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I feel this joy’: Olympic champion Clara Hughes on finding liberation and reconnecting with herself on the Appalachian Trail

I feel this joy’: Olympic champion Clara Hughes on finding liberation and reconnecting with herself on the Appalachian Trail

“Being a champion is not just about winning,” says six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes. Believing that actions off the track define us as much as those on it, Hughes inspires people toward success in all areas of their lives. Her candid, personal talks range from how she believes sports can change lives to her struggle with depression—fully embodying the idea that each of us can overcome challenges to become the champions we’re meant to be. Earlier this spring, Clara set out on a hike on the Appalachian Trail…a journey that quickly captured her, and one that she finished this week. Below, the National Post chronicles her path:

As ever, Clara Hughes cannot do half-measures. The only athlete to win multiple medals in both the Winter and Summer Olympics, Hughes had already cycled across Canada to raise awareness for mental-health issues. But she wanted to follow up with a less public pursuit — hiking.

Her husband, Peter, is an accomplished hiker, having walked the entire 5,000-kilometre Continental Divide Trail in 1994. They planned to take six weeks in the winter to hike part of the Appalachian Trail, a 3,500-km trek that runs from Georgia to Maine. Then, in the spring and summer, Hughes would do a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

“That was my plan,” she says. “I just fell in love with the Appalachian Trail. I laughed at myself because I should have known I’m incapable of not finishing with what I start.”

Although she has had to frequently leave the trail because of humanitarian commitments, she is now inching closer to finishing the journey. She did the first third of the trail with her husband (trail name: Wind Walker), but since then Hughes (trail name: Red Feather, because of her hair) has been alone, save for some friends she made along the way.

When Hughes spoke with the National Post, she was in Ottawa to fulfil prior commitments and preparing to fly back to Rutland, Vt.

Here, in her own words, is what she learned along the way.

“I have just needed this, to be quite frank.

It’s not just the ride last year. It’s really more than half of my life, it’s been a very public thing as an athlete — advocating for many different things, connecting to people. As I’ve gone through the years and decades, the connections grow deeper. But I also think it’s important to re-connect with yourself.

For me, I needed to get away from being known and being recognizable.

I’m very anonymous on the trail. I don’t tell people what I do, but a couple of the guys (trail names: Yoyo and Tweet) I camped with for the first few weeks, I had to tell them — we spent so much time together. They were like, ‘We couldn’t figure out why you were so freaking strong.’

Courtesy of Clara Hughes

Courtesy of Clara Hughes “On the trail, I have a clarity of thought and I feel connected with everything around me, this abundance of nature.”

When you have to get off of the trail for a time, you get in a car (the first thing they do is roll down the windows, because you really stink) and you get on a plane and you’re back into civilization. It’s a total freakout, because when you’re in the forest I’ve found — and I think most people find that — you become resensitized to traffic, people, everything. I feel like I’m living two lives right now.

On the trail, I have a clarity of thought and I feel connected with everything around me, this abundance of nature. I’ve walked 2,644 kilometres — I think anybody who’s done something like this might understand, otherwise it might sound totally weird — and when I see a chipmunk I think, ‘There’s my brother.’ We’re all on this Earth together.

Sometimes, I just laugh out loud because I feel this joy. I don’t even know what it is. But I just feel it and I can let it flow through me. Sometimes, I walk and I think of things that I’ve lost. I lost a dear friend to cancer last September, and there have been days where I just cry when I’m walking because I think about her. When I’m out there, I feel like I can just let emotions flow in a really free way. It’s really liberating.

The thing with the Appalachian Trail is that you’re never alone. If I want to be around people, I can be around people. And sometimes I just camp by myself. I find a spot, a little cleared-out spot that’s cleared out in the forest, and I have an evening without being around other people.

In the last 1,300 kilometres, though, I’ve only been in a shelter once by myself. There is always someone else. Last week in Vermont it was pouring rain and there was lightning. More people kept coming in. I had a guy next to me from Boston, young guy, big beard, and there’s an inch between us, if that. We’re in the top bunk. The shelter was probably 12 feet long by 17 feet and we’re all in there and people were snoring. I’m just like, ‘Oh my god. I don’t have claustrophobia, but get me out of here.’ But you learn to trust people and you learn to read people really well. You’re all in this together and everybody’s tired. You make room because someone would make room for you.

There is no end to the days. If I am in a shelter, the first thing I do is I get out my sleeping pack and blow it up because if you don’t get your spot, someone else will take it. So then you think, ‘How many hours are there before sunset? Get your water.’ Sometimes it’s a half-mile each way. Then you filter all your water through this little filter. And then cook and clean your pot, and you’re exhausted. As an athlete, there’s this whole crew of support staff to take care of you.

The pounding that my feet take is just horrible. My feet are a living disaster, for sure. On average I’m walking about 35 km a day (my longest day was 58 km). And the feet take it. When I go to sleep at night, I’m sometimes kept awake by the pain. I can’t lie on my side because if one leg is on the other leg, it puts pressure on my foot. So I have to lie on my back, and they just throb. I’ve never experienced that before.

In New Jersey, I saw two black bears — two days in a row, a black bear each day. The first one I saw was pretty close. I was walking through the forest and I thought, ‘Oh man, this would be a really good photo … A really good photo until you get charged by a bear because you scare it. No, don’t do this.’ Instead I tapped my hiking poles, it looked at me and did a 180 and bolted. It did the 100-metre Usain Bolt into the forest.

Courtesy of Clara Hughes

Courtesy of Clara Hughes Clara Hughes’ husband, Peter, is an accomplished hiker, having walked the entire 5,000-kilometre Continental Divide Trail in 1994.

In Connecticut, I was walking on a dirt road along the Housatonic River — the trail follows that for a few miles. Ahead I saw a big, huge cat sitting, with his back facing me. I thought, ‘That is not a house cat. What is that thing?’ I looked again and I saw a huge tail realized, ‘It’s a bobcat.’ It turned around, saw me and went into the forest. I walked by and it was just looking at me. It was beautiful.

As much as it is about the nature experience, the human experience is also phenomenal — the trail magic. There was a lady at a gas station in Virginia and when we went to pay the cashier says, ‘Oh, she’s gone. She didn’t want you to see her but she wanted to help you.’ The lady listened to our conversation and left $10. This was a woman that I can tell you didn’t have a lot of money. She left a $10 bill to help us with what we were doing, and maybe be a part of what we are doing. Those things happen over and over and over again.

I don’t really need a lot of renewal of hope for humanity. I have great hope for humanity. But this takes it to a different level.

I can relate to a lot of the scenes in the movie of the book Wild, to being out there by yourself and not always doing things the way you hope to. I had a new tent and I didn’t have time to practise setting up before I got back on the trail. It’s not even a hard tent to set up and I thought, ‘I should be way faster at this. I’m glad nobody’s watching me.’

I think it’s cool that a movie can inspire people to get out and have their own adventures. But the main character section-hikes. And really everyone I’ve met on the trail could be the subject of a New York Times-best selling novel. There are so many incredible stories out there and characters. If I were a writer, I’d be out on the trail.

So many things can go wrong though — so many. Last week I was walking in Vermont. It was a completely flat, completely rockless, beautiful, wide trail section. There was one thin tree that fell across it. I was happy. ‘This is great. I’m so happy right now,’ I thought. And then I tripped myself on that one little tree and did a face plant and my nose stopped a half-inch from the ground and I almost broke my wrist. I just got up and looked around and said, ‘Oh my god, did anybody see that?’ Because I was OK, I just laughed out loud.

I feel the connection to and a kinship to hiking in the same way that I felt with speed-skating. Not so much cycling, because cycling kind of came to me. Speed-skating is something I felt inside. When I learned to express myself and learned to skate, I was like, ‘This is what I’m meant to do.’ I feel that way when I walk.

I need to keep my focus where I’m at, and let the ending unfold when I get there. I look forward to it in the same way that I looked forward as an athlete to having an experience like finishing something well, being on that podium, and feeling that incredible satisfaction.”

Eric Koreen/National Post/July, 2015
From Clara’s Facebook, July 13, 2015:

“How stoked do I look to have officially FINISHED THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL!!! The best part is that this ending mountain didn’t make the trip. Every day of his trip made it worthwhile. So much meaning in this journey I’m at a loss for words. 2189 miles later, I can say this has brought me to a more connected place with myself and the people around me. More connected to the earth. What a trip!”–Clara Hughes