Battle of the Sexes on the Appalachian Trail

Jennifer Pharr Davis who set the record for fastest know time for a supported hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011 has probably set another record- authoring the longest known essay about the same trail ever to be published in the New York Times. This essay consumes an entire page and a half, including pictures and will complement the long distance hiker and author’s previous record for her supported hike of the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, a record just broken by ultra-marathon runner and author Scott Jurek.

Pharr Davis, a serious long distance hiker but with minimal ultra marathon running experience, hiked the 2,100 mile AT in 46 days with the aid of a crew to provide her with food and a chair or van to get some rest at road

Pharr Davis resting during  her AT record setting hike. New York Times, Melissa Dobbins

Pharr Davis resting during her AT record setting hike. New York Times, Melissa Dobbins

crossings along the way. Jurek, a 7 time in-a-row winner of the 100 mile Western States Endurance Run trail race which takes place each year in the mountains of northern California and a celebrated ultra marathoner, broke Pharr Davis’s record this past summer, but only by three hours, which is a surprisingly narrow margin over more than 46 plus days.

In a long piece supra titled ‘essay’ and titled ‘Gender Gap Narrows as

Pharr Davis on the trail. Appalachianjake.wordpress.com

Pharr Davis on the trail. Appalachianjake.wordpress.com

Miles Add Up’ which appeared in the sports section of the Times on November 4, 2015, Pharr Davis discusses the trail and the records for fastest known time on it. But her real subject is exploring the role of gender in feats of endurance. She recalls the incredulity she received after posting her AT record as she received suggestions that “she must be an exceptional woman-or, an androgynous one-to hike the trail so quickly”, comments, that she writes, caused her ” to doubt my own accomplishment. I wondered, what was different or wrong with me?”.

Pharr Davis recounts the successes and failures of other long distance hiking and ultra running superstars, such as Karl Meltzer and Heather Anderson, the latter of whom recently set a fastest known time for an unsupported hike of the AT, another record for a female. The author goes on to interview exercise physiologists and other experts, even Scott Jurek himself, who offer thoughts about the advantages or disadvantages of either sex when it comes to completing long distance endurance activities, debating the value of men’s strength and muscle build versus women’s lighter weight skeletal frames and increased levels of estrogen.

For herself, Pharr Davis surmises that “maybe women have a genetic and evolutionary advantage when it comes to enduring physical pain and stress”. Frankly, anyone who can go fast over 100 miles and especially 2,100 miles gets my attention and respect, and, this may indeed be one area where guts and grit make the difference more than an X or Y chromosome.

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50,000 Ways to Spend a Sunday

This past Sunday morning about 50,000 people of all ages and abilities challenged themselves to run the New York City marathon, 26.2 miles through the streets of the city, finishing the last 6 miles in Central Park. The elite runners ran at close to 13 miles an hour, finishing in a bit over 2 hours. About half of the runners finished in less than four hours and fifteen minutes and some, well, let’s just say, they could have walked as fast.

This past Sunday night about 50,000 people sat for more than 3 hours to watch what would be the final game in the 2015 baseball World

Series, where the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets, winning their 4th game out of five. The baseball fans were encouraged to get up and stretch after the completion of the seventh inning and people were free to walk around during the game as well. But watching a baseball game is a spectator sport.

There were most likely some people who ran the marathon in the morning and went to the baseball game at night, for a memorable Sunday participating in two significant annual events. If someone was lucky enough to fill their day with both those events, that would indeed be a day to remember.

Mostly though I suspect there were the runners and there were the watchers. And on this past Sunday they were pretty well balanced, at about 50,000 people apiece.

The runners and the watchers. Or, to think of it another way, the doers and the sitters, neither one inherently superior to the other just markedly different types of activities. On a broader societal scale, we can categorize ourselves, at times, as either consumers or producers, each necessary and invaluable. We all can not be exclusively consumers for than who would produce what we consume? And this past Sunday, the runners benefitted from the cheering crowds who had lined the streets to watch them, not so different from the 50,000 people who sat in Citi Field to cheer on their favorite baseball team.

USDA foot recommendations (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/)

USDA foot recommendations (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/)

As a city, a community, a country, and even a world, we need both the runners and the watchers, the producers and the consumers. But as individuals, we also need our own varied diet of activity, similar to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Plate, which recommends a variety of types of foods in healthy amounts. Not all carbs and not all proteins. Not all fruits and not all vegetables. Similarly we need to mix up the watching with the running, the consuming with the producing.

“My Feet” Chart

What if in addition to a ‘My Plate’ diagram, we also referred to a ‘My Feet’ diagram, which would suggest where our feet should be throughout an average day. About one quarter to one third of the day would show our feet in bed, a third or so of the clock would show our feet at work, in school, creating and producing or otherwise involved in some type of sedentary activity. A portion of the My Feet pie chart would show our feet under the kitchen table and a miscellaneous slice would allow for personal needs. But a solid slice of the daily pie would show our feet in a pair of sneakers, either indoors or out, getting some exercise.  And there would also be the ‘Weekend My Feet’ chart which would replace a portion of the work/school slice with even more time exercising or otherwise being active.

This past Sunday was an interesting look into how so many people  chose to spend their time in a major metropolitan city. The runners we know also prepared by training for a few months in advance.  And the World Series attendees had to hustle somewhat to get their ticket and the price may even have caused them to break into a sweat although their chosen activity was mostly sedentary with some periods of standing and cheering.

But in a well balanced life, we would all run some and watch some, consume some and produce some, win some and as reality would have it, lose some too.

Howard E. Friedman

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Wet Foot, Cold Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot

This morning was a crisp autumn one, cool, azure sky with feathery brush strokes of cumulus clouds scattered about. No precipitation I thought, until I ran through ankle high grass and weeds. My feet became saturated since I do not wear water proof shoes and the thin dewy moisture on the grass blades and small clover petals soaked right through my fabric shoes, penetrated my mostly polyester socks and sent a distracting cold and wet sensation directly from my toes to my brain.

Water proof shoes are heavily advertised as a must have feature. Gore-tex lined shoes whether for running or hiking are de rigueur, it seems. But I have persisted in buying only non water proof foot wear, with the exception of winter boots. One way or another, your feet will be getting wet. Wear water proof shoes and your feet will perspire yet the shoes will not release all of the moisture. Wear non water proof shoes and your feet will absorb moisture from the dew or rain on the ground or when you land in a puddle or tip toe through a stream.

But at least in my case, I know that eventually my feet will dry, since moisture can evaporate out of my unlined shoes, especially as they are warmed by my hyperthermic feet. In a gore tex lined shoe, moisture is trapped inside your shoe and can not evaporate until you take them off and let them air dry. Your feet are cocooned in a most un-natural layer of impermeable fabric.

I accept that feet will get wet on the trail or off road, and even cool of chilly.  I am not running or hiking on a sidewalk and thus, having some of nature encroach upon my feet is a small price to pay for keeping my feet, and me, more in touch with the ground they tread upon. Of course, if I really wanted to be in close contact with the ground, I would run or hike barefoot, as some intrepid people do. But I am not motivated to that level. Yet I do feel that my rationale, which I adapted after reading the thoughts of ultra long distance hiker Andrew Skurka, a number of years ago, have served me well. I enjoy the unexpected cold burst of wet feet that surprises me from time to time in the same way I am pleasantly surprised by a chance encounter with an unexpected sighting of an eastern bluebird or scarlet tanager or northern oriole, or deer or chipmunk, or very rarely, a bear. The exposure to what nature offers, when dosed in safe and rational measures, is part of the experience of being out doors. And as part of being rational, for example, I do not endorse going coat less in a dousing rain or hat less in a blistering sun, actions which would just be foolish and unsafe.

But wet feet once in a while can actually enhance the day outdoors, connect you to the trail or path you have chosen to follow and help create an all encompassing trail experience.

Scott’s shoes for the Appalachian Trail Record 2015

Scott Jurek shows his feet after 2,180 miles on the AT (from Scott Jurek's Facebook page)

Scott Jurek shows his feet and re-fuels after 2,180 miles on the AT (from Scott Jurek’s Facebook page)

What do you wear on your feet if you plan to run and hike more than 45 miles a day, seven days a week for more than six weeks, on hard packed dirt and rock covered trails, running over tree roots, through the water, pounding stone and sharp rocks, slogging through mud and either running up or down steep terrain and even mountains for much of the time?

Last week, ultra long distance runner Scott Jurek set a new record for the fastest time to complete the entire 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail. Jurek ran and power hiked the trail in 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes, breaking the previous record by 3 hours. For some perspective, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy which oversees the trail suggests people allow 5-7 months to complete the entire trail. Jurek took just six weeks and four days.  But the Trail Conservancy estimate allows time for resupplying food along the way from towns near the trail as well as the slower pace of a backpacker carrying all his or her own gear. Jurek, on the other hand, ran the trail “supported”, meaning he did not carry his clothes or a tent and his food and a place to rest or sleep were prepared by his support crew, which for most of the effort, was his wife, Jenny.

Jurek closing in on Mt. Katahdin, a terminus of the AT, wearing Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes (from his FB page)

Jurek closing in on Mt. Katahdin, a terminus of the AT, wearing Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes (from his FB page)

Nonetheless, covering that distance in that amount of time still required Scott Jurek to run or hike on average close to 47 miles a day, day after day, seven days a week. So what did he wear on his feet?

I put that question to Brooks Shoes‘ Derek Lactaoen. Brooks, based in Seattle, WA is a long time sponsor of Scott Jurek’s long distance trail efforts. On this AT effort Scott went through 8 pairs of shoes, Mr. Lactaoen reported, which averages out to 272 miles per pair of shoes, if he switched them at regular intervals, which no one was really tracking. At that calculated average, Jurek did follow Brooks’ estimation that its trail shoes will last between 250-300 miles.

And what shoes did he wear? For a record breaking run of the AT, you would need real grit.

Brooks Pure Grit 4 trail shoes

Brooks Pure Grit 4 trail shoes

And, of Scott’s eight pair of shoes, seven pairs were from Brooks’ Pure Grit shoe line, three pairs of Pure Grit 3 and four pairs of Pure Grit 4. The eighth pair were Cascadia 10 shoes. No information was available about why he selected these models, but at this point after running so many of his ultra marathon races as a Brooks athlete, the fact that he used primarily the Pure Grit shoes says something about what he is most comfortable in. The Pure Grit 3 shoes are low weight, about 10 ounces, and have a relatively low heel drop, about 7 mm, according to Runners’ World. And, according to Brooks, Jurek had no significant foot problems on his run with the exception of some blisters. He did have to deal with an injured quadriceps and a sore knee, injuries that have been well reported.

Brooks Pure Grit 3 trail shoes

Brooks Pure Grit 3 trail shoes

So, what can an average runner or hiker learn from the selection of shoes Scott Jurek chose to wear for his 2,180 run and hike of the Appalachian Trail? The take home message probably is that when it comes to shoes, stick with a brand and model that are comfortable and work for you, and if you can afford to change shoes as they wear out, definitely do so.

Oh, and it’s okay if your are running in last year’s model. Scott did.

Howard E. Friedman

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Mt. Everest: Man vs. Mountain vs. Tectonic Plates

from nytimes.com (04/25/15) The base camp at Mount Everest after an avalanche on Saturday. Credit Azim Afif/via Associated Press

from nytimes.com (04/25/15) The base camp at Mount Everest after an avalanche on Saturday. Credit Azim Afif/via Associated Press

For hikers, trekkers, trail runners, and armchair adventurers, Mt. Everest has to loom large as an ultimate destination. Unfortunately, over the past 20 years, so much high altitude catastrophic loss of life has occurred there. As of 10 p.m. EST on April 24, 2015, the New York Times is reporting another 17 people have perished on the mountain after an avalanche swept through base camp, killing climbers in their tents at base camp, and cutting off those camped above the avalanche beyond the Khumbu icefall section of the route. This avalanche is attributed to the magnitude 7.8 earthquake with its epicenter near Kathmandu which struck today and the subsequent aftershocks.  That event has reportedly claimed well more than 1,800 lives with that number surely to be revised upwards. In a chilling coincidence, with respect to Mt. Everest, this past week marks one year since 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall area between base camp and camp one on the mountain’s southeastern ridge.

Writer Mark Synott posted a thoughtful piece about guided climbs on Mt. Everest on adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com just days before this most recent catastrophe and loss of human life occurred. In his piece, titled ‘Everest-a moral dilemma’, which now seems very dated, reading it through the prism of the current unfolding maelstrom of even more human suffering,  Synott  questions some of the brazen trends developing among guiding companies working to put more and more eager people on the summit of the world’s highest mountain, whether those paying clients are qualified high altitude climbers or not. But Synott also looks back to a simpler time, at some of the great victories on Everest when the struggle was really man vs. mountain, a time when only the most prepared and daring would deign to make that climb.

In an eerie bit of foreshadowing, Synott concluded his  thoughts on Everest by writing that “there is high drama to be found on the world’s highest mountain…”. He surely did not anticipate another tragic climbing season with the loss of life reported so far only paling in comparison to the loss of life, human suffering and tremendous devastation ongoing in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and the surrounding region.

Man versus mountain may succeed once in a while. Men versus moving tectonic plates, however, will never win. We watch helplessly from afar but hope and pray that swift relief will come to all affected, on Everest and throughout Nepal.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Another New Trail Shoe Trend

(originally appeared in Trail Walker, quarterly publication of the NY/NJ Trail Conference Spring 2015)

Extra thick soled hiking and trail running shoes are being promoted this Spring and hikers will even see extra thick hiking boots heavily advertised soon, as well. Some of these shoes, referred to as “maximalist” shoes, have soles that are more than three times as thick as even standard hiking and trail running shoes. While ‘maximalist’ shoes have been around for a few years, they were mostly a niche product available from the manufacturers on line or in independent outdoor gear stores. Now, national and regional retailers like REI and Campmor are even selling this unique type of shoes.

The maximalist trail shoes stand out primarily for one feature – mid-sole material almost 1.25 inches thick, often made of a proprietary mix of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) foam blended with rubber to create increased cushioning.

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

, like the famous Western States 100 mile race  (Karl Meltzer) and posting speed records on the Pacific Crest Trail (Heather “Anish Anderson”) and John Muir Trails (Liz Thomas).

Hikers, backpackers and ultra-marathoners have embraced these re-designed shoes for three reasons. First, the generous cushioning through the mid-sole layer of the shoes provides shock absorption whether running or hiking on the trail or on the road. Second, the shoes have either minimal “drop”, (the height difference between the heel and the forefoot), or, no ‘drop’ at all. Proponents of shoes with minimal or zero “drop” claim that they promote a natural gait with a less forceful impact and allow for a more efficient functioning of the achilles tendon. Third, the maximalist shoes, which now include mainstream brands such as Vasque, Brooks and Skechers, in addition to the two most popular brands, Hoka One One and Altra, generally have a wider and more anatomically shaped toe box. Altras have zero drop while Hoka Ones have a minimal drop.

A few years ago when shoe manufacturers promoted “barefoot” running and trail shoes, like Vibram Five Fingers, they cited research and quoted biomechanics experts supporting the shoes’ benefits. And, they maintained that their shoes hearkened back to our ancient hominid roots as barefoot walkers. Now, very few ‘maximalist’ companies are citing any research backing their claims and the thick soled shoes in no way mimic human ancient foot wear or ambulation. Yet, the shoes are catching on with elite and recreational trail runners and hikers. And some weekend hikers claim that these cushioned, low drop shoes with a lot of room for their toes, helped resolve nagging problems like heel pain and shin splints. One note of caution, thogh.  Theelevated  platform design of these shoes may prove unstable to anyone prone to ankle sprains. And, if you are getting good results with your current hiking shoes, than, no need to switch.

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On the trail: the grass survives, again.

The grass survived.

The snow has melted, finally, and you can once again run, walk or hike through the grass. After months under a foot or more of snow, the grass is still green, and alive, mostly.

How does grass survive the freezing cold, the darkness, buried under the snow?Humans can not survive being buried in an avalanche for more than a few minutes. Yet grass survives the cold, the weight, the desiccation. How do its cells resist rupturing, imploding and becoming a protoplasmic organic slime? How do its fragile roots maintain their grasp on a soil which has itself frozen and is no longer nurturing.

This week marks the beginning of the holiday of Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The holiday has many themes, revisited each year by parents and children and grandparents and grandchildren in a performance art like meal called the ‘seder’ where the story of the exodus is retold, using food as symbolic props.

But one idea often gets lost in all the preparation and the re-telling. The name of the holiday, Passover in English and ‘Pesach’ (pronounced peh-sakh) in hebrew, conveys a most basic but critical thematic idea. The name of the holiday references God’s sending an angel to visit death upon the first born males in pharonic Egypt as a punishment. God instructed the angel of death to spare the Jewish children. The name, then, focuses on a celebration of survival and an acknowledgement of God as both the taker and sustainer of life in a world filled with Divine intervention in the matters of mankind.

It is by design that Passover always occurs near beginning of springtime, a period of rebirth. And the blades of grass are the first signs of that renewal. They persist through a winter that really should have killed them. But at winter’s end the grasses stand up with no flowery announcement of their arrival. Unannounced and unadorned, they unfurl themselves and reach for the warmth of the nourishing sun.

The springtime holiday of Passover marks not only re-birth but also the birth of a nation that survived its own long winter of oppression, deprivation and servitude. Not every blade of grass survives the winter and neither did every member of the nation survive to leave Egypt 3,000 or so years ago. Which is why seeing the grass again in the springtime is the perfect time to truly celebrate life.

Walk in alone. Walk out together.

March is the unofficial start to the hiking season, at least for people setting out to hike a long trail, like the 2,100 mile Appalachian trail. Setting out in March avoids the coldest, snowiest part of winter and provides a long enough time to walk until the cold settles in again in the fall. More times than not, hikers start out on a solo journey, hoping to challenge themselves.  But along the way, even the most solo of solo hikers will find comfort in commiserating, camping, hiking, with others he or she meets along the way. And while the time spent in the company of others may be brief, that joining together can lift the spirits of even the most aching, blistered and tired soul.

We have many journeys in life that we must embark on alone. But ‘alone’ does not mean abandoned. My nieces and nephews just lost their mother, my brother lost his wife, who passed away at the age of 55. The end arrived as they sat by her side for long days and nights over several weeks. They are a close and united family, but naturally still face this challenge each on his and her own terms. The husband and the children entered the hospice room as individuals but they emerged from that space and a week of mourning together, bereaved, yet even closer.

The Appalachian Trail is often referred to as ‘the long green tunnel’. The trail is a single-track which passes through mostly forest, a long tunnel amidst maple, birch, oak and hickory leaves, verdant green in the spring and summer. Walking  along you can feel isolated, traveling alone with the burden of your gear on your back,  rays of light squeezing between the dense canopy of leaf filled branches, illuminating the ground with occasional spots of light here and there. But as you make your way and meet others who share your journey, your steps feel lighter as you share your burden. And despite your physical and emotional exhaustion, the journey through the long green tunnel does eventually come to an end. When you emerge, no matter how alone your sojourn felt, at journey’s end, know that you did not walk it completely alone.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Personal challenges and personal agency.

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

Six wild turkeys emerged from the wooded shadows into a clearing,  single file, variously walking on and sinking in to the foot of snow on the ground. Than another six than another dozen emerged, walking, sinking, moving slowly and circumspectly, stopping to forage among twigs branches and fallen tree trunks.

I had just finished running and walking among the same trails as these wild, ungainly birds. I knew a bit about the challenges they faced moving over uncertain and unwelcoming terrain, having sunk through the snow myself. Moving overland in the winter woods was laborious.

Today’s temperature was 20F, much warmer than last week’s low teens. But there was still a sense of accomplishment in managing the environment, wearing three layers instead of 4, one pair of gloves instead of two.

‘Manage the environment, don’t let the environment manage you’, an intrepid outdoors friend commented.

Humans have been struggling, and mostly succeeding, to manage their environment for thousands of years. And there is a satisfaction that comes with surviving frigid temperatures, avoiding hypothermia and frostbite and yet enjoying the out of doors, with its rich palette of colours, shapes and textures. It is the pleasure of matching personal agency against the challenges of the environment.

And we have largely mastered our environment, be it climbing tectonic uplifts soaring five miles into the hypoxic frigid sky, like Everest, or submerging to study thermal vents miles below the surface of the ocean, like the Marianas Trench, or, of course, the ultimate mastery by man- space exploration.

Yet assuming our personal agency always results in ‘mastery’ is a fallacy. It is a fallacy in the outdoors as witnessed by the many fatalities- Rob Lowe, dying on the cold shoulder of Everest moments after calling his wife in New Zealand to say ‘I love you’, Chris McCandless whose death by starvation trapped in the Alaskan back country was famously chronicled in the book ‘Into the Wild’, to name only two of hundreds, if not more.

And personal agency as ‘mastery’ is a fallacy in our day to day lives, as it only takes us so far. This is truest especially when faced with overwhelming challenges against which no one can prevail, not the smartest, the prettiest, not the wealthiest or the most accomplished, not the most important. No one.

In the test of man against nature, the latter always prevails. As for our personal agency, we can manage, or try to manage, our responses especially in the face of impending loss.  We can take small comfort that we have, at the least, participated in the process. The winter trail will test your ability to survive the inhospitable, the uninviting, the unnatural for us warm blooded, furless mammals. And it is that mere survival that makes the successful days on the hard packed snow among the barren trees and frozen ponds so gratifying, even as it gives a fleeting, albeit false, sense of invincibility.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Winter and the Big Bang

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

In a week riddled with more senseless and barbaric killings around the globe one small item of astrophysical import did not  garner much attention, even though it addressed the fundamental question of how the universe began.

The mercury began this morning in the teens when I awoke.  Dressed in layers I ran  to the nearby woods to see what I would see. In winter, all is hidden yet all is revealed. I saw no animals running about but only remnants of their activity from the day or night before. Squirrel tracks galore, raccoon and opossum prints, the occasional deer tracks and even the footprints of a family of mallards on the ice covered portion of the slow moving creek, webbed toes pointed toward open water. Two red tailed hawks and a great blue heron took off from their hidden perches, quickly, silently, vanishing like actors disappearing into the wings.

I ran a familiar route on snow and ice and came to the small pond, now frozen solid, a rare opportunity to walk out on the ice. The water is never deep here so the only risk would be wet and frigid feet if the ice cracked below. But it held.

The harsh frozen landscape seems ancient, as if it could exist for eternity, in contrast to Spring where flowers and their petals seem so fragile, even at the peak of their beauty. Winter conjures images of frozen planets in our solar system, or the frozen dark side of the moon, dry, seemingly lifeless. And thus winter makes me ponder the origins of our universe and the earth itself.

Professor Brian Koberrlein expanded on an article explaining how our universe did not necessarily begin with one defined singular moment, the ‘Big Bang’. Rather, the professor at Rochester Institute of Technology wrote in Physics Letters B, citing research from the University of Benha in Egypt and Letherbridge University in Alberta, Canada this month, the universe always existed and will always exist. A ‘big bang’ happened along the way, but that moment, referred to as “singularity” by astrophysicists, does not have to have been the first moment.

“Singularity”, one point from which all else emanates, is a comforting idea, and, we each can identify defining moments in our lives that marked a new beginning. But, outdoors in nature, peering down the snow covered trail that fades into a sun filled patina of white and ice, the infinite seems more real than the finite.

And I am glad to welcome “infinity” back into the model of how the universe began. The concept of timelessness helps frame our own travails and challenges. Whatever will be, the universe always was and always will be and we are a part of that timelessness. And while winter on the trail evinces a natural timeless quality, you can follow that same path in the Fall, or Summer, or Spring, and it will still take you to forever.

Howard E. Friedman

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