Friday, November 9, 2012

So what's the formula for success?

Finish line celebration with family, Caledonia State Park, PA, 3 November 2012

I don't feel extraordinary.  Yet I've just become only the 6th person in history to hike the AT both ways in a single calendar year (and report it to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy).  And I'm the oldest to do so by about a decade (I'm 64.  Previous yo-yo thru-hikers who have reported their accomplishment to ATC range in age from 20 to mid 50's).

No, I don't feel extraordinary, and my overall reaction to my adventure at the moment is "it wasn't all that hard."

So what gives?  It was an extraordinary feat - a feat of patience and persistence and putting up with pain.  It was a feat that required laser focus and a willingness to sacrifice every other aspect of my normal existence for nearly a full year.  And a year is no small part of a human life.

I think it helped that I was already fit at the start - had hiked 350 miles of the AT the previous year, summited three 6000 meter peaks in South America the previous year, and had done a lot of other hiking as well.  I also think that my body structure worked to my advantage - long and lean (like Jennifer Pharr Davis, who holds the current unofficial speed record - she hiked the entire AT in 46 days).  Long legs mean fewer steps.  Light weight (I averaged about 150 pounds on my 6'2" frame) means I wasn't carrying along a lot of extra 'baggage' every day.

Everyone says an AT thru-hike is more mental than physical.  I wholeheartedly agree.  First of all, you spend a lot of time alone.  It helps immeasurably if you 'like yourself' and know how to entertain yourself 'in a vacuum'.  I imagine that a successful thru-hiker would also be a person who would come out of a 'solitary confinement' prison sentence smiling - or at least feeling no worse for the experience.  It helps if you have a healthy measure of plain old damn stubbornness - that jaw-clenching determination that nothing is going to keep you from achieving your goal.  And finally, it helps if you have some sort of over-arching motivation - some reason to see your effort through to the finish even when the going gets tough.

Okay, let's talk to the point about motivation a bit more.  Many successful hikers draw on the support of family and friends - a steady flow of encouragement is often motivation enough.  A good hiking partner is a huge help.  Some hikers are hiking for a cause - e.g. to raise money or to raise awareness for something close to their heart.  In my personal case, the motivation seems a little more nebulous.  But it worked for me:  I have started a lot of things in my life, and haven't always finished them.  I've had a lot of accomplishments as well, yet none that I feel are that noteworthy.  I simply wanted to do something hard and see it through from start to finish: something that takes a lot of work and something that nobody else had done (hike the AT both ways by day hikes in a calendar year), and maybe something that I could call my 'fifteen minutes of fame' accomplishment - the thing I might be remembered for if I'm remembered at all.

My Dad doesn't believe in 'luck'.  I'm tempted to say that in order to succeed, a thru-hiker has to just have some good luck (not to trip over a rock and twist an ankle, not to get sick, etc.)  But in the end I think my Dad is right.  You make your own luck.  In fact I'll add this to my list of essential winning qualities:  A successful thru-hiker needs to be willing to take responsibility when something goes wrong - not to look around for someone or something external to blame.  Blaming others weakens your character and resolve.  Taking responsibility builds them.

So when you sum up the list of qualities needed for thru-hiking success, does it describe a person of extraordinary character?  I think not.  What I did is something that many others could have done.  Maybe the lesson is simply this:  Ordinary people can do extraordinary things - you just have to set your mind to it.

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