Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's in a Name?

If you are unfamiliar with the Appalachian Trail (AT) and its lingo, you may wonder why I call myself "Stats". You see, it's tradition on the AT for long distance hikers to be given so-called trail names. Nicknames, really, that offer an immediate look into the person's personality, quirkiness, or trail happenstance. Names like "Sir Trips-a-lot", "Roadrunner", or "Mosquito Bait".

In my case, "Stats" was given to me by a former colleague and old friend from Down Under, Mark Tannoc. During my first year as a high school teacher in Mississippi, Mark used to call me "Stats Modem" because it rhymed with Odom and because I was the softball team's statistician and school's IT coordinator. Mark often called me simply "Stats".

I never had a nickname that I liked (let alone could repeat in in respectable company) until "Stats". Nicknames never stuck with me, so I resurrected it for my thru-hike because I liked the sound of it and it seemed to fit with the book I plan on writing after my adventure. The book, entitled "Stats on the A.T.", will provide many statistics, data, and figures regarding my adventure as well as daily narratives. I don't believe a book like this has been written, so this endeavor is doubly exciting for me.

Traditionally, the trail name was given to the hiker by his/her fellow hikers near the start of the thru-hike and would be worn as a badge of honor. More and more often, however, hikers today hit the Trail with their moniker already determined. I'm a little sad that I've chosen my own name, but I think I'll rest easier knowing my fellow hikers won't be calling me "Missing Link", "Pest" or "Sir Farts-a-lot"!

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Stats' Maps - Follow my progress

Welcome friends! You've come to the right place if you want to follow my progress as I make my way along the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) from Springer Mtn, GA to Mt. Katahdin, ME. Along the way it passes through 14 states.

Perhaps the best way to follow me is with this link to my full-size Google Map entitled "AT Map for Stats". (The map address is http://g.co/maps/upzkv.) The map will be blank until March 13, 2012, when I will take my first of 5,000,000 steps northward. I estimate the trek will take me 5.5 months to complete.

Once you're at the map page (and after I've begun my journey), you'll see red teardrop markers at the beginning and ending positions of each of my recorded tracks (in blue). Clicking on these markers will reveal the date it was recorded. Alternatively, you can scroll down the panel to the left of the map and click on one of the dated icons to zoom to that position. (If the panel is hidden, show it by clicking on the show button.) In this way you can follow my progress. Unfortunately, I will be unable to keep my phone's GPS unit on all the time (doing so would suck my battery dry), so most of my tracks will be quite short in length unless I'm coming into town and know I can recharge the phone after a day of GPS tracking. I plan on recording my position at least once a day, but I imagine I'll also record the coordinates of special places to which I'd like to return with my family. Therefore, this map will typically show little snippets of my path, not a detailed step-by-step progression.

Some of my friends and family are charting my progress on the Appalachian Trail National Scenic Trail Map. If you want a copy of this map, you can purchase it from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) for about $3, or you can download it from the National Park Service. If you download and want to print the map, try changing the Page Scaling on the Print window to "Tile larger pages":

For a really good interactive map, check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's (ATC) Interactive Map. This map shows not only the entire AT, but also images of scenic vistas and shelters along the way. You can zoom in to view road crossings and which towns I'll be coming through.

Below is the embedded map of my hike, but the Trail is just too long to fit into the tiny window. You're probably better off just clicking on the full-size map.

View AT Map for Stats in a larger map

Friday, February 24, 2012

Hiking at the Gym

In a little over two weeks I will begin my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and I am looking for ways to maximize my workout potential. To that end, I've taken to wearing my loaded backpack when I'm on the treadmill at my gym (the NAC). The workouts have been great, and while it certainly isn't the same as hiking in the woods, backpacking on a treadmill has done a lot to prepare my body for the heavy load I'll have to carry for five-and-a-half months.

I am working hard to get back into the kind of shape I was in before my double hernia surgery six weeks ago, and I've been increasing the weight in my pack and the angle of inclination of the treadmill. (I'm up to 25 pounds in the pack, an inclination of 14°, a speed of 3 mi/hr, for durations of one to two hours and I'm feeling great!)

I certainly feel conspicuous walking into the posh gym lugging a big ole pack on my back. I don't get too many awkward stares, though, because I arrive at the gym when it opens at 5 (as usual) and then sneak into upper balcony through the empty spin room to do the workout. I leave the pack up there while I'm showering and grab it just before I leave.

I've done a lot of hiking and I think this method is great for folks training for the AT on a strict time budget.

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Last week I began experiencing some abdominal pain in the region of my two repaired hernias. I didn't do anything stupid; I just began feeling discomfort and at times sharp pain. Until then, I had been recovering remarkably well from my surgery. A month had passed and I was slowly but steadily increasing my daily exercise intensity and feeling pretty great and positive for my thru-hike. 

When the pain appeared last week, a trickle of doubt entered my head and at moments of weakness I began thinking the worst: that I had another hernia or my mesh patches had somehow come undone.  Deep down I knew I was fine and my discomfort was normal to the healing process, but even the tiniest bit of doubt can cause much consternation if you let it!  A quick trip to Dr. Choi’s office confirmed that I was indeed fine and would just have to live with the discomfort for a while.  I knew this to be true, and yet I had doubted it.  If you’re not careful, doubt can be a thru-hike killer!

To train for a thru-hike, one must learn to overcome doubt just as one learns what it takes to summit a mountain or cook with a camp stove.  Uncertainty and doubt will rear its ugly head if you aren’t vigilant and maintain a positive attitude.  I’d be lying to you if I said I was always positive and confident, but after years of rebounding from a number of seemingly hike-ending ailments, I’ve learned that it’s usually OK to work through the pain and that tomorrow will be better.

Throughout my 2.5-year preparation for my thru, I've had countless encounters with pessimistic thoughts, doubts, and uncertainties. Three years ago I was experiencing knee pain in the year following my second knee surgery. Back then I recall coming home from long training hikes with painful, sore, and swollen knees, hobbling into bed, and cultivating a nagging doubting about my knees surviving the abuse of a thru-hike.  However, I’d wake up the next morning feeling refreshed, positive, and ready to go. This would be a repeating pattern.

My feet were the source of many worries.  I had problems with them when I wore a heavy pack and went for long hikes. Sore arches were common and often the side of my right foot ached when I worked out. On long hikes blisters were prevalent and I lost a couple of toenails. With each of these ailments, doubt crept into my mind: am I crazy to think I can hike 2,200 miles through horrible weather and rough terrain? One day at a time, I had to keep reminding myself. If I could take just one more step, then I could probably take one more after that, and so on.  And I quickly learned how to problem-solve and prevent problems from occurring.  Many of the issues with my feet had to do with heavy and poor fitting boots.  I switched from full-grain leather boots to lightweight synthetic boots by Salamon and overnight I felt better.  I was also surprised to learn that many of my foot problems stemmed from the fact that my foot had grown a full size (from 12 to 13) during my rigorous training period.  Buying larger shoes fixed many of the issues I was having, and fact that I could diagnose the problem and solve it empowered me to take ownership of my hike.

Here’s the thing: just because one has doubts doesn’t mean one has to give into them.  Everyone has misgivings from time to time, we just can’t allow them to build up unchecked in our mind and take over.  If you are honest with yourself, you’ll know which conditions are serious (and warrant medical attention) and which can be worked through with perseverance and a positive attitude.  Most of my little aches and pains during my training eventually went away on their own. Knowing this before I set foot on Springer Mountain should prove invaluable on my thru-hike. And the confidence I’ve gained each time I put aside that damned little nagging, doubting voice will hopefully get me to Maine. I am sure that pain, frustration, discomfort and doubt are all part and parcel to a long distance hike, but so too must be joy, encouragement, beauty and excitement! All of these should be - must be - embraced on the Trail as well as during your training.

These are just of the few of the issues that caused me to doubt my chances of completing such an arduous endeavor. Fortunately, my family and friends have been very supportive every step along the way, doing much to counter any feelings of inadequacy and doubt. (I know many would-be thru-hikers do not have the support of their loved ones, and I can't imagine how difficult it must be for them to answer the nagging doubts within their own head while trying to convince others that their adventure is not a dangerous or foolhardy endeavor!)

I’ll leave you with this quote by Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t -- you're right.”  Envision success and it will come!

Monday, February 13, 2012

One Month To Go!

March 13 is only one month away!

Thirty days from now I'll find myself on Springer Mountain, Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and begin my grand adventure toward Mt. Katahdin, Maine, the Trail's northern terminus.  My emotions are running the gamut.  Excitement. Nervousness. Desire to spend as much time with my kids as I can before I depart.  Anxiety that I won't cross off all the items of my To-Do List.

Where's the pause button?!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hanging Out One Cold, Cold Night

Both my parents did a good job instilling in me the importance of being prepared, and I think I've applied their lessons to my hike. When I was playing basketball in my youth, my dad would always tell me, "practice like you play," and while nothing truly prepares one for a thru-hike, I've tried to test myself and my gear under conditions similar to those that I am likely to encounter on my thru.

One thing I had yet to test was how my Hennessy Hyperlite Hammock would perform in very cold temperatures. In warm summer months the hammock is a great way to sleep. Because you're off the ground there's no thermal conduction between you and the warm Earth, and through conductive means (wind) your body heat rapidly dissipates. For these same reasons, sleeping in a hammock in the winter makes for some potentially frigid sleeps.

I've heard great things about using Hennessy's Super Shelter to sleep warmly, but for pack weight reasons I've elected to simply put my RidgeRest SOLite pad under my 25° down sleeping bag (Halo from REI).  (The SOLite pad is covered with Mylar on one side, which reflects some of my radiated heat back to me. I think I will carry this regular length pad even in warm weather in the event I find myself sleeping in a shelter.)    

This has been a strange winter here in the eastern half of the U.S. in that the temperatures have been quite mild and snowfall practically nonexistent. So last night I when a cold front rolled down from Canada, I took a short hike down to the creek running through campus to spend the night in the frigid temperatures. It was a valid test for the most extreme AT conditions. When I set up the hammock at 9 pm there was a light wind and the ambient temperature was in the upper 20's.  At midnight, the temperature was 23°F, but by now the wind was blowing at 15 mph making the wind chill 8°F.  By 4:00 in the morning, it had dropped to 18°F (but the 20 mph winds created a bitter equivalent 1°F wind chill). When I awoke at 6:00 the temperature had dropped even further to 16°F, the 9 mph winds making it feel like 9°F. For most of the night light snow or freezing rain fell, with the relative humidity at 85%.

Obviously I survived the experience and was actually fairly warm for most of the night. I wore my mid-weight Smart Wool long underwear, a pair of Darn Tough wool socks, and a synthetic balaclava. Except for my feet, which are always cold, I slept warmly unless I rolled off the SOLite pad causing cold to creep up and into my bag.

At 3 or 4 in the morning I was forced out of my warm cocoon because nature was calling in a big way! (Why is it that the urination duration is indirectly proportional to the ambient temperature?) After returning to the shelter of my hammock, it was evident that my 25° down bag wasn't able to keep up with the falling temps even though I now wore my thin fleece jacket. Luckily I had my brother's vapor barrier liner (VBL) in the hammock with me, ready to be tested. My brother, Kyle, has been educating me on the benefits of VBLs when the mercury plummets. He sent me the one he used on his bike ride across Japan and encouraged me to carry it on my AT hike. The VBL is a waterproof sleeping bag liner that traps both body heat and moisture, thereby significantly improving the insulation rating of any bag. It is only useful in cold - not cool - temps because otherwise you'd wake up drenched in sweat.

Just two days ago I told Kyle of my plans to test my sleep systems, including his VBL, but that I doubted I'd take the VBL with me on my thru-hike. After all, my down sleeping bag and SOLite pad was all I needed, right? At 4 in the morning, I promptly changed my mind and wriggled my way into Kyle's nylon liner. After that, I slept warmly and soundly. No cold spots, no cold feet, no tossing and turning. Just a great sleep. The VBL is definitely coming with me on my thru-hike, at least through spring in the southern mountains and again in the Whites of New Hampshire, where weather can change on a dime and snow in August is not uncommon.

My comfort level took a nosedive at 6 am when I had to exit the hammock and break camp. I knew I was in trouble when I reached down under my hammock and grabbed my boots. I tried pulling them up but they were frozen to the ground. I pulled harder and large patches of earth came up with each shoe, having frozen to their soles.

Despite being given a nice pair of gloves and a mitten shell by another three of my brothers (Gy, Joey and Douglas), I needed full use of my fingertips to untie the hammock knots and therefore had to remove the gloves. Within minutes my fingers were numb and in pain. I was so cold that I didn't bother to untie the tent stakes from the rain fly, opting instead to roll up the metal stakes inside the fly. Under normal conditions I would never take a shortcut like that and risk damaging the expensive tarp, but my hands were in serious pain and I was desperate to break camp and get moving to warm up.

(Kyle had also given me a pair of neoprene gloves that can expose the fingertips, but they were too warm to hike with and took a long time to dry once soaked with sweat so I was thinking that these might not accompany me on the trek. However, in light of my severe discomfort at the campsite, I am leaning toward bringing them along as a pair of camp gloves until I am through the Smokies.)

Next, I need to experiment with my lightweight Salomon boots in some deep snow, which we may not see in this crazy winter we're experiencing!

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Lifting Weights

It's been a month since my hernia surgery and I've been pleased both with my progress and my patience.  The urge to jump back into my regular exercise routine was easy to keep in check knowing how high the stakes were - push it too hard too soon and I'd jeopardize starting my thru-hike on time. As is it, I'm right on schedule this week to do some weight lifting for the first time since the surgery. In fact, the last time I lifted any weights was easy back in the middle of December.  (I stopped because, quite literally, I had a feeling in my gut that something was wrong.) Today, hours after the 90-minute weightlifting session this morning, I certainly feel a little sore, especially in the abdomen, legs and chest, but overall I feel great. I cut back to 75-90% of my pre-surgery capacity depending on the targeted muscle group. I was quite surprised that my adductors were weaker than my abdominals! The first week after my surgery I made sure I was completely inactive, save for walking around the house and teaching a couple of classes. The second week I walked, slowly and on flat surfaces. During the third week I continued my walking routine but I increased the speed significantly and added some inclined treadmill work.  This week it's weights, treadmill, some campus hikes. I'll keep doing this for a couple of weeks until February 25 when I'll go out on a real hike - the last test before I hit the Trail for good. To be sure, the next couple of weeks are important for my continued recovery. Again I find the NAC (Newtown Athletic Club) to be indispensable to my recovery efforts!
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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sweet Sweat

I'm so excited to have worked out this morning to the extent of actually producing sweat. And it didn't just glisten on my brow.  Although the picture above doesn't show it well, beads of sweat were running down my face and body. After nearly a month of significantly reduced exercise, it felt so good to get so sweaty and stinky! 

Afterwards I stretched and felt great. Stretching, I've found, is one of the keys to being pain-free after a hard workout or long hike. This is especially true with a consistent and long-term exercise program. I wonder if I'll remember this and make time to stretch while on the Trail, or will I be too tired to think?

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

6 Miles and 25 Pounds Along the Tow Path

After yesterday's successful campus "hike" with Josie, I was delighted to get a phone call from my colleague and hiking buddy, Molly, asking if I wanted to take an easy hike along the Delaware River Tow path with her and our retired teacher friend, Reed.  I jumped at the chance to hike with two of my favorite people and also to test my recovering body with a bit of a workout.

Today I loaded the pack with more mass, bringing it weight to 25 lbs.  Generally I felt good, but did experience some transient pain in my left knee and along the outside of my right foot.  Despite some tenderness where the pack's belt rested upon my hips, I experienced no pain in the abdominal region.  However,   I could tell that due to my reduced exercise regimen as of late, my feet had lost some of their toughness and hot spots were developing.  The average walking speed over the 6.1-mile journey was recorded at 3.6 mph.

I'm afraid that during the first three miles of the hike I was so focused on listening to my body that I wasn't very good company.  But after a short rest and snack break at the picnic tables in front of the Colonial Farms Gourmet Food Store in Washington's Crossing, I realized my body was fine and concentrated more on the conversation.

On the way to the market we met Roadrunner, an AT section-hiker who lacked only the portion of the Trail between Springer Mountain and Damascus before completing his end-to-end hike. He'll be on that section thus June, but I should be far north of him by then. If I'm not, I'll be in big trouble and certainly won't complete the hike before school begins in September.

I think the kids would enjoy this easy hike, especially if we bought cupcakes at the food store, which were voted the best in the Philly area in 2011. Josie is big into cupcakes these days!

View Tow Path With Reed And Molly 2/7/12 2:19 PM in a larger map.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

First Hike Post Surgery - On Campus with Josie

I just got back from an easy 3-mile hike around campus with my daughter, Josie.  I wore my pack for the first time since my surgery, and I felt great.  I only carried 18 pounds, about half what it will weigh when fully loaded with food, water and gear during my thru-hike of the AT.

While on the trails, Josie and I ran into our buddies, Judy and Polly, with their dogs Guido and Jetta.  Below are a few images Josie took along the way.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hernia Surgery Images

Warning! The following are images from my recent surgery and if you are squeamish you may want to skip this post. 

The two images below are of some abdominal fat that was protruding through the bi-lateral, inguinal hernias in my fascia.  (In the images, the fat appears white in color (it's actually yellow) and is being held in the surgeon's tools.  The transparent balloon-like membrane is the peritoneum.)

In the image below you can make out one of the tears in the fascia connective tissue, which is supposed to separate my intestines from my abdominal muscles.

My two hernias were repaired with a couple of flexible mesh patches, shown below.  The mesh is made of flexible plastic much like nylon fishing line, and is held in place with titanium staples.  Eventually, scar tissue will surround and cover the mesh, making the patch even stronger.

Thanks for the pics and and your superb work on my guts, Dr. Garvey Choi!  Thanks, also, for the quick turn-around!  I am excited and appreciative to have these hernias repaired with enough time for me to get back in shape for my thru-hike attempt of the Appalachian Trail.  You are a surgical rock-star! 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Almost Sweating

It's been about two and a half weeks since my surgery and a little over a week since I returned to the NAC gym to "workout". These hour-long sessions began with me only able to walk at 1.5 miles/hour and a week later I am able to sustain 3.8 miles/hour on the level treadmill. Today I actually felt a little bead of sweat develop on my brow, but it wasn't enough to trickle down my face. I can't wait to sweat again! However, I'm happy that I'm not over-doing it and am pleased with my recovery progress.

Our school has just built a nice, modern track and I spent a few nights this week walking it at what I thought was slow speed. My phone's GPS said otherwise; my speed on the track was as much as 50% faster than the speed on the treadmill. I assume this is an indication that my body is ready to crank it up a notch.

Next week I'll do just that by inclining the treadmill, walking around the school's track with a partially-loaded backpack, and lifting some weights.