Appalachian Trail update #2
“Things have been going smoothly for me, and as long as I stay injury and illness free, I should continue to roll,” I wrote in my last blog post.
“I learned a bit of restraint from my hernia a few years ago which was caused by trying to do too much too soon. I’m trying to avoid injury on this trip by doing the opposite,” I wrote.
I guess I didn’t listen enough to my own damn advice.
Heading into my second week of hiking and the beginning of the North Carolina/Tennessee section, I was feeling great. I mean, really great. Let me describe to you how great I was feeling: picture yourself as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, knowing that when the ball was in your hands, you could do anything and you definitely were going to win. You could make anyone look silly, and everyone else seemed like they were moving in slow motion. That’s how I felt. I was in control. I could do anything I wanted along this trail. Hit any point by any time I wanted, hike any pace I wanted. I was hiking strong and efficiently. No issues or concerns. Until. There’s always an “until.”
On February 28th, I had a 19.6 mile day planned between Rock Gap Shelter and Cold Spring Shelter, the longest day I’d had yet on the AT. My previous longest being 18.4. That morning I woke up, began hiking, and felt great. I was hiking so efficiently that each step landed perfectly without any conscious thought towards the matter. My mind drifted to memories and inside jokes with friends, I laughed out loud along the trail, all alone, as the sun began to rise over an undercast in the valley. I was having a blast. As trail navigation became a bit more difficult in the Wayah Bald area, with numerous trails and unpaved Forest roads intersecting the AT, my focus turned back to the trail. None the less, felt great. Finally, at around 12:30 pm, I arrived at the Stone Tower on Wayah Bald having already done 13.9 miles. Felt great.
I sat down for lunch against the stone tower, blocking the wind. I called the Nantahala Outdoor Center to book a bunk for the next night, which would make my next day an easy 11.7 miles for a restaurant meal and some long rest in the afternoon. I texted my mom and told her everything was going great (hi Mom!).
Then I stood up. Nothing catastrophic, but I felt a small but sharp pain in my lower left quadricep, near the inside of my knee. Aches and pains come and go along the trail. I didn’t think much of it, and continued on my way. I didn’t feel great anymore, I felt okay. I kept pushing on, past Wayah Bald Shelter and towards Cold Spring Shelter, my intended destination. As I hiked however, the pain got worse. But so did the weather. As raindrops began to fall and distant thunder roared, I pushed harder. However, while weather was telling me to move quicker, my body was telling me to stop. Regardless, an electrical storm was a greater threat to my safety than an ache in my left quadricep. I pushed on, it must have looked like a scene out of Ironman. With cold rain pelting my body, heavy winds casting leaves across my path, some slaps of thunder and flashes of lightning getting ever closer, I hiked with laser focus, speed, and determination to reach the shelter. I finished the remaining 5.7 miles and arrived at my destination by 2:45 pm. Way faster than I had originally wanted to.
At rest now and out of the elements, my leg felt funny, but not in pain. Like most problems in the backcountry, I treated my problem with water, electrolytes, food, ibuprofen, and by using my trekking pole as a makeshift leg roller. I waited out the storm with two other guys. The rest would be good for my leg and I’d have an easy 11.7 miles the next day into the Nantahala Outdoor Center where I had planned to take rest anyway.
Instead it was the hardest 11.7 miles of my life. Experiencing no pain at rest or overnight, I had no concerns heading into the morning. There was a window of good weather in the morning, but storms were expected to escalate again in the afternoon, so I knew I wanted to get down early. I started hiking at 6:20 am at a fairly brisk pace with no concerns.
Soon enough though, my left leg was screaming. My quadricep was on fire, sending shots of pain down into my knee and up into my hip. It was particularly bad on the downhill. Fortunately for me (I’m being sarcastic), my day consisted of a descent from 5,080 feet down into the Nantahala Gorge at 1,749 feet. I don’t know for sure, but that’s probably one of the biggest descents on the AT. My leg wanted no part of it. But I wasn’t stopping. With this pain, I wasn’t spending another night waiting out a storm in a shelter. No matter what, I was making it down for a proper rest in a bed, some proper food, and by this point, probably some medical attention.
I pushed on, leaning on my trekking poles for support more than ever. I hardly tried to use my left leg. Each downhill step caused a blaring pain through my entire left quadricep. I could tell this wasn’t a normal muscle ache. It wasn’t a cramp either. It was something I had never felt before. I was trying to skip using my trekking poles and only my right leg. One of the worst days of hiking in my life.
Despite the pain, I made it down by 11:15 am. I called fellow hiking Hokie Grayson Cobb, who is an avid outdoorsman, the survivor of a torn calf, and a second year med student for some advice and an over-the-phone diagnosis (you can find him at http://www.graysoncobb.com). Our diagnosis: probably tendinitis or a muscle tear (also known as a strain) in my left quadricep.
Then I went to the real doctor. His diagnosis: probably tendinitis or a muscle tear in my left quadricep. I was right, two things I have never experienced in my life. Either way, without an MRI it’s hard to know specifically, but for now treatment would be the same. I got some kind of shot to help dull the pain and to aid healing. I got a prescription for prednisone to aid healing. I need to rest for 3-5 days before trying to hike again, and when I do so, it needs to be slow and at low mileage.
So what does this mean for my hike?
Worst case scenario: I’m done.
Best case scenario: some rest and meds do the trick, I get back on trail, carefully at first of course, but continue on my merry way.
Middle case scenario 1: I continue but fall back into a big bubble of hikers, resulting in crowded trail and shelters and less solitude and likely interactions with some folks who like to engage in some more nefarious behavior. This is what I tried to avoid by getting an early start. Now, I’ve just shot myself in the foot.
Middle case scenario 2: I try to continue and do so for a few days, but with little to no improvement of symptoms, I have to call it quits.
Thankfully, this doesn’t look like a trip ender just yet. I can give it another shot, and that’s exactly what I plan to do. I have to try, feel it out, and reassess in the field. Until then, I won’t know the final verdict.
Last night over Facebook messenger my friend Brigitte asked me how I was holding up. I told her, “fine, pissed, tired, annoyed, ashamed…depending on the minute.” That’s true. I am experiencing rage, doubt, self loathing, frustration, all of that. I already feel I’ve let myself down, and those who were rooting for me. Other times, I’m experiencing utmost optimism, thinking things like, ‘oh well, if I have to get off the trail, I’ll just use the money and time I set aside for my hike to do other things I want to do that aren’t as physically demanding, like go to Italy and eat pasta and drink wine.’ But eating pasta in Italy isn’t my identity. Okay, it kind of is, because I’m Italian and I freaking love pasta. But for the purposes of this article, it’s not. Hiking is my identity. It is the single most important qualifier of my being. I further shared with Brigitte, “My entire mindset and thru-hike are clinging to this article: http://www.blueridgeoutdoors.com/go-outside/comeback-kid-2 ”
(Please read or skim article for context for my next commentary).
When Scott Jurek was attempting to break the supported AT speed record, I honestly didn’t care that much. I didn’t follow it, and I still don’t know that much about the whole ordeal. Of course, I had my judgements about his opening a bottle of champagne on the top of Katahdin…my judgements being negative. However, now knowing that Scott Jurek continued on the AT with a torn quadricep, and it actually healed over the course of his hike, and he STILL broke the record, Scott Jurek is my everything. He is my inspiration and my motivation. I guess this is what it’s like when lifelong atheists suddenly find God while lying on their deathbed. Scott Jurek is my God. And I am going to do whatever I can to complete the AT in his image. Except, without breaking any records, of course.
I probably should have been moving at a slower pace and doing fewer miles. It’s just frustrating because there were no warning signs. While the onset wasn’t catastrophic, it was sudden. Maybe trying to 19.6 miles was too much this early. But it’s not something I haven’t done before. Maybe I should have taken a rest day or two after my first week. Who knows. It’s kind of like this: you can blow your back out squatting 350 pounds, or you can blow it out picking up your newspaper from the base of your driveway while still in your slippers and bathrobe. It happened to me after 13.8 miles, which is totally in the normal, short actually, range for me. But of course, it was after 9 straights days of hiking. Something I’ve also done in the past, but I guess not something I was doing immediately prior to this trip. Who the hell knows.
For now, I’m holed up at the Nantahala Outdoor Center trying to get rest and heal. I’m very grateful as other hikers have been very sympathetic, and have shown genuine care. As they’ve heard the news of my injury, they’ve seemed genuinely distraught over my current state of affairs. It’s really nice to receive such kindness and concern from folks I’ve known for such a short time, or some only minutes. Many have offered to fetch me food and water while I relax in bed.
While it would be easy for me to give up now, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it, that’s not me. With that being said, I’ll admit that I’m a planner, and sometimes when things don’t go the way I planned them, I let it go off the rails. I’m not going to do that this time. I feel like the Atlanta Falcons in this year’s superbowl. I was out to a huge lead, and I just blew it. But it’s time for me to stage my own comeback. I’m going to make a new plan, and I’ll be damned if I don’t set my feet back on that trail headed northbound. I’m at least giving it one more shot.
Stay tuned folks, this story ain’t over.