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.