- Sports/Recreation -

STRONG BODY, STRONG MIND: Never Say Never

A one-day, 27-mile through-hike teaches our fitness editor about what it means to push her body and mind beyond perceived limits.

Maggie at finish line

Never again!

On September 29, 2018, I crossed the finish line of the Grand Traverse, a 27-mile trail run and through-hike along the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota. Feet on fire, sleeves soaked in snot, and sweat-salt crusting my cheeks, I felt certain this would be the first and last time I embarked on this 10-hour adventure.

“Once is enough,” I told my best friend as she handed me a fresh pair of socks and sneakers. I’d completed the challenge, which crosses through some of the most beautiful woodlands in the Duluth area. Now I knew I could do it — and, logically, that was plenty satisfying. I’d savored the sights and relished the tough climbs and even tougher descents. “I don’t need to do this ever again.”

But, as often happens after achieving a seemingly impossible goal, once was only the beginning.

The Grand Traverse entered my awareness thanks to a social-media notification informing me that a friend had signed up for a 16-mile hike. Eager to have any excuse to spend time up north, I clicked to learn more. When I saw that there were multiple distance options — 10, 16, 21, and 27 miles — I thought, Why would I do 16 if I can do 27? and promptly signed up.

One of the best parts of the Grand Traverse is its accessibility: Not only do the organizers offer a variety of distances, all of which are graciously supported by knowledgeable volunteers on the trail, but they don’t dictate that you have to run. Although many trail runners register for the event, it’s common to see hikers as well.

I vowed to focus on hiking — not running, and not setting a time goal. I know that trail running is a unique sport, and no amount of time on asphalt would prepare me for the technique required to run even a short distance over rocky, rooty, muddy trails.

Setting off in the pitch dark of early morning, I was a lone hiker among runners. As I stepped aside to let people pass, I felt the pressure to pick up the pace. But once the crowd of bobbing headlamps cleared, I spotted two other hikers. We began to move together, and within a couple of hours at our steady, relatively slow pace, we not only gained on but passed many runners who had shown up unprepared or ill-equipped.

The first part of the route comprised several big climbs. This, I knew, was where I was strongest. I’ve always felt more comfortable moving uphill, but with each step up I feared the turn down.

I texted updates to my coach: “THIS IS SO HARD I LOVE IT.”

“I’m dying. . . . This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

The texts were sent about four hours apart and reflect the shift from moving mostly uphill to mostly down. Near mile 20, I turned to a fellow hiker and told him I was ready to be done — that I would hang back at the next aid station and get a ride down. He laughed, shook his head, and told me I was fine even if I felt like hell. He refused to go on without me.

When we finally crossed the finish line, 10 hours after the first steps into my personal unknown, my fingers looked like sausages and my feelings could’ve been summed up in six words: Glad I did it. Never again! As one of 73 people who completed the 27-mile route, I even earned a prize — a stone from Lake Superior etched with a maple leaf by a local artist. Proof I’d done it. And still, never again.

Six months later, I realized I’d been kidding myself. While out for a winter hike, listening to the audiobook version of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air — the account of a deadly Everest expedition in 1996 — I marveled at the tenacity it takes to do something out of sheer desire. There’s no logic, no good reason for many of humankind’s physical aspirations. And yet we venture forth, against all known comfort and safety.

The Grand Traverse is no Everest, not by a long shot. My safety was assured, even if my comfort was not. But as I contemplated the hard bargains that desire drives, I became acutely aware that I’d begun unconsciously planning my next Superior through-hike. I hadn’t given it any thought for months, but a buzz of excitement shivered through me as the memory flooded back. I noted absentmindedly that I needed to see if registration was open yet — then I stopped in my tracks and laughed. So much for “never again.”

RKC, MFT-1, is an Experience Life senior editor.

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