"James," I asked the night before. "Do you think I could con you into taking down my tent in the morning and throwing it in my bin? I need to get up even earlier than I have been to get a jump on the others. Our tents are so close together I don't want to wake them."
"Sure. No problem." Sweet James.
It was a little awkward to ask for special help. Up to this point, we were supposed to take care of everything ourselves. In fact, originally, Eric had the idea that we would each have to cook for ourselves in the the evenings. Thank goodness he decided to bring along his brother James, a professional chef. On my previous adventures, I was blessed to have crew to deal with all the logistical details of setting up and taking down camp, helping to prepare packs, and worry about all the other details. It was all I could do to just get up and run. But this time around, I was finding it difficult to take care of everything. My non-running hours were so few, it proved to be a major challenge for me. Still, though I asked but this once, it seemed to open a flood gate. In coming days, the remaining runners seldom had to deal with camp set-up or take-down issues.
I set my alarm for 4 a.m. Since everything was prepared the day before, I merely grabbed my breakfast items and headed up the trail. I was actually disappointed to see several other runners up and at 'em as I passed by the campsite on my way out. I felt pressure rising knowing they would be in hot pursuit, again relishing me to bring up the rear--again. It was quite depressing. But I could hardly blame them for wanting to leave in the dark. The massive heat wave was still in full swing. We were running right into the depths of a pre-heated oven with no promise of quenching water.
The first seven miles went by quickly. I was so pleased that my legs still felt no stiffness or soreness after three long days on the trail. I suppose it was my turtle-speed that protected them. The terrain allowed considerable running in this section, eventually leading to a downhill run on gravel, across the I-77overpass, down a country road, and back onto trail. My progress was good and I was happy with the time it took. But since it was inevitable, Rob came up behind me followed by Anne and then TroyBoy. In fact, we were all together when we descended the hill down to a shelter in search of a spring at about 19 miles. (Eric slept in. He would pass me, however, within the next few miles.) I ended up being last in line to lay claim to the trickle of water escaping from a crack in the rocks. For the first time, I dropped in iodine pills to treat the water. I hoped the taste wouldn't be too bad.
This meant I was the last one to reclaim the trail. I didn't like being last. I could only imagine what the others thought of me. I was doing my best for the circumstances, but my best wasn't even their worst on a bad day. The pressure I felt was intense. I couldn't shake the feeling that they would rather me not be in this event. My speed (or lack thereof) was just too inconvenient for everyone else.
At this point, I could feel the heat rising and my emotions falling. Eric passed me somewhere in there, briefly telling me of going down the wrong trail to the spring. Then he was gone. The trail eventually popped out into the open, immediately raising the temperature about twenty degrees. It was miserable. Then came a footbridge across a river and s surprise on the other side.
"Hey, come over here" a young man shouted. "I have soda, water, grapes, and some other snacks. Want some?"
Do I? Yes! A West Virginia runner, who I did not know, had heard about the Tour and drove an hour to help. He said we were all within thirty minutes of each other. That was encouraging to hear since I figured I was hours behind, standard fare for me. His refreshments did just that as I crossed the road and began the next climb. With only fourteen miles to go, I felt confident of turning in a reasonable performance. Energy good. Legs good. Attitude getting better.
There were more blowdowns in this section, which I negotiated with a sense of normalcy. I glanced at my data card and checked off an intersecting trail two miles later. Then the trail slipped into a rhododendron tunnel that twisted and turned, providing much needed shade. It was lovely and quite runnable. The tunnel gave way to an open hardwood forest, the trail rambling through it like a giant ribbon. There were plenty of little bridges but alas, the streams beneath were simply dry rock. I was getting thirsty again and needed to refill.
Somewhere along the line, the tunnel and forest trail seemed to blend into one big maze. It was like I was getting nowhere, trekking in circles. Every time I came to another bridge, I could have sworn I had already crossed it. I could find nothing on the data card to serve as a point of reference. Round and round I went, not sure if I had somehow doubled back. I was in the twilight zone.
Much to my relief, I finally passed a stream with moving water, filling my pack to the brim and guzzling the fresh water as fast as I could. Then a shelter appeared on the right and my faith was renewed that I was still following the blazes to the north. This meant six miles remained. Easy, right?
Wrong. The climb out of that hole was, as Anne later described it, "heinous." Steep and rocky, it went straight up. I gasped for breath and leaned on my poles to propel me upward. It was incredibly difficult but finally turned to follow the contour of the mountain's ridge line. I also became aware that my feet, especially the right one, were becoming a problem. I could feel that a blister, deep under a callous in the ball of my feet, had formed. A step onto any uneven surface pulled and tore at it. Another equally deep blister formed under my heel callous. Progress was slow and the eventual descent off the rocky mountain trail not at all pleasant.
The outdoor shower washed away the grime but not the hurt and feeling of dread. I found it difficult to bear any weight on my right foot. It was very painful. I began to think of the 46 miles coming up in the next stage. "How in the world?" I mused. I felt depressed and sullen. Even the oven-baked pizza seemed bland and blah.
Rob, Troy, Anne and I slept in a rustic loft that evening. The ladder leading up through the hole in the floor was difficult to negotiate on hurting feet. Three times during the night, I woke up with a cotton-mouth feeling. Climbing down the ladder, I downed several glasses of water before climbing back to my mattress. Then, the process was repeated twice when my kidneys finally responded to the fluid. I massaged my feet with cream and came up with a plan for how to protect the blisters come morning. Though it was still difficult to bear weight, by the time my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m., I had convinced myself that everything would be okay.
"Get up and get going," my Dad used to say. "You'll feel better." I sure hoped he was right. Once I started, there was no turning back.