Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lord of the Hike: Part 4: Finis

So took me 3 weeks to tell this story.  I had every intention of finishing this post in a timely manner, just like I had every intention of finishing the hike in a timely manner.  So here it is...the FINAL POST FROM OUR BIG HIKE.

Mile 22:  I had run straight into “the wall” and fallen into the Pit of Despair.  The scientific explanation of “the wall” is that when your body depletes all the stockpiled glycogen it can store- roughly 2,000 calories- you may experience overwhelming heaviness in the legs (check), loss of concentration (check), and even despair (check).  The non-scientific explanation is that when your body hikes over rocks for 12 hours, you either want to kill somebody or cry.  And since I was alone, I could only cry.

The group (Dianne, Chris, and the Nurses) was pulling further and further ahead of me, and I couldn’t shake the thought that I had become a liability to the team.  Waiting for me was only going to slow them down further. 

Right as I hit bottom, I heard a voice from behind.  “Give me your pack, buddy.”  Corey had marched up the hill with Bob and Maria in tow, and he was commanding me to hand over my pack.  Crap.  I thought he’d turn me back around and we’d go back to the parking lot together.  I handed him my pack, and he continued to march up the hill.  I didn’t ask any questions… I just followed him for another 10 miles.

Corey took my pack until we got to the top of the hill, and my pace improved dramatically.  It wasn’t because he relieved some great burden—the only thing in my pack was 5 pounds of water and giant Rice Krispy treats. My speed improved because I knew I could keep up with his pace.

When Di and I showed up an hour late to the Torry Ridge hike (and nearly filed for divorce), Corey waited for us a few miles onto the trail. We hiked at his speed and managed to keep up with his superhuman pace until we caught up with the rest of the group.  We spent the next week popping quarter-sized blisters, but we did keep up.  I knew I could keep up with Corey like I did at Torry Ridge, especially if he had some Jack to share with me along the way.

Mile 23:  Even though I'd pulled myself out of the Pit, I still had thoughts of killing or crying—there were just fewer of those thoughts now.  Instead, I couldn't stop thinking of the physical pain in my feet.  Somewhere on that hill, Di told Corey I was struggling (duh) and asked me what was hurting.  I couldn’t really answer that question because every single muscle and joint below my waist was in pain. 

Meanwhile, I wasn’t the only person feeling the pain- Chris had taken an extended break to nurse some pain that his whiskey wasn’t numbing.  After the second false summit, we ran into Gavin taking a break too.  With the exception of the super-humans who finished the hike in 10 hours, it seemed like the guys were struggling a little more than the women on the final leg.  One scientific explanation is that glycogen is depleted at a slower rate in women, meaning that they’re less likely to hit “the wall.”  The other explanation is that the women on this hike were total badasses.

Bez, Fred & Gina: Total badasses
 Mile 24:  When we finally reached the top of the mountain, we found Sam waiting for Gavin.  Our team of hikers grew to nine—plus, Chris who was probably hanging out in the back of the pack with a guide.   Laura asked Corey if he could check on Chris about a dozen times.  Corey, demonstrating his superhuman powers of clairvoyance, kept telling her he was ok without even checking.  

Mile 25: During a break on the ridge, I saw Jamie bouncing up the trail with his newest hiking buddy, Dr. Dana Marie.  I thought she had been left for dead!  Jamie had her pack strapped to the front of his body like it was a vest made of explosives, and Dana Marie looked like she was ready to kill someone.  I thought she had hit "the wall" like I had. Instead, she had more in common with Di—she had reached “berserker rage” mode.

Apparently there had been an “altercation” between Dana Marie and a member of the CFF team at the final aid station.  The quick version of the story goes something like this:

CFF hike organizer: Sorry Dana Marie, we can’t let you go on.
Dana Marie: You gotta be f-ing kidding me!  (breaks into a full sprint and runs back onto the trail.)

Yes, Dana Marie was a safety risk—it wasn’t right to go back onto the trail, especially since the guides had un-blazed the course.  And yes, she probably should’ve chosen different words when speaking with the kind folks from CFF.  With that being said… I was glad to see her on the trail again.  She had been the quintessential teammate.  She could’ve started the hike with the first group and may have finished earlier—instead, she was wrapping hikers’ feet while the rest of us were moving through the dark.  She used her own time and supplies to make sure our feet and knees would survive 31 miles of hell—and in the end, I wouldn’t have been BLISTER-FREE without her help.  For those of you who thought she should’ve known better—you’re right.  For those of you, who thought she should’ve been allowed to finish—you’re right too.   

The Doctor hard at work before the hike
 Mile 26:   Corey continued to lead our march along a mountaintop that had been scarred from a recent forest fire.  The trail was a stark reminder that everything burns—except rocks.  It seemed like the fire had burned off the top layer of soil, exposing even more rocks below.  Just what we needed—MORE rocks.  They were never-ending.  

Rocks don't melt

The only good thing about a forest fire is that it creates fantastic views.  There hadn’t been an overlook since Mile 8 and now we actually had a view of the Shenandoah River and Valley.  

First overlook in over 20 miles
That’s a LONG time to hike without seeing anything of interest. I guess that’s why Di and I started making up our own images.  I kept seeing shelters, reflections of shiny cars parked at the shelter, and backpacks on the side of the trail-- and  Di saw alligators.  

Mile 29:  After our journey through Mordor, we made our descent into another valley, where I continued to imagine shelters, cars, and people in the distance.   

And then I heard singing… it sounded like a (failed) audition for Downton Abbey: The Musical.  It wasn’t my imagination though—it was Meg welcoming us to the shelter using her Southern Belle persona.  She even had a special song for us!

Meg: Hey guys, I came up with a song about you.
Me: Cool, let's hear it!
Meg: A little ditty about Scott and Dianne... (in the tune of "Jack and Diane")
Me: And?
Meg: And I haven't come up with the next verse.
Me: Oh...ok.... cool song. 

Meanwhile, Genevieve and a handful of bearded guides were taking a short break and waiting for us to arrive.  Our group had grown to 13 hikers—13 hikers who had spent the summer training together at Dobie Mountain, Three Ridges, Torry Ridge, and McAfee’s Knob.  The band was finally back together (I stole that line from Laura).

The final gathering
Together, our team marched up the final (steep) hill in a single-file line.  On any other hill, I may have pulled over and taken a quick break—but I didn't want to be the one to hold us up.  There was a LOT of motivation to finish this thing ASAP.  

The final march
 Mile 30:   At the top of the mountain, I re-hydrated with some Jack, and it finally started to set in: Holy crap. I’m going to finish this hike without dying.  

At one point, the folks at the finish line radioed Corey: “We have thirteen hikers unaccounted for.”  For a brief second, I was totally confused—were we lost? Maybe we were dead? Is there a search party looking for us?  Clearly, someone was a little worried that half the hikers were still on the trail. There was some sort of deal made between CFF and Corey that all of us would be finished by 7:00—and I guess we were cutting it a little too close for comfort?

When Corey was asked how much further we had, he looked at his watch and said: “We’ll be done in fourteen minutes.” (aka: 7:00)

Corey, punctual as always
 And at 7:00 (on the dot), almost 16 hours after we started, thirteen members of our team crossed the finish line at the same time.
(cue cheesy music)

Working hard to get my fill,
Everybody wants a thrill

Paying anything to roll the dice
 just one more time

Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues

Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on

Strangers waiting up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night

Streetlights, people, living just to find emotion
Hiding somewhere in the night

Don’t stop … 
<cut to black>

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Lord of the Hike: Part 3: The Return of the King

In the days of yore, there lived a King who ruled the land in the province of the ancient Appalachians, known as the Blue Ridge.  The land was filled with tales of a man who rescued dozens of overconfident (and mostly idiotic hikers) from the cliffs of Old Rag.  Children told stories of a man who ran the Appalachians’ most formidable hills (the Priest and Three Ridges) for his own enjoyment.  And there’s the legend of how a man once bet one bottle of Jack Daniels that he could traverse the entire Shenandoah Valley in three days—and naturally, he savored his entire prize on day 4.  The King was the man of Legend.
It's good to be the King
Then one day, crisis befell the Kingdom—the King’s mother (Momma) had fallen ill with a rare and mysterious disease. Cerebellar Degenerative Ataxia was attacking Momma’s ability to use her muscles, slowly degrading her motor skills.  Unfortunately, the cure remains a mystery to scientists (Dear medical researchers: please spend less time finding the cure to erectile dysfunction and more time finding cures to all these bullsh*t genetic disorders..sincerely, the World)

Despite his disdain of the Beach People's realm, the King moved far from the mountains to Virginia Beach so he could look after Momma in her time of need.  Even though it was difficult to leave his land behind, the King knew in his heart that he must go take care of the person who had taken care of him through his own challenges.  Momma had been among the most caring people in the Kingdom, and she had bestowed a precious gift upon her son- the gift of compassion.  He would never think twice about helping those in need. 

The King settled amongst the Beach People and found a new castle—Blue Ridge Mountain Sports.  One day, a distressed damsel entered his castle, searching for someone to lead a group of hikers bound together by the noble cause of ending the horrid reign of Cystic Fibrosis.  The King eagerly accepted her call.  He would help the hikers defeat a seemingly unbeatable enemy by preparing them to hike 31 miles of treacherous trail in one day.  He would spend his weekends training them on the trails of his former Kingdom, pushing their bodies and minds past their known limits.
Pointing out all the hills he's run naked
After four months of preparation, the King’s hikers now found themselves in the final leg of their journey.  They had hiked beyond what they knew was possible—but their energy was beginning to fade.  Their weariness was slowing their pace and putting their finish in jeopardy.  The slow guy hiking with his wife was on the verge of a breakdown.

The King had made a decision to meet a pair of hikers (Bob and Maria) on the trail and to deliver the disappointing news that their journey would end prematurely.  As he approached the trail, the King saw a strange man step out from the bushes.  The man, dressed in a black frock coat and wearing a white slouch hat, looked strangely familiar--like a long lost friend. The King couldn’t quite place where he had seen him before, but his presence gave him a since of comfort.

The Distinguished Jasper Daniel of Lynchburg, TN

The King: Hey Buddy, can I help you?
Strange Man: Corey, you need to return to the trail.
The King: Sorry, do I know you?
Strange Man:  Know me? Son, we’ve had some amazing times together—some you may not even remember.  Does Jasper Daniel ring a bell?
The King: Sorry.  Don’t mean to be rude, but I’m in the middle of something important.
Strange Man:  Corey, you need to let Bob and Maria finish—and then you need to return to the trail.
The King: How did you know their names, Buddy?
Strange Man:  It doesn’t matter. The darkness is coming—and they need you.    
The King:  I’ve been telling them to speed up all day—
Strange Man: Listen Corey—you must lead them. They need you.
The King: I’m not sure I can do it.  I’ve been celebrating since—ummm—5 this morning.  Or maybe it was 3? No matter. I really wasn't planning to hike today...especially in this condition.”
Strange Man: Son, you know what you need to do.  It’s your destiny.  I best be on my way, but we shall meet again on the trail—and at the finish line—and definitely at the hotel.  And when we do meet again, you may call me Jack.

In the blink of an eye, the image of Jasper was replaced with Bob and Maria rambling down the trail with a bearded guide.  Bob stoically asked if it was the end of the road for him and his companion.  The King thought long and hard and replied: Jack Daniel told me you need to keep hiking—and I’d be a fool not to listen to him.  We’re going to finish this thing together. Now who needs a shot before we go?"

*Note: Obviously, I was not there to witness the conversation between Corey and Jack-- these events were described to me by my own visit with Jack, and they may or may not be accurate.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lord of the Hike: Part 2.5: The Two Aid Stations

Since the beginning of my training, ONE thing has consistently pushed all of my buttons:  “Have a nice walk.”  Listen, the Xtreme Hike isn't a 31-mile walk.  Maybe it would help to use the dictionary to find a more precise definition of hiking:

“To go for a long walk in the country, especially for pleasure.”
“To go on an extended walk for pleasure or exercise.”

Ok, since it’s clear that the nerds who came up with the Dictionary have never actually gone for a hike, I’m going to petition for a new definition:

“To wander through the wilderness from Point A to Point B, while trying to avoid injury and/or death from animals, dehydration, cliffs, and trails made of ankle-breaking rocks.”

Based on my definition, an "Xtreme" Hike would include an Xtreme amount of deadly animals, dehydration, cliffs, or trails made of ankle-breaking rocks.  Mile 13 validated our hike’s Xtreme designation…

Mile 13:  $#%*@& rocks were everywhere. Every step had the potential for a broken ankle, knee, or neck.  Every time I took a step I asked, “Would it be quicker to step on the rock or on the 6-inch patch of dirt in-between the rocks?”  I still don’t know the correct answer, but I asked that question for the next 18 miles.

This ridge- affectionately named Bullsh*t Ridge because of it’s overabundance of bullsh*t rocks- was a true test of my physical and mental fortitude.  Scrambling over rocks requires a tremendous amount of focus and coordination, and after 13 miles of hiking, I had very little of either.

On the Ridge (this pic doesn't do it justice)
The kilt is hypnotic
Energy bean crash
Mile 17: I’ve never run a marathon before, so I really can’t provide an expert comparison*,  but I’ve been told that long-distance running and hiking are 75% (or more) mental.  (*non-expert comparison: hiking 31 miles is more difficult.)
Ok, next time our girls are bringing signs
Tired of hearing about the rocks
"Your pace? Amazing.  Their pace? What's the opposite of amazing?"
I was trying to keep up with Di’s death march, but I was starting to notice the pain drift from my feet to my knees.  Knowing that we were close to the Aid Station, Di tried giving me one more boost: “Think of Bailey.”  I knew Bailey and her fiance John would be at the station, and it would be a reminder of why we were hiking in the first place.   
Mile 21 Aid Station:  At 1:20, we crossed an actual road and arrived at the Aid Station set up in the parking lot.  Without regard for anything or anyone around me, I barrelled into the Aid Station and sat down in the first open chair I could find.  At that moment, I was completely overwhelmed by everything.
  • Chris and the nurses were packing their gear and getting ready to leave
  • Volunteers were swarming around asking what I needed-- and I had no freaking clue what I needed.
  • Corey was on the 2-way radios telling a guide that he was cutting off the hikers behind us (Bob, Maria, and Dana Marie).
  • I couldn’t find Bailey or John anywhere (I found out later that Bailey wasn’t feeling very well-- and as of today, she’s been in the hospital for the past two weeks with CF-related complications)
Why do I always have to find the lost hikers?

Bullsh*t Ridge slowed everyone down, and we soon caught up with Chris and his nurses (Laura, Mary, and Elizabeth) as they were coming down from their energy bean high.  Their smiles had been replaced with exhaustion and frustration with the bullsh*t rocks.

Mile 14:  There was only one place on the entire route that required us to change trails—and we totally missed it.  When the Massanutten Mountain trail and Tuscarora trail merge, you’re supposed to hang a hard left, just as it’s printed (in bold) on the cue sheet.  Instead, we continued straight ahead and started to follow an unmarked trail.   Just beyond the trail merge, we found another bearded guide hiking towards us, and he instructed everyone to turn around and find the marked trail.  Luckily for us, we hadn’t strayed too far off course.  Unfortunately, Maria had followed Bob’s kilt down the wrong path, and they were in the process of backtracking to the correct path.

Mile 16: Part of the joy of hiking is not having any concept of time, distance, or place.  If you want to learn more about what happens to your perception of time and location, google: “What would happen if I fell in a black hole?”  (summary: Time moves slower within the black hole than in the universe surrounding it.)  

Somewhere around Mile 16, Di and I caught up to Chris and the nurses taking a break, but we decided to blow past them and take our next break at the Aid Station.  For some reason, I thought we had hiked 19 or 20 miles…so imagine my surprise when we reached the Little Passage Creek crossing and still had FIVE MILES LEFT TO GO—including a mile long, 800-foot climb across another dumb mountain.

Sometimes runners are able to break through a mental wall with a little help from their friends-- a million dudes yelling, “You can do it,” in their stupidest Rob Schneider voices, college students holding out jello shots, and kids shouting and holding up handmade signs of encouragement.  

On the trail, the only external support you have is from your team-- and after 10+ hours, everyone’s hiking in silence. You can only bitch about rocks for about six hours before people start listening to their iPods or speed up their pace to get away from you.  

When the going gets tough and the fuel light comes on, a hiker must dig deep and find a new internal power source.   I couldn’t figure out how to access that energy, so I ate the Snickers I’d been carrying in my pocket since 3am.  Meanwhile, Di started to power her way up the mountain by tapping into something far more effective than a Snickers: primal berzerker rage.  Don’t ask me what that is… I don’t know if I want to understand what was going on in her head.  All I know is that she was DETERMINED to get to the aid station as fast as she could (I think 12:30 was the exact time she was planning to arrive at the Aid Station).

Mile 18: Up until this point, we hadn’t seen a single non-Xtreme hiker all day, and I kinda wish it had stayed that way.  During this stretch, we ran into a hiker who had seen the Aid Station with his own eyes.  When I asked how far we were from the parking lot, he gave us the exact answer: 3.2 miles.  I saw Di hiking on the path below (still in bezerker rage mode), and I shouted down:

Me: Only 3 more miles to go!

D: WHAT!?!?!?
Me: Only 3 more… nevermind! (her red glowing eyes were a signal to back off)

On one of the downhill switchbacks, I thought I heard Meg singing... "A little ditty about Scott and Dianne..."

Mile 19: This is when Di and I ran into the second (and final) set of non-Xtreme hikers on the trail.  We stopped the couple and asked how much further we had until the parking lot: 1.5 hours.   When they saw our look of utter despair, they tried reassuring us: “But it’s all downhill from here.”  Oh, because downhill is soooo much easier than uphill. Thanks.  By now, it was closing in on 12:30, and I could feel the last grains of sand falling through the hourglass.  

Mile 20:  During the 20th mile, Jamie came up from out of nowhere and joined Di and I for the final stretch.  From my experience of hiking with Corey and Eric, I knew I wasn’t going to get a straight answer, but I asked anyway:  “Are we there yet?”  Jamie had never been on this trail before but knew we were “close.”  I put my head down, resumed hiking, and listened to Jamie chat with Corey on the 2-way radio.  I heard him tell Corey we were about a quarter-mile out (in reality, we weren’t that close).  My next question for Jamie was a little more direct, “Is he going to cut us off?”  “No, we’re close.”  Fifteen minutes later, we heard CARS.    

I was trying to hold back a tsunami of emotion that was certain to bring tears (although, the tears may have been related to the recently extinguished fire-pit that was blowing directly into my face). I stood up and grabbed a moment with Corey:

Me: “Did we make it in time?”  
Corey: “Grab your headlamps and leave now. You’ve gotta go.”

As quickly as I could, I sat back down and started to pull off my socks. Where the hell were my socks? I yelled at a volunteer, “Yo Seaborn. Get me the bag marked Seaborn.”  The Seaborn bag had my socks and headlamps. I rummaged through my pack, found the Icy Hot, and slathered it on every exposed place on my body.  Also found that my water reservoir had only been half-filled--I’m not sure what type of tone I used when I asked a volunteer to fill it all the way, but I’m going to go ahead and apologize.

While I was putting on my toe socks (the slowest process ever), Corey was wrapping Di’s feet in duct tape, and Laura was spilling her Gatorade all over my foot while handing my Icy Hot back to me.  And I didn’t even care that my feet were wet, because A) I didn’t have time to care, and B) Laura has already been threatened with divorce when she spilled Chris’s coffee on him during the morning's bus ride.  So she has a drinking problem-- that’s none of my business.

As we were leaving the aid station, Laura leaned over and said, “He was about to cut you and Di off, but we kept telling him you were right behind us.”  I felt relieved that we had been given a chance to finish, but there was still a lot of hiking left to do.  There was no guarantee that we’d finish before dark.

I had to get back on the trail—the finish line was so close.  Our group left the rest area together, and passed a smiling Bob and Marie strolling into the Aid Station-- obviously Corey hadn't shared the news with them yet.  They would’ve been way ahead of us had they not taken a wrong turn, and it didn’t feel right that this parking lot would be their finish line.

Once I got back on the trail, I tried to mentally prepare myself for the next 10 miles.  Before the hike even started, I’d been warned about the hill at Mile 21—three miles, 1,500 elevation gain, and three false summits.  I kept telling myself, “It’s only 10 miles. It’s only 10 miles.” I didn’t want to let anyone down-- my wife, the other hikers, all the people who had supported us along the way.  I was going to finish.

As we started our ascent, Eric came rumbling down the hill.  I stopped to ask him if he was going to escort us to the end—“No, I need to go back out for a lost hiker.”  A lost hiker!?  What the hell was going on??

As we continued to climb the first series of switchbacks, I found myself falling further behind. I didn’t know if I’d be able to catch up and looked back down the hill-- no one was behind me.  I was the final hiker, and I was racing against the sun.