Hiking Vs Trail Racing
In this day we live, much is made about personal records, racing to set the fastest times possible. I read where athletes set out to traverse the entire length of a long-distance trail faster than any human has done before. Trails such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail are viewed as race courses rather than hiking trails. Stops to rest & resupply along the way are regarded more as “pit stops,” get in & get out, rather than a time to rest & casually reflect on the day’s journey. This article isn’t intended in any way to demote these athletes, but simply to put differing attitudes into perspective.
Trail runners, athletes who run the length of a long-distance trail, usually do so with the aid of another person or persons. They’ll cover a desired amount of ground in a given day, traveling with only a hip-pack & one or two bottles of water, some energy packets & small snack foods to eat during the day. At designated crossings, they’re met by a friend or family member, one who travels by car with all the supplies that’ll be needed for this trip. The athletes eat & refill their water bottles & move on for another determined set of miles. They may camp along the trail, sleep in their car or a nearby town. Plans like this are laid out well in advance, critical to the success of the athlete’s goal in mind of finishing as fast as they can.
These people are no doubt athletes. They encounter more uneven terrain on a long-distance trail than the average runner you see on the streets everyday. Their focus must be sharper and their conditioning better than the average athlete. Running the length of a long-distance trail in record time is remarkable for sure. Yet these “records” are misleading when put into the perspective of hiking & backpacking a long-distance trail. Running isn’t hiking & hiking isn’t running. They’re both completely different.
Many people have asked me, “What’s the fastest time anyone has hiked the Appalachian Trail?” What I want to reply to that is, “Does is really matter?” If traveling a trail in record time appeals to someone, that’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it means nothing to one who intends to take time away from family & work, pursuing a life-long dream. It goes deeper than the superficial. For most of us, hiking isn’t about speed & setting records. It isn’t about fame or notoriety. What it is about varies from individual to individual, but it runs deeper than a footnote in a record book.
For me, hiking isn’t about outward accomplishments. Sure, there’s a sense of pride in completing anything, especially a long-distance hike. But there’s a fulfillment in hiking for me that I don’t find in anything else. It’s an internal reaction. I love being outdoors & being physically active. Yet a bicycle ride or walk in a park doesn’t satisfy me nearly like strapping on a pack full of gear, heading out into the woods & mountains to sojourn. Time slows down for me, and I feel that my senses grow keener & more in tune with my surroundings, and for more of what they were intended. My thoughts flow like a stream in spring, confidence builds within me. The people I meet along the way are both encouraging & interesting.
Backpacking for me doesn’t consist of laying out a plan to finish a trail, then simply move on to the next. Of course, I want to hike as many trails in my lifetime as I can. Time away from family & home helps put things into perspective for me, helps clarify the confusing aspects of life, makes the most complicated seem simpler. It’s basic, raw & revealing. Earl Shaffer, the first person to accomplish a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, did so in 1947. It followed his stint in the armed forces, and came at a time when he needed to walk some things out of his system. This isn’t the same scenario for all hikers & backpackers, I know. The reasons for hiking are many, yet there’s a common thread, I believe. The trail runner athletes are amazing at what they do. Their goals are just different from most backpackers.
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