I did it! I started my Katy Trail Challenge! It was a LOT harder than I’d anticipated and about half way through I was questioning my sanity. After all, this first leg was the shortest distance I have planned and I baaarely managed it. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
I haven’t written here (partially because I don’t like to complain, partially because not writing about it allowed me to diminish it) but shortly after I decided to do this challenge I injured my knee. I’m pretty sure it’s a meniscus tear, though that can’t be confirmed without an expensive MRI which wouldn’t actually change the course of treatment so I’m not getting one. So, I didn’t train properly for this first leg of my challenge. When I tried to walk more than about 1.5 miles my knee would swell and cause me a lot of pain. I also sometimes have pain during normal daily activities so I was trying not to aggravate it further. But I was determined to start this challenge anyway- the way I have it set up if I miss many of my planned walks I won’t be able to finish before my 40th birthday. I’m prepared for that if serious injury occurs but I’m not willing to give up before I even start because of a little knee pain. So, I researched how to tape up the knee and figured I’d do the first leg and hope for the best.
As I was getting my stuff prepared the night before Kya decided that she wanted to come along. I, of course, agreed but was unsure at first how it was going to impact my experience. I had to leave later than I’d planned and when we first began she was complaining a bit. In the end it was a really great thing that she came along because when things got REALLY hard she helped me keep going- but I’m getting ahead of myself again!
We headed to the trailhead at Black Walnut (tiny town outside St. Charles) and planned to walk the 3.1 miles to Machens, the terminus of the East end of the trail, and back to Black Walnut. I should mention that a lot of people don’t bother with this section of the trail. St. Charles is the unofficial end/beginning of the line for many people who are hiking or biking the entire trail. But the perfectionist in me would never be able to say I’d walked the entire trail if I skipped this section and with the short distance between the two outposts it seemed like a good place to begin my journey.
I knew the Machens trail head was seculuded but that a picnic table, primitive toilet, and shade would offer us an opportunity to rest before turning back so I figured it would be okay. We started off in good spirits, passing one other pair of hikers and several cyclists who also wanted to travel to the actual end (beginning?) of the line.
The trail itself is well maintained and stretched out before us with trees and farm land lining the way. It didn’t really offer much in the way of scenic interest because private lands jut right up to the trail here. I know from my research that other areas are more beautiful and interesting but, again, this was a shorter leg and that seemed more important for my first walk than beauty. However, even with all my research I still didn’t expect junk…
This was the first of a few run down properties we passed that were right next to trail. We also spotted quite a bit of litter on the sides of the trail. I’m not really sure why it surprised me so much; rural Missouri farm towns are generally economically depressed and this little used section of the trail probably doesn’t offer much to turn that around. I can only hope the rest of my walks offer less depressing views.
About a mile in we spotted a bench and we rested for a few minutes before heading on. As we started walking again we wondered if there would be more benches. There weren’t.
We walked on, taking in the farm land and occasional bits of trash and junk. We were going at a pretty leisurely pace (about a 25 minute mile) because we had no reason to hurry and we knew we had a long way to go. At about 2.25 miles though something shifted. My legs started to ache, my spirits started to plummet, and I realized I was pretty hungry. I’d walked further than this before, and with more hills, but it had been before my injury and my lack of training was catching up with me. There were no good places to rest for a minute and get my bearings so we plunged forward, albeit a bit slower (about 33 minutes per mile). We finally made it to the Machens trailhead and were SO happy to have a place to rest and eat the fruit I’d packed for us.
We weren’t in a hurry and knew that if the first half was tough the second half would be tougher so we rested for quite a while. We ate, used the restroom, updated Facebook and just relaxed for about half an hour. I felt refreshed and ready to take on the walk back to the car. At least that’s what I thought.
The first half mile was okay but then my legs really started to protest this sudden jump in activity. In addition to not walking I’d also been avoiding my beloved yoga because of the way it sometimes pulls at the knee. This was perhaps a bigger problem than my lack of walking because my hip muscles were so tight and screaming the most. We found a grassy knoll where we stretched for a minute, me doing a few lying yoga poses that I knew would loosen my muscles. Then we were on our way again, me feeling like I couldn’t go on.
Kya, however, had gotten her second wind. She made up a game of all the ways we could get back to our car (superpowers to teleport, jumping the passing train and riding it all the way back around, hitchhiking with the farmer passing on his tractor). She was patient when I slowed down, offered a hand to help me up from our spot on the grass and just generally kept talking and making jokes to keep me distracted. When I cracked that I was just going to stop and live in this place on the trail she said I couldn’t because I needed to go grocery shopping. 😉 In these small gestures she never made me feel as if I was slowing her down or that she was condescending to me. I realized that I have always respected my kids limitations, from the physical to the emotional, without judgement and by offering whatever help I could. She was doing the same for me and I swelled a little with pride. It pushed me forward.
During our loooong walk back the sky began to darken even though it was still early and we could see rain in the distance.
It was far enough away that I wasn’t terribly worried but I also knew our current pace (42 minutes per mile) could mean getting caught in the rain if we weren’t careful. However, we soon came to that bench that we knew was a mile out and I figured we’d be okay. At this point we’d run out of water (most outposts have a way to refill water but not Machens and I simply hadn’t brought enough) but we had a few strawberries left. We sat on the bench and finished them and they were hydrating enough to take us the rest of the way.
When we finally spotted our car I wanted to cry. My legs ached, my knee (which the tape had kept from hurting for about 5.5 miles) was screaming and we had finally felt a few raindrops as the storm caught up with us. There had been a few low points when I wasn’t sure how I was going to go on but I did. It was grueling and it took us 5 hours to complete (which included all the times we stopped). I could barely lift my legs to get into my very low to the ground car. The 2+ hour drive home only made my muscles stiffen more. But I’d done it. And I’d figured out a few things to help the next time be easier…
- Train more. The athletic tape works. I can walk and do yoga without exacerbating my knee injury if I tape it. Which I definitely will.
- Bring more water. The last 1.5 miles were the worst not because I was so tired but because I no longer had water. Water is key.
- Don’t be afraid to rest when I need to. Even if there’s nothing more than a bit of grass it helps to give my legs the break they need. As time goes on I’ll need fewer breaks but I need to listen to my body and rest when I need to.
I had a couple of surreal moments that brought a bit of clarity to the struggles. As I sat at the Machens trail head I realized that just a few moments before I’d felt like I’d never make it, that it was just too hard. But then I did make it and that exhausted, tired, achy me was already a memory that I could disconnect from my present self. It had only been about 15-20 minutes but I still had the very real understanding that it was in the past. And that moment of clarity would also soon be in the past. I knew then that even if it was slow, even if it was difficult, even if the rain caught up with us that it would all pass. I kept that thought close to the surface during the difficult walk back to the car. And it worked. I put one foot in front of the other and I made it.
Before Saturday the furthest I’d ever walked was 3 miles and I’d worked my way up to that. Then in one day I more than doubled that distance after weeks of rest. It was hard but it proved to me that I CAN do this. This was only the beginning.