Thursday, September 15, 2016

Wonderland Trail: Chapter Three; Return to (and from) Paradise


Somewhere past the Paradise Campsite the smiles disappeared. Along with the smiles, the courtesy somehow vanished as well. No, not from me, or from fellow runners.  My face looked like I was standing in front of an industrial sized wind fan. The absence of joy was missing from the faces, and bodies of people coming toward me from the opposite direction. I had nearly thirty miles under my belt that day, while many of them less than a mile away from their cars looked like they were still stuck in bumper to bumper traffic.

I had said to Jean on our first day of running that I always wanted to look happier than people I was passing by on the trail. Many people think us trail runners are kind of crazy, maybe even a little rude for 'running' on the trails, and I was out to prove that you had to make your own joy out on the trail. I had given up my ambitious goal to complete a circumnavigation around Mount Rainer in order to create the joy I was seeking on the trail.  And I was rewarded with one of my greatest days of running trails ever.

It's hard to compare this day of running versus others that I've come away from with a shiny metal object and beating some time that I forced my body to overcome. Just out of sheer beauty, there is no equal for me. I came all the way across the country to run in a beautiful place, not to win a race or earn a medal. My reward was that smile I displayed as I passed others who could not appreciate the beauty surrounding them.

In the morning I still wasn't sure how my day would go. I had recovered well enough as I could from that forty two mile day and the only way to really find out how my body was going to react was to get out there. After another great meal from Abram and crew I was anxious to get out of camp. I looked around for whomever else was ready. Jean and Sean were all set to go and so was Luke, who would be running alone as his wife Sarah was opting to sit out the final day. Unfortunately Megan also threw in the towel. Those two ladies who were not the most experienced runners in the group did an absolutely amazing job of covering seventy miles in two days.

So the four of us boys headed out first with Luke leading the way. We all agreed a ten hour day was certainly a strong possibility and nine was even attainable with a little more effort. Sadly Sean quickly fell behind us and I wouldn't see him again until the end of the day. Luke was even talking about an eight and a half hour day. I was pretty certain Luke is a bigger bad ass than he is even aware of, as he actually had climbed Rainer the previous weekend, but I didn't want to make this a day about beating the clock. Well, not totally, I really did want to get as close to nine as possible.

After a few miles when the trail began it's big climb Luke slowly pulled away from Jean and I. As we left behind the magnificent forest of tall trees we were treated with our closest view of ridges surrounding Rainier. Luke slowly became a speck in front of Jean and I who were hiking fast while taking in the scenery.

Somehow I was able to put a little distance between Jean and I when I passed by Summerland Camp with a few hikers passing by. One hiker, full backpack came tearing out of camp between Jean and I and I was amazed that he seemed to be gaining ground on me. I wasn't out there for a race, and although I wanted to take in more of the scene around me, having a guy with a loaded pack catching up to me motivated me to step up my pace. I was still ascending, now over 6,000 feet and would soon reach the highest point on the trail, just a little over 7,000 feet. Rainier stands over 14,000 feet, still a large difference between me and it's peak, but I felt like I was so high above civilization that I would be running into some Greeks gods eating grapes while listening to Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain having a jam session. God bless their Northwestern souls.

The hiker must have tired out, and Jean was motivated to get past him, as we crossed over Panhandle Gap crossing out first snowfield. There were spots of snow previously but now we had to use some caution climbing a little in the white stuff. I was hoping for it to be a little softer for better grip and was surprised how firm it was here in early August. Crossing over the gap, took our breath away with new views of Rainier. This kept getting better and better.

We could also now see really well to the South with nothing to block our view across the horizon. I could have spent the whole day taking photos and videos but I still had miles to go, and knew it was impossible to capture the beauty surrounding us. There were more hikers in the area, and as I crossed paths with two travelling the opposite direction I had to stop for a moment. I looked at the woman's boots and recognized her from our first day. She and her husband had said to us they thought we were going to wrong way a short while before we got to Paradise, and of course they were right. I chatted with them for a moment, envious they would probably be on the trail for close to another week, while I would be on a plane the following night.
video

Ahead of us, Indian Bar Campsite sat in a flowered meadow with a large stream running alongside. We were told this would be our last water stop before meeting crew along a road six miles away. I filled my bladder and drank directly from the rushing water. I am no water snob that purchases bottled water but this water was certainly the finest I have ever drank. It was still cold from melting off the glaciers and so pure you could taste the clouds it fell from.

Jean and I had to stop and look behind us throughout our saunter through this whole area, as the views were fantastic in all directions. Sadly though we were about to leave all those views dipping below treeline but not before we were treated with our best view South. Mt. Baker was easy to distinguish, and I was later told that one of the peaks I could see in the distance was Mt. Hood which lies all the way into Oregon. That is almost like being able to see Mt. Katahdin from Mt. Washington. I seemed to recognize the spot I was standing in a meadow looking South from a photo that has hung in my workplace for years. The only difference was that photo was taken in less than perfect weather, as the sky was grey still allowing a view of Mt. Baker. Once again proving that real life was better than photographs.

There was about five miles of downhill running ahead of us, and both of us were starting to feel the effects of our efforts. Luke was nowhere to be seen, Jean quads were killing him and I was having trouble with my left calf muscles. I was able to keep ahead of Jean and should have been gaining speed but I was now mostly running on one leg. I crossed path with another hiker and asked if he had seen another runner ahead of us, Luke, as I felt the need to make sure we were all on the right trail and not lost on this glorious day. At first the guy said no and when I got a little concerned and gave more of a description of Luke, he then remembered and asked, "Why, is he your son?" I had joked with Luke how I thought he had looked so young, even as to go so far as to quip, "Do you and Sarah have the same homeroom teacher this year." But just how old did this guy think I was? I was the oldest guy in the trip, when did that happen to me?

The pain Jean was feeling in his quads was obvious, as he was literally screaming out in pain. I couldn't go any faster to distance myself, so I slowed up and let him pass. Not a bad idea in of itself as I didn't want to blow out my leg and have to end my day at an aid station.

Jean must have been feeling a little better, or his throat was now sore as I caught up with him just before we left the forest at a road crossing at Box Canyon. Sitting on the other side of the road was Alex with a table set up. Luke of course was gone and Alex offered to get us whatever we wanted. I had one thing on my mind. Beer. With about ten miles to go, I was feeling great and knew the rest of the trail was not going to be as challenging as other parts, so I cracked open a cold one and soaked in the ambiance.

I had joked with Jean about when the tri-athalon girls would catch up to us, figuring they wouldn't be lounging around camp for hours that morning, and being very respectful of their abilities to catch us despite whatever headstart we did have on them. I was about two-thirds done with my beer when they came roaring out of the forest. I quickly polished off my beer adding some salty treats to my belly before making my way back to the trail along with Jean.

Surprisingly I was able to ascend stronger than descend, as that's what we did coming out of the canyon. It wasn't very long but it had me feeling confident about the last ten miles. I had pulled a little ahead of Jean when I began to see some people working on the trail. I thanked them all for such a wonderfully maintained trail. It was our own fault we got lost, otherwise the trail was easy to follow. I missed having blazes to follow and there weren't many intersections, and all were well marked. Then the trail disappeared. I was close to a dry river bed, probably run off from winter melt, but now the trail was gone. I spotted some pink ribbons tied to some new growth trees and began to follow them. Through the bushwacking I was stopping often to spot the next ribbon and this allowed Jean to catch up to me. Thankfully he did, as it was better to have two sets of eyes to find our way. We decided to instead follow the dry river bed as we could still spot some of the ribbons in the forest. We figured out that the ribbons must be marking the trail that they were going to make soon. The trail reappeared in the form of a climb of course, as it lead us up and away from the river bed.

The climb flattened out as we reached a road where I was able to spot the Abram's truck parked facing Reflection Lake. The day before he had told me and others about these two impromptu aid stations and that we could end our run at either one if we felt the need. I had thought I might need to do this as I was recovering the day before but now I did not even consider ending my run before I got back to the starting spot at Longmire.

Along with Abram, who was risking bodily damage by taking photos in the road, other members of the group were there to greet Jean and I. I took in some fluids and snapped a few pictures, along with many Asian tourists as there was a great view of Rainier.

My thoughts flashed back to home as I now faced a run without the mountain vistas and just a grind to finish. That morning Maine's biggest race, the Beach to Beacon 10K had taken place. Funny that Scarlett the day before was actually wearing an old race shirt as she had lived in Massachusetts for awhile and ran it once. I realized just how much I loved running on trails and that all my motivation to run was to be places, and it wasn't about being cheered on by thousands of total strangers. It felt better to be cheered on by new friends who had suffered similar pain. It felt like the second semester of senior year. I didn't want it to end and I felt sad that I didn't know when, or if I would ever have the pleasure of these people's company.
Megan and Sarah

Jean and I managed to finagle our way around people who actually left the parking lot, and then we were on the five mile descent to Longmire. The pain in Jean's quads kicked in and my calf hobbled me, so I let him pass as he literally screamed down the trail. I did a quick stop at Paradise, getting a picture and giving the sign the finger. Sorry to be disrespectful, but my frustration from day one had not totally subsided.

It wasn't long after Paradise that Whitney caught up to me. I joked with her about passing a waterfall that on day one she had said she never saw on the map, being a clue that we were going the wrong way. She told me that Kristen had to drop at the last aid station as her knee was in serious pain. I asked Whitney if she wanted to pass me and when she did, she was gone. There was no way I could even try to keep up with her. I felt good about keeping ahead of her for over eight hours and now was determined to get to Longmire under nine.

There was no speed in my legs but I kept it going and starting to see more and more people coming at me and that's when I noticed the lack of happiness in their eyes. I crossed a river bed with people not getting out of my way, not that I have the right to the trail and I do try my best to be respectful, but damnit if you're stumbling over a relatively flat trail you should let the guy, or girl, who can boogie over the gnarliest roots and rocks go ahead of you. I did stop to take a selfie hoping to get my last view of Rainer. Jean had taken my pic on day one at the same spot as we had our first view. But now some clouds had obscured the massive peak, and I had to think that maybe those extra miles were worth the effort for that view.

Ahead of me I could see the end of the trail and I heard Lourde call out my impending arrival. There was no finish line. No banners, no medals, but there was a group of friends. There also was Abram there to hand me a cold 16 ounce bottle of Mt. Rainer Ale. I forget whether Whitney was able to catch Jean or not, but story has it that they finished within seconds of each other. No one could catch Luke who beat his goal of under eight and a half. Now only Caroline and Sean remained on the trail along with Nick who would be guiding them in.

Abram had set up camp in order to let us relax, eat, drink and enjoy our last moments together. We were approached by a Park Ranger, who was armed, asking if we had permission. We did and he was very pleasant about the whole scene. It was unfortunate to see him armed but there was a ranger who was killed at this park in the not so distant past.

Scarlet was driving between Reflection and Longmire and gave us some updates on the remaining runners. All of us really wanted to see these two finish, and we were thrilled to hear they had left Reflection and were going to do the final five miles. It was pretty thrilling to cheer them on when they did arrive at camp shortly before dusk. Sean was hurting pretty bad as something in his foot was probably out of place. Caroline seemed to be doing fine, only hungry as she put away one of the biggest plates of food of the entire group.

As the sun began to disappear, gear was getting all reassembled and sorted in order for all of us to head our different ways. A few of us, including myself, would camp out one more night before getting dropped back off at the airport the following day. Abram pointed out to us all just how crazy trail runners can be, as we had all just finished this amazing adventure, but most of our conversation was about what the next possible adventure could be.

One of the Aspire vehicles got loaded with runners heading back to Seattle that night along with Alex. As much as I looked forward to getting home and being with my family, I felt that I didn't have enough time to really get to know these extraordinary people. Everyone of them went beyond their limits, and they did it with dignity and humility and respect for one another. Abram told us on our first night before the start, to look to others for help when things are going rough for you. He was right. But I think his simple message can be applied for life off the trail. You also need to be ready for when someone needs that help from you.

These people and this place will always be with me. When things get rough on a future run, I will think of many of them. When the trail I am on isn't so beautiful, I will remember crossing through snow fields with ridges of Rainer surrounding me. When my day isn't going so well, I will remember Sean's parting words as the van was driving off, "Don't sweat the petty things, but also remember not to pet the sweaty things." And with that, I am sure my smile will reappear.
Front row(left to right) Nick, Abram, Scarlet. Back row; Lourde, Caroline, Sara, Luke, Jean, Kristen, Me, Whitney, Sean, Megan, Alex



Sunday, August 28, 2016

Wonderland: Chapter Two


***If you haven't read Chapter One, scroll down below and then check out Chapter Two***

"Just tell me that tomorrow will be more beautiful," I said to my guide Abram as I lifted my head off the picnic table following the first day's run. "Don't tell me it's easier, just tell me it's more beautiful." I was looking for motivation to get up in the morning and subject my body to more punishment.

I can't remember that Abram ever gave me a definitive response. I do believe Alex said that the third day was the most beautiful. When I first tried to sleep I was pretty certain that I wouldn't be running the next day. Then after I got up when Caroline and Sean came in after one in such good spirits, I knew that I had to try and match their courage and get up and run the next morning.

One of the biggest problems I think I had over the course of that forty two mile day is that my body was never really rested. I actually was yawning at one point during the run. I had traveled all the way across the nation and hadn't had a decent nights sleep since I left home. And that is counting getting up at three in the morning in order to fly out.

When I first registered for this run I knew the time change was probably going to be a factor. I gave myself an extra day instead of flying in and immediately joining the group. I had also looked up the Seattle Mariner's schedule and when I saw my beloved Red Sox were actually playing in Seattle I knew I had to go.

My flight out went well. Well enough for having a family sitting behind me with three young boys. Five hours to San Francisco followed by a three hour wait before the flight to Seattle. The same family was on the plane to Seattle and I was seated next to them. The kids weren't bad but I was hoping for a little more rest, missing my own kids while not actually having other little ones around. The flight attendant gave the parents a special drink before we got into Seattle and I wanted to speak up and ask for a little something special myself.

As much as I did want to see the Red Sox play, I wasn't sure if I was going to be in the mood after travelling all day. When I checked into my hotel room, I took one look at my economy surroundings and quickly purchased some cheap tickets on my phone.

Thirteen dollars for an upper deck seat in right field. I paid more for parking, which wasn't a problem as the game had already started and I easily got into the park. A great ballpark and I sat near some Sox fans. We had a 4-0 lead when I decided to leave in the seventh, not wanting to deal with traffic and to get some sleep. After all it was now close to one in the morning my time.

Sadly the Sox blew the game, making me glad I left and I was asleep before the room got dark when I turned out the light. My body woke up on East Coast time and I took the opportunity to see a couple sights before I had to meet our group back at the airport sometime after noon.

I am a big fan of the book, Boys in the Boat, and went to the University of Washington to see the boat that was rowed by the gold medal US team in the 1936 Olympics. Ironically the night before PBS was playing a documentary about the event, which I look forward to seeing soon. Not far away was Brooks running shoe headquarters, of whom I contacted for a little visit. Not a very thrilling tour, as I did not get to see any secret technological advances but being a shoe geek it was still cool.

I really needed a nap by the time the group had gathered but it was quite fun getting to know new people with similar goals but different experiences. We drove for another couple hours to meet the rest of the group at Whittaker's Bunkhouse and Mountaineering shop. Yes, I did spell Whittaker  with two 't's instead of my way of one. The Washington Whittaker family is world known as climbers and I just had to buy whatever I could with the Whittaker name on it. I told the clerks I am a Whitaker with one T and that I joke with people you only get the other T after you have summitted Everest.

As I said before I  had a poor nights sleep thanks to the party goers and the local chickens. Now the day after arguably the toughest run of my life I was awoken by the polar opposite of chickens. I thought maybe I had slept very late when I heard Sean's voice not far from my tent, and even further confused as it sounded like he was talking with Caroline and Abram. Had they not bothered to sleep?

A check on my phone said it was a little after six and the two runners who had the roughest day were the first ones up. These people are either that hardcore or absolutely out of their friggin' minds! My body still felt like I just got done with my run, not only tired but filthy, sweaty, trailer trash feeling.

Hearing the tone of Sean and Caroline's voices made me decide that I should try and get my sorry behind out on the trail. Abram and crew made us some great breakfast burritos topped off with his homemade salsa and I was glad to finally put some calories into my body. I had very little to eat last night and I hoped breakfast would jump-start my body.

The day before Megan had said she wanted to get up and out early, and as we all moved rather slow I could tell by the look in her eyes that she just wanted to get going. I did too, but really didn't want to at all, but I listened in as Abram gave us some direction for the upcoming day. Headlamps were required of all runners along with a few other essentials he talked about the day before.

I was slow getting ready hoping my tent would dry out from the morning dew, but I had to pack it up still a little wet. I don't know who was actually first out of camp but it certainly wasn't me. I did convince myself to go and started out on what was supposed to be a twenty eight mile day around eight o'clock.

The trail quickly turned off from the lake with another great view of Rainer, which should have motivated me but I was already struggling mentally. The first mile was rather smooth but my legs were fatigued. I stepped out of the woods and faced a descent of close to a mile and it was much different than the other smooth tracks I zipped down the night before. It more closely resemebled a trail in the Whites and my legs were shaking.

I knew the crew would be taking sometime to get out of camp and if I wanted a ride to the next camp instead of running there I needed to make a quick decision. The sun was already beating down heavy on me and the dried sweat was soon covered with a fresh coat. That was it. I couldn't do it. I felt like I was going to have a bad day. I didn't want a bad day. The next day would probably be even worse if I had to put in  a similar effort as the previous day.

I wanted some sleep. I wanted food other than power snacks. I wanted a good day on the trail. That day would be the next I told myself if I did all those things that my body really needed. I pulled my body back up past the couple switchbacks I had come down and headed back to camp.

Perhaps freeing my mind set my body free as I was able to mostly cruise back toward camp. I ran into Sean accommpianed by Alex and told them my decision. They did try and talk me into moving forward but I was convinced I was making the right decision. Alex sent a satelite message to Abram that I was heading back and when I did get back to camp Abram received the message just as I got there.

We didn't talk too much about my decision except he did finally confess that the third day would be the most beautiful. I had described the previous day as being 'bruteiful' and that I needed to recover if I was to enjoy the beauty of the Wonderland.

I helped break down camp along with Nick and Lourdes and soon we were on the road for a couple hour drive. I rode with Nick and had a real nice conversation with him. He was a recently graduated grad student with writing aspirations living in Missoula, Montana. He had traveled a lot in his thirty one years and had plenty of material for an impressive memoir.

We stopped for gas and supplies in some unknown town. I grabbed a chicken sandwich and a chocolate milk and then was happily surprised when Lourdes bought us all Klondike bars. I also took the time to call Mo back at home, as I hadn't spoken with her since I was back at the airport meeting up with the group. She supported my decision and encouraged me to recover properly in order to enjoy the last day of the run. We probably had one of our best phone conversations in a long time, as I am not much of phone person. It was nice to know all was well at home, the kids were being good, Wild was happy as well and there was no need for me to worry that it would be better with me at home.

When Nick and I arrived at the White River Campground we began to circle around looking for Abram and our campsite. After going around a few loops we spotted him parked in a parking lot. "The campground is full," Abram told us. I was speechless at first but then Abram said, "But I've got a couple ideas."  He figured he would walk around the campsite and look to see who had some space in their site for a single tent and then talk to those people. I told him that he would have to do all the talking and I would help the others set up our picnic gear in a small space in the parking lot leading to the trail-head.  I was amazed that after a short while Abram already had a list of a few spots and was confident that he would be able to get more once more campers got back to their sites.

I spent the afternoon helping set up and having more good food. I also got to know Abram better and talked with a few other campers in the area. But most importantly I got some sleep. I set my tent up in the only level spot near some picnic tables, even though it wasn't a tent-site. I was prepared to move it later when Abram would help secure my spot in someone else's campsite but until then I was able to cruise off to dreamland for a couple hours.

While munching down some food Abram took the time to take out the map to show me what the next day was going to look like. He raved about the scenery and said the toughest part of the day would be the climb to get up above treeline but then it was mostly going to be downhill. There would also be a couple road crossings where he would set up an informal aid station and that if needed we could be transported from these spots. It was kind of nice to know there was an out, but I was happier to know that I was potentially be in a spot that I would remember forever while forgetting about the pain to get there.

The first of the runners were just coming in when I woke up around 4:30. The tri-athletes along with Scarlet. Slowly but surely the rest of the crew all came in and I did what I could for them, leading them to seats, getting cold drinks and anything else they might have needed. It felt good to help, and I was humbled by how strong a group of runners I was sharing this experience with. Not just tough physically but more important mentally. They had all run more miles in two days then some people do in a month, and most of them were already greatly looking forward to the next day, and so was I.

Dinner was once again fabulous, this time burgers and plenty of toppings to choose from. By the time dinner was over we had plenty of spots for people to put up tents. Abram told me just to stay put in my spot, as he had talked with a ranger who said they stopped patrolling the area after eight and no one had told me to move yet anyway. Sounded good to me, as I really didn't want to move unless I needed to.

One of the campers actually moved all their stuff into their friends site and gave over their site to us. So it was there that we set up for a campfire. Well it was a campfire until Abram came along and said we weren't having a campfire but a bonfire. Soon enough flames were rising high and all of us gathered around it's heat to hear instructions for our final day. We all listened very dutifully as our mouths were being stuffed by some awesome apple cobbler with fresh hand whipped cream. I was really excited about the final day and hoped that excitement wouldn't keep me up all night.

As I did lay down to sleep, I thought not only of the next day but of a couple people I met at the campsite that day. Actually both couples. One was an older couple who when I explained what our group was doing said we were doing it all wrong and that we should take our time. I tried to explain that's how I liked to enjoy the trails but they said they once did the loop in fourteen days. Normally it takes people ten and I thought it would be wonderful to take fourteen days in this area. The other couple were somewhere in their sixties and had a VW bus like mine. They were making their annual trip to this area to hike into the place where they were married thirty seven years ago. They did it every year, not always on the anniversary, but close enough to mark the occasion. I was also jealous of them. I was jealous of those who were brave enough to take on the trail for a second day. I needed to make sure I made the most of the next day. I didn't need people to be jealous of me. I needed to run the way I love to run, in a place that was more vivid than my dreams.



Saturday, August 13, 2016

Wonderland Trail: Chapter One

If I or any of us got two thirds of what we really want out of life wouldn't we really be happy? If Dustin Pedoria got on base two out of every three times at bat he would be legendary. If you look really good in two of those three jeans you just tried on, that would probably thrill you. So when I was only able to run two of the three days planned on the Wonderland Trail circumnavigating Mount Rainer, I did not go home saddened and disappointed with myself. I went home with tremendous memories and enormous respect for those who completed the loop.

It was a difficult decision to make. Was pride more important than happiness? Was suffering physically and mentally the reason I traveled all the way across the country. Why do I run? For pleasure, pride, or some deeper reason that I am still in search of. I had all these questions running through my head when I set out on the second day of the run, and quickly decided that the run I was facing that day was not going to solve any deeper seeded problems.The day was just going to hurt. I could still have another day of tremendous running.. It just wasn't going to be that day.

The first day of the run was one of my toughest challenges ever. I had signed on with a group of eleven other runners on a supported three day run of the 94 mile Wonderland Trail. Day one had us all leaving Longmire at the Southern area of the trail around eight in the morning. Our group had only gotten to know each other the night before as we made camp and shared the first of our tremendously made meals by the organizer Abram Dickerson and his crew.

Maybe the whole trip might have been different if it started different. Or at least in the right direction. Yup we all made a wrong turn less than half a mile in and went nearly four miles before we turned around. I was with three others in the lead who made the wrong turn. Two young women who are professionally trained tri-athletes and a Frenchman living in Miami who was a couple years younger than me.

Kristen was the first to question our direction, as we passed some hikers who thought we were going the wrong way. When we finally got to a campsite and Kristen began studying the map, I began to fear we had screwed up. The campsite was not on our map and so we went to the camp and asked some hikers who were packing up. I caught a glimpse of other runners on the trail just as we got the bad news and I yelled for them to stop. There was one paid guide, Alex, who was running sweep behind us and he gathered us all and told us we had to turn around. I was pissed off, at myself and for the only time at our staff that we had started in the wrong direction. The rest of the group was in better than expected spirits, and so I put on my best game face and decided to crank out the miles as quick as I could to get back to the start.

Now with nearly two hours of running in our group was headed in the correct direction thirty two miles away from camp at South Mowich Lake. And we were facing much harder climbs than we previously traversed. I had thought that the trail looked harder on the map than what we first climbed coming out of Longmire.

I found myself in the lead pack swapping places with the tri-girls and Jean. It was not a race but I think there was still competitive spirit in all of us that made us want to be doing our best. Unfortunately, doing my best was slowly beating me up.

The girls, Kristen and Whitney, were just ahead of me when we were treated to our first best views of Rainer as we entered some meadows near Indian Henry's Patrol Cabin. It was here that we also first caught up to another member of our party, Lourdes, and one of our guides Scarlet. Lourdes was doing her adventure a little different than ours with less miles being logged. But also a little different as they had managed to go the right direction. Apparently the duo had gone back to the vehicles when we all took off so they never saw us going the wrong way and were really surprised to see us in that meadow now nearly four hours after we had all originally began.

The meadow had some beautiful wildflowers growing and there were multitudes of small blue butterflies fluttering about us as we ran gazing off toward Rainer. My appreciation for this place grew immensely and I was able to put behind most of my frustration.


Jean and I moved ahead of the girls after a water stop. He first crossed a wobbly suspension bridge. Not wobbly because of poor construction, quite the opposite really, but wobbly as it took us a few hundred feet across a river bed. On the opposite side there were two trails, and I paid close attention to the signs and double checked with a hiker moving in the opposite direction.

The climbs were becoming more and more brutal. They were long. I found the footing to be much better than what I am used to with lots of rocks in the way. There was still a fair share of foot obstacles as roots from these massive trees crossed the trail. Plenty of switchbacks made the grade much less steep but extended the length of the climbs. I had my poles with me to help power me up but I really wished I had the training of the tri-girls who were able to catch me and Jean, also with poles, when we reached the next open vista.

What goes up, must come down. I loved the long descents. With all the switchbacks and better footing I was able to fly down the hills. It was a real joy to open it up and make up for lost time on the other side of the mountain.

Four more miles and two thousand feet stood ahead of me, but what really stood ahead of me was my undoing. Of course the girls caught up to me, Whitney first who showed absolutely no signs of any wear, absolutely amazing. Jean and I were swapping places and when he finally pulled ahead I had very little left in the tank. It was well past noon now and temps were feeling kind of high as the sun had shone in all it's glory on us all day long. One water bottle was now empty and I suspected that my bladder bag was running low as well. I did my best to keep up with eating, and fortunately having no stomach issues. But as I made my way towards Aurora Peak with Rainer in sight I was beginning to falter. I was battling between my body, my mind and my heart. It was my legs that were losing though, as I stumbled a little and found it difficult to keep a steady, balanced pace up the mountain.

There were hikers in the area. A couple gentlemen said St Andrews Lake was a good place for a swim. I had no friggin' idea where St. Andrews Lake was located. They may as well have told my that the Rivera Club had a lovely pool. Jean was still close to me and when he expressed he was low on water a couple girls came upon us and said that St. Andrews was the closest water source. Being told that a body of water was good to swim and drink from were kind of contradictory but I would have to make that choice when I got there.

Jean was first to the lake which had a couple groups of people lingering around soaking in the views. It was tempting to do the Nestea Plunge in but I really needed to drink more than to swim. Jean opted not to get water and take a chance, even after a couple more hikers told us there weren't many sources nearby. I knew how weak I was feeling, so I broke out my small bottle of bleach to kill any bacteria that I may have scooped up into my bladder bag and bottle.

My GPS watch died sometime before I reached the lake, maybe indicative of the way I was feeling. It felt good to be off my feet for a few minutes while getting water and taking in a few extra calories. Salty treats were the A-1 priority as I could feel the dried salty sweat on my face.

Back on my feet and going downhill I ran into a small waterfall less than a couple miles away from the lake. I soak a bandanna and am surprised when another runner catches up to me. "I have to keep going or I'll stop, " Megan says to me as she rushed past me. Megan is probably one of the least experienced runners of our group so I am surprised she has caught up to me, but I did struggle mightily up the last mountain. I am also pleased to know that others are doing well and close by. Abram had told us the night before to take energy from others in order to carry ourselves through tough times. I immediately feel his words coming true and catch back up to Megan.

She may not be an experienced runner, but I know how mentally tough she is as we had talked the night before and on the car ride in the morning. She is a lawyer from the area representing doctors who get sued, so she spends lots of mental energy each and every day for long hours. She has also climbed Rainer and ridden her bike around it on roads. I decided I need to get tough upstairs to make it through the next eighteen miles.

I ask her about others, and she says two and our guide are behind us and two more are ahead. I'm a little confused about this as no one has passed me. I suspect maybe two passed me while I was getting water. Megan sets a good pace on the down and I hold back a little wanting to save some energy.

As we start climbing up another mountain we are caught by the two final runners and our guide Alex. They also tell me that the other two, Sean and Caroline are ahead of us. Luke and Sarah are a married couple also from the area and although not ultra runners they are fit and able to pass us on the uphill. I am unable to keep up with them but pull away from Alex and Megan finding myself alone.

I feel better on the up than I had on others but feeling a little vulnerable as I reach the ridge line and notice that blue in the sky is turning a little darker as the day' light is beginning to fade. I have been without a watch now for nearly ten miles I figure and suddenly remember that my phone at least has the time. It is somewhere around six, and I have been on my feet for nearly ten hours when I reach another ranger cabin.

This time there is a ranger outside the cabin drinking some coffee. I stop to talk and he is quite pleasant and tells me the others are getting water. It is then I see a sign indicating the campground is ten miles away. I had been misreading the map earlier and thinking I only had five miles, not really misreading but unable to see well because of my aging eyes. Luke had told me what the mileage was, and I didn't really want to believe him, but now I had to believe. Worse than the miles, was the fact that there was going to be one more long, extended climb.

I spent the downhill cruising down, telling myself that I was going to be a bad ass and the more I could push myself the sooner I would be at camp and able to drink a cold beer. I run into one of our guides, Nick, who is moving in the opposite direction as his job is to work backwards to make sure everyone is on their way to camp. He tells me I have about seven miles to go. Three of which, according to him, are a relatively easy climb after I cross another river.

We share info on other runners, and when I ask about Sean, he tells me Jean, not pronounced Gene, is roughly ten minutes ahead of me. I am on the move by now and we have further confusion about Sean and Jean. As I move I suddenly become concerned. Are Sean and Caroline really ahead of me?

I come to the river and follow cairns and cross a couple log bridges. It is 7:45 and I tell myself I can get to camp a little after nine, and that I need to as I don't have a headlamp. The trees are massive  and letting in enough daylight still to let me see a sign at a trail intersection ensuring that I am heading the right direction with camp now four, not three miles away.

Luke and Sarah catch me as I try to get a photo of the pink sunset on Rainer through the trees. I am glad they have caught me, as this means they are still strong on the climbs. Soon Alex comes zipping by, as Nick has taken over the sweep position. I ask more about Sean and Caroline, and Alex says he has not seen them and that we all now think they have somehow gotten behind the group.

Sean is a couple years younger than me living and working in Seattle, and has completed a couple hundred milers with another one planned in about a month. Caroline, is about our age as well, coming down from Victoria, British Columbia, less than an hours flight from Seattle. She has plenty of trail running experience, and I hope that the two of them together will find strength to get them to camp.

My strength is starting to dissipate with the loss of sunlight. I feel like I am running(ha) through the forest in the Wizard of Oz, except the trees are MUCH bigger, and the emerald city, Seattle, is not that far away. I am also reminded of a story Nick told to us about a friend who attempted to run the entire trail in one push. His attempt was ended when he was stalked by a mountain lion in hours similar to where I was at. The lion followed him for four hours until he was able to get to a camp and in someones car. He survived without incident but was shaken from the experience. I was shaken by the story and could only keep my eyes on the trail in front of me.

I could see the trail well enough in the fading daylight and pushed as hard as I possibly could after now twelve plus hours. I pulled my phone out to check the time and realized the face provided a little light to see. I feared a lion might see the light though and was reluctant to pull out the light again unless I really needed it. Then I also figured a lion would be able to smell my sweaty body from miles away anyway.

I cursed now at switchbacks wanting a more direct route to camp and couldn't even see the switchbacks until I felt the trail turn. Then I also realized that my phone had a flashlight app. Greatest friggin' app ever! I was thrilled to remember this as it had gotten completely dark and I had no idea just how far away camp was located. I still feared lions, and the loss of battery life so I sparingly used the light on the phone.

I could hear a river or stream rushing somewhere in the dark forest and hoped that it was somehow connected to the lake. When I came upon the stream I filled my bottle and drank mightily from it not caring about any bacteria that might be swimming in it. But where was camp? Now at a slow hiking pace I went another ten minutes before panic set in. Shouldn't I be at camp? It was now close to nine thirty and based upon dead reckoning I figured I should be at camp. Did I miss a turn while hiking in the dark and not seeing a sign? I saw the stream on the map and that camp was not too far away. I gave myself another twenty minutes to get to camp before I would turn around figuring that I did indeed miss a turn.

Now I was unconcerned about battery life and looking for any signs with the light. I spotted a water bottle placed on a fallen tree, thinking guides had left it for us. Then to all my glory was a sign indicating that camp was two tenths of a mile away.

Many runners will say that the final two tenths of a marathon can be the toughest but usually there are crowds of people cheering them on. I however, was all alone and facing one of the steepest climbs of the entire day. It was, without question, the toughest two tenths I ever faced. Above my head I saw the first artificial light of the day and with that all my physical and mental strength left my body as I knew I was finally at camp.

Abram and crew were all set up and I was greeted by others as I made my way to the picnic table to finally sit down. Scarlet got me a cold beer and after a couple sips I set my head on the table next to it. Soon thereafter I was given a bowl of pasta but I could barely take a couple bites and preferred to rest my head on the table.

I congratulated other runners but was still concerned about those still out on the trail, mostly Sean and Caroline. I felt a little like John Krakauer from his book about climbing Everest, Into Thin Air, where he did not have enough energy to help rescue others after he summited and got back to camp. I felt I may be needed to help go look for others sometime in the upcoming hours but all I really wanted to do was to crawl into my sleeping bag.

I left my beer and pasta on the table as Scarlet helped me set up my tent. I tried to force myself to eat and drink but was too exhausted. I was relieved when Nick brought Megan into camp but further concerned there was no sign of Sean and Caroline. We all were gathered at the table and talking about our misfortune of the morning and speculating what happened to the others. Apparently Lourdes and Scarlet did run into them as they had taken a wrong turn but were back on track as far as we knew, but we were still unsure if they had stayed on track after that.  Nick was getting in some calories before he was to set off again in the dark in search of them. I wanted to help but knew I would only hinder any progress searching for them. I don't know if others were wanting to help as well as we had all been beaten up by forty two miles of trail and somewhere near ten thousand feet of climbing that day. My day had taken over thirteen and a half hours and I thought that Krakauer had it easy compared to what I had been through.

Despite being totally exhausted, I couldn't fall asleep when I tucked my sweaty body into my sleeping bag. I had completed the day, but couldn't finish my meal or even my beer. Yes, I was that tired! I greatly desired sleep as I was still getting over jet lag. My slumber the night before was not great as campers nearby where quite loud while drinking beer and then I was woken before dawn by some roosters and other unidentified animals.

I'm not sure if I was asleep when I heard Sean and Caroline come into camp being lead by Nick. I saw it was after one in the morning and decided to get out of my tent to greet them. Abram was still up preparing to heat up some food for them. They told me they had accidentally taken the wrong trail after the suspension bridge taking them two and a half miles to a road. So they had ran forty seven miles on what was supposed to be a thirty two mile day, and yet they were in better spirits than I was at the time. I was amazed and humbled by them and able to finally get some sleep knowing they were safe.

There was little choice in getting to camp that day. There were no spots to 'drop' from the run and despite support of Abram and team it was up to me to get myself to camp. My body and mind were completely spent from the forty two miles in a way that I was unfamiliar with. There was no runner's high from getting to the finish line (camp). There was only a sense of relief. More relief than pride. I felt weak both body and mind. I didn't know what I was capable of doing the next day. I didn't know that I wanted to test myself. I did not prepare myself for an adventure to test myself. I had sought this as an adventure to enjoy the environment. I had trained to get out and run for three straight days. I had not trained to test myself for three straight days. A decision would have to come in the morning.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Maryland Challenge; It's Not About the Hike

"I seem to remember the canal being on the other side last time," Mo said to me as we were on our final approach into Harper's Ferry by walking along the C & O Canal over forty miles away from where we had started our hike that morning at the Maryland border.

"That's because you were heading North seventeen years ago," I told her referring to her direction of choice for over five months in order to hike the entire Applachian Trail. We had spent the last fourteen and a half hours following the same white blazes in a southern direction and now greatly looking forward to flopping down on a nice soft bed, glad that we did not have the usual nightly chores like most hikers faced out on the trail.

When my parents offered to take the kids on a trip to Bermuda during Spring Break, Mo and I quickly came up with the idea to do the Maryland Challenge on the Appalachian Trail. The challenge being a hike of the entire state of Maryland in one day. Forty plus miles. I'm sure most of my running friends would think that is not much of a challenge in terms of miles. But in terms of logistics and strategy it was indeed a challenge.

There were a couple reasons why Mo wanted to take on the challenge. One being that she took four days to hike all of Maryland back in 1998 as she hiked with some friends who were not up for putting in tough miles when she was in prime shape. Now, after she had been training for her first upcoming marathon, she felt that she was really primed for it.

My motivation was a little different. I have been unofficially been section-hiking the AT since 1994 and these were some miles that I needed to complete. Although the miles wouldn't be all that much, it was nice to think that I was going to be done with one more state, and in a single day!

Quick back story, I had met Mo on her thru-hike in '98 and we had hiked together for more than a month before I had to head home. Now eighteen years later, I was greatly looking forward to a long day passing by blazes with her.

We decided to hike South and into Harper's Ferry and I booked a room through Air B&B. It took us nearly twelve hours to drive to Harper's Ferry, an hour longer than it should have as BamBam malfunctioned a little after a gas stop in Southern Pennsylvania. There was no power, nothing turned over and no lights even came on. After a call to Triple A and waiting around for an hour, I just sort of wiggled the cables on the battery. I had already felt the alternator belt was in place so I or the Triple A mechanic couldn't come up with a solution. After fumbling with the battery cable I sat in the bus and plugged something into the cigarette lighter, which immediately lit up.

"Mo try to start the bus," I quickly said. Vrooom, vrooom went good ol' BamBam. A quick call to Triple A to cancel and just then the mechanic showed up. I explained to him what transpired and thanked him for coming to help. Mo had been coming up with ways to get to Harper's Ferry if we couldn't get BamBam going, as she was going to hike that next day even if we had to hike to our starting point from the gas station.

We met our host in Harper's Ferry in order to drop off a bag of clothes to change into the next night. He, Dean, had also agreed to drive us back to BamBam after our stay. I wish I could say it was a quick dinner at a nearby restaurant in Harper's Ferry but it was not and now it was getting near dark and we still had to get to our starting point on the Maryland border and lay out some food for us.

It was an adventure unto itself getting to and hanging our food at the two stops that night. I haven't hung a bear bag, really a keep your food away from bears bag, in a number of years. And I certainly hadn't done so near dusk. Mo did a great job navigating our way through some back country  roads to these two spots, which we had decided to reduce from three. I might normally have gotten pretty worked up over the GPS directions but Mo was laughing so hysterically at our circular directions that I found it impossible to get worked up.

Finally, well after nine, we got to our spot to sleep for the night at the PenMar County Park, technically just a little south of the Pennsylvania border. We crashed out quickly after setting alarms for an early wake up.

There was a beautiful orange, or maybe it was a little pink moon, I don't know ask Nick Drake, glowing in the dark sky that morning. We got ready, a little panic as we thought we lost one bladder bag only to find it at the last minute. Mo was real eager to get rolling as she was across the parking lot and looking for the trail before I had my shoes laced up. So eager to get going she forgot to start her GPS watch, until I asked her about it about twenty minutes into our hike.

She took the lead but there were times we had to work together to keep an eye out for white blazes around piles of rock. It was hard to get any strong pace but that was alright as we did not expect to go very fast at the start of this adventure. We hadn't talked much about pace overall or really overall goals. She had read lots of stuff by other hikers, of whom I thought took much too long and although we were not going to run, if we could keep a three mile per hour pace, we would crush their times. I felt confident that Mo could do that but I didn't want to set any expectations other than to be strong and enjoy our time on the trail together as best as we could.

Sunlight came and we found ourselves atop our first ridge which gave us a little more light. Mo noticed that her headlight had very little power and I stated I did have fresh batteries that I was saving for later in the day. But secretly I really didn't want to change the batteries and was hoping that we could be in Harper's Ferry before sunset.

We were in a pretty good groove and met our first couple hikers about eight miles in and not far from our first food drop. I was extremely relieved to find no animals or people had messed with it but bummed that now I had to carry some extra weight. We were eating fine, even more than I would during a usual ultra-marathon but we did have more food than we needed and couldn't really just dump it out on the ground.

Mo took a deliberate slow pace leading us back into the woods and up our biggest climb of the morning. It was perfect in order to keep strength throughout the day. I was becoming more and more convinced that we were going to complete this challenge, now just about ten miles into it.

The trail itself was much more kind than it's brethren up north here and in fact we could hike side by side once on top of the ridge. I increased the pace ever so slightly while being next to her, trying to take advantage of the terrain. Mo figured out what I was doing and had me fall back in line.

As nice as the trail was beneath our feet there wasn't much else to be in awe of. We were walking through the woods which hadn't been brushed with Mother Nature's colorful paintbrush yet and there were no mountaintops. A couple of overlooks into the valley, of which we stopped at one, but it was not unlike any view we hadn't seen before, and not nearly as nice as the colors we had seen in that same valley at sunset the night before.

"There it is," Mo said to me pointing at the Washington Monument. Not the one most Americans usually think of in Washington, DC but this one built well before which resembles an old milk bottle atop a peak in a Maryland State Park. I was more excited thinking how we had just traveled another ten plus miles and that another food stash was not far away. So we skipped checking out the monument and went looking for our food. I spotted it hanging from a tree and was even more excited to find my reading glasses laying in the brush beneath the bag as they had fallen out of my pocket in the dark the night before.

We again faced the problem of too much food and so I stuffed as many Pringles and Peanut M&M's into my stomach as possible. We did throw away some of our food as sadly there were not any other hikers nearby. I added some ice tea mix to my bladder bag as I had a small headache due to the lack of caffeine that my system is normally used to. To Mo's bladder was some more Gatorade, with me carrying an extra bottle for later refueling.

Only about a half an hour to complete all our resupply and refueling before we were back on the trail. It took us less than that time to get to another road crossing and then a real nice tenting area. Complete with full service outhouses and showers. The temps were starting to rise, but we weren't stinky yet so we skipped the showers and had a brief conversation with some hikers we saw at the restaurant the night before.

Mo hadn't told me until after the hike, but she was feeling a little queasy around this point, and I certainly couldn't tell by her strong pace. I had started my own GPS watch back at the monument break and so I had first hand knowledge of our pace. It was nice not knowing early on and I did my best not to look at my watch every five minutes.

We were starting to see more and more hikers at this point. Not only because it was past noon but a pool of hikers were coming north. Apparently on Saturday in the town of Harper's Ferry the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, whose headquarters is in Harper's Ferry, hosted their first ever Flip-Flop Festival. This has nothing to do with anything between your toes. They wanted to encourage hikers to start their thru-hikes in spots other than the southern terminus on Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mount Katahdin back home in Maine. And then flip or flop back to where they started and finish that way. The number of expected thru-hikers were going to be through the roof due to some recent movies and literature.

It became easy to figure out who the flip-floppers were as they had clean packs, clean shaves and clean shoes. Sadly we came across one older guy sitting on a rock with his pack near him that was nearly the size of the rock and probably weighed just about the same. He joked about how slow he was and how tough everything was, and sadly we really didn't have anything to offer him. As he said, he probably already had everything we had, and by looking at his pack I would have to agree. I wish we did have some extra water to spare, but we had about six miles ourselves to go on an eighty degree day and not really sure if there would be water at our next stop. Mo flagged down one fresh new looking hiker and told him about the older gentleman up ahead and to please offer him some spare water as there was a shelter and water source just north of where the gentleman was hopefully still resting.

Our next encounter was even more serious than a dehydrated hiker. The woods along the trail was very open so you could see around much better than our dense pine forests. From a distance we spot this one guy going off and on the trail. It appears he is looking for something and when we get close he approaches us. No clean backpack, but a real clean high and tight hair cut and he holds out his cell phone and asks us if we have seen this person. There is a picture of a young man looking like any other thru-hiker and I can see the words 'critically missing' above his picture. It is at this time, I also see the man's badge and gun. He tells us the person has been missing since April 12th and that in the next couple hours we will probably be hearing 'the birds' overhead looking for him. There is nothing we can do to help other than to not waste this officer's time by asking too many questions that aren't going to help the young man get found.

Before the hike Mo had done most of the research and had some times in mind based upon other people's hike. As we pulled into Gathland State Park we discovered we were well over an hour ahead of the fastest of any hikes she had researched. We certainly weren't going after the Fastest Known Time, but knowing that we were moving faster than others and still feeling really good was encouraging. We spent some time eating more and filling up water outside a really nice outhouse. We were joined by a northbound thru-hiker who was not flip-flopping. He had started at Springer in late February, making good time himself but we were telling him to slow down once he hit New Hampshire and Maine and enjoy the much more beautiful landscape of our area. His trail name is Nugget and was not shy when we offered him some of our food. He was as eager as us to get back moving on the trail and put on more miles rather than sit around. We wished him well as we headed in opposite directions.

Throughout our entire journey we had been able to talk with one another. We both missed our kids, but it was pleasant to converse without interruption or having to tell one of the kids to do something. We had a great level of cooperation and could see nothing that would stand in our way of completing our goal now about twelve miles away.

Then things began to change. I became quiet. Mo started asking me random trivial questions that I normally would ask in order to keep conversation going. Kind of a way to check in. She could sense something was wrong with me, because there was. I knew the feeling. Something wrong was happening with my digestive system. I tried my best to block it. Ignore it. Hike through it. Only a few more hours. I coughed a few times. I yawned a little.

Finally when Mo asked if I was really alright, I had to stop. I won't describe how much, or how fiercely I threw up but if I didn't do it then, it would have happened five seconds later anyway. I held myself up by my poles, wanting Mo to rub my back but afraid that if she did that she might accidentally knock me over into, well you know what.

When I turned around and started back up the trail Mo asked if I was really alright. I was completely honest when I said I felt so much better. And knew myself that I wasn't bullshitting her by judging the tone of my voice. Really all better. I further told her, that it wasn't really an ultra unless I did throw up.

Our pace did not let up, while I swished some water around in my mouth, just swallowing enough not to upset my system but putting some energy back into my body. I told her how impressed I was by how strong she had been able to keep our pace.

All our major climbs were now behind us, in fact we were kind of scoffing at how easy most of them really seemed to be. Now ahead of us was one big descent before the smooth pathway along the C&O Canal leading into Harper's Ferry.

Atop the Weaverton Cliff, we opted against another viewpoint and started our descent. Mo was still amazingly strong and more determined as she kept saying, "I'm going to finish this trail on these bloody stumps," referring to her blistered feet. The first blister had begun somewhere before mile twenty and we chose not to treat but rather beat it out. Mo has only two really tender parts to her body. Her heart and her feet. She blisters easy. I offered her a different pair of socks, duck tape and a couple other remedies that only would have slowed us down. We were both wearing trail running sneakers, her's did have a waterproof Gore-Tex layer that probably didn't help but certainly wasn't the cause of her skin affliction. Descending was more painful to her feet than any other hiking we had done but there was just a little left.

A few young couples passed us going toward the cliffs. I would assume  for a romantic sunset. Romance? Not something we were really thinking about at this point. Mo said something about us someday taking a vacation and lying on a beach or near a pool. That may be nice to do someday. But for now while our bodies still allowed, I feel like our relationship was being strengthened with every step we took toward meeting our goal. Even if one of us was doing it on 'bloody stumps.'

We were pretty excited not to be watching the sunset from the cliffs or really anywhere along the trail. Now we just had to complete the final stretch on the C&O Canal. Nothing but flat between us and a comfy bed. Mo was still rather surprised that we would not have to break out headlamps for a second time that day. I had felt a little more confident that we wouldn't, but I didn't want us overextending ourselves during the day. Mo also admitted that she had been feeling very confident and didn't want to say anything to jinx us.

The trail never seemed to end. We were unsure just how far we had to travel the canal path, somewhere at least close to three miles, maybe even four. A few trains went by and we held our breath every time  we rounded a bend just hoping to see the houses perched upon the hills of Harper's Ferry. Our pace stayed strong, around a three and a half mile per hour pace. Inadvertantly I went a little too quick once in awhile, as I couldn't wait for an ice cold beverage in town. And no I wasn't counting on a beer. Basically anything with ice in it sounded great.

Mo was the first to spot the church spire that was right behind the house we were staying at. Then the bridge leading us over one of the three rivers that passes through Harper's Ferry. We both groaned when we saw the stairs but soon were officially out of Maryland and into West Virginia! There was still light in this historic town, but so little it seemed like we had stepped back into time. Maybe we had, to when we had first met sixteen years ago.

It was just the two of us making our way into town as the shops were all closed but I did spot one one ice cream stand where a woman was taking down some flags. I rushed as best as I could to ask if I could still get a soda. Mo crashed on a bench. She had given it everything she had. I was congratulating her on completing her first ultra-marathon even before she had ever completed a marathon. I was given a big styrofoam cup full of Coke and plenty of ice. Yah, I know, styrofoam. Didn't think anyone used it anymore but that cup did keep my drink cold and prevented most of the ice from melting over the next couple hours.

No easy way to get to our place other than steep streets. Dean saw us coming as he was sitting on his porch. He said he just sent us a text to check on us. He had agreed to come and save us if we had any trouble. And literally my phone began to buzz as we entered his house. I could smell something delicious when we entered and Dean said he had some chicken roasting and sides would be ready in less than an hour. As politely as possible we asked just to be shown our room, as neither of us had any appetite and just wanted to lay down.

I don't know how we got shoes and socks off but once we did we laid down keeping our feet off the bed. We compared just how dirty our feet were. I won that battle as the Gore-Tex layer kept more dirt out but Mo annihilated me in the blister contest. They were not 'bloody' stumps but I was more amazed how she was able to keep her pace for twenty plus miles on those feet when I saw just how many blisters and how large they really were.

Sleep came quick and easy that night after washing all the filth off our bodies. We were better guests in the morning spending time talking and getting to know Dean. A man with a really big heart who cooked for each of us a duck egg omlette matching the size of his heart. He said his partner was a little concerned about us as we hadn't made any noise all night. I don't even think either of us turned over in bed that night.

Graciously Dean drove us back to BamBam, above and beyond expectations when I booked the room. So glad we stayed there versus a bunk house or hotel room. We were both feeling better than expected that morning. Sure Mo's feet were toast but she was not suffering any muscle fatigue. I'm pretty certain it wasn't any extra endorphins running through her system disguising the pain as there was not any fanfare that comes with completing a major race.

One topic of conversation that we visited a few times was other than Katahdin or Springer where would you want to complete a thru-hike. Or more pertinent, a section-hike. Twenty plus years and I still don't really have an answer. There's still many pieces to string together. Someday it will happen, hopefully not too far down the road. For sure, I know who I want to be there with me when I put it all together. I have great pride in my partner for life. We didn't know when we first met that we would be hiking together towards a church steeple in the remains of the daylight. Think of that what you will, and I hope for you all that you find, or already have found your path, your trail, your love, your life.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Winter Fells Race

As I walked away from the packet pick-up station at the TARC Winter Fells Race, I was kind of surprised that I only had a race bib and four safety pins. No t-shirt, sticker, gloves or any other kind of schwag that one might typically get at a race. But then I remembered that I only shelled out a little over twenty bucks for this race. Besides this wasn't a race I wanted to do to collect any prized trophy. This was a race I wanted to do to get myself back into shape after a great summer of travel, and to prove to myself how much I loved running.

During our travels this summer I did manage to get in a couple of runs a week and although I ran in some amazing places, I was in anything less than ultra shape when we returned in mid-August. Back home I slowly started to get into shape while trying to find a race to motivate me. Although a long way off the TARC seemed like the perfect race to keep me motivated throughout the fall.

 I was just about to sign up for the race in mid September when I started to feel awful. I was throwing up on runs less than a couple miles in, spending way too much time sitting on porcelain and having absolutely no energy on other days. I didn't even want to eat some days, and when I did I felt even worse than I did before a meal. Finally I saw my doctor and he almost immediately diagnosed me with ghiardhia. I was thrilled. Really I was. I knew this stomach bourn virus could be easily treated and to know something was actually wrong with me was such a relief. How I got this, I haven't a clue. Probably somewhere along the trip a bug got into my system through something I drank. We never had to take water from any sources other than taps, so I can't blame any store bought purification system. I am puzzled why no one else in the family brought home this little bug in their bellies but I am glad that I am the only one who had to suffer.

After taking pills for a week, I was feeling soooo much better and starting to run without discomfort. So one night I sat down at the computer and signed up for the TARC. One problem. The race was already full. I was on a waitlist. Son of a snickerdoodle. I had two choices; sit around and put on weight for the winter cold or train like I was already in the race. I chose the latter.

When I was standing in the line to get my race number a girl in front of me turns to some guy and says that she isn't on the list. He says not to worry that she is running instead of another person and to take her number. I'm wondering why the hell was I on a waitlist for a month. At least I was off the waitlist and just about ready to run my first race since late May.

I was really happy to be there, standing in a parking lot just off an off-ramp from Route 93 west of Boston. Not because I felt in shape and ready to take on thirty two miles but I made it there in one piece that morning. I left the house just before four sipping on coffee and eating left over chocolate chips pancakes. Some guy passes me just before the toll booth in South Portland and he is swerving a little. I figure he is looking for change. He continues to swerve on the on-ramp and also when we are on the highway. I keep my distance behind him as we are travelling just above 70. When he slows down into the sixties I move to pass him. Only he speeds up, so I let him move ahead. Just before the Biddeford exit I see skidmarks, then some wreckage in the center median and a tractor trailer and another vehicle pulled off to the right with flashers on. I must have missed whatever happened by mere minutes and am now determined to get swerving early morning drunk guy away from me. He has slowed down and I can move ahead and get him out of sight. I need to use the rest area in Kennebunk and when I pull in here he comes in right behind me. There are hardly any cars, and I don't want to be alone standing at the stalls with this guy so I just drive on.

It took me about two hours to get to the starting area of the race, and there was more than an hour before the race so I tried to catch a few z's in my warm car. It was the strangest starting area ever for a trail race. Literally just off a major highway and nothing more than a parking lot. The sun was shedding a little light on a few familiar faces that made this feel that there really was going to be a race that morning.

I stayed warm waiting for the start with other Trail Monster runners; George, Ryan, John and Sarah while John and Danielle set up shop to support all of us. The sun was breaking out enough that no headlamps would be required and although I was wrapped up in a blanket, I had on shorts as temps were supposed to reach into the fifties.

Without much fanfare the race started and I was glad to be in a pack of like minded individuals. Not so sure about really like minded as I was near the George the Jedi, a man of extraordinary mental toughness and Ryan, who seemed to be questioning his own sanity as well as ability to run this course. I knew I should be ahead of George through the race but I thought Ryan and I should be close to the end.

The interesting part about this race is it's set-up. You can do thirty two or forty miles for starters, I choosing the former. It's an eight mile lolli-pop, meaning you go out straight and then the trail loops around to the stem, the tightly wrapped paper, and follow that back to the starting area. You do that four or five times hopefully. The really cool part is you can choose which direction you want to run. Clockwise or counter. You don't need to do all your loops in one direction either. Just do enough loops to do your distance and you're good.

I decided to go counter and was a little bummed when Ryan went the other direction, as I thought it would be fun to listen to some of his rumblings. But I was still surrounded by a number of runners so I wouldn't have to amuse myself just yet. We all slowed to hiking paces in order to get up some of the steep hills yet no one was busting past anyone when we weren't going up. I was already very surprised just how rough of a course this was knowing that about eight lanes of smooth highway was so close to us. Here there was nothing but small boulders and roots preventing me from setting any steady pace.

Being in a pack of runners, there were a couple of times we all came to a standstill and then someone behind us yelling to us we were off the trail. I was following people more than blazes and fortunately these couple forrays were less yards off the trail than a personal foul in football. We were treated to a view of the Boston skyline as we came to a tower about three miles into the race. I'd rather have a view of some mountains but was really impressed that I could be part of this wilderness adventure so close a major metropolitan area.

Soon after, runners were coming at us from the other direction. I was amazed how fast they were moving. They were already more than a mile ahead of us and with more than twenty eight miles to go, I had no desire to try and reel them in. Ryan was soon one of those runners, and I figured he had more than a half mile lead on me.

The trail continued to challenge me and as our pack came into the only aid station on the course I did take in a small drink. Although I knew I couldn't be fast I realized how important it would be for me to keep taking in liquids and calories in order not to crash. If I did crash on this course it would be brutal trying to finish all four laps.

The group I was around stuck mostly together but I was starting to feel a little faster. So I moved past the leader of the group, a young woman who had been keeping us on the right trail. She was wearing a shirt that promoted being a vegan that had pictures of cows, chickens and pigs. I thanked her for her navigation skills and then said, "I don't mean to offend you, but your shirt is making me hungry." She got a laugh at my warped sense of humor and said I would be wishing I was a vegan by the third lap.

There was actually a small stretch of trail winding through some large pine trees where I could open it up a little. I sang out the Wonder Woman song as I weaved through the trees channeling my inner amazon woman self wondering if any of the millenials behind me had any idea what I was talking about.

As I came near the starting area/aid station at the end of my first lap, Ryan was just on his way out and looking in good spirits. I made a quick stop with John and Danielle checking in on me. I didn't want Danielle's husband, Ryan get too far ahead of me. The weather was starting to warm so I left behind my gloves to start my second lap.

For the second lap, I decided to go clockwise. There wasn't really any strategy involved. The explorer side of me kicked in a little. Just going that direction to experience something a little different. I soon caught up with a guy who had a Hardrock 100 shirt on. I asked him if he kissed the Rock, meaning that he had finished one of the hardest one hundred mile races in the country. He told me that he had, and I asked to shake his hand as I stepped past him. His name is Jeff and hails from Falmouth, Mass. We spent much of that lap going back and forth. It was real nice to talk with someone plodding our way through the woods.

I found the climbs easier going clockwise but was still not able to build up any speed. Too many turns, too many rocks and pointless ups and downs (PUDs). Another hinderance was the sun pointing directly in my eyes, making it harder to follow the trail. It was not hard to miss some of the real fast runners coming at me, as some crossing my path at the aid station now only three miles from the start area going clockwise. Even though my watch was running indicating that I was on a decent pace, it was real hard to decipher just how well I was doing against the field. If only I could catch Ryan, I would know that I was performing well.

Coming back to the tower and overlooking Boston I was hoping to make some good time back to the start area. With most of the toughest climbs behind me I figured this would be the case. The problem was that none of the downhills allowed me to open up my pace. Some of the downs were just about as slow as coming up them, as I didn't want to take a header onto the rocks. This was feeling ridiculous. Just as I was descending the final down before hitting the intersection leading to the starting area I finally caught up with Ryan. Unfortunately, he was on his way up starting his third lap. Damn, what had gotten into him?

Happy to be done with two laps in about three and a half hours, I had John refill my bladder bag while I hit the aid station. A little coke, some potatoes and laughs with John had me ready for another lap.

Realizing that going clockwise was no faster, maybe even a little slower, I chose to go counter for the third lap. I had some regrets going this way while immediately making a big climb. I felt faster going up this time not surrounded by many other runners. I kept feeling stronger, not faster, just stronger. I set my sights on one runner in front of me, and he did a good job keeping ahead of me until we approached the tower. We chatted a little and he told me this was his first ultra. I told him he made a good choice as the weather was really cooperating. The sun was still directly in my eyes until we got to the tower, much to my chagrin. But how could I really gripe about the sun being out on a race that was billed as a winter run and the temps were somewhere in the fifties.

Besides crossing paths with other runners coming from the opposite direction, I now had to navigate past many people just out for a walk on a beautiful day. Many of them with dogs, and many of the dogs were golden retrievers. There were even a few mountain bikers out.

Shortly before the aid station, I began to feel the wear of all the miles on my body. No aches or pains. Just a general feeling of malaise. I took in some extra calories at the station trying to repair some of the damage and to set me up for a successful final lap. It was a hard final three miles as I was now a few miles past my longest training run.

I was hoping to see Ryan before coming into the starting area but John and Danielle informed me that he was already gone. I was glad to hear that he was still performing well. I told Danielle that Ryan had become my white whale and I Captain Ahab. I just couldn't take him down, damn him. I took a little extra time at the station, more food and more drink and John walked with me a while as I ate a few Oreo cookies. Even eating them the proper way by spinning them apart and eating the cream first. They weren't double stuff but they were especially good.

I walked all the way to the turnoff and began my climb choosing to go counter clockwise again. I again felt strong even after five hours of damn tough trail and decided that I wanted to finish this thing out by giving the best that I could.

Soon I was blasting past a couple walking who gave me a strange look. Then I realized I was off trail and did a quick u-turn. Luckily I hadn't gone very far off and soon caught up to a guy who had previously been behind me. I encountered another group of young people who were all carrying rocks of decent sizes. I asked one guy who appeared to be the leader why carry the rocks and he said because they could. Good answer. I just wished they had been out there earlier in the day to move away more of these unforgiving obstacles.

There was a decent viewpoint of the Boston skyline sometime before the tower and with no one around me, I decided this was a good point to show Boston my backside. A stupid and immature tradition of mine, but one that takes my mind off the race for a moment.

Still crossing paths with other runners, many familiar faces by now, I was especially happy to see George who told me Ryan was just up ahead. Just how far up ahead I had no idea, nor did I really expect to catch him at this point. But I was still motivated to push as much as I could. I also set in my mind that I really wanted to beat seven hours.

Everything seemed to be clicking when I came into the aid station with only three miles to go. I felt much better than the last time I was here. There had been one runner ahead of me that was motivating me to keep on a good pace. I finally caught up with him somewhere around the two mile mark and it felt like our pace was picking up. We exchanged a few pleasantries and a while later a couple walking the opposite direction asked if we were racing. I wasn't sure if he and I were racing against one another or pushing each other to the finish line. I found out he was under thirty years old and running his first ultra. I had a lead on him when I briefly got off trail and he called out to me that we were off as he was following me. We were quickly back on course with him in the lead and less than a mile to go.

I was content to stay behind him as we came to the last stretch. I might have been able to turn on the after burners and take him down but there was nothing to gain by doing so. We were easily going to beat the seven hour mark. I made my way past the gate and checked in at the finishers table congratulating the young man on his strong finish and to welcome him to the ultra club. I was greeted by John and Danielle and even Ryan got out of his chair to welcome me. I told him how proud of him I was and really glad that he was healthy today. George's wife Anne was there with the gang to welcome me as well. John dashed off to get me some goodies while I sat down feeling relief that I had finished my only ultra of the year. And proud of my performance. Ultrasignup predicted that I would finish in just under eight hours and I had done it in 6:50. The predicted finish time scarred me when I signed up, and fearful of what the weather could have been like made me even more nervous but everything came together better than expected.

While sitting back relaxing and laughing a lot with people Anne said that my father and wife had already commented on-line to her post that I had finished. "Damn," I said. "Now that means my wife knows I'm done and that I've got to get home." I was half joking and Anne apologized, but I let her know that it was absolutely fine and was glad that she would share my achievement. But really I did need to be getting home.

The two hour ride home was luckily much less noteworthy than the ride down and I only really tired out on the final twenty minutes. I was looking forward to getting home to shower up and then go to a Bowdoin hockey game with the kids and a friend and his kids. I would have preferred to lie on the couch the rest of the night but at least I was doing something fun with the kids.

It was kind of odd to come back home after an ultra without anything in hand to prove that I had just run thirty two miles. All that I have are the memories and the feelings of having completed a much tougher than expected race in a time that I didn't think I was fully capable of running. Many thanks go out to John and Danielle for their support throughout the day. Another thanks to my white whale Ryan who I hope stays healthy so I can stay motivated to head out on the choppy trails in pursuit. Thanks to my wife who encouraged me to get healthy so that I could run and thus stay more mentally healthy. Thanks to the TARC crew for putting on a race for those who love to run. This was a race to challenge oneself for nothing other than the love of running. It came without ribbons, it came without tags, you know the rest from Dr. Seuss. And in the end, the trail runner himself crossed the finish line.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Massanuten 100 Pace Report

The first time we saw the dreaded Black Rose was at the pre-race meeting for the Massanuten 100 miler on Friday night. The woman holding the rose called herself the Grim Reaper, and said that the rose was still a badge of honor as it meant that the runner did everything they could, gave it their all and did not quit. They simply ran out of time. Sadly, the runner that I was there to support and pace, John Rodrigue, would end up possessing a rose instead of a finisher's buckle Sunday morning. He fit perfectly the description by the Grim Reaper as there was no quit in John, the clock just moved faster than his feet.

Our journey began Thursday evening after I watched my daughter Maggie's play. She rocked her part and was fortunate to have grandparents there to watch. I said my goodbyes at the conclusion of the play and hurried home to find John and the other member of our team Sean Case at my house with all their gear packed in my VW Bus.

We made decent time traveling south, needing to fuel up near the Connecticut/New York border just after midnight. We had trouble finding an operating gas station, and by the time we did, I figured it was time to find a place to stop for the night. A rest area was advertised not far away on Route 84. So we found the darkest possible spot and popped the top on the bus and crawled into our sleeping bags. It turned out to be a pretty lousy night of sleep, as traffic was loud and a number of tractor trailer trucks changed gears right near our abode before hitting the on-ramp.

A smooth ride continued in the morning. Our only real delay was waiting for our food to be ready at a deli in Hagerstown, Maryland. We were able to get to the race headquarters sometime around three. I was hoping to arrive earlier to give John plenty of time to rest and stretch out his legs. There was plenty of spots to set up camp and despite having the bus, I still set up a tent to hold our spot and a place for me to sleep giving the others plenty of space.

There weren't too many familiar faces checking in but I did spot a couple of guys who I ran the TARC 100 with last year. One of them Giles actually asked me where my father was, as he had crewed me last year. That to me was one of the greatest thrills of the entire weekend.

While waiting for the start of the pre-race meeting a couple from Massachusetts greeted John as they had met him the week before at a race. The guy Russ would be attempting his first 100 miler and his wife Nikki would be crewing for him. They were very pleasant, but I was getting a little anxious about getting the show on the road, and really looking forward to the dinner after the meeting as my blood sugar was getting low and I wanted to get to sleep as soon as possible.

The meeting took much too long and then we were told that the caterers were running late so dinner was going to be delayed. We used the delay to get a few things sorted out for the morning. Once dinner was finally served we sat with our tenting neighbors that had traveled from D.C. to support another first timer Erin.

With our bellies full, we were still thinking about food. Well, food for the next morning of which we really didn't have anything. So we drove back up and over twisty roads hoping to locate a grocery store. The one we found would have been unrecognizable as one if my GPS hadn't sent us there. Unfortunately it didn't tell us the hours, and as we arrived just a few minutes after seven, one of the ladies promptly turned on the closed sign upon seeing us parked in one of the few graveled parking spots. Back to the van, but then a guy stuck his head out of the door and asked us if we needed to buy something. We sure did. Besides breakfast food, we, well at least Sean and I, wanted some beer. I wish I could report that the store was this hidden golden cornucopia of goods after the man's generosity of opening back up for us. Some food was being sold in plastic baggies with ties, there was a good selection of Dickie jeans and gloves but not a decent bagel in the place. At least there was PBR in the cooler, the sad part was that was the finest choice of beer.

After we returned to camp David Bibler and his team of his wife Jess and Amy arrived and set up their camp not too far away. John took a short cold shower while Sean and I enjoyed a couple cold beers while keeping an eye out for ticks. There was little left to do now except to try and get some sleep before the four a.m. start time.

John was in good spirits in the morning, much more awake and alert than me despite having some really real dreams, maybe even nightmares about missing the start of the race. We kept reminding him to be sure to check in before the start and finally did so about fifteen minutes before start time. John was all smiles, even visible in the dark, taking photos and enjoying the moment and opportunity. We pushed John into the starting coral stepping back and began the final countdown. We watched the headlamps move away from us beginning their awesome journey.

Sean and I agreed we could sleep for about an hour before we needed to begin our crewing responsibilities. The first time we could see John was at the twelve mile mark and figured he should be there in about three hours. After an hours nap, we made ourselves some coffee and our way to Edinburg Gap. We got a great parking place and were soon met by Nikki. Runners were already coming in at the two hour mark. David came in around 2:30, and had directed his crew not to meet him there. He looked strong, and I stepped up in case he needed anything at all. This got me more into a crew mood, and soon I was on the lookout for runners still wearing headlamps to give them to crew members versus wearing them for another twenty plus miles.

Most runners looked good, only one skinned up knee and one woman saying she had already thrown up. Russ came in before John and Nikki attended to him while we kept an eye out for John. He wasn't too far behind coming in around the three hour mark and looking good. Of course his spirits were good but he did say he wasn't eating much. He had planned to eat a couple Kind bars every hour, and looking at those bars I didn't think he would have enough time to finish one before he really needed to start in on another. I'm not sure how many he had eaten in the three hours since we saw him last but he was promising to take in more calories, so I did not berate him too badly for not laying down a good foundation for the day.

John took his hiking poles with him as he crossed the road and back into the woods of Virginia with twenty three miles ahead of him before we could see him again. Time for us to get a real breakfast and more coffee in a nearby town. Well it wasn't really a town, just really a bunch of corporate America restaurants found near most highway exits. The one real down home looking restaurant only opened after we drove back past it with our bellies already full.

Of course we had to stop at another grocery store again, as we didn't get too many supplies the night before. The Food Lion had plenty and according to the guy checking out in front of us it had the best $23 bottle of champagne one could find anywhere. Even better than most of the expensive stuff but he may have only felt that way because of the 12 pack of Miller Lite he was buying at eight in the morning.

John did have a couple aid stations before we would see him and I hoped that he was finding something good to eat. Meanwhile Sean was doing an excellent job navigating us in the back country of Virginia. The directions given us were spot on but you really needed to be aware of where you were, especially when there was almost twenty miles of driving between the aid stations. Still, we got to the Elizabeth Furnace station just fine and had plenty of parking, nice restrooms and a few shaded spots to set up our chairs and wait. We set up near the team crewing Erin, the most friendly of the group Keith was foam rolling his body getting ready for pacing duties sometime in the next twenty some odd hours. We had estimates on John's arrival but those were only estimates, and although we knew we would have plenty of time waiting it was unnerving waiting when you just don't know how he was really doing.

Nikki, Jess and Amy also joined us in the small shaded spot which was about fifty yards from the picnic shelter aid station. Although I was already exhausted and tried to get some sleep, I just had to check on the aid station to know what to offer John when he came in. I spotted a cooler, and was so thrilled when I opened it and found dozens of frozen ice pops. I was soon offering them to any runner coming in. I had used frozen pedia-pops on my 100 miler and they were a delight on a hot day. I overcame my tired feeling by playing crew member to anyone coming in. The volunteers were all nice, even when they came around asking people for extra water as they were running low, we gave them one of our two gallons, but they weren't really coming out to lead runners into the station. The ice pops were especially hidden and I don't think anyone refused one when I offered one up.

I was more or less in full crew mode by the time David came in. Jess and Amy got him all set up even before he hit the actual station. I walked him through to make sure he didn't miss out on the opportunity to pig out on any treats, including ice pops. I continued crew duties for other runners; lending a shoulder for a woman to lean on while her boyfriend tended to her blisters, feeding one guy while his wife was carrying around their eight month old. Then Russ came in and sat in the shade with us. I ran off to get him ice pops and then sponged him down with some ice cold water. We checked his feet as he was worried about blisters but they looked fine even for running thirty plus miles. He left in good spirits and then I began to really wonder about the one runner that I was really responsible about that day.

We didn't really have any expected times on when we would see John. He was given some pace tables and although they could be really helpful, he wasn't trying hard to follow any set pace schedule. I just really wanted to see him come into this station healthy and ready to grind out some more miles. A lot could happen over twenty miles and as I saw more runners coming through I stopped helping and spent more time watching for him. I gave him big cheers when I spotted him on the road and Sean and I were ready.

He told us that he wasn't urinating as we led him straight into the picnic area. Someone overheard him telling us about it while we were sponging him down and feeding him watermelon. I was concerned but tried not to let it show on my face. We were told there was a doctor that could see him and so I focused on feeding him and hydrating him. John also told us that he had seen a bear on the trail not so long ago.  Sean took care of his bag for the next phase and a doctor began to question John about his urination. John's facilities were fine. He had no trouble talking to us, was moving around fine but just hadn't been able to pee. The doctor saw no reason why John shouldn't continue on, if the problem persisted then he should withdraw but since it was so hot John was probably just sweating it out instead of peeing it out. It was a little more time at the station than I may have wanted but it was good to know John was going to be alright and we insisted that he should have his bladder bag finished by the next time we would see him in less than five miles.

John may have had to run only five miles but we had to cover much more than that in the VW. We missed a couple turns but realized our errors quickly as we now made it a habit to reset the trip odometer after every turn. We had our longest walk with gear from parking spot to aid station which didn't have much room for all the teams there to support their runners. The air was feeling much thicker and so I put on my Joe Dirt wig in case we got hit by thunderstorms. David was already gone by the time we got there but Jess and Amy decided to hang out to support John. We continued to support Russ when he came in, and he got treated to some of my finest Joe Dirt impressions.

 Amy talked to us more about race strategy suggesting that I begin to pace him at Habron Gap the 54 mile mark. I was planning on running with him later as runners could pick up pacers at the 64 mile spot, or back at 54 if it was after six in the afternoon. And we all figured he would probably be there after six unless he was able to crush some big miles fast.

John came into the station still in great spirits but still unable to piss. Sean showed me his bladder bag which seemed practically untouched and I almost wanted to slap him, but that's not Joe Dirt's style. Actually I didn't have on the wig as John was sitting on it, and I reluctantly put it back on for John at people's request. I dunno, maybe Joe Dirt does smell like ass sweat. Still, I was getting a little pissed. Sean and I continued to feed him and make him drink and I didn't know what to do to make him drink more. So out of nowhere I said to him, "When you drink count to ten. Don't just take a sip. Count to ten." We told him I would run with him at the next aid station, I just wanted to make sure that he not only would make it into that aid station but that he would be able to leave.

To get to the next aid station we actually left some of the back roads and as I was looking around some things seemed kind of familiar. Then I saw a sign for Gooney Creek Campground. I had been on vacation about three weeks earlier in this area with my family in the bus and had almost stayed at the campground but didn't out of fear that we might get butchered in the middle of the night. We eventually found a less daunting spot for the night and were more worried about flash floods than axe murders. Now as I was excited to be in a place I actually knew, the threat of flash floods were once again real as there were some pretty big rollers up in the sky.

Sean and I found the turnoff from the main road without problem but decided to head into the town of Loray for dinner and then get to the aid station. I really wished I could have ordered some bigger down home plates at Uncle Buck's but I settled on Virginia Ham with some fixin's while Sean got the prime rib, and was even given a bigger slice than he ordered as the cook was celebrating her 40th birthday. Of course we got some decent local beer to wash everything down. Speaking of washing down, the skies totally opened up while we dined, knocking out the cable t.v. and making it impossible to see what movie was playing at the theater across the street. If John had more miles to go between stations we might have been able to catch a flick, but that's not why we were there was it.

I really wanted to run with John but at dinner I was getting worried that I would not get the chance to pace him. He had been more than an hour ahead of cutoff times but the urination problem and lack of fueling had me questioning when he would come in. We decided to hit another grocery store to give him more food choices. We went to the same grocery store I had been to with my family, and found the service much more friendly this time around. I picked out a bunch of junk food, basically hiker food, not all that nutritious but fun to eat. I did eye some packs of portable applesauce but decided against that purchase, later on wishing I had bought them.

As we got to the Habron Gap aid station  Jess and Amy were just pulling out and gave us their parking spot as David was already in and out. We figured we still had some time, maybe an hour or more before we should see John, so after I got my running gear together, I popped the top and grabbed a little rest. I was never completely out, as details were running through my head and I couldn't wait to get on the trail with John.

I donned my kilt over my running shorts and kept a lookout with Sean for John. We once again stepped up and helped Nikki tend to Russ who was holding up well and making some gear changes to dry off now that the rain had stopped. Then came the hardest part: the waiting. I kept one eye on the aid table which was getting really depleted and another on the road leading into the station. Finally in came John with a big smile on his face, raising his arms and shouting, "I can piss again!"

We sat him down once again, Sean tending to his pack while I grabbed food. We changed his shirt, now he and I would match in our Trail Monster shirts, and we also changed his shoes. He had about six pairs to choose from and put on a pair along with new socks. He still hadn't been eating enough and we tore out a bunch of Kind bars, leaving a few and replacing with junk food; gummi bears, peanut butter cups and a couple other candy bars in mini sizes. I wasn't really sure what John liked for junk food but I didn't give a crap really, he was now going to eat whatever we gave him.

Runners needed to be out of this aid station before 9 pm and we left just around eight with John just ahead of me. Race rules stated that a pacer was supposed to be behind the racer and I followed that rule for about two minutes. We had a pretty big climb coming out of the station and with John feeling good, I wanted to take advantage of this and push him up the hill/mountain. I also wanted to be ahead of him so he wouldn't have to think about navigating the trail. We were back in forth with a couple other teams as John proved to me that he really could urinate again.

The sun was beginning to set and John donned his headlamp before I did and we began to listen for whippoorwills. I began to dominate the conversation, not an easy thing to do with John but I wanted to take his mind of the trail. I spoke about my time hiking on the trail with my wife and other experiences like when I did a night hike to get away from an annoying hiker named Wyoming Skateboarder who complained endlessly about rocks and roots on the trail.

John was in good spirits and climbing really well but had concerns about some chaffing in the nether regions. So when he stopped to do what a bear does in the woods, I made him remove, not force ably, some underwear to give the boys a little more room.

One piece of equipment that I did not have was my GPS watch. I had brought it with me, but I just couldn't find it in the bus. So I was relying on dead reckoning to know how far we might have gotten. We had roughly nine miles to the next aid station and if we kept up a decent hiking pace around three miles an hour we would keep an hour ahead of the next cutoff. John stayed strong on the ascent, and I figured we were moving around two miles per hour and now would need to make up some time on the descent, which in theory should be pretty easy to do even if John was starting to fatigue a little. His body was in fine shape for the descent the problem became his shoes. Of the six pairs he had to choose from, he unfortunately chose ones that were a little too small. Our pace should have been about five miles per hour but it felt like we were moving even slower than our climb and for the first time I heard frustration from John. It felt like I was doing math homework with my daughter who gets frustrated and vocal and I try to keep my cool and keep focus on moving forward instead of the obstacles. There were a couple times he needed to pound his poles to release the anger at his feet getting beat upon and once he was done there was nothing else to do but move forward as quick as possible so he could change his shoes.

As we got near the aid station I congratulated John on toughing out a challenging course and assuring him that we could make better time on the next section with better shoes. We had managed to keep our hour buffer and Sean tended to John's equipment needs while I worked on hydration and nutrition. He still hadn't been eating too well so after he downed a couple applesauce packets, I had him grab an extra one for the trail. I also took in a few calories, being careful not to reduce the food selection for other runners still behind us.

With John ready to go, I put my pack on and immediately felt a cold stream running down my back. I guess I didn't close my bladder bag too well and I don't know how much water I lost but with only six miles before the next aid station I figured I would still have enough water along with some ice tea in a bottle to get us there.

Of course we had a climb out of the station and I pushed the pace once again. We faced more mud than before and I had to remind John that new muddy shoes were better than dry, short ones. The mud wasn't the big obstacle, it was the rocks. John bitched a little about them and I reminded him about Wyoming Skateboarder and so his complaints stopped maybe fearing that I would leave him behind in the woods of Virginia.

The climb was really brutal but John was steady and when I got excited about a switchback, John found it hard to share in my enthusiasm. Of course, I still did not know how far we had gone but when it felt that we had completed the climb, I gave him back props for such a great effort. Unfortunately the climb was not completely over but we got through the rest of it in good spirits. John had already eaten the applesauce but was still not taking in enough calories and I was having a hard time getting him to take in more and did not let up on him to drink as well. He was definitely starting to tire but was keeping up his pace. It wasn't fast but it was getting him forward and I felt it would keep us ahead of cutoff.

There were plenty of lights when we came into the next aid station at mile 70 and Sean had seats set up near a good campfire. While John sat down, Sean tended to the pack and I made my way to the food table. At that time a volunteer called for someone to tend to the generator, to which no one responded and the lights quickly went out. I managed to find what was left of Coke wanting to give John some caffeine to wake him up. Another runner came in and sat down next to John stating that he was done, quitting. A sense of fear came across me that his spirits would enter John's body, who now closed his eyes. We let him have a little shuteye as we were still getting his gear in order and I searched for my clothes to change my shirt as it was getting a little cold at 2:30 in the morning. We still had our hour buffer but it felt like we were only minutes ahead of John being the recipient of a black rose.

Still without a GPS watch, I told John as we were leaving the aid station that we needed to be better than a three mile per hour pace to stay well ahead of the next cutoff about eight miles away. We had five hours to beat the cutoff but with the profile still featuring ups and downs, and I was sure more rocks that we couldn't afford to let up.

Yes, another climb out of the aid station and John was once again very strong, even after his 90 second nap near the campfire, of which he woke himself up and got right to his feet. The climb was not quite as long as the previous ones but I felt his pace slowing up. Our conversations also began to slow down. I had quizzed John about baseball hitting techniques to share with my son. We also played a few games to keep conversation and laughing, now John just mostly said that he was getting really tired. I was hoping his pace would pick up once we were on the ridge, but his tiredness was hard to overcome and so I began to force feed him. I gave him some chocolate covered espresso beans which he hated but I gave him more and more trying to send a caffeine rush through his body. I don't think it had the effect I was hoping for but at least he wasn't face planting in the middle of the trail.

I kept a close eye on my watch, figuring the sun was going to come up in an hour or so and wanted him to feel ready to really move in the daylight. I told him all that we were doing now was moving a few logs at a time in order to move the woodpile. We didn't really need to move a big stack and tire ourselves out. Just a little constant effort and we would get that woodpile moved and be rewarded with a buckle for John. Unfortunately, it was more like moving a single piece of wood at a time but we were moving and most importantly I never heard John talk about quitting. There was no quit in him. He was exhausted, there was little energy left in him. I began to question if I was failing him. I was wondering if my trail friends back at home would question if I had done enough for him. I didn't want John to fail because I failed him. I wanted him to get that buckle.

We continued to stack wood, as now I was feeding him more than ever, just waiting for the sun to appear. I would hand him some food and tell him to take a bite. Then a minute later to take another bite, and so on and so on. I even gave him countdowns to finish whatever was left in his hand. I was being a little bit of a bitch, but really he was my bitch now and I was going to do whatever I could to bring him back to life.

The sky began to lighten up a little, enough so I could turn off my headlamp and I prepared for big speech time. Having done a little coaching in my day, and being a fan of sports I know that you can give a big speech too early and have it's effects wear off too quickly. Now with the sun lighting our path instead of our headlamps it was time for that speech. It was just before six when I spotted a large downed tree and had John sit down. I still didn't know how far we had to go but that we only had an hour and a half to get him in and out of the next aid station before cutoff, and I really didn't think we were going to make it based upon our pace.

I was real honest with John about our situation and that if we weren't going to make it, I didn't want us to do it through lack of effort. I had him suck down a GU packet while I spoke to him that he didn't come all the way to Virginia to quit, and at the pace we were moving was essentially a quitters pace.

Back on our feet less than two minutes later a team caught up with us. The pacer was actually the doctor who looked in on John thirty miles earlier. I asked them if they knew the mileage. The pacer figured we had around three miles. I don't know if John got the charge I did but now I felt energized that we had a really real chance of beating that cutoff that I was so sure that was going to end John's day.

I was treated to my first view of the valley below us at a clearing marked Q's View, which I wish I had a camera for as my son's name is Quinn. The other team took in the view with us and of course I just had to moon all the houses below us. The other team pulled ahead of us but I wasn't too concerned about that. I was mostly glad that John was showing real signs of life again. I continued to force feed him, mostly GU, trying to regain his full strength. The trail had actually become more runnable and although we weren't on Boston Marathon pace, it was the best pace in hours.

We stepped out onto a dirt road only to see Jess driving by in the opposite direction. It was good to see her all alone, as this meant that now Amy was somewhere in the woods pacing David. Then a car pulled up next to us and slowed down. It was the Grim Reaper. Apparently John had done a little flirting with her at some other aid stations so she full well knew who he was. She told us we still had a couple miles on the road. John did his best to run and I pushed him to do so and I set up landmarks to run to before we could walk again. While walking we saw pavement up ahead, to which John said he couldn't run on that hard surface so I pushed us to the edge of the pavement.

Farther up ahead of us was another team. John did manage to run a little on the pavement and so when we caught up to this team, the pacer thought John was the pacer. We slowed to walk with them and the runner was literally falling asleep next to us. We chatted until the other pacer looked back and saw that a big gap had developed between us and his runner. The road seemed to last forever and I kept an eye on my watch was indicating it was around seven in the morning. We had to have John out of the aid station by 7:30 and I was getting real nervous.

After we dropped the other team, someone came running up the road towards us. I saw that it was Keith and asked about distance. We were close. I still couldn't get John there fast enough. Finally the road stopped twisting and we came out to a main road. I checked for traffic and crossed only to have a local sheriff have to stop to let us cross. Then I looked up the hill to see Sean looking down at us. "GU. GU, get as much GU's as you can, " I shouted to him. He took right off and I got real energized about getting John to this point and shared my enthusiasm with him and how proud of him that he had done it.

At the aid station, we didn't even let John sit down as it was quarter past seven. Sean was taking over pacing duties now. It was hard to turn John over to him. In no way was I questioning that Sean was going to do a great job, it just felt like I had invested so much in John's run that I didn't want to lose that control. Besides, I'm sure John must have been sick of my force feeding and drinking, and general nuisance to keep him going. My job was now crew duty, and I was glad to do it.

They took off and I dropped my hiking poles and celebrated the fact that John was still in the race. The other runner came in and sat down, still with a few minutes to get out of the station but really calling it quits. I tried to motivate him  a little, but I myself was spent. I had to hold back some tears thinking that John was going to get his buckle and that I had a part of that accomplishment.

I did treat myself to some food while the crew began to dissemble the station. Erin's crew was anxiously waiting for her to come while the other runner was asleep in his chair. I packed up our gear and drove to the next aid station, less than a mile away but ten miles away for John and Sean.

Upon getting to the Picnic Aid Station, I organized the contents of the bus a little and made a phone call back home to Maine before I laid down for a little nap. John had three and a half hours to cover the twelve miles and stay in the race. Despite getting less than an hours sleep over the past twenty eight hours I still found it hard to rest and was soon up and around. Runners were coming and going. I wasn't expecting John and Sean anytime soon based upon the runners that I recognized.

The aid station was doing better on food than some of the others, I guess because more and more runners were dropping or not meeting cutoffs, so I didn't feel too guilty about getting just a cup of coffee. Runners coming in were in all different states; some tired, some happy, some pretty broken, but not a single one of them quit. Everyone I saw still pressed on. They were at the eighty nine mile mark and the course actually covered one hundred and four miles, and no one was stopping.

I didn't step in to help out other crews like the day before. I stood at the ready but all crews were spot on the job. I was amazed that a couple of the crews were wives with young children. I thought my job was tough, but I can't imagine carting kids through the woods of Virginia at night.

I had no expectation to see John and Sean for quite sometime but after ten thirty I began to be on the lookout. We had to have him out of here before eleven and if he had been able to pick back up his pace he should have be arriving pretty soon I figured. Again, the waiting was the hardest part. Damn you Tom Petty.

Less and less runners were now coming in and there weren't many crews left. The air was cool and it felt like it could rain any moment but I was still more concerned as to John's location than getting caught in a rain storm. I can't sit still. I look at my watch every thirty seconds. I congratulate another runner who heads back onto the course. Now there are only two other teams left and time is moving faster than the runners still out there.

One runner leaves and I start to overhear volunteers discussing how many runners are still out on the course. It is a surprising number, one. That can't be right, there are two teams still here. I don't want to be pushy so I wait for a break in their conversation before I step in and ask them if there are really two and give them John's bib number. Someone radios another aid station to which crews were not allowed to get to, and we find out that yes indeed John and another runner are still out there. That other runner finally comes in a short time later. She doesn't have much time to get in and out but does beat the cutoff. One volunteer quietly says to me that she won't beat the next cutoff, I am glad to report that she proves him wrong and does buckle.

Now it's only a few minutes before eleven and there is no sign of John. Volunteers are taking down the aid station and I can't bear to look only focusing on where I should be seeing John coming in from. The Grim Reaper arrives upon the scene and I decide to walk down the trail just hoping to see them. At the pre-race meeting, the Grim Reaper alluded that she may let runners continue on past cut-off if they are looking good and don't have any visible trouble. As it is now a minute before eleven I'm hoping for that kind of leniency.

As the minutes tick past eleven and the volunteers pack up, I know our race is over. I want to negotiate with the Reaper but I have no idea what state John is going to be in or when he is actually going to be there. The race director said cut-off times were firm and I didn't want conflict between him and her.

Ten minutes past, no sign. Eleven. Twelve, Damn it. Fourteen, Sixteen. Shit. Seventeen. Mother Trucker. Eighteen. Fudge. Nineteen. Wait there they are. Time for the end of the movie slow clap. John knows it's over. But he's smiling. A small grimace surfaces for a moment, but overall he's smiling. I try my best to, and can't remember what I say, other than how proud I really am.

The Reaper comes over to check on him, and John gives her is numbers, race number not phone number. But this all brings out a greater smile on his face while we get shoes off and a fresh shirt on. I don't question Sean. I help him get some food and liquids. John says he has no interest in taking another shot at a buckle in a race he's already registered for in August. I don't respond back, I just want him to free his mind of racing for a little while. He's been on his feet and racing for over thirty four hours now. He deserves to think of nothing. His only thoughts should be of laying down and getting some rest. Ironically, I find out later that David finishes his race just about the same time as John, but he does it by getting across the finish line.

John is laughing a smiling as he is given his well earned Black Rose. A few photos are taken and we are allowed to take any leftover food we'd like. The reward for being the last team on the course I guess. Sadly we pull out of the area, with a volunteer asking us at the gate if there is anyone behind us.

We do have to go back to the starting/finish area as I've left my tent there and we do get to see a few runners on the road close to the finish. We come across Nikki who says that Russ is past the last aid station and has a few miles to the finish. John is kind of in and out of sleep as we breakdown our tent and make our way out, asking him if he wants to hang around or not. We say that we will go find a motel room for the night in order to get properly cleaned up and a good night's sleep before we try to get back to Maine the next day. Understandably, John doesn't really want to hang out and I'm kind of glad as I just want to get on the road and back towards home.

Still, despite the lack of sleep, I'm pretty wired as we hit the highway northbound. John is now out. Sean once again navigating and we learn there are some pretty nasty storms due to hit the race area so we are especially glad to have gotten out of there. I figure I can drive for about three hours and that will put us somewhere into Pennslyvannia. Sometime after we do cross into that state John suddenly rises up real quick and asks where we are. He can't believe we've gone that far. He must have been in a dead sleep with zero brain waves. He only stays up for a minute before he is back down.

We set our sights on Harrisburg and John is back up before we see signs for motel/hotels. A Holiday Inn has a room with two beds and a pullout sofa at a decent price and we are set for the night. We are all laughing and joking recapping the day's events and thankful for the experience. I am amazed at John's spirit and attitude, knowing that I probably would have been acting much differently under the same circumstances.

It feels good to be clean after a few days of travel and racing and Sean and I go to a grocery store once again. This time for beer and not race food. For dinner we find a brew pub, The Appalachian Brewery and John is so excited they have poutine on the the menu. Sure we question what might have been, or how we could have done things differently but none one us feels like there was never any quit on the course. We discover that someone back home has posted on-line that John dropped from the race, and we, really especially Sean and I go in a uproar that he didn't drop. We were there to witness him doing all that he could do to stay in that race. His feet just couldn't stay ahead of the minute hand. He could have kept going. He could have squeezed out the last fifteen miles. Father time just didn't let him.

After I buy a growler and some pint glasses for my wife's birthday the next day, I already had some other presents ready, we leave the restaurant and get a little off course getting back to the hotel. We are treated to a double rainbow on the edge of the field and it feels a little like hitting an aid station, as nearly all cars on the road are stopping and occupants rushing out.

With a few beers left in the fridge, we share some more laughs before one by one falling asleep. Up and out in the morning and the bus smells like a locker room. The front end is covered in dead bugs and John insists that he is going to come to my house to help clean up. I tell the guys this trip was kind of like going on fishing trip, except we didn't catch anything, but the adventure is going to be an excellent memory.

It is Monday and my wife's birthday and I am looking forward to getting home. I hope to be home in time for my son's little league game and to crack open that growler with my wife. We make decent time until we get stuck in traffic for about half an hour in Connecticut. We make a stop lunch and I decide that I am finally going to turn the keys over to Sean. As he turns over the engine he says the battery light is on. I tell him to back out and let's just see  what happens when we move. He struggles to turn the wheel. He immediately says he is worried about the alternator belt as it is all connected to the power steering, something I did not know.

To make a short story of all this, the belt broke, my so-called service provider was awful and we did manage to finally get someone to tow us to their garage. Sean and John were extremely patient considering the situation, much more than me. The tow driver could only take two in his vehicle, which quickly became me and John, and Sean began the three mile walk to the garage. Upon hearing out story, the driver went back to pick up Sean after dropping us off.

After a little inspection of the bus, I'm told the a/c compressor is blown and there is no way that is getting fixed at four in the afternoon, especially since the part is certainly not stocked. Good news is they can get a belt on and get us home safe and sound. Back on the road, I'm driving with urgency to get home after apologizing and wishing my wife a happy birthday in the same breath.

We can pick up John's dog on the way home as she is staying with fellow Trail Monsters, Pete and Mindy Slovinsky. John says that he'll drive back from my place in Freeport, wanting me to get home, but I insist on stopping knowing my family will be asleep anyway. Sean and John can't wait to urinate and I have to pull into a church lot not far from the Slovinsky's house. Just another part of the adventure.

We drop off Sean in Portland and I finally get home and help John pack up his car left at my place. There's not much left to say at this point. John's happy, I know disappointed but thankful for the experience. And I'm glad as much, after missing a few days with  my family that we have all become better friends and not bitter or upset with one another despite all we've been through.

Months ago when John first asked me to pace I had to check my calendar. Even though it was her birthday weekend my wife insisted that I go help John. I owed John so much for helping me to earn my own buckle the year before. Mo also knew I always wanted to pace and this was a great chance for an awesome adventure. Even though more things filled our calendar for that weekend, she still insisted that I go to Virginia. I am very thankful to her and I know the rest of the crew is as well. I think they got to know and admire her as I talked about her throughout the trip.

Looking back at the whole adventure, that's exactly what is was, an adventure. It was much more than your Sunday morning 5K at the local high school or even any other race where you get a participants medal for finishing. It took courage, extraordinary effort, mental toughness, some bitch-slapping, even some compassion, along with laughs and smiles for John to earn his rose. Less than a week later when John and I were helping set up for the Pineland Trail Festival, John said to me he should have finished the race. I don't know if I told him out loud or not, so listen to me now John. You could have finished that race, they just didn't let you. How could they have let you cross that finish line after thirty six hours with that big smile on your face? People would see your photo and think this race was lots of fun and possibly easy and that anyone could finish. Truth is, it was one hellish race and I am amazed at the attitude and spirit John was able to possess throughout. A job well done John, now you've got five seconds to finish eating whatever is your hand.