Thursday, July 27, 2017

Twilight

Shoulders and head sunk toward the trail as the first hint of light painted the ridgeline east of Gulf Hagas Mountain.  The combined fatigue of a missed-night’s sleep and the near-continuous effort of the past twenty hours beckoned for one to lay down.  Sleep. Succumb to the siren’s song. This was twilight.  When the light from the brightest day fades to the deepest night. When the darkest night yields the most brilliant day.  At what hour do we stand?


Will Day Dawn?
It's 100 miles to help.
Perhaps because of the name, or it’s reputation as the longest stretch of the Appalachian Trail without a paved road crossing or resupply option, the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine has captivated my imagination for years.  Months ago, the idea of running the route began getting tossed around by friends.  Thanks to one Mr. Michael McDuffie, it happened, logistics planned brilliantly.  Rob Rives and myself would join him in Monson, ME on Friday, July 20.  A shuttle, courtesy of Phil “Quadzilla” Pepin, who runs the 100 Mile Wilderness Adventures and Outfitters, would bring us two hours north, to Abol Bridge, 14 miles south of the terminus of the AT on the summit of Katahdin, the morning of July 21.  If all went well, we would finish sometime on July 22, or early on July 23.  100-Miles, unsupported, through some of the most remote and gnarliest stretches of trail you can find, with the goal of going under 48 hours.


We began at 7:20 AM.  Spirits were high reading the sign cautioning, “It is 100 miles south to the nearest town at Monson.  There are NO places to obtain supplies or get help until Monson.  Do not attempt unless you have a minimum of 10 days supplies and are fully equipped. This is the longest wilderness section of the entire A.T. and its difficulty should not be underestimated.” We each carried about 9,000 calories.


Goofiness belies the fact that I was scared as hell.
The juxtaposition of this warning, and our buoyant attitudes and excitement over having started this journey poetically express the angst and fear I felt going into this run.  Self-doubt came through in the dire warning of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. The crux of it?  I had done nothing remotely like this in nearly four years.  Could my mind handle it?  Would my body?


It was the context of this thought that worried me the most. Four years ago, I was good at running really long distances. After a series of setbacks and medical issues, I’ve doubted I can do it any more. I dropped at mile 92 of my last 100-mile attempt in 2013, to spend the night in the ER with rhabdomyolysis.  There are no ERs in the 100-Mile Wilderness.  A busted ankle, a broken leg, a stick in the leg (which has happened to me before, in the Whites), pee that is the color of motor oil, all become bigger problems when you’re running this route.  I did not want anything to befall me for my own sake (and that of McDuffie and Rob), but also for my family, who no doubt would worry about me throughout the entire journey.  I began the day weighed down by a healthy dose of fear.


I also began the trek weighed down by a pack of at least 17lbs (I had weighed it the night before).  When I used to race, the goal was to run as fast as possible, which means carrying as little as possible.  Shorty shorts, a handheld water bottle (maybe two), and that was it.  Much less than 17-18 lbs.  Rob was an excellent teacher though, and talked about limiting the “bouncing” and “bumps” to save your legs for later in the day (and night, and next day).  For the first time ever I actually understood what it means when people tell you to “make the first 30 miles feel really easy” in a 100. We cruised up Rainbow Ledges, floated along the sides of rivers and lakes (if only the one below Rainbow Ledges were named Unicorn Lake . . .).  We caught views of Katahdin.  A beautiful day had emerged from a twilight of self-doubt.

Our first water stop.  At this point, Rob, McDuffie, and myself were running more or less together.  Rob and I, who continued on together, wouldn’t see McDuffie after about mile 13.  Photo: Rob Rives


(Rob on Rainbow Ledges with the view back to Katahdin).
(Rob on Rainbow Ledges looking forward and celebrating the land of our little adventure).

Night.


The first ~50 miles of the 100 Mile Wilderness south bound follow spectacular lakes and gorgeous rivers and streams.  When asked for a single word to describe his experience on the trail, Rob summed it up as “Water,” because it is such a defining characteristic of the landscape throughout the wilderness.  The trail is punctuated by a few short climbs, some rocks, some roots, but is mostly just absolutely enjoyable terrain.  One stretch of pine-needle blanketed single track was running nirvana, and seemed to stretch for miles.  We passed AT thru hikers, and even families with small kids (despite it’s name, and the dire warnings on either ends, there are several points that folk can relatively easily access the “Wilderness.” Still, aside from the one area where a group of pickups were parked, it feels pretty darned remote).  As we ascended what is likely the largest climb in the “front-50” we passed a group of teenaged girls, blasting out a brilliant acapella rendition of My Heart’s A Stereo.  Naturally, we joined in.  Not sure Thoreau would approve, but it lifted the spirit and kept a smile on our faces.


Near the mileage-based halfway point of the run lies one of the many shelters built for hikers. Studying the maps of the trail, this spot had immediately popped out, not only for its location, but its name, Cooper Brook Falls Lean-To.  My oldest son is named Cooper, the last name of my mother-in-law, who passed away in March.  It was a personal goal to reach this point feeling strong (I did), and before sunset (Rob and I turned on our headlamps about 15 or 20 minutes after cruising by this site). "Cooper" was a milestone, for it marked my longest effort in years, and if I somehow managed to get there, I had convinced myself that for the rest of the trip I’d be running “home,” back to my family.  As night fell and darkness enveloped the world around us, my spirit (and very bright headlamp) guided me down the trail, connecting the White Blazes of the AT back to Monson, back to Cooper.  Twilight may have lead to darkness, but Rob and I both were looking forward to the magic of a night traveling through the woods.


Psychological boosts can come from the smallest of things.

Twilight 3: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

- Dylan Thomas


I am drawn to this sort of endeavor as an opportunity to feel “powerful,” my way of “raging” against complacency and routine.  I lead a fairly unremarkable life, but these journeys, these are a big part of how I come to feel remarkable.


Rob atop White Cap Mountain in the middle of the night.

The night was magical. Cloudless. Quiet. We travelled together, our entire world reduced to the bubble of light before us.  Time seemed irrelevant at this point.  This was our reality until the sun came up.  Forever forward.  Up White Cap Mountain, the highest point of the trail, along the “Stairway to Heaven.” Can we get there before 18 hours?  Push.  17:56.  False summit.  17:59!  The Big Dipper sat on top of the mountain with us.  Stars all were within our reach.  The beauty of the cloudless sky, the wind singing over the rocks.  A beauty and brilliance so profound, days later it seems to be a physical presence inside of me.  Down the trail, the cone of the headlamp our world.  A map does not convey the technical terrain.  The going is slow, but we descend West Peak, nearly done with the whole range.  A brief stop for food and to shed a layer.  Rob a mere 15 feet back on the trail, but it seems like 40 feet higher than me.  Quietly through Signey Tappan Campsite, hopeful not to wake the sleeping hikers.  To the saddle of Gulf Hagas Mountain.  The sky is brilliant, dark, and deep.  We have miles to go before we sleep.  Do not let the hour or the dark deter us.  Press ahead, into the coming light.  Rage against the night.


That is a lot of moose poop.  The trail is kind of overgrown here.  This is where a moose is going to crush me.  Rage, rage against the dying of optimism, of hope.  Negative thoughts have no place here.  I am really tired.  Let’s just take a quick breather here for a minute and get some food.


Shoulders and head sunk toward the trail as the first hint of light painted the ridgeline east of Gulf Hagas Mountain.  The combined fatigue of a missed-night’s sleep and the near-continuous effort of the past twenty hours beckoned for one to lay down.  Sleep. Succumb to the siren’s song. This was twilight.  When the light from the brightest day fades to the deepest night. When the darkest night yields the most brilliant day.  At what hour do we stand?


For the first time since beginning the 100 Mile Wilderness adventure, the body and spirit offered protest against their mission.  A deep desire to keep eyes closed and rest consumed all thought, thoughts cloudy with fatigue, muddled by a creeping negativity.  With the dawn came the terrifying realization that this was very far from done.  Why not stop? Right there.  A dark time, and a dark place, but for the profound beauty of the moment.  That faintest brush stroke of a new day, barely illuminated the highest ridge of the mountains. Night held fast to the sky above, in a beautiful, cloudless dark, scattered with the brilliant stars.  This was twilight, a moment caught between the light and the dark.   


Light or Dark?


Daylight, just over an hour away, felt impossibly far away.  So did Rt. 15 in Monson, some 40 miles away.  I had secretly hoped to cover 27-30 miles overnight.  We covered 20.  The trail had gotten much harder, the terrain steeper, more technical.  We’d been awake for 24 hours, running nearly 22.  All I wanted was to sleep, to lay down.  Rob, whose unflappable optimism and good nature impressed me as much as the trail itself, suggested I could nap when he cooked a hot breakfast for himself shortly after sunrise. The promise of lying on my back, eyes closed, head propped on my pack, tugged me, slowly, into the day.  I knew the darkness had won, but sleep was coming.  Just a little further.


We ran slowly, as the trail flattened out, gradually descending along Gulf Hagas Brook.  The light in the woods shifted and I started running faster, easier.  Soon, headlamps were turned off and, as if some benevolent sorcerer had cast a spell, the desire for sleep, the compounding fatigue, the niggles of pain felt throughout the night, all disappeared.  It was a new day. We only had 40 miles to go!  We might be able to finish this right around 30 hours.  


Above Screw Auger Falls, breakfast was made, Rob with his hot food, me with peanut M&M’s. Feet were meticulously washed and the blisters that had developed early in the run, immaculately and painstakingly “fixed.”  This sort of luxury had never been taken in any of my previous runs, but with the new day, the beautiful setting, it was a joy to know that I was doing something proactive to help make the final push.  Day had breathed renewed life into the body and I imagined finishing around 2 or 3 PM.  Feet fixed, breakfast eaten, we slowly started the homestretch of the journey, letting our bodies warmup after an extended break.  Within five minutes we were jogging slowly, chatting for the first time in hours, clicking the miles off.  


The West Branch of the Pleasant River (along with several others) must be forded on this journey.  It happened about 10 minutes after we left our breakfast/foot clinic location.  My beautiful tape job for naught. We were able to laugh at the absurdity of it.  Spirits were high, feet were wet, but we continued on, my bandages no match for 50 yards of river.  Alas, there were less than 40 miles to go.

(Crossing the West Branch of the Pleasant River. It was very slippery.  Had perfectly patched feet for 10 minutes before.  They felt really good during that time . . . Photo: Rob Rives).

Twilight to the deepest, darkest night: “These mountains are fucking relentless.”


The Barren-Chairback Range. Where souls go to die.  Approximately 11 miles in length, with climbs that seem impossibly steep and terrain that is maddeningly slow to traverse.  Up Chairback Mountain we still had reserves of humor to ascend the absolute ridiculousness of the talus field.  Rob joked, “It could only end this way,” the mountains placing an absolute exclamation mark on our journey.  Third Mountain offered a brief respite from the absurd.  The view of our previous night stretched before us in perfect sunshine.

(Sometimes, there is beauty in suffering.  The hard-earned view from Third Mountain, looking back to our journey the previous night).  
The descent from Fourth Mountain and the ascent of Barren Mountain were the dawning of the darkest night for me (although it was a cloudless day).  As Rob commented, “These mountains are fucking relentless,” the front of my left ankle, for all the flexion, stopped working correctlyl, and was visibly swollen through the sock.  Every step hurt. Every downhill was becoming a struggle.  The top of Barren marked 18 miles to go.  Sleep demons had me in their clutches.  It may as well have been another 100 to go.  My head spun with fatigue.  The world spun when I closed my eyes.  We had likely been moving at less than 2 MPH for much of the last several hours. At that rate, we wouldn’t finish until . . . the math was getting fuzzy.  The 2,000 foot descent of Barren was excruciating.  

“Are we there yet?” “No.” Battered on the descent off Barren Mountain.
The top of an unexpectedly steep climb of nearly 1,000 feet, shortly after descending Barren Mountain, is where I threw my pity party.  I was in pain.  We had 14 miles to go.  It was impossible. Rob was out of water and after making sure I’d be okay (my head was spinning with fatigue again - not a bonk sort of spin, just a, “Lie down and go to sleep!” sort of spin), continued down the trail to the next water spot, where I’d meet him.  


I am not proud of how I carried myself these next few miles.  For the first time ever, I was screaming and cursing out loud on the trail.  “I JUST WANT TO BE DONE!” was yelled at least twice.  Every step was accompanied by a grunt of pain, of anger and frustration.  I was disappointed in myself.  Was there a way to bail?  I was so close, but I didn’t want to continue.  I feared the death march, I feared taking another 14 hours to finish this. The pain and fatigue were all consuming.  Rob and I were both hallucinating at this point (which, considering my general state, was actually the one enjoyable piece of this time).  Beach umbrellas along rivers, kiosks, trail signs, animals, and people in the woods.  As I ran the mile to the water stop, I saw Rob, at least twice, sitting on the side of the trail, waving his trekking poles.  He wasn't actually there. At one point I asked (the real) Rob if he could see the Christmas ornament in one tree. “No man, that’s not there.”


The other thing that was not there was my focus.  The twilight of pain and fear and anger had consumed me, leading to the night of pain and negativity.  I knew this. To leave the suffering as fast as possible I needed to change.  It was frustrating to think about our pace and the pain, so instead focus shifted to every exhale, using the energy and force from that to strengthen the ankle.  Within minutes of beginning this, a strange pattern, where I’d inhale, and then take a protracted exhale, while making a sound like, “SSSCCCCCHHHHHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWWWW” (It sounds almost like “Shoe”, with a very hard emphasis on the last syllable) began. It was, at best, bizarre, and I am grateful Rob said nothing, because the pain in the ankle didn’t bother me anymore.  If I’d stopped the pattern, the pain returned.  So, for the last four or five hours of our journey, I put myself into what was probably the deepest meditative trance of my life, doing this breathing pattern with nearly every step.  I was able to run (apparently right by a giant waterfall without noticing) without anger, with an acceptance of the pain.  I could feel the ankle and knew it wasn’t well, but the pain was gone.  


These last hours, these last miles, existed for me in a state of perpetual twilight.  Positive and negative emotions, good and bad, did not fully exist, but were ever present, ready to fill the ambiguity of my consciousness.  At one point, running a brilliant stretch of single-track, I had the strange sensation that my body was part of the world around it, moving as part of the larger whole. It was not good or bad.  It just was.  I was not working to “conquer” the 100-Mile Wilderness, but was focused on the most basic act of moving.  As we got closer, and I felt the pull of the “finish,” those excited emotions were held at bay, focusing only on inhale.  Exhale.  As we crossed Leaman Brook, I briefly pointed at the sign telling us U.S. 15, and the finish, were 3 miles away, and ran. We ran in silence, save my strange breathing.  Inhale. Exhale. “SSSCCCCHHHHHEEEEEEWWWWWWW.” I caught a glimpse of the MATC warning sign saying you must be prepared for 10 days of travel from where we had just come, and we ran to it together.  50 yards later, we reached the parking lot. 35:32. Done.   

Done. Basically.  We still had 50 yards to go, but this was a good photo op.  Photo: Rob Rives.


As we sat in the parking lot, incoherently calling loved ones to say we had survived, texting McDuffie to see where he was (we had not seen him since mile 13 or so, and he would not finish for another 24 hours), a truck pulled up.  “You two need a lift?  You look like you’re sorta melting into the rocks there.” “Poet,” the owner of Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, had happened to see us from the road and kindly drove us to his place where we were plied with hot food and cold drinks, and made to feel like rock stars as we recounted what had just transpired the last 36 hours to a number of AT thru-hikers.   I have not spent much time in trail towns, but after finishing this burly run, to know there are such incredible people out there willing to support people reaching for seemingly quixotic dreams, well, it is a mighty fine chance to feel good about the world.  The twilight of this run yielded a beautiful day (and a brilliant night’s rest!).  


------


I had never undertaken something of this magnitude before: an unsupported 100-mile run through a wilderness setting.  Four years ago, I believed was the “twilight” of my running career, my ability to achieve audacious things stymied by physical limitations.  More than any other run or race, the 100-Mile Wilderness seems transformative.  Not only did it force me to master long-feared demons, but to confront and control immediate emotions and physical pain.  Rob was a brilliant mentor, and for that, I have few words.  Many other friends have helped me, this year in particular, feel strong and capable of even attempting something like this, from urban adventure runs, to the Tully Trail, to the Hut Traverse, to Joe’s Jaunts (and jaunts with Joe), to strength training, I would not have achieved this goal without the help of so many people.


The recounting of the experience is deeply personal, so I cannot speak for either Rob or McDuffie and their experiences.  I can say, that this is the proudest, and probably most difficult, athletic achievement of my life and that I got to share it with two of the most remarkable human beings I know.  I spent the entire journey with Rob, including two long car rides, and witnessed his possession of an unending store of optimism and grace.  He is the sort of person who will bring incredible good into this world, and make people smile while doing it. He stuck with me through a very dark time, and I will be forever grateful at having shared this adventure (and the car ride both ways), with such a remarkable person.  And McDuffie.  Next year’s edition of Meriam-Webster will feature his picture (with flamin’ red, borderline illegal, booty shorts) next to the word perseverance (and coincidentally, that same picture will be used to define pornographic, hot pants, and indecent).  He is unlike any other, and I would not have had the courage to do this if he had not made it happen. I am incredibly lucky to count him as a friend.  


The whole time we were running, I had to hold my fear and doubt at bay, and be singularly focused on making it to Monson.  The night I left to meet Rob, my younger son, Jacoby, had a temperature of 103.6.  I was ready to call the whole thing off, if I’m honest, a bit relieved I wouldn’t actually have to do it.  But Liz, and even Jacoby, pushed me to go.   As Jacoby said, “Dad, it’s just fever.  I’ll be fine.” I love his attitude, but I was scared as I drove to Vermont to meet Rob.  Scared for my son, scared at what I would be doing. My family, without being asked and with me just doing it, sacrifices a lot for me to have the time and focus to work toward these goals.  It consumes a lot of my time, energy and emotion. I don’t know how I can share my gratitude for that.  As I ran, I was terrified that I would get hurt and not be able to get out, that I would ruin their lives along with mine. It was the unsure twilight between going gentle into that good night by shying away from doing the things you’ve dreamed about for fear, or actually doing it, taking the chance, and giving it a run. On this trip, twilight proved the harbinger of a beautiful day.  I look forward to the next adventure.