When talking about long distance hiking, I hear all the time "its more a mental challenge than a physical one." One of my friends frequently states that he believes the mental side of hiking isn't discussed nearly enough. I especially like how another of my friends said it, "For most people, willpower runs out long before leg power." He's not even a long distance hiker. I hear or read sentiments along these lines frequently enough that they have started to sound cliche to me. That doesn't bother me too much because a lot of cliches are cliches for a reason: they work.
I believed that long distance hiking was more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge for a while. Numbers seem to back it up. Most people quit early in the hike, so early that you can't blame injury. Also, my experience in baseball tells me that it is true.
My childhood I dedicated to baseball. In high school, I started on varsity for three years on two teams that placed at state, and one other that easily could have if things broke a little differently. I was named first team all-league twice, played and succeeded at a level above high school but below college (American Legion), and had several teammates who weren't as good play at the collegiate level. With all that, I can still say that I under-performed.
My physical attributes and skill level should have meant that I was a solid infielder who made almost every play so long as the ball was hit within my range. However, I can remember too many games where I was a defensive liability. In particular, I remember a double header at the age of 14 where I believe a dozen balls were hit my way and I failed to record even a single out (at least that's how I remember it). I should have also been a solid contact hitter who hit for a high average and was always on base. Instead, I can only think of half a season in high school where I hit anywhere close to that. The only place where I believe I came close to living up to my potential was on the mound. Even then, I couldn't seem to strike hitters out.
The reason for my lack of performance was entirely mental. I'm not a mentally tough person. I had almost no control over my emotions through the age of 15, when I still cried when things didn't go my way. I had enough melt downs to prove my lack of mental toughness. My confidence left me at the plate easily, and when trying to perform an athletic feat where you fail more often than succeed, my hitting woes are easily explainable.
In other words, long distance hiking being more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge made sense to me. Everyone seems to say it. The numbers back it up. My previous experience in physical endeavors bears it out.
However, when I thought about it, that didn't seem to be the case for me. First, I hit a mental/emotional low point on the PCT at about the mid-point. I had a week where I was in what I now refer to as my mental death spiral. Still, during that time, I recorded the following video.
My physical low point came on the AT in Maine. It flared up a little near the AT mid-point and here's the video I recorded.
In which video did I appear closer to quitting?
To make sure I was seeing things accurately, I asked my dad about it to see his opinion on when I was closer to quitting: during my mental low point (one of the lowest mental points of my life if not the lowest), or during my physical low point. He told me I was nowhere near quitting during my mental low point, but nearly quit during my physical low point.
The fact is I still wanted to keep going and was scared that I would have to quit on the AT. I spent a lot of money to stay on the trail. It would have been cheaper and easier to catch a bus to Boston, watch game 2 of the World Series at Fenway Park (I've never seen a World Series game live and Fenway Park is my favorite). I hung on to give my body a chance to recover and decided to just not think about how much the rest of the hike would cost.
Remember that I'm not a mentally tough person. All the evidence I have confirms that. However, despite all my challenges, I never wanted to stop hiking. Occasionally, I wanted to quit the CYTC attempt for a different hiking plan, so my mental challenge was simply to remind me that what I was attempting was worth delaying these other hiking ideas I have. That was easy.
Why do I view it so differently than the vast majority of long distance hikers?
Recently, I had the privilege of meeting a PCT thru hiker from the class of 2016. After completing the PCT, she has gone on to accomplish a lot of amazing feats in ultra-running, but also has stacked up a bunch of DNFs (did not finish). Putting her endurance sports resume up against all other endurance athletes, I would guess that she is operating in the top 1%, yet she views herself as if she was in the bottom 1%.
I reached out to her one day to try to help her believe in herself. I doubt it was successful, but over the following days, I thought about it to the point of obsession. That's when I realized something, I don't think that most people spend much time on mental preparation for their long distance hikes. I grew up with coaches who had me think about it all the time. I even got the opportunity to coach and saw just how much mental preparation can help performance.
I thought back to how I delegated aspects of my life to other people so I cold focus on my performance. I thought back to the support group I set up before I started the trail. I thought back to all the mentors I've collected and continue to collect over the years. I thought back to the mantra I created to help me stay on the trail. I thought back to the list I created of reasons I would allow myself to quit. I thought back to all the things I did before the trail to keep my mind engaged while on the trail. I thought back to all the poems I memorized and quotes I have in my head which helped me just keep going. I thought back to all the training I did in the worst possible conditions to increase my toughness so I could handle bad conditions on the trail.
Much of that, comes natural to me, I think because of the way I was raised. My dad worked with me on emotional discipline, which I learned later in life than most. He also lived success in his career being nationally recognized for his work twice, including the Unsung Hero award that goes to 12 people every year out of 80,000. Coach O'Brien I believe was an elite motivator and I grew up with his son. From him I listened to multiple motivational speeches, received quotes, poems, essays, etc. which helped keep my head in the right spot to perform. Coach Johnson was a living example of the many things Coach O'Brien taught. I attended the same church as Coach Johnson, played baseball for him, and even got to be one of his assistant coaches for four years. From these men and others, I have had lessons beat into my head for how to mentally prepare for a performance, so it comes naturally to me. That's why it took a friend of mine to show me that others may not have those advantages.
I believe that long distance hiking is more of a physical challenge than a mental challenge for me, but is that because I prepare for it? When other people say it that its more of a mental challenge for them, I believe them. However, I'm not a mentally tough person, so I can't be the only person who sees it as more of a physical challenge. So who else views it like me? Would more people view it like me if they prepared the way I do? These two questions I wonder about. I'm interested in finding out and would like to see if some of my methods would work for someone else. If you are interested, feel free to reach out to me.