A Time to Heal

It’s possible, and okay, to feel more than one thing. I tried to remind myself of that as I spent my last waking moments of 2020 sniffling in bed being comforted by my husband Andre, my thoughts ricocheting in my head like a pinball on all the times I let down or disappointed people this year, and the personal and collective hurt that the year had brought.

The summer of 2019 was transformative and freeing in so many ways. I discovered long distance trail running. Like, long-long-long-long distance, multi-day trail running. It was like finding a long, lost love. Where had this been all my life? What took me so long? It didn’t matter, because I had found it.

I had spent the previous ten years committed to a singular goal of qualifying for the US Olympic Marathon Trials. I believed I could do it, and was completely devoted to seeing my dream through. There was a lot of frustration, tears, and setbacks in this pursuit. I was so hard on myself. But every so often I’d have one of those magical runs, just floating along at my marathon goal pace of 6:17 per mile, feeling totally relaxed and in the zone. It gave me a glimmer of hope, and I held on tightly.

I flew to New York in August 2019 for my first supported multi-day hike on the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t have any particular goals, other than running and hiking all day and seeing how far I could get. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had that much fun. It felt easy and right. Warren, who was supporting me by meeting me at road crossings along the way with food and water, couldn’t stop chuckling and shaking his head at how “fast” I was going. In the end I covered around 100 miles in 2.5 days, then two days later, feeling like I had discovered some kind of superpower, completed a 42 mile trek around Mt. Hood on the Timberline Trail. Before that week, I had never gone farther than a singular 30 mile run.

Simultaneously, in my personal life I confronted some things that had been way easier to bury deep down and leave undisturbed for many years. Andre and I had some pretty real conversations about it all. In the end, I was left with not only a better understanding of why I am the way I am, but I felt totally and completely accepted and loved, just as I was, by my partner. Approaching my 34th birthday toward the end of August, I felt more free, light, and happy than I’d ever been.

The rest of that fall and winter was a continuation in exploring my potential in long distance trail running, and committing to the goal of setting a supported record on the AT in the summer of 2020. After being so structured with my approach to running for the past decade, I threw training norms out the window and just put in a lot of trail miles with some road workouts mixed in. Whatever I was doing was working, because it resulted in a half marathon best of 1:22 in December and marathon best of 2:51 in January at the Houston Marathon. While I had failed in my last chance to qualify for the 2020 Trials (the qualifying time was 2:45), I could only feel satisfied and accomplished for having done my best, and excitement for the next chapter ahead.

Then came March 2020. Covid was beginning to spread in the US, and people were afraid. I remember making an offhand comment to a running buddy about how I’d be sad if the annual Shamrock race would be cancelled, and was met with a sharp response about public health and safety. I immediately felt like I had to correct and clarify what I meant. I wasn’t taking a stance that the race should happen, or dismissing the risk of bringing large groups of people together- I was expressing how I would feel about missing out on a beloved tradition. I remember that snippet of a conversation well, because I realized that from that point, I would need to be careful about what I said and how I said it.

The next couple months were truly awful. All I could see and feel were people turning against each other and pointing fingers at each other. We were in the midst of an unforeseen crisis–a global pandemic– without clear leadership on what to do, particularly in the beginning, and with many not trusting the leadership to begin with. It felt as if we were in a free for all, left to our own devices to figure it out. As the leader of a running club, it was my first time having to make difficult decisions for the group among very divided opinions. It hurt me to see people taking out their frustrations on individuals.

In the meantime, the US was having a reckoning with its own systemic racism, and the roles we as individuals play in it. I think the natural tendency for me, and many, is to just not talk about hard things. It’s more comfortable that way. Having experienced being on the receiving end of complete silence, and knowing how extremely hurtful that is on an individual level, I can’t begin to imagine the hurt, pain, and frustration of entire peoples that have been asking, pleading, shouting for change, met by indifference, and with the same injustices repeated over and over again. I learned that educating myself on race and racism, and taking meaningful action, was going to be a continual, lifelong process.

Leading up to my planned start date of July 7th on the Appalachian Trail, I was faced with the decision of “to hike, or not to hike.” The easy thing to do would have been to just not hike. If I made that decision, it wouldn’t have been because I felt it was inappropriate or reckless–we put great thought and care into taking the appropriate pre-cautions to minimize the risk of spread–but because I was afraid of what people would think about me. To give up this extremely precious (to me), potentially once in a lifetime thing, without knowing what the future would hold, out of fear of making a decision that some might not approve of? I would have been so disappointed with myself if I allowed such a big, personal decision to be guided in that manner.

I wrote the following a few short days after finishing the hike:

From Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin in Maine, my nearly 52 days spent on the Appalachian Trail were like a hyperlapse of rising and falling suns, moons, stars, storms, calm, mountains, valleys… it wasn’t so much a daily endeavor, but more like a singular continuous stretch, moving ever forward. I felt so confident and prepared going into it, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what I was about to endure, other than doing “the thing” itself. I thought I knew, but I had no idea. I learned and grew in a way I never have. The trail taught me so much about myself and the good of other people. It taught me that while it’s impossible to control your circumstances, you can choose how you respond. Every early morning I would think, “I don’t know how I can possibly do this”, and every late evening I would think, “I can’t believe I just did that.” The trail brought out my strengths, my flaws, my little experience and vast inexperience. I don’t know if I truly ever let myself believe I would make it to Katahdin until I was literally climbing the final ascent. I think the only way I could wrap my head around what I was doing was staying in the moment and putting one foot in front of the other. I didn’t know what the future would bring, but I could keep walking…I think it will take a while to unpack all I experienced. Most quiet moments throughout the day, my mind drifts to the trail. In my dreams every night, I am still hiking. My aching feet and healing toe are a reminder that it hasn’t been so long. I’m a changed person, and so grateful.

I felt a sense of heaviness when I began the hike in Georgia, like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, and honestly that feeling never went away, and I carried it all the way through the hike, and right back with me to Portland. Sure, I followed my heart, and made a decision that I still feel was the right one for me. It was an impactful, life changing experience. That didn’t make it a light, carefree endeavor. Dealing with my thoughts and physically hiking the trail never got easier, though I pressed on every day with the faith and hope that it would. I suppose that sums up how I felt on New Year’s Eve. I imagined it would feel like a relief to reach the last day of the year, and that I’d only look back and reflect on the fond memories of the trail. In actuality, it only stirred up all of the conflicting emotions and hurt felt through the entire year. At some point though, the self-flagellation and the “pinball thoughts” need to be put to rest, because everything that happened, happened. I’m working on forgiving myself for being imperfect, and forgiving those I’ve felt hurt by. With the new year comes the opportunity to let some things be and to keep moving forward with the hope that we (friends, neighbors, family, the nation) will heal.


Thanks for reading. If you connected with this or felt inspired in some way, you can show your support by buying me a coffee.

Photo by Nate Nieri


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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