In August of 2020 I completed my first long-distance speed hike, when I traversed Shenandoah National Park north to south via the Appalachian Trail in under 60 hours. It was the culmination of months of planning what I call one of my Difficult Pursuits—done in the first year of the pandemic while social upheaval raged across the nation. Previous pursuits have included battling fatigue at altitude in the Rockies, a single day rim-to-rim crossing of the Grand Canyon, and another solo traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
And yet, the conditions, personal and societal, that loomed during the Virginia A.T. hike challenged me in ways like nothing had before and allowed me to strengthen my devotion to the mountains. Because the truth is, just six years ago, spending every waking hour of a weekend on a trail on my own was a far-fetched absurdity for me.
I moved to Virginia from Puerto Rico in 2015, right after college, excited to begin a new chapter in life I thought I understood. Within a few weeks of jumping ship, though, the bliss of previous experiences in the U.S. was replaced with the realities of adulthood in a place that felt foreign. Hiking, which had never been accessible back home, became a coping mechanism, the trails automatically providing refuge. Surprisingly, some of Virginia’s natural features – the lush green forests, crystal blue water holes, rooted paths—mirrored what I loved and missed in Puerto Rico. Through hiking I could go back and forth between my past and future, while still being entirely immersed in the experience of the present. The trails fulfilled my need for familiarity.
Difficult Pursuits has become an ongoing project that started rather serendipitously in my quest to prepare for a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2017. I knew I’d need to work hard if I truly wanted a shot at reaching the roof of Africa. Months prior to the climb, I challenged myself to a host of outdoor adventures to be ready for the Kili dream: running half-marathon obstacle course races, backpacking on my own, racking up training mileage in Shenandoah. Everything I accomplished, physically speaking, was “the hardest thing I’d ever done,” until I attempted the next feat. Consistently, I surprised myself with what my body and mind were capable of enduring in pursuit of a goal that had no tangible benefit except my own satisfaction. The trails became a blissful contradiction, where I satisfied both my craving for the familiar and looked for new experiences to endure. I obsessed over how much farther, longer, faster I could go, and this fixation only intensified after having seen a sunrise at 19,341 feet above sea level. The dream of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, more than reaching the summit itself, changed my life.
When I decided to section speed hike the A.T. in Shenandoah years later, I took the same approach as I had for Kilimanjaro and every other Difficult Pursuit since. I trained methodically, racked up mileage on trails, and carefully pushed myself to gauge my limits without breaking my spirits. Focusing on a Difficult Pursuit during the hardest months of the COVID-19 pandemic gave my quarantined life a sense of direction, a familiar North Star among an endless dark sky. The limitations in travel meant I had to get creative with my training and learn to see places I knew well—The Priest, Triple Crown, Three Ridges, Massanutten—with new eyes.
Through it all, I developed a heightened sense of appreciation for the place I called home and completely shattered my expectations of my physical capability to endure pain, as well as my emotional capacity to withstand it when I wanted to quit.
Difficult Pursuits started with the desire to better myself, and my adventures have progressed way beyond my expectations. Based on my background, it was improbable that I’d become a mountain athlete. I grew up on a small island, but I am not confined by Antillean length distances to define how far I’ll go. As I like to say, “born by the sea, raised for high ground,” with the best yet to come.
Follow more of the author’s adventures at difficultpursuits.com.
Cover photo: The author, hiking in the smokies. Photo courtesy of the author