Growing Pains

The hardest part about hiking the entire Appalachian Trail wasn’t hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. It was the “before” and “after”. After doing things more or less the same for most of my adult life, and being content in doing so, I preemptively put the AT on my calendar for the summer of 2020 about five years ago, knowing I would need a change. It was an idea that had pulled at me for some time, like a calling.

When I began running more trails and trying my hand at longer distances to prepare for the journey, it was like a dormant seed had sprouted within me. Running over mountains, valleys, rocks, and fields made me feel exuberant, free, and alive.

The fire within was dimmed, though not squelched, when the pandemic hit last spring. Anything that involved stepping out the front door of my home became a moral and ethical quandary. The months leading up to my planned start in July were filled with scrolling through the news and social media, sifting through trail closures, and navigating the ever-changing state mandates and guidelines. I felt shaken and heavy in the days leading up to the hike, but I trusted the careful planning and consideration I’d put into hiking responsibly, and resolved to begin.

One misconception I had was that my dilemma was unique. I had this notion that had my thru-hike been planned for any other year than 2020, I wouldn’t have experienced any friction or uncertainty. Learning from other thru-hikers’ and record attempters’ experiences, and speaking from some of my own, that’s far from the truth. Not everyone close to me understood why I felt compelled to hike the trail, and that was even before the pandemic. I’m certainly not the first person to experience concern or misunderstanding from others in setting off on a thru-hike, and especially not the first woman (“Aren’t you scared?” “Will you carry a gun?”). I didn’t know it would be so hard to follow my own path, before even beginning the path.

Hiking the AT was a transformative experience, but my growth didn’t stop at the summit of Katahdin. I feel in a way that I shed my old self, the way that a snake sheds its skin. It’s been an uncomfortable and sometimes painful process. Some friendships have drifted apart, and others have blossomed in a new way. I see the world through a different lens than before. That’s not to say I’m enlightened- maybe one could call it a growth spurt in thinking and feeling.

The photo at the top was taken at Beartree Gap, Virginia just after a short run on the AT, a few days before beginning my journey from Springer Mountain. I’m pretty sure I cried a lot on that run, flooded with many emotions for all the reasons above. If there was ever a way to sort through feelings, running freely through the lush green, feeling the warm breeze on my damp skin, and leaving the phone behind was a good way to do it. I had no idea what I was about to experience. I’ve said before, “I thought I knew, but I didn’t.” Now, being on the other side of it, I’m glad the happy-sad runner in the photo gave herself the chance to find out.


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One response to “Growing Pains”

  1. Looking Within – Mercury on the Run Avatar

    […] possibilities for the future. I feel physically recovered from the Appalachian Trail, though the emotional aftermath still comes and goes like aftershocks following an earthquake. I’ve run 60ish miles per week […]


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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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