Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

X

Saying goodbye to a speed record and welcoming a new one

As many of you know, Heather “Anish” Anderson just broke the women’s unassisted speed record on the Appalachian Trail, overcoming my 2011 record by a whopping 26 days.

Many of my friends have been asking me “if I’m ok with it” in the sort of way they’d ask me if “I’m ok” with an ex-boyfriend getting married to someone else.

And the answer is YES! Even right after my record, I asked that someone come out and close the gap between the men and women’s record. I wasn’t strong enough to do it—and frankly had/have no interest in a thru-hike that is a complete sufferfest. What Anish did is remarkable and a huge boon to womenkind, to the outdoor world, and to athletic feats.

My finish photo from the AT.
My finish photo from the AT.

That being said, I have enjoyed holding the record for the past 4 years. There’s something exhilarating, almost unworldly, with the joy I would receive contrasting the image of my 5th grade self—literally the last chubby kid to finish the mile run in PE class—and my new self, the fastest unassisted woman on the most famous long distance trail in the world. Very few people get to be “the best” at something in the world, and for four years, I was able to say that.

Yet the joy of the record, the lessons I learned from the record, and the ability to realize I am more than my 5th grade self have all become lessons that I have absorbed. They have become me. It’s like a book I read as a kid about “magic” ballet shoes that made a girl who couldn’t dance become a great dancer. One day she lost her “magic” shoes, and it turned out she could still dance.

Shortly after I beat the record, I had a friend who told me that if he ever broke a record on a long distance trail, he would be so happy that he would never be sad again. Beating a record would fill a gap, a need, a hole in his life.

But I found the great secret of the record to be quite the opposite: even with a record under the belt, I still had sadness and doubt. Bad things still happened. It didn’t make my desk job any better. It didn’t make living the winter through a place I didn’t like any better. The hole was still there and a record didn’t fill it.

For a while, I thought more records, bigger and crazier would be the answer to filling that hole.

But in the last 4 years, I’ve learned that hole isn’t filled by records. It is filled by being happy with who you are, what you can do, where you have been, and where you are going. I may no longer have the record and the exhilaration associated with that, but I am content in my own skin, and that sort of satisfaction and confidence is longer lasting than any record.

So please join me in welcoming Anish and the newest speed record holder on the AT. What she has done is incredible. May it give pause to every old man who doubts whether a woman can be as strong in the woods as a man. And more importantly, may it bring Anish the joy, peace, satisfaction, and confidence that every hiker looks for after a trip.

Long Distance Speed Hiking Q&A by Long Distance Hiker

My finish photo from the AT.
My finish photo from the AT.

Long Distance Hiker is a blog that specializes in telling stories about long distance trails, helping other hikers prep and plan, and musing about trail life. I met Beardoh and Sweet Pea in 2011 when I set the speed record on the Appalachian Trail and somehow that experience must have stuck with them (and their cherry disposition and the fact that they had been following my blog astounded me—this was at the time before there were a ton of trail bloggers and I didn’t know anyone but my folks cared about what I was doing).

Beardoh and Sweet Pea were kind enough to interview me about speed records, a topic that is under heavy discussion these days. My AT hike seems so antiquated and stuck in a period of the past when people could do records without media and sponsors and instant time blogging.

http://longdistancehiker.com/snorkel-at-speed-record/

Interview with Adventure Sports Podcast

The Adventure Sports Podcast interviews all sorts of outdoor adventurers.
The Adventure Sports Podcast interviews all sorts of outdoor adventurers.

The Adventure Sports Podcast is an interview-based hour long, Colorado-based podcast that tells stories about all sorts of outdoor adventures. I had a lot of fun taking a break from my Denver-Colfax urban thru-hike to sit down with Travis from the podcast and talk about hikes, projects I’m working on, and why I love hiking.

Download the episode for free here: http://www.adventuresportspodcast.com/2015/05/ep-041-liz-thomas-long-distance.html

Post-hike Q&A

A few people have had questions about my hike and asked that I post the answer on my trailjournal. Here they are!

How fast did you hike the AT?

80 days, 13.5 hours

Did you beat the women’s unsupported speed record?

Yes.

Who held the record before and when was it set?

I haven’t done a ton of research on this, but Warren Doyle told me that the old record was set in 1992 (or was it 1993?) by Jenny Jardine (wife of Ray Jardine, ultralight backpacking and climbing guru).

Wait–I thought that Jenn Pharr Davis set the record.

Jen Pharr Davis beat the women’s (and men’s) *supported* speed record. She’s amazing and totally my hero.

In that case,what does an unsupported hike mean?

The best way to describe how hiked the trail is that I did it as most other hikers do a thru-hike–how most people’s backpacking trips go. I carried my own pack and food and set up my own shelter each night. I had to find my own way into town for resupply (hitchhiking, yogi-ing, or walking). No RV or car greeted me at road crossings and no one cached food or water for me or bought my gear while I was hiking or bandaged my wounds. Trail magic was all serendipitous and nothing was pre-planned. It was really important to me to only use services that are available to all hikers.

Was your hike solo?

Yes. I neither started nor ended with a partner. Occasionally, I would hike for a few hours, or in lucky instances, a few days, with other thru-hikers. But the overwhelming majority of my hike was spent alone.

Was it scary hiking the trail alone as a woman?

Not in the least. I wish there was some way to let a bunch of women who are prospective thru-hikers know how absolutely un-scary it was. Hitching is definitely a big part of the resupply process for unsupported hikers, and this year, I was a bit weary of hitchhiking alone as a woman, mostly because last time I thru-hiked the AT in 2008, another woman was raped while hitching in Virginia. Before I set off, I planned my resupply points specifically to minimize hitching. One major advantage of thru-hiking the AT in 2011 is that cell phones allow increased communication with hostels who have always offered pick-up services to thru-hikers. As a result, I think it is possible to thru-hike the AT without hitchhiking and without carrying prohibitively large hauls of food. That being said, I hitched several times along the AT and frequently on other trails, and have often found it to be the most educational and rewarding part of a thru-hike—meeting other people whose backgrounds and interests are so different than my own. It gives me a better awareness of the beauty of American regionalism and the social changes from one section of the trail to another give me an appreciation for the vastness of my hike that terrain and ecosystem differences alone could never do.

How heavy was your pack?

My baseweight (everything without food and water) was about 7 pounds. I added a few extra layers towards the beginning of the hike and in Glencliff, NH–and am certainly glad I did in both instances. I went stoveless in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern New England. Usually, I carry 1.5-2 pounds of food per day. I carried 0.5-2 L of water at any given time, depending on the terrain and abundance of water.

Were you a long distance runner or athlete in school?

No. In fact, I failed a test in PE in 5th grade because I couldn’t do a mile in 11 minutes. I was on the Varsity waterpolo and swim teams in high school, but I was so bad at it that when the other players got awards like “MVP” or even “Most Improved,” I got the award for “Best Dressed,” which, given my style, really wasn’t saying much. I like to think of myself as a really endurance athlete whose speed advantage is revealed over not hours, or even days, but months.

Did you run parts of the AT?

Very infrequently. Those who have hiked with me on other trails know the rule of the Snorkel–Snorkels don’t run. OK, that’s a bit in jest, but I usually only ran if I was trying to make it to the Post Office or store before it closed for the day. And only on the downhills. In general, I think running is a great way to mess up your knees and slow down your hike.

But you must have been hiking super fast?

I’m bad at measuring, but I’d guess that I usually hiked 2 miles per hour. Some parts of the trail, I hiked 3-4 miles per hour. Some parts of the trail (like sections in the Whites) were 1 mph. It is a running joke among some hiker friends that Snorkels hike 1.7 miles per hour. There were definitely days when I averaged that.

So, if you don’t run and walk like a normal person, what do you think is the secret to your speed record?

Dedication, perseverance, knowledge, and experience. I don’t think someone could beat the record without having hiked the AT before and without a thru-hike under his/her belt. Meeting so many people new to hiking reminded me that many of the skills I take as givens are actually things I’ve learned over thousands of miles and many trials. I’ll address some of the things I’ve learned below, but good nutrition and knowing my body’s limits is pretty key. Most importantly, I think I got the record because I put in the hours–usually from dawn until dusk and often several hours into the night.

Did you spend much time in town?

I typically would spend around 5 hours in town if I didn’t time my stay in town so that I could spend the night. Five hours was enough for me to regenerate, get my shower, laundry, internet, phone time, and 5,000 calories in.   Certainly someone who is trying to beat my record (and I fully hope that some woman will do it soon! It is an embarrassment that the difference between the unsupported women’s speed record and men’s record used to be almost a month!) should spend less time in town.

What was the longest distance that you walked without resupply on this trip?

134 miles between Daleville and Waynesboro.

What was your longest day on the AT?

42 miles from East Branch shelter in Maine to Rainbow Campsite. It was my second to last day of hiking.

Did you take any zeros (days without any miles hiked)?
Yes, I took 3 zeroes and so many neros (days with barely any miles hiked).

How many miles did you average per day?

I averaged 27.25 miles per day. The way the averages work means that for every zero I took (day I hiked 0 miles), that meant on another day, I had to hike 54.5 miles to make up for it. Of course, I never did at 54 mile day, but would spread the “damage” of a zero across several days of 35-milers. Not counting the zero-mile days, I did 28.3 miles per day (but no one counts it that way).

How did you train?

Before starting the AT, I thru-hiked the Benton MacKaye Trail from Standing Bear Hostel southbound ending on Springer Mountain. I took a few zeroes, and then “turned around” back North on the AT. This helped me get back my trail legs and get back into the thru-hiking mentality and groove. I finished the CDT at the end of November 2010. Between November and March, my training schedule was fairly light on the cardio side. I walked maybe 3 miles per day in Vibram barefoot shoes, biked maybe 50 miles per week, and spent maybe an hour per week walking at 3-4.5 miles per hour on a treadmill at 12% incline. I practiced yoga 1.5-3 hours five times a week and rock climbed 3 times per week.

How do you find the time and money to hike every summer?

I try to live fairly inexpensively during the non-hiking season. From the moment that I finish a hike until it becomes hiking season again, I’m constantly aware that I need to keep money for my next hike. Hiking taught me that so many of the material “things” that people spend money on aren’t necessary, fulfilling, or rewarding. During my first few hikes, I was a graduate student during the off-season, which meant I didn’t have a lot of free time to spend on other forms of entertainment and could mooch a lot of free food at school events. It has also left my summers relatively free (technically, my PCT hike was “summer research”…). Since school, I’ve been working seasonally in office positions and found that by living simply, it is more than enough money to hike for the season.

You mentioned good nutrition is key to a successful thru-hike. What food do you eat on trail?

I usually carry lots of bars, oatmeal, and nuts to eat during the day. My favorite snack food of all time is all-natural poptarts. In general, I think all natural foods give more energy and for a speed hike, the extra buck in price is worth it. If I have to carry the weight of the food, I want to make sure every pound gives me as much energy as possible. For some of my less speedy hikes, having healthier food wasn’t as important. If I have a stove, I like to have cous cous, refried beans, rice, or a freeze dried meal at night. Sometimes, I’ll “snorkel” (the term I use for “rehydrating” beans or cous cous) food in a ziplock bag and eat it as snack in the middle of the day. This, in addition to any fresh food I may have packed out, is often the mid-day treat or upper if I’m feeling down. I think it is most important to say that drinking plenty of water is at least 60% of what I mean by “good nutrition.”

How much water do you drink per day?

It depends on the weather, terrain, and availability of water. On my first day, a relatively cool and misty day from Springer Mountain to Neel’s Gap, I drank 7 L of water. I drank more than 12L for many days of my hike. I wouldn’t advise this for everyone—it is just what I have learned works well for my body. I know my body needs a ton of water, but I definitely have heard of hikers who didn’t know their body’s limits, and ended up getting sick from over-hydration (although dehydration is a much more common problem).

How often do you eat?

The best backpacking advice I’ve ever gotten was from Frogs: eat on a schedule–I eat every 2.5-3 hours about 3 bars or bar equivalent foods per “snack.” This fills my stomach enough so that I’m not constantly thinking about food and it takes long enough for my stomach to digest the food that I have enough energy to walk until it is next snack time. I’ve heard it’s a decent amount for stretching out the stomach to make gorging in town easier, although I’ve never had a problem gorging 😉

What do you eat in town?

For a speed hike, once again, I tried to stay relatively healthy in my eating in town. I usually got a Gatorade and fruit in every town–both essential for rehydration and sugar replenishment. For a speed hike, I limited my beer and sweets intake and instead, would eat salads, vegetables, and protein in town. Usually, I’d eat around 2 entrees per meal. I’m a hungry Snorkel. On trails where I’m not speed hiking, I down Ben and Jerry’s like it’s my job.

What advantages did you feel having hiked the trail before?

I always was excited–and motivated by my excitement–for the next bit of trail. Other advantages I felt from having thru-hiked before could be learned from a good guidebook or time spent on whiteblaze.com: At some of the confusing turns and intersections, I had an easier time remembering where to go. I knew which towns are the easier hitch and which towns were worth resupplying in. I knew where there were trail angels and hostels who take in hikers.

Can I contact you if I plan to thru-hike and have questions or want to beat your record?

Yes! I like writing and talking about hiking pretty much more than anything (except actually hiking)!

 

Post-hike thanks!

This has been a whirlwind of two weeks since I finished the trail. Two days after I summitted (and the day after my “for fun and photos” summit), I was driving 70 mph down I-95. In one hour of driving, I covered at least two days worth of hiking! That was just the beginning. I visited Boston, had a job interview in Connecticut (three days off-trail!), and drove cross-country to Colorado. I’m finally back in California, reunited with my laptop (surprisingly bittersweet experience), am past my usual post-hike-technology-avoiding phase. This means I can finally post pictures, fill in gaps on my trailjournal, and answer all the questions readers have been emailing me about my hike.

But first—this hike would not have been possible without the help of many people. Enormous thanks to (as I thought of them) “my West coast support team,” my parents, who not only diligently sent out the 20-or-so boxes I packed and labeled back in March before I left, but even more magnanimously, took care of my student loans while I was out hiking. Thanks Kaasama and Sir!

I am forever grateful to my “East Coast support team,” Brian Davidson, who luckily lives on the same time zone as the AT, and was willing to take my calls at all hours. There is no way I could have beat the record or hiked the whole trail without crying if it hadn’t been for my “emotional support team,” and I am still so surprised and honored that he signed up for the job three days before I left for the BMT.

Many thanks to those on the trail who walked with me. Special thanks especially to those who inspired me to hike farther than I had planned, those who night-hiked with me, and those who pushed me to go through with my biggest mile days. Thank you Will, Ben, FaceJacket, the Dude (and his dog, Cayetano), and Highlife.

I am also incredibly thankful to my hiker friends from past trails. Thanks to Pi (who I hiked many hundreds of miles of the PCT with in 2009), whose friendship, support, hiking and ultra-marathony advice, and gift of a tarp (!) made it possible for me to beat the record this year. Pi’s most valuable advice for me as I attempted to beat the record was that enough food and enough sleep are optional (kids, don’t try that at home!). Thanks also to the world famous Lint (we hiked together for hundreds of miles on the PCT in 2009), for the support, stories, and AMAZING maildrop in Stratton. Thanks also to Frogger/Frogs, who taught me so much about ultra-light backpacking and thru-hiking. Good luck to him, wherever he is hiking this year.

Thanks also to American Hiking Society, and their partners, GU and Backpacker’s Pantry. This AT hike was unsupported, but AHS and its partners helped me out on my CDT hike last year and I still had some goodies leftover (albeit, past the expiration date) that I used this year. Between the two hikes, I must have eaten 50 pounds of GU Chomps and never got tired of them.   Good nutrition is key to good hiking and I feel so lucky to have had access to such easy to make/easy for the body to use calories.

Lastly, thanks to all the trail angels, maintainers, land conservationists, and trail advocates out there. Hikers may get the glory, but those who do the work behind the scenes are the ones who really deserve all the credit.

Grand finish to a speed hike

The victorious finish
The victorious finish

Woke to a beautiful (if buggy day) and all the people who were southbounding for the weekend told me I would have a great summit day, Made Abol Bridge by 9 and got some food for the last 15 (20, if counting the way down from Katahdin) miles and ordered myself two breakfast sandwiches–I was pretty hungry coming out of the 100 Mile Wilderness. I kept telling myself to hurry, hurry. I remembered the line from “Gattaca” about saving no energy for the way back. I remembered the line from “Return of the King” about not saving food for the way back.

I frequently think of the AT (or any hike) in terms of a computer/video game, especially Oregon Trail. In some ways, I felt like my last 15 miles on the AT were the “final level” of the game where all the demons from past levels come out and I have to battle them. The fords in Baxter were high and swift–probably the gnarliest I’ve forded on any trail. It wasn’t going to stop me (and I wasn’t about to take tbe blue blaze bad weather route either–I hadn’t taken a bad weather route the whole trail and wasn’t about to right before the end, though I think it’s a good idea depending on the situation). Then, I saw a snake. But the worst challenge flung at me was the nasty sky filled with thunderheads that emerged as I went up Katahdin.

At 12:30, I rushed past the sign so didn’t know what class day it was. I got pretty far up the mountain without seeing anyone, and was actually concerned it was a Class 4 day (no one is allowed up and if you are caught, they confiscate your gear and never let you in Baxter again). At first, I pretended the rumbling I heard was the water sloshing around in my pack, but then, even over my headphones, it became very obvious. I was scared but kept moving—I *had* to finish that day. Finishing in 80 days was so important to me–I would bring the gap between the male unsupported record and the female unsupported record to less than 3 weeks (a gap that I find really unfortunate). Finally, I saw people on the mountain, but they were all headed down in fear. I kept going up, telling them that I was finishing the AT and nothing was going to stop me.

Finally, I heard a huge clap right by me, and with much thought, decided to turn around. Getting the record was important to me, but I have all sorts of other things to look forward to other than hiking, and it just wasn’t worth the risk. I had a choice and I didn’t have to continue. Turning around was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my life. I was 2.5 miles from finishing my hike, and was going to wait another day by my own choice. I kept thinking of all the friends I would disappoint–especially my friends Lint and Pi from the PCT who were sending me encouraging texts along the lines of: “Sleep is for the weak.” (Just kidding, kind of). I also felt like I had pushed it so hard, had abandoned so many potential friends, meals, interesting conversations…all to make it to Katahdin and finish quickly.    I kept thinking of the zero I could have taken, the night hikes I didn’t need to do, the rain I didn’t need to walk in…but I knew I was making the right decision.

I walked down the mountain and it took all the energy in me not to cry. (Not crying during the entire hike was one of my big goals). At 2:45, I walked down to the ranger station and chatted with Ranger White (?) for a bit, told him the situation. Sometime during our conversation, *every* cloud in the sky disappeared. Ranger White said, “Well, normally we don’t let people up past the cut off time, but…” and kind of waved his hand. A big smile crossed my face and I ran up the mountain.

Of course, when I got to the Tablelands (about 1.5 miles in), the skies were looking thunderheady again. But I pushed on, going faster than I thought myself capable. I kept telling myself to move quickly and get off the mountain before the lightening started again. I touched the sign at 6:01, grabbed a quick photo, and ran down. By the time I was a mile down, the skies had cleared again.

I went back on the 5th (a *beautiful* day) with my boyfriend and had the pleasure of climbing Katahdin in Chacos over 10 hours and had a Mammoth Double Nut Brown (he had my favorite beer, only found in the Eastern Sierra, shipped out for the occasion). Katahdin was *way* more fun this way than the more-or-less two times I had done it the day before. I got lots of photos on top–at least one of which will turn out.

And thus ends a spectacular thru-hike. I met my goal of not crying and not doing anything I felt unsafe, and exceeded my goal of hiking it in 81-86 days by at least a day. I had a ton of fun—which I hadn’t really been expecting. And, my lesson on the last day, that finishing the trail at all costs is not worth it, was a good reminder. In the register at Kathadin Stream, I wrote “If I can turn around because of lightening, so can you.” I’m not sure the people I consider “real” record holders–Odyssa or Dave Horton or others would have done it. But I know I made the right decision for me. It’s just lucky the sky cleared up so I could have my righteousness and my finish.

Thank you’s and photos to come!

Keeping up with Liz (circa 2008) is no joke

Doing the same miles that Liz (I) did in 2008. Staying at the same shelters, getting to town and leaving town at the same times. The pace is exhausting. I have so much respect for Liz doing it like this in bad weather, as her first thru-hike, with Lyme Disease!!!

Saw Katahdin from the top of Saddleback. I was ecstatic. Saw a moose coming up to Spaulding Mountain.

I’ve noticed that as I write in trail registers, my grammar and spelling is starting to fade. I’ve still got quite a bit of energy left, but am excited to be a normal human (instead of a hiking machine).

Just answering a few questions people have emailed me along the way:

Castaway—I’ll answer your questions next time I have internet.
Trek—I haven’t been eating nearly as much ice cream as I would like to be.

 

 

Staring hypothermia in the eye

13 hikers holed up in Goose Pond shelter
13 hikers holed up in Goose Pond shelter

My mileage today is embarrassing, but I know I did the right thing. I have a few side goals to this hike–to do it stronger, better, and faster than in 2008. Also, to not cry.

I got near hypothermic on Goose Eye peak and came into Full Goose shelter kind of disoriented. I headed north, but after 30 min, thought I had gone the wrong direction. That’s when I said: “Snorkel, head back. If you accidentally went South, then you can find the sign that will lead north. If you went North, and are this out of it, you need to stay at the shelter and get your mind back in the right place.”

So, I ended my day at 11 am and hung out with Tom and Tea Cozy. I know I did the right thing. This hike is about learning from my other hikes, and I’m glad I didn’t push on. I was safe and I didn’t cry.

Jenn Phar Davis’s team spotted!

Lake of the Clouds view
Lake of the Clouds view

Walked up Mt. Washington and met Hickory there—luckily, the visitor center was unlocked at 6:40 am and I could use the bathroom. As Hickory put it, “It’s a long way to the next hut.” We had the summit to ourselves—what a contrast to my hike in 2008 when I visited Washington on July 4th.

 

Washington to Madison ridgewalk
Washington to Madison ridgewalk

 

Walked to Madison Hut with Hickory, enjoying another beautiful day with almost no one on trail.

Mt Adams (or is it Madison?) ridgewalk
Mt Adams (or is it Madison?) ridgewalk

Got to Pinkham Notch and missed Odyssa (who holds the supported female record and is trying to beat the men’s supported record) by minutes. She was at the Notch the same time as me…we must’ve been in different rooms. I chatted with her husband, friend Melissa, and Warren Doyle, and they gave me a Pepsi (score!)

Warren keeps track of all the records and confirmed the women’s unsupported record is 87 days. Sweet! I’m really going to do this—I’m amazed!

Snorkel with Jenn Pharr Davis’s crew
Snorkel with Jenn Pharr Davis’s crew

Also, they told me the sad news that Natureboy (was going for the male unsupported record) is off trail. Apparently, he got attacked. I’m a bit heartbroken—I had been meaning to speed up by a day so that we could finish together on July 3rd. At least, I was looking forward to seeing him pass me in the 100 Mile Wilderness. Either way, the attack has me rethinking about updating frequently…even Oydssa’s crew is keeping the updates a little less than realtime. I don’t know who would attack Natureboy or why…it’s terrifying. Today was one of those experiences life gives you to learn a lesson. Carter Hut is historically the least thru-hiker friendly hut. I had planned my day around not staying at Carter. But I got lost in the Wildcats and it started raining and I looked at my watch and knew: “Life is trying to teach me something.” I rehearsed what I was going to say to the croo–I didn’t think they’d let me work for stay that night and I’d end up wasting 5 hours the next morning to do morning work for stay. It turned out, there were no guests, we had some mutual friends, and they hooked me up with all sorts of goodies. I may have been scrubbing mold off walls that night, but it was like a party. At 1 am, the AMC radio went off and woke us all up. They said some thru-hikers were missing and didn’t show up at the Dungeon at Lake of the Clouds. One of the hikers left Pinkham at 3:30—the only hiker who could make that distance that late in the day is Odyssa. I seriously hope she’s all right. She’s an inspiration, a hero where they are so few women role models. I am so proud of what she is trying to do…I hope the storm didn’t get in her way,