21| Gwen Buchanan, physical therapist and Appalachian Trail thru-hiker: Give yourself space for grief and transitions

Since she was 13 years old, Gwen Buchanan dreamed of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Two serious car accidents, four rounds of rehab, and one major loss later, in August 2021, at the age of 51, she fulfilled her dream.

Gwen is a physical therapist and ten-time marathoner living in Mehoopany, PA with her husband and pets. She’s also a total badass. Not only did she complete all 2192 miles of the trail, she did it solo. When she’s not hiking, she enjoys running, kayaking, and tap dancing. 

Connect with Gwen
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RUNHIKE2020
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/Gwendolyn-Ide-Buchanan

In this episode, we talked about…

  • Being “chubby” and very active as a kid
  • Gwen’s grandmother was a runner and a very strong influence in Gwen’s life   
  • The weight shaming she experienced with her grandparents and at school  
  • Joining the cross country team hoping to lose weight  
  • The daily battle to focus on how she feels not how she looks
  • Gaining weight in her 20’s and going to unhealthy measures to attempt to lose it
  • How running helped her cope with her mom’s death
  • Feeling like she wasn’t allowed to slow down and grieve the loss of her mother as a graduate student  
  • Things do to and say (and what NOT to and say) when someone in your life is grieving
  • Her first accident; being airlifted to the hospital and being intubated on the way over
  • The motivation that drove her to start running marathons again after coming home from the hospital with multiple injuries, using a walker
  • Going for 5-mile walks in a neck brace after her second accident
  • What motivated Gwen during rehab
  • How she trained to prepare for the Appalachian Trail
  • Wondering if she was getting punk’d on the trail  
  • The challenges of hiking through the rainiest July on record  
  • “The trail always provides” – what this means and how it works  
  • What happened when her water filter froze and broke 
  • The challenges of readjusting to society post-hike 
  • Advice on navigating the transition back to “real life”  
  • The parallels between the loss of her mom and leaving the trail  
  • The joy and simplicity of trail life 
  • Why her next project is going to be decluttering her home 

I was just a chubby kid.

We heated our house with wood. So, you know, we would spend hours outside cutting and stacking and passing piles of wood. And that was just how I grew up.

We weren’t a rich family. My mom was struggling. She was a single parent and heating our house with wood. So she’s out there with the chainsaw and I’m helping stack and cut in the split, splitting the wood. And that was exercise, but I didn’t feel like that was exercise. That was just living. 

When I got my pictures back in sixth grade, I remember absolutely bawling because it was the first time I really saw how I looked and didn’t like it. And I remember throwing those pictures out. 

I joined the cross country team because all those kids were thin on cross country. And I was like, well if I joined the cross country team, I’m going to be thin. Right? Yeah, no,

It wasn’t me initially thinking that I was fat and that I was chubby. it was the people outside of my own little bubble that were saying things, making me feel like, oh my gosh, I don’t look like everybody else.

There is something wrong with me.  I need to do something. And now I feel horrible. And unfortunately, that has lasted a lifetime.

And I think a lot of other women go through the same thing. Things are said, you compare yourself to other people. And it turns into a lifetime battle of, oh my gosh,  I don’t look the way I’m supposed to look.

It’s not really about what you look like. It’s about your health and how you feel.

It didn’t matter whether I was the fastest person. I usually came in last, but I was the fifth person on the team. So if I didn’t finish, no one counted. You find your way to count.

I think people that have suffered a loss have to allow themselves to grieve and allow themselves to make errors.

You’re going to be stressed. You’re going to have anxiety. You’re going to say stupid things. You’re going to do stupid things and you know what that’s okay.

The people that are around you that love you and care about you will understand why you’re doing the things you do, and they’re going to support you in it and help pick you up.

People need to allow themselves to grieve and to grieve fully in no matter what form that takes. 

The way I have suffered my mother’s loss isn’t the same way friends of mine have suffered their mom’s loss.

I’ve discovered that offering advice isn’t really all that helpful because what worked for me doesn’t necessarily work for them. So it’s basically just more important to be an ear and say, tell me how you’re feeling today.  Not, if you feel this way. you should do this, just tell me how you’re feeling and, and empathizing, validating.

I had a PT do PT on me, which was really funny. We had a good laugh over that.

When I need to escape, when I need to go to sleep at night I would picture myself is out on the trail in my tent, listening to night sounds

There were times like I’d be hiking up a mountain and I was letting swear words, fly… And then you get to the top and there’s this gorgeous view that like, you just couldn’t get anywhere else. And suddenly you just forget the whole last half hour of swearing. And you’re like, wow, this is the best day ever.

Every time I had any kind of question and was just about to get anxious over something, the answer would appear. 

Every time I would be worried about something, the problem would just solve itself

The simplicity of life on the trail spoiled me terribly. You don’t have to multitask on the trail. I mean, you have to, you have to step over roots and rocks and not fall down. You have to eat food, you have to drink water. You have to give yourself shelter and that’s about it.

Where when you come home, the phone is ringing. You have 50,000 emails. Work wants you to come back. Work wants you to come back work once you to come back, the dog is barking. We’re out of dog food. The laundry is dirty and you’re like, whoa, I didn’t have this. 

It was an eye-opener as to what all of us deal with in society day-to-day. Like, I don’t think we realize the stresses that we put ourselves through because there is no off button. Like you, you can’t turn it off. If you’re living in society, there is no off button. You can take a day off of work, but there’s no off button.

I left the whole anxiety-ridden society for five months and it was wonderful. And coming back was hard.

I really was grieving the loss of the simplicity. and just living life joyfully every day.

Being able to problem-solve my way through whatever comes at me. I think that, yeah, that’s what makes me feel powerful. I mean, life’s never easy. It never works out the way you want it to, and that was a big lesson on the trail too, you know, like no matter what you think is going to happen, that the trail is going to tell you what’s going to happen.

You’re not, you’re not in control of the trail is so you need to problem solve,  your water filter breaks now, where are you going to do? But every day at work, even,  just being able to problem solve your way through every little thing. And you get to the end of the day and you’re like, Hey, I just got through the day and not everything went the way it should, but I still got through it.

The town of Helen, Georgia 
Washington Post article on how to stay fit for hiking during the off-season
The profile I wrote of Gwen for Next Avenue
My interview with Julie Burton and Steph Pierce on Her Next Chapter
My interview with Steven Sachen on The Movement Movement

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