In 1998, I spent 79 days backpacking the Appalachian Trail, hiking a total of 1,318 miles from mid-Virginia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. My whole goal for that summer was to climb Mt. Katahdin and have my picture taken with the famed sign that proclaimed that spot as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. My mileage carefully calculated, my food shipments sent to small rural post offices along the way, my parents armed with my planned itinerary (and when they could expect me to call; these were the days before everyone had a cell phone glued to their hand, after all), I woke every morning in the woods and greeted the day with the purpose of walking to the next shelter and traversing the next mountain, focused on reaching the sign. The other hikers I met on the trail felt the same, and we marched northward with a collective purpose of finishing this long distance quest that would yield us that prize photo.
Throughout my journey that summer, I recalled a passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (by Robert Pirsig) that was read to me and about 35 other incoming freshmen at our orientation experience at Salisbury State University by Dave Ganoe, who led our group on a two week orientation in the wilderness (Algnoquin Provincial Park).
“You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountains which sustain life, not the top.”
I definitely took this message to heart and (for the most part) embraced the days and moments of my journey along the trail. I won’t lie and say this was what I lived for; I was still very fixated on the end result – and getting there as quickly as possible, as if I had something I had to prove to the world. But at least I sometimes slowed down and smelled the metaphorical roses along the trail, imprinting in my mind the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of what I was experiencing. And onward I continued.
The day I reached Katahdin was one of great excitement. You actually can see the mountain at a distance, several days before reaching the base. The lure of the mountain drew me closer and closer, and I just ached to be making my ascent of that final point on the trail. When my Last Day of hiking dawned on 16 August 1998, the group I camped with (about four other hikers) awoke and could barely contain ourselves. They has all been on the trail for about five months at that point, and this was the culmination of their walk from Georgia (more than 2100 miles away). We took off as a group, more or less, and agreed to meet at the top for photos and congratulations. Several hours of hiking and rock scrambling later, we all were at the top, high fiving,snapping photos, congratulating each other on finishing our respective hikes. It was fun. Then someone suggested that maybe we should head down.
I remember that moment in my life as clear as crystal. I had just finished one of my biggest achievements, and when someone suggested that maybe we should go down, it was almost like a shock of cold water was being thrown on my face. And I wasn’t the only one. Apparently, none of us really thought much about what happens after the picture at the sign. We hadn’t exactly planned on the descent from Katahdin other than we knew it was another 5.2 miles that didn’t count towards our trail mileage, let alone think about what we would do the next day when we got up. I mean, for months on end, we woke up with the sole purpose of moving through the woods towards this sacred mountain. In an instant, I found myself feeling a tremendous sense of loss and even grief that the journey I had planned for the past 18 months was suddenly over. I wish someone had warned me it would be like this. I wish I had been prepared for what to do the next day. (Funny story here, this wasn’t actually my last day of hiking. It turns our that my dad drove to Maine to surprise me and had arrived while I was on the mountain. He wanted to walk up with me to share in the moment. When I came back down there was a note from him, saying he was there and where I could find him. My sense of loss was delayed another day, as he still wanted to go up Katahdin with me; I ended up having to summit twice in two days.)
Fast forward to my running experiences. My first marathon journey showed that I had learned from my hike. I was very focused on that first race, the Marine Corps Marathon in October 2015, but I had also registered for a second marathon just four weeks after that one (the Tulsa Route 66 Marathon). So when I crossed my first finish line at Marine Corps Marathon, I was able to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment while also knowing that I had a goal out there that I would be looking towards once I came down off my runner’s high. My goal for the second race, in addition to finishing, was to be a bit faster and break my original PR. So once I returned home from DC and rested from my first marathon, I set my sights on marathon #2 and getting to the finish line faster. And I didn’t feel a sudden void in my life because I had the next thing that I could look forward to.
So to try and offer a bit of advice to those who are already feeling a bit lost or maybe haven’t even thought about the next steps after crossing the finish line:
- Enjoy the experience getting to the finish line; don’t just rush to get there.Yes training is a bear! I know. But try to enjoy the little things – the first fall temps, the ice cream at the end of a long run, trying a new running route, achieving a new distance PR, your kids/spouse/friends telling you they are proud of you…take pleasure in each moment because these are the things that you will most remember from your race journey.
- Enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. You will have just run your marathon/half marathon/10K/5K! Congratulations! You worked hard to get here. Enjoy this moment.
- You will feel lost. You cross the finish line, receive your medal and have your photo taken. But once you walk back to your car, you may start to feel that sadness and sense of being lost creeping up on you. For so long–months of training and anticipation–the goal of the race seemed like such an arbitrary point in the future, a place that was more of a concept than an actual event. And suddenly (not really suddenly, but it felt like it), you are THERE. Once you cross the finish line, there is no more training, anticipation or otherwise. What is next is a very real question you may feel at this point.
- Start formulating a plan for your next ‘challenge.’ First of all, this new challenge shouldn’t be your only focus. After all, you haven’t yet crossed the finish line! Nor am I suggesting that you have to be signed up for more races. But once you complete your race, it is a good idea to have an idea (at the very least) of ‘what is next.’ You will find yourself with a lot more free time that used to be taken up with training for the race; plan ways to fill the 5-10 hours a week with things that you want to do. Get back to regular date nights with your significant other, read a book that has been on your list, learn a new language, try a new sport – there are so many things that you can now choose to do to help fill the void that will be left after you complete your big race (assuming you don’t want to continue with another one). If you chose to try another race, perhaps this time is now meant for fine tuning your training – adding strength or core training, getting more cross training in, trying speed intervals to help you run faster; whatever this ‘challenge’ is, you now have time to explore the possibilities! Embrace this and look at is as a positive rather than dwelling on the loss you may feel.
- Frame that photo. Spend the money on that stupidly expensive finish line photo or the one of you with your medal. That photo symbolizes your hard work and determination over the past however many MONTHS! Be proud of it. And when things get too hard in other areas of life, draw strength from that photo, remembering that you are stronger and tougher than you may realize. After all, you ran this race! You crossed the finish line.
- Implement your plan. Don’t wallow in the sense of being lost. Get out there are put your goals/plan into action. It will help you regain a sense of purpose and accomplishment after completing this huge challenge in your life.
I have faith that you will figure it out. Congratulations on getting to your finish line…and for taking that step after!
Tell me about what you plan to do after your big race. I want to hear how you are preparing for the next ‘challenge!’