Mark My Words

Julie atop Katahdin

Julie grinning atop Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Each morning here in Guatemala, I either go for a 5-7 mile run, or a 3 mile walk, just to get some exercise in before the sun has gathered heat and before the rest of the town is awake and bustling with people, cars, motorbikes, buses, and everything in between. When the alarm first goes off at 6:15, the last thing I want to do get out of bed and exercise, but then I picture the crowded streets on the shadeless roads, and it’s a pretty easy decision. It just takes until after the run or walk to really appreciate the healthy choice over the more comfortable one.

Last week, I had a realization that shocked me. I couldn’t believe the thought even crossed my mind, and I’m even a little nervous to reveal it, much less put it up on the web for everyone to refer back to in my moments of weakness, but here goes: I would like to thru-hike another trail, whether it be the CDT or a repeat of the PCT or AT. A quick little background here – Matt and I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2007, a 2660 mile trail from Mexico to Canada, which is the topic of my book, “The Trail Life: How I Loved it, Hated it, and Learned from it,” and believe me, there was some strong hating going on during that trail. Then we hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2011, a 2181 mile trail from Georgia to Maine, and again, a good amount of hating found its way into that trail, and all that remains of the “Triple Crown” of hiking is the Continental Divide Trail, which can range from 2600 to 3600 miles, also from Mexico to Canada.

For those that know me, they know I “like” to thru-hike trails, but I don’t exactly love it. While I’ve finished both the PCT and AT, neither trail was without a little kicking and screaming from my end. Yet, one morning last week, I found myself walking down the street in Guatemala, and the thought passed across my mind as naturally and smoothly as a duck across a pond. I thought, “You know, out of all the adventures we’ve done, with hiking, road trips, running, and living abroad, I really love thru-hiking, and I’d really like to do that again.” I know, it seems a little unbelievable, and maybe it’s just because that way of life is so comfortable for us in comparison to living in a foreign country, and learning a new language. But there it is, I’d like to thru-hike again. Bring on the miles, the dirt, the hunger, the tent, the Ramen noodles and the Snickers bars, along with all the good stuff in between.

After I had this thought, and went through the aftershocks of such a thought, I asked myself, why in the world is thru-hiking so appealing? For me, it’s the physical and mental challenges, day in and day out, that keep me toeing the line between exhaustion and exultation. They are two extremes that can happen in the same day. I think back to a day on the AT, in Daleville, Virginia, where we hiked a 20 mile day into town in anticipation of consuming whatever food the town offered. I had been whining all day, always wishing for the trail to be easier than it was, and upon reaching town, I could see the red roof of a Pizza Hut through the trees, and it really was a dream come true to reach that road crossing. People can hate chain restaurants and stores all they want, but until they hike a long distance trail, and go hungry for a few days, they’ll never know the feeling of seeing a symbol of comfort food such as the unmistakable red roof of a Pizza Hut.

The other reason I love long distance hiking is the community, including that of other hikers, trail angels, townspeople, and people supporting from home. It is a unique community that oftentimes seems immune to the reality of crime and malevolence, and is a community that has given us some of our best friendships. There are communities wherever we go, including that of the traveling community here in San Pedro, but the long-distance hiking community is a special breed, for which I haven’t found a comparison.

Well, that’s not entirely true, which brings me to another “mark my word” realization. I could see myself running many more marathons and ultramarathons, including a 100 miler again. This realization is perhaps even more shocking than the first, because I’m only about 5 weeks removed from my first 100 miler, in which the only mantra that got me through miles 60-100 was, “Never Again!”

While Matt was starting his epic run on Sunday around Lake Atitlan, I was running a 90 minute easy run around the streets of San Pedro. It was actually an incredible boring route, as there’s only one 2 mile stretch of road that’s actually flat and that I feel safe enough running alone. I have yet to feel unsafe, but I’m also not ready to explore outside of the town without Matt, so here I was, left to repeat this 2 mile stretch for 90 minutes. At most any other time, I would have just bagged the long run due to boredom, but since I had the streets to myself on a Sunday morning starting at 5:45am, it was liberating to run a seemingly limiting route. I stopped caring about the route and simply enjoyed the act of running, of being out on the streets and the dirt roads before the rest of the town, and my thoughts all went to future races.

After fighting it for many years (ok 2 years, as the book hasn’t been published that long), I finally read Born to Run after Matt had finished it. The book touches on so many subjects, but the one that I took away from it was the ability to enjoy running for the freedom it offers. While I’d rather be running freely on the Wildwood Trail near Portland, Oregon, here I am in Guatemala, making do with what I have, and this weekend it was the cobblestone streets and dirt roads. And yet, it was still that feeling of pure joy in movement that I felt as I passed through the same scenery over and over again. As I passed through the streets a third or fourth time, I had the thought, “Yeah, I could see doing at least another 50 miler, and possibly another 100 miler.” Unfortunately for Matt, I had this thought after he had started his 38 mile run, or I just might have felt crazy enough to join him.

So there it is, mark my words, I’d not only like to thru-hike again, but do another ultramarathon. I’m sure I will have my doubts in the future, and I’ll likely whine as I’m putting myself through them, but something about hiking and running has me hooked for good, and I have yet to find an adventure that compares to them. The trails seem to be calling me, and I’m looking forward to answering them.

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