To Take a Rest

Sometimes we choose to rest, sometimes that decision gets made for us. The body or mind gives, or perhaps you get unlucky and catch the bug that’s going around, or worse (the dreaded C-word)! I was one of the unlucky ones in recent weeks, but I suppose I should actually feel quite lucky, thanks to modern medicine and generally being in good health otherwise. I got to spend a lot of quality time with my cats, bed, keyboard, and notebook. I canceled evvvverything right in the busiest time of the semester. I participated in a performance final via Zoom. I didn’t get to go to the holiday party. I felt an incredible amount of self-imposed guilt for staying home and letting people down, even though staying home was the exact right thing to do. Numerous people thanked me for it! It makes me wonder about the (what I’m assuming to be) cultural work-ethic instilled in me, “must be strong / never show weakness / show up no matter what.”

That “show up no matter what” mentality can be an asset and a downfall. It brings back a memory from 2015 when I was the sickest I’d ever been in my life. I developed some sort of bronchial infection while on a music tour. There was no cancelling shows, no replacement; we did our best to make it work. I’d sleep in the tour bus all day, emerge to shower at the venue and make myself look presentable, take medication, and help put on the show. I lost my voice, so at one point our sound engineer, also a singer, was singing into a mic offstage while I lip-synced onstage. I’m glad we could make it work, and I felt proud of myself and the crew for doing so. But my condition only worsened upon returning home. I developed a cough so severe that I broke a rib. I lost so much weight I was nothing but skin and bones. Is that something to be proud of? I could ask myself the same question about being bedridden for a week following my completion of the Appalachian Trail, underweight, with big infected toe that has still never been the same. I know at the time, in both instances, I was simply doing my best.

Perhaps as a result of experiences like these, and maybe just growing older and hopefully wiser, my willingness to suffer has waned, and my feelings on the way we glorify suffering in sports and work culture have become… I don’t know if complicated is the right word, but maybe more nuanced. High achievers are constantly looking to stretch that comfort zone or boundary without going over the line and rendering themselves unable to perform at all. It can be a very fine line, and its definition can be personal.

Reflecting on my two thru-hikes this year, the Pinhoti Trail and the Long Trail, they both had something in common: I chose not to suffer. On the Pinhoti Trail, everything pretty much went to plan, but one night I got extremely cold and couldn’t keep food down. I got off-trail, rested for a day at the Pinhoti Outdoor Center, and completed the hike once I felt better. On the Long Trail, I kept my mileage conservative, got a fair amount of sleep every night, and only really pushed on the last day. I completed both trails tired, but healthy and happy and accomplishing my desired goal with both. I feel proud of myself for both. I also feel almost apologetic for both. Should I have tried harder? Was I too easy on myself? When the super long distances become more of an equalizer between men and women, was breaking a women’s record enough, or is that too “soft”? By the way, I don’t believe that, and I have a lot of respect for the trailblazing women that established records on both trails. Sometimes the lines blur between what I actually think, and what I think other people might think, and at the end of the day the most important thing is to trust your experience, your reasons, and your decisions.

For me personally, as I dream up future FKT attempts, races, and challenges, I hope I can find “the line” for myself when it comes to suffering by choice: the kind of suffering that is accepting being extremely uncomfortable and really, really tired, and continuing to go even when your mind wants you to stop. To expand your comfort zone without sacrificing your well-being. To be tough but wise. To be honest with yourself. To listen to those you trust. Courtney Dauwalter had completed 300 miles of the Colorado Trail in a little over five days, and ultimately it was her crew, who she completely trusted, that pulled the plug and brought her to the emergency room for acute bronchitis.

If there’s a moral here or some parting wisdom I can offer as we come to the close of 2022, and maybe it’s rich of me to say this, but–you only get one body: treat yours well!


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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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