Hell’s Own Three Miles and the power of pushing your limits

I was over four hours into a hike and I’d covered about two and a half miles.  I’d been clinging to a boulder and scree strewn knife blade of a path high up on a cliff face along the northern edge of the Savage Gulf state park in Murfreesboro, TN. I’d been in the woods for 4 days and I had 25 pounds of gear and food on my back — everything I’d used to survive in the woods so far this week. I was nursing a knee injury and had blisters throbbing on both feet. There was at least another half mile to go before I made it to the campsite marked on my trail map. To my left was a rocky drop of over 50 feet. To my right was a sheer cliff that went up another 50 feet. The campsite was supposed to be at the top of that cliff. In front of me, the narrow trail disappeared around a curve of the cliff face.

Look guys! It's only 50 feet up!
Look guys! It’s only 50 feet up!

I took a deep breath and continued hopping from boulder to boulder. Sometimes they wobbled and I’d stop to get my balance and footing before I could take my next step, hence the slow pace. This is what hiking aficionados call a “technical hike” and I was getting close to hitting my limits. Still, there was no camping on this rocky path. The only thing to do was keep moving forward. My husband was a few feet ahead of me. We were both wincing with every step. His knees had taken a beating this week too.  When we rounded the corner the trail seemed to dead end into the sheer cliff face. We looked around confused and then noticed a trail marker halfway up the cliff and what could generously be called hand and footholds along the rock wall. They were  subject to rushing water in heavy rains judging by the amount of water erosion evident. I spared a moment to glance gratefully at the cloudless sky. It was time to climb.

Vertical climbing with 25 pounds on your back is a unique experience. Doing it after a long day of hiking, worn down by injury and too little food is another thing altogether. Another 20 minutes of climbing, slowly and painfully up that wall and we found ourselves at the top of the cliff with a wooded trail stretching out in front of us. We came upon a sign that said our campsite was close by.  Once  at camp, we had picked the perfect spot, set up the tent, stowed gear and made a canteen filling run to the nearby spring. We settled into building our fire and making dinner and stopped to consider the day we’d just had. It was the most physically demanding hiking either one of us had ever done and probably the most physically demanding thing I had ever done in my life.

You see, this was my first multi-night hiking trip.  I was 36-years-old and was only nine months into my first real efforts to get fit. This week long trip represented my trial by fire and that day’s treacherous hike along Hell’s own three miles was my final proving ground. To my utter surprise, I found that I had emerged more or less whole at the end of it, and had enjoyed it.

For most of my life I had lived well within my own safety zone. I never pushed boundaries. I never worked harder or did more than I knew I could. It was a safe and comfortable existence, but after 36 years it was also less than fulfilling. This trip into the wilds of Tennessee was my miniature crucible. I’d been steadily pushing past my comfort zone working out 3-6 days a week and we’d taken a few overnight backpacking trips before, but this trip was where I proved my own capacity to myself. I knew from the outset that the trails would scare that old, safe me. I knew the distances we’d have to cover on some days would have been deemed impossible mere months before.

Just one of the rewards of life on the trail.
Just one of the rewards of life on the trail.

On the last day of the trip we had almost 10 miles to cover and we wanted to get it done in 4-5 hours. This trail was relatively level and not very technical, but it was 4 more miles than I had ever hiked on a single day. I got up, tied up my hiking boots and trucked across the miles. My knee throbbed and my blisters oozed and all I could think of was how sad I was that my trip was ending. When we got back to civilization everything felt too plush and too loud and not nearly as good as sitting next to a campfire in the middle of nowhere. My old expectations for comfort were officially blown apart.

Since my trip, everything seems more doable. When I run up against a situation that would normally have made me hesitate or want to simply quit, I now find I enjoy pushing into and through that uncomfortable phase. That ability to be ok living with discomfort and risk has generally made me a better person. I’m more open to new ideas. I can try new things and see things from more perspectives, even the ones that feel risky.

Bottomline: Find your crucible and kick its ass.  You’ll be better for it.