Boston-based distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician Liz Derstine answers popular questions from her recent online presentation hosted by GMC as part of the James P. Taylor Outdoor Adventure Speaker Series. Liz shared her story of going from an amateur backpacker to becoming a comfortable and experienced solo night hiker, setting fastest-known-time records on the Appalachian, Pinhoti, and Long Trails.
Can you describe your single favorite day on the Appalachian Trail (AT) or Long Trail (LT)?
I would say it was my 50th day of the AT. I was in the 100 Mile Wilderness and it was my birthday. The trail was taking me longer than I had anticipated, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m still out here on my birthday. I should be done by now.” My day started in the dark at 2 a.m. and I hiked through a storm. The weather was changing, the wind was picking up in an exciting way, and I felt at one with the trail. That sounds really hippie-dippy but it all culminated with summiting Whitecap Mountain at the end of what was my longest day timewise. But I had done it. And I was at the top of this mountain in the middle of the night with cold wind whipping around me and I just felt electric and alive.
What keeps you moving on super long days? Where does your motivation come from once it starts to get tough? Especially in something like an ultra or a supported event when you could stop at any time.
Ultimately, for me, there has to be a very personal motivation. You must be “all in” and emotionally invested. Sometimes it’s simply curiosity – how far can I go, what will I learn, what’s around the next bend? As if you’re reading a book and don’t want to put it down before finding out what happens in the next chapter. If you stop, you’ll never know what could have happened. It would be a loss.
I came to a metaphorical crossroads on the AT. I had many acceptable reasons to quit: shin splints, blisters, sleep deficit, caloric deficit, falling behind record pace past the point of no return. My initial external motivator of breaking the women’s record was no longer a possibility. However, the thought of not reaching Katahdin was devastating and I couldn’t bear the thought of stopping. I cared about the journey enough to want to see it through to the end.
It’s great to have goals, but ultimately you have to expect that things are going to happen that are out of your control. There’s a lot of value in being open to seeing what happens or learning something new about yourself, even if you don’t get what you initially wanted. There’s also no shame in stepping away from something that is no longer serving you – just don’t quit when you’re low.
What type of training would you recommend for trail runners looking to tackle longer-distance hiking days? How did you deal with the pain of walking all day long?
As far as fitness, if you’re already trail running and have started tackling ultra distances, you might not need to change much about your general training. The main thing is to get used to doing a lot of walking. I thought I would be running a lot on the AT and ended up mostly walking and was completely inexperienced as a long-distance walker. I had to learn on the fly how to hike efficiently. My first day in the White Mountains was a huge wakeup call, but I did eventually get better. That skillset helped me greatly on the Long Trail.
Every so often, try spending a day just getting out and walking for a long time as you’re using slightly different muscles and foot placement. If you’re getting ready for something like the LT or AT with lots of elevation changes, make sure you’re getting in as many hilly runs and walks as possible, and on as many rocks/roots as possible. There are some things that are hard to replicate in training but you might want to anticipate:
A) blisters in new places. My feet are used to running and have calluses built up from years of running. However, whenever I go on long hiking adventures, I develop blisters on my heels because of the way I push off when I walk.
B) Shin splints, because I’m using that muscle over and over again to pick up my toes, especially on steep downhills on rocky/rooty terrain. I’ve never had issues in training, even on my longest multi-day training stints because they’re not as extreme and relentless as my FKT attempts. But with very long days hiking over and over, it can become a factor. I started carrying a hiking pole to alleviate the stress on my legs going downhill and it helped quite a bit. I now also do shin strengthening exercises a couple times a week (wall shin raises).
C) Swollen feet. I had trail running shoes that worked fantastic for me while training, but they were no match for long days on trails. I found I needed to go a half size or full size up, wide width if possible, and maximum cushion. The Hoka Speedgoat and Altra Olympus have worked well for me.
Any bears on the LT? Did you carry a bear canister?
On the LT I saw one bear just north of Waterbury as I was heading up toward Bolton! It ran away from me as soon as it saw me. That was on a training hike early in the morning. During my thru-hike, I kept my food and toiletries in an odor-proof bag and took advantage of the metal bear boxes at shelters. I saw no bears on my thru-hike, sadly!
I had one scary bear encounter on the AT in North Carolina just north of Hot Springs. It was around dusk and I was by myself. I’m a very quiet hiker and accidentally startled some bear cubs, which scurried up a tree as soon as they heard me. Next thing I knew there was a crashing sound in some nearby berry bushes and mama bear burst out onto the trail right in front of me! She snorted at me and bluff charged me a couple times as I backed away while facing her with my hands up saying, “whoa, whoa” as calmly as possible. She finally stopped advancing toward me, but then got up on her hind legs as if to give me one last warning to stay away.
Surprisingly, I calm in the moment, but after she went back to her cubs I looked down and my hands were shaking uncontrollably. I ended up bushwhacking in a very wide semi-circle around where she and the cubs were through some very thorny brush. I was wearing shorts and my legs got all cut up. Later when people asked me what happened to my legs I said, “Oh it was a bear!” 😉
What gear do you use for personal safety? How big of a concern is personal safety and what precautions do you take?
While on the Pinhoti Trail I learned that when hiking alone, you’re your own support crew. You can’t get so tired that you’re not cognizant of what’s going on. There’s a lot more responsibility involved in taking care of yourself and taking safety precautions. Here are some of the things I did ahead of the Pinhoti Trail to prepare myself for hiking solo:
- Know basic first aid and carry first aid supplies. Consider a Wilderness First Aid course certification.
- Take a self-defense course and refresh your skills at least once a year
- Carry two light sources always (like a headlamp and a flashlight) and extra batteries
- Carry a portable phone charger, but also know that cell service may be unreliable
- Know your “outs”: Where side trails and road crossing are located in case you need to get off trail in case of a weather emergency or other dangerous situation
- Have a contact list of people you know, hiker shuttle volunteers, and organizations associated with the trail nearby
- Carry a GPS tracker with messaging capability (like the Garmin InReach) that will work even if cell service doesn’t.
I also go further into my thoughts on safety while expanding your comfort bubble in a recent post on my own blog, Mercury on the Run!
Do you carry extra clothes? Even in the summer and fall, the LT and AT can get really cold!
Yes, on the LT and Pinhoti Trail I had a pair of tights, a long sleeve, a snap button fleece, poncho, gloves, water resistant mitts, and fleece headband. On the AT I was able to keep a lot of extra clothes in the support vehicle. I took a larger daypack and extra layers with me on the Presidential Traverse and Katahdin.
Favorite trail snack?
Generic fruit danishes, the kind you can get in a variety pack at the grocery store! They keep well and taste so good on the trail. That and a little can of Starbucks espresso & cream – it’s my favorite trail breakfast.
Do you have book recommendations to inspire hikers?
Apparently, books are the gateway for me. I love reading and I love reading about far-off adventures!
Two books that have been big sources of inspiration are “Becoming Odyssa” and “Called Again,” both by Jennifer Pharr Davis. “Becoming Odyssa” is about Davis’ own coming-of-age on the AT and how I learned about Warren Doyle, who later supported my record-setting hike on the AT, and the Appalachian Trail Institute, which is a workshop he hosts for those planning a thru or section hike. In “Called Again,” Davis talks more about her record-breaking AT hike. But while reading this my interest in the Long Trail was first piqued, as she mentions her experience on the trail in the beginning of the book.
Can you give some examples of how your life was changed forever?
I’m a planner, I like to know what to expect. And I like to think that I have control of everything (surprise, I don’t!) On the AT, I really didn’t anticipate I would be hiking so many hours at night alone and it wouldn’t have necessarily been my first choice. But I learned so much about myself and got to experience the trail in an intimate way, seeing the trail and all its phases, weather, and wildlife. It changed my life forever.
There are just so many instances where I found myself in these last few years of diving into this whole outdoor world that I can’t believe I had been missing out on this whole time. Times where I’m on a mountaintop or ridge and you look out and see nothing but silhouettes of mountains or the twinkling lights of the nearby town or stars in the sky or the very first glow of light before the sunrise and it feels like it’s all there just for you.
What is next?
I aspire to write a book. There’s so much to say and so many things to I want to share that I couldn’t cover in the time I had during my recent presentation as part of GMC’s speaker series. As for what’s next hiking-wise, I’m planning my next thru hike for this summer. I’m going to hike the Colorado trail together with a friend and I’m really excited. Also, I’ll be graduating from my master’s program in spring of 2024, so naturally, I’m looking at the end to one thing in my life and thinking that could be a great opportunity to do another big long thru hike.
Watch Liz’s full presentation: