Look at the Bigger Picture

On my 38th day on the Appalachian Trail after setting off at 4:00am with aching, blistered feet, I walked through the lush forest of the Green Mountains in Vermont as the sun rose. I tried to wrap my head around the gigantic task that lay ahead in completing nearly 50 miles before midnight, and per my unintended daily morning ritual began to sob. How can I possibly even do that?

The fact was, despite having run and walked nearly 48 miles per day every day to that point, every morning the counter was set back to zero. Without any kind of guarantee as to how everything would unfold, I began each day overwhelmed and filled with self doubt. It usually wasn’t until I’d reach midday, or when I’d get past the twenty mile point, that I’d start to think, “Maybe I can do this after all.” The daylight hours would fly by, I’d strap on my headlamp as the sun went down, hike several hours into the night, and before I knew it I was collapsing into the support vehicle, having finished yet another 40+ mile day.

It was just after 8:00am when I approached the double white blazes and tiny sign reading Katahdin 500 Miles pictured above. So much of the journey to that point had been about focusing on the present and putting one foot in front of the other. To zoom out and try and comprehend the entirety of the journey was enough to make my head spin. Just thinking about the day ahead was overwhelming, let alone thinking about how many hundreds of miles lay between me and the northern terminus of the trail. I had been so zeroed in on the present for the sake of self-preservation, that I hadn’t really appreciated how far I’d come. Upon seeing that little sign, my eyes started brimming with tears–happy tears–as I thought about everything I’d endured to get to that point. It was a moment I didn’t want to forget, so I stopped and took a photo, tears and all, and I wrote in the nearby trail register something like, “I can’t believe I made it this far.”

In my last post, I wrote about how wonderful and familiar hitting the track felt after running mostly trails to prep for my first 100 miler among other pursuits this coming year. This past week, I returned to Duniway Park for a second go-around. Not unlike each morning on the AT, the feelings of self-doubt and dread began to set in. Yes, my speed work went great last week, but will I be able to match that a second time? What if last week was beginner’s luck, or a fluke? What if it hurts? What if I’m not good enough?

As I warmed up out-and-back on Terwilliger Blvd, I started to overanalyze how my legs felt: whether they were still tired from the weekend’s twenty mile long run, or how sluggish they seemed as I slowly shuffled my way up and down the hill. I starting to look for any excuse as to why my speed work would go terribly that day, so that when it inevitably did, I wouldn’t feel quite as disappointed with myself.

Just like the week before, the workout was 6 x 800 meters, 4 x 400 meters, 2 x 200 meters. I took the first 800 out at a comfortably hard pace, aiming to match the previous week’s effort. It was a full second slower than my slowest rep from the last time. Not the end of the world, but it wasn’t quite the confidence boost I hoped for. I began the second 800 rep, and my legs just felt bad. I prepared to glance down at my watch halfway through, expecting to see a really disappointing number, and was already thinking, “Today just isn’t my day.” Expecting the worst, I prepared to step off the track and bag the workout altogether.

When I finally looked down at my watch at the halfway point, I found that I was well ahead of pace. Maybe in expecting the worst, I had overcompensated and pushed more than I needed to. I eased off a little bit, and finished the rep in line with what I had run the week before. With two reps down, four to go didn’t seem all that bad. I set off for the third rep, which I completed another second faster, and the next three continued the downward progression. The remaining 400s and 200s flew by, like icing on the cake. The hard thing was done. I did it. And it had gone better than the week before. I felt a bit bewildered as I reflected on how much negative self-talk I inflicted on myself leading up to the workout, and how I nearly talked myself out of even trying. Or how I was so willing to step off the track early on because I didn’t want to face my fear of failing.

Depending on whether there’s a sheet of ice on the track today, my plan is to head out for my third speed workout in three weeks. There are no guarantees as to how it will go, but I’m reminding myself that this singular effort doesn’t define my entire body of work. Where I am today is built on a foundation of years of experience, hundreds of miles, thousands of footsteps, good workouts, bad workouts, injuries, mistakes, and lessons learned. It’s one piece of the puzzle, one drop in the bucket, and one opportunity to learn and grow, regardless of the results.

As my years on this earth keep inching upward, I think of how my daily thought cycle on the AT could be reflected on a macro level in the long journey as a beginning runner to a seasoned athlete. I won’t be in my prime forever, and I may not be able to run forever, though I’ll certainly try. With every year that passes by, I can’t help but feel grateful to still be going. 

How can I possibly even do that?
Maybe I can do this after all.
I can’t believe I made it this far.


Thanks for reading. If you connected with this or felt inspired in some way, please share this with a friend and/or consider buying me a coffee!

One response to “Look at the Bigger Picture”

  1. Rich Schumaker Avatar
    Rich Schumaker

    You’ve got this girl!


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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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