According to the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of failure is:
1. a state of inability to perform a normal function
2. an abrupt cessation of normal functioning
3. a lack of success
4. one that has failed
I’m not sure if anyone would consider hiking 100 miles on the North Country Trail “a normal function”, or even wanting to do so, normal for that matter?
With a few minor adjustments, my pack settled in and began to feel somewhat comfortable. I had broken camp, made my way back to the Trail, and was heading west. After having easily hiked roughly three miles in a just a short two hours the evening before, I was feeling a little more confident about the arduous journey before me. If all went as planned, over the next 2-3 days I would continue hiking along the NCT – stopping along the way to filter and re-supply water, eat snacks and meals as needed, and camp overnight to replenish my energy and sleep reserves – all while making my way to my half-way point, a back-pack campsite located just past the NCT Mile 50 marker and very near the Presque Isle State Campground on the shore of Lake Superior. Depending on how I felt, I would spend the following day relaxing a bit, exploring Presque Isle, portions the Porcupine Mountains, and the shores of Lake Superior. The following day I would set my sites eastward, hike the required 46.5 miles back along the North Country Trail, returning to my origin only to exit the NCT, walk back to the designated trail head parking area located on Norwich Rd in Ontonagon, place my pack and gear in the Grand Caravan, and begin the eight and half hour drive back home.
It had rained that morning, and everything was wet. I was wet. My pack was wet. The trees were wet. My trail runners and the Darn Tough wool socks protecting my feet were now soaked. The brush I was trudging through was literally dripping droplets of water. And while the trail was wet, some parts of it were just simply deceitful, innocent looking, small pools of water, under which lied a phenomenon I had never experienced.
In many blogs written and videos recorded by thru-hikers that have successfully hiked the Appalachian Trail, you will read or be told to just “embrace the suck”. Ha! Until now, I had no idea what that phrase meant, or how absolutely profound it is at describing the effect that occurs or the sound made when stepping into a puddle, under which lies a minimum of 4 – 6 inches of unseen mud. Unknowingly, you step forward placing your right foot into the puddle, and feel the ground underneath your foot slowly give way as the shoe, boot, or trail runner you’re wearing gently sinks, and as you complete your step forward with your left foot, transferring all of your body and pack weight to your right foot for support, you feel your foot sink even deeper into the abyss. Then as you continue your forward progress, you instinctively attempt to retrieve your right foot from the death grip and air-tight seal that the mud has formed around it. As you lift, prying your foot loose, the instant break in the seal along with rushing of the water lying above the mud filling the vacuum formed around your foot, make the most unique ‘whoosh-slurp-sucking’ sound I’ve ever heard. I can tell you with certainty “embrace the suck” is an understatement, and can easily see how some hikers have had to actually forego their footwear and offer their boots to the mud God. Although I came close a few times, I managed to keep my Altra LonePeak 3.5 trail runners attached securely to my feet.
With the wet terrain and soggy conditions, I was only managing to travel about a 1.5 mph. I didn’t mind the slower speed, as long as I was able to keep moving faster than the mosquitoes. In certain spots where I had to slow down, the mosquitoes seemed to attack in squadron formation – easily fifty to a hundred at a time. The Uncle Ben’s DEET Repellant, which I was so thankful I brought with me, worked great to keep them at bay, but needed to be re-applied every thirty minutes or so to stay effective. I’m not sure if it’s just more common for people with O+ blood types to be prone to mosquito bites, but even with the repellant, I felt as if I could have been a participant in the annual University of Michigan versus Ohio State University Blood Drive.
Then almost four hours into Day 2 of hiking on the North Country Trail, as I was just getting comfortable tracking the light blue blazes through the trees, and finding myself on the trail, I went up and over a small grassy and muddy embankment, partially covered in leaves. I never thought, or even imagined for a second, that as I reached the top of the embankment and started down the other side, my new Altra Lonepeak 3.5 trail runners would lose complete traction with the surface of the ground underneath them, and send my lower body unexpectedly jetting forward beneath me. According to Sir Isaac Newton’s 1st Law of Motion, which has never been proven wrong, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The equal and opposite reaction to my feet suddenly sliding out from underneath me was to fall, backwards towards the ground, with the entire weight of my pack leading the way. Do you remember our simple instinct to survive that my friend Rick Hom surmised contributed to the millions of years of evolution as a species that trigger our senses in moments unfamiliar to us? Well, I should have just let myself go, let my entire body go limp, even relax if possible and simply land wherever I fell. Instead, my ‘instinct’ kicked in and I tried to fight the fall – I tried to stop all forty pounds of weight on my back from accelerating downward, and in the end I lost. Not only did I land on the ground and in the mud, in doing so I also managed to severely pull the quad muscle in my left leg and instantly strain the muscles in my lower back.
As I laid there trying to recount what had just happened, my left quad felt as if it were on fire, and the pain shooting upwards from my lower back was stifling, literally taking my breath away. I began to assess by body – first my feet, my ankles, and my knees, no immediate injuries; then my hands, fingers, elbows and shoulders, all seemed to be normal but then again they were somewhat protected by my pack; last came my neck, and as I tilted it left and then right, I thought to myself “I’ve got to get this pack off my back”. I reached, unclipped the waist strap, then the chest strap, and carefully slid out of the Osprey Aether Ag 60 shoulder harness, left shoulder first, followed by my right. As I tried to sit up, I could feel the muscles in my lower back spasm, and was subtlety reminded that my quad muscle was just as displeased with recent events.
I leaned back to rest against the pack which I had just removed, tried to catch my breath and relax. Just like that moment when I was woke from a deep sleep the night before, I could hear my heart again, beating fast – lub, dup, lub, dup, lub, dup – as my pulse raced and my breathing became deeper. My next thoughts were “OK. You’re OK. No broken bones. No signs of blood or trauma. You’ve been pushing it. You need to just relax and give your body a little time to recover. Water!” I reached to the side pocket of my Osprey pack, grabbed my Smart Water bottle, popped the top, one gulp, two gulps, and it was empty. I closed the pop-top on the bottle, placed it between my legs, and continued to just sit there, leaning against my pack.
My mind began to replay the events of the day. I visualized the spot where I had camped the night before, the section of forest floor I passed that somehow managed to stay dry through all the rain that fell that morning, the turn at the bottom of the knoll as the trail continued along the edge of a pond, the creek from the Cranberry River I had to cross over, and the fallen pine I had to round because it blocked the trail. “How could I not have seen the steep decent of the hill I just slipped and fell on? Such a rookie mistake!”
My next mistake was thinking that if I ate a snack to boost my energy level, hydrated myself, slowed down and took it easy, I could just push through it all and continue onward. But that’s exactly what I did. After just sitting there for what easily seemed to be thirty to forty-five minutes, enjoying another Clif Bar, some beef jerky, and a few handfuls of trail mix, chased down by a half-liter of water from my second 1-liter Smart Water bottle, the pain in my lower back subsided substantially and I had managed to rub out my quad to a point that the flames now felt extinguished. I re-applied the Uncle Ben’s DEET – everywhere – put everything back in my pack, somehow managed to get the pack up and onto my back, and I was on my way.
Over the next half-mile of the trail it became more than evident that whatever I did to my left quad muscle when I slipped and fell was more than a simple muscle pull, as I was now having to shorten my stride as I stepped, stop often to ease and relax the muscle, as it randomly decided to tighten up, and although it wasn’t ‘shooting pain’, I could still feel an overall tightness in my lower back. Checking the Garmin inReach Explorer+, I was now some 6 miles from where I camped last night, and almost 9 miles back to trail entrance on Norwich Road. And I was completely alone in the Ottawa National Forest.
What do you do in this situation?
Do you continue to push yourself, push your limits, and take your physical abilities right to their edge? Knowing that in doing so, as your body fatigues even more, you increase the chance and risk of further injuring yourself?
Do you stop here, find a place to setup camp for the night, and take the rest of the day to give your body a chance to fully recover, if possible? Will a half-liter of water be enough knowing your next planned water source is three miles west on the trail?
While training, even with a much lighter pack, you know you have actually hiked 18.2 miles in under six hours. Do you stop, turn around now, and with the available daylight left, force yourself to hike back 9 miles to the trail entrance, possibly ending your entire hike? If the muscle injury in your leg is actually serious, does knowing that you could camp overnight and continue hiking back to the trail entrance the next day, closing the distance as you go and passing two water sources along the way, make the decision to do any less painful?
In the end, I would learn that everything about my EPIC FAIL! on the North Country Trail was absolutely normal, and more!