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.


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