24 October 2017

Detroit International Marathon

A week ago, I did a thing. I ran a marathon in not-so-ideal conditions, and I now feel simultaneously beat-up and strong as hell. I needed to write all this down so I don't forgot how painful and incredible and amazing it was.

Here's how it all happened:

December 2016: Started seriously considering a marathon; immediately felt like a poser for even thinking about it. It's not that running is new to me ... I've done a few half-marathons, and tons of smaller races, and a couple years ago I ran 1200 miles in 12 months ... it's just that the idea of a full marathon, like 26.2 actual miles all at once, seemed better left to "real" athletes. I didn't know if I could pull it off, and I felt afraid to try because I was afraid to fail. I gave the rational side of my brain some time to talk me out of it.

January 1, 2017: Online race registration for the Detroit International Marathon opened at 12:01 a.m. on New Year's. Sitting on the floor of my in-laws' living room in Maryland, my judgment clouded by a a week of holiday vacationing and relaxing with family, and having just watched the ball drop with a glass of wine in my hand and a tin of peanut brittle in my lap, I impulsively registered, real quick-like, before I could chicken out. Felt a little bewildered after hitting the "Submit" button. What just happened?

February through October 2017: Trained. Trained some more. And then some more. Everywhere I went, all year long, my schedule orbited around running. When I went to Chicago with Jay to see Hamilton, I ran along the lakeshore trail. On a trip up north to visit colleges with Joe, I ran in Houghton and Sault Ste. Marie. When Maria and I did a little wine-tasting tour, I ran in Port Huron. Running, running, so much running. I followed a first-time-marathoner training plan which required three moderate runs a week, a long run each weekend, and cross-training in between. I was lucky enough not to get sick or injured the whole time.

About a month before race day, I actually ran a full 26-mile training run in 4 hours and 39 minutes, and I didn't die. My right knee was pretty stiff and sore but I found I could coax it into behaving with the help of a compression brace. Felt like a granny running with that thing on, but whatev.

Day before the race: Since the Detroit Marathon is an international event (the course crosses over into Ontario via the Ambassador Bridge, and then back to Detroit through the tunnel), they make you show up at Cobo Hall the day before and display your passport to prove you're worthy to cross the border. All this happens at a big expo where there are tons of booths designed to get you to spend money on stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Running shoes, sports bras, wicking socks, compression shorts, earbuds, anti-chafe products, nutrition supplements, jewelry that says 26.2, hairbands, energy gels, protein powder.... it's all there. I bought a special shirt (nicer than the one they give you with your race packet) that says Detroit 26.2. Felt a little dorky buying it because I hadn't earned it yet. What was I going to do with it if I couldn't finish tomorrow?

Then I picked up my bib number and went home to pray for good weather. The forecast was not looking good; thunderstorms likely. The race managers sent an email that night explaining that if there is lightning within 7 miles of the race, everything gets called off. As in, the race is over. Not rescheduled. Cancelled. The idea of this bothered me a lot. After 9+ months of training, what if the whole thing got cancelled and I had done all this preparation for nothing?

Oh and also: Sorry for oversharing, but in a cruel and unusual twist of fate, my period started the day before the fricking marathon. Meaning that the one day I would need to run for the equivalent of half a workday, I could expect a low-grade headache, intermittent abdominal cramping, and my limbs to feel like cement. Come on.

Race day, 5:30 a.m.: It was still dark when I got to downtown Detroit. I drove alone, and my family would follow later to meet me at the finish. The city was gridlocked with race traffic. I sat in a traffic jam for about half an hour as I waited to get into my designated parking structure. I felt a little dazed, like none of this was really happening. I parked and spent some time wandering around Fort Street with thousands of other runners.

Under the glare of streetlights in the pre-dawn air, I faked a confident smile and nervously took a selfie. In the back of my mind I knew the smile and cute hair would soon dissolve into a grim, sweaty mass of discomfort.

People were pretty amped up. There was no rain yet, and it was a toasty 68 degrees. Which felt pretty good while standing there in the starting gate, but once the race started, the air would feel much warmer than anyone wanted. Temperature was predicted to get into the high 70s by mid-race.

Miles 0-4: The race started officially at 7 a.m., but they release runners in waves, and I was in Wave K (translation: the slow people), so I didn't actually cross the start line till about 7:17 a.m. While I waited in the corral, I sucked on a Honey Stinger (energy gel), because I hadn't managed to choke down much food beforehand. As I waited for my wave to step up to the starting line, I tried not to think about the recent Las Vegas shooting and how I was currently standing in a sea of people packed in like sardines within a fenced area, surrounded by very tall buildings with who-knows-who watching from the upper floors. I distracted myself by thinking about my period cramps instead. I'm resourceful like that.

When it was finally time to run, there was a lot of whooping and cheering and suddenly we were moving. Everything felt fun and festive and easy for those first few miles, but VERY crowded. I regretted that I hadn't started with an earlier (faster) wave of runners, because man, these people were slogging! I decided to just chill about that, since my goal of the day was just to finish, and not to achieve any particular time (although secretly I did hope that I could finish in under five hours).

Miles 5-8: These early miles continued to fly by. I was feeling pretty good: no cramps, no rain. We ran through a bit of Windsor and then back to Detroit through the tunnel, which goes under the Detroit River. The air in the tunnel was hot as a sunspot and it felt good to gulp in some fresh air on the other side. It was also good to get out of a tightly enclosed space in which I would be trapped underwater if some lunatic disguised as a runner happened to have a bomb stuffed under his singlet. (Terrorist fears much?) Thankfully that didn't happen.

By the end of mile 8, my right knee was starting to stiffen quite a bit, but this was typical for any run of more than 7 or 8 miles. Every so often I stopped to stretch my quads and hamstrings, which helped a little. I would've given my eye teeth for a foam roller.

Miles 9-12: This section was pretty much a blur except the part where a woman behind me blacked out for a second, taking me and another runner down with her as she fell. When I hit the pavement I felt gravel grinding hard into my good knee, and it occurred to me that the injury might actually help take the focus off my other (stiff) knee. (Optimism is everything during a marathon, see.) The guy who fell next to me was fine; he hopped right back up and kept running, but the fallen woman looked very glassy-eyed, so I helped her off to the side of the road and sat down with her on someone's lawn. I think maybe she was just dehydrated, but her pallor freaked me out a little and there were no medical people in sight.

We were in a neighborhood, and a few houses ahead, I spotted a family handing out water and bananas to the runners, so I ran up to them and got the mom. (When in doubt, always find the mom.) She was super sweet and gladly followed me back to help the fallen woman, who was still sitting in the grass, and still glassy-eyed. The mom used her cellphone to call for a medic, and while we waited for help to come, we chatted for a few minutes. But then she urged me to keep running, and said she'd stay with the woman till medical people arrived.

I felt a little guilty about moving on, but I had a lot of miles yet to cover, so off I went, although not very jauntily. I had spent maybe 12 or 13 minutes stopped, and when I started back up again, my stiff knee was like "wait whaaaat?" It had cooled off plenty and wasn't having it. So I ran kind of Frankenstein-like for quite a while, but at least I was moving forward. I stopped every 20 minutes or so to stretch my hamstrings and quads. I tried not to think about the fact that I wasn't even halfway done yet.

During one of my stretch breaks I absently observed that my left knee, the one that had taken a digger when the falling woman knocked me over earlier, was really bloody and dirty. I could see some black stuff in there and I couldn't tell if it was dried blood or bits of gravel. I just didn't have the mental bandwidth to care, and it wasn't really hurting, so at the next water stop, I poured a dixie cup of water on it and hoped for the best.

Zero fun being had now.
Miles 13-18: My right knee was now super stiff. About every 10 or 15 minutes I stopped to stretch, massage, and re-wrap it.

My apologies to the city of Detroit for all the swear words.

Also, can I just say that it really messes with your head when you see the half-marathoners turn right on Fort Street to head to the finish, whereas you, oh foolish one, must turn the other direction, meaning away from the finish line, and gut out another 13-plus miles? Zero fun being had now.

Oh and have I also mentioned it was getting wicked hot out? It was around 75 degrees, humidity was around two million percent, and I was sweating buckets. I saw lots of vomiters during this stretch of the race. It wasn't unusual for runners to veer off the road and just double-over for a while, then slowly stand up and plod back into the fray, faces gray and scowling, wiping their mouths on their shirts. I devoted several moments to thanking God and the universe for my iron stomach. I might be a crier, a complainer, a fretter, an owner of a gimpy right knee, but knock on wood, I'm not a vomiter.

Stop looking at me, cruel camera person.
Miles 19-23: It started raining. Little needle-like pellets of torture. I felt like death but was hell-bent on earning the right to put a 26.2-mile sticker on my car. This part of the route went over the Belle Isle bridge and took us around the island, which I'm sure was pretty and all, but I had no appreciation. I was so over this. I finally had to pull out my headphones and put U2's "Elevation" on repeat. Desperate times.

On the way back over the Belle Isle bridge, I looked off to my left and saw the skyline of the city, knowing the finish line was somewhere out there among those tall buildings. The horizon was shrouded in angry black clouds. I mean the kind of clouds that make lightning. Lightning that cancels marathons. Oh hell to the no; I was not going to suffer through twentysomething miles just to have this whole thing get cancelled right before I reached the finish. In my delirium I actually picked up my pace a tiny bit, thinking that somehow by skittering along a little faster I might stave off the lightning.

Surprisingly, around mile 20 my knee seemed to kind of stabilize. I mean it didn't feel great, but at least it wasn't getting worse.

The maniacal grin of being almost finished.
Miles 23-24: Right after the Belle Isle bridge, the wind picked up terribly. Like gale-force wind. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but runners had to actually stop intermittently in their tracks to avoid being blown clear to the ground at times. My compression brace, now soaked with rain and sweat, was doing pretty much nothing for my knee. I considering flinging it to the curb, but it was honestly too much energy to bend over and undo it, so I left it on.

I was pretty miserable. I did however, manage to perk right up and smile like a Cheshire cat when I saw a course photographer. Because you know what? In a few more miles I'd be done.

Saw lots more vomiters. And lots of people stopping and stretching. A few cryers and moaners. One Crossfit-type guy, who looked in great shape and like he really should've been able to handle all this, stood immobile, locked in his tracks in the middle of the street, cursing up a blue streak because his legs were cramping. He was literally only able to move like three inches at a time. I will admit I enjoyed a little smirk at his expense as I ran past him and noticed the slogan on his shirt: "I Run This Body." A person running next to me LOL'd.

With all this carnage around me I felt like a whistler in the dark, grateful to be making forward progress but anticipating that some debilitating ailment might suddenly strike me too. I sent all sorts of good energy and unicorns toward my right knee, hoping beyond hope that it would carry me through these last couple miles.

By the end of mile 24, the wind was less intense. The darkest clouds had dissipated and it looked like the threat of lightning was over. I was actually going to finish this thing.

Mile 25: Most dramatic mile of the day. Just ahead of me I noticed a runner who had kind of an inconsistent gait. He started weaving around a lot, and I realized something might really be wrong. I watched him slowly gaze up into the sky, and then he staggered around in a circle and started heading the wrong direction. I ran over to him just as he started collapsing, breaking his fall and helping him to the curb. He was young, maybe late twenties, and he looked at me with these huge scared eyes, like a little kid when they're lost. I mean how could I not mom him?

With no medical evidence to back me up, I looked him in the eye and told him not to worry, it was going to be okay, as I held his head and his hand. Then I started yelling all crazy-like, "Need a medical person over here!" There were no medical people, but another runner came bounding over and helped me stretch the guy out on the sidewalk. A block or two earlier, I had seen a cop, so we decided I should run back and find the cop while the other runner stayed with the sick guy. When I spotted the cop, I wheezed out enough coherent words that he got the jist of the situation, and we jogged together back to the sick guy while the cop radioed for an ambulance. The sick guy was still woozy but was at least talking a little. When we finally heard the ambulance approaching, the cop urged me and the other runner to get back to running. "You got a race to finish, people." True. Off we went. I hope the sick guy ended up being okay. I wonder if he remembers anything that happened. I felt bad that he was so close to the finish and didn't get to the end.

Mile 26 to Finish: I could see the finish, and I was giddy. I was pouring sweat and my knee was about to fly apart, but I was going to complete a marathon. Puffed-up with self-congratulatory pride, I glanced to my right and noticed that I was being passed (and quite handily so) by a dude JUGGLING. I am not making this up. I learned later that he had juggled THE ENTIRE MARATHON. Yes. In the final moments of my race I was outrun by a juggler.

No matter. I was still about to become a legit marathoner. About 50 feet from the line, I spotted Joe, Maria, Chris, and Jay in a big crowd of spectators, and I started waving like a lunatic. I've never been so happy to see my tribe. I heard Maria yelling "THAT'S MY MOM!" and I bounded over to the edge to high-five them. I felt like Chariots of Fire but in reality I looked more like a sputtering VW bus running out of gas. I came in at 5:18, wayyy slower than my secret goal of five hours, and way WAY slower than my training-run-time of 4:39. But let the record show that during the race I was also busy channeling Mother Theresa by shoring up two fallen runners for part of that time, so hey.

So grateful for my peeps. Jay helpfully noted that when taking the picture at the left, he intentionally zoomed out enough to show my bloody knee. (He is always kind about indulging my drama.)

What I learned: When you do a big, hard, scary thing, you find out that there is so much love and support around you. Month after month during the lead-up to this race, I was amazed by the way people constantly encouraged me, asked how my training was going, kept tabs on my mileage, and poured on the love. This was especially true of friends and acquaintances who had already done marathons and knew what I was in for. Care and support came out of the woodwork at the times when I needed it most. I was also amazed that my body (and more importantly, my mind) somehow went way beyond what I thought possible.

Almost immediately after the marathon was over, people started asking: "So, are you going to do another one?" Last week my answer was nope, nope, so much nope. This week, the needle has moved a tiny bit closer to "we'll see."

09 September 2016

Wapiti Shelter to Sugar Run Gap and Woods Hole Hostel (AT Day 8, Fall 2016)

Appalachian Trail, 7.7 miles

That climb this morning though. It was really wicked. But now I am done. And my feet are so glad of it. When I finally reached Sugar Run Road and caught a glimpse of the gleaming metal roof of Woods Hole Hostel, I nearly collapsed in gratitude. And now that I'm showered and napped and wearing comfy cotton clothes, the whole week of hiking seems something like a dream.

A beautiful site after sleeping
in a hammock outdoors for a week!
Michael and Neville have a pretty amazing place here. At 5:30pm, whoever is here gathers in the kitchen and gets a job. Mine was to cube zucchini and yellow squash (which was picked just today from Neville's garden) and sauté it, and also to cook about six pounds of ground meat (which was from their butchered cows). The eight other hikers who are staying here tonight did things like pick and wash salad greens, grate cheese, set the table, and help Neville make tortillas.

Some of the gardens at Woods Hole Hostel
The meal was so incredible. It was like a gourmet version of Chipotle. Afterward all of us stayed to clean up. I am beyond full after two helpings of salad and two burritos.

My dinner mates
I got to talk to Jay for a few minutes on the phone and it was so good to hear his voice. I miss him so badly, and the kids too. Tomorrow I will get on the road early and hope to be home with my people by dinnertime.

08 September 2016

Rocky Campsite to Wapiti Shelter (AT Day 7, Fall 2016)

Appalachian Trail, 10.6 miles

A lovely, lovely day. Partly because I know that tomorrow I'll be done. Feet held up better than I expected. I tied my boots a little differently today, got a little more creative with my moleskin on my heels, and kept a steady drip of Advil going, for the sake of my knee. I think I will have just enough to get through the day tomorrow, with exactly zero tablets to spare.

Both of my big toes look really weird and are kind of puffed up, under the nails. The left is worse than the right. I can feel a lot of tenderness under the nails, so I know there is some kind of injury or blistering going on, but I can't really see it. The good news is, usually after resting all night, things kind of look and feel closer to normal, so probably everything will be fine. I doubt I will lose the nails.

(Edited to add: Both nails fell off several weeks after my trip. Left one went on October 30, the right one on November 23. Luckily, there's plenty of time for them to grow back by the time flip-flop season gets here!)

I crossed a cool suspension bridge over a wide creek today.. It was kind of freaky because it swayed a lot when I was on it. The bridge was long, but only wide enough for one person. And oddly, as soon as I stepped onto it, I looked up and saw another hiker (southbounder) stepping on from the other side. He was the only person I saw all day. He stepped back off and let me pass. It was funny that we ran into each other at the only point of the trail where we could actually create a traffic jam, on that bridge.

I am staying at Wapiti Shelter tonight. Apparently a murder happened here a long time ago, according to the shelter log. Luckily there's no cell signal here, so I can't google it till after I get home in a couple days. It's really just better not to know. On the up side, it's a great place as far as shelters go. Water nearby, a privy, plenty of great trees to hang a hammock. Which is what I'm opting to do instead of sleeping in the shelter. I really need to keep my feet elevated again tonight, in an effort to coax my toenails into staying intact. I actually really like this spot. It is a good place to rest and think and be grateful.

There is a beautiful cold stream here, where I had a little time to soak my feet and meditate for a little while, until a crayfish touched my toe. I was sitting there all peaceful-like, enjoying the quite sounds of the water, and then I felt something brush my foot and looked down to see a crayfish claw about to clamp down, and kicked that thing so hard I nearly dislocated my ankle.

Something is wrong with my water filter. It has become very hard to pump. Luckily I was able to get my water bottles all filled up for tomorrow, so no worries. I'll have to take the filter apart when I get home and figure out what's up. It must need a new cartridge or a new bulb or something. I'm half wondering if it's just ready to move it on to the water-filter graveyard. It's old and tired and has served me well. I might end up getting one of those hipster Sawyer models. That seems to be what all the thru-hikers are using these days.

I have a big two-and-a-half mile steep climb in the morning, then it looks to be a fairly moderate 5 more miles or so to Woods Hole. I can't wait to shower.

Edited at 8:30pm to add: Three southbound thru-hikers showed up after I had eaten dinner. They are sleeping in the shelter. I'm glad for the company, especially because I'm still slightly creeped out by the murder stories in the shelter log.

07 September 2016

Helveys Mill Shelter to a Campsite North of Jenny Knob Shelter (AT Day 6, Fall 2016)

Appalachian Trail, 13.6 miles

Long, lonely, hard day. (Do you see a theme here?) Saw three southbounders; that's it. Very few milestones in the data book; this makes it even harder mentally, because there's very little to look forward to throughout the day. It was also very dry again today; there was no water till nearly 10 miles in, which made it that much more difficult, mentally and physically. I had to carry a lot of water from my campsite last night, just to avoid panicking about a thirst-induced death.

My feet were super sore this morning, but by mid-day I was in a good groove and decided to push on past my intended stopping point (which was originally Jenny Knob Shelter). I ended up going about 13.6 miles today instead of 9.7, which will help take the edge off of a long day tomorrow.

I love my campsite. I'm at a beautiful rocky spot just off the trail. I love the fact that I can hang my hammock without worrying about finding a flat spot without rocks or roots.

Sleeping in the hammock tonight will be good for my feet. They really need to be elevated. When I took my boots off tonight, it appears that I might be blistering under the nail bed of both big toes. Not much I can do about that. I might end up losing those toenails from the trauma of so much climbing and descending. My feet are definitely taking a beating. This happened once before after a particularly taxing trip; one of my toenails ended up falling off a few weeks after I got home.

I had some issues hanging my food bag tonight. I got my rope and the attached carabiner stuck in a tree, so I had to cut the rope and leave the carabiner and rope remnant behind. :( My first casualty of the trip. After about six more attempts, I finally got a rope slung over a dead tree limb... only thing is, I'm not totally convinced it will support the weight of my food bag till morning. I hope it doesn't break in the night; I certainly have no Plan B!

There is a beautiful half-moon tonight, so bright that it is casting shadows in the trees even at this late hour (10pm).

06 September 2016

Jenkins Shelter to Helveys Mill Shelter (AT Day 5, Fall 2016)

Appalachian Trail, 13.5 miles

No bears visited last night.

Today was a hard but good day. I packed up and got going pretty early because I had lots of miles to cover. My knee is feeling a little sensitive still, but STABLE!! Woot! The homemade brace and the Advil are helping.

Today is Joe's first day of 11th grade and I am not home to see him off to school. Jay texted me a picture and I was grateful to be at the top of a peak where I had enough of a cell signal to receive the text, but then of course it made me cry.

I saw only two other hikers today, both southbound.

The trail followed a road for about a mile and a half today. It was gravel, so very hard on the feet. There were other stretches of trail that were pretty, though. A few nice lookouts and a cool rhododendron tunnel.

Today's mileage was plenty long enough, but to add insult to injury (literally), the shelter was .3 miles from the trail, and the water source was another .3 miles down a side trail (one way!). So really I did closer to 14.5 today. I'm super tired but happy to be in the home stretch. Tomorrow I will hit the 600-mile mark.

The shelter tonight had a lot of mouse poop in it, so I hung my hammock. I'm getting pretty good at it, and fast. Luckily I've had no rain to contend with. But I think now that I have the hang of the rain fly, I'd be okay even if it rained a bit. In fact I kind of wish it would rain because the streams have been so dry.

Tomorrow I have 9.7 miles on my itinerary but I might push a couple miles more to a campsite instead of stopping at the next shelter. This will cut some distance off of Thursday, which might be a good thing.

I did some yoga on the picnic table in front of the shelter when I got here; that felt good.

I'm really feeling homesick. I miss my peeps.

05 September 2016

Chestnut Knob Shelter to Jenkins Shelter (AT Day 4, Fall 2016)

Appalachian Trail, 10.7 miles
Sunrise this morning from Chestnut Knob
I got up early, wished a happy birthday to Mr. Mary Poppins, and off I went.

Why do I do this? It was a ridiculously hard day, even though it was only slightly longer than yesterday. Huge of amount of rock-scrambling, which slowed me down immensely. I am guessing that more than seven of my eleven-ish miles were spent climbing over jagged rocks and boulders.

Plus knee probs. That descent from Chestnut Knob, plus the hours on end of rock-scrambling, made it quite a lot worse. At times it hurt so bad that I just had to sit down, right on the trail, with my pack still on, and sob a little. Okay yeah, I was giving in to the drama a little bit. But I really was huring. At every break I studied my data book, pondering where I could bail and hitchhike to a town if my knee just could not keep going.

Then I remembered: you have Advil, you daft girl! I carry a pretty robust first aid kit, including a supply of anti-inflammatories, in case I encounter anyone experiencing an "emergency on the trail." For the first time I realized I AM THE EMERGENCY! I swallowed two tablets in a hot second. That definitely took the edge off, but I'm still feeling some sensitivity. I could probably have sucked down a couple more tablets to get some real relief, but now that I know I actually NEED these things if I expect to live till Friday, I need to ration them a bit.

Jenkins shelter was such a welcome sight, and there is a stream here, yay! It feels so good to drink as much water as I want. I had to be super careful with my water consumption all day because almost the whole day was dry.

Still no evidence of poison ivy on my hand. I think I'm in the clear about that. It seems like it would have materialized by now.

I saw only three other hikers today, which seems weird for a holiday. (Today is Labor Day, right?) Right now I am the only one at this shelter and it looks like it will stay that way all night, since it's almost 6pm. This is slightly unnerving because there are a few ranger signs at the shelter, saying there have been "bear activities" here recently. Activities? I'm guessing they're not referring to knitting or square-dancing or euchre. I made sure to hang my food bag really well.

Speaking of food: I'm starting to have that problem where I can't adequately refuel myself because I feel sick at the thought of eating. I gagged a little when trying to eat a Clif bar today. It's so weird. Clif bars are something I would normally like, in real life at home. I think maybe I need to bring more salty foods or something. I did okay with tuna and crackers. Will have to remember that when I'm packing foods for my next hike.

My other task tonight, besides choking down dinner, was to cut up one of my dirty shirts and tie it into strips. I am going to use it as a knee brace tomorrow. Hopefully that helps. I think I will need it. Tomorrow is a long day: 13.5 miles. Luckily my feet are still feeling stable, and only slightly sore.

Edited at 7:30pm to add: A guy called Chris just showed up and his tenting here tonight. He is friendly enough but not very talkative and looks to be completely exhausted. He said he did a 19-mile day today. If I were him I wouldn't want to talk about it either. In any case, I'm glad to have a partner with whom to fight off bears if needed.

04 September 2016

Knot Maul Branch Shelter to Chestnut Knob Shelter (AT Day 3, Fall 2016)

Appalachian Trail, 9.4 miles

Today was so, so hard. How could it only have been nine-ish miles? It felt like ninety.

When I was leaving the shelter this morning, I tried to get the stray dog to follow me. I was hoping I could get her to walk with me far enough to where I could get a cell signal so I could call the phone number on her collar and her owner could come claim her. But she followed me for only like five minutes and then was gone. She is a free spirit, I think. Just like the rest of us out here I guess. I hope she made her way to somewhere safe.

Huge mental challenge today with a giant, non-stop climb during the second half of the day. It is much harder, I found, to be mentally stable when I am hiking alone. When I'm with other people, I'm serene, determined, steady. Jaunty, even. But when it's just me, I am a hot mess of nerves and self-doubt and I spend most of my day wondering if I will actually live through all this. Like I seriously have actual thoughts of dying right here on the trail. But I did make it through the day, and now I am at Chestnut Knob and it's lovely. The elevation makes for a beautiful view. I have heard from other hikers that the weather can be very fierce here at the top of the knob, but tonight it is calm and breathtaking.

View of the valley from Chestnut Knob
There is a stone shelter here at the top, which hopefully will be comfortably warm tonight. It is four-sided and even has a door, which is pretty rare for AT shelters. The roof of the shelter is bolted down with very thick steel cables, which says something about how windy it can get here. Right now, from where I am lying in the shelter, I can look out the doorway and see a beautiful starry sky.

Sadly, there is no water this high up. So I had to camel-up about a mile and a half before reaching the peak and lug 2+ liters of water up to the top of the knob. I'm told there is only one good water source between here and my next northbound stop tomorrow, so it looks like there is more water-lugging in my future.

An older guy is here, another southbounder. His trail name is Mary Poppins, because during his first long-distance hike he actually brought and used a giant black umbrella. He is a funny, polite, older southern gentleman. He arrived shortly after I did, and we talked a bit as we both made our dinners. He told me that he finds a lot of comfort in these mountains because it is a place of healing for him. He said he spent several weeks backpacking after he came back from fighting in Vietnam, and that nature is a good listener. He got a little bit teary as he was talking about it. I can only imagine the pain he has been through. Tomorrow is his 69th birthday. I need to remember to wish him a happy birthday when we both wake up in the morning.

I saw a first today: a huge Amish clan, hiking. I ran into them at the top of Chestnut Knob, in a nice grassy area not far from the shelter. I snuck a picture of them after they passed me (isn't it against their beliefs to be photographed? I seem to remember something about that, so I decided to get a stealthy shot). Seeing these sturdy amazing people was actually a good reality check for me, because I encountered them just at the time that I thought I might actually lie down and expire from heat exhaustion after climbing the 2500-foot ascent to Chestnut Knob. And then I see these women with thick, long, black dresses and long-sleeved shirts and flat black shoes on, some of them carrying children on their hip, and I think: okay. I am fine.

Two thru-hikers showed up later in the evening and tented near the shelter. The one guy dropped his pack and immediately disrobed almost to the point of being completely stark naked, walking around in nothing but his boots and compression undies. And I do mean compression. I guess once you've completed three-quarters of a 2,200-mile trail, you get pretty comfortable in your own skin.

The pain in my left knee is still there, and it's getting more pronounced. I am not sure what to do about that. My feet are doing okay, though the bone spur on one of my heels produced a pretty impressive blister today which broke. That I can handle; it's the knee issue I'm not so sure about. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

03 September 2016

Campsite Near Davis Hollow to Knot Maul Branch Shelter (AT Day 2, Fall 2016)

Appalachian Trail, 12.6 miles

I realized this morning after looking at my data book that yesterday was one of the longest days of the trip. I'm kind of glad I didn't know that at the time I was hiking it.

I was a little cold last night in my hammock (my ten-dollar fleece was definitely put to good use). Wondering now if I should have brought even more layers.

I like the way my hammock elevates my feet; it's helpful to even out my circulation after a long day of hiking. No blisters yet.

I took a welcome break at around mile 8, which was Old Rich Valley Road. I had to climb a fence stile into a pasture, and right on the other side of the stile was a nice big tree, so I had a snack and then lay down at the base of the tree, with my feet propped up on the tree trunk. I'm not sure how long I was asleep, but I woke up to the sound of a very loud snorting sound, and opened my eyes to see about a dozen cows staring at me. They seemed a little too curious for my comfort. When they started nibbling at my pack and nodding and mooing at me, I hastily packed up and moved on. I was glad when they didn't follow me.

There were lots of climbs and descents today. I am pretty well spent. My feet feel sore but stable. I did, however, start noticing a weird pain in my left knee today. I've never really had knee issues, so I'm not sure what that's about. I'm keeping an eye on it. It's mild but definitely noticeable, especially on downhills.

I've also been watching my hand and wrist where I brushed against that poison-ivy-looking plant yesterday. So far, no signs of anything worrisome.

One-quarter of the way? Are you even kidding me right now?
I passed a makeshift sign nailed to a tree today, declaring that I was one-quarter of the way done with the Appalachian Trail. I don't know whether I should laugh or cry. This seems like an awful lot of work and suffering to only be a quarter of the way through.

I was going to stay tonight at a campsite where the trail crosses VA42, but I decided to push on another couple miles to Knot Maul Shelter, because I really don't like staying near road crossings. There is another couple here from New York; they are southbounders. There is also a stray dog; it looks to be a hunting dog from the collar it's wearing (it has a number on the collar rather than a name). There is no cell service here at all, else we would try to reach her owner. She seems pretty happy to stay here with us I think.

I decided to sleep in the shelter tonight rather than my hammock. This will speed my pack-up time in the morning, and it will likely be a little warmer than my hammock was last night. The other couple is tenting, so I have the shelter to myself. I hope there are no mice.

02 September 2016

Partnership Shelter to Someplace Near Davis Hollow (AT Day 1, Fall 2016)

Appalachian Trail, 13.7 miles

Woke up this morning before my alarm, and as I was getting my stuff ready, I realized that I never called my credit card company to tell them I was traveling. The last time that happened, they shut down my card because they noticed I had gasoline charges in multiple states and apparently that looked sketchy. Since Jay and the kids use the same card for family purchases (like groceries), I figured I better put a call in to the bank so that my fam wouldn't be caught unawares without a working credit card for the next 8 days.

Michael (one of the owners of the hostel, who was scheduled to shuttle me to Partnership Shelter this morning at 6am) waited patiently while I used his land line to call US Bank. There is absolutely no cell service anywhere around the hostel for literally miles, so I had to use his phone to make the call. As soon as I finished, I was eager to head out. It was still so dark outside that I needed my headlamp to load my pack into Michael's truck. The clock on the dash said 6:13am.

It was almost a two-hour drive. Michael dropped me off at the parking lot between Partnership Shelter and Mt. Rogers Visitor Center, and then... I was all alone. There was no one at the visitor center yet, and no other hikers around, and it felt a little surreal. I became keenly aware that I was more than 90 miles from my vehicle, and more than 550 miles from my home. Not only will this be my longest solo hike to date, it's the first time I've hiked totally alone since 2005. I'm not afraid, exactly, but I'm definitely more aware of risk than I used to be.

The first couple hours of hiking were brutal. They always are. I felt painfully out of condition, inadequate, greenhornish. Like I had no business being out here. At all. But this is just part of the experience. I knew the feeling was temporary, so onward I went.

At one point I dropped one of my trekking poles and when I scooped it back up, I realized too late that my entire hand brushed a swath of three-leafed vegetation that looked suspiciously like poison ivy. Oh well. Too late to do anything about it now. I hope it doesn't turn into anything.

Overcast but pretty view from Glade Mountain
Today was the first time (at least in my recollection) that the AT crosses a railroad track. I mean like in a primitive way. I know it crosses train tracks in some spots alongside roads, but today I was surprised to see the trail go right up a grassy berm i the middle of nowhere, to a not-very-legit-looking rail crossing. But this is actually something cool about the AT: stuff can be primitive and sort of hodgepodge but no one complains or files a lawsuit. I walked right over that thing.

Way better than a map!
I am using an AT data book this time instead of a topographical map. In fact I didn't even bring a map this time. So far, I'm really glad of that decision. This data book is awesome. It has a simple topographical profile on it, and also a list of milestones and mileage marks. I love it. Plus I'm feeling all smug and clever because instead of bringing the whole book, I photocopied onto Tyvek paper only the pages I need. I don't know why it took me so long to dump my maps. (Haha, those sound like famous last words - I hope I don't live to regret them!)

Not my favorite scenery
The trail went under I-81 today, which was not very pleasant. I had to walk along some paved roads and then follow an underpass to cross the highway. It all seemed so stark and ugly after spending most of the day in the woods. And I felt kid of vulnerable, walking along the shoulder of the road while cars were flying by. I was glad to get back under the tree canopy when the trail went back into the wild.

I'm at my campsite now. I finished almost 14 miles. I thought about going a little further, but I'm pretty wiped out and I'm glad I'm done for the day. It took me a while to set up my hammock. This is my first long-distance trip without a tent, and I still have to get used to setting up my hammock and rainfly. I hope I get better and faster at it.

There's no one here at the campsite but me. I saw only about 10 other hikers today, despite the fact that it's the start of Labor Day Weekend. I really thought it would be much busier out here.

01 September 2016

Woods Hole Hostel (AT Day 0, Fall 2016)

I made it here to Woods Hole Hostel, which is going to be my end-point eight days from now. I will stay here tonight and then get shuttled to my starting point early tomorrow morning.

It was an easy drive down, only about 10 hours including stops. One of those stops was at a Wal Mart about an hour north of here. I never shop there, honest. But today I made an exception because as I was driving (which affords much time for ruminating about my gear), I realized that the rope I brought for bear-bagging my food is really substandard. It is too thick and too short. It's also a very dark maroon color, which makes it hard to find in the dark when everything around you blends into one big palette of earth-tones. I had meant to buy a better rope before I left home, but that task never made it to the top of my to-do list. At the time, I figured in a pinch I could make do with what I had. But now that the reality of this trip has fully set in, I made a panic-stop at the Wytheville Wal Mart when I realized it would probably be the last retail opportunity I would see before hitting the trail. I found a longer, lighter, stronger, neon-orange nylon rope. I probably would have paid fifty bucks for it if I had to! It was only like three dollars.

I also picked up a fleece for ten bucks, which was another panic-induced purchase. During my drive I started fretting that the nighttime temps are going to be colder than I anticipated, and we all know how much I hate being cold at night. So now, for better or for worse, I have an additional layer (and additional 5 ounces or so to add to my pack, dang it.)

Woods Hole Hostel
Woods Hole Hostel is cool, but right now my mind can't really appreciate it. I am so keyed up about the hike ahead of me. I am also mentally exhausted from a crazy string of weeks at work. So even though it's only 7pm, I've enfolded myself into blankets in the hostel's bunk house, my alarm set for 5am when I'll get my last shower for 8 days and set off on my adventure.

25 June 2016

AT Summer '16: Back to MI

Joe was feeling a bit better this morning. Although still not 100%, he managed to eat most of a pancake breakfast at Mojo's before we got on the road back to Dexter. Non-freeze-dried meals are so incredibly amazing after a week of trail food.
This morning as we packed up, I was tending to a few of my bug bites and it dawned on me that the puffy one on one of my toes is actually not a bug bite at all. It's poison ivy. Matt (a confirmed poison-ivy expert, since he is super-sensitive to it and has had it more times than any of us can count) has it on one of his feet too. We must have picked it up last night at Saunders Shelter when we were walking to and fro betwen the shelter and the spring to filter our water. This will be my first experience with poison ivy; I've never had to deal with that before. So far, it seems to stay under control as long as I slather it with heavy layers of Ivarest.

We got on the road right after breakfast and pulled onto Bridgeway around 6pm. It was so good to be home. And no, this picture isn't actually us having a yard sale... it's just all our gear spread out to dry, since everything had gotten pretty damp after our last few days of hiking.

It always makes me feel a little sad to put all my gear away after a trip. So, after drying everything out, instead of packing it all away in the basement, we piled it along the wall of our upstairs hallway for now. Thought it might be sort of underfoot right there, at least it's at-the-ready, in case we have another spontaneous opportunity to do another trip before the end of summer. You just never know.

24 June 2016

AT Summer '16: Saunders Shelter to Hikers Inn, Damascus, VA (Day 6)

Appalachian Trail, 9.4 miles

Our final hiking day. Matt and Joe set their alarm for 5:30 this morning and made all sorts of clattering as they bumbled around and got their stuff packed up. We didn't really mind the early wake-up though, since we were all eager to get an early start and make our way into Damascus. The boys were hoping for one last opportunity to see a bear, and they felt that being the first on the trail in the early-morning hours would boost their odds. Since it was a very warm day and rain was predicted, they both hiked shirtless, which also boosted their wilderness quotient. :) Sadly, no bears were spotted.

I was a little concerned about Joe because he woke up feeling kind of green. He insisted it was because of the mushrooms in the freeze-dried beef stroganoff meal he ate for dinner last night. Despite not feeling well, he and Matt powered through the 9+ miles to Damascus. We never did catch up with them until we got to Hikers Inn.

I decided to hike with Jay all day, since it would be our last stretch of time on the trail together for a while. We had a lot of fun talking over the highlights of the trip and enjoying some nice views from the side of Straight Mountain and Feathercamp Ridge. It helped that it was a pretty easy hiking day: three miles of descent, then three miles of gentle climbing, then three more miles of descent. He has been such a good sport on this trip! He has muscled through with his usual sense of humor. I love him so much!

Here he is, looking pretty sprightly with only about two and a half miles to go before reaching Damascus:

He didn't really feel the need to yell and shriek until around mile 9. He unintentionally startled some day hikers with his whooping... he didn't see them because he was so focused on getting each foot in front of the other. The day hikers were in tennis shoes and looked clean and perky - a sharp contrast to our sweaty, smelly, beleaguered selves. But seeing clean, tidy people also meant that we were getting close to civilization. Before long, we were stepping onto level ground and following another stretch of the Virginia Creeper Bike Trail into town, and within another quarter mile we were at Hikers Inn.

Still shirtless, Joe and Matt had arrived about an hour before us, and asked a passerby to take their picture just before they ditched their packs at Hikers Inn. I think this is my favorite picture of the whole trip. I'm so happy these guys came along and that they had fun together.

By the time Jay and I arrived at Hikers Inn, Tim was there too. Joe was lying on one of the bunks in the hostel and not feeling so well. Though he was in good spirits, he had thrown up twice soon after he and Matt had arrived. I don't think you can blame all that on the freeze-dried mushrooms in the stroganoff, so my mind of course went all sorts of directions: maybe it's giardia from the water? Norovirus from the unsanitary shelters? Some other scary bacterial or parasitic thing that will take months to shake? A mum worries. He was also feverish. We were all a bit concerned, but not so much that we couldn't leave him for a couple hours while we walked a few blocks to Hey Joe's for a much-anticipated taco lunch. While we were out I stopped at a drugstore and bought him some Tylenol and ginger ale (alas, no Vernors, so Schweppes had to do). By evening, he was on the mend, but he still didn't eat much. Hoping he feels better in the morning for our drive back to Michigan.

23 June 2016

AT Summer '16: Lost Mountain Shelter to Saunders Shelter (Day 5)

Appalachian Trail, 6.4 miles

Today was our easier day: around six and a half miles. A couple miles into our hike we met up with the Virginia Creeper Bike trail, which felt very flat and manicured, after five days in the wild.

Also today we decided on a trail name for Jay: "Old Yeller." Because about every twenty steps or so, he lets out some kind of hoot or shriek or yell of exhaustion.

Despite the shorter-mileage day today, we are feeling fairly tired, even Tim.

At Wise Shelter tonight, Matt and Joe made a nice fire, which was great because we had lots of time to enjoy it, since we finished up hiking at around mid-afternoon.

Some previous hikers took artistic license with a stump near the campfire and turned it into a pig sculpture.
Having all this free time at the end of the day sometimes proves to be not such a good thing though. Matt and Joe started monkeying around with a huge vine that looked great for swinging on, but as luck would have it, it gave way just as Matt was swinging and he flew into the brush. No major injuries except for a scraped-up leg, but it did give us old folks plenty to grouse about, considering it would be nearly impossible to evacuate an injured hiker out of this place at 8pm, with no cell service and no nearby road access. Getting old and fretful can be such a bother.

Dinner tonight was quite the hodgepodge. We are all at the end of our food supplies, so we are eating up whatever is left. I had a package of Thai-spiced tuna, mixed in with freeze-dried Just Veggies, topped off with the leftover gravy from the beef stroganoff Joe re-hydrated for his dinner. He liked the stroganoff okay until he realized there were little bits of mushrooms in there; that was a deal breaker for him. Fortunately by that time he had already eaten 90% of the package.

22 June 2016

AT Summer '16: Thomas Knob Shelter to Lost Mountain Shelter (Day 4)

Appalachian Trail, 12.2 miles

My prediction was 100% true. The snoring last night was so. Incredibly. Loud. Must bring ear plugs next trip.

This was another long, hard hiking day. It rained hard last night, so the roots and rocks on the trail were slippery this morning.

Here is a picture of the guys eating and coffee-ing in the misty morning air:

The guy in the red shirt above is a high school teacher called Jerry. He was out for a five-day section hike as kind of a test run for a possible thru-hike next year. Super nice guy. He was pretty miserable, though, as far as hiking goes. He said the trail wasn't what he expected, and he probably wouldn't be doing a thru-hike after all. I told him he should wait to make that decision until after he was done with his section hike. Sometimes the actual hiking part can be absolutely torturous but then you get to the end and you're like "wow, it's so cool I lived through that - I'm going to do it again sometime!" As I've mentioned before, it's kind of like childbirth in that way.

I hiked with Jay for the whole day today because I just feel better when we are together. I worried a lot yesterday when he was quite a ways behind me. So today he was stuck with me crowding him from behind. and chattering to him throughout the day. The skies threatened from about noon onward, and it felt like we were barely staying ahead of the rain and thunder.

We had hoped for some great views at the top of Whitetop Mountain, but the fog and clouds were super thick and we couldn't see much. It was also very windy; it felt like the wind might actually fill up our pack covers like sails and carry us off. At one point near the top of Whitetop, Jay stumbled a little bit and I looked up just in time to see him losing his balance, a horrified look on his face as he did what looked like a sashay-dance-move down the windswept slope next to the trail, his trekking poles flailing. Fortunately he caught himself before careening down Buzzard Rock. It would've been terrible if he'd rolled his ankle or something, but because he was just fine, the whole scene was actually pretty entertaining!

About a mile before reaching Lost Mountain Shelter, the clouds opened up and we finally got the rain that had been threatening all day. We got pretty well soaked. When we arrived at the shelter, it was crammed with people (mostly boy scouts), but fortunately the rain let up shortly and we were able to dry out. Matt and Joe decided to stay in the shelter tonight, and Tim and Jay and I are tenting. We're hopeful that the worst of the rain is over. 

21 June 2016

AT Summer '16: Old Orchard Shelter to Thomas Knob Shelter (Day 3)

Appalachian Trail, 11 miles

Woot! It finally happened! We saw the wild ponies!!

But hold your horses (see what I did there?) and first let me start by telling you about the whole day, from the very beginning. Impossibly, even though today was only 11 miles, it felt much longer than the 14-plus miles we hiked yesterday. I mean it just seemed to go on and on. And on. And. On. I am absolutely giddy that we are now stopped for the night.

At the beginning of our hike this morning, things actually started out pretty easy and fun, because after an initial two-mile climb we found ourselves at the top of Pine Mountain with a small herd of longhorn cattle. The trail goes over a fence stile and into a bald at the top of the mountain where the cattle wander around and graze. They looked kind of threatening, but they pretty much ignored us, so we were able to get a few good pictures. The mountaintop was really pretty and a nice place for a short break too.

This was the first time this trip that we came out of the woods into a wide-open spot, so it was kind of novel. Here are Jay and Joe at the top.

On the profile of our topo map, things looked to be kind of straightforward and simple after that. But I should know better! Though the elevation change wasn't dramatic, the terrain became pretty rocky after we passed Wise Shelter, so it was a little challenging at times. Even the flatter parts of the trail were filled with rocks.

I hiked with Joe and Matt for several miles and as we started to make our way up toward Wilburn Ridge, we were rewarded with... yes... THE PONIES!!

Actually, at first it was just one pony, and we were pretty thrilled with just that one little guy. He was kind of off in the trees, near the trail, and didn't seem to mind at all that we were hiking right alongside him.

We didn't know it at the time, but we were soon to reach the time of Wilburn Ridge and see a lot more ponies: 

In fact, some of them got so bossy with us that we had to move away a bit. They were nibbling on our packs, our map, our shoes, our shirtsleeves... I think we must have been so sweaty that they were like, cool, mobile salt-licks!

Also at the peak were some amazing views and a really cool and huge rock formation. After some quality pony time, the boys made me hyperventilate by climbing up onto the cliff (from which they would surely fall to a grisly death if they slipped just a little). I was really, really happy when they made their way back down. Click these pictures for a cool view:

Tim caught up with us shrtlly, and we fussed over the ponies awhile longer. 

Joe and Matt and Tim moved on from there and I decided to wait for Jay. He came along after a little while and we had lunch together on a big boulder. 

From there, we set off to finish up the remaining miles to Thomas Knob, which is where we are staying the night. One of the cooler rock formations en route to the shelter is called Fat Man Squeeze (which, in fact, is a very appropriate description). Even the not-so-fat hikers have to kind of wiggle their way through a really narrow canyon-like pass. Matt got a good picture of Joe and Tim making their way through it.

I went on ahead of Jay for the last few miles. We determined it shouldn't take either of us more than an hour or two to make it to the shelter. We apparently didn't know that we were entering a time warp! I got quite a ways ahead of him and I kept slogging on by myself, thinking the shelter had to be just ahead. But it Just. Wouldn't. Appear. After what seemed like way more than an hour, I started to think for sure that I had overshot it. I mean, it was definitely possible...I was getting tired...inattentive... having trouble judging distance... I totally could see myself missing a small wooden sign pointing to a side-trail to the shelter. I whimpered a little as I was hiking and even yelled for Joe a few times, hoping that he and Matt and Tim might be just ahead. No one yelled back.

About 10 minutes past freak-out stage, I heard voices not too far off, and saw that a group of other hikers had set up their tents among the trees. I crashed my way through the underbrush to their campsite and asked them in a somewhat crazed and frantic voice if Thomas Knob Shelter was anywhere close. They said yes, just another eighth of a mile or so down the trail. I wanted to collapse with gratitude. When I got to the shelter, Tim and Joe and Matt had been there for about half an hour and they too had each felt like they surely had missed their turnoff. We were all so happy to be stopped for the day! But I was still kind of worried about Jay who was still en route, so I dropped my pack and backtracked about 20 minutes north on the trail to see if I could find him. I was so relieved when I finally saw an orange shirt off in the distance. Between grunts and moans he was all like, "Did you see all those ponies!?" We made it back to the shelter in short order and even had a chance to filter our water for the night before it started to drizzle a little bit.

It is supposed to rain hard tonight, so we decided to sleep in the shelter, along with quite a few other hikers. One guy is pretty huge and I can pretty much guarantee that our night will be riddled with snoring again.