Sunday 5 July 2015

42 days on the trot

The Appalachian Trail AT starts in northern Georgia and wends along the spine of the mountains that separated colonial America from the Wilderness until it finishes in the middle of Maine on Mt Katahdin. It is about 2,200miles/3500km long and travels through 14 states but it's not the distance it's the climb that sorts those who can from those who sofa: 515,000 feet or 160km! of altitude change.  You have to climb the equivalent of 18 Mt Everests . . . from sea-level not from the foothills in Nepal. It's not quite the same - no altitude sickness because the highest point on the trail is only a tad over 2,000m high: not much higher than Denver.  All this means that the AT is like the Camino de Santiago, of which I did a stretch, but on steroids.  It serves much the same purpose for many of its inhabitants - getting lost to find yourself; shedding some kilos and some quotidian anxiety; filling your boots with blood; seeing a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.  It attracts all sorts but particularly gap-year youngsters and change of life [empty-nest; cancer survivor; divorced; widowed; replaced by a chip] people 30ish years older.
On the Camino Frances , the pilgrim motorway, in Spain there is one section across the corn-fields of Castile where it is >!shock!< 12km between cafes. You don't come across an ominous sign like [R] which says that you're on your own resources for 160km and where the bail-out escape routes are probably more arduous than continuing forward. Nevertheless every year a number of people aspire to be thru-hikers and complete the whole trail in a single season, usually starting at break-of-Spring in Georgia and following the seasons North. You are advised to allocate between 5 and 7 months to the task. By contrast, six weeks will see you from the French border to Santiago. Three quarters of those who start off the AT full of heroic intentions fall by the wayside.

There's an interesting thing happening on the AT even as we blog.  Scott Jurek, the ultramarathoneer, is running the trail hoping to beat the scarcely credible record of 46.5 days set by Jennifer Pharr in 2011.  He was out of camera but definitely present when I was writing about the free-runners of the Tarahumara in N Mexico.  He's run in the footsteps of Φειδιππίδη Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta in the now annual Spartathlon: that's a non-stop run of 250km which Jurek has won three times on the trot '06, '07. '08 finishing in about 23 hours. He's now 41 and reckons that this is his last chance at a really long endurance challenge. He started from Georgia on 26 May 2015 but early on he banjaxed his knee coming downhill too heavy and tore a quad (the muscles on the front of your thigh) trying to compensate.  Solution? Walk . . . a mere 50+ km for a couple of days . . . and then pick up pace again.  He's been catching up his gruelling self-imposed schedule since and as he leaves New Hampshire to enter the final state he is on time. It requires an average of 80km 50miles each and every day. You can catch him being interviewed on the hoof round about day 33.  And if you wake up in the middle of the night screaming "Where's Scott?" then you can find updates here on Runner's World.  He should be arriving on 7th July 2015, this coming Tuesday.  If any bears wanted to eat him, they've missed their chance.

As an old pilgrimage hand, I have been known to get snitty about people treating the Camino as a race, even a race against time.  If you're always looking at your watch, you're not watching the world. But I think that, like the Tarahumara, Scott Jurek was born to run and it's almost as if he can do no other. I'm not the one to wish holding him back.

If you want a slower paced long-form read about another sort of Appalachian Trail adventure, check out Jim Hammes aka Bismarck.

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