Checking Boxes: The Importance of Your Gear List

When you’re training to run a 100-mile race, you have to prepare for everything. You run on cold days, just in case it’s cold during the race. You run on rainy days in case it rains. You eat things that end up wrecking your stomach, so that you don’t wreck your stomach during the race. You wear things that end up chafing, so that you know what won’t chafe during the race.

In July, near the peak of my training for the Yeti 100-Mile Endurance Run, I decided to run a Pemi Loop. This 32-mile loop of the Pemigewasset Wilderness summits eight 4,000-footers, and boasts over 8,000 feet of elevation gain. The loop itself is no joke, but in the context of training for a run more than three times that distance, it seemed like an achievable endeavor.

It could rain during my race, too, after all.

I started my drive from Boston long before the summer sun had cracked the sky. But, once it finally got bright enough, I noticed the clouds lingering on the horizon. The weather forecast had predicted a 25-percent chance of rain, but I needed to be prepared for everything. It could rain during my race, too, after all.

I had previously hiked most of the peaks I’d be running that day. In my mind, that made it achievable: I just had to string them all together. But, by the time I had reached Lincoln and turned onto the Kancamagus Highway, the dawn’s distant clouds had consumed the area and covered my windshield in a light, hazy rain. I rushed to get on the trail, forgoing gloves for lighter-weight hand warmers and ditching my poles. I have a list of items that I take on runs and a separate one for hikes, but decided to travel lighter to save time and weight.

Credit: Kelsey Conner
Credit: Kelsey Conner

The first mile of the lollipop course, starting at Lincoln Woods, is old railroad. The flat, soft ground made for easy running and a quick warm-up. I took my rain shell off and tied it around my waist before even making it to the Osseo Trailhead, and I considered taking my rain pants back to the car. The tree canopy along the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River, and almost all four miles up Mount Flume, appeared dense enough to give me the illusion of dryness. Occasional raindrops penetrated still-green leaves, but for the most part, I was warm and happy. The mountain’s steep walls reminded me of the bear I’d seen descending a similar slope a week before on Mount Cardigan, but I tried not to think about it.

When I did emerge from the woods for Flume’s summit approach, with trees on one side of the narrow trail, and steep, rocky drops on the other, it felt like I’d been dropped into another world.

I was moving slower than I anticipated, but was still in good spirits. Clouds capped the nearby mountains and deep mud pointed toward wet conditions at higher altitudes. But, when I did emerge from the woods for Flume’s summit approach, with trees on one side of the narrow trail, and steep, rocky drops on the other, it felt like I’d been dropped into another world. Wind gusted and rain bit at my bare arms and legs. The previously humid, almost tropical air felt at least 10 degrees cooler.

I ducked behind a boulder to adjust my clothing. Sleeves came down, I put my rain jacket and pants back on, and I secured my hat. However, I immediately lost the blazes that peppered the rocks around me and had to retrace my steps. A pang of doubt threatened my independent courage, but I told myself to slow down and be careful. It took an active effort to push panic away and keep moving.

Credit: Kelsey Conner
Credit: Kelsey Conner

The summit of Liberty brought more wind and rain. I tugged my Buff over my nose and mouth, stopping for a single selfie with the summit’s rocky face. I then dropped onto the Appalachian Trail, whose kind white blazes conjured memories of warm summer days in my home state of Georgia—memories that drew a sharp contrast to the current conditions.

I was starting to question my sanity, and wonder if I should keep going.

At that point, I was drenched. My rain jacket soaked through to my long sleeves, and my pants proved their worthlessness. Their elastic waistband was losing the battle to wet lower legs, and my pants started sagging down. I pulled them up as I ran, wondering if they were worth even the idea of warmth.

Little Haystack came and went, and I was on Franconia Ridge. Here, I should have been able to see the entire loop from my exposed vantage point. Instead, my view was limited to about 25 feet in front of me. The rocks were slippery, and it took everything in my power to stand up straight. I joked to myself that wind resistance counted as strength training.

A tiny patch of trees between Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette offered some brief shelter, and there, I sat down on the ground, trying to catch my breath. Lafayette’s summit loomed ahead of me, looking especially steep and foreboding. The trees surrounding me shuddered under the wind, and their leaves whistled. I jammed one half of my peanut butter sandwich into my mouth, despite my intentions to eat it at the loop’s halfway point, the AMC Galehead Hut. I was starting to question my sanity, and wonder if I should keep going. The only other mountain run I’d ever bailed on was a miserable, hungover attempt at the Futures Trail on Mount Ascutney. There, I called it quits after a family witnessed me vomit behind a tree. Giving up wasn’t a consideration, until I looked up at Lafayette and started calculating the remaining daylight.

Lightweight doesn’t mean much when you’re freezing.

I was nearly six hours in and less than halfway through the loop. I’d estimated that the run would take nine hours total. Thus, climbing Lafayette and continuing through the exposure along Garfield Ridge was looking less and less fun.

Not everything seems fun in the moment, though, I told myself. Thus, I decided to make a last-ditch effort towards Lafayette. But, as I dashed up the slick rocks towards the summit, I was knocked to my knees. “You win!” I screamed into the wind. After a summer full of sunshine and smooth hikes, I’d taken good weather for granted. I had picked peaks I’d bagged before and assumed that I knew what I was doing, while failing to pack the just-in-case items. Lightweight doesn’t mean much when you’re freezing. My beloved gear list, several years and hundreds of adventures in the making, had proved its worth.

Credit: Kelsey Conner
Credit: Kelsey Conner

I regretted my decision to turn back for a short moment, but when I slipped back under Flume’s dense canopy and started to warm up, I knew I had made the right call. As a result, when September rolled around and I started packing for my race, I built a list more comprehensive than ever before.

I’d like to say that it rained during my race, and I was able to utilize all of my gear, but that would be a lie. Though I ran under blue skies and warm sun, I had everything I needed, just in case.


One Foot In Front of the Other

I used to think getting up at 5 a.m. to go for a run made me strong. More specifically, I assumed my body was the physical manifestation of dedication, hard work, and good, old-fashioned grit.

But, then, I couldn’t run anymore. Plantar fasciitis turned into peroneal tendonitis in both feet. My ego, once swollen with pride, slowly deflated. That fast time in a local Winter Chiller race that won me a CamelBak meant nothing. My personal record in the 2014 Wolf Hollow half-marathon felt like it never happened.

My ego, once swollen with pride, slowly deflated.

Injuries suck. The physical therapy copayments, the specialized compression sleeves, and the inability to do what you love make a recipe for self-loathing, self-pity, and an irrational sense that the world as you know it—the world where you get to run pain-free—is coming to a bitter end. Time I once spent running is now spent reflecting. What did I do wrong? When will I get better? And, will I ever set a PR again?

The author in 4th Grade.
The author in 4th Grade.

When did I even become a runner? I have been running for so long that I have a hard time remembering life before my morning ritual. Now, I have so much more free time. What did I do with the 5 a.m. hour before it was filled with sweat and miles logged?

My memory goes back to the dreaded fifth-grade gym class 1.5-mile. It was no secret that I was remarkably uncoordinated. Expectations were low, so I felt little pressure to truly perform.

I’d be lying if I said I remember every sweaty detail. Middle school was a long, long time ago, and now, I’m 33 years old and have two young children. From what I recall, I loved feeling my heart beating wildly out of control and felt a little surprised when I finished shortly after one of the most athletic girls in my class.

Mostly, I remember crossing the finish line, the kind of arbitrary line someone made by dragging the heel of their sneaker across the dirt. When my gym teacher yelled “go” at the start, I made the choice to empty the tank, and when I crossed, I had nothing left but pride. It was a type of badass I had never felt before, but have been chasing ever since.

Mostly, I remember crossing the finish line, the kind of arbitrary line someone made by dragging the heel of their sneaker across the dirt.

Before the gym class run, I had no track record of accomplishments. I never received failing marks, but I rarely received an A and often fumbled my way through team sports. For the first time in my young life, I had achieved something all on my own—something no one could have done for me. I felt tough. My shoulders, which usually slumped forward in shyness, were held upright. I felt like I should be noticed, instead of overlooked. Finally, I was good at something.

The author running the Loon Mountain Race in 2016. | Courtesy: Hannah Kokoski
The author running the Loon Mountain Race in 2016. | Courtesy: Hannah Kokoski

Running (and being good at it) has helped me stay strong when everyday life gets hard. Since being injured and unable to run, however, my definition of strong has changed. And, I have changed, too. As running less has decreased my aerobic capacity, my maturity has increased. I may not be able to run right now, but I can still get up early and choose to move around. I don’t love yoga, but I’m starting to like it, and it’s better than not moving around at all. Now, I want to be noticed not simply because of how fast I can or can’t run, but also because of all the healthy choices I make in a day.

Maybe I can’t lace up my Brooks and run my normal 3.3-mile loop right now, but I can continue to do what running, and life, has taught me.

Getting up at 5 a.m every morning never meant I was strong. It simply meant I loved to run. Strong is choosing to remain active when it would be easier to do nothing. Or, it’s getting up early and riding a stationary bike while watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse with my son. And, strong is not toppling over while the kids crawl under me as I try to hold downward dog. While running never felt like a chore for me, yoga, biking, and lifting weights all feel like work. I do these things because they keep me strong, so, when my injuries heal, I can return to doing what I love.

I can’t wait to run again, although I don’t know when it’s going to happen. Maybe I can’t lace up my Brooks and run my normal 3.3-mile loop now, but I can continue to do what running, and life, has taught me. I can continue to put one foot in front of the other.