Olive McGloin Q&A: ‘My feet expanded a full size’

Olive McGloin is an ultra-hiker who became the first woman to ‘yoyo’ America’s Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican to Canadian border, and back again. The Dubliner completed the continuous 5,300-mile (or 8,600-kilometre) trek through sandstorms and snowstorms in 195 days.

Last Wednesday McGloin was“in shock” after winning the Woman of the Year gong at the Outsider Adventure Awards. Only 77 people have completed the Pacific Crest Trail more than once, McGloin doing so twice in the one hike. She walked with her husband, Darrell Johnson, until his injury forced her to continue alone. She completed the hike in late 2014 but her story only emerged more recently.

Q: When you look back at the 6,000 photos you took during your 195-day hike, what feelings spring to mind?


We probably don’t look through them as often as we should do. The thing is that I can close my eyes at any time and instantly be back in a particular place whenever I want to be. Sometimes we didn’t take photographs because we couldn’t have done the place justice, especially for sunrises where you just watch that little ribbon of light grow and grow. To see that nearly every morning for 195 days is phenomenal. It’s a wonderful experience that does change your life.

Q: Given you walked the full trail, did a U-turn and started walking back, I’m guessing it wasn’t all about the scenery. What was your motivation?


We had originally planned to just thru-hike it, but in 2011, when we were doing a 400-mile section, we bumped into a hiker who was thru-hiking it and he said to us, ‘Next year I’m coming back with my partner and we’re going to do a yoyo. She’s going to be the first woman to do it.’ Of course, on the flight back two weeks later my husband goes, ‘You know what? We’re going to do that and you’re going to be the first.’ Then, losing my dad a couple of months later meant I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do this. I’m really going to push to get the time off work to do it as soon as possible, because life is too short.’ That was a big motivation in keeping me going.

Q: It’s hard to even visualise the sheer distance of 5,000+ miles…


Well, my nephew actually asked me to speak at his school and my husband came up with a visual that the flight from Dublin to San Francisco is pretty much the distance I walked. We thought that was a visual the kids could relate to and it even surprised me too!

Q: Was it logistically difficult to find the balance between carrying a light load and having enough supplies?


Yes, and organising that from outside the States was an added hassle. And, to add a little extra complexity to it, I’m vegan. But we kept everything as simple as possible to give us the extra 10 or 20 minutes every day to allow us to do the extra mile, which we called ‘stealing the mile’. Of course, that would turn into three and every time we did extra miles beyond where we thought we would be, we knew we could do it. We didn’t think at the time that we were doing 17-hour days and it wasn’t easy to do, but the scenery just made you want to see what was around the next corner.

Q: How did you change physically over the course of the walk?


My feet expanded a full size. Plus, when you do the Appalachian Trail (in Eastern America), there’s a t-shirt I’ve seen that says ‘Women leave their breasts on Springer Mountain’, because it’s a huge amount of fat that you have there and that’s the thing that goes. Everything aches but you get used to it and you feel so strong, like a little mountain goat running around. I did have to tape my back for the last three months because the skin was worn really thin but, again, it was a small thing to have to put up with knowing there’s got to be some sort of rub to get the rewards at the end.

Q: A case of mind over matter?


Our bodies were ready to finish but we could’ve kept hiking if there was another trail to do. But we had to get back to work and back to life. That’s the problem. The longer you stay out, the more difficult it is to come back to the life you led beforehand. That’s what we’re readjusting to and I don’t ever want to lose what we gained. We met a hiker who wrote a book entitled, ‘Thru-hiking will break your heart’, and it will – but in a really good way. You can live so simply if you want. You don’t need all these things that effectively own you.

Q: Do you remember the day you came closest to quitting?


When my husband became injured, I was like, ‘OK, that’s it. We’re done.’ But we had given up so much to actually go there, to take the time to do it and my husband had given up a promotion at work. When he then looked at me and said, ‘How about if I get a car and get some treatment, will you keep going?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m not ready to quit. I’m doing this for my dad and I want to try to keep going.’ And I did.

Q: When you headed home, what was the main takeaway you brought with you?


Life is too short so you should just get out there, not worry about the little things and try stuff. My dad always told us that it’s OK to fail so long as you try and I really think that’s something that people don’t say enough. You should be bold, scare yourself, take yourself out of your comfort zone and try something different. Why not?

Q: There was a Reese Witherspoon film, Wild, made recently about Cheryl Strayed, who walked 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. You did more than five times that, so are you waiting for a Hollywood call!?


(Laughs) No – when people say, ‘it’s amazing’, I just think, ‘Yeah, but we all have it in us if you really want to do something’. I may be a little bit more stubborn and have a bit more drive to do it but I believe that if you want to do something, just go and do it. It’s there for you to grab and we really don’t know what’s around the corner.

Picture courtesty of Olive McGloin


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