Friday, September 30, 2011

Flow on the Trail: Finding Your Own Pace

I have been thinking a lot lately about hiking speed.   After the news that Jennifer Pharr Davis set the record for the fastest thru hike of the AT, I started hearing comments from various sources criticizing "fast hiking".  The implication is that if you hike fast, you don't "see as much" of the natural world and you don't enjoy the experience as much.

What really puzzles me is that, in my experience, mental state and attention, not hiking speed, is the determining factor for how much you observe in nature.  On my own, I tend to be a much faster hiker than many of my friends.  (Though at 2.5 miles per hour on average on AT-type terrain, I'm clearly not fast compared to many other people).  And yet, I see plenty of plants and feel more connected with nature when I hike at a pace in tune with my natural rhythm.  When I am distracted, uncomfortable, cranky or engrossed in conversation, that's when I tend not to see things.  One cause of a distracted mental state is hiking at an uncomfortable, unnatural pace, which could either be too fast or too slow relative to what suits your body.  But I don't believe that it's the hiking pace that's the issue and I think that blaming it on speed is inaccurate.
Climbing up the Benton Mackaye Trail at her own pace
What do I mean by the "natural rhythm"?  Anyone who has ever danced around their kitchen knows what it's like to follow the silent beat that comes from the inside of yourself.  Sometimes you feel like an elegant waltz, sometimes a crazy headbanging punk-rock jumping up and down is the only way to go.  The important thing is listening to your own body and maintaining awareness of your energy level, heart rate and mental state, rather than following the pace of anyone else.  It is giving your body what it needs to stay healthy.

Natural pace seems to be a product of genetics and experience.  My Dad and I hike a remarkably similar pace.  Also, because I hike on such a regular basis, hardly ever skipping a weekend, my body has grown accustomed to steep slopes and uneven rocky trails. 

Last weekend, Still Waters and I did a "timed hike" that allowed us each to hike at our own natural pace.  We did an out and back along the Benton MacKaye Trail near Aske in GA.   At the trailhead off Stanley Creek Road, we synchronized watches and agreed to hike for a certain amount of time, and then stop and turn around.  We each covered different distances and hiked at our own paces.  Still Waters saw a bear and a turtle, while I saw a chinkapin tree, which doesn't suprise me because she's more in tune with animals and me with weird plants.  Anyway, we both saw the lovely Falls Branch Falls and lots of cool mushrooms.  Both of us felt refreshed and energized afterward.
Mushrooms along the Benton Mackaye Trail
That's the thing-- you know you are hiking at your natural pace when if feels easy and smooth.  A few wonderful things happen when I hike my own pace:

1.  I can hike all day.  Starting before the sunrise and ending at dusk, both times when the forest comes alive.  Covering more miles also increase the opportunity to find a new and exciting place (or plant).

2. I experience flow.  I feel more relaxed and tuned in.  Many times, I stop to investigate nature, especially plants.  And when I do, I immerse myself fully in the experience-- hunching down or even lying down on the ground, touching, smelling, and getting the "bug's eye view" of plants.

3. Because I consciously set my own pace, rather than the pace of someone else, I can tailor my speed to fit my immediate, ever-change needs.  I may decide to push myself and to feel like I'm progressing and getting stronger.  Working towards my own goals provides a sense of purpose and success.  Or if I'm in the mood, I can swing my legs so my heart rate slows.  Either way, I can do what feels right to me.  I guess this is why researchers found that AT thru-hikers tended to experience flow more often when they hike alone (Mills and Butler 2005)-- because that's when they are setting their own pace.

4.  I know this sounds crazy, but it's MORE tiring for me to hike slower than my natural pace sometimes.  It takes extra energy for me to saunter and take unnaturally shorter steps.  It fuels me to just let loose and swing my legs.  That's not to say I don't like hiking slowing when I'm with other people-- I LOVE BEING SWEEP on hikes for the pleasure of companionship and being supportive and sharing the experience with others-- that's why I lead hikes. This brings me meaning and joy in a different way.

I sincerely believe that what is important in hiking is finding what works for each of us, and finding the experience that each person finds meaningful.

Mills, A.S. and T. S. Butler. 2005 "Flow" experience among Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.  From Proceedings of the 2005 Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium.

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