100 Mile Wilderness Challenge
The Challenge: Can I hike Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness in a weekend?
The answer is YES and this September I became the first first female to start and record a sub 48 hour Hundred Mile Wilderness finish and First Female to set a Fastest Known Time on this section of the Appalachian Trail.*(See foot note)
Start: 4:14am September 15, 2018
End 1:28am September 17, 2018
Total time: 45hrs 14mins (1 day 21hrs 15 mins)
Nineteen years ago, on September 18, at the age of 24, I stood at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, happy and tired after 2,600 miles and five months of hiking. In contrast to the character portrayed in Cheryl Strayed’s book/movie Wild, I was a confident and competent 24-year-old solo female hiker. Like Strayed I’d suffered my share of trauma and angst but worked out much of it on the Appalachian Trail five years earlier. By my mid-twenties I was a trained wilderness EMT, I knew how to eat and dress to stay warm or cool and I had a migratory-bird’s keen sense of direction. I could easily hike 30-50 miles a day for several days in a row and I had developed extra spidey senses around creepy men. Wilderness is my comfort zone. The human-landscape is my real challenge.
Why am I even telling you this? Because I think it’s important for us to collectively change the narrative when it comes to women in wilderness. It’s 2018 and women continue to be underestimated and met with an annoying concern for safety and qualifications. Even now only about a third of thru-hikers are female and only half of those hike solo (1). Maybe it’s the current political events that have me on edge. Maybe it’s the persistent inequality of recognition of men’s versus women’s athletic endeavors. Maybe it’s women’s willingness to believe a false story about gender, and maybe instead of cautioning women we’d all be better off saying “Go for it, if anyone can do it, it’s you!!”
I guess the truth is, a small part of me is proud of the fact that I have, my entire life, persisted with little regard for the naysayers and I hope you will to.
Finding my way back to the trail (jump to the 100 Mile Wilderness part)
Soon after hiking the Pacific Crest Trail I met Jerome and in 2002 we hiked 2,000 miles of the Continental Divide Trail together. A few years later we got married and eventually had kids and moved back to Maine. I took up trail running because it was a good way to fulfill my need for wilderness between nursing babies and supporting my family. As they got old enough to camp for a few days in a row we started taking them out first on canoe trips and then on hiking trips. For the last three years we’ve been section hiking Maine’s Appalachian Trail heading north 10-30 miles at a time.
While part of me is genuinely sated by spending long days winding from one shelter to the next, there is another part of me that itches to “see what’s just around the corner”. The hiking pace with my kids is slow, sooooo slow. Mind numbingly slow. I have learned to hike at least twenty feet behind my youngest daughter while going uphill. I sing loudly, take pictures, examine spider eggs, weird fungus and the trail map while she toils along at a steady, very comfortable 10-year-old-kid pace. I’ve also learned that 8 miles makes for a good family day on the Maine AT. One mile an hour of hiking plus lots of time for snacks, lunch and swimming. At this pace my kids enjoy hiking and that makes it totally worth it. They have become skilled backpackers and have learned to take hiker-culture in stride. As when they were introduced to a self-proclaimed alien hybrid who told them way too much about UFO culture. Or when the over-zealous fire-building Polish man taught them Russian swearwords.
As we’ve ventured down the trail together these last few years I can’t help but think about challenges that would fill my own need for distance and speed and still have me home by the end of the weekend. I started to fixate on Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness as an obvious target for this kind of adventure. This is the alternately beloved and dreaded terminal section of Maine’s Appalachian Trail that goes from Rt. 15 near Monson to the Golden Road at Abol Bridge (the southern border of Baxter State Park). In theory there are no good resupply points for thru-hikers in this section and people are advised to carry at least ten days of food to get from one end to the other. In reality Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson, among others, makes a brisk business of shuttling food and supplies to hikers at points throughout the Wilderness. Also, any north-bound thru-hiker that has come that far on foot from Georgia and takes ten days to hike the 100-Mile Wilderness is going willfully slow.
How fast could I do it?
I knew I wanted to fast-hike the Wilderness but I had no idea how long it would take me. I thought maybe I could do it in 36 hours . . . start Saturday morning, finish up late Sunday afternoon and be back home for dinner. (Silly me!) That Fall I saw that two runner-friends were doing just what I’d been thinking about – attempting to complete the 100 Mile Wilderness as fast as they could. I followed their progress on Facebook but they fell short by about 20 miles due to injuries and rough weather. Their attempt was eye opening in an inspiring and intimidating kind of way. (Incidentally, these same two women are headed out very soon to try again and I have no doubt they will succeed.)
When I began to more seriously research my project I looked to the Fastest Known Time website but was disappointed to discover that there were no women’s times listed for this route. Knowing thru-hikers and their smell-the-barn drive at the end of the AT I’m positive other women have hiked this section in only a couple of days and maybe in even less than 40-hours but no one seems to have documented it. Based on the men’s finishing times I decided I could probably do it in 40-48 hours – and I would document it.
It was also about this time that the Bangor Daily News published a very useful and inspiring article about Barry Dana hiking the wilderness: Penobscot Nation elder runs 100-Mile Wilderness in under 48 hours.
My timing was a bit up in the air. I was going to run the Vermont 100 trail race in July which has a good amount of elevation gain (+18,000’). It would take me a while to recover from that but I didn’t want to wait until Fall when heavy leaf fall and cold wet weather would the make conditions more challenging. I decided to play it by ear and marked a few possible weekends in August and September.
The time is NOW!
The Vermont 100 went perfectly. For the next six weeks I rested, swam, hiked and did some easy trail running. Then, at the end of August I went to Acadia to run 25-miles of Jennifer Britz’s 41-mile birthday trail run. She is a wonder woman trail runner and the fact that I was having fun trying to keep up with her meant that I was recovered from Vermont. It was also on that run that I met John Rodrigue who, fantastically, had run the Hundred Mile Wilderness a few years ago.
The stars were aligning. My ankle and hip felt ok, my heart arrhythmia wasn’t acting up and most importantly Jerome was psyched! We decided to go for it the weekend of September 15-17.
The following week my runner-friend Doug Blasius messaged me and asked when I was going to run my next 100-miler. I told him my plans about running the 100 Mile Wilderness to which he enthusiastically replied “Count me in!”.
Getting real about logistics
A few days later John, Doug and I met at my house to go over logistics. John was super helpful and even lent me his Spot locator beacon and helped me set it up so that I would be able to send out pre-set “I’m still hiking” messages along with my current location and time to a few friends during the run.
Conspicuously absent from the meeting was Jerome but I had a few more days to get him up to speed. I bought a brand new Maine Delorme road atlas from Blue Hill Books and used it to map out the big picture (printed maps are the best!) and came up with seven potential logging road crossings for re-supply points. Most of the sections would be 14-20 miles long with two shorter 7-mile sections for the part I would be hiking through Saturday night.
I also downloaded all the topo maps and Guthook’s app to our cell phones since there would be no cell service for the duration of the trip. And finally, because my dearly beloved, incredibly wonderful husband is not known for his navigational reliability, I bought him the National Geographic trail map of the area and printed out the Maine North Woods Kathadin Ironworks/Jo-Mary logging road maps (repeat: printed maps are the best!) Put all together I was 75% confident that Jerome would be able to drive to the road crossings faster than I could hike to them. The trick was for him to stay within the Maine North Woods gated area and to not get shut outside the checkpoints after hours. I did call the Hedgehog Gate to ask if they thought my logging road route seemed viable and the man I talked to sounded equal parts confident and confused about what I was trying to do. Mostly he wanted me to know there’s active logging happening in the area and that the logging trucks have absolute ROW, and oh, we should probably have a high clearance vehicle because some of the roads were sort of washed out. I also talked to Hippie Chick (aka Kim) at Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson and while she seemed less confident about our resupply plans they did have room for us to stay there Friday night.
Thrown into the logistical mix was that my sister Meg and her 16 year-old daughter Eva had just hiked the 100 Mile Wilderness and we thought it might be fun for Eva to join me for some of the hike. I was excited about the idea but also admitted I was nervous about how and where we could make it happen and if I could reasonably be responsible for her welfare after running all day and on very little sleep. We had a good meeting where I more-or-less made my sister promise not to kill me if I killed her daughter. I so didn’t need to worry. In fact, the next time Eva plans a trip I’m going to take my own advice and tell her “Go for it, if anyone can do it, it’s you!!”.
Once I had the logistics down all that was left to do was to obsess over the weather forecast, paint myself an expedition t-shirt and make a sing-a-long worthy playlist. Oh, and find someone to take care of our animals and a place for my kids to spend the weekend.
This final but totally critical detail was miraculously solved by my friends Clara and Nathan who not only offered to take our kids for the entire weekend but also planned to spend the entire time, along with their own three kids, on a sailing trip. If you are picturing a large yacht complete with flush toilet think again. My intrepid friends thought taking five kids in a tiny motorless boat out to camp on a small Maine island for the sounded like a grand idea. I thought so too.
Which is how I found myself packing up my kid’s camping gear into dry bags while simultaneously packing my own extra clothes and gear into plastic containers. There was a headlamp shortage and some debate over who should get the nicer camping mattress
Finally Friday September 14thcame. I finished teaching, delivered the kids to their new guardians, left pet-care instructions with our ever helpful neighbor Robert, met Jerome at our house after school and together we drove up to the Bangor Airport where I had reserved a surprisingly affordable rental car with high clearance. (And New York plates.)
Doug met us at the airport so we could drive to Monson together. Our first navigational challenge didn’t bode well as we all drove in circles on I-95 attempting to rendezvous the three cars at the Odlin Road park and ride. But finally, all in one car together, our gear packed in around us, we drove west into a beautiful sunset.
We got to Shaw’s Hiker Hostel well past Hiker Midnight (aka sunset) and I felt bad creaking up and down the stairs making final checks on water bladders, watch chargers and gel packets. However, at least one thru-hiker was still awake and eager to talk to us about his experience getting through the 100 Mile Wilderness. He had the typical whipped-look that south bounders do only ten days into their 2,200-mile trip. He warned us that the first five days of our hike would be really hard and that there was no water along much of this section (which was particularly hard for him because he only had one kidney). If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a female thru-hiker it is that men are happy to advise and warn me about everything. Everything. In return they rarely ask any questions or solicit my advice. There’s so much I could tell them.
Before bed Jerome and I spent a little more time going over the maps and confirmed that the first place he would try to meet us would be 11 miles down the trail at what appeared to be a parking lot at the end of a somewhat sketchy looking woods road. It would require us to hike about 500ft off trail. We hadn’t been able to confirm the drivability of the road that intersects the trail near Long Pond Stream and this parking lot seemed like our best resupply option before the Katahdin Ironworks road 30-miles north.
If you are a more visual person here’s a compilation of video from my run/hike. It’s long, but not 45 hours long.
The hike begins
I slept reasonably well and woke at 3:15am to all three of our phone alarms going off. We made some tea and headed out to the trailhead just a few miles up the road. I was anxious to start hiking at exactly 4am. That’s how I am. But we didn’t get to the parking lot until a little after 4 and then there were last minute Spot logistics, photos to be taken and watches to be synced. Finally, at 4:14am Saturday morning Doug and I headed north.
The first eleven miles were easy moving. Of course as fate would have it I forgot to replace the batteries in my headlamp after the VT100. Yes I know full-well to start every new trip with fresh batteries as well as backups but knowing isn’t the same as doing. Fortunately I got lucky (again) and my headlamp faded just as the sun came up around 6:30am. We only had one minor trail-finding incident and that was crossing Little Wilson Stream before we should have. The Appalachian Trail is so heavily used that not only is the main trail well-trodden but so are the billions of side trails to stealth (and not so stealth) campsites and viewpoints. In this case upon crossing the river we came on a few sleepy thru-hikers just getting out of their tents who told us the trail was back on the other side of the river.
Doug and I were mostly sticking together through this section and eleven miles down the trail, right on schedule at 8am we encountered the side road that we were to follow to meet Jerome. As planned he had left a gallon of water on the side trail to let us know he was there and sure enough we found him in the gravel parking lot watching Harry Potter on his laptop. It was a huge boost to know that our most sketchy meeting point had worked – we managed to get to the same place at the same time. I wanted to make the refueling pretty quick so I gave Jerome my headlamp and grabbed some water and a few more gels to get through the next 20 mile section. Jerome was eager to make Doug fresh coffee and I think he managed a quick sip before we headed back out.
Just as we approached the intersection with the AT a pair of runners crossed in front of us. Runners, not hikers. I said “Hey, you look like us” and they replied “Yeah, we’re running the 100 Mile Wilderness in a weekend”. Their t-shirts said Trail Monster Running which is the Southern Maine trail running group that gives out buckles to anyone who can complete the 100 Mile Wilderness in less than 48 hours. It turns out the guy was Ian who happened to be the Trail Monster race director I had emailed a few days earlier to let him know I would be trying for under 48hrs and if I succeeded maybe I could have a buckle? The woman was Emma, his wife. They were clearly speedy and passed us right away. We saw them one more time purifying water at a stream and the next time they passed us they said “If we don’t see you again, good luck”. They were on a mission. Not that I wasn’t. I am always totally serious and committed to every race I do, but perhaps because I am slower and used to never winning I don’t take myself as seriously. I was looking forward to being the first women to record a sub-48hr finish, but I knew I would only be the first, not the fastest. So when I saw Emma was out there too I decided not to let it change my run, we were going to have totally different experiences doing the same super-cool thing and I would be super-impressed with anyone doing this regardless.
It was about then that I lost Doug. I had started ascending Barren Mountain and I was feeling really good. I love to climb, going uphill is my happy place. It’s why I have thighs that don’t fit into regular jeans, and it’s why I look for races with more hills not less.
Doug and I discussed our strategy before we started – what were our goals and how much would we stick together? I am definitely more comfortable moving alone on the trail which is why I’ve never had a pacer in longer races. But I’m not opposed to good company, especially if they are independent and self-sufficient. Doug is a retired merchant marine and all around good guy. He is a cheerful, easy-going runner and on the slower side like me. He was excited to complete the 100 Mile Wilderness in under 48 hours and like me he really wasn’t sure if it was going to be possible on the first effort. For me it was really important to finish under 48-hours and if at any point that seemed impossible I was willing to quit so as to conserve my energy to try again with whatever knowledge I’d learned from the first experience. Plus, Jerome and I had to be back home by Monday afternoon. With this knowledge we agreed to start together and if our paces diverged we would let the other person go ahead.
Even so, not hearing him behind me made me worry a tiny bit. I continued up over Barren Mountain and somewhere before Columbus Mountain stopped to filter 1 ½ quarts of water. It was hot and really humid and even though I drank an entire gallon of water on this 20-mile section I was still thirsty. Lots of people bemoan this ridgeline because of how “hilly” and long it feels and it’s true. I thought I was at the summit of Chairback several times before I made it to the actual signed summit. However, I would argue that the beauty of remote Fourth Mountain Bog makes this section worth the effort. It was late afternoon when I made it to a part of the trail that I remembered well, a pretty mossy side hill and I knew was within a mile of the Katahdin Ironworks road. It was an hour over my estimated arrival time so I was quite happy when I saw Eva coming up the trail to greet me.
In addition to Jerome, Meg and Eva, I was surprised to see two of my favorite race directors at the road crossing. Valerie and Mindy are the race directors in charge of the Riverlands 100-Mile Endurance Run in Turner, Maine and are the chief reason for it’s great success. They were assisting Emma and Ian during their run and I can only imagine they would be the perfect trail crew for this sort of thing. Since their runners had already come through they were packing up to head to the next road crossing.
Now I began to worry about waiting for Doug. It was 5pm and I didn’t know if he had a headlamp, I figured he was at least an hour behind me if all was going well, and if not, that last boulder field would be hard to negotiate in the dark. Jerome said that after Eva and I left he would hike back up the trail with a headlamp to look for Doug but we didn’t plan much beyond that. It’s all fine and well to say you’re running independently but in the end it’s impossible to not feel responsible for your friends.
As I mentioned it was really humid and I was really sweaty. The consequence was that I was fighting off some chafing by using a sample packet of anti-blister stuff given to me at a previous race. It wasn’t working at all and was maybe making things worse. I changed my shorts, sprayed my thighs down with my regular product and hoped for the best. Eva and I left the road around 5:20pm, easily crossed the West Branch of the Pleasant River and headed out toward Gulf Hagas, West Peak, Hay and White Cap Mountain.
Soon after we left Doug showed up. He was eager to continue hiking but Jerome wasn’t sure how he was going to logistically support both of us, now an hour apart. Doug was disappointed but he agreed it would be easier if he took on a support-crew role from here on out. This was the part we hadn’t thought through very well but what became obvious is that either two people would have to commit to sticking together or each have their own crew. I was bummed that Doug had to give up his own effort just because he was slightly slower than me but I also didn’t trust that my own pace was fast enough to finish in under 48-hours and so wasn’t comfortable slowing down to wait for him.
Eva turned out to be a fantastic fast-hiking partner. I could hear her taking long walking strides behind me as I “ran” ahead down the trail. She has an amazing spatial memory especially considering she had hiked this section in the opposite direction. She kept giving me descriptions of what was coming up, mostly detailed variations of “oh yeah, there’s another really steep part coming up”. In reply I rewarded her with some spectacular burping. It was like my digestion had a built in altimeter and as soon as we started going up I would start loudly burping again. I reassured her that burping is a good sign because it meant I was not likely to start puking.
After four steep, long climbs we reached the lovely summit of White Cap Mountain. It was 10:20pm, almost warm with a light breeze and the brilliant orange crescent moon was setting over the dark valley below. It’s moments like this that make me grateful for being able to get myself into these situations.
Headed back down the mountain Eva’s headlamp caught a flash of something white up on top of a boulder – it was the infamous White Cap Dalmatian dog statue. I don’t know how she was so calm when she pointed it out to me because that thing is super creepy! Equally creepy was the silent guy standing by his tent with his headlamp on watching us as we passed by Logan Brook Lean-to.
We hit Logan Brook Road ahead of schedule (just shy of midnight) and Jerome and Meg were still asleep in their cars. We woke them up along with Doug who I was happy to discover sleeping in a tent nearby. When he heard me he jumped up ready to run this next section. Before I could get going again I had to deal with the very painful rash that was now covering much of my legs down to my knees. Upon inspection it became obvious that I was having an allergic reaction to the free-sample stuff I had used earlier. I took the time to hose the whole area down with water, cleaned it with anti-bacterial wipes and covered as much of it as I could with sterile gauze. I felt some relief and hoped getting the offending goop off me would help. Eva was having a good time and feeling good so she decided to join me for the next 7-mile section as well.
I don’t remember much about this section as it was dark and the middle of the night. There were a few blow downs but nothing as bad as had been reported. There was a 1,000 foot climb over Little Boardman Mountain but it must have been mostly smooth trail because I don’t remember it. Soon enough we were at the Johnston (Kokadjo) road crossing. I downed some hot ramen soup and was feeling fine – not sleepy at all even though the only caffeine I’d had was from a few gel packs and a bottle of Guayusa tea around sunset.
It was close to 3:30am and both Eva and Doug were happy to keep running. Especially since the next 7 mile section was supposed to be “all downhill” and very runable. Again, I don’t remember too much of this section though I think we did run a good bit.
I might know more about how I moved through these sections if my GPS watches were doing what they were made to but ridiculously they were both acting up. I had set the Sunnto to the less accurate but super-long battery life mode and I thought I had cancelled the auto-pause feature but early on in the run it kept auto-pausing and missing huge sections because my uphill pace was so slow. So I switched it over to Trekking mode which took care of the auto-pause problem but unbeknownst to me also switched it back to the highly accurate GPS track mode and thus killed the battery after only 20 hrs. The reason I brought along two watches is because lately my Garmin Fenix 2 has not been reliably storing data after long runs, plus the battery always dies after 12-15 hours. I had it on as backup and I thought it would continue to track even when plugged into a battery charger but that’s not what happened. The consequence is that I have several non-contiguous tracks that cover the span of weekend with varying degrees of accuracy.
Regardless of pace, the sun coming up through the open woods was very pretty as we approached the Jo-Mary Road. It was about 6:20am and Eva had just hiked/run her first ever 50k over a mountain range through the night. She was was finally ready for some rest. Doug however was still fired up. More ramen soup and I stuffed my pack with Gu and Hammer gels and Square bars as the next section to Nahmakanta Lake was 14 miles and it would be midday before I saw Jerome again.
The first half of this section was lovely early morning running. We hit Antlers Campsite along the side of Jo-Mary Lake just as the lazier (aka faster) thru-hikers were rousing themselves. Happily I ran into a few of the thru-hikers I’d met while hiking with my family two weeks earlier, they were my kind of people – content and in no rush to finish the trail but moving along at a smooth, efficient pace. As they caught up and passed me I told them that my brother Turtle Traxx was camped ahead at Namakanta Lake doling out trail magic, including, he had promised me, freshly grilled burgers. They picked up their pace and I tried to do the same but as I watched them nimbly fast-pack ahead of me I tried to match their movements and I just couldn’t do it. 28-hours of continuous movement was starting to take a toll.
Somewhere around Twitchell Brook I lost Doug again. This is also where the trail started to feel incredibly tedious. It was hot, I was tired and with no notable landmarks I trudged on following the rooty, slightly uphill path along Namakanta Stream. Each twist and turn looked like the next. I was out of water but unsure how much longer it would be and if I should take the time to purify more. Without water my bars were too dry to eat so I was forcing down gels just to stay on top of calories. Every yellow or red-leafed tree in the distance looked like a possible man-made object signaling that the trailhead could be near. But no, just another pretty tree.
Finally around 12:45pm I heard the familiar cry of “Moose Poop!” coming from down the trail. It was my twin brother Leith (aka Turtle Traxx). Phew. I happily sat in his camp chair and enjoyed another pot of ramen while the thru-hikers sat around me enjoying the trail magic and a different kind of pot. Doug arrived just as I was heading back out and he decided to rest up so he might be able to join me for the final push. All I wanted to do was jump in the lake to rinse off and cool down. I must have been really thirsty because that’s usually the only time swimming sounds fun to me. Alas, Nahmakanta Lake seemed to be only ankle deep for at least a hundred feet out and the effort of taking my shoes off and wading out that far felt like it would take too long. So I simply splashed my face and continued down the trail. I was 74 miles in and had 16 hours to hike the final 26 miles. I was sure, barring disaster that I could come in under 48 hours. Still, applying the mental discipline I’ve learned from the last five years of running trail ultras, I tried hard not to think that far ahead. Knowing that I was going to be awake and moving for an additional 16 hours on top of the previous 32 would be more more depressing than motivating.
Ahead of me was the most maligned hill of the entire 100 Mile Wilderness: Nesuntabunt Mountain. I was winding my way slowly, too slowly past the lake, past Wadleigh Stream Lean-to, up the first hill and was just about to start the final climb to Nesuntabunt when I saw two hikers coming toward me. Not hikers, runners! It was Jenn Britz and John Rodrigue. They had been following my progress via the Spot notifications and came to meet me. Grateful for the conversation and company we were at the top of Nesuntabunt before I knew it. John insisted we hike to the viewpoint – which psychologically felt like a ½ mile side trail over huge roots and boulders but in reality was more like 100ft detour, and yes, totally worth it. Katahdin’s summit was shrouded in fluffy clouds but I could see the low green hill of Rainbow Ledges in the distance and the fact that I could see it made it feel within reach.
We hiked fast down the mountain, winding around Crescent Pond for what felt like way too long. Up to this point my energy felt consistently good but now I noticed that I didn’t have anything extra – no actual running was happening, just steady fast(ish) hiking. I realized I was really hungry and found myself fantasizing about ramen noodles, big wads of bread and jam and cold cans of coke.
We hit the final road crossing, Pollywog Stream Bridge, a little after 5pm and I said goodbye to Jenn and John. In my head I wanted to be back on the trail by 5:15pm, but I had a lot to take care of. I put fresh batteries in my headlamp and packed a set of back-ups (go me!), my feet had just started to hurt but I ignored them, I slurped another pot of ramen, made a few “sandwiches” by mashing lumps of sprouted fruit-nut bread together with marmalade and stuffed them into a plastic bag to bring with me and downed the coke that my brother magically put in my hand.
The best part was that Jerome surprised me by deciding to run the last 17-mile section with me. Doug and Leith had him all geared up with their hiking poles and hydration pack but he wore his own ancient, wafer-thin, duct-taped sneakers and brought his own special, terrible sense of humor.
We headed out a little before 5:30pm, excited. This was it. I was going to complete this adventure and I had my best friend with me. The euphoria subsided after a mile when I checked my pace over what felt like super-tedious rocky terrain and then started doing mental math (remember, never do mental math during an ultra!). Oh man, 6 more hours? 8 more hours? If things smoothed out could I do it in 5?
So far my digestion had been fully cooperating but now nothing sounded good. My stomach was rumbling with hunger but I was literally too tired to want to eat. My pace slowed correspondingly. Which frustrated me more. We passed Rainbow Stream Lean-to and it wasn’t the first time that day that hikers asked us if we were “Doing that race?”. Apparently three runners heading north on the same day was newsworthy. But no, we reassured them, it was purely coincidental, not an organized event. They cheered us on anyway as we crossed the bridge waving our poles overhead. That was the beginning of the end for me. I started swearing and cursing at the rocks and routes, mad that I couldn’t move faster, mad that I wasn’t going to finish by midnight, mad that I had taken so many breaks earlier or hadn’t run when I could . . . All of these were ridiculous self-sabotaging thoughts and none of them made the situation better. Thankfully Jerome saw through my black mood and happily skipped ahead narrating every delightful and non-delightful aspect of the trail. “Oh look, a flat section, time to pick up the pace . . . oh wait, more roots and rocks, sorry about that . . .”. Shortly after passing Rainbow Lake we turned on our headlamps.
I asked Jerome to take over keeping track of distance and time and he did his best to oblige his very picky, very grumpy wife. He kept saying things like “I think we can hit the beaver dam by 8:23, unless that’s where we are right now”. When I asked him what mileage or time his watch said he wouldn’t tell me because he hadn’t remembered to start it until 30+ minutes after we started. Of course – because this really was meant to be the weekend of watch failure. Anyway, at this point what I really needed wasn’t a timekeeper but someone willing to tolerate my extreme negativity and to keep me from sitting down.
My brain was so so tired. Too tired to change my mood even though I knew that’s what I needed most. I knew that if I could just settle into my pace and let my mind go I would get there eventually and with time to spare. That started to happen as we headed up Rainbow Ledges, which un-coincidentally was also minutes after I had spied a snickers bar in Jerome’s pack and demanded he hand it over. That was the last thing I remember eating. I also ceased being able to talk or process anything complicated that Jerome was saying. By complicated I mean anything that required forming an image in my mind. We hit Rainbow Ledges at 10:18pm and saw the sign that says 6 miles to Abol Bridge. To the average runner six miles is an easy short hour away. To an ultra trail runner that has been awake for 40-hours six miles might as well be 600.
It was about then that I started to have delightful visual hallucinations. There are lots of little animal holes tucked under the roots and rocks on and beside the trail and every time my headlamp caught sight of one of these holes I saw a small animal duck inside and then turn around to peer back at me. With every sweep of my light I was surrounded by friendly, cartoonish voles, salamanders, frogs and squirrels. It was cracking me up but I was too tired to explain to Jerome what was happening. There was also a (real) Barred owl calling from somewhere above Hurd Brook Lean-to and a giant (real) northern leopard frog on the trail.
During the last few hours of hiking the only mental process that felt manageable was inwardly chanting the two-syllable mantra given to me many years ago during an initiation into Neelakanta meditation. That and a single stark line from song Meg Chittenden taught to our community singing group last year: “Holy Mother full of grace awaken, all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken . . .” I don’t know why my brain chose these words but I clung to them as my feet moved forward.
At one point, after what felt like infinitely more hours of hiking I took the map back from Jerome to glean some morsel of hope, surely we must be getting close? I sat down just long enough to read that the next landmark was described as “Pass through an interesting area of large boulders and large hemlock trees.” I thought to myself “Right, because the rest of the trail is covered in average looking boulders and hemlock trees.” I tossed the map back to Jerome and kept an eye out for interesting large boulders. It was after midnight and I had become fixated on the idea that I really wanted to finish by 1:14am as that would make for an even 45 hours. But I also only had one speed.
Hurray! We finally hit the bogwalk that signaled we were within a half mile of the finish. We were both surprised to find we could easily run the lovely smooth wooden planks. It felt like a moving walkway and was quite satisfying after the last few hours of tediously rocky trail. This section is short lived however and for at least a few more minutes we were back to the drudgery of uneven trail. But then, there it was, THE SIGN.
We were here, finally, the end. I was going to get to sleep really soon!! We saw headlamps up ahead and called out “Moose Poop!” and got a resounding reply. Doug and Leith were waiting for us and had even put out the camp chairs for our arrival. I told Jerome to hit the Spot for one last recording but seems it never got sent. Plus his watch had died (yup) somewhere near Hurd Brook Shelter. So our best guess at my actual finish time is a time-stamped photo of me sitting in a chair perched on the side of the Golden Road which reads 1:28am Monday September 17. 45hrs and 14mins of continuous movement. I sat down in Leith’s chair as Jerome was pulling something out of his pack. He asked me if I swore that I had just completed the 100 Mile Wilderness in less than 48 hours, perplexed I said “I think so?” and then he handed me one of the Trail Monster 100 Mile Wilderness Challenge buckles. Wow! Now that’s some pretty cool trail magic. Apparently Valerie and Mindy had given it to him the previous day and made him promise to keep it a secret. It was a really great ending, and even though I had started this whole thing as a personal challenge, it was super-fun to be part of a small group of recognized trail runners that have done the same thing. According to Leith, Ian and Emma had finished around midnight, giving Emma the Fastest Known Time for a woman to complete the 100 Mile Wilderness challenge and making us the first two women to do so in under 48 hours. I don’t know them but I was wishing they were there so we could celebrate together.
My desire for any kind of celebration waned quickly as I started to get very cold and shivery. I downed 40 grams of protein powder mixed in a quart of water and we drove to the Abol Bridge Campground where I had reserved a cabin for us. I took a brief shower to warm up and wash the crust off and then fell deliciously into my sleeping bag. I woke up an hour later in a cold sweat like I had just broken a high fever, which may have been the case. Adrenaline does weird things to a person.
The next morning wasn’t terrible though I’d only slept fitfully for five hours. The main issue was that my feet were swollen and throbbing and they really didn’t want to be below waist height for more than a few seconds. We said goodbye to Leith who was headed back into the wilderness and Doug, Jerome and I went into Millinocket for breakfast at the Appalachian Trail Café. It was their second breakfast but my first real meal in three days. I ate happily and well while Jerome napped in the car.
I knew the recovery from this would take some time but even so, no one ever knows what it’ll be like ahead of time. In this case my body felt ok. No major aches or pains, just general and profound fatigue. Monday afternoon we picked the girls up from their cross-country practice and all I could think about was how I needed to get us all into bed as fast as possible. But they were filled with hilarious stories from their own weekend adventure that had to be told. My brain could hardly form images as they chattered away at me but it was a delightful reunion just hearing the joy in their voices. Despite getting into bed at 6pm, I didn’t sleep much, still too much adrenaline. I taught for nearly ten hours the next day and though my feet weren’t quite as tender, I sat as much as I could get away with. The brain fatigue persisted for nearly a week. I was slurring words, forgetting names and slow to process the most simple questions. Also, I don’t know if this is a normal kid-reaction but my children generally go in for full emotional-neediness right when I want to check-out the most. For several nights that week both kids needed lots of listening and snuggling and reassurance about problems large and small. All week my brain felt tender and raw and all I desperately wanted was to curl up into a tight ball, sob, and be petted to sleep like a baby.
It’s been two weeks and I think I’m back to my regular self. I’ve been on several short runs and doing lots of yard work but no complicated mental math or logic puzzles. Eva bounced back after a few hours of sleep and went on to run a 13 mile trail race in the white mountains the following weekend. Doug also seems to have bounced back and has already been back on the trail hiking out and back on that last 17 mile section over Rainbow Ledges. It took Jerome’s feet a few days to recover from the bruising they took and it didn’t take him long to buy a new pair of sneakers. Yesterday we had a mini-reunion with Doug, Eva, Meg, Jerome and my daughter Georgia all running the trail races at Hidden Valley Nature Center.
Overall the 100 Mile Wilderness Challenge was a true success. Spending time with Jerome and working as a team on this project was a real highlight. Having my sister and brother meet me out there and hiking with Eva through the night was also amazing. Doug, Jenn and John joining me for parts of the run brought out all the warm-fuzzy trail running community feelz.
I got lucky in so many ways. The weather was amazing. I didn’t have to deal with layering or changing as it was warm and clear the whole weekend and I wore the same t-shirt and two pairs of shorts the entire time. My digestion stayed steady for the first 40ish hours, I never slipped or fell, the trail was easy to follow and my crew navigated the backroads effortlessly! So many people helped along the way and so many happy coincidences made the planning easier. I hope to pass on my good fortune to Doug and any others who need support or information about hiking or running the 100 Mile Wilderness.
Long-live Wilderness, Adventure and all the people who make it happen!
As I mentioned above Emma Barclay ran the Hundred Mile Wilderness the same weekend I did. She started 45 mins after me and ultimately completed it two hours faster than I did. Hence as of this writing she is the official holder of the Female Fastest Known Time for this route. Because I started before her I set the first FKT.
For data-nerds here are my resupply/checkpoint times (determined via Spot and time-stamped photos).
|Checkpoint||Spot check-in Time||Aprox. Total miles||Aprox. miles to next point|
|Logging Rd 11 miles from start of section||8:35am Sat.||11||19|
|KI Road||4:55pm Sat.||30||14|
|Frenchtown/Logan Brook Rd||11:50pm Sat.||44||7|
|Johnston Road||3:20am Sun.||51||7|
|Jo-Mary Road||6:30am Sun.||58||15|
|Namakanta Lake||12:50pm Sun.||73||8|
|Abol Bridge||1:28am Mon.||100|