After a sleepless, soggy night, I was anxious to get a jump on the 36-mile stage. I was the slowest and hence, was asked to start earlier than the others. That was okay by me. More dark meant less sun. The wet ground muffled my movements as I packed away the sodden hammock and gathered my wet pack. I hoped my light would not wake the others, still nestled in their tents. I wanted to steal away, unnoticed. Usually, I embrace solitude.
The trail immediately rose ahead of me as I set in for the long climb. Last night's storm, along with the storm two days prior that had rendered hundreds of thousands without power, wreaked havoc with the trail. As is my habit, I swept aside myriads of branches and limbs laying across the trail, thinking the action as a favor to my friends who would follow in my footsteps. However, after awhile the task proved endless. The damage was extensive and I could barely make a dent in the trail-clearing category. Nevertheless, once the climb ended, the trail began to fall off the mountain in a beautiful, gradual descent. I ran effortlessly, amazed that no soreness or stiffness resulted from yesterday's forty miles. My progress was good and my mood light. I wanted to put as much ground as possible between me and those who would be beginning their journey within the hour. I felt as though I was a mouse trying to stay out of paw's reach of the cat.
As the trail leveled out to cross a foot bridge, I glanced to the side to see a plastic bin containing "trail magic." A local youth group left packages of goodies and a cooler of water to service trail users. The small Cheetos package and baggie full of Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms proved too hard to resist. I was grateful for the unexpected snacks. Later, Anne would ask, "Did any of you eat Fruit Loops? I kept seeing them on the ground. It seemed sort of odd."
The trail rose again after passing through a lush bottom, topping out on a long ridge. Despite the rising heat, a stiff breeze provided an element of cooling comfort. My spirits were good despite endless negotiations with blown-down trees blocking the trail. I glanced often behind me when I heard the leaves rustle or a branch snap. I was sure the other four runners would soon catch and pass me. I pressed on, wanting to postpone that event as long as possible.
I was enjoying this portion of trail but found the path beginning to rise sharply, the trail strewn with rocks that made the footing challenging. Still, I dug in with my trekking poles and made good progress. Finally, at about 28 miles (I think), the first of the runners caught me. Shoot. I was disappointed that my hour and a half head start had vanished. The boys were impressed and perhaps a little surprised that it took them that long to catch me, the old, slow lady of the group. I was demoralized that they caught me at all.
Still, Anne remained behind me. This would be the only time it happened. I was moving well, very pleased that my legs responded to the call to run when the trail once again descended or smoothed out as we neared the town of Adkins, the stopping point for the day. But as would be the case, the miles seemed to be getting longer as time went on. I kept expecting Anne to catch me and almost wished she did when I encountered more massive, fallen trees barricading the trail. It was reminiscent of our SB6K adventure that demanded us to crawl, climb over and around countless tree obstacles. I laughed out loud at the mental picture of Anne falling headfirst and backwards down the mountain three years ago as we negotiated our way around a similar tough spot.
Imagine my surprise when I spotted Rob, who had charged past me an hour before, in the midst of crawling through another huge blowdown. I saw only his butt through the branches. "Nice technique, Rob."
"Ah, I've been here for twenty minutes. I can't find the trail on this side of the tree." He seemed very disoriented.
"Let me help," I said as I went around the end and joined in the search. He was right. No sign of a trail. I crawled back to where I entered and noticed another trail. The tree played a trick by falling directly onto a switchback. "This way, Rob. The trail continues up the hill."
He wasn't convinced. "We would be going south if we go that way."
"Nope. Look. We came from there," pointing to the trail below. "We need to go up." Finally, he was convinced and began to run in earnest as he again passed me. Though we had now entered an open field getting the full brunt of the sun, he flew down the trail in pursuit of Eric and Troy. Those boys were "racing," very competitive with each other even on the second of fourteen days. Not me. I continued on at my own focused but reasonable pace, just glad to arrive at the finish in one piece and feeling fine. Anne arrived perhaps ten or fifteen minutes later.
The waiting van carted us off to the backyard of a work associates of Eric's who lived nearby, but not before we all downed ice-cold sodas or tea. It was a relief to be able to drink our fill without worrying about where our next fluid source would be, as was the case during the day. A hot shower washed away any hardship of the day and a meal of pork and vegetable skewers filled our bellies. This was backyard camping at it's best. After the meal, prep for the next day was required before zipping closed the tent door. I called Gary to tell him about the day, wishing him a happy anniversary. Not too many husbands would be thrilled to mark 35 years of married bliss by having me in a tent far from home. Thank God for my partner in life and his encouragement to pursue crazy dreams.
To encourage sleep, I swallowed a couple NyQuil capsules and eventually found much needed rest. But all too soon, the alarm sounded at 4:30 a.m.asking me to start my day before the others even rustled. I felt rising pressure to step it up. My slowness and later finishes presented logistical difficulties for the others and I did not want to be the anchor that pulled the ship into the murky depths.
James carried me back to the trail and must have momentarily watched my headlight disappear into the darkness. Then, though I did not look back, I heard the van pull out as I made my way across the first field and into the wooded trail, munching on my breakfast apple in hand. The third stage was to be another relatively short day at 38 miles. (Endurance events have a strange effect on the concept of distance.) None of us had any idea of what was to come. Good thing. Perhaps none of us would have ever started.