My PCT Dreams and Why I’m No Longer Hiking

I planned to start hiking the PCT on April 18 (my birthday), but now I can’t.

PCT Dreams

I’ve spent a lot of the last two years dreaming about the PCT. I began counting down to this endeavor when I secured my PCT permit in November. First by the months, then by the weeks, and then, as my flight to San Diego was quickly approaching, by the days.

My start date was getting so close. I started imagining myself on trail and could very clearly envision myself dirty and windblown from the desert with feet that ache from 20+ mile days. I could see myself laughing with new trail friends and a giant smile on my face as I curled up in my sleeping bag saying goodnight to Michael every night in our little tent.

Unfortunately, these dreams faded away one day before flying out to San Diego and three days before starting the trail.

Heart History

To back up a bit, I have a history with heart problems. I went into cardiac arrest in August 2017 and received an internal defibrillator (ICD) later that month. In September 2017 I had open heart surgery where they “unroofed” a part of my heart muscle that was covering my LAD artery and causing blood flow blockages. I went to cardiac rehab for a few weeks and graduated with flying colors. A few months later in December I found out that I had a blood clot and therefore had to delay my final heart procedure, a cardiac ablation, which would help get rid of my arrhythmias. I was put on blood thinners and anti-arrhythmic medications. During this time, I could do light exercise as long as I kept my heart rate under 140 beats per minute, but my doctors advised me to cancel my PCT 2018 plans. I was devastated. In May 2018 I found out that the blood clot was gone, so I went back to the hospital four weeks later for a cardiac ablation. I waited another four weeks to do a treadmill stress test, just to make sure everything looked good. By July 2018 my doctors told me I was good to go.

Since then I’ve worked on building back up my cardio endurance and strength. I occasionally went through bouts of nervousness and/or anxiety during hikes, runs, and tough workouts, worrying that something bad with my heart was going to happen. However, all these little spells were just my mind playing tricks on me. I’ve been receiving a download of my ICD activity every three months and for the last year everything has looked totally fine and normal. There was the occasional string of quick beats during exercise, but nothing that my ICD had to kick in and pace me out of and nothing worrisome to my doctors. I felt stronger and more confident every week.

My heart was fixed and I was ready to pursue my PCT dreams.

no longer hiking the PCT 2

Feeling on top of the world after my first post-heart surgery hike.

The PCT: One Week Out

The week leading up to leaving for the PCT I was recovering from being sick. I had a fever along with chest and shoulder pain whenever I inhaled. You don’t realize how much you breathe until it hurts! I saw my primary care doctor and, based on my symptoms, she figured I had pericarditis, which is inflammation of the lining of the heart. She did some blood tests, advised me to take ibuprofen to help with the inflammation, and scheduled an appointment for me to see a cardiologist to ensure everything my heart looked OK before starting the PCT.

The ibuprofen worked and I was back to normal. I was going to cancel my cardiologist visit for the upcoming Friday, but after a call from my PCP telling me that my blood test showed elevated troponin (a group of proteins that are released into the blood when damage is being done to the heart) canceling was no longer an option.

I went to the cardiology appointment last Friday. The appointment went well and my cardiologist didn’t seem worried. Just to be sure, he scheduled an echo to make sure there was no fluid around my heart and a treadmill stress test to make sure there were no blockages in my heart for Monday, the day before flying out to San Diego. Yes, the timing was impeccable. Although the appointment went well I had a bad feeling. I started tearing up as a I left the hospital and spent a few minutes crying in my car before driving home.

After I got some tears and frustration out of my system I started to feel more positive about these tests going fine. My heart has been working great for a year and, trust me, I tested it—intense HIIT workouts, 20-mile days while backpacking, five-mile runs. How could it all of a sudden not be working properly?

I should be fine.

The PCT: Three Days Out

I posted my gear list and my bags were packed. Was I jinxing myself by being so prepared and so excited? I was less than 24 hours from flying to San Diego.

I walked into the appointment feigning confidence. The echo was quick and there was no fluid around my heart. Success! I just had to make it through a few minutes on the treadmill.

I started walking on the treadmill thinking, “I got this. I am strong and I got this.” I needed to get my heart rate up to 160 bpm and was sitting at 135 bpm after ten minutes of speed walking at an incline. The cardiologist just finished exclaiming how in shape I was when I started feeling lightheaded and my heart rate spiked to 200 bpm.

I went into ventricular tachycardia (VT) and my PCT dreams were over.

The PCT: No More

I left the hospital that day with a sliver of hope that I could go back on anti-arrhythmic medication again and delay my PCT start by a week or two. However, after a conversation with an electrophysiologist and emails with my doctors at the Mayo Clinic, the consensus was that I needed another cardiac ablation and that I should cancel my PCT plans for this summer.

I have felt this type of devastation before—learning you need open heart surgery is no treat—but this was a little different. I already worked through my heart problems. I dealt with the recovery and overcame the fear of going into cardiac arrest again. My heart was totally fine. Now, out of the blue, it is not. No one can tell me why or how this happened.

Instead of flying to California to start the experience of a lifetime I’ll soon be flying to Minnesota to get a cardiac ablation at the Mayo Clinic.

I am grateful that these issues started now rather than after I began hiking, but this doesn’t necessarily lessen the pain I feel. They shouldn’t have started happening at all. I’m back to the point where I to go on a half-mile walk around the block and spend the whole time scared that I’ll go into VT and that my defibrillator will pace me. I know this sounds dramatic.

If you’re feeling generous I would appreciate any prayers and good vibes you can send my way hoping that this next procedure goes well.

The Bright Side?

Maybe I’ll learn something from this experience. Maybe I’ll find the silver lining. Maybe I’ll plan a PCT 2020 thru-hike. Maybe there is a bright side. Maybe. But right now I tear up every time I think about the PCT. My PCT plans have been thwarted twice by my heart issues and I’m not sure I can go through this disappointment again.

We’ll see.

One great note is that Michael will still be hiking the PCT. He doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter; I am making him do it. At least one of us should go enjoy the trail, right? He’s been such a pillar of support for me through this whole mess. It hurts both of us, because we dreamed of doing this together, but I am excited for him and I’ll cheer him on (despite missing him desperately) along with all the other 2019 PCT thru-hikers. Hopefully, we’ll be able to hike the Colorado Trail together in September like we planned.

A Note to PCT Thru-Hikers

Savor every moment out on the trail. Be thankful that you are out there. Please. You are so lucky.

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Comments 46

  • Zach : Apr 18th

    Thoughts and prayers go out to you for fast recovery, and to Michael for a safe and soulful PCT hike.

    Reply
    • Amy Swann : Apr 18th

      Sending positive vibes your way!

      Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you so much!

      Reply
  • Cptspeedypants : Apr 18th

    Too much snow this year anyways. Next year will be much better. 🙂 Good Luck and I wish you a speedy recovery.

    Reply
    • Charles shoemaker : Apr 18th

      Such a nice compassionate response!! Hope!!

      Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Haha. That could be true 🙂 Thank you!

      Reply
  • None Yet : Apr 18th

    Thoughts and prayers are with you as you go through this. All will go well and 2020 will be your best year yet. Best wishes to Michael, and know he will love you always.

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you so much! You’re right, he will love me always 🙂 I’m excited to follow his PCT adventure!

      Reply
  • Lance M. Gundersen : Apr 18th

    Take care of yourself first and don’t give up on your dream. You are young and it sounds like you are doing all the right things to heal yourself. Be content and keep working toward your dream. It’ll be sweeter for the delay.

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you! You’re probably right 🙂

      Reply
  • Tiffany Chou : Apr 18th

    Best of luck with your recovery. The trail will still be there when you’re ready 🙂

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • jason : Apr 18th

    I cried when I read this…how heart breaking…but I also know that your dreams can be a reality so dont loose hope and stay in there…I feel so much more blessed then I already felt before reading this, hiking is my passion…

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      I cried when I wrote it! Thank you for your encouragement.

      Reply
  • Jen : Apr 18th

    I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine your disappointment. It’s true though, better for it to happen now rather than on the trail. You’ll come back stronger, and you will achieve your dreams. Sending you all the good vibes, prayers and love!!!

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you! I appreciate (and need!) all of those things 🙂

      Reply
  • Susan Lynch : Apr 18th

    Oh Jenna, My heart hurts for you! As a nurse, I understand all you are going through and have gone through! I also have several friends on the PCT this season. I am sending prayers, healing vibes, and hugs to you. Stay strong and keep your dream alive! Maybe you’ll do the AT with Michael next year?! My brother has a sacred hostel on the AT, I bet you’d love. Peace to you in this healing time, and blessings and safety for Michael, as he walks for you both. Take courage ❤️

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you! The AT 2020 is a definite possibility. Michael and I both appreciate your words 🙂

      Reply
  • Jackie/Peaches : Apr 18th

    Thanks for sharing. I imagine it can’t be easy….well I imagine none of this is easy. Just wanted to say thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      It’s not easy, but thank you for reading 🙂

      Reply
  • Trish : Apr 18th

    This just made me cry. I’m so sorry to hear this. Don’t give up.. PCT will be there waiting for you when you are ready .. be strong, stay strong and be fierce!

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you, Trish! Although, I’m sorry I made you cry.

      Reply
  • Suzette Taylor : Apr 18th

    I’m feeling generous sending more prayers and good vibes than you can imagine. Tight squeeze, Jenna —

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Very generous! Thank you Suzette <3

      Reply
  • Mike : Apr 18th

    Sorry to hear you have heart problems. I hope, pray you get better. You still have a heart of gold..

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Margo : Apr 19th

    Healing thoughts coming your way. Thank you for your willingness to share this health journey. Take care.

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you for the healing thoughts!

      Reply
  • Curt : Apr 19th

    Google Pranic healing in the Denver area and see if you can find a Pranic healer to work on your heart issues.
    This would not be a replacement for your heart doctors but a supplement to them. Pranic healing is ( outside the box) but it works. Be open minded and try it for yourself and make your own determination.
    Good luck!
    Every situation properly percieved is an opportunity for healing!

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      I will check it out! Thank you.

      Reply
  • Kyle Armstrong : Apr 19th

    Wow. So interesting. What a read.

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • John : Apr 20th

    Stay strong, and keep, keeping your chin up! I had my AT hike postponed due to finding out I don’t have a left ventricle artery in 2017, but my body had created a natural bypass on its own. I had a stint put in and rehabbed got back in shape and was ready to go last year, but then tore my labrum on my left arm which while waiting for surgery the tear shredded the rotator cuff and shredded where my pec attaches, I couldn’t drive for 4 months and I am still going to physical therapy 8 months later. I know that I will get out on the trail and I know that I will be physically strong enough and no doubt I will be mentally strong enough, and I pray and hope that you will also. Good luck and good vibes to you.

    Reply
    • Kris : Apr 20th

      Don’t give up. It’s not over, just delayed. I had a cardiac ablation for AVNRT in 2009. I had lots problems those first couple of years. Give it some time and you’ll be back and ready to go. Maybe it’s not 2020 even. And that’s ok. The trail will be there for you when you are ready. Xoxo

      Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      John – Oh my goodness! That’s incredible, but also very frustrating. Thank you for sharing this! I hope we both can get back on trail soon. Best of luck with the rest of your healing!

      Reply
  • Michael Lanos : Apr 20th

    We will see you on the trail in 2020 kiddo. We will all be looking for you!

    And always remember that ” Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside them was superior to circumstance.

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you the encouragement 🙂

      Reply
  • Eric Focht : Apr 20th

    Hang in there….the trail isn’t going anywhere. You’ll get it. Best of luck in tackling your heart issues.

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Ronni : Apr 21st

    Sending good vibes your way, for you both.
    I totally understand your pain. You’re not alone. I felt like I was the only one that had the trail taken away from me. Reading your post made me cry. I still can’t talk about it to people. It’s so hard to follow the 2019’ers on YouTube. I sob like a baby every time I watch but I feel like I have too, even when I just have to turn it off, I always come back and finish. It does give me joy. It’s taken over 6 months of feeling sorry for myself and gaining 15 lbs., for me to pull myself out of this funk. Last week I forced myself to plan my next big hike. It feels so good to be excited again. Just planning has made a world of difference already. The trail is always going to be there, wether in my heart for now or underneath my feet. ❤️🌲. Love to you and your journey’s.

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Thank you so much! I definitely know that I’m not alone and that other people have gone through this before. I’m glad that you are excited about hiking again and I hope that excitement keeps you out of your funk! I’m counting down the days until I am able to hit the trail once more, or do any exercise for that matter. Love to you, as well.

      Reply
  • Gaurav : Apr 21st

    They say you should have a reason / purpose to get through this game of life. Throughout this journey of life we all face challenges / threats – be it health issues, family issues, career issues, financial issues, relationship issues n so on.. but what gets you through is your ambition / target / goal / aspiration / passion you have in life. For you it’s PCT! ( You are lucky to have found out one). Just hang on to it and whole universe will conspire to get you there. Make your life story worth inspiring!

    Reply
    • Jenna Duesterhoeft : Apr 22nd

      Awww thank you. Love this!

      Reply
  • LEAH : Jun 12th

    Late to the party, but I just came across your post while looking for other gals who’d tried using GG’s Kumo pack. As a fellow outdoor everything and hiking lover with a challenging ticker (POTS + tachy + syncope = Mayo adventures), I completely empathize with your journey. You’re an inspiration to me and a much-needed reminder to persevere, be kind to our bodies, and appreciate what all we get to experience every day. We’ll be out on the trails in no time!

    Reply

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