail. You failed to understand why you were out there. If this was a personal journey regardless of the distance why did you turn it into something it didn’t need to be. Your negativity is what is wrong with your soft and weak generation. You consistently blame and be the victim. If you are so strong and independent then you shouldn’t feel the comments of others to be sexist or misogynistic. You hiked on of the hardest hikes out there alone. Anyone should have care and concern that you are adequately prepared. Anything can happen to anyone. But you have to make it than some man somewhere made you uncomfortable? Grow up. Love to have a conversation with you in 30 years to see if you have matured and formed better opinions of the world and the people who Live in it. Frankly, women like you are what make me uncomfortable. I love men and love that they want me to be safe on the trail or in my own community. I love that men open doors and treat me like the lady I am. I respect them back and am gracious and thankful for them. Men and Women are physiologically different. GOD made us that way for a reason.

      Before you go judging me. I am a strong independent BAD ASS woman as you so define yourself. I am a single mother, educated, professionally accomplished. I don’t receive child support or alimony because I am capable of raising my children myself. BUT I don’t blame men for anything. I am where I am today because of my choices. I am where I am today because of my own GRIT. That is my own accomplishment, yes failures and shortcomings along the way but I don’t whine and blame anyone; especially men, for where I am in life.

      GO hike the trails, push yourself in every aspect of your life. Learn life’s lessons and make every day about learning something new. Grow and become a better person. Make this world a better place by you being in it, not whine and throw tantrums because a man said you were fit.

      Reply

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