One Of The Fastest Women To Hike The Appalachian Trail Shares How She Did It + What She Learned

A couple of years back, I walked from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail. At the time, I became the fastest woman to do this without a support team—and I did it completely solo.

The 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail cover the highest mountains on the East Coast. I hiked through fields of boulders, forded powerful rivers, and chased away a dozen snakes.

I kept walking and walking, even at night in the rain. In total, I climbed almost half a million feet of elevation—equivalent to hiking Mount Everest from sea level 16 times.

To maintain my record-breaking pace, I knew I would have to stay motivated, upbeat, and levelheaded through months of walking mostly alone. I developed a strategy for keeping my heart in the game and having fun every day. It helped me quiet the doubting voices in my head asking questions like, Are you strong enough to actually do this? and Why are you pushing so hard when others aren’t even awake yet? And, more troubling, the one that told me, You don’t deserve to achieve this.

Since my Appalachian Trail journey, I’ve gone on to many other hikes that are longer, faster, and more technical. But I've found the strategy I developed on the AT continues to apply to my life, outdoors and in.

Here are the lessons that helped me stay mentally and physically strong over the course of 2,181 miles and two and a half months in the woods:

Mt. Lafayette, New Hampshire

Photo by Liz Thomas

1. You don’t need to be a fitness model to accomplish big goals.

I grew up staring at the models in outdoor catalogs, dreaming that one day I could look as beautiful, trim, and fit as them. My AT journey taught me that looking good and being strong aren’t the same thing. Halfway through the AT, I stopped by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy office to get my photo taken—a rite of passage for AT hikers. I told a (male) employee what I was doing, to which he said, “You’re trying to do what??? You don’t look like much.”

Society often creates stereotypes about what they imagine record-holders look like, and I didn't match his. The experience showed me that I can't change people's perceptions, but I can shrug them off and stay proud of myself for chasing my dreams, no matter whether I fit a certain image or not.

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2. To achieve a big goal, break it into smaller chunks.

To make my 2,000-plus-mile goal more manageable, I broke it down into shorter-range ones. I'd look forward to milestones like making it to the next resupply town two days away. On very hard days, I’d tell myself to just get to the next stream crossing or the next camp spot. I knew whatever progress I made forward—however small—would contribute to the Big Goal.

3. Read and know your body and give it what it needs—even if it means taking a break.

In Pennsylvania, I walked through a meadow filled with grasses higher than my head. When I emerged, I was covered in yellow pollen—which I’m severely allergic to. In less than an hour, my legs were covered with grapefruit-size welts. I had trouble breathing. I was about to break down and give up when I decided to take a break.

Using a moist towelette, I wiped the pollen off my body. Despite the humidity and heat, I changed into (relatively) clean, long-sleeve clothes to protect from further pollen exposure. I took some Benadryl. Then I set another short-term goal—make it to the next town to shower and wash all my clothes. Those next eight hours to town were challenging, but the small achievements and bite-size goals helped me keep my composure and stay focused.

4. Always have something to look forward to.

On the AT, I was powered by a desire to see iconic landmarks such as the Smoky Mountains, Harpers Ferry, the Long Trail Inn, and Mount Washington. These gorgeous bits of nature kept me motivated to move forward and gave me something to think about that wasn't just the number of miles I needed to hike that day.

Smoky Mountains

Photo by Liz Thomas

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5. Use mini rewards to mark milestones.

Whether it was applying some nicely scented lip balm, soaking my feet in a cold stream, or making a cup of miso soup, I gave myself little prizes for every few miles I covered. I do this now in “real” life, too. If I reach a fitness goal, I reward myself by buying something silly like nice toothpaste or a healthy treat. It’s the adult equivalent of a gold star on my homework.

6. Pay extra for good food, and it will pay back tenfold.

While Pop-Tarts and Snickers may be the unofficial food of Appalachian Trail hikers (no joke), I found out the hard way that natural foods with low-glycemic indexes let me push longer and harder each day without crashing. Over 15,000 miles of hiking, I’ve found I need only 2 pounds of natural food like ProBars and dried fruits and nuts to push me on big climbs. Although natural foods are pricier, they keep me fueled for longer and therefore don't break the bank.

7. Don’t let little goals distract you from the big one.

Many Appalachian Trail hikers partake in the four-state challenge—hiking in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in one day. While this 43-mile day is a feather in the cap among hikers, I knew that I’d save energy and travel more efficiently in the long run by sticking to a (relatively) modest 35-mile day. I joined a four-state challenger at the end of his day and had enough energy to keep him focused and his spirits high until the finish. But while he slept in the next morning at the Mason-Dixon Line, I woke up early and kept at it.

No matter your speed, long-distance hiking is a way people can clear their minds, free themselves from their phone and computer screen, and use walking meditation to distill what is really important in life. It’s a way to teach ourselves to live in the present. I feel fortunate that I have the opportunity to learn about myself on the trail and wish that the lessons I learned will translate to you, whatever mountain you may be climbing.

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