When Cathryn Pugh learned she had type 1 diabetes almost five years ago, she "sobbed about it and the doctor cried with her," recalls her mom, Dawn. At the time, Cathryn—whose friends call her Cat—was a high school senior with dreams of joining the U.S. Air Force but having diabetes disqualifies people from enlisting in the military.1 "It crushed me," Cathryn says.
But within weeks the determined young lady found another path. She applied to college, and as she earned her biology degree Cat became fascinated with how people use plants in different cultures. And now she is about to fulfill another dream: to hike all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail, 2 starting mid-February in Georgia.
This journey is Cat's way of defying her disease. And her way of declaring that "diabetes is not holding me back in any way," she says.
Cathryn hopes that sharing her journey will inspire others to be active. "I think the natural first reaction to being diagnosed is: 'Now I'm limited to this disease'," says the energetic 23-year-old, "but I really feel it's possible to do anything with diabetes."
It was certainly a feeling that Cathryn experienced when first diagnosed in June of 2012.
During Cathryn's senior year of high school in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, incessant thirst, unexplained weight loss, lethargy and the need to urinate so frequently at night that she'd fall asleep in class the next day, led to her doctor's visit and diabetes diagnosis.
In the months after she received the news, as Cathryn tried to balance her insulin levels, she gained 50 pounds due to what she says is the increased insulin in her system.
It was also hard for the then 18-year-old to handle pricking her finger to test sugar levels and calculating insulin doses for daily injections.
"It was terrifying," she recalls, "like a roller coaster of emotions." (She's since switched to a Dexcom continuous glucose monitor and a t-slim G4 insulin pump.)
Those first years continued to have ups and downs, with periods of not wanting to check her sugar levels and feeling sorry for herself.
"Sometimes I felt defeated that I need to do this every day, like 'Why is this happening that all these other kids can eat ice cream and not have to deal with it?'" she says. "Now I am in a much better mind set."
Limitations are not something Cathryn has ever tolerated.
"When she was four years old, she was bound and determined she was going to ride a two-wheeler bike and at four, she met her dad in the driveway with tools and she said, 'I want to ride a two-wheeler before I am five' and she did it," says Dawn Pugh, Cat's mother. "She is just a very self assured type of girl."
A lifelong athlete who ran cross-country, participated in track, and played softball through high school, Cathryn couldn't resist an offer several years ago to do an 80-mile hike in a week on the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee with her cousin's mother-in-law. "It was life changing," she says describing her first time on the trail.
Cathryn, who had never backpacked, enjoyed a unique camaraderie between hikers she'd met who quickly become close companions. "I absolutely love the community you form while hiking, meeting people from all over the world, and being in the woods," she explains.
She also discovered a joy in hiking all day, 10 to 12 miles at a time, absorbed the singing birds and a myriad of forest movements and sights. Along the way, trail visitors leave hikers what is known as "Trail Magic": coolers of fresh snacks and drinks. They provide emotional and physical pick-me-ups and there's nothing quite like it, according to Cat.
"It's a great feeling," she says. "I didn't want that week to end."
So Cathryn decided to return. But this time, she'll tackle the entire trail—from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, traversing 14 states from Georgia to Maine with a 464,500-foot change in elevation, which means hikers move up and down 464,500 feet along the way. 3
Cathryn decided to aim for a February departure after graduating Kutztown University in December of 2016. That would give her six months of uninterrupted time needed to complete the hike. (She's applied to UC Davis for grad school to study animal behavior; if accepted, she'll start in late August.)
She will be accompanied by two college pals, Brooke Leister, 23, and George Ehrgott, 25.
"I am really excited to get out there," Cathryn says. "I love the feeling of being in that atmosphere and the feeling of getting to the top of the mountain after hiking up five miles in the pouring rain. That accomplishment is enough to keep me going. It's amazing."
So far Cathryn's spent $2,000 on pre-trip essentials—including an ultra light pack that will weigh 25 pounds when filled, proper gear for cold and wet weather, diabetic supplies and freeze-dried fruits and vegetables that will be shipped by family members to post offices in towns along the route.
In towns along the way she'll stop to charge her insulin pump, which holds a charge for nine days. If the pump starts to die on the trail, she has a portable battery pack for emergencies.
Cathryn is bringing along enough insulin to last for two months. Her mom, Dawn, is driving to spots along the route to deliver more—and check in on her daughter.
"It's exciting and scary at the same time," Dawn admits, "getting medicine to her and hoping she makes the whole trip. It give me lots to worry about."
Cathryn met recently with a Certified Diabetes Expert, who spoke about lowering her insulin dose during the hike, since exercise decreases glucose levels. 4
"It's a challenge to figure out how much insulin to administer," Cathryn says. "All of diabetes is trial and error. You're constantly figuring out how your body is going to react to certain things and making adjustments."
To maintain balanced blood sugar levels, Cathryn will snack on nuts and then switch to dehydrated apples and bananas when she feels her sugar starting to drop to help head off a low. She has sour watermelon candy (her all-time favorite) for a quick boost.
Nighttime eating is especially complicated due the danger of food in sleeping areas attracting animals, like bears. Her solution? Sealed honey snacks. "I'm most concerned about my lows at night," she says.
Another concern is tending carefully to any blisters, since people with type 1 diabetes heal more slowly. "It's easy to get an infection and I have to be hyper aware of my feet," she says, noting she'll rest if the blisters need more time to heal.
In case of an emergency—since cell service is spotty in such vast wilderness—Cathryn will carry a backwoods GPS device called SPOT GEN3. It can send messages to family members to let them know she is safe, and includes a setting to call 911 if necessary. "It's essential for having diabetes," she says.
Just one in four hikers complete the trail. 5
But Cathryn isn't fazed. "I feel I will be the one in four, I've never had any concerns of not finishing," she says. "I'm too stubborn to not. "
"It's going to be challenging in all sorts of ways I don't even know yet," she continues, "and there will be more to it than I'm anticipating there to be I'm sure. Everyone I know who has hiked it says it is life changing, and I'm excited to see what kind of person I will become when I am done."