Cedar Cliff Student Aubrey Dawson's Journey to the Appalachian Trail and a New Record

For senior Aubrey Dawson, hiking is not just a leisure activity. It is a part of his life that has given him hope and a new dream to replace his prior dream of wrestling. Since the fourth grade, Dawson had spent countless hours training in wrestling. He had a goal to wrestle in college, and by high school this goal was quickly turning into a reality--until the summer heading into eleventh grade when he suffered a devastating injury.

During a particular match where he was wrestling on a national team in Maryland, Dawson said that he was “wrestling four weights up and against a kid who was fifth in the nation.” Despite this challenge, the match was a tight one, up until Dawson’s opponent picked him up and slammed him to the ground. Although he lost the match and seemed to be quite dazed, Dawson appeared to be fine for the first 45 minutes. Shortly this changed.

Dawson’s dad found him sitting on the edge of a wall with his head in his hands. Dawson had no idea where he was, and it turned out that he had a severe concussion. For nearly two months he was out of it. During that time his memory was completely strained, and to this day he remembers little from those months. He said the stories that people tell him regarding his behavior during that time are quite “embarrassing, unbelievable, and almost funny.” Dawson decided to put wrestling on the back burner for a while. That was until an opportunity arose.

Cedar Cliff needed Dawson to fill in a spot for wrestling districts during his junior year. He was up for it, and the comeback seemed to feel surreal. Once again, though, he received a minor concussion while wrestling during practice. “I realized that my health was more important, and I knew it was time to throw in the towel, at least regarding wrestling.” Having to quit wrestling made Dawson decide to become serious about hiking the Appalachian Trail. This vision mended the heartbreak from leaving wrestling. Right away Dawson knew that he wanted to hike the trail with his dad. After telling him this, his dad did not really know how to take it, but it did not take long for him to be all in.  His father had actually planned to hike the Appalachian Trail before Aubrey was born, but the timing was just not right.

Around age seven Dawson had gone on his first hike and he fell in love with it. The hikes quickly grew in length, growing days long. His dad had grown up in Maine where hiking was a way of life, and he couldn’t have been happier to discover that Aubrey shared the passion with him. Around three years ago, thru-hiking (hiking an established long-distance trail from end to end within a year) the Appalachian Trail had crossed Aubrey’s mind. He wrote it off as something to do years from now.

But by the end of his junior year, Dawson started planning for his goal. After talking to his guidance counselor, he figured out a way to graduate a semester early his senior year in order to hike the trail. Although he had already been in decent shape from wrestling and past hiking experience, he ramped up his workouts even more. His current weekly training consists of core work and lifting on Mondays, running around four miles on Tuesdays, running for 8-12 miles on Wednesdays and for 6-8 miles on Thursdays, core and leg workouts on Fridays, a 20-25-mile trail run on Saturdays, and a 15-mile trail or road run on Sundays. Every 4th week he slightly shortens the weekend workout.

On top of all that, Dawson participates in various races, specifically trail races. He recently completed a half marathon in extremely muddy conditions. He has also done 50k's, and has recently completed a 42- mile race called the Four State Challenge.

The Dawsons are hoping to join the list of approximately 14,485 successful thru hikers of the Appalachian Trail since its completion in 1937. They will be going north-bound, so they will start in Georgia and will finish in Maine. On his YouTube channel, Dawson made the official announcement that he will embark on his journey beginning March 22nd. “I am aiming to finish the hike in about 110 days.” This is under the average time, which is 165 days. He said that he will be taking four days off for graduation and to reconnect with friends and family.

Earlier last year Dawson, and his dad hiked Pennsylvania beginning in August so that they could afford to miss those days during graduation. While they hiked in August, they tested out their gear in order to have the most efficient pack. This still qualifies their hike as a thru-hike since they will have completed it in a year’s time.

The Appalachian Trail isn’t the only thing on Dawson’s bucket list; he also wants to set a FKT (fastest known time) on the 100-mile wilderness unsupported, which is in Maine. It is said to be the most difficult part of the Appalachian Trail. Dawson and his dad hiked this part before about three years ago. They did it in under three days, and Dawson’s dad was quite surprised at how fast his son completed it.

During that time, Scott Jurek had set the FKT for hiking the Appalachian Trail (his record was later broken), which inspired Dawson to see if there were any records that he could break. His mind went back to the 100-mile wilderness, and he played with the idea that it might be a record worth striving for in the distant future  Out of curiosity,  the Dawsons looked up who had the current FKT for the 100-mile wilderness. Dawson is attempting to break Witt “El Matador” Wisebram’s record of 34 hours 11 minutes. Not only does he want to break the record, but he also hopes to eliminate much of that time.

Three years ago as well, Dawson and his dad were given their trail names, which are given to a person by oneself or by others. Traditionally, the names are personally related to the hiker. During an 80-mile hike, Dawson found himself waiting for his dad for rather a long time. A thru-hiker asked Dawson where his father was, and he told the hiker that he was still coming. After noting Dawson’s fast pace, the thru-hiker decided to call him Rabbit Foot. The thru-hiker decided that his dad’s name would be Catch-Up since he was always catching up to his son.

Dawson describes the hiking culture as “very supportive.” He’s still pleasantly shocked by the way that everyone has rallied behind him. So many hikers, runners, friends, and family have helped him pursue his goals. Even Wisebram is rooting for him and has offered him advice. He’s met many role models along the way, such as Dale Sanders, who is the oldest person to have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail at age 82 in 2017 (and is planning on setting new records to this day).

Years have flown by since Dawson’s first hike, and he is still in disbelief that he is about to hike 2192 miles (which equals approximately 5,000,000 steps)! “Although I can’t wait to hike, I’m still processing that it is coming up so soon. For years I have dreamed about hiking the AT and sometimes it still feels like a dream, but it’s not. It’s going to happen in less than a month!” Dawson is also looking forward to hiking with his dad, which he says he is very fortunate to be able to do.

Only 25% successfully complete the Appalachian Trail, but this statistic is no longer daunting for Dawson. “I used to be worried about not finishing the hike before I had the goal of setting a FKT. Now that I have that motivation, I know that I can’t just quit or take a break when things get hard. Not only that, but I have gained confidence in myself and in my training. I realize that I am ready to take on the Appalachian Trail.”

Dawson said that he’s learned from others’ mistakes in training. People nearly set themselves up for failure, he says, when they don’t train in and on all conditions. Also, many beginner thru-hikers fail to have a lightweight pack, and they may not think about properly testing their gear. Even experienced hikers can fall short at taking off an appropriate number of days and setting a steady pace.

He says that with the right mindset, he can push through those rainy days and the days where he just doesn’t feel like hiking. At this point, the only thing that he is really concerned about is not setting the FKT for the 100-mile wilderness, but he feels that whatever happens it will be meant for a reason, plus there could always be a next time.

Although Dawson is focused on the Appalachian trail and setting a FKT, he has thought about future hikes all around the world. Most of these are far-away thoughts like the Appalachian Trail once was. Right now, he is deciding between two colleges, depending on the career path he chooses.

“There is no way that I would be hiking the Appalachian trail now, or maybe even ever if I were to still be in wrestling,” Dawson said. Looking back on it all, he couldn’t be more thankful for what hiking has given him. It not only allowed him to move on from wrestling, but it helped enhance his way of thinking about the world around him. When he faces the inevitable, unimaginably tough days on the trail, he will look back to one of the best pieces of advice that a hiker has given him: “Always remember why you’re hiking.” This reminds him of the little boy who fell in love with and who still loves hiking. Dawson said that this saying goes for anyone with a dream.  “For me this hike and the FKT is for God, and I’ll put my trust in him no matter what happens.”

Dawson will be vlogging about his trail journey on his YouTube channel “OG Rabbit Foot” and will also bring updates on his Instagram page “rabbit.foot.

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