This article was originally published in the February 2023 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. Subscribe today for similar features on ultra training, racing and more.
It’s just past midnight on a night in June, but Nathan Echols is awake in a sweat. I’ve got to get back, he tells himself, sitting on the edge of the bed. The kid still burns inside him, the one who’d do anything to win, and put holes in the walls when he lost. He had to return to the Appalachian Trail (AT). He wouldn’t quit this easy—not after 46 days on the 2,190-plus-mile trail.
Two days before, the 55-year-old had been heading into the White Mountains, to attempt an ambitious sub-60-day AT traverse from Georgia to Maine. The day was overcast and cold, and the trail was damp and slick as he headed up Mt. Moosilauke, a 4,802-foot-high peak at the southwestern end of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. At some point, his left knee gave and, in a blur, the side of his head slammed into a blunt, moss-covered rock. Stunned, blood began to roll down his face and he felt for bone chips around his eye socket.
Fatigue had taken its toll after 1,800 miles, culminating in a gradual loss of control. His legs were simply not going where his brain was telling them to. The veteran of 60-plus ultras and the winner of six, had been moving at a 40-mile-a-day clip. Now, his confidence was shaken. He’d nearly fallen the day before on Mt. Cube.
“For the first time in my life,” said Echols, “I was afraid of the trail.”
At 5:30 a.m., Echols was back on the AT. Under a blanket of darkness, Mt. Moosilauke conceals twisting features and slick, sheer-rock descents like a boogeyman waiting to strike. A steady rain started to fall, and the trail felt ominous. He’d better change his goals, he thought, as he looked down at the matchbox-sized defibrillator in his chest that reminds him to lighten up and gain perspective. Afterall, it was only two years since the nightmare—the event that cleaved his life into two chapters: a before and after. That part of his story still doesn’t make sense, when EMTs found him lying supine on his bedroom floor, clinically dead.
It was the first hot day of 2020, and an 18-mile hike by the Delaware Water Gap seemed like a good idea. He’d run 15 miles the day before and was feeling fit. His dog, however, wasn’t. Dragging, Echols felt sorry for him, cut the day short at 9 miles, made dinner and settled in front of the TV for a Yankee’s game.
He has no memory of what happened next.
Sometime during the night, the 53-year-old began making odd sounds in his sleep. His wife, ultrarunner Jenny Chow, turned on the lamp. His eyes were open, blank; he was gone. She dialed 911, and they instructed her to pull him onto the floor. She couldn’t. Wrap his legs with the blanket, they said. She did and heaved till his body slipped off the bed like a limp fish, his head thumping the floor. Untrained in CPR, she straddled him and began chest compressions. “I have no doubt,” Echols said later, with emotion swelling in his throat, “she saved my life.”
Within 10 minutes, police were on the scene. They defibrillated him, but he flatlined again. They popped him once more, and a senior officer came downstairs and told Chow there was “pushback,” meaning the heart was trying. “It’s fighting again,” he said.
As Echols was wheeled up, the swoosh of a helicopter flattened the grass of a local elementary school. After being medevac’d from Longview to Morristown, New Jersey, he was packed in ice but coded two more times and then revived. The doctors gave him a 10% chance of survival.
None of this was supposed to happen. Not to him. He was a marathoner, an ultrarunner and elite hiker with a resting heartrate of 45. Both Echols and his wife were super fit. A peak-bagger in his 20s, he went on to place 11th at the Umstead 100, eighth at the Vermont 100 and won a smattering of 100k and 50k races. Jenny Chow is perhaps even more successful, winning three 100-milers in 2009 alone: Kettle Moraine, Mohican and Oil Creek 100. Together, they’ve hiked the New Hampshire 48, all of the state’s 4,000-foot mountains and section-hiked the AT.
But Echols’s fitness couldn’t outrun his genetics.
Blockage in three arteries led to a spike and arrhythmia, which caused his heart to stop—a cardiac arrest. “I didn’t have a heart attack,” he says over the phone, adamant to explain the difference. Often used synonymously, a heart attack is damage to the heart and by definition, doesn’t require the muscle stopping. An arrest is the stopping of the heart for various reasons, one of which may or may not be a severe heart attack.
He awoke from a coma after two days, only to face tough decisions, and a little over three months after his heart had stopped he opted for a triple bypass. A small defibrillator was attached to his chest and would be with him the rest of his life. But he had a another shot at living. What would he do with it?
Three things made him want to move: love of his wife, love of family and love of friends. They all had a common denominator, a throughline that linked them all together: trails.
“My only escape and only way to relate to my father was the fact that he liked to hike,” said Echols. “In a way, that became my salvation. That was my release from the uptight restricted life we led. I was free out there.”
Echols’s childhood was different than most. It was meted out, controlled: he went to church three times a week, couldn’t wear shorts, couldn’t have a TV, couldn’t attend school dances and couldn’t celebrate Christmas. “Early on in my childhood I realized that life wasn’t for me,” he remembers. “But I had to play the game to survive to adulthood.”
His father was a preacher of the fire and brimstone bent, he says, not knowing why he used the word minister in an earlier conversation.
“I lived in fear. Fear of my father. Of going to hell.”
A part of a strong fundamentalist movement in the South in the ‘40s and ‘50s, his father had left Texas for New Jersey, but couldn’t leave behind the effects of poverty, the Dust Bowl, WWII and growing atomic fears. Hooking into the Church of Christ, he taught Nathan the world was 8,000 years old, and that God had merely created the Earth to “look” old.
Echols would be the only family member to leave the church. His life would be that of a maverick, but newfound freedom wouldn’t erase the trauma.
One experience is still raw and gnaws at him when he’s down. His father had a family project: together, they would section hike from the Delaware River to the Hudson River over the course of several years. Echols loved it. Finally, they all shared in something that he could buy into. But he missed one hike and after the family completed the river-to-river trek, his father told everyone that only he, his wife and Echols’s brother had completed it. “I had missed one hike,” Echols remembers. “So, I didn’t earn that honor.” Years later, after replaying it over and over in his head, it occurred to him. “Why didn’t he just take me back and let me complete that missing segment? Perhaps that is why I burn with such a passion for completing things in my control.”
It’s 4:45 a.m.—day two back on the trail—and Echols is pulling himself up a boulder. Four-point hiking, both hands and feet on the trail as he crawls up to Kinsman Notch, one of the most grueling sections of the AT. The wind rips at his exposed digits, gusting up to 50 mph.
He wonders what he’ll do if one of the wires pops out of his defibrillator. How will his heart react? He tells himself to just keep moving. Then, he gets angry.
The steep hill gets him riled up. It speaks to him and tells him he can’t go on. It tries to control him and he shortens his strides. Hills make him mad, make him try harder and make him faster. “He can hike uphill faster than most can run,” said friend and ultra veteran Glen Redpath. “He’s a machine.”
At 11:25 a.m. on July 15, after a total of 67 days, 4 hours and 50 minutes, Echols stood atop Mt. Katahdin—his journey complete. While he can never go deep-sea diving or jump out of an airplane, he can do what he loves: hiking and connecting with his three kids. He can be the dad that he always wanted.
The film, A River Runs Through It, with its combination of distance and nature and the connection of father and son through flyfishing, has always touched Echols.
“My father loved nature,” Echols remembers. “He was always watching the birds. He’d write down their names in a book when they came to the feeder. He knew trees and liked to be outdoors. He loved classical music. But he was incapable of admitting that he was wrong. I make it a point to apologize to my kids.”
His son Derek was only five when he and his first wife divorced. Something, he says, he never wanted to happen. Derek moved away with his mother and the two were never close. After his heart incident, Echols hoped to change that.
He offered to pay Derek to be his handler on the AT thru-hike and Derek said yes. When Echols fell, it was his son who met him on the carriage trail and drove him to the hospital. When he was going to quit, his son understood and when he said he was determined to go back and finish, Derek got that, too.
His love was without control and his support was without expectation.
As Echols drove him back home to Georgia, he welled up with pride. “I didn’t know if he was capable,” he said, “but he was brilliant.”