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.


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

  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


  3. 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.