I want to quit. I want to turn around and go back to the road and call my wife to come pick me up, and then lounge in the Mill River while I wait for her. The thought of these last few miles of trail is absolutely crushing.
Nearly eighteen miles and six and a half hours earlier I stepped onto the Long Trail on the south side of Route 4, picking up where I’d left off a few weeks prior. I am greeted by a sign that warns of the over population of porcupines. Large moss covered rocks and clusters of bright green ferns occupy the ground around spaced out hardwoods. It is going to be a hot day, though right now there is a nice breeze, and I quickly gain elevation as the rocky trail switchbacks up the mountain. My mind wanders to the previous day playing with the kids at Emerald Lake and then stretches back further to the summer before Dad passed away. We had added a week in Vermont to our summer vacation plans. Luke was just six weeks old. It was a joyous time playing in the sand by the water and sitting in the shade of the giant pines even though deep down we knew it would be the last time that we would have this chance.
The trail levels out and the forest has changed before my eyes. I find myself standing in a large stand of pines. The trees are old, stunted and twisted. Inch high little pine trees blanket the ground, tightly packed, making it look like a bright green shag carpet. When I stop to look at the little trees, I notice that the sound of the traffic from the valley has faded away. A feeling of vulnerability and smallness comes over me.
I pass a hiker carrying two gallon jugs of water. I wonder if he thinks it is odd that I am running as I think it is odd he is carrying two jugs of water. I ascend a stairway made of 53 stone steps and have covered nearly five miles by the time the sun starts to peek around Killington Mountain. I stop briefly at a spring just below Cooper Lodge and contemplate taking the .2 mile trail to Killington Peak but decide against it and continue on.
At Little Killington I stop for a break in a little open area surrounded by pine trees. The spot holds a commanding view of Killington Peak, which at the moment is in and out of the fast- moving clouds. Here, sheltered from the wind, the morning sun warming my chilled body, I can really feel Dad just over my shoulder, cheering me on. The next mile takes me thirty minutes; the trail is narrow and crowded with short pine trees that close in around me, forcing me to twist and turn my body to pass. The trail is also extremely technical with large roots and rocks and big drops. It is little more than a goat path and at times I need two hands to make my way along. The slow progress seeds the first nuggets of doubt into my mind. Three miles later the trail is following and old jeep track and I pass a man carrying a tiki torch and perhaps wearing a kilt. Today is the day of passing interesting people. It is 11:30 and I’ve gone 9.75 miles.
Just past Governor Clements shelter a considerably more deteriorated track branches off to the left. High on a tree on this road is a large sign that states the trail is washed out and going down it could result in death. I opt to not go that way. I continue on, running through old tree farms, past crumbling rock foundations and stone walls that mark the boundary of long forgotten fields.
I cross Upper Cold River Road and slip into a forest very different from the one I left just up the road. Here it is steep and rocky, large roots twist along the trail and soft wide pine paths remind me of the woods I played in as a child. I pass another old homestead and the forest mixes with hardwoods and pines. The trail leads out onto a pine-tree and moss-covered peninsula with two rock-strewn and storm-ravaged rivers tumbling past on either side. At the water’s edge I gingerly cross one of the rivers and make my way to Cold River Road, where I run down the shoulder looking for the trail. I feel like a scared animal with pavement, guardrails and cars rushing past. I scurry across the road and slip behind the end of a guardrail, climbing an embankment to a planted pine forest with an old foundation. I have gone 13.5 miles.
Now I run out of the forest and into a meadow filled with apple trees and golden rod. I have been on the move for five hours when I reach my first prolonged steep climb with no switch backs that serves me my first real motivational blow. My body has begun to ache and part of me just wants to be done. I work hard to focus on the positive and keep moving.
I’ve been moving for five and half hours and have gone 15.5 miles. I pass by the tallest stone wall I have ever seen near the top of Round Hill and then start a quad crushing descent down the other side. I reach the Calrendon shelter at two o’clock. I’m a bit behind where I want to be so I only stay long enough to refill my water, leave some cards and snap a picture which I send to my friend Ed with the caption “wish you were here.” He responds, “run strong.”
It is 2:08PM. I have run 16.5 miles over the last six and a half hours. Looking out over the valley I decide that at this point I don’t want to run any more long distances, nothing over ten miles. The first run made me proud. The second run made me over-confident and this one, though not even complete, has taken me down a couple of pegs and by the end it will take me down a few more. For awhile I forget what I am running for. But then Ed’s words come back to me “Run Strong.” I’m not just running for me. I am running for those who have no choice but to stop. For the ones who have to keep fighting no matter how tired and horrible they feel. I’m running for all of those kids who did not and will not have the time that I did with my dad and continue to have with my mom. I begin repeating “run strong” over and over again. I see my dad and mom standing on the side of the trail cheering me on with Erin and the boys.
I’m walking every uphill now and I can no longer see my dad or anyone else but I can hear them. On a gentle uphill with large widely spaced old growth maples, I see a large mushroom on the ground with the word Maggie, a heart, an eye and a mushroom drawn on it. I look around half-expecting to see someone watching me or a little gnome to dart behind a tree. At some point I cross over a road that is well used for the area I am in, and I notice around me several large tents and groups of people. I wonder what it is all about and remember the time as a teenager when the Rainbow people camped in the Green Mountain National Forest near our home. But it is no more than a fleeting thought as I push forward. Eight hours and twenty-one miles down, climbing out of Patch Hollow,I have the incredible urge to lie down right where I am. I would prefer a cold shallow stream but this section of trail, which is relatively smooth, will do just fine.
I’m moving at a snail’s pace. I should eat but the thought of food makes me want to vomit; even getting my tepid water down is hard. I sit down on a log and it feels so good. I’m trying to run strong but the truth is I want to give up. With a mile to go my watch warns me the battery life is about to run out. It is 4:47 and I’ve been running for eight hours and forty-six minutes and have gone 22.6 miles. I don’t want to walk but I can’t run, so I settle into an awkward kind of shuffle. I am not sure there is a part of my body that is not sore. But I’m alive and I’m able to move through this beautiful land under my own power.
A hoot and cheer from Erin is not a hallucination, there she is walking up the trail to meet me. I try to stand a little straighter and not show her how much I am hurting but she sees right through that. We walk the last quarter mile back to the car where I drop my pack and walk directly into the cold stream running along the road. I still have eight tenths of a mile to connect my first run with this one but at the moment I’m not concerned about it. This cold water feels so good that I only move to find a deeper section of stream to put more of my body into.