The Third Run

Essay
Running Down Cancer
The First Run
The Second Run

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. 

The Second Run

Essay
Running Down Cancer
The First Run

The orange full moon I watched rise over the bay last night hangs low over field and forest as I depart for my second run. To move about the world in the early morning hours affords one the chance to witness the beauty and tranquility of the land that few  experience. Fog blankets a farmer’s field and wraps itself around a line of telephone poles, a Great Blue Heron stands motionless on a dock overlooking a lake of glass, and the cool morning air is calm just before the red sun gains the eastern mountains. I step onto the trail that follows an old road into dense hardwoods. The grade is mild, the footing good and there is no other place I would rather be at the moment. At seven in the morning it already feels warm, slightly muggy, and the bugs are already out.  The narrow ribbon of trail on this old road is surrounded by a dense carpet of green that closes in around my ankles. I continually crash through last night’s cobwebs and wonder how on earth a spider can stretch its web across such a large expanse. The trail meanders, leveling out for a time then rolling and dipping, seeming to rise up to meet large trees, their tangle of roots creating steps along the trail. Golden shafts of sunlight slide through their branches. 

Hardwoods subtly give way to pine trees with a sprinkling of birch and the ground becomes springy underfoot. Here the forest is nearly devoid of undergrowth and I can now see much further up and down the mountain side, making for an exaggerated feeling of openness.  As the mountain rises steeply above me I get the feeling that an animal much larger and more powerful than me is watching, perhaps trying to decide if I’d make a good meal. 

Through the entirety of this run, the trail turns from smooth to technical, forcing me to walk and pick my way around small fields of jagged rocks and twisted roots before the trail smoothes out again. Other times it will narrow to little more than a goat path, the land falling away precipitously just inches from the trail’s edge. At times the trail rears up, so much so that it seems I am eye level with the section ahead. 

By nine in the morning, I’ve made it to the trail junction of the New Boston Trail and I take a .2 mile detour down to the shelter to refill my water. As I approach the shelter, an unrhythmic banging drifts up the trail. At the shelter I find a tall man contorted around the central built-in table, trying to sweep out the recesses of the dark cramped little shelter. On either side of the table are sleeping platforms that reach from floor to ceiling. There is heavy wire fence running around the outside with a little gate to let humans in. The man has a cigarette hanging from his mouth, and his neatly arranged pack rests by a tree. He grunts in response to my call of good morning. After a few moments of grumbling and banging around with the broom, he steps out, looks at me and smiles, gives me a more pleasant greeting, then turns back to the shelter and says; “Fucking pigs! It takes ten minutes!” Then he returns to sweeping. As I prepare to leave he jovially wishes me good travels and then goes back sweeping and grumbling. 

By the time I reach the next shelter some time later, I am completely out of water and my inner dialogue of how hard this is is pulling me down. After I fill my water bladder, have a snack and pleasent conversation with a through hiker (A person who hikes a long distance trail all at once.) I feel rejuvenated as I set out again and quickly settle into a steady pace.  My mind, however, is ready to be done, and I keep checking my watch and counting down the miles. I linger for a moment at the junction where the Appalachian Trail diverges from the Long Trail and continues northeast towards Maine. The hum of cars grows louder as I descend through an open forest with large trees and ground covering of a single plant with large green leaves. It is interesting enough to make me pause and look around. Despite the noise of civilization rolling up the mountainside it seems tranquil, almost otherworldly, with the openness of this part of the forest. The land levels out; the sound of cars grows louder. I push through some tall reeds and am at once standing on the side of Route 4 with the traffic barreling by me. After twenty miles and six hours of relative silence, the noise is almost painful and the hurriedness of modern life seems for a moment too much to bear. The simplicity of moving over the land under your own power has a profoundly relaxing effect. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go for a run, I think, as I dart across the busy road to meet my mom.

The First Run

Essay
Running Down Cancer

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.

Running Down Cancer

Essay

The Long Trail is the oldest long-distance walking path in the country, running 273 miles–broken up into twelve sections–that meander over the spine of Vermont from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border. 

It has long been a goal of mine to finish the entire trail and I had completed two sections in my twenties with my then roommate, Ed. Then our lives diverged and the goal was shelved until the early months of 2014. I’d been running steadily since we had moved back to Vermont, two years earlier. Now, in the search to try to prove to myself that I was more than a stay-at-home-dad, I determined I needed to put on the persona of an ultra runner and run the Long Trail. I decided to do it over four years in order to not upset my wife, too much. Not only was I not comfortable with just being a stay-at-home-dad, I was not truly comfortable in my own skin. I had yet to learn that I was already doing what the Lord had called me to do.

That spring my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and running for an End to End patch and a certificate seemed silly. It was then that I decided to turn the run into a fundraiser to fight cancer and came up with the name Running Down Cancer. I knew several people who had had the disease and my dad had died from it. It just made sense. The plan was to raise $20,000 for the American Cancer Society over the four years. It was a lofty goal and when I started the project, my heart was in the right place and my motives were true. But soon I lost my way, becoming too wrapped up in the persona of being a badass trail runner and trying, as I often do, to make something bigger than it needs to be instead of enjoying the moments of growth and progression. 

The first year was a success, but it all fizzled after that. I obsessed about the project and let it consume me. I allowed it to monopolize all of my limited free time, which is a sure sign that my depression is more in control than I would like to believe. Common sense would have you think that in my late thirties I could recognize and heed the warning signs. But I had yet to grasp this. Instead I just fretted over abandoning yet another project and worried that I would look like someone who leaves things half done. Because that is what I told myself I did–someone who shifted focus when the wind changed direction–I believed that about myself and I hated myself for it.

My ego played a roll as much my depression. As hard as it was to admit to myself, the project quickly changed into something that I was doing because I wanted to be noticed. I felt I needed to adopt a persona to put on display because I believed that would make me happy. I’ve done this all my life–put on a persona because I was not comfortable with who I am. I could feel myself falling out of sync with the project, and then I got injured. That was the excuse I needed to stop. That way I did not feel like a failure. Only I did. I was no less lost at thirty-seven than I had been in my early twenties. 

It took until 2018 to stop mulling over all the reasons why I thought I had failed and to finally understand that I had not failed. Ironically, this realization occurred on the Long Trail with Ed. We had taken three days to try to complete the three southern sections of the trail. On the second day, the topic of Running Down Cancer came up, and I told him that I had failed at the project and that I had done it for the wrong reasons. Not one to mince words, he told me I was wrong, that I had accomplished something. In that moment I knew he was right. And while it took some more time to stop berating myself over the project, I have since come to realize that though I did not raise $20,000 for the American Cancer Society and though I did not finish the Long Trail in four years, I certainly accomplished a lot in the 70-plus miles of the trail I did run and the $5000 I did raise. 

More than that, though, it helped me come to the realization that I had been trying on personas my whole life, but I did not need to do that anymore. I am good enough and that is enough. I don’t need to be anything more than a stay-at-home-dad, but I am much more than that. And I am right where God wants me to be. 

 The next three weeks I will be publishing my accounts of the three runs I did the year of the Running Down Cancer Project.