Q&A: Running and Long Distance Hiking

August is upon us and people are finishing their 2016 hikes.

After months of thought and preparation before and along the trail, the end almost comes as a shock and surprise. For many, it’s back to the same life as before. Some shift their focus to a hobby after the thru-hike is over.

At the same time, future AT thru-hikers are soaking up trail knowledge and preparing so they’re ready when next season comes around. How can someone nurture mental conditioning, physical strength, and spiritual alignment before and after the trail?

Running is not the same as hiking – but it does have some strong parallels.

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Photo by Benjamin Chan

Running might just be what some people need while adjusting back to day-to-day life after finishing a thru-hike, as well as those hopeful future thru-hikers out there.

As luck would have it, I had the honor to hike about 1,200 miles with quite the prolific runner, Brady Adcock (aka Castaway). Before starting his 2015 Appalachian Trail thru-hike, Castaway was a successful ultra-marathon trail runner, and before that, a competitive college runner.

Castaway lived in Damascus, VA prior to his AT thru-hike and would run 120 miles per week, many of which were on the AT. His resume:

  • Three-time NCAA Academic All-American
  • 1st Team South Atlantic Conference
  • 3rd place overall in the Virginia Beach Shamrock Marathon
  • Winner of the Lookout Mountain 50-Miler and Harbison 50k
  • Finisher in the Georgia Death Race (68 miles and 40,000 ft elevation change)
  • Qualified for the first corral, and ran in, the 2016 Boston Marathon.

I figured he is slightly more qualified than I am to compare running with hiking, and he was eager to answer my questions!

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Castaway and Wilson on their way through a successful 4-State Challenge on the AT in 2015

Castaway, how did your running experience translate over to full-time Appalachian Trail hiking?

I lived in Damascus, VA and trail ran about 20 miles a day on the Appalachian Trail before I ever started my thru-hike. The first half of the trail was physically effortless. I just floated to Harpers Ferry in 48 days from Georgia.

Did anything catch you off guard that running didn’t quite prepare you for?

Eventually the high mileage combined with my vegetarian lifestyle did catch up to me. I dropped a lot of weight during the first half of the trail and never really recovered until after the trail. I had to slow down just to take in enough calories to stay alive. And I met Bandit and you!

As someone who was able to crush big miles right from the start, what’s one piece of advice you would give to someone starting in 2017?

I would say the best way to prepare for a thru-hike is to log miles on technical trail. It doesn’t matter if it’s hiking, backpacking, or running. Although, I believe running is the most efficient way to log miles and develop cardio endurance. I passed literally over 1000 people attempting a thru-hike and many could have had a better time with more physical preparation. Long-distance running develops physical strength, mental conditioning, and spiritual alignment that goes well on the trail.

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Castaway and Wilson taking a dip

I noticed you had a firm leaning towards one brand of trail runner shoe, and even had a few backup pairs ready to ship throughout the thru-hike. Did your prior running experience influence your AT footwear?

I am a major supporter of Brooks Cascadias. I logged over 10,000 trail running miles since high school and I just know what my feet like. Long distance trail running and thru-hiking have the same effect on your feet. I never got a blister or had any foot problems on the trail. I believe every long distance hiker can benefit from wearing a lightweight, stable, durable trail running shoe. I could have probably done the whole trail with one pair, but I ended up using two.

Short shorts are the way to go. I didn’t learn this until Hot Springs. What type of shorts do you run long distance with, and did you use these along the trail?

I love short shorts. They breathe and don’t restrict your natural stride and movement. You can hike within your natural flow. The best are the ones that split up the sides. I wore them everyday on the trail. Got some sick tan lines too

The whole time you were on the AT, you hardly did anything that would qualify as running. I went for a short half hour run at home after the AT, and I still remember my hip flexors being on fire afterwards. I thought they would have developed more after that much time hiking, but I was wrong. Is there anything you noticed that was a little off the first time you went back out for a run after the AT?

When I first got back from the AT, I went for a run at my lake house in North Carolina. It was significantly harder than I expected. My quads and legs were extremely tight, my muscle fibers constricted. I couldn’t come close to the paces I used to run. It took me two months, 50 miles a week average, and a ton of soreness to get back into fast “running shape.”

Now that I’ve been off the AT for a year, my running seems stronger than before. After shaking off the initial rust, what was your experience with post-AT running?

My post-AT running has been a challenge but I consider it to be a happy one. I still haven’t hit the times I did before the AT, but I am finally getting close. I qualified for the Boston marathon before the AT with an incredibly fast standard. It got me a great starting spot on the front line but I didn’t perform during the race. I was still recovering from the AT 8 months later. I wanted to be sub 6-minute mile pace through the 2016 Boston Marathon like I had been, but never got back to it.

Do you have any other thoughts about the relationship between long-distance running before the AT and after? 

Currently, I run 60ish miles a week and am training for another marathon in November. I won prize money in a 5k two weeks ago. Although I don’t run as fast, I enjoy running a lot more after the AT. There is less pressure to perform and I feel like I can just enjoy just the movement and nature around me. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail didn’t make me a faster runner, but it undoubtedly made me a better runner. A runner who enjoys each step a little more because it brings me back to where my heart is happiest. I like it that way.

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Thanks for the insight, Castaway!

For more of Castaway’s insight into the mindset of running (as well as thru-hiking), check out this video he made.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rNZjqrXBRI

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Comments 8

  • Avatar
    William Douglas : Aug 22nd

    First, as a non runner (but avid hiker), Castaway’s resume blew me away. Especially the Georgia Death Race (68 miles and 40,000 ft elevation change)… Good God mate, just reading that made me sore!
    Wonderful piece on how the thru hike made him a better runner. Not faster, better. As stated in the video “What matters is HOW we move towards that goal.” Beautiful piece!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      James Cape : Aug 23rd

      Thanks William! Glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        William Douglas : Aug 31st

        Yeah James. Great site man. I thoroughly enjoy this place!

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Mouse : Aug 23rd

    This is awesomr stuff, autodraft

    Reply
    • Avatar
      James Cape : Aug 23rd

      Thanks Mouse 🙂

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Steve Tucker : Aug 23rd

    Thanks for this great article!

    Brady earned his Eagle Scout award while I was Scoutmaster at Troop 919 and is now serving the BSA’s Old Hickory Council at the District Executive for the Dogwood District.

    My son, Andrew Tucker (Daddy on the trail) is currently on a northbound thru hike and while Andrew’s AT experience is different from Brady’s, Brady has been a big advocate for and supporter of Andrew hike. We salute you Brady…and Andrew too!

    Andrew is hiking with a bubble that put itself together near Hot Springs and they are know as the Fire Squad and it includes Daddy. Thumper, Tormund, Mama Bear, Dayman and Hollywood. Shaggy and Pochantus have just joined and Google has hiked with them in the past.

    And while I’m at it, I would also like to tell Appalachian Trials how much I appreciate the website, especially the interactive map, which we use frequently to guess where they are on the trail. Thanks for the great work.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      James Cape : Aug 24th

      Good luck to Daddy and his friends!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    james reilly (aka Zippy Morocco) : Sep 5th

    I enjoyed this article very much. I just finished the CDT on August 28 and then ran The Rut 50K yesterday (seven days later). Even though there was no actual trail running training during my four month hike the running event went very well. It was very interesting how against the flow with the other runners my pace was. When going up or down hill I was a machine however on the flat or gentle grades I was pretty slow as compared to my normal well trained pace.

    On the subject of preparing for a thru-hike by running I think this article is right on. For the first time during my triple crown I showed up to the trail in good running shape. Also, for the first time I was injury free for the entire trail. On both the AT and PCT I was challenged with tendonitis early on. Clearly an overuse injury that could have been avoided by training. There is no doubt in my mind that the idea that a thru-hiker can only get in hiker on the trail is a farce and causes unnecessary pain.

    Thank you for the article and congratulations on your hike.

    -Zippy Morocco

    Reply

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