Someone emailed me and asked how to handle the mental discipline of a long distance hike. They wanted to know if it helps to start out slow and ease into the hike.
I think starting slow helped with the physical aspect, not the mental aspect. It seems that most thru-hikers have this fire in their eyes at the beginning. They are excited about the multiple-month thing, about living their big dream and doing something amazing. The admiration you get from people in towns and when you get rides feeds that. And the trail community helps, too. So the mental adjustment at first is really pretty easy and you are supported all along the way to keep that fire alive. I think if you don't feel fully alive and burning with passion for what you are doing right away, it will be harder to adjust, and I don't know what it will take.
Even so, keeping the fire alive is difficult. I know that I lost it and hiked for a huge amount of the time just wanting to go home. That's when the mental discipline set in for me. It hits everyone at a different time in the hike, but seems to hit a lot of people in northern California. It hit me in Oregon.
I think there are two ways to deal with the mental discipline. You can fight against the desire to go home. That's what I did. I refused to go home until I was finished with the trail, because I gave up the first time I tried it and knew how terrible that feels. I think it also helped that I had endured so many scary and difficult things that I took on an attitude that nature could keep throwing obstacles at me and I wouldn't back down.
The other way, and the way I think works better, is to have an unwavering positive attitude toward every hardship that comes your way. This is the attitude I saw in all the thru-hikers I met in Oregon and Washington. They were happy no matter the weather or the bugs. Nothing could break their positive attitudes.