Make this fall epic: Take the Ultimate Hike

Two weeks from Saturday I will stand in front of about 50 people at Umstead State Park and tell them that their lives are about to change in ways they can’t imagine.

Those 50 folks will be about to take their first steps on an epic adventure called the Ultimate Hike. You could be one of them.

Ultimate Hike is the chief fundraiser for CureSearch for Children’s Cancer. CureSearch is a nonprofit that traces its roots back to 1987. Though its name has changed over the years, its mission has not. The nonprofit funds research efforts to fight children’s cancer.  If there’s a more noble effort to support, I’m pressed to think of it. The primary way these newbie hikers lives will change is through the stories they’ll hear of children and families touched by childhood cancer, the No. 1 cause of death by disease among kids. The very children and families they’ll be raising money to help. More about that shortly.

The lives of these 50 hikers will change in another big way. That’s especially true for the roughly 50 percent who come into the program having little if any experience on the trail. For many of the others, it’s likely been 10 or 20 or 30 years since they last hiked. Yet here they are, bodacious in the assumption that in just 12 weeks they’ll be able to hike 28.3 miles in the mountains. But before they can hike that 28.3 miles on the Foothills Trail of North and South Carolina, they’ll have to start with the 4.5 miles planned for that morning. For some, that 4.5 miles will be more challenging than the 28.3.

Which is just fine, because I have a plan to get them into shape.

Since Ultimate Hike came to the Triangle three years ago I have been the local hiking coach. My job is make sure each one of these 50 hikers is ready come Hike Day, which this year is Nov. 9. I’ve devised a hiking and fitness plan for the hikers, with the highlight being our every-other-week group hike. Our first hike will be a truncated 4.5-mile version of Umstead’s Company Mill Trail. We’ll start with a brief meeting, maybe with bagels and coffee, before hitting the trail. It will likely be hot and no doubt humid. (The first year the temperature reached a comically — and record — hot 104.) I will tell everyone that while the hikes will get longer, the weather will cool. Eventually.

Every other weekend we’ll meet to do another group hike. Our next hike will be eight miles along the Eno River. It probably won’t be any cooler, and people will complain, good-heartedly for the most part. “It’ll get better,” I’ll assure them. “Trust me.”

Over the next couple months we’ll do increasingly longer hikes, at Raven Rock State Park, on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake, on the Uwharrie National Recreation Trail (our longest training hike, at 22 miles), at Hanging Rock State Park (our “elevation” hike, at which unkind words will be said about the coach). We’ll do a handful of midweek hikes, both predawn and post dusk. (Hold that question.)

Along the way, we’ll not only develop impressive hiking legs but some great friendships as well. If that sounds vaguely like the pitch from summer camp when you were a kid, it should. Training hike day is, for most of us, a chance to let go of the day-to-day grind and escape into a fantasy world of indulging a day in the woods with friends. It’s the kind of environment that fosters the kinds of conversations you don’t get to have much as a busy adult.

The journey is a blast. The destination — the the Ultimate Hike — will make your checking-out highlight reel.

On Friday, Nov. 8, our now-buff hiking group will meet at a central location in the Triangle and take a couple of passenger vans to Lavonia, Ga. At one hiker’s instance we’ll stop at Cracker Barrel for lunch, then arrive at the local Holiday Inn Express in Lavonia around 5 p.m. We’ll check into our rooms and mingle with other Ultimate Hikers from Greenville and Columbia, S.C. We’ll gather for a big pasta kick-off dinner, at which we will be reminded what it is we’re hiking for. Afterward, after hearing the stories of families and little kids battling cancer, our challenge the following day will seem trivial.

The following day will begin around 2:30 a.m. In the morning. We’ll stumble through breakfast, then pile into vans for the hour-long drive to the trailhead. We’ll arrive where the Foothills Trail transitions from North Carolina to South Carolina, pull into a gravel parking lot, pile out, take a group picture, then start going out in waves — slowest hikers to fastest — beginning at 4:30 a.m. For a good two hours we’ll hike by the light of our headlamps (hence, those midweek training hikes in the dark).

We’ll be pampered and fed at three rest stops by volunteers and the stellar Oconee County EMS crew. (Expect the latter to tell you there are more bears in Oconee County, S.C., than anywhere else in the country.)

Some will finish the hike as early as 2 p.m. I will be with the last hiker, finishing up around 7 p.m., just before it becomes necessary to get the headlamps back out. We’ll have a big celebratory dinner back in Lavonia. Most of us will fall asleep before 9 and sleep really, really well. A few will toast one another into the wee hours and have a rough ride home the next day in the van.

If history is any indication, all will easily make their fundraising goal of $2,500.

Two quick hiker stories.

The Sunday morning after the 2011 hike, hiker Candi Barnes told me with authority, “I’m never putting these hiking boots on again!” She and her husband, Chris, had both done the hike on behalf of their daughter, a cancer survivor. Last summer, at our first recruitment meeting, the first person I saw was Candi. Must have scored a new pair of hiking boots.

Christy Griffith wasn’t quite as vocal after the 2011 hike, but she didn’t need to be: her hobbled body spoke volumes. At the midpoint of a remote 10-mile stretch of trail along the Chattooga River, it looked like Christy might have to abandon. I began scouting escape routes out of the canyon, when Christy decided she had the last eight miles in her. I’m guessing the thought of her daughter, Eve, also a cancer survivor, had something to do with her rally.

Christy, too, returned the following year. She offers this advice for anyone skeptical of their prospects.

“I’d like to say for anyone who is afraid they can’t do it that I had never hiked before UH. Or exercised since high school.”

Looking for a great challenge on several levels? Keep reading … .

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Be an Ultimate Hiker

Curious about the Ultimate Hike? At least enough to learn more about it? Then come out to one of five information meetings I’ll be doing in the Triangle over the next two weeks, between :

Tuesday, July 30, 6:30 p.m. — North Raleigh: REI, 4291 The Circle at North Hills (Six Forks Road at the Beltline/I-440).

Wednesday, July 31, 7 p.m. — Durham: Bull City Running, 202 W. NC 54 (just off Fayeteville Street north of I-40)

Monday, August 5, 6:30 p.m. — Cary: REI, 1751 Walnut St. (off US 64 at Walnut).

Tuesday, August 6, 7 p.m. — Chapel Hill: Great Outdoor Provision Co.,
1800 E Franklin St. (Eastgate Shopping Center).

Wednesday, August 7, 7 p.m. — Raleigh: Great Outdoor Provision Co., Cameron Village.

Preregistration is encouraged, which you can accomplish by going here.

Questions? Drop me a line at joe@getgoingnc.com or leave a comment below.

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