Hiking the Blue Hills

When you live in Boston, hiking is often a multi-day affair. At the very least, it usually involves a 2-hour drive, and lord knows the last thing I want to do after climbing a mountain is hop in the car for a few hours. Generally, I want to hop into bed for a few hours after a hike like that. Or a hammock.

I’m planning to do some multi-day trips this summer though, and so I’ve been training to carry everything I need on my back. Last month, I started bringing my pack to Harvard Stadium, filled with water bottles and the heaviest cook books I own.

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While it was hard and helped build strength, climbing stairs with a 40 lb pack is a bit different from being on the trail- there’s more vertical, and fewer variations in terrain. So last week I packed my bag with all the stuff I thought I’d need for a multi-day trip and headed to the Blue Hills.

It’s less than a 20-minute drive from my house to this 7,000 acre reservation. Crisscrossed by trails (and a few roads), the terrain at the Blue Hills is varied. I’ve trail run and biked there, but I had never really hiked. For being just a few miles from home, I was surprised at how easy it was to get way from the bustle of the city.

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I decided to cross the whole reservation via the Skyline trail, a 9-mile point to point trail that boasts 2,500 feet of altitude gain. My trek started just after 7:30 a.m. in Quincy. It was cool, overcast, and threatening to rain. I took off and saw two other souls over the next two hours.

While it’s not the most challenging trail in the world, I was surprised at how tough it actually was. Between stone staircases and large rock scrambles, this was not a leisurely weekend stroll.

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Though I could occasionally hear cars and planes (Blue Hills lies in the flight path to Logan Airport), it was easy to forget that I was still in the city. I climbed to the top of rocks and saw nothing but trees for miles.

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Things started to pick up during the second half of my hike. I passed families and groups of college students out for weekend jaunts. I met up with some mountain bikers at the top of a hill and took a photo for them, and then chatted with a middle aged man with a pack bigger than mine about his upcoming trek across New Mexico.

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I didn’t stop. My water bladder meant I could drink on the go, and handily packed snacks (some dried apricots and a Picky Bar) kept my energy up. I hoped to see a deer, but only saw turkeys and chipmunks (though I ran into a deer the following day when I biked through the Blue Hills).

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I arrived at Eliot Tower on the top of Great Blue Hill just after 11. From there, I lost the blue hash marks of the skyline trail and ended up on another trail that brought me to the base of the Blue Hills Ski Area. I was home less than an hour later, with plenty of time to tackle laundry and make dinner for a group of friends.

Overall, I was super pleased with the length and challenge of this hike. While it got more crowded the closer I got to the ski area, it was really fun to be in the woods, to chat with like-minded folks about outdoor adventures, and to be home just after lunch. I even bought a trail map at the visitors center ($3) so I can do some more exploring.

Hiking the Kalalau trail

There was only one thing I had my heart set on doing when I went to Kauai: hiking the Kalalau trail.

Meandering along the north coast of Kauai for 11 undeveloped miles, the trail offers access to remote beaches and breathtaking vistas. An overnight stay (and a permit) is generally required to complete the 22-mile round trip, so I opted to do a shorter hike and see Hanakapai’ai Falls, an 8-mile journey.

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Originally, I planned to do this hike earlier in my stay, but a stomach bug meant that my body wasn’t doing anything more strenuous than laying on the beach for several days. Friday was my last full day on the island, so if I was going to see the Kalalau, I knew I was going to have to muster up some strength. I stopped at a gas station on the way and bought some Gatorade and water and then made my way to the trail.

For what it’s worth, the Kalalau trail is one of the most popular hikes on Kauai. If you arrive at the trailhead much after 9 a.m., the parking lot will be full and you’ll end up parking in a crater ridden lot down the road. Many people seem to ignore the no parking signs and leave their cars by the side of the road as well. It was a swath of humanity when I went: church groups and families, people with children, and people with selfie sticks… generally just a lot of people, many who appeared to be in much worse shape than me. While I knew I wouldn’t be running this trail (my original plan), there was a part of me that felt like even in my weakened state I had to be in better shape than the retirees in sport sandals. Not the most charitable thoughts, but it got me motivated.Kalalau9From the get-go, I got the sense that people may show up unprepared for this hike, because there were constant reminders that “YOU ARE ENTERING NATURE AND IT MIGHT NOT BE SAFE.” A collection of signs just past the trailhead warned of cliffs, flash floods, and falling rocks. Later on, signs warned of hazardous waters and rip currents, with hash marks detailing the number of visitors killed. Two days before my hike, 32 people had to be rescued when rising waters made the Hanakapiai Stream impassable.

The trail went up for the first half mile or so and then leveled off at what was essentially the side of a cliff. From there, it was another 1.5 miles to Hanakapiai beach. I tried to pass as many people as I could on this stretch and avoid getting stuck behind groups. I like hiking alone, with nothing to distract me, but Kalalau was far from remote. Still, each vista seemed more beautiful, and I even saw some humpback whales swim by in the waters below.

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Pretty soon, the trail was descending and I was at the infamous Hanakapi’ai Stream river crossing.

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On a good day, this crossing requires hikers to remove their shoes and wade across thigh-deep water. On a bad day (i.e. when its been raining), the stream swells, making crossings deadly. Fortunately, crossing was no problem on this day.

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For many, the rocky, cairn covered beach at Hanakapi’ai seemed to be the turnaround point. Couples snacked, played with feral kittens, and watched the powerful surf. No joke, you do not want to swim here. I stayed long enough to snap some photos and then continued on.

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From the beach, the trail turned south towards the interior of the island, following and eventually crossing the Hanakapi’ai stream a few times. One crossing had ropes to help keep you above the water, but another was just rocks. It was easy to see how one could get stuck if it rained.

The trail started to get crowded at this point; solitude was no longer an option. I listened to a surfer guy give his girlfriend lessons in Hawaiian and tried to stay a few steps ahead of two brothers from Philly. The trail was pretty level; I wished I had it in me to trail run, but I was still feeling pretty terrible. Finally, I caught my first glimpse of Hanakapi’ai falls.

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I arrived at the base of the falls about 30 minutes later. The air there was cooler thanks to the mist; the water was downright frigid. After a 2.5 hour hike in 80+ degree heat, I was surprised to find that I didn’t want to go swimming.

Traveling solo (and being in crowded quarters), it was hard to capture how truly tall and majestic the falls were. They were movie quality. One of the brothers from Philly tried to take a photo for me, but warned that he couldn’t get the whole waterfall in the picture. I tried…

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I didn’t stay long at the falls. The air was cold, it was kind of crowded, and my bad stomach meant that my picnic consisted of a yellow Gatorade, which I sipped while walking. I passed even more people on the way down than I had on the way up… I wished I’d started earlier.

But before I knew it, I was back at Hanakapi’ai beach and warm enough to take a dip in the stream. It felt delicious.

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Shoes back on, I booked it back to the parking lot, pausing every now and then to take photos of the vistas. Before I knew it, my glorious hike was over. Though, between the traffic and the heat, I couldn’t wait to book it out of there and head to town for a shave ice. But I have a feeling that I’ll be on kauai again, and that when I am, I’ll venture to Kalalau.

How running helped me get into grad school

So, here’s something I never thought I’d say: I’m going to grad school.

Turning what was once a daydream into reality only took me… oh, about a decade. When I was a reporter I’d often have an hour or two after I’d filed my stories until I actually got edited. Sometimes, I’d kill time perusing the Harvard Kennedy School website and fantasize about studying there. I had no intention of leaving journalism just yet, but I had an inkling that I might need to figure out a Plan B, and HKS appealed to me. I even started filling out an application one year, though I balked when I saw that I’d have to take a standardized test and write essays. I wasn’t that committed to the idea. Yet.

Fast forward a few years, and the time began to feel right. A lot had changed since those afternoons in the newsroom. I’d moved to Massachusetts, gotten out of journalism, and taken up running. I’m not sure how much the first two had to do with my ultimate success, but I know without a doubt that were it not for running, I never would have gotten into grad school. What? Yeah, running.

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Sure, plenty of non-runners get into grad school. But for me, running made something that once seemed daunting, even impossible, a reality.

For starters, running taught me the value of a training plan. Runners have to take the long view. You don’t go from the couch to crushing miles overnight. You don’t get into grad school overnight either. The process takes months, even years. I approached my application the way I’d learned to prepare for races: I came up with a goal, set a training plan, and stuck to it as best as I could. I hadn’t taken math since Bill Clinton was president, so I signed up for a class to brush up on geometry and algebra. I took the GRE one Friday in July, and did respectably. I attended prospective student days, met with professors, and talked to colleagues who has completed similar programs. Just hours before the application was due, I hit send.
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It showed me how to deal with setbacks. 
Things don’t always go as planned. Race day comes and maybe there’s a 30 mph headwind, maybe there are three feet of snow on the ground, maybe you simply don’t feel well. That’s how it went for me. I took tests, wrote essays, and submitted my application. After months of waiting, the email came with a decision and guess what? I didn’t get in.

Three years ago, that would have been the end of the discussion, I didn’t get in, and so I wasn’t going. But over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of getting to know some pretty great athletes who have set ambitious goals and serious training plans in motion only to fall short of the mark. A couple friends trained for months and then missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by just a few seconds. Another watched her Ironman dream fade away after she developed a stress fracture in her hip. Did these folks say forget it and walk away from their goals? No. They savored the taste of disappointment, regrouped, and set out after it again. And so that’s what I did. I spent the next six months analyzing my training plan for weak spots and working to remedy them.

I knew the value of sharing my goals with others. One of my mistakes the first time around was that I told almost no one what I was doing. I figured that if I didn’t get in, I wouldn’t have to share my disappointment with others. But silently applying for grad school was like going out on a deserted road and hoping to run my best time. I always run faster when I’m surrounded by people who are cheering me on. Why wasn’t I doing the same here?
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I learned to ask for help. Yes, running is a solo sport. But there’s a lot to be gleaned by asking others for help. What shoes do you like? How do you stretch that muscle? Do you have a good track workout? Will you pace me in my race? Good runners are constantly seeking and offering assistance. But when it came to grad school, I felt almost bad about soliciting others for help. There’s a woman I work with that I really respect. I knew she’d likely have some good advice for me, and that she’d likely write me a great recommendation. But she’s a really busy person and I didn’t want to impose. When I didn’t get into school, I wondered whether this person’s advice and endorsement might have made a difference. So I reached out and asked if she’d meet with me for 30 minutes. She was delighted, offered some great pointers, and was enthusiastic about writing a recommendation for me. As a result, I felt much better about my application the second time around.

The next two years will be a challenge. I plan to continue to work full-time while taking classes. It won’t be easy, but I feel pretty good about it. After all, running also instilled in me the value of endurance training, and taught me that just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t also fun.
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And while I may have less time and less money over the next two years, you can bet I’ll keep on running.