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The Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania is inlaid with thousands and thousands of speed bumps. Rocks of all shapes and sizes stick out in any and all directions for miles and miles and miles. Every step is an exercise in problem solving.
The first time I covered those miles, I joined the chorus of complaining thru-hikers. The second time, during my record-setting, self-supported speed hike in 2011, the trail’s worst miles barely registered.
We all learn how to hike by staring at our feet. Our brains, fully engaged, assess every square inch of trail, scanning for flat spaces between rocks, good footing around roots—the path of least resistance. It’s flat-out exhausting. We all know those end-of-day stumbles once the brain runs out of processing power. That’s a tough time to be an ankle.
Sometime around the 3,000th mile I hiked, something started to change. My brain, so practiced in spatial problem solving, began to do the task by itself. My feet were free. I could trust the strength in my ankles. I could look up.
The next year, I could walk down Forest Service roads reading a map. Then a guidebook. Then a novel. Now, my feet pick the best way down by instinct and gravity. Descending feels as smooth and obvious as water choosing its course. Rock-hopping is no trickier than dismounting the conveyor belts at the airport. I can stay in this state for four hours easy, moving at a brisk 3 mph, before some physical need like hunger or warmth taps the brakes.
In time, something else happened. When my leg muscles started remembering everything, my brain began processing in the background. My muscle memory was written into my stride. Hiking was less an activity than an identity.
And over the 15,000 miles I’ve hiked, I’ve realized this truth: Speed is not just a function of how strong you are. Fit hikers slow down in tricky terrain. But practiced hikers don’t. Speed flows from smoothness. It’s coded in my head and stored in my legs, and now, my stride is part of who I am. It’s my signature, written in footprints on the great long trails of America.
—As told to Casey Lyons