The emotional and mental aspects of my readjustment have been closely tied
to my physical transition, described in
before I had some of this figured out.
It has been an interesting (although frustrating) study in psychosomatic
interactions, made even more interesting since I have a Master's Degree in
counseling psychology. There's nothing like some good, old-fashioned
I'm convinced that most of my emotional/mental symptoms have been caused by
chemical changes in my brain and the rest of my body.
I went from intense activity almost every day to being an athletic sloth,
barely running at all the first month home because I was wiped out. My body
reacted in strange, strange ways that I wasn't expecting and that has affected
my psychological adjustment.
My hormones, endocrine system, and who-knows-what-else are still screwed up almost three months after finishing the trek.
Some problems were worse the first couple weeks and have (thankfully)
lessened over time. A new problem cropped up more recently.
Take crying, for instance.
For two or three weeks, I cried very easily. Every time I thought about
something to do with the AT Run, the tears would just well up in my eyes. The
memories I have are overwhelmingly pleasant - memories of the people I met, the
places I saw, the tranquility of the wilderness, the pride of accomplishment.
Initially I missed the Trail very much. It grows on you. I can fully
understand the draw the Appalachian Trail exerts on thru-hikers, probably even
stronger than on me because I passed through more quickly than they do and
didn't sleep along the Trail.
I bet the experience is just as intense on other long trails or
transcontinental runs and bike rides.
After returning home I more than made up for my lack of tears on the Trail.
It was a bit embarrassing to me because I don't cry very often.
The experience was intense. Hormones are enough to make you cry.
Other changes in body chemistry occurred
that didn't bother me on the Trail. I had frequent nightmares and dreams
about the Trail, I couldn't sleep well (woke up often from the nightmares and night
sweats), my face broke out worse than it has in forty years, lots of body parts ached that didn't
hurt during the run, and I had trouble
focusing, concentrating, and remembering things.
Most of these things resolved themselves within the first month. However, I
still have the focus/concentration problem and now I'm a little concerned that I
might be mildly depressed (that's the more recent problem).
I've been doing research on the internet re: depression. I've got some of the
classic signs I remember from graduate school training in psychology thirty-two
years ago. I'm pretty well convinced that several of my brain chemicals were
significantly altered during and after this trek (serotonin, norepinephrine,
How's that for self-diagnosis??? (It's more than any of my
doctors came up with until I mentioned it to one this week.)
Consider endorphins, for example.
As a runner, I'm more familiar with endorphins than the other chemicals I've
been reading about. Many activities, including running, increase the amount of
endorphins that are produced naturally by the body.
Endorphins are a type of opiate that reduce stress, relieve pain,
enhance the immune system, and give us that wonderful "runner's high." And since
they may also postpone the aging process, they are a Very Good Thing to have!
So there I was all summer, producing copious amounts of morphine-like
endorphins on the Trail every day, and I came home and GREATLY REDUCED ALL
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY for several weeks because I was dead tired. No more
stimulating endorphins produced for several weeks until I was able to increase
my runs up to an hour or more (it takes me a while to get that endorphin "fix").
I'm like a junkie who suddenly quits doing drugs and has withdrawal symptoms.
Well, duh. Big mistake on my part to do so little running and walking for a
month or two. No wonder my mind and body are acting "depressed." It's less depressing to
realize that it's situational, though - and temporary.
" . . . Was it all that you expected? I'm sure now you will be down a bit
now that it's over . . . but you know what, it'll never be over because you are
now and will forever be a part of the AT history!"
- another ultra buddy named Steve
Here's an interesting realization that came to mind during a run in the slush and ice
one recent afternoon (hey - maybe the endorphins are returning!):
all of the daily entries in this journal - the ones during the trek - were written under the influence of
mind-altering endorphins!! They are definitely more enthusiastic and playful
than the "prep" and "post" entries, don't you think?
In one of the daily entries I described how great I felt on the Trail in the
mornings. I took 'way more notes and photos in the mornings, when I was fresh
and my thoughts flowed freely, than in the afternoon, when my body AND brain
But even in the evenings, resting in the camper, I was still on an extended
endorphin high. That's apparently why it was usually so much easier for me to
write in this journal during the trip than it has been since I got home. Now it
feels more like work than play.
And now I finally understand why.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Understanding what's going on at the cellular level helps me deal with the
symptoms I'm having. I'm also aware of several additional
influencing my mood just now:
- I was occupied with more important responsibilities in October and
November than I am now and that helped keep my mind off myself.
We were really busy getting the household in order when we first got back.
Next Jim had a tough five weeks when he endured a very painful face treatment for
pre-cancerous skin condition (acitinic kerotosis), then also had neuroma surgery on
one foot at the same time. I was pretty focused on relieving his misery during that time. (He's in much better shape now, thank goodness!)
- I dislike winter. It's too cold and too gray too early in Virginia. I need
and warmth. I have always been affected mildly by SAD (seasonal affective
disorder) no matter where I lived - Ohio, Georgia, Montana, now Virginia. We're
very close to the "shortest" day of the year (with
the least daylight), so soon it will be getting light a little longer each day
again. There is hope . . .
- We've already had three ice storms (above) that have reduced my ability to safely run
outdoors (or to drive eighteen miles to the YMCA to use the "dreadmill"). I'm
ready to extend my longest runs past fifteen miles and produce more of those
coveted endorphins, but it's been a challenge. I need to just suck it up and
use the treadmill longer or run on paved roads that have been cleared and
forget trails until they are more user-friendly (i.e., until the ice melts).
- Finally, it's the Christmas season and this normal "Christmas Person" just
can't get into the spirit much. Putting up the lights outside, setting up the
snow village inside - just seem like too much work this year. I did decorate
the tree, hung up the wreaths, and put out a few other festive decorations,
Although I've addressed most of my physical problems with real doctors (not just self-diagnosis) since I got home, I'm having
some additional blood
tests done to determine if I'm too high or low on some critical nutrients or
other chemicals in my body. I could have easily depleted my level of iron, for
example, or my blood count may be totally out of whack. Supposedly my thyroid is
A few days ago I saw my new general physician, a young female MD who runs
marathons and seems very competent in her profession. She listened patiently and showed obvious interest when I told her
about my AT run and the symptoms I'm still having. She did not freak out when I
told her I run ultras! She asked more health and
lifestyle questions than any doctor I've ever consulted.
She agreed that I am
mildly depressed and gently asked if I'd consider taking medication (a generic
form of Paxil) temporarily
to see if it helps me regain my normal level of perkiness.
I accepted a prescription but didn't promise to take them. I hate taking meds other than NSAIDS for anything, and
I try to limit even those. I don't like messing with mind-altering substances of
any kind. The newer psychotropic drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil have lengthy
lists of possible side effects and I don't want to get addicted to anything
(besides the endorphins from running!). The drug companies claim they aren't
addictive but I'm not "buying" it.
I've had some time to research Paxil on the internet and I don't like what I
read about withdrawal problems some people have. That got my attention more than
the side effects. So I doubt I'll ever take the low-dose, generic form my doctor
prescribed. I want to see if I can get through this funk without synthetic
I'm hoping that as I increase my mileage the natural endorphins and other
chemicals will return to their pre-AT levels and continue to serve me well. I'll
consider the meds only if I'm still apathetic in a couple months.
Jim joked that if I don't use the prescription maybe it would help him.
He's having his own issues with resuming training after not running for six
weeks while he underwent the face treatment and foot surgery. He thought he'd be
running more by now but he's discovered he has to proceed slowly. He's also had
some withdrawal problems of his own, coming off the pain meds and sleeping pills
he was using. So he's a bit depressed himself. But he doesn't want to mess with
his brain chemistry any more than I do.
[Addendum January 5, 2006: I decided not to take the generic
Paxil. In the last two weeks the weather has improved and I've been able to run
more. It has definitely helped my mood. Let's hear it for endorphins!
My blood test results were good, although my cholesterol is the highest it's
been in many years (total 190). That might be good for the general population
but it's 30-40 digits higher for me than in recent years. In fact, it was only
117 nineteen years ago . . .
My HDL is higher than last year, when my
doctor was concerned that it was too low and wrote on the results "advise
exercise." That was hilarious, and I loved sharing it with my family and
Jim's total cholesterol is 20 points higher than last year. We both know
exactly why our numbers are higher - we ate a disproportionate amount of fats on
the AT trek - but we're puzzled why our cholesterol counts are still up there
because we've returned to our healthier way of eating the last three-plus
months. We're now being even more careful and will have our cholesterol checked
again in late spring.]
THE PERILS OF MODERN LIFE
I found an interesting statement credited to a psychiatrist named Kevin
Turnquist in one of the reports warning about the class of drugs to which Paxil
belongs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs). I think it also helps to
explain what I'm experiencing right now:
"Mundane jobs, boring routines, and the absence of real struggles for
survival may all prove to contribute to depression's increasing place in
society. We cannot discount the possibility that the activities that seem to add
diversity to our modern existence don't provide the sort of stimulation that
healthy brains thrive on." (in The Humanist, 2002)
That rather neatly summarizes what's been going on with me since my
"struggle" on the AT. I felt really alive there, and the tougher it
got, the more I enjoyed it.
I thrived in that environment.
NEW GOALS WILL HELP
I know part of my lack-of-motivation problem is lack of
goal or lack of anything approximating the excitement of running the
Appalachian Trail. I worked so hard to accomplish this goal, and now
Now what? How do I top this? Several readers wrote to
ask the same question.
Even after a much shorter goal race or event like a marathon, triathlon, or
ultra, athletes often experience a let-down feeling. It's happened to me lots of
times before, but it lasted only a few days. Part of it was physical, part mental/emotional. I always had
another goal race in a few weeks or months to train for, so the funks
Not so this time. The Appalachian Trail took much more out of me physically
and psychologically than
any previous event I've ever done and I looked forward to it much longer. It's the highlight of
my athletic "career" (so far).
By now, Jim and I do have some interesting plans for 2006 and I'm
starting to look forward to them (I'll write about that in the next entry).
However, because of my lingering fatigue and difficulty getting my mileage back
up, I'm just not anticipating next year's plans as eagerly as I think I
should. More reason to get those endorphin levels back up!
I miss the excitement of being on the Trail. I miss the beauty, the
tranquility, the newness of each day.
Yes, I "have a life" with other interests and I can still run beautiful
trails near my home, but I crave exploring new territory and being "on
the road." I retired early so I'd be able to travel and run all over the
country. Jim's dream was the same, and now we can live that dream as
long as we have the health and funds to do it. Having the same goal
means we'll be devising interesting adventures the rest of our lives.
As my body transitions back to its former athletic self, I know my mind
and heart will follow and I'll resume my more normal optimistic
enthusiasm for life in general.
Here's a good example of a zest for life: Cody and Tater earlier
this year, reveling in the snow.
WARNING TO OTHER "EPIC" ADVENTURERS
We're all different. That's obvious. I hope this summary of my readjustment
will help others in the future. If you anticipate similar problems after a long
trail hike, cross-country or trans-continental run, or other epic, weeks- or months-long
adventure you can more easily prevent or deal with them.
I realize now that a different approach when I got home would have eased
I should have done a more gradual taper from running and other physical
activities, not stopped so abruptly.
I should have forced myself out the door more often the first two months to
do light exercise that wouldn't have stressed my body.
- I should have stayed busier and more focused on other people and
activities instead of being so reclusive and self-absorbed.
Parts of the readjustment period might hit thru-hiking backpackers even
harder than someone who is crewed like I was.
They are more isolated from civilization, so a return to "real life" may well
be more of a shock. I stayed in campgrounds, often in or near towns, not
shelters or a tent in the middle of the wilderness. Every day I rode in a
vehicle on roads to and from trail heads. I occasionally shopped in stores or
did some sight-seeing on rest days. I ate pretty much my normal diet. I took a
shower every afternoon and had clean clothes and dry shoes to put on. I
half-listened to the news on TV or the radio when we had reception, so I had a
better idea about what was going on in the world. I read e-mail nearly every
But even though I was in touch with civilization most of the trip, it was
still a difficult transition initially to suddenly stop all the fun (even the
scary parts) and go home.
Although I usually drive a third or half of the miles when we're traveling
long distances, Jim insisted on driving home from Maine, a solid two-day haul
with the camper. I was so zonked both mentally and physically that he didn't
think I was fit to drive!
He was right. The trip home is a blur to me. My body may have been in that
truck, but my mind was still on the AT.
I think my funniest experience last summer regarding "civilization" was on
after only five days on the Trail. Go back and read the beginning of that entry if
you don't remember it. I already felt like I was in a foreign land when we made
a trip to a Lowe's store and I was totally overwhelmed by the bright
lights, people, abundance of goods, and noise. I couldn't wait to return
to the tranquility of the Trail.
I still regard that reaction as pretty amazing so early in the trek.
RETURNING TO "POLITE" SOCIETY
I'll end on a humorous note since this entry has been mostly serious.
About ten days after we got home one of our ultra running friends wrote,
"How are you both doing? Has re-entry into polite society been OK?"
Dru's a good friend, I wrote back - more succinctly than I would to someone I
didn't know as well - that now I had to watch where I peed and farted . . .
It's true. Anyone who has run or hiked on trails out in the middle of nowhere
knows you can get away with less PC behavior on trails than you can if you only
run or walk on roads. I'm careful to do these things (even using my cell phone)
out of sight and earshot of other trail users whether I'm on a training run or
in a race.
But yes, there are uncivilized behaviors like spitting and relieving yourself
in the woods that thru-hikers and journey runners have to break after being away
from "polite society" for several months.
Fortunately, for me that was the easy part of re-entry.
Next up: what's next on Jim's and my adventure agenda (you knew there would
be more fun, didn't you??).