Friday, May 22, 2020

River Link Run

I believe it was Sir Edmund Hilary who said the reason he wanted to climb Everest was, “Because it is there.” So that was the key reason why I chose to run the River Link trail. There were many other surrounding factors on why to go out for a little bit of a longer run in the midst of the global pandemic, but ultimately to go on a trail I had barely heard of, or actually just read about was simply because it was there.

I had found the trail on-line as I was searching for places that might not get as heavy use. It is great to see so many people discovering the woods but has forced me to search out areas that are not so popular. The River Link Trail is located from Boothbay to Newcastle. It also probably passes through Edgecomb as well, but there were no town line markings along the way, as there usually aren’t in the midst of the woods

At one end of the trail lies the Dodge Point Preserve in Newcastle. This is a place I have been to before, and knew just how wonderful it is and so I suspected it could get busy there, even on a Thursday. Spring was truly in the air. The other end of the trail was located in Boothbay, not Boothbay Harbor, at Zak’s Preserve. In between the trailheads were seven miles plus miles of trail that I hoped to find isolation.

Zak’s Preserve was really easy to find as it lies on Route 27 leading into the Boothbay Peninsula, right across from a former campground that I remembered my grandparents staying at in their RV. I had driven by the preserve many other times often wondering what I was missing out of.

I had grown up on the other side of the peninsula on Westport Island, spending my youth exploring the woods near my home and rowing on the Sheepscot River. I have had a yearning to get back on the water in a rowboat recently and the day before checked out a boat. On line I found a seventeen foot boat that could fit four people with two able to row in tandem. I arranged with the owner to have a look as it was located in Freeport. The owner was a little hard to understand on the phone as he had a thick Maine accent, and with a perfect Maine name as well, Burt. He gave me directions to his home, which was actually located very near a trailhead that I have been exploring as well. The home was at a dead end road, which had two dead ends. When I got out of the car at one home, the owner was outside but looking much younger than the man I spoke with. He chuckled when I asked if he was Burt, and gave me directions on how to get to the right home.

When I did get to the right house, Burt was outside working all dressed up in waterproof clothing. Hip boots, a jacket and also a white trash bag wrapped around his waist. He said he was polishing some stones of which a couple would be made into a bench and another that he said would become his gravestone. Even though he was the right age, he was too tall to be the real Owen Meany from a classic story by John Irving. I had seen a small cemetery between the two homes and asked if that was going to be his resting place. He said it was.

I told him how I had been exploring the trails near his home, and almost ended up in his backyard recently. He told me all about the surrounding land, as well as other Freeport history. He had lived on Bustin’s Island growing up and had to either take a boat to get to the mainland or walk across the frozen bay before biking seven miles to get to school. Now my kids didn’t even need to leave the house

Finally, we checked out the boat which was under plastic sitting on a trailer. I helped him flip it over, keeping social distance while I did keep on my mask. With the boat on it’s side, I could see some light through the hull. He said the boat was at least seventy years old. It was an amazing boat being constructed in Rangeley. He admitted it did leak and hadn’t had time to find the leak to fix it. He suggested letting it sit in water to swell the wood before finding the leak. My heart was a little broken because as much as I longed for this boat, I knew that I didn’t have the time or the skills to take on a project like this.

I decided that my desire to be back in a rowboat would have to wait, and that I should stick with adventures on my two feet instead. Truly, it was a joy and pleasure to meet Burt and I wished that I could sit down with him and learn more about this man who also told me some stories about his sailboat which was at port up in Eastern Newfoundland.

My heart was still craving the water, especially when I crossed over the Sheepscot River and could see areas I had either rowed or kayaked around. Back on land, I got to Zak’s preserve with only one other car in the lot. Another pulled in while I made my preparations. The two car owner’s met one another all geared up to do some trail work. I asked them for some directions as none of the maps at the kiosk indicated where the River Link Trail met the preserve, and I had not downloaded any maps.

It was a little tricky finding the River Link, but once I did there were plenty of markers to lead me. I didn’t go out at any blistering pace as I was more concerned about staying on the right trail and in classic Maine trail style the trail was very windy with plenty of rocks and roots to trip you up.

A few miles into my trek I was able to spot an owl up in a tree looking down at me. As our eyes locked on each other he or she swiftly swooped down from it’s perch being chased after by a bunch of smaller birds. They continued to chase after the large predator, probably chasing the owl away from their nest. I wished they chased the owl a little closer to me as I was struggling to get a picture on my phone.

Lying about halfway between the two trailheads was another land preserve that I had never visited either. Schmid Preserve had its own trail system that looped all around the River Link. At one time this must have been farmland as I came across some magnificent stone walls and could notice that this land must have been cleared of trees. Much like the land around Burt’s home that he had told me was also farmland generations ago.

While passing through this area, my thoughts turned back in time when I used to work for the weekly newspaper in Boothbay, The Boothbay Register. I had spent a couple years there shortly after college, and it was amazing to think that nearly half of my life has passed by since then. Back then I was eager to explore mountains, heading off for trips on the Appalachian Trail.That was all before the internet, when it was more challenging to find places to explore. And also before many of these local land preserves began making trails. If I wanted to explore the woods around me, I had to bushwhack, or follow the thorn ridden trails along power lines. Now I was discovering areas that were practically in my backyard, giving me the opportunity to swiftly move my feet while my mind’s pace slowed with the light breeze passing through the new born leaves taking in the fresh sun’s energy.

I came out to an empty parking lot for the Dodge Preserve, this one was an auxiliary lot and I had no idea if the main lot was full or not. At the information kiosk there was a list of rules posted. It was pretty simple, only about four or five, none of which were new to me. I thought how easy it was to follow a few simple rules in order for people to continue to enjoy such a beautiful place. On the ride down, I listened to NPR which was telling how the President was going to be visiting an automotive factory in Michigan later that day, and how the state had rules, laws requiring facial protection in cases like this. I, along with most of the rest of the world knew that he wasn’t going to be following this simple rule. If I could follow a few simple rules to ensure enjoyment by others, why couldn’t the President?

Dodge Point made the seven plus mile run to it completely worth the effort. As I came down to the water, the tide was still slightly out and I looked out into a vacant river. My heart churned with the desire to be dipping oars into the salty water facing the direction I had come from. Only a mother with her two young children happened to pass by while I rested along the shore. The trail weaved in and out from the shore for a short while, and I wished I had brought along more of a lunch than a couple pretzel rods, so that I could turn off my watch for an extended break.

There was only one other person I came across in the preserve, who I heard his phone ring before I saw him and his dog. I zig-zagged along the Ravine Trail for a mile or so before finding my way out of the preserve and back to the River Link. By now, my watch indicated that I was close to ten miles. I had expected the day to be somewhere between 14 and 15 miles, and with the sun’s increasing it’s BTU output I got my mind ready for more miles than planned. 

Maybe it was the familiarity of the trail that made the trail beneath my feet click away a little faster on the return leg of the journey. I kind of knew what to look for, including one spot that I took a wrong turn and had to backtrack a little. Even with making decent time back, I knew I wasn’t going after an FKT or PR, and that I was able to stop and explore a unique growth of trees near one of the old stone fences. I also was on the lookout for the owl, who probably was resting somewhere out of sight getting ready for a night of hunting.

I couldn’t dwadle along too long in this forest though. NIcely, my wife who was working remotely, spent the morning getting our kids ready for their on-line learnings, and I knew that I should get myself home to do my part of responsibilities for the afternoon. Still, I couldn’t help but think of those former co-workers at the newspaper. A few of them have passed in the time since we would work together literally cutting and pasting the paper getting it ready for printing. I got pretty good at using an exacto knife in order to spread out paragraphs on the paper. An effective use of white space is what one co-worker called that process. He was the happiest person I have ever met at being utterly miserable. He was full of one liners at how badly life was treating him, yet he kept doing all the same things that were making him such an old cuss, and making us laugh about his misery. My favorite was that he swore that God was a woman, because no man could give him such a terrible fate. Yes, he was a bachelor. If he didn’t smoke a couple packs of cigarettes a day, he really would have been an incredible ultra-runner with that kind of attitude.

Sometime before I got to a road crossing somewhere in the Schmid Preserve, I did come across two other men, and two dogs. There wasn’t much to say between us all, as one gathered up his loose dogs, and I just wanted to keep moving and finish my day. Unsure of the mileage still ahead of me, I did my best to put a spring in my step(s) in order to call it a day. Thoughts passed through my head of tacking on a little more when I got to Zak’s Preserve, as I knew I hadn’t seen nearly as much as I could have that morning.

I knew I was getting close when I passed by some power lines, laughing to myself at how I used the poles as trail markers one time in my life. There were many intersecting trails which I did not know which ones to follow other than the route I had started on and with my mileage past the seventeen mile mark, I decided that I would call it a day when I got back to my car. Which now sat alone in the lot.

A quick call home to my wife to let her know I was safe and on my way after I would stop in on my parents. The day wasn’t over, but my adventure was. It was needed in this time of isolation to get away. The day could have been grander, could have been more challenging, but it gave me what I needed. And a new place to explore. I remember when I was getting done with working at the newspaper a co-worker said to me between drags off her cigarette, “You’ll be back someday. They always come back.” I suppose, despite the River Link’s lack of glamour or any real unique characteristics, she may be right. Someday I will go back. After all, because it is there.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Monumentally Gump

Stepping out of the sand and onto more firmer ground, I said to myself in a hushed voice, "Okay now Gump, Gump, Gump," as I increased my pace from a fast walk to a slow methodical run. I was somewhere out in the middle of a dried up ancient ocean bed still with miles to go in a 50 mile race trying my best to get to the finish line. 

I was smack dab in the middle of Monument Valley in Utah, where Forest Gump had ended his fabled fictional run in the popular movie of the same name. The ever lovable Forest had ended on the road overlooking the monuments, and probably could have easily gotten a ride back to civilization just by sticking out his thumb. I on the other hand, was in the with the monuments and the only way out was to have my mind trick my body into thinking it wasn't exhausted and worn out, and that it could do another ten miles or more if necessary. 

The Monument Valley 50 mile race had started at six in the morning, just as the sun was illuminating the beauty of the monolithic natural landscape, and now some eight hours later I envied the focus and stamina of the fictional character when really I just wanted to go home. Everything about the race and my journey to get there was an experience I will cherish forever but pushing the forty mile mark, the novelty had worn off and it was time to do whatever was necessary to get it done.

"Life is like an aid station, you never know what you're gonna get," Forest might have said if he ran ultra races. Coming out of an aid station around mile 31-32 I was feeling really great. I just had eaten some great red potatoes, washed them down with Coke and had a belch so loud it could be heard practically across the valley floor. As I moved away from the aid station, I hollered to my fellow runners in my best Slim Pickens voice, conjuring another movie character but this one from Blazing Saddles, "Come on boys, we'll head 'em off at the pass," Yah, my spirits were high, and I rode that feeling as best as I could feeling thrilled that I wasn't running in yet more sand but hard ground. 

Sand and the Monuments went together like peas and carrots, Forest would say. The first couple hours of the race, the sand didn't bother me all too much. It slowed me down but didn't wipe me out, and some of the early sights were just so magnificent that I didn't mind the ever changing footing. It was impossible to estimate just how many miles were spent in the sand versus a firmer terrain but when I hit that harder surface I knew I had to take advantage of it while it was there. I don't know when I put the "Gump, Gump, Gump," mantra in my head, or whether it really had any effect on my pace, but I needed to combat my body with my mind. 

The Bubba to my Gump was my friend John Rodrigue who traveled with me from Maine to experience a place so different from our usual rocks, roots, mud, snow and slush. I had been to the southwest before and relished the opportunity to actually run. We had flown into Las Vegas and rented a Jucy camper, which was a converted mini-van. A bed folded out inside and there was a pop-up tent on the top along with a small kitchen area in the trunk. My brother was actually in Vegas at the time with his college friends so we got to meet up for dinner and a small amount of gambling. I actually won about thirty dollars at the roulette table. So that was real nice to see family so far away from my own back in Maine, and not lose a small fortune.

John and I visited a couple national parks on our drive across the Utah-Arizona border on our way to the four corner region and the Navajo National Park where the monuments stood. John was pretty amazed when we got to the top of Observation Point in Zion looking down on the canyon floor. We also got to run around the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon after waking up to snow on our Jucy then having all the sand/mud stick to our shoes like drying bricks. Perhaps the most amazing part of our journey was driving through a snowstorm outside of Page, Arizona. We abandoned camping that night and opted for a hotel room and were able to shower and have a great authentic Mexican meal that helped freshen us up and get ready for race day

It seemed as if Lieutenant Dan had taken over the race coming out of the last aid station. The course was actually really kind and quite beautiful following a ridge-line below another mesa and looking back toward where I had already been and needed to get back to. I was smiling having a good time, being generally as happy as Forest out on the open ocean looking for shrimp. Then from the top beam Lt. Dan points toward a high sand dune, leading away from the direction I seem to need to head, and yells, "Over there! We need to go over there."

The day before the race, Bubba, I mean John, and I met the man who designed the course, Jeff.  He was working at the gift shop and took us to an outdoor patio and gave us more information than we needed, but greatly appreciated. He told us about the high sand dune climb around mile forty five and how we would be cursing his name. He was right.

The initial climb up the dune wasn't so bad, thanks to the warning from Jeff. It was when the course took another turn away from where I thought we should go, and up another additional climb, that I really began to curse Jeff, who I pictured sitting on the cross beam looking like Lt. Dan. It was also at this point that I saw the dark clouds looking like the ones that had delivered the snow storm I drove through a couple days before.

The sand was relentless now, and there wasn't anything I could do but to keep going forward. The course finally took a turn in the direction I really wanted to go in putting the storm clouds behind me. I didn't know how many miles I had left as my watch battery had died somewhere between the last two aid stations, and I only knew the time of day by checking my phone.

There was a runner up ahead of me who stopped to dump the sand out of his shoes. Although my shoes were also full, I didn't see any point in stopping myself as I was sure they would fill up quickly again. I was taking Lt. Dan's advice about how socks made all the difference, and felt quite satisfied that my feet were in decent shape thanks to my socks. I had an extra set in my pack just in case, along with a few other items that I had worn earlier in the race when the temps were lower. I had taken off my last layer around the marathon mark when I hit an aid station that we had passed by three times. There a man changed his socks with the help of his family, his daughter quite revolted by having to handle his dirty, smelly socks. I'm sure my daughter, or son would have had the same reaction.

At that aid station, I was feeling pretty spent, after a really sandy section that sapped out my strength. That strength came back though as the trail followed a ridge line. I caught up with a runner who had spoken at ceremonies the night before. We were treated to some Navajo dancing and prayers, I would assume wishing us the best, but the audio system was horrible, so for all I knew we might have been scolded for stealing native lands. Really though, we were very well treated and felt welcomed for coming to this amazing place. The runner had been introduced as Vice President of the nation, and I thanked him for having us, and he really didn't have much to say back to me as I could see him struggling.

As I struggled through the last few miles in the sand, the mesas that I ran around in the morning grew closer and closer. It was hard but it could have been much more challenging as the course had been changed from previous races. In the first ten miles of the race we got to climb up to the top of a 6,000 foot mesa, but in previous years this climb was done at the end of the race. While I ran toward that mesa, still very fresh in the gentle morning sun, I kept looking up at it wondering how we were ever going to get to the top as Mitchell Mesa rose straight out of the ground. There was a steep trail that did lead to the top, climbing nearly 1,500 feet in a mile. Some runners were already coming down when I started up. 50K runners had started shortly after the 50 milers and were given a more direct route, so the mass of all runners had to politely share the narrow, rocky trail.

Despite finally getting to the top, I was not immediately treated with a view. About another mile of running before I reached the edge of the mesa to look over the valley floor. It was absolutely amazing, one of the greatest places I have ever experienced in my life. I did have to share it with many others, all getting pictures. After a few moments, I remembered this was a race and that I needed to get going. It was then that John appeared. We had agreed that we would not be running together, and that I was probably going to be faster. I was pleased to see him, but had me wondering if I was going to slow, or that he was going too fast. We didn't talk about it, and I took off wanting to do my best over the next forty miles.

With the finish line within sight, I thought of John again. It had been about eight hours since I last saw him and wondered if he was able to keep his feet going through all the sand. Selfishly, I hoped he hadn't and that he would be there at the finish line to help take care of me when I got done. I stepped out of the sand and into the campground where the Jucy was parked. I could have easily stopped and crawled into the Jucy instead of actually finishing but of course I pushed on as there were some people actually cheering for the first time in the race. I expected someone to yell, "Run Forest Run." A quote that I'm sure all of us runners had heard at one time or another. Now, I was just so damn tired, but fed off my own appointed mantra of, "Gump, gump, gump" in order to get across the finish line.

Fortunately John was nowhere in sight, and I took care of my post race recovery. I gathered my finishing reward. A bottle full of sand while drinking some hot chocolate and nibbling on a few snacks. The storm clouds were still visible while a cold wind cooled off my tired body. I struggled to get back into the van, having a hard time finding where John had hidden the keys. The only time I cursed at John the entire trip but he was nowhere near of course and after I had dumped all the sand out of my socks and shoes, I lied down for a bit after changing into warm clothes and prayed that the storm clouds wouldn't stop John from getting to the finish line soon.

There were make your own pizzas to be had at the finish area, which I loaded with various meats but had no beer to wash it down. Alcohol is prohibited in the Navajo Nation, and so it was unusual not to have a cold beer at the end of the race. I was just about to sit down and eat my pizza when John crossed the finish line, stopping to kiss the ground, all before I was able to whip out my phone to capture the moment. I had him take my seat and I wiped the sand off his nose. I ate while helping him out and he told me that he did get some bad weather on the tail end of the race but it did not stop him from meeting his twelve hour goal. I did the course in 10:14, meeting my own goals for the most part, but I was more focused on the opportunity to run in a spectacular place more than a personal best.

Forest didn't take off from his front porch to set a personal best. He just felt like runnin'. And run he did, and for the most part I did my best to run throughout the fifty miles. When I got tired, I still ran. When I got hungry, I still ran. When I had to, you know, I still ran.

My body has never felt so good and recovered so well from an ultra race. I had to ask John the next day if he felt the same way, and amazingly he did as well. Maybe it was the spirit of the place, maybe it was from a lack of alcohol after the race, or maybe even the blessings given to us from the Navajo before the race. It felt like we were in a spirit world, coming back as the same two dumb ass runners who thought it would be 'fun' to run fifty miles in the high desert, but also somehow more a part of this real physical world. Jimi Hendrix said once, "Sometimes you need to create a fantasy to better understand reality." I wonder if Forest actually told him that.

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.

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.