North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail
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It was day 10 and I was broken, hobbling, walking every step, unable to run, 388 miles in and 1,800 miles left to go. The first five days of trail-ambling bliss had turned sideways on me. I knew injuries were inevitable, but I didn’t think it was going to be this bad, this soon. During the past two days of 36 and 33 miles, I had walked every step, and was well off record pace of 50 miles a day.
I was in the mountains, on an adventure, exploring new lands on foot and living for each moment. Yet I had spent the morning miles that day sorting things out, trying to get my head screwed back on straight. Well, a bit less crooked at least.
I had come face to face with the question that always, eventually, meets you on the trail (or highway, or office, or class), right as the initial thrill wears off and the rewards start coming less and less frequently—what’s the point?
The Appalachian Trail record seemed out of reach, so why was I still out here? Why keep tottering and anguishing along at two miles an hour? I couldn’t help but think this was going to be another Leadville 100, another race where I’d “just jog it in,” and settle for finishing. That was hardly motivating.
There was a silver lining though. jLu (my wife, Jenny Jurek) and I had wanted to get away and spend time in the mountains, and now it looked like we’d have plenty of time for that. If it was going to take me two extra weeks beyond record time to get to Katahdin, we’d have lots of time together.
You have to have some ego. I wish I could say it was all the vibrations and energy of the wilderness channeling through my body, mind and soul, that it was all beauty and joy. But at the end of the day you have to want it. Plain and simple.
Maybe it was a sign. Maybe it really was time for me to slow down and limp into retirement. Maybe a casual pace was my destiny now. Slow and steady, side-by-side with jLu—this could be the new normal. A retired couple on vacation in their cargo van: jLu reading a book at a campground while she waits for her slow-ass husband to lumber in from another 40-mile trail day. No more stressing out trying to meet me at road crossings throughout the day. I’d just become a happy AT slack-packer.
The only problem with that happy vision was … jLu. There was no chance she would let me “walk it in.”
When our buddy, the well-known free-solo climber, Alex Honnold talked to us before the trip, he said, “Well, if things don’t go as planned, you can always call it a recon trip.”
Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer, my longtime buddy and the winningest 100-mile ultramarathoner of all time, made a similar (half) joke when he called during our drive to start the trail: “Dude, if something happens, you can come back next year and we’ll go head to head at the same time. You go NoBo [Northbound] and I’ll go SoBo [Southbound].”
Jenny just said three words, “One and done.” No dry runs, and no first drafts.
There was no next year in her mind. And that better be how I was thinking, too. She hadn’t sacrificed her summer to watch another “I just didn’t have ittoday” performance from me.
When I was with her, I fed off that energy. But on day 10, I was alone, high up on Hump Mountain. And the more I tried to screw my head on straight, the more it spun.
Jurker, maybe you just need to let go of the glory days … Just accept that the fire is gone.
And yet … despite the swirling doubts, despite the stories I told myself of decline and retirement … somewhere deep inside, I still felt some of that drive, that old ego.
You have to have some ego.
I wish I could say it was all the vibrations and energy of the wilderness channeling through my body, mind and soul, that it was all beauty and joy. But at the end of the day you have to want it. Plain and simple. That ego doesn’t have to be destructive, and it doesn’t have to cause you to lose sight of the real reasons you do what you do. It doesn’t have to go to your head. But when push comes to shove, nothing else motivates like winning does.
I remembered that electricity. I still felt the young athlete inside me that thrived on winning. I’d gotten wiser over the years, and that wisdom had made me a fuller person, a more complete person, a better partner—but it also made me slower. There was no way around it. The more perspective I got, the more disconnected I became from the pure drive to win and dominate. Without that drive, the discomfort and pain that racing took just made less sense.
I needed to find a bit of that old self if I was going to stick this thing. I had to tap into the fighter that came back from the dead to surge into first place, the young champ that won races with shredded ankle tendons after vomiting in the desert. The long-haired hippie who explored the limits of his body for a mother who couldn’t walk or even feed herself.
I needed a few drops of that elixir—or I needed to quickly find a new balance between running to win and running on wisdom.
jLu must have sensed this tug-of-war between me and my younger self, because as we hiked together yesterday, she told me stories our good friend and adventure photographer Luis “El Coyote” Escobar had been telling her, stories about me that I didn’t even remember. He had told her about a time back in 2005, at Badwater, when he was pacing his buddy Mike Sweeney, who was leading the race until halfway through.
That’s apparently when I showed up. Luis said that when I came up from behind, it was like I was in a different world. I remembered enough to acknowledge that I almost was: I’d bounced back from dehydration delirium, from puking my guts out, and was keeping an 8-minute-mile pace again. I’d come back from damn near dead. Luis said that when I took the lead, I didn’t pass Sweeney and his pacer on the right, but, rather, I ran right through a gap in their group. Total dick move—or competitive tactic to crush his spirit? Not sure. I can barely remember it.
That wasn’t exactly the type of ego I was searching for in the woods of Appalachia though. Perhaps I was asking for too much from my old body and mind, but what I really wanted was a kind of egotism—a pride—that would carry me on toward victory without also turning me into a monster.
After Hump Mountain, the going got a lot harder. Long gone were the pine ridges and lofty, grassy balds of the Roan Highlands. Now it was all swampy, root-infested rhododendron lowlands of the Southern interior. When the weather threw a thunderstorm my way, I was inspired to coin a nickname for my new biome—The Bayou. At least there were no water moccasins or alligators.
My speed had taken a major hit from the injuries at the end of the first week. I’d gotten in 36 miles on day 9, and I hoped to get to 40 today. It was still mostly walking, but I was optimistic that I could push forward and run for a few today. Last night’s “test-run mile” down Roan Mountain had given me a sliver of hope. Maybe my body was remembering something.
The pain was still there—if anything, I woke up on day 10 more beaten up than when I’d gone to sleep. But all pain isn’t the same. Pain can be high or low, it can be deep or shallow. Pain has more than one axis.
As I wrestled through The Bayou, I checked in with my own “pain load” and took account: it was increasing in intensity, no question, but decreasing in effect. My pain was getting less painful—it might sound ridiculous, but you’ll know what I mean if you routinely push yourself in the gym, or if you’re unfortunate to live with a chronic illness or disability. Some of us are blessed to be familiar with a whole bouquet of pains, each with its own special meaning and impact.
I knew I was healing through the pain, because I felt it at a molecular level. It’s a kind of “gut feeling”—a distant but unmistakable feeling from a part of your body you have only intermittent communication with. But I’d learned over the years to listen to my body. I could speak its language. Maybe it’s pseudoscience, maybe it’s a hopeless tautology (I was healing because I felt like I was healing?), maybe it was placebo. It didn’t matter to me. It was working. I thought about the step in front of me, and the step in front of that one. There was nothing to do but keep going.
It was at that moment that a prophecy from renowned veteran ultrarunner David “Horty” Horton echoed in my mind. Before leaving, he had told jLu, “Make sure you tell that boy: It never always gets worse!”
Horty was back home, hundreds of miles away, yet somehow his deranged words of double-negative wisdom were making guest appearances in my thoughts. It never always gets worse.
Even if it was going to take a miracle to get the record, jLu and I still needed to strategize, plan road-crossing meetups, set a daily schedule and keep the battleship running as if we were going to war (and as if winning was still a possibility). I had to fuel my body each day, make sure I was consuming enough calories, know when I could grab water at creeks and springs, remember my lights for the last stretch of the day. As long as I kept my thoughts occupied by the small stuff, I could keep moving forward. I could keep the FKT within sprinting distance, and I could keep the dream (just barely) alive.
That was enough for now. It was enough to start running again.
The sky was blue (for a change), the trees encircled me and life was a wonder. I forgot about the finish line, about the FKT, about the weird stalker that followed Jenny to multiple trailheads last night, about everything. I felt how sweet life could be when I wasn’t looking through a prism of doing but just being. That’s when I decided I could run.
I took a few tentative steps, felt the same stabbing pains … and kept going. I was running again. Not elegantly, not with fierceness, not with anything near the speed I’d eventually need. But I was running. If I could just let life happen, everything really could work. I didn’t have to win, not yet. I just needed to let myself run.
And like all epiphanies, this one was great while it lasted.
When I wasn’t connecting to a cosmic flow, I was stumbling forward and worrying about jLu. She had given me so much already. The astonishing capacity for suffering and perseverance she displayed through her miscarriages. Troubles having a family, the painful procedures, the fertility drugs and nearly bleeding to death (internal hemorrhaging) on our kitchen floor (due to an ectopic pregnancy) and subsequent health crises had played a big part in inspiring me to come out here and test myself, too. I hadn’t thought that crewing would also be such a test.
The night before, the stalker had been odd. But I had to assume more weird scenarios were coming. It was no longer odd, then; it was menacing, especially when I thought about how the vast majority of time out here she’d be separated from me. How many more weirdoes were out there? How many were prowling around? How many might feel bold enough to mess around with a petite Japanese-Filipino-American woman roaming the backwoods of the old Confederacy? We’d both noticed the flags down here, but Horty assured us it was a symbol of “Southern Pride” and “Don’t Tread On Me” aka “Leave Us Alone” attitude.
But it wasn’t just Deliverance-inspired paranoia. I’d heard stories from people who’d been here before. Former AT record holder, Andrew “Trail Dawg” Thompson told me an encounter his buddy Trav had while thru hiking the trail in North Carolina.
Trav and his buddies were hitchhiking on a remote dirt road and desperately needed to get to town for a resupply. After walking toward town for a good bit, a beat-up pickup pulled up alongside and a scraggly shirtless guy in bib overalls rolled down his window.
In classic mountain-hillbilly fashion, he growled, “Git in!”
Trav and his buddies all gave each other the same look, but hospitality is hard to turn down in the South. So they hopped into the truck. Rolling down the road, their chauffeur grabbed a bottle of moonshine from the floor, took a big swig and passed the bottle to Trav. He declined— politely.
“Thank you, sir, but we’ve got another 10 miles to do before nightfall.”
“Take a drink!” the mountain man insisted.
Trav declined again.
The bearded driver then reached down below his seat, produced a .45 and pointed it at Trav: “Now, I said take a drink!”
No hesitation this time. Trav took a big tug of the clear liquor, and the driver set down his gun and cackled. Satisfied, the driver dropped the trio off where he said he would and drove on.
Who knew how many moonshine-addled truck drivers were down here? As I ran, my thoughts started to spin up and distract me.
Everywhere I turned looked like a great place to stash a body. Sharp turns, dark roads, deserted hollows, forested hills, deep gaws, long gashes in the earth where probably no one had looked in centuries. All these places populated by my imagination with fresh corpses and their creators.
But when the anxious spell passed, I also realized that I could relate to the men and women down here. Peel away a few choice decals, furl up a flag or two, and they weren’t that different from the folks I’d grown up around in rural Minnesota. Long, hard stares from dead-end road inhabitants and a “Don’t Tread on Me” mentality existed everywhere in this country. And most probably would have politely helped an Asian-American gal stranded with a flat tire. At least that’s what I told myself.
Still. Night 10, we huddled up extra close as we grabbed a few hours of sleep in Castle Black at Dennis Cove Road.
It was increasingly clear that we wouldn’t be able to regularly run together in the morning every day like we’d planned to. The big problem was logistics and our black cargo van that we nicknamed Castle Black. When it was just jLu and me out on the trail without other supporters, she was tethered to that fortress.
So we developed new traditions. One of which—making border crossings together—became a favorite. On day 11, we were poised to cross out of Tennessee and into Virginia. Right across the border was another milestone—the town of Damascus, a classic “trail town” that treats hikers well.
But fate intervened on the trail to Damascus. It was in the form of a text message, a shock in its own right considering how rare cell service was on that section of the trail. As soon as I recognized the name on the message I stopped dead in my tracks. I had no idea what it might contain, but I knew it would be worth a read.
It was from SPEEDGOAT: “If u get this and maybe u have thought of it but the northbound record is still easily in reach keep rolling great to follow progress u r doing great.”
Karl had made his first “appearance” on my journey North. And it was classic Speedgoat. Behind that veneer of support was the implication that I might—might—still be able to get the easier record, the one just for a north-bounder (the last several records and attempts had gone southbound). The challenge, like a chiropractic manipulation, snapped my head back on straight. I disagreed. I could still get the overall FKT.
”Thanks dude! NoBo?!? I’ve still got the SoBo in sights. Putting in 50 today. Should be in Damascus by dark. Quad is coming around. I’ll walk the record if I need to!:)”
”Cool just keep ur head in it youll be fine when palmer went north he walked the first 1000 miles did not run a step”
”Cool, thanks dude! Good beta. I’m able to run a bit today so we’ll see. Jenny will touch base to see if you want to still come out. Can get you a ticket.”
”im still game im working an aid st this wknd have jenny call me Monday keep movin”
Here’s the thing: if anyone had come across me, hiking and hobbling toward Damascus, and asked me what I thought my chances were for the FKT, I would have been … more than cautious. I wouldn’t have advised putting a single cent on me, despite El Coyote’s advice, “Never bet against The Champ!”
But Speedgoat challenging me from somewhere far away? Implying it was already game over? I knew the AT speed record was his baby, and I’m sure he had to be concerned I might scoop it from him. Was he trying to fuck with me or was he just serving reality “straight up” like the emotionless Old ‘Goat always does?
I would still get the FKT. Southbound, Northbound, whatever and howeverbound. I would claw and crawl all day, every day to Katahdin.
I had needed some ego Firestarter, and I had desperately needed hope. The Speedgoat gave me both.
That evening as darkness consumed the woods, I backtracked a half mile with Jenny, so together we could touch the sign welcoming us to Virginia.