It is the night before my first Running Down Cancer run and I am standing in my parents’ kitchen, the kitchen of my childhood, I can feel my father’s presence more than I have before. It is as if I turn around he will be standing there. Earlier in the evening I had placed a small amount of his ashes into a 35mm film canister—a fitting way to carry him along on my run as he was the one who introduced me to and fostered my love of photography. It is an emotional night but I take comfort in the knowledge that the Lord will help to lead me through this journey.
The next morning at 7:20AM I step onto the Long Trail and begin to make my way up the flanks of Bromley Mountain. This is the mountain where I learned to ski, and when I break out of the woods and onto one of the ski trails, I am reminded of all those Friday afternoons in grade school when Dad would volunteer to drive me and classmates to and from the mountain for ski lessons. I feels wonderful to be running this trail, in part to honor my dad. On the highest point of the summit I kneel down, say a prayer of thanks and sprinkle a bit of my dad’s ashes.
At the Mad Tom Notch road crossing, I am happy to discover that not only does the water pump work but two gentlemen have already primed it, no small task, and offer to pump while I refill my water bottle. Unfortunately I neglect to put my bandanna over the opening and fill my bottle with some of the rustiest water I have ever seen.
As I ascend Styles Peak, the trees change from hardwoods to soft and soon I am running on a carpet of pine needles nearly enclosed in a tunnel of pine trees. I pass the small opening that is the overlook on Styles Peak and then pass over Peru Peak and begin an extremely steep descent. The edges of the trail look as if they have been aerated; it takes me a moment to realize that the holes are from the hundreds of hiking poles that have passed this way this summer. Soon the pitch eases and I am able to return to my normal pace. A sign about bears and copious amounts of moose droppings have me whooping and clapping. My time spent living in the west has conditioned me to do this, but also I am worried that because I spend most of my time looking down, I could run into the back end of a bear before I see it.
Baker Peak is the highlight of this section of trail because from there I get an aerial view of the fields and woods that I played in as a child as well as my childhood home. Dorset Mountain, a mountain that holds a great deal of meaning to me, is carved into my wedding band to remind me where I came from and inked into my forearm as a tribute to my father. It rises up out of the valley directly across the valley from Baker Peak. I had last summited Baker Peak nearly twenty years ago and the image I had in my mind was that of a nearly bald summit with an expansive view. What I find is very different—so much so that I walk past what I think is the summit just to double check that it is actually the summit. Here I also sprinkle a little bit more of my dad’s ashes and say a short prayer.
As I make my way down the mountain and the woods begin to change back into hardwoods, I suddenly feel very small. At Lost Pond shelter, a lazy curl of smoke drifts up through the trees. At the shelter an Appalachian section hiker is taking a mid-day break. She wears a blue bushman style hat with a one side pinned up and a handful of very large feathers tucked into the fold. She tells me she is hiking from the northern border of Pennsylvania to Hanover New Hampshire. When I tell her what I am doing, she reaches into her pocket and hands me a ten dollar bill, saying with a shrug, “I wish it could be more but I have student loans.” This interaction lifts my spirits and I move down the trail a little faster.
The Big Branch River holds a special meaning for me not only from all the days spent swimming in its cold clear pools but also because when I was young, my dad and brother and I hiked into a campsite along the river. It was the only backpacking trip we ever did and perhaps that is why it holds so much significance for me. I have a picture of the three of us sitting on a boulder from that trip that I have carried around with me to every place I have lived over the years. I am nearly eighteen miles into my run and I take a couple of moments to visit the spot where we camped and sprinkle some more ashes. I am eager to get to Forest Road 10 a mile and a half away where my family will be waiting as well as my friend Ed who will run the last several miles with me.
After a quick break where I change into a dry shirt, fill my water bladder, and remove anything I will no longer need from my pack, Ed and I start off, walking at first while we catch up and I eat the most delicious orange I have ever tasted. Ed and I have known each other since high school. We have been roommates, in each other’s weddings and have been on many an adventure together over the years.
Tracing the shoreline of Little Rock Pond releases a flood of memories, from my first backpacking trip when I sat down on a log and tipped over on my back, stuck like a turtle thanks to a pack that was far too big and heavy for my tiny frame. There is a large rock on the west side of the lake that we jumped off on that backpacking trip, and I pause for a moment to look at it, remembering the leeches and wondering if people still jump off of it.
Running again, we move into the forest past an old homestead with twisted pieces of metal set like sculptures on the stone wall. Then we move out of the hardwood forest and into a stand of tall pines. These are larger and more spaced out than the ones at higher elevations earlier in the day, affording a clear view for a good distance and having a slightly spooky quality to them. This spookiness is only enhanced by a large area covered in rock cairns along the side of the trail. We take a two-tenths-of-a-mile-long side trail down to a wonderful overlook. It seems to take forever and I wonder the entire way why I am doing this, but deep down I know it is because I may never make it back to this place. The last mile of the trail is a steep constant downhill over an old road and though my quads are screaming I have no desire to walk and so I continue running, more of a speedy shuffle, as fast as I can with wobbly legs and a foggy head.
We reach the White Rocks Picnic Area after three hours and eight and a half miles. I have been on the move for almost nine hours, covering just over twenty-five miles during which time I have gained 4,726 feet of elevation and lost 5,370 feet of elevation. I have learned a lot on this first run, my longest ever, that I will carry over not only on my daily runs but also my Long Trail Runs to come. Despite my fatigue I feel really good and I am already looking forward to the next run.