It was a beautiful day in late June and I was over 1,500 miles into my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail with some friends. Wiping the sweat off our faces, we began the long and winding climb up Mt. Greylock, in Massachusetts, the point where the mountains were supposed to get tall again.
I was ready to get back to higher summits to escape the heat. As usual, my friends stomped off with their long legs and impossible physical fitness. I tortoised my way up the mountain alone.
Towards the summit, it began to flatten out. Pine trees lined a bog board trail and the air was cooler in my lungs. Daydreams of the hour I would spend with my shoes off on the mountain top floated across my mind, and as I popped out of the woods, I plopped down next to my friends on the wide open lawn. Victory.
“How long have you guys been here?” I said, releasing my smelly brick feet from my smelly brick shoes.
“About 45 minutes,” said Shadow. I swallowed my dented pride and unwrapped some cheese. At least I could sit here for a while and watch the day hikers.
“Hey, we were thinking of getting out of here in 15 minutes,” said Shadow. I almost choked on my tortilla.
“I was going to sit here for a full hour,” I whined.
“Gotta hike faster than that,” he said. “We’ve been here for almost an hour already and we want to get into town.” He and Jello began to poke fun at my hiking speed - or lack thereof. Without a word, I stood up, tied my shoes, and slung my pack over my shoulder.
“Where are you going?” they said, still chuckling a little. I took off down the mountain without looking back, stomach still grumbling and anger pounding in my head. I would show them slow. They came to terms with my speed (and nicely apologized) and, in the end, we all hiked to Katahdin (the end of the AT) together.
I don’t know if you remember being in your twenties, but if you do, you’ll remember that whatever sport you try, you’re supposed to be the best at it.
I was diagnosed with asthma before the age of 10, and I was not the best at anything. It only bothered me slightly (why do I keep getting tagged on the playground?) until I started to care - and others did, too.
“You just need to do hill workouts,” my friends would say when I’d complain about being a slow runner.
I’d been doing hill workouts and strides and long runs every Saturday, and I wasn’t getting faster. I was tired of being left in the dust, too embarrassed to run or hike or backpack with friends because I couldn’t keep up.
I’d convinced myself that I liked solo backpacking and trail running better anyway. After all, we go to the woods for solitude, right?
I ran long miles, slogged through snow, and tried to convince myself that I was every bit as badass as the tall, fast guys in their short shorts - just a little slower.
I thought if I could climb more mountains, brave more extreme conditions, and learn more skills, maybe I could prove that I deserved to be doing what I was doing just as much as the “real” athletes. If I went by myself, no one ever had to know that I was climbing that mountain with a million and one stops on the way up.
I didn’t see a soul as I pushed up the backside of Broad Mountain. I was getting on towards mile 10 of the Greenwood Furnace Trail Challenge, a half marathon race held in Rothrock State Forest where I’d been training most of the year. The Rothrock Purple Lizard Map was imprinted in my brain as I ran.
Power hiking somewhere between the middle and the back of the pack, I stuffed energy bars down my face as quickly as I could without suffocating. If I could only get to the top fast enough, I could just barely finish in under three hours.
My mind drifted as my body started to get tired. I thought about the Tall Short Shorts Guys I had seen at the starting line and how they had likely been done with the race for at least an hour now.
But in that moment, I started to have other thoughts too: How much more was I seeing and enjoying at my slower pace? How much more effort was I putting in to get to complete this challenge? I realized that many of my fellow racers had impressive race backgrounds. Stickers for 50K, 100K, and 100-mile races were plastered all over their cars. This was nothing but a Sunday fun run for them.
The novelty and adrenaline of running my first major race unfolded before me and I suddenly realized that, in many ways, I was getting a lot more out of this than they were.
Since this realization, I still have days where my mind goes into comparison mode, and I haven’t completely come to terms with the fact that I am not a "super athlete" - maybe not even an average one. But I can say that after being humbled again and again along the trail, I’ve finally learned to notice when those unhelpful thoughts creep in and instead to refocus on enjoying the journey.
I have learned a few pretty important things along the way:
I have a lot more time to take it in while I’m catching my breath.
I’ve learned to laugh at myself (One of my favorite jokes about my hiking speed is - see that Corgi over there? We’ve got the same sized legs. I’ll bet we would be great hiking buddies.)
I’ve learned to like and need solo trips. Now, rather than going out solo because I’m too afraid to be slow around others, I go for me.
I’ve learned to step to the side so others can pass me.
Most of all, I’ve learned that whether you’re a Corgi or a Greyhound you deserve to play in these woods just as much as anyone else.
So to anyone who doesn't meet the "image" in their own mind of what a hiker is, I say what are you waiting for? Go get your paws muddy.
Renée Koma is a writer in mental health and personal development. When she’s not tapping away on her laptop, she loves to play her cello, go backpacking, and write for her own outdoors-themed blog, The Dirt.
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