Speed Hiking Advice
Speed without suffering: How I broke a record on the Appalachian Trail and still had fun
Last year, the internet buzzed with news of hikers attempting speed records on long distance trails. Jennifer Pharr Davis (trailname: Odyssa), with the help of her support team, finished the Appalachian Trail (AT) faster than any human—man or woman. Several hikers, including Willy Syndram (trailname: Nature Boy) also attempted the men’s speed record without support teams. Last summer, I obtained the women’s unsupported AT record, which had not been overcome since the early 1990s. Yet, as I prepared for my adventure, my stomach was tied with apprehensions—and not about whether I could break the record. Instead, I harbored questions about speed hiking itself—why did I want to do it and would my hike be contrary to the spirit and philosophy of hiking? This story is about my journey—mental and physical, on trail and off—and how I came to understand how speed hiking fits within the greater world of hiking.
Long distance trails are a place of solace to me. When I hiked the Triple Crown—the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT)—I began to worry about the over-competitiveness of outdoor activities. Even skiing and rock climbing increasingly have become the domain of dedicated athletes. I did not want my hike to be just about my finishing time and records. I was worried that my motivation for speed hiking was glory or to defeat others. Would my hike further contribute to a racetrack mentality on the AT and to the “recordization” and commercialization of the outdoor world?
Nonetheless, I thought about how my motivation to speed hike was also similar to that of other hikers. Most hikers take on long distance trails because they want to challenge themselves to complete a difficult task. They want to know whether they can do it, even if discomfort may be involved. Although my other hikes have been at a more leisurely pace, my desire to hike fast was inspired by the same questions: How can I challenge myself? What if I were able to give everything to my hike—dedicating myself completely to the activity I love to do the most?
I’ve always liked that the goal of long distance hiking or mountain climbing is to accomplish something rather than simply to beat someone else. Setting records, on the other hand, requires competition and is relative to others’ achievements. The hikers’ unofficial mantra is “Hike Your Own Hike”—walk in a way that allows you to meet your own goals without worrying about what others are doing. I was concerned that speed hiking fosters a culture of obsession where your goals are not your own. Yet the goal of my hike was quite personal: to experience a journey even more gratifying than the first time.
In 2008, I proved that I had the discipline to complete the AT, but I wanted to up the ante the second time. Some hikers decide to add to the challenge by carrying non-traditional objects such as tubas or cellos or by traveling with (or without) a partner or pet. I wasn’t even sure about what the AT speed record was until two weeks before I finished my hike, but I was always sure who my competitor was: Myself, circa 2008.
For the past three years, I thought about how I would fine-tune my hike—what gear to change, what sections to hike slower or faster, where to carry more or less water. On my first hike, I learned many lessons the hard way such as when I refused to leave my warm sleeping bag to fix my tarp during a midnight storm only to wake up soaked. For my second hike, I knew I could use my newfound experience, skills, and trail knowledge to minimize regrets and maximize satisfaction.
Other fast hikers have similar perspectives on speedy adventuring. Scotland Forbes (trailname: So Far), a Triple Crown hiker who has plans to attempt the men’s unsupported AT record in 2013, said he is driven by curiosity. “It isn’t to be competitive. What if things went right all the time? I just want to know!”
Jennifer Pharr Davis, in a 2010 interview with Trailspace, describes herself as “falling in love” with this process of making things go right, or “efficiency.” I, too, desired to reach a state where all the steps of my hiking day—from breaking down camp to resupplying—flowed effortlessly.
Unlike Jenn, however, I decided to walk the trail in the same style as I did in 2008 and in the manner that most hikers do—unsupported. I carried my own pack filled with days’ worth of food and all my gear, and spent each night setting up my shelter and cooking my own food. I occasionally utilized services, such as hostels, listed in my guidebook and offered to all hikers. My hike would be a faster and smoother version of what I did before.
Even though I suspected that I could set a record, I checked myself with goals unrelated speed. My objectives were to get things right that I got wrong before: keep myself safe; stay out of pain; and take up opportunities along the trail. Throughout my hike, these goals mattered more to me than the record. If I beat the record, it was merely a side benefit.
Within hours of starting, I found myself approaching the trail with new alacrity. I spent a disproportionate amount of every day smiling. After thru-hiking the difficult CDT with sponsorship from the American Hiking Society the previous summer, I appreciated aspects of the AT that I had taken for granted earlier. The signs marking where I could find water, the presence of three-sided shelters where I could take refuge, nearby towns with everything I would need to resupply, other hikers who I could talk to and share stories with—these were the things that were so rare on the wild CDT and felt like such a luxury on the AT. When I hike long distance trails, I feel like every person I meet is cheering me on. This time on the AT, these things which I lacked on the CDT made my adventure feel supported by the trail itself.
Although my overall hike was speedy, I didn’t do everything fast. For comfort and safety, I allowed myself to wait out the rain or cold in shelters or town. I spent days in New Hampshire and Maine crawling at less than 2 miles per hour. I even took a few trips on side trails to visit special sites like waterfalls and the trunk of the second largest Yellow Poplar in the world, a tree that died in 2008 shortly after I decided to pass it up. I rarely ran, usually only to make it in town before a post office or store closed. Yet because I woke before sunrise and hiked until after sunset, took few breaks, and minimized resupply time in town, I was able to cover great distances most days.
The best benefit of my speed, however, was getting to meet almost every northbound hiker. Hundreds of northbounders began the AT before my start date in April, yet I was the 20th to finish. Part of the magic of the trail is learning that the best stories are not my own. I was particularly inspired by Scott Williamson, who took the time to chat with me in the middle of his record breaking speed hike of the PCT in 2009. Trail friendships motivated me to push on; I nighthiked in the rain to complete a 40 mile day with Ben and busted out 36 miles with a hiker named Highlife so we could have pizza delivered to a shelter. I felt that if I became so obsessed with speed that I could not meet interesting people, I would be going against the spirit of the trail. Meeting new people—no matter their speed—is one of the most rewarding aspects of a thru-hike, and I was lucky knowing that hikers up and down the trail were encouraging me and keeping my mind and spirit fresh.
The success of my hike came from knowing the trail and my own hiking style. My advantage is that I am willing to crawl on all day, every day, but I can only do so when I am happy, motivated, and stress-free. Having hiked the AT before was an advantage for me: I was always excited for the next section of trail because it was usually a place I had spent the past three years fantasizing about returning to. My knowledge of the trail helped me save time at confusing turns and intersections and let me know which towns were easy to access and worth resupplying in. All of this helped reduce stress levels.
Even now, when I think of speed records, it evokes images of strong athletes pushing through shin splints, stomach issues, or trench foot. The prospects of having an enjoyable hiking adventure and setting a record seem incongruous, even exclusive of one another. I hope that my fun speed hike changes how people think about non-traditional long distance hiking. I hiked my own hike, and it was speedy, but I did it in a way that was honest to my goals and myself. Other people know that I beat a number, but my personal achievements mean much more to me. I learned that overcoming great barriers, as speed hiking requires, is not always antithetical to the spirit of the trail. My goal was, and will continue to be, to challenge myself in beautiful places, and that is something all hikers—no matter how speedy—can share.
Elizabeth Thomas is a hiking ambassador for American Hiking Society. More about her adventures is available on her website eathomas.com and on twitter at eathomas.