I didn't manage nearly as much training as I'd intended to, but I did enough to figure that I could survive hike day. There is a shuttle bus for 50K hikers to their start point (at White's Ferry). The shuttle goes from the Shady Grove metro station, so it made sense to stay at a hotel out that way overnight and not deal with potential metro delays. (I actually stayed in Gaithersburg both Friday and Saturday nights, figuring that I'd be tired enough not to want to drive all the way home after the hike. That was definitely a good decision.) Suzanne flew out from Los Angeles on Thursday and was staying at a different hotel nearby, by the way.
Finding the shuttle bus in the morning was slightly challenging since the directions said to go to the "old parking structure." It would be better to identify that as the 2-story parking structure since the new one is 6 stories and relative height is a lot more obvious than relative age. Still, that was the only real glitch in an extremely well-organized event.
On arrival at White’s Ferry, we picked up our bibs and signed the liability waiver. I had filled out the medical form on-line, but others did it on site. We also got a handout with a map and miscellaneous information about the hike. Then we had a bit of a wait for the official start time. Finally, hike director Mike Darzi gathered us around, gave a short talk, and we were off. I am towards the left (facing sideways and wearing a blue plaid hat) in this picture from the start point:
The first stretch of the 50K hike was actually going back towards Washington for about 3.5K. People started bunched off and gradually spread out along the way. Suzanne was, of course, already way ahead of me, allowing her to get this picture of me while I was still out-bound and she had already turned around. By the way, the turn-around point was well marked with people and bicycle patrols, so it would have been effectively impossible to miss it.
50K hikers don’t need to check in when they get back to White’s Ferry, but they can still avail themselves of the support station there. I grabbed a peanut butter sandwich for an early lunch, which I ate while I continued on the path. The next support station was at the 17.5K mark at the Moncacy River. I had stopped a little before that to use a port-a-potty, bandage a developing blister, and change socks. That enabled me to fall in with a group of people who were also changing socks at that point, and we would walk together off and on for much of the day.
Because I had made that atop, I pretty much just checked in and out at the Monocacy River support station, other than refilling my water bottles. (I had my platypus water system filled with plain water and a small bottle of water which I added half a nuum electrolyte tablet to. This combination worked very well for me.) Should one have needed it, there were plenty of food options and a first aid station available there.
The next stretch was 10K to Point of Rocks. This was actually the hardest part of the hike for me, primarily because of the one thing I had not brought along – namely, insect repellant. I felt surrounded by gnats and, combined with growing blisters, was wondering exactly why I was doing this. There was an Amtrak train passing by and I thought about how nice it would be to be sitting comfortably watching the same scenery passing by. But I gave myself a “you can do it” lecture and kept pushing on. When I got to the Point of Rocks support station, I got a bowl of soup and took off my shoes. By the time I was done eating, I felt ready to re-bandage my feet, change socks again, and push on.
I felt really good for a while after that. The Brunswick support station (aka Camp Flamingo) was 10.6K away and I enjoyed the first 7 or so kilometers of that. I was starting to fade, when one of the people on bike patrol asked me if there was anything I needed. I had plenty of water and snacks, so I said, “no.” And she said, “okay, how about a joke?” That’s an offer I never turn down and it proved to be just what I needed. By the time I got to Camp Flamingo, I realized what I really wanted was caffeine. And, right at the entrance to that support station, there was a nice big urn of coffee! I’m normally way too much of a coffee snob to drink commercial coffee, but it was exactly what I needed at that moment. I also decided that it was a good idea to get a more professional job on my blisters, so stopped by the first aid area. Patched up (and with a final change of socks), caffeinated, and refreshed (I also ate an orange), I was ready to go on. (By the way, I see now that there was supposed to a map of the final leg as a handout at this station. If there was one, I never saw it.)
The group I had been walking with off and on decided to drop out, largely because one guy’s feet were in bad shape. But I soon ended up walking with a woman who had done the hike 4 times before. Eventually we reached the spiral metal staircase up to the footbridge over the Potomac to Harper’s Ferry. I’d worried about missing this point, too, but there was a volunteer on hand to make sure people turned off the towpath to it.
The towpath is very flat but the route through Harper's Ferry involves a steep uphill climb. That's on a sidewalk, but still, it is a steep uphill climb at a point after you have already walked more than a marathon. Still, there's just about a mile to go at that point, so there really wouldn't be any reason to quit. I trudged onwards, telling myself "one more step." And, then, there it was - the finish point at the Bolivar Community Center! The first thing they do is take your picture.
I'm not crazy about the photo since my hair is a mess (thanks to the hat during the day and my headlamp after dark). And I am slouching. I should have at least taken my hands out of my pockets! But, still, I am smiling because I succeeded.
I ate some pizza while waiting for the bus back to Shady Grove. I tried to call Suzanne (who had, of course, finished hours earlier), but had no cell phone signal, so had to wait until I was back closer to civilization. During the ride back, I dozed off a bit, but I was happy and satisfied.
So, what worked well and what didn't? My water strategy was very effective. I am also very happy with the new headlamp I'd bought at REI. And bringing a few changes of socks worked well for me.
My biggest failure was not realizing I would need insect repellant. I also brought way too much food with me. I had cheese crackers, salmon jerky, and my favorite trail mix (Trader Joe's makes one with just cashews, almonds, and chocolate). There was enough stuff and of enough variety at the support stations that bringing all that along was really unnecessary. The other thing I noticed was that the things that hurt during training didn't, but new things did. For example, I'd put a heat patch on a spot on my back that had hurt on some of the longer training walks, but it was my left hip that annoyed me during the hike. Similarly, the blister pads I'd put on my little toes worked well, but I got blisters on the part of the balls of my feet towards the instep. And, on my right foot, which normally never gets blisters, no less! I guess the message is that you can protect only against some problems, but there will be unanticipated ones.
Overall, I am very very happy that I did the hike. It was a good, but achievable, challenge. The Sierra Club volunteers did an excellent job with running the support stations and having the bike patrols and just, generally, anticipating needs I didn't always realize I had. I would definitely consider attempting the 100K at some point, though not for a few years.
I should add that I recovered surprisingly quickly. I was able to socialize more or less normally at a party at a friend's house the next day, for example. And I was back to my usual whirl of activity the next weekend. But that's another (yes, overdue) entry.