Another Ultimate Hike Complete
Short version: I successfully completed another Ultimate Hike on Saturday, May 16. I hope you will read the longer version, below, when you have time and a cup of coffee or an adult beverage. If it does not make you proud to have been a part of it, I am a lousy writer/storyteller.
Long Version: On Friday, my trip to the Holiday Inn Express in Lavonia (just over the border from Clemson) was delayed..."Stuff Happens" and that put me too late to take an afternoon nap. No, I do not usually take an afternoon nap but since we would be rising at 2:00 AM, it seemed like a good idea.
The group assembled at 6:00PM for introductions and carb-loading for the journey. We had 57 hikers (not including coaches and volunteers) from SC (seven), NC, GA and TN but also from Utah, California, Maine and Florida. So far (many people are still raising money) this group raised over $162,000 for children's cancer research. As we go around the room, the introductions include people like:
- Jeff from Greenville who has raised money and hiked multiple times in honor of his son, Will, who is a cancer survivor;
- the family from Florida, dad, mom (with foot issue) and college-age daughter who had two children with cancer in the same family
- Amy from Charlotte whose beautiful teenage daughter had come home from a week of volunteering at Camp Kemo. As they relaxed in a hot tub that evening, the daughter said, "I have a pain in my stomach." After the rounds of doctors, she was diagnosed with cancer and she was gone 65 days later. Amy had recently gotten her leg out of a cast and still wore a brace but nothing would hold her back. She and her friend Robin have inspired a large Charlotte team for several years.
- Christy from near-Raleigh brought her young daughter Eve (who has inspired/starred in many CureSearch/Ultimate Hike videos). This week, Eve is completing her period of being cancer-free so that she is expected to be declared "cured" ...she is not through with the process in that current treatments can take a toll on other parts of the body. Christy has three children but finds time to volunteer for these hikes, raise money and hike in other Ultimate Hikes.
- Many, many other stories of success and sadness...
The folks from CureSearch reported on their recent use of the money raised with emphasis on the Acceleration Initiative (http://curesearch.org/Acceleration-Initiative ) and a new smart phone app to help parents track medications and side effects (the parents who had been through it acknowledged how much that would help).
Then the Oconee County Rescue Squad guys briefed us on trail conditions and safety. It was still light out but everyone rushed off to bed. It was a short restless night before the alarm went off. My son amazed me and gave my spirits a lift when he called to wish me a good hike. Despite the hour, the Holiday Inn Express provided us with a full breakfast. By 2;45, we were loaded on vans and on our 45-minute ride to the trail-head. To avoid congestion on the trail, they divided us into groups of 6-8 and released us at about ten minute intervals. I was in group five so we got off at 4:45 AM. In the dark, we wore bright LED headlights on a band on our foreheads. The undergrowth was filled with little green insects with transparent gossamer wings, probably recent hatchlings. They were attracted to the bright lights but they had bad aim and wound up in your mouth, nose or fluttering in your eyes behind your glasses. I was teamed with three women from Asheville and Abby from West Columbia. Abby is a mid-twenties PE teacher who is strong and has the advantage of youth. The trail quickly divides the groups further. Abby began to leave the Asheville ladies behind as we climbed the mountain. It was a fast but not uncomfortable pace so I decided to stay with her. We passed many of the hikers who started before us and completed the first six miles in a couple of hours.
We kept the same pace to the second aid station, six more miles into the hike. Walking into the aid station, young Eve (see above) delivered some "trail mail" from my daughter. CureSearch had contacted family and invited them to email a note of encouragement. Hilary, always the historian, quoted Eleanor Roosevelt and included facts from "this day in history". I was encouraged but I was also hurting. We had completed 12 miles at high speed and despite tape on my ankles, my "new" boots were hurting my feet. I sat down to rest and asked the rescue squad guys for attention. When I took my socks and the tape off, I saw that I had blisters forming on the fronts of my feet and skin was already gone from the sides of my ankles (not a good sign about a third of the way through!) They cleaned and taped my feet with spongy athletic K-tape and I put on dry sock liners and socks. (For you non-hikers, I had previously hiked for twenty years without a single blister...they do not have to be a part of hiking. Look back at the photo, you can see the pain rising like steam from my feet!)
Off again, Abby and I made the decision to take this 10-mile section slower and stop about half-way to rest. This was not to baby my feet; it was a calculated strategy because this section is difficult. Some hikers saw copperhead snakes along the trail. Although we were on high alert among the rocks and twisted roots, we never saw a snake (I saw my first two snakes of summer back at my house on Monday).
While this section is difficult, it rewards you with many views of the spectacular Chattooga River...whitewater cascading around rocks (the folks from Florida were especially taken with the beauty...nothing like that in Florida!). The morning had been cool, about 65 degrees but the afternoon brought heat...a few clouds blew by but the thunder storms, forecast earlier in the week, did not materialize and we didn't even have a shower. Abby and I joined the Atlanta coach sitting by the river. Abby and Billy (from Atlanta) waded in the cool water. I was afraid to take off my boots! As soon as I saw a soft, comfortable looking rock, I plopped down... glad to get off of my feet. I had been using my smart phone to take photos so I reached for it to capture the beautiful stretch of river. Then I realized it had been "caught between a rock and a hard place" ...the photos of the river, the rhododendron and the other hikers are all lost ...I spent the last two days exploring every possibility for recovering my "contacts" list (no, I did not back them up). If you ever hope for me to call you, you had better email me your phone number.
Throughout the long day, I drew strength from the stories I had heard the night before, the people my contributors had asked me to remember while walking, and friends and relatives I had lost to cancer. As we walked along one long stretch of trail a lone Ultimate Hiker came up behind me, I stepped off the trail to let the young man pass. He was in his late teens, hiking for his nephew...from the front of his pack straps hung two tiny athletic shoes in a baby size...they swung with each step he made. I had to stop for a moment as the breath left my body.
After we left the river for the last time, we were somewhat renewed as we began what is generally recognized as the toughest part of the hike....we started the long climb up from the river to the third and last aid station. It is not a steep climb but it is endless. By this time the temperature was hot and our effort added to the heat. There is a parking lot 1.5 miles before the third aid station...after the long climb, it gives inexperienced Ultimate Hikers hope they have arrived. I knew better and fought back that false hope. Then, there it was! Nancy from Camden decided that we needed an extra aid station so she raised the funds and organized it. THANK YOU, Nancy! My body temperature was soaring and the cold Poweraid was much better than the water I carried.
Renewed again, we started out knowing that in a mere mile and a half we would be able to sit and relax a bit. This section was burned out by a forest fire last year and the black earth still reflected the heat and gave life to black flies. The flies were attracted by our sweat but when they got close even the flies refused to land (I can hear my daughter saying TMI...too much information)! Only a mile and a half! ...a mile and a half with some hills too steep to climb so trail volunteers had added timber steps. As we climbed, we began to hear traffic ahead and knew we were approaching the road...the aid station waited just on the other side. When I reached the road, Abby had fallen behind (she said she was amazed to watch my burst of energy for that last mile and a half...I think it has something to do with the horse getting close to the barn). I got to the road and had to stop because my eyes filled with salty sweat and I could not see the traffic. As I walked into the aid station all of the chairs seemed to be filled. Half joking, half serious, I yelled, "Get to hiking, hikers, you are in my chair!" There were a couple of open chairs and I collapsed in one. I cannot say enough about how the volunteers (many are Ultimate Hike alumni) treat the hikers. They refill your water and bring your choice of snacks. The Rescue Squad guys are always there to look after you. (My feet continued to hurt but I was determined to complete the hike and I was afraid of what I would find if I removed my boots/socks. I had another pair of low-top shoes in my bag at this aid station but I chose to stay with what I had.) It is amazing how quickly your body recovers under those conditions. They took our photo in front of the CureSearch/Ultimate Hike banner. When I saw the photo, my first thought was, "Why are we smiling?" Then I realized that it was as we were leaving the 22-mile aid station. (I regret that there is not a photo of us arriving but it would not have been pretty!!!).
The final six miles seems very long...it turns out the 28.3 miles that all of our literature referenced was from an old calculation and that takes you only to the leading edge of Oconee State Park, numerous GPS devices marked our hike as actually just over 30 miles.
As you approach the end, the trail is lined with names and photos of innocent young children who have survived or succumbed to cancer. You are very tired and it is very emotional. Going on determination alone, one lady limped in...it took her over three hours to cover the last two miles. This is an amazing group of people!
They made another photo of Abby and me when we reached the Finish Line. Afterwards, I said, "We should have been high-fiving or something to show our elation." Abby replied, "We were standing weren't we?"
Postlog: I gave Abby the trail name "Virgil" because, in the Inferno, Virgil guided Dante through Hell. Mel (the Columbia Coach who has trained with me since February) was the "Sweeper" on Saturday...that means he hiked last and made certain no one was left on the trail. Some people were having difficulty but were determined to finish. Mel stayed with them and they finally completed the hike around 8:00 PM. It had been a long, long day. The people doing this demanding hike are probably 60% women and 40% men (many are not experienced hikers but they make up for it with commitment). At 66, I was not the oldest hiker...there were three hikers at least a year older. The Ultimate Hike is certainly a challenge but almost all healthy people can do it if they are determined and they train (if you have been with me through these narratives, you know that we started training at the end of February with a 12-miler and built up to the long hike). Many Ultimate Hikers return to do it again and again because it is a life changing, life saving experience. If you or someone you know is interested, please get me their contact information.
With your support, I raised over $3,500 this year so, for the two years (2013 & 2015) that I have hiked, we have provided more than $6,500 to fight children's cancer. I think that is pretty Awesome! Thank you and congratulations, I am proud of you for joining me on this journey, you were an important part of it.