(Photo: Cal Dobbs)
The Daily Rally

Lyla Harrod Knows She’s Never Alone

In a moment of isolation on the trail, the record-setting thru-hiker found the will to keep walking by turning to her younger self for support

Cal Dobbs

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Lyla Harrod told her story to producer Stepfanie Aguilar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.

There’s so many times when your body and your mind have conspired and outvoted you, and they’ve decided, Hey, we’re done. We’re gonna sit down right now. And even still, it’s important that you have to press on. You have to have a way to connect with yourself throughout that, because you cannot just shun yourself.

My trail name is Sugar. I am a 35-year-old sober, queer, transgender woman. And more or less full-time thru-hiker.

Last year in 2022, I set the women’s unsupported, fastest known time of the White Mountains Direttissima. I’m currently living and working in Blairsville, Georgia, which is right along the Appalachian Trail.

I’ve been sober from drugs and alcohol for over five years, and I’m somebody who has not always loved myself and not always been true to myself. Being an alcoholic in active addiction for about 16 years, I felt like I was having my soul or my heart scooped out with a melon baller, one scoop at a time.

And I felt myself getting smaller and smaller and smaller until I barely existed. I got sober at 30 years old, and I was finally able to be honest with myself about being trans and about the fact that I needed to transition. Getting sober and transitioning saved my life.

Being in nature and hiking is when I am the most myself. There’s something special about hiking alone, because it is a chance to dig down deep and to feel that connection that you have both with yourself and with the ground underneath your feet, and all the plants and animals that are around.

When I was finishing up the Pacific Crest Trail in 2022, I knew that I wanted to spend some time in the White Mountains, and I had always wanted to try to hike the White Mountains Direttissima. The Direttissima runs about 230 to 240 miles long. And just out of curiosity, I looked up what the fastest known time was at that time. And, and figured that I would have a chance at perhaps doing a little bit better. So I decided, Why not?

The challenge of that unsupported fastest known time was that I had to carry all of my food and supplies for the entire journey on my back from the very beginning. There was no resupplying except to take water from natural and public sources.

When you do an unsupported fastest known time, you really are unsupported. There’s no one out there. You can’t have a friend come and hike with you. There is no support, emotional or otherwise. And when you don’t have support from other people, it is fully on you to emotionally support yourself. That can oftentimes mean caring for yourself like you were a child.

The second to last day was the day that I had to go over Franconia Ridge, which is a notoriously steep and challenging point in the hike. Franconia Ridge is fully exposed, so there’s nowhere to hide. If you want any respite from the wind and rain, you have to duck under a boulder and tuck yourself in.

The rain had fully wetted out all of my clothing and my pack and even if it’s 40 or 50 degrees, that’s more than enough to be fully hypothermic pretty quickly if you stop moving. My body was exhausted. I was mentally already broken down from having hiked over 10,000 feet of elevation and about 25 or so miles for the day. I had to choose whether or not I could push on or whether I had to call it quits.

It was a whole set of phrases that I was using to talk to myself and to talk directly to that inner child, just saying things like, Hey, I’ve got you. You’re okay. We’re gonna do this together. And, even doing things like holding yourself or holding your hand against your heart and feeling your own heartbeat is a way of connecting to your body and connecting to yourself. All those things that you want to hear from loved ones and people who would be cheering you on if they could, you then have to do that for yourself.

I just knew that I could do it. I just gave everything that I had, and I found myself just weeping. I had to stop a couple times and I was crying. It felt really cathartic, processing the emotions through those tears, and through sitting with myself for a few minutes. It gave me strength to push forward through a really challenging moment in the hike.

Once I got through it, once I got over the ridge and down to where I camped for the evening, I could finally let my body relax. Having some time to myself to decompress in my tent after a really difficult, challenging experience, I found myself crying again. I found myself relaxing and feeling deeply proud of myself for what I had just done.

I find when I am talking to my inner child that it will tend to make me feel more emotional because I’m somebody who’s grown up being afraid of a lot of my emotions. It’s not something that’s come naturally to me because of how I grew up, and also as being socialized as a male. It’s something that I had to learn and, and come into as I grew into myself.

I now see those emotions and being in touch with my emotions and being willing to express my emotions as one of my greatest assets, both as a person and as an athlete. I got so much out of the Direttissima because it proved right to me something that I always knew was in me. Long distance hiking and taking on big challenges like big thru hikes and going for a fastest known time, they’re things that I feel are attainable because I have already felt so much discomfort through my substance use that’s deeply, physically brutal.

I knew that I had the strength to do it. I knew that about myself, but I needed to be fully stripped down to know that the inner child or that voice inside me that needed love that it’s not something that could or should ever be ignored. And I’m just really happy with who I’ve become.

It’s not, just an adult Lyla, with the job and the responsibilities and those kinds of things. Now, I do think about myself walking with a young little girl Lyla version of me, that we can sort of hold hands together, walk through this life together, and support each other.

Lyla Harrod holds the woman’s unsupported fastest known time record for the White Mountain Direttissima, a trail that connects all 48 of the 4,000 foot peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. She is a professional thru hiker, writer, and mentor of first time queer and trans through hikers. You can connect with Lyla on Instagram @seltzerskelter.

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