Appalachian Trail Notes, Part 1

“The circle of hyper-reflection can be so finely grained, in such tiny loops, that it can be done in the midst of experience. A dancer [/runner] who interrogates her movement phenomenologically in the very moment of dancing attempts to not let reflection intervene and shape the flow of movement but knows that it will change the process, perhaps making it more conscious, providing more depth.” (Susan Kozel. 2007. Closer: Performance, technology, phenomenology. Boston: MIT Press, 22)

“For any lived body, the world appears as the system of possibilities that are correlative to its intentions [after Merleau-Ponty] . . . For any lived body, moreover, the world also appears to be populated with opacities and resistances correlative to its own limits and frustrations. For any bodily existence, that is, an ‘I cannot’ may appear to set limits to the ‘I can.’” (Iris Marion Young. 1980. “Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine body comportment, motility, and spatiality.” Human Studies 3: 137-56.)


In many ways, this is a post about not running. Well, actually, in every way. And something more than that . . .

Like many folks in the wider trail running community, I watched with great interest as both the supported and self-supported fastest known time (FKT) records for traversing the Appalachian Trail fell last summer, to Scott Jurek and Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson, respectively. I also found myself among a further subset of attentive observers, those with a long-abiding interest in and lived proximity to the Appalachian Trail itself. Having finally resolved two years ago to answer the internal call to return to the central Appalachians of my youth, the AT again loomed large in both my immediate environment (I live less than 15 miles off-trail) and my psyche. And, in perhaps the most esoteric of my senses of connection to these FKT’s, I identify as being among those who are culturally Appalachian, a strongly felt if very much problematic, varied, diverse, and elastic identity in this landscape.

That is all to say that a tiny voice with a big mouth in my mind said, “huh, I wonder if my trail running body could have a go at that . . .” And, indeed, I spent the next several months exploring, testing, thinking, strategizing, deciding, planning, equipping, mapping, boxing, posting, driving, and then starting (self-supported). There a great many details in those verbs that I’ll leave for either another day or the oblivion, because they are both tedious and likely of limited interest. I will only say that I was very serious about the attempt; that I arranged to be ultra-light in order to run (rather than hike) when I could; and that I am ultimately grateful for many of the personal discoveries that I made in what became a failed campaign (though I have successfully taken in significant parts of the AT as a result). What I intend to reveal here about the experience itself are the details that overlap with the greater purpose of this blog, to document my phenomenological observations in running.

Traveling north-to-south on the trail, my journey necessarily began with the negative-mile climb up Katahdin in order to simply begin, followed by a full-on assault of the 100-Mile Wilderness. Day 1: 44 miles (though, 38 and change that actually counted). Thus began a daily grind aimed at keeping pace with a formidable challenge set by a great athlete.

My own hyper-reflection and constant, sustained awareness of the bodily experience, the can and cannot of my running endeavor, began to target certain particular and peculiar aspects of the activity. Certainly, I met with varying degrees of injury/aches/pains, especially in the demanding terrain of Maine and New Hampshire. But, I would not say that those presented me with either surprise nor physical limitation demanding that I discontinue the adventure. However, there were two very distinct parts of the experience that did halt the FKT attempt. And, like Kozel’s dancer in a state of flow, my progression was altered both as a part of and because of the sensuous process as it unfolded.

First and foremost, I wasn’t actually able to run. And, so, I mostly hiked quickly for long periods of time. Now, that probably doesn’t sound like too much of a problem, and indeed to many folks I suspect that it adheres to a resolution towards a greater bodily good. Except, I like to run. No, I LOVE to run. It is a mode of movement that I prefer to experience as often as possible. In the case of Maine, I would approximate that 15% of my miles were accomplished in some form of slow running or jogging. In New Hampshire, that minuscule ratio of physical happiness plummeted into the technical bouldering and steep climbs of the otherwise otherworldly and gorgeous White Mountains. In fact, I recall with such vivid clarity-via-joy the stretch around Ethan Pond and Thoreau Falls for the run-able trail that the remainder then lives in my experiential recollection of movement as something altogether not running.

The second problem was infinitely more complicated, difficult to accurately identify, and even more troublesome to clearly articulate. But, here goes the attempt nonetheless. The very nature of my activity and effort meant that I passed south-bound thru- and section- hikers only a little less quickly than the north-bounders. “Howdy, how are ya, how about that mud, how are the water sources . . . ?” and then onward. Since most hikers are looking to only cover 12-15 miles in a day at most, my days began two hours before and ended two hours after just about everyone I may have casually met. And this became a physically manifest, phenomenological crisis for me personally. I can remember with vivid clarity the two, yes two, handshakes that constituted my only human-touch-experiences in twenty-two days. It turns out that running through my environment is not the only way in which my body joyfully experiences the world. I began to have repeated, deeply emotional dreams about my partner and my children embracing me. I felt a terrific sense of loss, compounded by the loss of running, in the distance that I (obviously due to clear and absolutely reasonable social norms of interaction with strangers) needed to maintain with the people I was around.

In the end, I determined that I was unable to resolve either of these issues in the interest of continuing my self-supported march south. But, that doesn’t mean that my time on the AT is through. It’s only just begun. I’m back to my running vest and a day of supplies, followed by a long drive home to the comfort of hugs and dinner at the table. For now, it’s how I’ll click away at VA, TN, NC, and maybe GA. And if another FKT attempt is ever in my future, it most certainly will not be of the self-supported variety, which is quite alright by me. For reasons that I’ll explain in another post, Heather Anderson is a certified beast and possessed of a record that will stand well past the likes of me (and pretty much any other human being).


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