The abs beneath your shirt glisten with fresh sweat as you climb yet another mountain. Your quads forged with heavy food carries, long days of turning your feet in deep sand, and countless miles, fire with ease bringing you forward. Your shoulders pulled back and tight over thousands of hours point towards the sky ready to be the focal point of any burden. Your mind is sharp with the crispness and cleanliness of this life you have found on trail. Your mind has been through suffering and come out stronger and harder in its new found flexibility. Your feet have broken with blisters, broken with callus, and are now immune to such trivial pains. Your body, mind, and spirit are probably in the best shape of your life, you feel overflowing strength, you feel overflowing clarity, and you probably, rightfully so feel indestructible.
We all are capable of "the incredible" but to reach the incredible...
We first must also recognize we are not unbreakable.
No human is indestructible. Let us say that again, no human is indestructible. Our sports idols, athletes that we look up to that accomplish amazing feats that seem superhuman, are just as human as we are. They have times that they set their mind and body careening towards the breaking point, and then they have times of rest. They need both, we all need both. With the influence of social media on our world today, we continuously have to remind ourselves of this fact. The "wow factor", the "sparkly", the "flashy" is sometimes the only thing we all see, when in fact life does not work that way, people do not work that way. We are all human, we all have struggles, we all have non glamorous days, we all are prone to believing someone is indestructible when we do not get to see the other side, the human side.
Let us take you into the human side today. The time when the "indestructible" feeling, was not enough to stop the reality of depletion. A very personal and upsetting story, as it was the first time our body simply quit. No amount of mental strength could convince our broken body otherwise, no "hardness" that we all utilize in different aspects of life to succeed through suffering, no tricks nor ploy we could use to change the harshness of our own perishable humanity.
Back to the beginning of April 2020. We had successfully completed three thru-hikes since the beginning of February. Three aggressive hikes with minimal rest or repair. Consistent 30-40 mile days over rough and rugged terrain for two months straight. Our body was lean with muscle, was a powerhouse that we believed needed no replenishment, only miles and water to carry us forward. Our mental strength was unbreakable having been tested day after day. It almost was secondary now, not even a consideration to hike hard, hike fast, because we knew our body would sustain no matter what. Until it didn't.
We had a great plan to try and hike the Long Trail up to Burlington, VT where we would meet our partner for our next hike of the season, the biggest one yet, on the North Country Trail. We had been losing weight dangerously for the past 1-2 weeks. Our sweat had begin to smell of ammonia as our muscle was burned for fuel. Our body had begun its protest, that we refused to listen to, because well, we were indestructible! So, after a quick resupply we began our climb onto the Long Trail, excited, ready, to frolic in the woods of Vermont up towards our reunion with our partner.
The first mile there was a tightness, the second mile crippling pain, the third a pain unlike any we had ever experienced. Yet, we kept pushing. We knew pain, we knew suffering, we were thru-hikers it comes with the territory. If we had crumbled beneath the "want" to stop to be devoid of pain, well we would have stopped long long long ago. We know our Pain Well, and we know how to harness the strength inside. To stop, well it's contradictory to what it means to us personally to hike, and thru-hike hard. Our own personal prison of thoughts and beliefs we have constructed for ourselves. We kept hiking, to stop would mean to fail. Even though we weren't on a thru-hike, we were just "killing time" until our partner arrived. So, what exactly were we failing? Well, it felt like we were failing ourselves, our body was our own, yet now it wasn't, we no longer had control over it.
Pursue the incredible, but also recognize when a beautiful bench is an opportunity for rest
As the miles squeaked by, we had to literally stop every few steps. The pain in our legs was not the "avoidable" pain but the pain of deep and long lasting injury. The longer you spend testing your body physically, you begin to get a sixth sense for distinctions of pain. A pain that will work itself out in a few hours, a pain that requires a day rest, a pain that requires stretching, a pain that requires different movement and changes in your pattern, and pain that is a signal that injury is close by. We were far past the injury signal. We had hoped and gritted our way through the miles praying what we knew to be the truth would be false, that our body needed a break or it would break itself to get one.
The pain in those miles to the top of the climb out of North Adams, Massachusetts was obliterating in its intensity. We will try to give it structure here, but will always fail to define its true flavor and convey its true violence. What we can best compare it to, is that the muscle was ripping away from the bone, from its tendons, was ripping itself apart. Each step felt like the next would result in the muscle disintegrating into pummeled juice. Burning itself from the inside out in an inferno of pain until there was nothing left. At the top of the climb, we slung our pack down on the brink of tears and asked how this was possible?!
Our body was steel. Our body was indestructible. We had done tens of thousands of miles, and never once before had our body dictate the terms to us. Yet, that is exactly where we found ourselves on top of the mountain overlooking the town of North Adams. In one direction lay 180+ more miles to Burlington and what should have been joy, freedom, and love for living life on the trail. In the other direction was back to town, where rest, ice packs, electrolytes, and possibly doctor appointments lay. One was inconceivable, almost a non choice, yet the other, the one to continue had now almost became the same. We were trapped, trapped between knowing the correct choice, and wishing it to be different.
After a few hours on top of that mountain, we no longer could deny the inevitable. We had to turn back. Had to slink our way back into town with our tail between our legs. Had to check back into the same hotel, where we had giddily shared our plans with the sweetest owner. Had to face our own shame in a decision outside of our control. To say this was one of the hardest decisions of our hiking career would be putting it simply. The words "quitting", "failure", and "inadequate" were but a few of the more PG rated and pleasant words we scolded and berated ourselves with as we began our turn back. To turn back had never been a thought, so outside of the realm of reality, it was foreign upon our heart and mind. A foreign agent that had entered our body, and was tearing us apart from the inside out.
We suffered physically and mentally the entire way back. Who is to say which brought upon the most pain, our broken body, or our broken soul. Each step was physically excruciating and each step back was mentally anguishing. Yet, turn back we did. Soon, we crawled and limped our way back to the hotel. Called friends and family to alleviate our grief, and chastised and reprimanded our body for being so weak. Chastised our own mind for caving into our own foolish weakness. Chastised our own body and mind for doing what was right.
Sometimes laying the pack down and picking up a bag of chips is the path towards strength
We lay stuck in that hotel for the next three days. To move was to invite a world of pain upon ourselves. We had brokenly shuffled a mile and back to the grocery store, taking 3 hours in the process. We had bought electrolytes, bought ice packs, bought inflammation pills, bought Epson salts, bought many home remedies that we would hope regenerate our body. Yet, it did not bounce back as it once had done. It required an extreme amount of inactivity, nourishment, and replenishment to even begin to remove mind crushing pain from a solitary footstep. The healing process was neither quick nor easy. There were tremors of fragility even months afterwards. We had pushed past our breaking point, only just, and are so incredibly thankful to this day, we did not push any further.
This is not meant to be a sad story, nor a story of defeat, instead we hope this story shines a light upon the pressure that we as hikers, as backpackers, as climbers, and as people all put upon ourselves. Hopefully within this light, we can distance ourselves from these expectations. Yes, we do agree a certain "hardness" and "stubbornness" are required to complete feats outside of the ordinary, complete endurance feats that test the body and mind cohesion everyday. Yet, there also has to be a balance, a place that we all reach, when it becomes clear that the only way to move forward safely, to move forward in life, to move forward down the trail, is to go back.
If we can recognize this, we can take away the harsh feelings and pressure associated with it we all put on ourselves. We can see that is not a weakness but an overwhelming strength. To have continued forward would have been dangerous for ourselves as well as others. To continue forward would have jeopardized potentially months and even years of more adventures, more laughs, more love in the outdoors. To continue forward would mean to have been set back.
Turning back is never easy, but it can be right, safe and the best option available. Too many times have we heard stories of regret, sorrow, and misery when the "stubbornness" and internal will we all use in the outdoors overrode the instinctual understanding of our own bodies. If it feels unsafe, stop, assess, and evaluate. If it is physically unsafe, mentally, emotionally, there is no right or wrong, if it is unsafe for you, if you have the ability, change the situation. We all have the power to let go, we all have the power to grow, we all have the power to turn back to ultimately move forward. We are not unbreakable nor indestructible, as much as we like to believe it. The very fact that we are finite and perishable is the very reason we are powerful. To have no guarantee and still pursue, still accomplish, still strive is our gift and potential as humans to achieve greatness. Achieving greatness inside of our ephemeral existence, now that is something special.