March 19th, 2013: I was in the basement of Massachusetts General Hospital, the buzz of machinery, patients, and staff all around me. I was 5 floors underground, performing routine quality assurance on one of the large Clinical Radiation Accelerators. A coworker, Theresa, gave me a knowing glance. This would be one of the last times I would perform this or any other routine task before I would leave my job to set out for an entirely different kind of life - to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT stretches 2,665 miles from Mexico to Canada along the mountain chains of California, Oregon, and Washington, and takes hikers an average of 4-5 months to complete.
“So you’re really going to hike that long?” She asked.
“That’s amazing, I could never do something like that”
“I could never leave my job and apartment, and who would take care of my dog?”
Many others echoed Theresa's words over the months I prepared to hike the PCT, but it always bothered me. I love sports, but I am not a gifted athlete. I never made varsity on my cross-country team, I never reached JV in basketball. I am good at problem solving, but not great, I scored in the lowest 35% on the Physics GRE exam. So I guess what I’m saying is that I am not special, I have no unique gifts and yet managed to be one of the 33% of thru-hikers who complete their goal.
If I can hike 2,665 miles, so can you.
Looking back, my best asset in completing the PCT was training and preparation. This was not based on experience (the longest hike I’d previously done was a 50-mile, 6-day hike in boy scouts), but rather the knowledge that I could learn from others’ experience in the months leading up to the hike. I am going to talk about some aspects of the PCT for which I feel I trained well. As an individual with a different body, maybe one or more points will work for you.
In 2009, I completed my first and only marathon. I slogged to a 4 hour 22 minute finish, happy, but exhausted. It took me a week to walk properly again and 4 weeks before I could run. Needless to say, the physical nature of walking marathon-distance day in and day-out for weeks and months along the rugged PCT scared the shit out of me.
I did three things well in training my body to hike a marathon a day. The most important to me was gaining weight. In long distance hiking, weight loss is a huge problem. After burning through fat stores, hikers become gaunt and other injuries crop up. I was 6’2” and 151 pounds just 7 months before the PCT - too thin. I would not last two weeks before my dream collapsed, along with my body. I added shear calories to my diet with a focus on protein. Slowly my weight and overall strength increased. By the time May rolled around I had gained 35 pounds without adding too much fat. By the end of the hike I had lost every pound and more. I am so glad I took the time to build a healthy weight pre-hike.
The second aspect to my training that went well was weight lifting. Lifting taught me how to work out intensely and then take care of my body afterwards. I came to understand my limits, the difference between pain and discomfort, and where my body could be pushed without injury. I was new to weightlifting but found it hugely beneficial for overall strength. I settled on a routine of 4 days per week: Day 1, Leg Day, the most important day, included squats, Romanian deadlifts, weighted pistol squats and calf raising. Day 2, Shoulder Day, focusing on Arnold presses, dumbbell raises hitting the front, side, and posterior delts, and shrugs. Day 3, Chest and Triceps, with bench press, dumbbell bench press, diamond push-ups, triceps extensions, Day 4, Back and Biceps - deadlifts, seated rows, lat pull-downs, barbell curls, and weighted chin-ups. Through this schedule, and lots and lots to eat, my overall muscle and strength increased.
Lastly, I walked. Everywhere. Walking daily taught me to walk with incredible discomfort, to keep taking the next step even though I’d just finished leg day. Walking everywhere helped me enjoy the beauty of viewing a modern city from every angle and focusing on the experience instead of the discomfort in my feet and legs. Walking everywhere also gave me a deep-seated mistrust of any weight on my back. Only the essential items should weigh me down and possibly add to injury risk. Every day I walked I would get home and pour over my spreadsheet of gear. It might sound like overkill, but I was overjoyed to start the trail with 8 lbs 3 oz of gear on my back.
Even though I completed the PCT at a fast pace, there are important things I will change when preparing for the next thru-hike. The first would be a focus on long distance running. There were hikers that I met that weren’t like the rest of us. They would hike faster, harder, and sometimes when we set up camp, they’d go on another run. One of these hikers, Heather “Anish” Anderson, completed the trail in just under 61 days, an all-time record for an unassisted thru-hike of the PCT. This type of hiker had one thing in common, they had been or currently were ultra-marathon runners. Long distance hiking is much more similar to ultra-marathon running than it is to traditional hiking. Unsurprisingly, Anish now runs her own personal training business.
I wouldn't do the 50 or 100 mile runs of my fellow thru-hikers, but I would certainly train up to weekly 20+ mile runs and whittle it down to 5 and 10 mile runs in the month before the hike. Importantly, this also will give your body the time to toughen up to blisters, strains, tendinitis, and the myriad of other small injuries that plague long-distance hikers. I did zero elevation training before the PCT. At the top of Mount Whitney I battled a small bout of elevation sickness. Before my next thru-hike I will absolutely spend time above 10,000 feet just to acclimate my body to eating, drinking, and breathing in low-oxygen condition. Ideally I would spend a week or two above 10,000 feet directly before the thru-hike, doing short hikes and trail runs to increase lung capacity.
Incline training will be my last focus, especially while it's hot outside. While my long walks before the PCT were great, Boston is not a very hilly city and so my current training includes a focus on inclines. Sometimes that's walking or running stadium stairs, hiking really steep local peaks, or biking hills. Not only does it help build the quad strength needed for the elevation gain in a long day, but doing it in heat above 90°F will give you an important mental benchmark for your own body's water consumption under these conditions.
Next time, in Part II: Logistics and Mental prep, or how to plan and what to do when everything goes to hell. I'm dehydrated and exhausted and come upon the only water source within a dozen miles. I bend down to fill my bottle by the light of my headlamp only to see a bone white paper with a skull and crossbones with an arrow scribbled on it. I follow the arrow to look upstream and understand suddenly that I cannot safely drink from this source. What do I do now?...