Learning how to hike very long-distances without injury.
I’ve hiked a lot. This is the story of how I went from pain to freedom and miles.
I got started in 2001 with a 900-mile section hike on the Appalachian Trail. I was a skinny-fat kid growing up, and in no shape for a long hike when I started. In fact, without my two hiking poles, my knees would have given out in the first week. But I didn’t give up, and after 900 miles, was definitely hooked on long-distance hiking. However, I needed 600-1000 mg of ibuprofen every day to avoid shin splints, foot pain, and knee pain. At the time, I just assumed that hiking was just really tough on my body, and figured that a daily diet of “vitamin I” was part of the cost of three-month pilgrimage through an American wilderness.
Here’s my old journal from that hike. There was no facebook, cell phones, or instagram in those days, so It’s a really old-school journal.
Three years later, in 2004, I to finish the Appalachian Trail, which meant hiking another 1,200 miles. And it also meant restarting my ibuprofen habit. One or two 200mg pills in the morning. Another one or two with lunch, and then maybe one more before going to bed. On bad days, I was taking over 1,000 mg.
The drugs kept me going, but I was doing long-term damage. (BTW, here is my journal from that hike).
For the next six years, I was constantly battling shin splints and foot pain. But I was hooked on hiking, and in 2006 decided to attempt the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail. (The PCT was popularized by Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild). Actually, I expected injuries to sabotage my hike, but my mindset was that it was better to try and then fail, instead of giving up on a dream.
Fortunately, I met a physical therapist who turned my world upside down. He took one look at my hiking gait, and said, “Tom, the way you are hiking is what’s hurting you.” He recommended a couple books on how to run efficiently, and two weeks later, I was testing out a brand-new hiking gait. It was styled after barefoot running, with short strides, light mid-foot landings, and as much lower-body relaxation as possible.
This new gait served me well. On the Appalachian Trail, any time I tried to hike more than 10-15 miles, the pain would ratchet up. On the PCT, with my shiny new gait, I was eventually able to hike more than 30 miles in a day, an I could keep it up for days at a time. And I was doing it without ibuprofen! (Those long days sometimes sucked horribly, but it was a far cry from the crippling pain I had grown used to managing).
That PCT thru-hike changed me life. Here’s my journal, which isn’t really well-written, but does bring back some fantastic memories!
I was so excited about what I had learned about hiking and overuse injuries, that I came back for several years to ADZPCTKO to give a workshop on avoiding overuse injuries. (ADZPCTKO was a conference that marked the unofficial start of the PCT thru-hiking season. Annual Day-Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kickoff. But that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). Those workshops were never recorded, but I did make several videos based on that content:
- Avoiding Overuse Injuries on a PCT Thruhike (Part 1)
- Avoiding Overuse Injuries on the PCT (Part 2)
- Avoiding Overuse Injuries on the PCT (Part 3)
I cringe watching them, but the content is good.
That’s the end of the story where I learned how to hike really long distances without seriously hurting myself. That’s not the end of my hiking and nature-trekking, however. In 2015, I walked about 2,800 miles from Canada to Mexico on the Continental Divide Trail (bigfoot / on the divide). And in the fall of 2017, I started barefoot running, because trail-running and ultra-marathons are another life-long dream of mine.