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I'm a Bear

Amanda Cunningham marks her 500th mile on the Appalachian Trail

Cunningham marks her 500th mile on the trail.

April 27, 2016

‘Sonic’ Speeds through the Appalachian Trail

As an intern for UNC’s Cancer Rehabilitation Institute, I got the idea to hike the Appalachian Trail from a patient. We shared a common bond of the outdoors. She mentioned that some people hiked the trail all the way through.

I decided to hike the trail as a graduation present to myself. I wasn’t a confident person, but hiking fits with other adventurous things I’ve done. I like to run marathons and climb 14ers.

Running helped me cope with the death of a friend in junior high. Depressed, I developed an eating disorder, and doctors forbid me from running. But running made me happy, so I began  to eat so I could run. I worked through the depression and out of the eating disorder, and at UNC, I ran cross-country.

I worked as a private caregiver to help pay my way through school. Though I loved caregiving, I’d been at the bedside of many of my clients when they died. My heart needed a break from death.

The A.T. is 2,189 miles long, starting in Georgia, and ending in Maine. Of thousands each year, only about one-in-four finishes the entire trail. I knew it would be hard, but it would give me time alone to reflect on my life.

I hit the trail after graduating in May 2015. As I gained confidence, I got to know other thru-hikers, including one whose trail name was Blowup because of the crazy meal he made from summer sausage, Ramen noodles, spicy pickles, chips and cheese crackers smashed up in a plastic bag and added to boiling water.

Blowup and I started logging big miles. He called me Sonic, after the character in a video game who goes and goes. As others on the trail started to get to know us as Blowup and Sonic, I began to feel like a role model. Other hikers started to look up to us.

There were days I hiked 40 miles. On my longest stretch, I walked and ran 52 miles during a full moon. I didn’t know the human body was so capable of healing and being pushed hard day after day.

I was tested. I got sick the last week, but continued to hike. I thought about my UNC patients who went through chemotherapy and yet came in to exercise. One patient, Trina, came in the same day as her chemo. Thinking of them made it easy to push through the pain. When I was saying to myself, ‘This sucks, this sucks,’ they were with me. They showed me what it meant to be tough.

On Aug. 17, I reached Katahdin, Maine. I finished in 98 days, hiking 92 of them. The A.T. marked a division between graduation and the real world.

My time on the trail made me realize I could do amazing things. In fact, I’m worthy of them. I returned to Loveland, enrolled in a certified nursing assistant course and hope to work in hospice. I’m going to run an ultramarathon soon, and I may also hike another trail.

While many people know me as Amanda, my friends know me as Sonic.

–By Amanda Cunningham ’15, as told to Dan England