Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why "Explore Fatigue?"

The windows were wide open and the school bus bounced lightly, like a kids carnival ride. I was wedged between the high-backed seats, but inhaling the freedom in the air. The class I taught at Valley High School in Louisville was on a field trip. We were were headed down I-65 toward Murray State University. It was the Spring of 1997. I had already enrolled in a full-time doctoral program at U of L for the Fall. I was completing my second year of public school teaching. I enjoyed my students, especially on days like this. We were giving them a preview of the possible. The chatter and excitement was to be expected -- and encouraged. I found my own imagination wandering. I had made no plans for the summer. School would let out in June but my own classes wouldn't start until August. For us on the bus, the atmosphere was catalytic.

I thought I would run across Kentucky. That seemed like a big feat. Maybe I could push a small buggy that had my stuff in it. I would try to do it fast, of course, set some kind of mark. I knew Brad Swope, a Louisville cyclist. He had cycled non-stop across Kentucky to raise money, and awareness, for melanoma. In my first duathlon (called a biathlon at the time) I bolted to the front after the 10K run, and then jumped on my bike to pedal for all I was worth for the 30 mile ride. Although I likely had a solid 3-4 minute lead on him after the run, Brad -- who I didn't know at the time, promptly caught up with me and then encouraged me to ride with him. Of course I couldn't keep up his pace on the bike. Afterward he was exceptionally gracious, though, and helpful. He left a big impression on me.

I didn't make immediate specific plans for my state crossing, though. I didn't have time to. The night of the field trip another thought caused me to wake in the wee hours of the morning. I was in my first home, a bachelor pad in the Butchertown neighborhood. My eyes opened wide. Of course. I would run the length of the Appalachian Trail! I knew very little about the AT, and nothing about "speed attempts" along it. But for 3 nights I could barely sleep, and I knew that running the AT would be my big project. I enjoyed being on trails, and I knew the AT was about 2000 miles long. An easy running pace for me was 7 minutes per mile. So I did the math. Roughly I could do a run in the morning, a run in the afternoon, and cover the full distance in 60 days -- about the time that I had. I found out the trail was actually about 2200 miles, so that just meant I needed to run 37 miles per day. Two runs of 2-3 hours each. It would be a challenge, of course, but one that I fully embraced.

I prepared. I bought a pack, and on the advice of the outfitter, bought trekking poles. I took the thru-hikers guide. I took a water pump/filter. I did NOT pack a sleeping bag, stove, pillow, tent, etc. The term hadn't been applied yet, but I was certainly fast-packing. In June my then girlfriend gave me a ride to Amicalola State Park in Georgia, where the approach to the southern terminus of the AT starts. We agreed that I would just run the first 28 miles and meet her at Woody Gap, where I would continue on with my full pack. That would give me a good jump start! Twenty eight miles is just over a marathon, so providing for some climbing I told her to meet me in about 4 hours.

Lest you think that I actually am superhuman, I can tell you that my disillusionment was fairly rapid. I had run trails before, but in general those had been trails that developed over time as ways to get from one place to another on foot. The AT is special. I believe it was first drawn on a map to connect the dots of the highest peaks between Georgia and Maine. With the exception of a few sections, it is not particularly amenable to running. This has been steadily changing with re-routes that add switchbacks and contour around mountains rather than heading straight up, but I frequently cussed the gratuitousness of yellow blazing that seemed to go out of it's way to insure maximum climbing.

I did make it to Woody Gap, just a little worse for wear. I was still quite excited, but a realization had already crept in. I would not be able to "run" the AT with my pack and cover 7 or 8 miles per hour, as I had planned. A fast pace would be 4-6 miles per hour. I also had already gotten a whiff of a new brand of fatigue. Not the purple-lipped, burning-throat, numb-forehead fatigue of middle-distance sprints, but the full-body, mind-numbing, uncertain emptiness of all-day slogs. I got to Woody Gap almost desperate for water and food. Given those things, and a little time, though, I was right back on the trail.

The idea was developing in my mind already, and would become a staple of my brain's diet for those 12 hour work days. I can remember hiking a particularly long segment that ended at Fontana Dam, just before entering the Smokies. I was about 160 miles in and felt completely exhausted. My legs were shot, I had no energy, and my head was listless. And I kept walking. I was completely exhausted, and I kept walking. I didn't fight it, or avoid it. More interesting to me even than all the varieties of plant and animal, and people, that I encountered, was this: my own fatigue. Although I didn't believe that my bodily resources were unlimited, or even particularly mysterious, I was fascinated by the changing landscape of my experience as I tired, and then revived. More times than I could count I would approach a destination, such as a shelter where I intended to stay, and feel that I had spent all that I had for that day. Then I would discover something unpleasant, like a mosquito infestation, and decide to go 'another 8.' I would soon recover my rhythm and find myself well able to cover the additional mileage. That's interesting -- worth exploring.

By the time I reached "the friendliest town on the AT," Damascus, VA, I had settled on my mantra for my thru-hike. I bought a hat at the outfitter and decided to try and stitch the words onto it. I ambled into "Nell's Place," an arts and crafts shop (unfortunately no longer in business). Nell was sitting working on something. I asked how I might get my phrase stitched onto my hat. She said she could take care of that. Then she gave me a Coke. She gave me both those things, and wouldn't accept payment. I have to pause, even as I write this now.

So I wore my "Explore Fatigue" hat out of Damascus and on to Harper's Ferry, my new goal for that first summer. I would go on and hike the northern half of the AT during the summer of 1998. That fall I would run my first ultra -- the Mountain Masochist, directed, appropriately, by the guy I heard set the speed record for hiking the Appalachian Trail -- David Horton. It would take another 2 years before I was willing to run my 2nd ultra. My mantra, however, hasn't changed.

5 comments:

  1. And now we know the rest of the story! Rick

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  2. Eric, that's a nice piece of writing.

    Having just attempted the SCAR (fontana to davenport) and bailing out at newfound after 41.3, your words hit home.

    I am a regular AT runner/hiker/trainer, and there's something magic about that trail.

    all the dreams developed, obtained, won or lost all seem to still exist in spirit.

    thanks for sharing with the running community

    cheers.

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  3. Hi... This is D.J. R. and I don't know if you remember me, but I was actually a student at Valley that went on the Murray State trip. I remember you talking with a couple students (Scott, Amanda, and myself) about hiking the Appalachian Trail over the summer. I am glad to hear that made the trek in one piece!

    By the way, I like reading your blog. You make these ultra-marathons really interesting to someone who is not capable to do these sorts of things. Keep them up.

    Glad to see that all is well!
    David Ranschaert
    david.ranschaert@gmail.com

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  4. Wow! I just read these last two comments. Guys, thanks for the comments. D.J.:I'll email. Everybody else: this guy comes closer than anybody to convincing me there really is such a thing as spirit.

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