Trevor heard about the Appalachian Trail decades ago and has always dreamed of doing it one day.
I learned about its existence through Trevor. I read numerous memoirs of people who have done it. I thoroughly enjoyed these books but never thought about attempting this myself. I saw it as something beyond my physical and mental abilities. I didnt see myself as being able to hike almost every day for 6 months, often in the rain. I couldnt imagine a life where I can be clean (showered and in fresh clothes) only once a week. I read about the bugs and snakes and bears and was sure that you need to be a person much tougher than me to cope with all of those things.
Fortunately I have read those books long ago. When Trevor started talking about doing the AT in 2019, and suggested I should do it with him, the ROMANCE of a 6 month hike was a much stronger factor than the memory of the hardships I read about. I downloaded one of the books again but never got round to reading it – if I did I most likely would have (as before) thought this too tough a challenge for me. Without re-reading any of it and with Trevor’s belief that if he can do it so can I, I agreed to join him. To TRY – I told everybody that only 1 out of 4 makes it (they now say 1 out of 5) and that all we can do is to start and see how it goes.
One thing I realised over the course of the hike is that the REASON for doing something is an important part of the motivation to keep you going.
My reasons for doing this were different to Trevor’s. His reasons were (if I interpret his between the line explanations correctly) the intrigue of the physical challenge, that he wanted to be one of the select group of people who succeed at doing this, and that it would be a novel way of experiencing America.
One of my reasons (initially) was that Trevor was going to embark on this big adventure and I was scared of missing out on an experience of a life time (and an experience of a life time is exactly what it was), but more importantly, my main reason was that I did it as an investment in our marriage. Trevor and I do everything together. The thought that he would undertake something so big and that I wouldnt be part of it, just went against how we conduct our joint life. And to be honest, I was scared that the walk would change him, and that this stranger will return to SA, I thought if 6 months of walking changes a person it will be best if I am with him so we can change together (this was an unnecassary fear: we are still the same people who embarked on this 5 months ago). You will see I talk of 6 months and 5 months: we expected it to take us 6 months but we ended up doing it in 5.
One can therefore summarise it by saying Trevor’s main reason was that he wanted to succeed in the physical challenge, and my main reason was that I wanted to do it because he was going to do it.
The more passionately you want the outcome – and that will relate to your reason for doing something – the easier it will be to stay motivated. Young people who didnt have jobs or didnt know what to do with their lives and therefore hopped onto the trail as a time filler were more likely to get off the trail than those who quit their jobs so that they could do the trail because they really wanted to do it. Trevor’s reason of fulfilling a life long dream was a bigger motivation than my “dont want to miss out on an adventure” (in hindsight it was an adventure but during that first month of sweat and tears the romantic notion of an adventure disappeared quickly), but my reason of doing it with him as we do everything together was a big motivation. However, over time my reason for wanting to complete it changed. I am a finisher, and although it surprises me about myself I am also competitive. Somewhere over the course of all these steps (I became aware of it half way through the hike) I realised I wanted to finish it because I too wanted to be one of the select group. I also didnt just want to complete the journey, I wanted us to do it in a good time; ahead of the bubble and in less than the average time it takes (the ATC says it takes 5 to 7 months so at exactly 5 months we did well, though there are many others that finished in less than 5 months).
As a generalisation it is fair to say that it would be very hard for anybody not enjoying a physical challenge to stay motivated.
I have been asked by many people over the last 5 months what motivated me to get up and walk every day. I have also been asked if I sometimes wake up in the morning and thought that I just didnt want to do it, that I dont want to get up and spend the day walking.
The second question is the easier one to answer: I NEVER woke up thinking I dont want to walk. And probably that is because I was always motivated. What motivated me/how I stay motivated – thats a more difficult question to answer and one that I have wondered about myself (knowing that you are motivated doesnt necessarily mean you know what motivates you).
We had a few things on our side. We like hiking and being in nature. We are physically strong and fit (for our age). Our reasons for wanting to make it to Mt Katahdin were strong. And we were (other than for all the aches and pains and in spite of getting bone tired) having a great time (protected from the ugliness of events and people out in real life, meeting wonderful people on the trail and becoming part of the AT community, visiting quaint little trail towns).
The motivation we needed was therefore to keep us doing something we generally enjoyed. At the same time the target was far away and the task incomprehensibly tough. One of the few times we felt very de-motivated was halfway through, when we thought we have walked sooooooo far, we could almost not wrap our heads around how far we have walked, and we were only half way. Not only that, the second half was going to be much tougher as we will have to do the Whites and south of Maine.
We were motivated by having (subconsciously, not thought through) a long term target, medium term targets, short term targets, micro targets, and very importantly: rewards.
We set off with getting to Mt Katahdin as the ultimate target. But it is almost impossible to set your sights that far ahead, so initially our focus was to get to Harper’s Ferry by 13 June (as we were going to a concert on 14 June).
After our first day on the trail (and being taken by surprise how tough it was even for experienced hikers like us) my target became very short term. My focus was only to cope with the next day. And then the next day. It took a week or two of having as target to survive the following day before I could look into the future and set my target to getting to Erwin. Then the medium term targets became Damascus, Harpers Ferry, the numeric half way point, Hanover, the Whites, the South of Maine, the 100 mile wilderness, and Katahdin. It was only after the Whites that we started really thinking of Katahdin.
At other points there were medium term targets too: entering a next state, getting to a Zero day, getting to 1000km/2000km/3000km – milestone markers.
Short term targets were daily events: having to do Mahoosuc notch, or getting over the Kinsmans, or having to cover x km for the day.
In tough times there were micro targets: getting the next 200m gain in altitude behind us, or just get through the next 3km.
Almost all these targets came with rewards. Huge rewards (getting up to Katahdin made us thru-hikers), big rewards (getting to Erwin gave us time with Mathilda, getting to Harpers Ferry gave us our photo in the halfway album and the trip to DC), nice rewards (town visits and everything going with that), mental rewards (one more state ticked off, a sense of progress at milestone markers) and food rewards (skittels for every 200m ascend, snickers when only 6km left in the day, a snack after 6km, a Mountain House meal iso Ramen Noodles after a tough day).
I stayed motivated by having – right to the end – a strong reason for wanting to finish (if you start saying ‘what is the point of this all’ you will struggle to stay motivated) and importantly, to focus on (and worry about) the appropriate target. And to not “spoil” any reward by worrying about the next challenge while enjoying the reward.
When arriving at our camp spot for the night I took off my shoes and started cooking. Crawling into our tent always created my safe space where I relaxed and rested. I NEVER thought about how it will feel to have to put shoes on sore feet tomorrow, or how the tired legs will feel tomorrow. The reward of the day was shoes off, warm dinner, happiness in tent. I revelled in the reward as if tomorrow was of no concern. Generally “tomorrow” took care of itself.
The same apply to town visits. We would, whilest on the trail, say when we get to town next we should do a,b,c. Only to leave town having not given a thought to a,b,c.
It was important to not worry about future challenges too far in advance. Not saying it wouldnt be necessary to plan ahead. Two weeks before reaching the Whites we had to make a call on which sleeping bags we would take (as it needed to be mailed to us). But it was pointless WORRYING about the toughness of the Whites while we were coping with the mud in Vermont and Trevor’s lyme disease. And when we reached the Whites we didnt worry about Mt Washington and Mt Madison when we still had to do Moosilauke and the Kinsmans. And we didnt worry about the 100mile wilderness when we still had to get over the mountains in the south of Maine.
As I am typing this I am trying to convert how we experienced it to academic motivation factors, which isnt easy. My most honest summary is this:
* you need to really want something (for whatever reason) to be motivated.
* if the target is too big or too long term, set shorter term targets
* the bigger the challenge the more shorter term subtargets you will need – the mental reward of ticking them off and feeling there is progress will in itself be motivation
* rewards lift the spirit and prepares you for the next challenge
* enjoy every reached target and dont spoil it by worrying about the next target in the celebration/reward time of the current target