The AT revisited: Cody on a section of
near Black Horse Gap in Virginia on 11-8-05.
As I noted 'way back at the beginning of this year when I wrote my first
"prep" entries, there are many ways that hikers (and runners) can enjoy the AT.
My way was different than most, but I'm certainly not the first person to run
the AT nor to be crewed.
I've tried both before and after my run to determine if any other women have
run the entire AT. I have asked other journey runners and hikers, the ultra listserve, and the AT Conservancy. No one has come up with
the names of any women who
have run end to end, so maybe I am the first to do that. I'm not sure. If you
know of any, please let me know because I do not want to make a false claim.
No one, even the current and previous male AT speed record holders, has run the
entire AT. It's impossible. There are too many rugged places and too many steep
I did my best, despite being a rock-challenged ultra runner. I
estimate I actually RAN about 25% of the distance. At least two-thirds
of that was in the southern half of the course where the rocks, roots, river fords, and climbs aren't as
tough and where I was stronger physically. Some days I was able to run 50% of the
distance or more, depending on how much elevation gain there was. In the Whites and Mahoosucs I was lucky to run
15% some days!
The AT Conservancy estimates that three to four million visitors hike a portion
of the Trail each year. Most enjoy day hikes and short backpacking trips, but
each year a small fraction of those hikers (and runners) complete the entire
Trail. Some do it in one "season," usually taking from four to eight months. Others do
a section at a time, taking two or more years to complete the entire Trail.
Methods of thru-hiking the AT run the gamut (pun intended) from hiking the traditional
way with a full back-pack and staying in shelters or a tent almost every night on
the Trail to running or hiking with a light pack and sleeping off the Trail all
or most nights.
In between are many variations that I observed this summer:
- hikers who carry light packs and try to go as fast as they can
(speed hikers/ultra light-packers), but sleep in shelters or tents along the Trail most nights;
- backpackers who stay in town as often as possible and slack-pack (hike
with a light pack) when someone can provide transportation to and from trail
- hikers/runners who carry only what they need each day and are crewed (like
Andrew Thompson and me) or self-crewed (like Steady Eddie and Charlie Brown).
These folks may sleep in tents or shelters at night (such as Warren Doyle's
group usually did), in their vehicle or camper (like me), and/or in rooms in towns
Photo below: "Tread Well" (Dave Schultz, an
ultra-light hiker who walks very fast)
and Jim (my crew-person extraordinaire) consult maps near Max Patch in NC on
Hikers sometimes switch from one method to another along the way,
depending on various circumstances.
For example, Charlie Brown and Steady Eddie
started separately in Georgia, met up with Little John, and decided after the Shenandoahs to start crewing themselves with one vehicle so they could carry
light packs and make faster headway. A couple states later, they decided to use two vehicles.
By New England, CB
and SE split off because LJ was going slower than they were. LJ hooked up with
another hiker his speed. Through the White Mountains and the Hundred-Mile
Wilderness, where road access was limited, they all resumed carrying full packs
again and slept along the Trail. They adapted the whole way, and all
successfully completed the Trail this year.
I think that's pretty cool! Whatever works for you . . .
PROUD MEMBER OF THE "2,000-MILERS" CLUB
Since 1936, the ATC has recorded 8,475 hike completions. This includes
thru-hikers, multiyear section hikers, and about 125 hikes by folks who have
already completed the AT one or more times. All of these hikers are called
"2,000-milers" - even though the length of the Trail has been longer than
that for many years.
I am thrilled to be one of them now!
The ATC website (link above left*) has detailed statistics of hikers who have
reported their completions. It's a good read if you like stats or
are interested in doing a thru-hike.
* Click on "Hike the Trail," then "Thru-Hiker Facts and Statistics."
In brief, about 65% of hikers go northbound (NOBO), as I did. Their
completion rate ranges from 15% in 2000 to 24% in 2004 (this year's stats aren't
ready yet - some folks are still out there). About 15% quit by the time they
get to Neel's Gap, a mere thirty miles north of Springer Mountain. In 2004,
fully 44% were out by Fontana Dam, 160 miles into their hike. Wow!
The NOBO thru-hikers below should have finished this year. I took this photo
"The Honeymooners" ("Muskrat" and "Birdie"), "The Laugh Factory" ("Giggles" and
"Box o' Fun"), "Patch," and Dave, a section-hiker, on
133 at the Piazza Rock lean-to in Maine:
Southbounders (SOBOs) represent only 10% of total completions; their
finish rate is 18% to 21% in recent years. An estimated 30% drop out in the
first 150 miles (by Caratunk, between the Hundred-Mile Wilderness and the Mahoosucs
in Maine). Although the SOBO rate is better at that point, their final finish
rate is lower than those going north.
About 5% of the hikers are "flip-floppers" who do the whole AT in one year
but have an alternate itinerary (e.g., start in GA, stop in Harper's Ferry,
resume in ME, and go south to Harper's Ferry). There are numerous variations
here and the ATC has only the number of completions, not percentages, for this category.
Section-hikers comprise about 20% of the finishers each year. For many
people, it's the only way they can do the AT. The majority of thru-hikers each
year are skewed toward the early 20s and over-50 crowd, not folks who are busy
with their careers or raising kids. I know several women in their 30s and 40s
who would love to run the AT for the speed record if they could leave their jobs
or families for two or three months, but it just isn't practical.
The number of people who have hiked the entire Trail has risen dramatically
over the years. The stats on the web page are very interesting. More hike
completions were reported in 2000 alone than in the first forty years (1930s to
1970s) combined! The ATC website has good suggestions for avoiding crowds on the
The numbers the ATC has for the northbounders in the Class of 2005, as of
October 24, are thus:
- 1,392 started at Springer Mountain, GA
- 1,156 made it to Neels Gap, GA (30 miles)
- 1,123 arrived at Fontana Dam, NC (160 miles)
- 680 checked into Harper's Ferry, WV (1,000 miles)
- 202 finished at Katahdin, ME
I know this last figure is too low. It will probably end up a little over 300
people, if previous statistics prevail. I was the 309th thru-hiker who
registered with the rangers after summitting Katahdin on September 24. Maybe the larger figure
also counts the southbounders
who started there? (I was the 476th thru-hiker to check in at Harper's Ferry.)
Women average only 25% of total hike completions reported to the ATC, and 29%
of those have been since 1995. That's another indication of how the completion
rate has dramatically increased in the last decade. Go, ladies!
Photo below: "Goat" and "Buffet," a young retired couple from New Hampshire, on
140 in Maine:
OTHER INTERESTING A.T. FACTOIDS:
- First national scenic trail, a unit of the National Park Service
- 2,175 miles = total distance of the Appalachian Trail, the longest linear
park in the world (gets longer every year with relocations)
- 14 = number of states it traverses
- 60 = number of federal, state, and local parks and forests it crosses
- 165,000 = approximate number of white blazes along the way (I'd like to
add about that many more in New Hampshire!!)
- 5 million = approximate number of footsteps to get from one end to the other
- 504,000 feet to one million feet = estimates I've seen of the total elevation gain and loss over thousands of
mountains and hills. (Per the ATC, "Our GIS
department said it would be very time-consuming to calculate this information
from our GPS data and it wouldn’t be highly accurate." Apparently
GPS readings are more accurate for latitude and longitude than elevation. If I
didn't have a life, I'd add up the gain and loss on all my AT maps . . .
- 6,625 feet = highest elevation (Clingman's Dome in NC/TN)
- 124 feet = lowest elevation (Bear Mountain Bridge, NY)
- nearly zero = number of bridges across rivers in Maine! If only there
were some like this magnificent structure in Virginia from
MY PERSONAL A.T. RUN STATS
Plan A was to finish in fewer than 103 days, what the ATC
told me was the fastest women's reported time to complete the Trail = 21.1
miles/day, including rest days.
Plan B was about four months (124 days from April 30 to
August 31) = 17.5 miles/day, including rest days.
Plan C was to just finish this year, no matter how long
Reality (Plan C) = 148 days total, with 113 days on the Trail and 35
I made it to Harper's Ferry in 59 days (which was close to 17 miles/day) and
realized it would be next to impossible to complete the Trail in fewer than 103
days. I'd already taken ten days off for rest, recovery from injuries, and to go
home twice. After talking with Jim, I made a conscious decision to slow
down a bit and enjoy the journey more. I still hoped to finish in four months.
Well, taking off fifteen days in July blew that plan! Eight were to go
to the Vermont 100 race (in retrospect, a mistake for me to try to run it),
three were to go home, two were for injuries, and two were to sight-see and
rest. Then it took me longer than expected to get through New Hampshire and
Maine because of the difficult terrain there. <sigh>
148 days total = only 14.7 miles/day average.
113 days on the Trail = 19.25 miles/day - that looks better! And ten
of those days were under ten miles each (two were less than two miles) when I
ran on rest days, had to bail out on Mt. Madison, went to a doctor in North
Of the 35 days off-trail, eight were for VT100, ten were strictly
rest, seven were for injury recovery/medical appointments, five were to go home,
three were because of rain, and two were for sight-seeing. In retrospect, I wish
I'd taken even more time to sight-see, but then we might still be out
Longest day (miles) = 35.0 on
Day 54 in the Shenandoah Mountains
Shortest day (miles) = 1.5 miles over Fontana Dam and up to the Smokies trail head on
Day 11, a rest day
Days over 26.2 miles in distance (ultras) = 14, mostly in the first
Days over 20 miles (including ultras, above) = 56
Mileages were really more than that, because I had "bonus" mileage
nearly every day - going to shelters, springs, and overlooks off the Trail; getting off-trail a couple times; using side trails to
get to the AT
when road access was not available; walking around campgrounds;
running at Vermont 100; etc.
Except for sleeping, I was pretty much in perpetual motion!
View from a bald in the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area in VA
Longest week = 157 miles, the longest (by far) that I've ever done -
in Virginia in June
Shortest week = 43 miles, when we went to VT100 race in July
Weeks over 100 miles = 14 (also unusually high for me - average before
the AT run was about 40-50 miles/week)
Monthly AT mileages: April = 20 (only one day), May = 500, June
= 565, July = 318 (only on the Trail 16 days that month), August = 521, Sept. =
334 (in 24 days).
Again, the weekly and monthly mileages are strictly official AT miles and
don't include the "bonus" miles on and off the Trail that I mentioned earlier.
Miles run and walked the first week home = 2 (I was
one tired puppy!!)
Miles run and walked in October = 85.5 (considerably less than normal)
I'll write an entry soon re: "Physical Assessment," how the AT Run affected
me physically during and after the trek.
TIME AND PACE:
I kept more detailed records in my running log and here in this journal the
first half than the second half of the run.
Why? I was less obsessed with time
and pace when I realized I couldn't break the existing women's speed record and
I got totally frustrated with my slow pace after the Trail became more and more
rocky and difficult. I went from averaging about 15 minute miles/day
(including all my stops) to 30-45 minute averages when the terrain was
rugged and/or I was injured and had to walk.
The single slowest mile was through the notorious Mahoosuc Notch in Maine on
127. I was boogey-ing and it still took about 1:25
hours! I felt
proud to make it through in half the time it takes some folks.
Some readers questioned why I counted my overall time with all my stops. It
was easier that way and mimicked what I do in ultra races - and it's the way
speed records are kept (Plan A, remember?). I didn't want
to have to remember to turn my chrono on and off every time I stopped and
started running again. Even though I've done that in training for the previous
26 years, it was just too obsessive for this adventure run. So my daily averages
look pathetic even when I was cranking out a decent running pace the first
half of the trek.
The three longest days on the Trail time-wise were around 14 hours and
included some darkness:
Day 14 (first day in the Smokies),
(Wildcat-Moriah-Carter Range in New Hampshire), and
Day 127 (Mahoosuc Notch/Range in Maine). None were by choice; all were due to lack of road
CALORIES AND WEIGHT LOSS:
I'm not one to count calories. During the run, I ate as much as was
comfortable and estimate I probably consumed about 5,000 calories per day. It
may have been more.
Day 66 I did an evaluation of my nutrition
plan and listed the estimated calories per day I was getting in my concentrated
energy drink (Perpetuem most days) and Hammergel. I occasionally had a food bar,
muffin, or cookie on the Trail, but I got 98% of my calories "on the run" with
Perp and Hammergel. That plan worked great for me. I was usually ready for
something salty as we were driving back to the camper each afternoon, but that
was more a craving for something different than hunger per se.
I ate as much "real food" as I could stomach for breakfast and supper and a
bedtime snack. (See photo below, where I'm pigging out on
138 with Steady Eddie and
Charlie Brown in Caratunk, Maine.) I'm a grazer, so it was hard for me to consume much in one
sitting. But I learned. Otherwise, I had to get up in the middle of the night to
eat something when my growling stomach woke me up!
I kept a pretty normal, healthy diet since we were in our camper and had
access to good food. I didn't eat a lot of candy, ice cream, or other junk food,
but I got to enjoy more empty calories than I do in "real" life. Giving up ice
cream "cold turkey" after we got home was tough. I love ice cream! I finally
broke down and bought some this week, six weeks after getting home. Now I just
have to eat small quantities and it'll be OK . . .
My beginning weight was 143 pounds. I lost ten pounds by the
end of the adventure run. I've put back on three or four pounds since I finished
because I haven't been running nearly as much. Maintaining that weight is also
impractical. I'm 5'9" tall and feel best around 138-140 pounds. That's a weight
I can maintain with a sensible diet and exercise. I don't feel like I'm starving
myself (too badly) to stay there.
Cutting my food intake by half or more has been a challenge.
It was easier to suddenly increase my food intake than suddenly decrease it.
It was also a lot easier to go from running mega-mileage weeks to
ten-mile weeks when I got home (because I was so tired) than it was to go from
all-I-could-eat to my normal food intake! But I expected that.
WHY I SELDOM GOT THE SLEEP I NEEDED:
I needed nine or ten hours of sleep a night. I got it only on some of my 35
days off-trail. I averaged about seven hours of sleep a night on trail days even
though we were usually back at our camper by 6 PM. That was not enough to
restore my body adequately and after two months, I started feeling the fatigue
more and more.
Fortunately, most nights I slept well. There were times when my legs twitched
like they do after 100-milers and the last week my arms were so sore that I
couldn't find a comfortable position to sleep (more about that in a post-run
piece re: physical assessment). But I seldom had nightmares or woke up hot or
cold, problems I had after I got back home.
In the evenings I had to clean up, hand-wash some of my gear, re-pack my gear
for the next day, mix up my energy drink, read and write notes about the next
day's section (photo below from
90), help Jim with supper and the dogs, ice
whatever body parts were hurting (ankle, below) . . .
. . . and THEN sit down at the computer for two or three hours to edit
the photos I'd taken that day, choose the ones for the journal, and write the
This was my choice, of course. No one made me do it. In fact, Jim tried his
best every night to get me in bed earlier, to no avail. That's the only source
of disagreement we had the whole trip. I loved doing the journal, despite being
tired. It energized me and connected me to many readers who were a wonderful
source of support and encouragement. I have no regrets about the time I spent
working on the journal. I'm almost as proud of it as I am the run/hike itself.
I don't like to be under pressure to do things, and many times I was less
than pleased with what I wrote. But to get it "perfect" would have taken even
LONGER (and been impossible anyway!), and I didn't have the luxury of time to do that.
Almost every entry was written the day of the run; a few were written a
day or two later when I was off the Trail.
Although I've fixed some errors and typos since I got back home, I haven't
added content to any of the entries I did during the trek. I think each is a
pretty accurate reflection of the type of day I had, good or bad.
hundreds = deer (sighted in every state along the AT)
1 = elk sighted along the Trail (PA)
8 = black bears sighted on the Trail + one at our camper (NC, VA, NJ)
3 = moose sighted on the Trail + about ten more along the roads
1 = rattlesnake (PA) + several huge black snakes in VA and lots
of little snakes everywhere
numerous horses (feral horses at Mt. Rogers, VA, on
32, below) and cows, a few sheep and goats, a gazillion
squirrels, chipmunks, frogs, lizards, rabbits, butterflies, and birds
MILES ON THE TRUCK:
Would you believe, about 15,000??? Wow! I told you Jim had to drive a lot to
get me to and from trail heads!
The mileage would have been less if he hadn't returned to the camper each
day, but there was no reason for him to stick near the course. He had
numerous things to do and I didn't need him to crew
for me during the day. Jim moved the camper about every other day to
reduce the mileage to trail heads. Going home to Virginia three times and driving to
and from Vermont (while in Pennsylvania) for the race in July also significantly increased the miles we
Other folks contemplating running or hiking the AT with a crew should
seriously consider using a vehicle/camper that is small enough to park at or
near trail heads most of the time, like Regis and Diana Shivers did in Regis'
87-day thru-run in 2003. That will save a lot of time and
The downside is not having utilities or being able to fix meals as easily
as in a larger rig. Weigh what's most important to you . . . and modify the
plan as needed.
Like everyone else out on the AT, we learned a lot about flexibility and adaptation on our adventure