The frustration of six miles on the trail, most of it in the dark, was beginning to show.
“Why does this trail have to be so hard?” Kathy yelled. “Why does it have to be such a struggle?” The rage I could handle. Then came the tears. Time to kick into “trail ambassador” mode.
“Hey, tell me again about that 12-hour training hike, the one that almost killed every one,” I said. This may be frustrating, but from what I’d heard of the aforementioned training hike, the one in these same mountains that ended three hours later than expected, in the dark, with one hiker having to be evacuated by an elderly couple that couldn’t hear and chewed tobacco, I knew it wasn’t that bad. And it wasn’t. The diversion gave Kathy, who had quickly proven herself adept at telling stories, one after the other, something worse to focus on. Just like that, the frustration of this hard trail evaporated as she retold the story of a really hard day on the trail.
What a great way to spend a day in the woods.
Saturday was my second Ultimate Hike. I signed on last year to help coach the Triangle contingent of hikers. I was so taken by the experience, by the hikers and their commitment to the UH cause, that I couldn’t wait to re-up for this year.
The Ultimate Hike was dreamed up over two years ago by CureSearch for Children’s Cancer. Initially, CureSearch relied on grants and philanthropic donations to do its work, which includes connecting parents of kids with cancer into a vast network of children’s cancer specialists worldwide. Three years ago it started doing fundraising walks. Two years ago it hit on the idea of the Ultimate Hike: train for 12 weeks, do a monster hike, in the case of the Triangle hikers and other UHers throughout the Southeast, the westernmost 28.3 miles of the 77-mile Foothills Trail straddling the North Carolina/South Carolina line. In exchange for training and the fully supported Ultimate Hike, hikers pledge to raise $2,500 each.
Our group began training with a steamy 6-mile hike in August at Umstead. Every two weeks thereafter we did successively longer and more challenging hikes, along the Eno River, at Falls Lake, back at Umstead, at Hanging Rock and in the Uwharrie Mountains. We hit the trail well-prepared at exactly 4:30 Saturday morning under … well, under what kind of skies I do not know because for the first two-plus hours it was dark. (A good thing, actually, because the most severe climbing occurs at the beginning, and it’s harder to tell just how much you’ve climbed and how much more you have to go when your world is confined to the glow of a headlamp.)
Ultimate Hikers fall into three main categories: the uberfit looking for an extreme challenge, people with a direct connection to childhood cancer, and not-so-uberfit folks looking to truly test themselves. As their coach, as the person responsible for making it possible for everyone to hike 28.3 miles in one day, I wind up spending the bulk of my time with the folks at the back of the pack. Next to the hike’s ultimate goal, it’s why I coach.
About an hour into Saturday’s hike I came upon Nicole, who was struggling not because of a lack of preparation, but because her headlamp was woefully underpowered. I gave her mine, got out my spare and followed her. “This isn’t my cup of tea,” she observed at one point, referring both to night hiking and the fact that the occasional rock and tree root on the trail were buried in freshly fallen leaves.
An hour and a half later, with first light breaking through, we came upon Emily and Kathy. I’d hiked an 18-mile stretch of the Uwharrie National Recreation Trail with Emily two weeks earlier. Early on, I learned one especially interesting thing — that the soft-spoken Emily was a retired Carolina Rollergirl — and one thing that said a lot about her character: right before training started she took a nasty fall down the stairs at home, gathered up her little boy and drove to the ER. Luckily, she hadn’t broken anything but she was pretty bruised up. Suddenly I understood her hesitancy to descend steep, rocky stretches.
“I’m really slow,” she apologized more than once. Only on the dangerous stuff.
We picked up Kathy at the same time, and after her minor meltdown she stayed focused — or distracted — by telling me about her life as a mom, as an online English instructor for a college in Indiana, as a one-time PW (preacher’s wife).
Going into the hardest stretch of the trail, an 11-mile run along the Chattooga River, my fellow coach Brian and I picked up Heather. Heather was wearing Merrill Barefoot shoes. “Did you change into those at the last rest stop?” I asked. I was stunned that someone not 20 years old and who calls everyone “Dude” would attempt such a long and technically challenging trail in minimalist shoes.
“No, I’ve been wearing them all day. I’m hoping to get Merrill to sponsor me.”
She didn’t mean personally, as in scoring a bunch of cool outdoors swag. She meant a donation for the kids with cancer.
Tired and ready for the end, we were all pretty quiet for the last six miles. I thought about Christie, who nearly had to be evacuated from the Chattooga canyon last year because of severe knee pain. She somehow managed to finish, was on crutches for several days afterward — and was the first person from the Triangle to sign up for this year’s hike. I thought about Candi, who upon finishing the hike last year vowed never to even look at a pair of hiking boots again. I think she was the second person to sign up for this year. I thought of Kay, Monica and Rachel, who were the rocks of our back-of-the-pack 2011 group. Uncertain about whether they could raise $2,500 two years in a row, they instead volunteered their services for this year’s hike. They chauffeured us from Raleigh to the trailhead and back and they attended to our every need at the rest stops. It was killing them not to be on the trail, but they never let on.
The last hiker crossed the finish line right at 7 p.m., about 20 minutes after official sunset. By the time we got back to basecamp (a Holiday Inn Express, actually) for the victory celebration, all the good beer was gone.
Still, Coors Light never tasted so good.
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Intrigued? Find out about next year’s Ultimate Hike by going here.