I Failed... It's OK.
Calling it quits on the PCT for now. A look back on how I could have done better and a look forward to what's next.
I've accepted it. I won't be hiking the PCT anymore this season, but I think it's with good reason. After about a month of trying to figure out how to get back on trail while juggling overuse arthritis in my right foot, over 240 miles of trail closures from fires, and commitments in September, I figured it's best to defer more miles until later.
It's been a fantastic experience, and I'm proud of every inch of the 952 miles I walked from Mexico to Tuolomne Meadows. That said, it's impossible to ignore the disappointment of giving up on this dream for the time being. Who would have known that just walking could cause so much damage?
I definitely underestimated the difficulty of the trail and overestimated my own abilities. Still, I learned some valuable lessons I'd like to share below
- My training should have involved more walking with a pack on, not just running. Good cardio doesn't necessarily translate to comfortable thru-hiking.
- Thru-hiking is a long game. Be wary of putting your body into a state of overtraining. Resting is a serious part of the gig. Unless you're going for the FKT, be sure to factor time off in to your plan.
- Personal and social pressure is OK. Just be mentally prepared for failure. Figure out how to turn a failure into a lesson, or a win.
- About 25% of the 206 bones in your body are in your feet. Feet are very, very important in this game. Try not to learn that while on the trail.
My fitness was very high, though most of my training was unweighted. With the power of hindsight, I wish I had walked around with a backpack on bit more instead of just going trail running. My cardio was great. Of all 206 bones in the body, each one was strong, unless they were located below the ankle. Did you know that each foot has 26 bones in it? Multiply by 2 to get 52 and all of a sudden my overuse arthritis seems obvious. I was punishing over 25% of my skeletal system for 14 hours a day! "Feet fail me not," even though you may be HIGHLY SUSCEPTIBLE to it. 😭
Something I didn't expect was that I would come off trail with severely lower fitness levels than when I started. Chalk it up to lack of rest. Looking at my WHOOP strap training graph through the first few weeks on trail, I was in a constant state of overtraining. Note the graph below doesn't even account for my days in the Sierras, as the strap only hold 72 hours of data before it needs to upload to the cloud, so I have no data for that time period which is typically the most strenuous section of trail.
My detraining is evident in my body's physiological response: lower heart rate variability and higher resting heart rate. Vital signs aside, my performance was just awful. I came off trail fully anticipating a short recovery in a matter of weeks so I made a few trips to the gym to lift weights and swim laps in the pool. For more than three weeks I lacked the ability to put forth any solid effort that I would call a workout. Like holding down the power button for 5 seconds, I went in to hard shutdown and had to reboot in safe mode. It was a shock to me.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to complete this task, which left me constantly trying to figure out how I was going to get back on trail. It was stressful. Sometimes good stress. Sometimes not so good. I spent a lot of time thinking about the trail when my time could probably have been better spent doing other things, but that's the way it is when we take the risk and lose. We wonder in what way we went wrong. I watched smoke forecasts, other hikers social media, and PCT forums. I performed endless time distance calculations in my head. It was all in an effort to figure out how to tick off more miles. I had various plans. At one point it was "OK if I'm better next week I can restart at Tuolomne and finish California before September" but as my foot continued to limp that changed to "OK I can fly up to Portland to get north of the smoke and hike Washington in time to be back for Navy work."
None of it mattered. My foot is a lot better than it was, but I can feel it's still not up to the task of pounding dirt day in and day out.
I lost 15 lbs while on trail, but gained it all back within a week. I was eating like trash, which probably didn't help out that physiological response I was talking about earlier.
I took on some freelance work and am training for a trail run race on October 1st. I have some Navy work as well in September, and may sign up for some classes in the Fall. I may try to pack in some weekend-length adventures while the summer days still give plenty of daylight, but for now I'm maintaining focus on making a full recovery and coming back for more trail miles next year.
I'll be donating money from supporters at the end of August. Thanks so much for the continued support and for following along! The PCT mile ticker has stopped for the time being, but I still have a lot of adventure left in me, and plenty of footage to go back over. Keep an eye on my YouTube for more section releases over the next few weeks. I hope you'll continue to support the cause so I can keep writing about and documenting these adventures!
P.S. I haven't forgotten about my promise. Steps one and three are complete, two and four to come.