“Hey, we are cramping up back here…let’s stop for a moment!” These words are not the ones you want to hear at about the 19-mile point of a 31-mile (50KM) endurance hike. I contemplated how the group was doing as I also took a welcome break on a rock outcropping along the trail high on the ridge top of Massanutten Mountain. In all truth, stopping to tend to Jeff’s cramping in his legs did not bother me one bit as it had been the first unplanned stop since we had begun seven hours earlier. I needed it too, as did Clete and John to look at the state of their feet. We were about 3 miles out from the final checkpoint and well within the cut off time so our brief stop was not a problem…
Although we had started the hike at 6:30am that morning the initial idea had come about 18 months ago when Gene and I found we were going to be working at the same office in the Pentagon. While still living in Illinois, I had come across the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s website and had noticed that sponsored an annual 50 KM endurance hike called the Dogwood half Hundred.
I had never hiked that far before with the closest being when I climbed Mt Whitney in California on a 22-mile hike. That had been a tough day, but the idea of completing a 50-KM hike sounding enticing. Gene, although not an avid hiker is always interested in a challenge and thought that with the proper training, would be able to complete it.
With us both together in the Pentagon, I resurfaced the idea on a bleak February afternoon. The gray building outside our window matched the sky as I proposed we have an office challenge by entering the Dogwood Half Hundred as a group. At first there was lighthearted frivolity at the idea of walking this far, but soon the idea began to grow and mature. First Clete, then John bought into the idea of this challenge. What would be our odds of success? What were the odds of training together throughout the Spring? What were the odds be of even actually entering the event?
The last question was answered on the day of opening registration for this year’s event. John, seeking consensus from the rest, wrote a check for $100.00 to cover our 4 entry fees and mailed in the application. Although we all repaid him, the single act of capturing us all and tying us to the challenge was committing.
I immediately set up a schedule of informal training hikes in March and April, in preparation for the hike on April 24th. Clete was my first partner on a hike up Signal Knob in the snow. Then Gene joined the fray on two long hikes as spring spread through the Shenandoahs. Another good friend, Matt, joined in on two training hikes as preparation for joining us but a hectic schedule had him drop from the team prior to the Dogwood. The training hikes became essential for trying out footwear and what to “lightpack”. We all selected light weight hikers in lieu of heavier hikers or, on the other extreme, running shoes. We saw both running shoes and various weight hiking boots later on the hike. John and I carried lumbar packs while Clete and Gene carried small daypacks. Before the hike, I introduced them to Powerbars ™. Interesting enough, three Powerbars ™ were thrown away, unopened, at a checkpoint during the hike. J
As the date drew closer, busy schedules and business trips severely impacted training schedules. We all had been out for some hikes with the exception of John who was playing the odds that his excellent physical shape would prevail. As a statement of fact I could not have picked stronger partners as John, Clete and Gene are all extremely fit athletes in their own right. Maybe is their genetics, their past sports history, or the fact that they all spend enormous amounts of time at the Pentagon Officers Athletic Club, but the fact was these guys were fit; extremely fit. Although I did not fit into their fitness mold, I was relying on my experience and stamina to get me through the entire route.
“The hike will follow several trails in the George Washington National Forest. We will head south out of the camp and take an orange blazed trail up the mountain. At the top of the mountain we will follow the ridgeline south, on the orange blazed Massanutten West Trail, to VA 758 and Checkpoint No. 1. From Checkpoint No. 1 we take the white blazed Wagon Road Trail down to the Little Fort Recreation Area. From this point we follow VA 758 east across Fort Valley to Milford Gap and Checkpoint No. 2. From Checkpoint No. 2 we climb a white blazed trail to the top of the mountain where we turn north and follow the orange blazed Massanutten East Trail to Veach Gap and Checkpoint No. 3. Just prior to reaching Veach Gap, we will pick up the Tuscarora Trail, which runs concurrently with the Massanutten Trail for approximately 7 miles. From Veach Gap and Checkpoint No. 3 we continue north on the Tuscarora/Massanutten East Trail to Shawl Gap where we turn left (west), leaving the Massanutten Trail, and take the Tuscarora down the mountain to Elizabeth Furnace and Checkpoint No. 4. From Elizabeth Furnace we follow the Tuscarora Trail across VA 678, up over Green Mountain and down to Little Passage Creek. We now leave the Tuscarora Trail and turn left (south) onto the orange blazed Little Passage Creek Trail, which we follow to the Strasburg Reservoir. Here we will cross over the dam and follow a gravel service road back to Powell’s Fort Camp and the finish!
CUT- OFF TIME
|# 1||VA 758||5.0||8:30 a.m.|
|# 2||Milford Gap||10.3||10:45 a.m.|
|# 3||Veach Gap||15.4||1:00 p.m.|
|# 4||Elizabeth Furnace||23.2||3.30 p.m.|
|Finish||Powells Fort Camp||31.0|
Assembling in the chilled pre dawn darkness, we made final decisions on what to carry and what to leave behind in the cars. The weather forecast was for clear skies and highs in the 60’s; perfect temperatures for working out over extended period of time. This was welcome as the night before had seen a nasty hailstorm and heavy rains.
As the race started we waited patiently as the runners passed us and then we blended in with the front pack of hikers. The start out of Powells Camp is an intense climb straight up; indifferent to switchbacks. Knowing the climb from previous training hikes we knew what we wanted to do…stay in front of the bottleneck of hikers trying to get up the single-track trail! To that end I set a torrid pace up the trail that ensured no one passed us. In fact we even passed a couple of runners who were resting from oxygen deficit.
Gaining the ridge we allowed all remaining runners to pass us by; never stopping for them, but not hindering their passes. We settled into a pace that brought us to Checkpoint #1 within 90 mins. This was our strategy, as we wanted time in the “bank” in case we got close on other checkpoint cutoffs. You checked into and out of a checkpoint by yelling your number and each stop through the day was professional manned and managed by a great group of volunteers. They provided encouragement, fruit, snacks, and water; all-important stuff!
After the checkpoint we stopped for a 5-minute equipment check and pit stop. Clete whipped out the tape and started to work on his heel.
” Is that preventive or for a reason?” I asked
” A little of both”, he answered
We made good time off the ridge and down into the valley toward checkpoint #2. Gene on a downhill portion, demonstrated how dangerous trekking poles could be by stabbing his shoelace to the payment, nearly toppling him in his tracks. Both Gene and I were using trekking poles as we had trained with them and knew they would be helpful over the long haul.
As we climbed out of the valley Clete and Gene provided a strong presence at the front, pulling us past many runners who had passed us on the downhill. After breezing through the 2nd checkpoint we stopped 500 meters up the trail per our plan and Clete, and now, John, tended to their growing discomfort of their heels. John had wanted to use running shoes, but had switched to light weight hikers at the last moment after hearing our reports from the training hikes how rocky the trail was and how easy it would be to twist an ankle. As we sat along a trail, a guy hiking by smiled and said, “yep, this is the mileage where blisters start to show” After that my only goal for the day was to finish ahead of him.L We did.
Gene led us up the next climb to the opposing ridge and we made good time along an even narrower trail toward Veach Gap at 15.4 miles. So far we had been taking the hike in 5-mile segments but as we headed down to checkpoint 3, we knew the next two legs were about 8 miles each. Somewhere along this ridge, we met Jeff, a nuclear physicist from the DC area who joined our group at the rear, content to allow us to set the pace.
At the checkpoint John and Clete again worked on their feet and Clete, realizing how trekking poles would assist his journey, asked Gene for the use of his. Remarkably, Gene handed the poles over as we left the checkpoint to begin the next serious climb. Gene said he was bored now that he had no poles and said he was thinking about running to the next checkpoint. In the overall scheme of things, I did not think that was the best plan with only half of the hike complete, but he was feeling strong and “poleless”.
He disappeared off the head of the group hiking fast, saying he would meet us at the next checkpoint. I kept the pace steady up the grade and we made progress to the ridge top and over a large knob of sorts before descending back down to the ridge for an additional 3 miles before dropping into the Elizabeth Furnace area. This was probably the hardest part of the hike for most. Gene said he suffered on this leg from a blister forming. I had a painful anklebone rub from my boot, and Clete and John were doing real damage to their blistering feet. Jeff was suffering from cramps….
“Are we ready, are we doing ok?” I hollered up to Clete and John who were waiting with Jeff as he unwound his cramping legs that were as tight as rubberbands.
“Yep, we are coming”, replied Clete.
I hoisted myself up off my rock and continued albeit at a slower pace down the last three miles into the last checkpoint. As we descended, I picked up the pace as going slower was only prolonging the pain. I did not look back to see how Clete, John or Jeff were doing but their presence off my heel was reassuring that they were making it ok.
“When I get to this last checkpoint, I really need to look at my feet and fix them up” John mentioned near the end of the descent.
“There should be a medical tent down there; have them do…as they are the experts” I offered
Walking into checkpoint #4 at 23.2 miles, we saw Gene sitting under a tree eating a snack, resting his bare feet. He had gained 30 mins on the group and was enjoying the rest break, after placing moleskin on his feet. I threw my poles down next to him, took off my lumbar pack and dropped to the ground to change out the inner sock liner for the last 8 miles. After that was done, I walked over to get my water bottles refilled then went to check on John.
I expected to see him all taped up and pulling his boots back on. I was shocked with what I really saw. He was laying on his side with his feet resting up on a cooler while three paramedics worked over his heels. This deserved a closer inspection so I bent over to see what the fuss was about. Ugh! His heels were covered in a mixture of iodine solution, blood, and a antibiotic cream…sort of looked like a pizza topping with some sour crème swirled in…at least that’s what I thought as I munched on a piece of cold pizza from the night before. As I stood there enthralled by what I was seeing, the paramedic began the painful tasking of cutting the now lifeless skin from John’s ankles. I thought I could see huge chunks missing when they were done; John later confirmed this.
John’s performance over the last miles down into the checkpoint had been brave and noteworthy… there is no way I could have walked on feet in that shape. The head paramedic was in the process of talking him out of continuing, while the one still trimming his flesh, expressed the thought that it was his decision and he should see when he was patched up how he felt.
I knew the next and last leg was potentially the hardest with a 4.6-mile climb out of the checkpoint followed by a steep descent before heading into the finish on a level forest service road. The climb was also coming during the hottest part of the day as by now, the temperatures were in the 70’s, higher than the forecast.
I gave John my recommendation. Stop now and take the ride back to finish. I was concerned that if he continued, he would undo the paramedic’s great work, further damage his feet, and end up in a hospital ER that night. I gave him my perspective about turning around short of a summit so you can return safely another day and make it. No shame in that…actually its called being smart.
John wanted to wait and see how he felt when they were done so I went back to the group and we made plans to start up after hearing from John. A few minutes later I went back and watched John being further convinced by the head paramedic to withdraw. John made the only smart decision and said he would meet us back at the start. You could see the disappointed in his eyes, but he was a trooper and said he would wait on us to finish. I wished him well and said we would see him in about 2 ½ hours. The paramedic asked us if we wanted to give John anything we did not want to carry over the last leg, and Clete quickly tossed his entire pack to John; an act he would take constant ribbing for later. He picked up his sole water bottle and was ready to go!
Jeff now replaced John as a permanent member of our group as we prepared to depart the checkpoint. I attempted to persuade Clete and Gene to take more than one bottle of water but to no avail. We left in clouds of gnats from the checkpoint and started up the trail.
We just kept going, never stopping. Nearly two thirds of the way up, Jeff dropped off he back due to cramping but he told us to continue. Thinking we would regroup after the descent, I led us up over the ridge and down the steep descent. Gene thought he broke a blister and stopped to check it. In a grand example of partnership, Clete gave the poles back to Gene to finish up. While Gene was checking his blister I was suffering through my bit of misery as the chaffing felt like it right against the bone. I continued down at a slower pace and waited for them by the creek. They joined me a few minutes later, and we continued down the forest service road toward the finish. As we approached a reservoir and crossed a dam, the Search and Rescue Team had assembled an impromptu water stop and we all refilled our bottles with water for the last 2 miles into camp. After the water stop, Jeff joined us from the rear and stayed with us to the finish. Near the end, sensing he needed to end the pain and check his feet, Clete quickened his pace and moved ahead of us by 100 meters. As we crossed the line, there were 40 or so folks that clapped and cheered all finishers. There was no way you could do anything else but smile, thanking the fans for their support. Gene and I shook hands at the finish line, and then also with Jeff, Clete, and John. At the finish we received our patches:
After eating the best bowl of chili we have ever eaten after walking 50 KM, Gene and I made it over to the medical tent, where John was visiting with Clete. Clete was getting his heels attended to by a volunteer medic. Although not as bad as John’s, his heels were a bit gnarly looking.
We had completed the 50KM in 10 hours and 38 minutes; finishing at 118th place out of 181 finishers. We do not know how many started but it could have been as high at 250. It was satisfying experience; a challenge posed and a challenged surmounted. We were all satisfied with our performance, and barring the injury, John most certainly would have been a finisher.
Back in the office this week John is talking about doing again; unsupported, just to finish that last 8 miles. We are trying to talk him out of it. Meanwhile the heels of the hikers are mending and so are the memories of those last difficult 8 miles. We are ready for another challenge… we are just that kind of office… maybe the Eco Challenge, a 350 mile adventure race next…maybe not…