Reflections on a 20-Mile Hike

Last Spring my good friend and hiking buddy Karen sent me a FB message. It was some information about a 20-mile hike called the Mammoth March and her message was “sounds like fun”.  I looked at her message with a little skepticism.  20 miles – fun? I wasn’t so sure about that.  I also had never heard of the Mammoth March so I did a little investigating.  What I found out was this event originated during the pandemic as a virtual hiking challenge and in the past couple of years has turned into in person events that are held all over the country.  On their website they say that by offering long-distance hiking events they are providing an alternative for people who don’t like to or can’t run. 

Once I found out that this indeed was a legitimate event, I still wasn’t sure. 20 miles that seemed a little extreme.  Also, when you first look at the event information, they talk about it being 20 miles in 8 hours. I decided I needed to do a little self- evaluation.  At this point in my hiking journey the 2 longest hikes I had done had both been a little over 7 miles.  The first one was in Tennessee with a lot of good elevation changes. With a friend it took us about 3 and half hours to go 7 and half miles.  The second one I did was in Arizona again with a pretty steep elevation gain and it took me 6 hours to go 7 miles on my own.  My average hike at this time was around 4 – 5 miles and my times were kind of all over the place. Probably because speed was not a big concern of mine.  I’m one of those hikers that stops all the time to enjoy the view and take pictures.  I am aware of my average pace and in the back of my mind I’d always like it to be a little faster, but it had never been my main concern. Karen and I talked about it and both agreed that our biggest concern wasn’t necessarily the 20 miles but more how long it would take us to finish. 

Then I talked to Suzanne.  I’m here to tell all of you, if you are thinking about taking on a physical challenge and you want someone to talk you into it, talk to Suzanne. I gave her all the information I had about the hike.  There wasn’t a course map yet but I knew it was going to be in Weldon Springs and would be on the Katy Trail and Lewis and Clark trail.  Mike had just done a trail marathon in that area and the map was on the computer at the gym so we looked at that for an idea of what the hike might end up looking like.  She asked me a lot of questions, I told her my concerns and at the end of the conversation she had me convinced that with some training and preparation, I could do this. 

After a little more research I realized that I didn’t actually have to finish in 8 hours.  The Mammoth March is an untimed event.  You have from the time you start until basically sundown to finish. Karen and I started reading reviews from previous hikes, we got caught up in the hype and we were signed up by the end of the first week of May.  They stagger the start times and we got 8AM. Our original goal was to finish in 11 hours.

For the next two months we were good about getting in at least one but usually 2 hikes a week.  We were averaging about 4-mile hikes and noticing that our pace was getting a little better.  We were feeling pretty good about everything and September still seemed a long way off. Then July and August hit. 

Honestly hiking in the summer is my least favorite time of year.  It’s hot, there are bugs, it’s hot, you have to start hiking early in the morning, because did I mention – it’s hot. This is when I really depended on Suzanne for some help.  She put together a training schedule for me that kept me accountable.  She knew I was worried about my time so she added in hill repeats and interval training to help me with that.  She checked in with me each week to see how my training was going and had a lot of good advice on hydration and nutrition for the hike. Still, there were a lot of days during those two months that I thought or said, “what the heck have I gotten myself into” or “why did I sign up for this?”  I did stick to the training schedule and except for that week when it was over 100 degrees everyday – I got all my hikes in.  We made sure we varied the difficulty of the hikes.  There were Katy Trail days but for the most part there were a lot of hikes on the Lost Valley Trail which is a good mix of terrain and the Lewis Trail.  Every hike made me feel a little bit better and a lot more prepared.

At this point I hadn’t mentioned to many people that I was doing this. But as it got closer I began to talk about it a little more.  When we went on the Forward Fitness hike in August I talked with the members there about it and you know what, people were really encouraging.  I had people asking me about my training when they would see me at the gym. This helped me to realize that the only thing that was going to keep me from finishing was me.  I knew I had to change my mindset and the way I was talking to others and myself.  That was a true turning point for me.  When I started saying “we’ve put in the work, we’ve got this” and truly started believing that I knew I would finish.  I tried not to fixate on how long it was going to take and that we might be some of the last people to finish.  That was hard but I just kept reminding myself that this was about me finishing and I didn’t need to compare myself to anyone else.  

About two weeks before the event the trail map was released.  We made sure that at some point other than the part on the Katy Trail we had hiked the entire course before the day of the event.  I will admit I got a little obsessive about it.  They recommended downloading the map to All Trails just “in case”.  Which I did but I knew I wouldn’t need it.  I had that map memorized.  The night before the event I was texting Karen with the approximate times I thought we could expect to get to each rest station.  Even being conservative I thought we could get done in 10 hours. We knew the hardest part was going to be the Lewis Trail. Two nights before the hike I was at my sister’s house and she just looked at me like I was crazy and asked “why are you doing this?” Since this was a question I had been asking myself a lot I was kind of surprised with my answer.  I told her this was my marathon.  I’m not a runner but I am a hiker and I just needed to see if I could do this. The morning of the hike my sister sent me a text that said “Good luck today. You amaze me!” She has no idea how much that meant to me.

The day of the hike was perfect.  It was a little warmer than I prefer but compared to what we had been dealing with I wasn’t complaining.  Because of the staggered start we ended up starting about 20 minutes later than expected but we made really good time and started the Lewis Trail just a few minutes behind schedule.  The best part of the day was seeing Suzanne as we finished the Lewis Trail.  Seeing her and having her support really gave us the push we needed to finish that last 6 miles.  Karen commented as we left the rest stop that even though she had never met Suzanne before she felt like she knew her.  Karen’s knee was really starting to hurt her at this point between Suzanne’s encouragement and not wanting to let me down she was able to finish those last 6 miles. We also got a lot of encouragement from the volunteer at the rest stop at mile 15.  He was so nice! He even swung by to congratulate us at the finish line. We slowed down a bit after mile 16, saw our first copperhead on mile 17, met up with a father and daughter at mile 19 and finished the last mile with them. My watch died at 6PM and I forgot to turn off the navigation on my phone when we got to the finish line so I don’t know exactly how long it took us to finish and you know what – I’m okay with that.  It was somewhere between 10 and 10 and half hours, there were not very many people left but we finished and that’s all that matters.  

It’s been a couple of weeks now and I’ve had some time to reflect.  I am so glad I put the time in with my training. My quads were not happy with me for a couple of days but overall, I felt pretty good after hiking 20 miles. No knee or feet pain and no blisters. Am I glad I did it?  Absolutely!  Will I do it again?  Time will tell.  For the past few months, I have been really focused on getting in the miles and increasing my pace which was necessary for my training. Right now, I’m looking forward to just getting out on the trails this fall and taking pictures of the views and enjoying being in nature without worrying about distance or speed. Of course, it is nice to know that I’m good for about 15 miles if I need to be.

I learned a few important things from this experience. The first one being, “get out of your own way” Mindset is crucial. You need to remind yourself that you can do hard things especially when the self-doubt starts to creep in. I also know the value of putting in the work before the hike so that I was able to finish strong.  Finally, I realized the value of a support system. Could I have done this by myself, yes, but it would not have been nearly as much fun.  If my friend Karen hadn’t hiked this with me, I think the urge to quit at mile 15 would have been very strong. We met several people that day that were hiking solo and I just kept thinking how glad I was that I wasn’t trying to do that hike alone.  All the friends that sent me texts and FB messages the days before and of the hike meant so much. The encouragement during training and showing up to support us the day of, from Suzanne really made a difference.  I will remember that and pay it forward.

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