Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mental Toughness

The Appalachian Trail is no bed of roses. (Wouldn't it be weird if it was? Tea ingredients underfoot! And those thorns would be a pain for 2000 miles.) The trail is hard work and it repeats day after day. The mental aspect of the hike is probably more trying than the physical aspect. After a while, the beautiful vistas and wonderful experience of being outside recede into the background, sometimes replaced by a longing to finish and finish quickly.


Going into this journey I know that it will not be a walk in the park. At times I will be transported beyond joy. Other times, I will shake in terror as the lightning flashes overhead and a beast of the night checks to see if I am edible. A large portion of my time will be spent walking. A lot of that walking will be in the rain. And a good portion of walking in the rain will be boring. At times I will be hurt, I will be exhausted, I will be hungry. Sometimes I may despair of ever getting to the next stream, road crossing, supply point, or summit. In order to finish I must be prepared to deal with the mental rigors as much as the physical. Below are strategies that I use and have found to work for me.

My approach
First of all, I have done my best to temper my expectations with reality. I have talked with through hikers and read a lot of advice on through hiker forums. I have read a book and a few journals. I bring some years of backpacking experience to the table, with some trips occurring under trying conditions. Without expecting each and every day to be paradise, the chances that I will be disappointed by the reality of the trail are lower. But even with my expectations suitably matched to reality, all those unpleasant things may still happen and I will have to deal with them. 

Most important for me is to stay grounded. Staying in the moment and relishing every moment of being alive is a key strategy - my natural state whilst hiking. Achieving that zen state can be more trying once pain, boredom, and hunger join the party. Holding onto it as long as I can will ease my mental burden. In short, keeping a positive attitude reduces the amount of mental lifting that I have to do.

Next, stay goal oriented. Remember my ludicrously long list of reasons to through hike? Yeah, those. Add measurable goals to that list and focus on them. One of my big goals is to withdraw from daily pressures and think in freedom to figure out what really matters to me. Until that goal is complete, I still have work to do. By focusing on what I want to accomplish, I will focus less on the hardships. "Keep your eyes on the prize" is a pretty common refrain - because it works.

Be social. Humans are indeed social creatures. I'm an acknowledged introvert - being around hordes of people generally stresses me all on its own. But I still need some social interaction. Without it, my morale will gradually drop. Interacting with people on a regular basis is a good way to keep my brain primed and ready to go.

Stay moving. Do something, no matter what it is. The very act of acting lifts spirits. Feeling dispirited? Create something. Carve a stick. Tie a knot. Write a journal entry. Cook dinner. Light a fire.

Stretch (usually exercise would go here too, but for obvious reasons, I'm not including it). Relaxing the body calms and helps recenter my priorities. Simply sitting or lying down is not the same. I like to do yoga.

Use every trick in the book: whatever motivation is needed to get past that little bit. Maybe it's breaking it into small sections. Maybe it's counting the steps of one foot. Counting every third step. Dreaming about the pizza at the next town. Singing a song. Screaming. Be inventive and figure out what works for you. I prefer to pick out a target ahead and lie to myself. "I will take a break once I pass that tree." Then I pass that tree and pick another target. I know, I'm a liar and a bad person. But it works.

A friend of mine once gave me the rule: never quit while in despair. Making a long term decision while in a state of turmoil is not a recipe for good decisions. Fight through, and then make the decision with a clear head. 

In a pinch, use whatever goad is needed - as long as that goad is not the real reason for continuing. For instance, after all of this preparation, I will look slightly foolish in my own eyes if I should fail. To get off or up a mountain when I feel I have reached my limits, I may well tap into that. But if that is my main reason for continuing, then I am doing myself no favors. It's far better for me to pay attention to my goals.

Tying into that, stay flexible. Even while I discuss how I plan to keep myself motivated, I keep one truth in the back of my mind. The only person keeping me on the trail is me. If I accomplish my goals or my goals change, I am completely capable of stopping where I am and doing something else. Maybe I could use the time to go visit France for a month or to volunteer with aid organizations - both of which I'd like to do. These options are indeed on the table. But sometimes, just knowing that these options exist is enough of a reminder of the real reasons I am hiking the trail. And that can be enough to help me stick to it. What a head fake, eh?

Finally, no matter what it takes, never stop fighting. After all, that's life.



Meriadoc

3 comments:

  1. Hey Mr. Meriadoc,
    My name's Matt and I'm putting together an online A.T. magazine called TravelingSasquatch.com . It combines my own stuff (I'm a reporter) with the best blogs and pics of other writer/hikers out there. I'd love to include some of your work. You'd get credit and then I'd link it back to your site as well. If you're interested, send me an email at matt@travelingsasquatch.com
    Thanks and happy hiking!
    Matt

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Matt,
      Thank you for reading and thanks for the compliment. It would be my pleasure.
      Meriadoc

      Delete
  2. Great picture. Unfortunately I don't think your magic stick is that long. M

    ReplyDelete