The other day I was driving along the Portland waterfront with a friend when we a saw a flock of 20-something-year-olds trot by in a group run. It was like something out of a commercial. They all looked so cheery, chipper, and bright-eyed. We couldn’t help but be at least a little amused. “Aww look how happy they look! Their hopes, dreams, and spirits haven’t been crushed yet! Cute!”
I’m generally a pretty bright-eyed, optimistic person but wow, has the past year-plus changed my outlook on life and humanity. It’s as if for a long time people have been keeping their surface-level cool, but bring in the physical threat of the pandemic combined with the threat of our fundamental beliefs being challenged in a tumultuous political year and, well, things got very ugly. I experienced the opposite of that while hiking the Appalachian Trail and had some of my faith in humanity restored while simultaneously taking on one of the biggest physical and psychological challenges of my life. Pain and suffering on the trail was optional, but I chose that path for many reasons. Then after a fall, winter, and spring at home, it seemed the tidal wave of big life-changing events was receding until my marriage sadly and painfully came to an end.
Back in 2019 when I was planning my supported hike of the Appalachian Trail, Warren Doyle drove me up to Virginia to meet AT record holder David Horton. As we pulled into the parking lot where we’d planned to meet, Horton rolled up to us on his bike next to the driver-side window, pointed his finger right at me with a devilish grin and exclaimed, “YOU DON’T KNOW!” How could I have known? Sure I’d done prep hikes, research, and sought advice… but there’s really no way to prepare for such an intense experience without going out there and doing the thing itself.
Truthfully, and probably unsurprisingly to many, I’ve entertained the idea of trying for the women’s record on the Appalachian Trail again someday. Knowing what I know now about my strengths, weaknesses, what could be improved, and what I’ve learned, it’s impossible not to at least think about it. But whereas I felt unquestionably ready last summer, which was an easy way to feel since I didn’t know any better, my eyes would be (maybe unfortunately) wide open going into another attempt. The choice to try again would hold much more weight. I’d know exactly the inevitable difficulty, pain, and suffering I’d be signing up for. It now makes sense to me why Doyle and Horton had an air of grave seriousness about them when they saw me off on journey north from the top of Springer Mountain.
If you hadn’t heard yet, Scott Jurek is now six days into his second record attempt on the Appalachian Trail (his first in 2015 was successful, but has since been broken three times). I can only imagine he had the same kind of thoughts running through his head from the summit of Katahdin nearly a week ago. He knows much more now, for better or for worse. Considering he’s kept this attempt extremely quiet to this point, I think that speaks to the seriousness of which he’s treating it.
Initially I had a somewhat morose outlook on contemplating attempting an FKT on the Long Trail this summer, perhaps to the other extreme of my naive optimism in my first thru-hike of the AT. I think because of my experience last summer, I put it in my mind that the LT would be extremely difficult and technical the entire way with plenty of misery and suffering. During my 2.5 day Long Trail prep hike last month, I kept steeling myself for the trail to get worse or feel impossible, and kept ending up surprised that it wasn’t all that bad. There were plenty of tough bits and plenty of lovely bits too. Of course, it’s one thing to practice 30 miles at a time and quite another to attempt 54.5 mile days back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
When we get hurt, it’s only natural to harden the shell with which we protect ourselves. Maybe we lessen the expectations we place on others, and brace ourselves for the worst kind of pain. At the same time, I can’t help but think of the many possibilities ahead with a little glimmer of hope and wonder, “What if?”
Thanks for reading. If it weren’t already totally obvious from the fact that I’m back in Vermont (if you follow me on social media), you can probably guess that big things are about to happen on the Long Trail! I’ll follow up with a more official announcement and details about my plans/intentions within the next couple days, so look for that email very soon or subscribe if you haven’t already done so!
Here is my ask: if you enjoy my writing or if this resonated with you in some way, please consider buying me a coffee. If you look forward to reading these letters as much as I enjoy writing them, you can now support Mercury on the Run on a monthly basis with the membership option. The default is $5/month, or about the cost of one shmancy coffee. Your support is incredibly appreciated and helps keep this newsletter going! ‘Til later this week… ~Mercury
Photo cred: Glenn Kasin