Dana professor of Exercise and Health Science Dr. John Davis writes about his observations and research on the physiological and nutritional effects hiking the Appalachian Trail has on thru-hikers.
The Finish from the Start of the Trail
Blood Mountain, about 25 miles from the start of the Appalachian Trail
Dahlonega, Georgia (near the start of the Appalachian Trail) — Research is complete at the start of the trail. This will be my last blog from here until we meet up with the subjects in Virginia. In May, I will travel with seven Alma College students to Virginia to find and retest the subjects that I tested at the start of the trail. If the odds hold, about 50% of my subjects that started the trail in Georgia will drop out by Virginia.
The research project has gone well and will finish up here with 52 subjects tested. Several of my subjects have already dropped out. My original speculation about fitness playing a role in the early stages of the trail seems to be supported by the initial set of data. It will be very interesting to see the physiological changes in the subjects when we retest them in Virginia. Some will lose upwards of 50 pounds, others will see tremendous improvements in fitness, and all will “trail harden.”
I have been following many of the subjects on trailjournals.com (very interesting reading if you want to get a flavor for the trail). The 70 degree temperatures of last week have changed to 20s and 30s this week. Mr. Ed. has hiked over 300 miles and found six inches of snow in the Smokies of North Carolina. Evil Eye is making good progress and after pounding out 20+ miles a day, YoungNdum has decided to slow down a bit to minimize soreness and fatigue.
The last five weeks have been great and I want to thank all of the subjects and Josh and Leigh at the Hiker Hostel for making this research possible.
Happy trails to you and good luck to all of my subjects. May the wind be at their back and the trail be all downhill to Maine.
Posted: Tue, April 10th, 2007 at 11:35AM
No Walk in the Woods
Dahlonega, Georgia (at the start of the Appalachian Trail) — Two weeks of testing complete and 31 subjects done. Hiked on the trail for about 10 miles on Wednesday to see how my subjects were doing and give out some trail magic. Trail magic describes the good deeds people do along the trail for thru-hikers. It ranges from bringing snacks and drinks up to setting up a full breakfast on the trail. I saw about 12 of the subjects and they were all in good spirits.
A Walk in the Woods. Bill Bryson wrote the book, millions read it. The following year after its publication over 2000 people attempted the Appalachian Trail, hundreds more than in previous years. The dropout rate that year was the highest recorded.
What people found is that the Appalachian Trail is not “a walk in the woods.” It is a very difficult 2,174 mile hike that is a physical and psychological challenge. Normally, about 20-25% of thru-hikers who start the trail ultimately make it to the trail terminus in Maine. What I have found so far is that many hikers attempt the trail to go into the woods to find themselves, almost in the same way Henry David Thoreau did many years ago. I have not seen the other end of the trail yet so I am excited about doing the post-testing in Maine to see the outlook on the trail and life from the hikers who complete the trail.
Oh, back to the Bill Bryson book. Many of the real thru-hikers and Appalachian Trail veterans do not like the book. Many feel that it trivializes the trail in many ways, others feel it is a work of fiction. While put forward as non-fiction, word on the trail is that many of his exploits on the trail were either made up or borrowed(?) from other hiker’s experiences.
So what is next for A Walk in the Woods? The trail goes Hollywood! They are starting a movie version of the book, staring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, yes, Newman and Redford. Supposedly filming is going on at the start of the trail right now. So much for the peace and serenity of the trail after the movie comes out.
That’s it for now. Happy trails to you!!
Posted: Fri, March 23rd, 2007 at 1:40PM
Another thru-hiker volunteers for testing by Dr. John 'research guy' Davis.
Dahlonega, Georgia (near the start of the Appalachian Trail) — Research is going very well. Testing is complete for 24 subjects. Of the twenty-four tested so far, only one has dropped out after a few days and about 20 miles of hiking. Too early to tell, but it appears as if fitness plays a role in completing the initial stages of the trail.
The subjects have been great and have tolerated all of the torture that I have subjected them to. Because I see them right before they start the trail, they are excited and nervous about the adventure they are about to undertake. If you allow me some creative license (come on, I am a scientist), many are like the early pioneers. No covered wagons, just expensive backpacks and camping gear. Much like the early settlers, during the first 20 miles or so of the hike they realize what is important and not important. Supposedly the first ten miles of the trail is littered with clothes, food, and other extra stuff that weighed thru-hikers down. Hikers realize very early that weight adds to the work that you need to do going up hills. Yesterday we had a hiker with a 76 pound pack!!!! Most are in the 20-40 pound range. Utralight hikers hike with 10-20 pound bags and average 20-30 miles a day. The record for thru-hiking the trail is 47 days. He averaged 40-50 miles a day, hiked 18-20 hours and slept for only four hours a day!
On lighter note, living and more importantly sleeping with multiple people every night in the bunk room has given me an appreciation of different snoring styles. Over the past week and a half I have been able to document several snoring varieties. One style is a continuous loud grating noise interrupted only by short uniform breaths, resembling most closely a saw on rough wood. The second variety (commonly associated with sleep apnea) is the snore, stop-breathing-then-gasp-for-air type. Finally, there is the peaceful, quiet almost soothing snore that wafts throughout the room. As you can see, the fresh air and mountains are having an interesting effect on me.
I now officially have a trail name. What is a trail name? It is a name you are given because something eventful has happened to you, or it is how other people see you. It replaces your real name for the months that you are on the trail. I have run into or tested Scholar, Terrapin Flyer, Cimarron, Bearbag, etc. I am ashamed to tell you what name has been given to me by my subjects, because it is pretty plain. The 'research guy.' Yes, the 'research guy.' I wanted something exotic like the Gladiator or the Svelt Scientist, but no…just the 'research guy.' Oh well, such is life.
Well, I have rambled on enough. Gotta go and test another subject!
Posted: Mon, March 19th, 2007 at 3:12PM
A Diverse Group
Eleven and counting...
Dr. John Davis (background) performing a graded exercise test at the Hiker Hostel.
The testing is going well. Eleven subjects so far with a goal of 50.
The physiology is very interesting, but the sociology/psychology of the thru-hikers is even more unique. Many have sold everything they have and are starting a new life. Yesterday, we had a guy who has cancer and only a short time to live start the trail. Ages range from 20 to 87 (I didn’t get to test the 87 year old). One hiked up to Maine, back down to Georgia and is heading right back up to Maine again. Many of them are totally unprepared physically and psychologically for the hike. Several don’t have the right equipment: Two were going to carry guns and one was carrying a machete!!!! Needless to say a very diverse group.
I am very hopeful that I will get at least 50 subjects. The data will be very interesting to say the least.
Posted: Fri, March 16th, 2007 at 12:04AM