Pace. The beautiful partnership of ability and desire. From the outside it seems rudimentary, innate. But those who step on the trail for the long haul know what pace seems to be is not what it is at all. It is a conflict, one to be solved by some and never by others. It is happiness. It is who you hike with. It is the most casting characteristic of a thru-hiker because of its overtness. It is where you are at any point in time. It is how your cards are dealt and also how you play them. Your goal pace and ability to attain this affects every aspect of your hike, and sometimes all we can do is find contentment in the inevitable lack of power over it.
Factors of Pace
One of the most common misconceptions about thru-hiking is that pace is all about ability. It’s easy to assume from the outside that the hikers who finish quicker are stronger than the ones who take more time, but this is not always true. For example, a hiker may hike thirty-mile days but then routinely take days off, so that another hiker who did 25-mile days but seldom took off days, would finish first. In this case, consistency got the hiker to the pot of gold first.
I met hikers on trail who finished before me for this very reason, not to say that I am a thirty-mile day fanatic. But this is just one of many examples of how pace can be deceptive and also the epitome of a scenario that makes many hikers reluctant to discuss their time spent on trail, something that matters significantly more to outside spectators.
Most hikers hike as much as they want regardless of whether or not they feel they can do more. If one can go twenty-two miles, but eighteen will land them at a scenic campsite, I think most will stop in eighteen.
This is where age plays a major role. The older a hiker is, the slower they are apt to go. A big day for a hiker under forty years old may be twenty-five to thirty miles while a hiker over sixty years old may take pride in breaking twenty, but this is not always true. I completed the PCT in a shorter time than most, and yet I know a handful of older hikers who crowned the path in less time. I leapfrogged a fifty-nine-year-old man for a couple weeks in northern California. Not once did I arrive at camp before him, and he finished in twenty less days.
This may be my greatest strength. Many hikers who hiked similar miles did so in longer blocks than me with less breaks, but my agility allowed me to consistently keep a pace of at least 3.2 miles an hour on clear terrain. I intend for this to come out with veracity, not conceit. There’s nothing I hated more than catching up to someone of similar age, because to do so implies you would like them to allow you to pass, and there’s nothing I want to allude less to one of my hiker friends (older hikers obviously an exception) than, “Hey. You’re slower than me. Now face it and make way.” I did my best to avoid these encounters, sometimes even stopping to let others gain lead.
Breaks on trail are restorative. Sleep is convalescent. I loved and valued my rest. Ideally I would never walk for more than two hours at a time, and my stops would vary from ones that only included grabbing a quick drink on my feet to hour-long lunches with swims. The restoration from taking a break is undeniable. What’s most important is that I noticed I enjoyed the hiking more after a break. And I love my sleep. I won’t ever be convinced there’s a more ideal place to do it than on trail. Some hikers put in their big miles and consistent pace from few breaks and shorter sleeps. I don’t thru-hike to deteriorate myself. Resting is half the fun.
Are you a social hiker, or an introvert? I don’t think I’ve found the answer to this one for myself, but if you put your pace at the mercy of a trail family, which many hikers do, you’re likely to either find yourself going slower or faster than you would otherwise.
For many people this is worth it. Friends are great. I find some of the slowest hikers are those who stick with their friends from early on and go the whole way with them. This can form inseparable bonds to last a lifetime, but for hikers like me, the stipulation of not being able to hike the way I want to is a deal breaker. Instead, I hiked the mileage I wanted to and took days off as I desired, letting the people that naturally were around me be my friends, temporary or not. This was also conducive to creating a literary-worthy story due to the frequently changing circles of people around me.
Ailments are always waiting right around the corner, ready for that one misstep or fall. Injuries are the paramount motivation for me to keep a good pace because of how abrupt and impactful they can be. One sprained ankle can require a week off. I started early and gave myself plenty of time to finish before the first snows of fall fell in Washington. It was assuring to have the security of a lead.
Pace increases slowly for most hikers in the beginning of a hike, making it hard to pinpoint a quantifiable estimate of what is right for you. I find I continue to get stronger even towards the end of a hike. The growth never stops. Sections that took three and a half days in the second third may have only taken three in the last.
This is also a time when hikers are trying to find their identity in the backpacking community. This reverts right back to the sociability component, as whether or not a hiker wants to stick with others long-term is a huge factor of this identity.
It’s confusing at the start. It took me over a month to figure out what I wanted. Initially I was sure I would want to meet a group of friends to hike the entire trail with, but as I went on it occurred to me that I preferred hiking at my own pace and putting sociability second, something that would inevitably be there if I kept a pace that wasn’t rooted in zeal.
Choosing What’s Important
I have no disdain for people who put pace as their top priority. Timothy Olsen, a sponsored runner, completed the Pacific Crest Trail in fifty-one days this year, requiring him to hike fifty to sixty-five miles over a span of seventeen hours each day, breaking the record for the fastest known time. I’ve thought about what it must feel like to be him, to have his level of renown. It must be incredible.
But I’m not Timothy Olsen. And speed is not what I strive for. What’s important to me is this: a balance of steady mileage and indulgence in towns. How do I do this? I commit to a red light.
Committing to a Red Light
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a hiker say, “I did this many more miles because I could,” I’d probably have about seventy-three dollars. You can always do more miles. This is why it’s important to set limits, or a red light, and to commit to these limits. I start my hiking days later than most, so for me my limits would usually go as so: choosing a campsite to minimally reach and if I had more time, hiking a little farther, but never hiking past 7:00 p.m. This way, I could maintain a pace but not get overambitious.
I’ve seen too many hikers get caught up in the obsession of exponential mileage and the lingering “what ifs” (what if I got to town in one less day?). Ultimately, this is why I finished the trail hours after the two hikers I was closest to in the end, passing them as they hiked back to Hart’s Pass. It was not the place I expected to celebrate with them, but knowing that I stayed true to myself, refusing to hike the last 110 miles in three and a half days and instead doing it in four, left me content.
Surrender to the unknown. Commit to campsites regardless of what time you get there. Take that extra day off in town with friends, and when it’s time to keep hiking—keep hiking. Because as much as you may want to believe you are in control of your fate on trail, you are not. And never, ever, regret a decision about pace. There is no right answer. You’ll reach that terminus one day, and this is what matters.
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