Oct 6 2016
It’s 8 am Saturday morning (hour 3 of Xtreme Hike) and I’m slogging up a muddy trail, in sodden socks…with 15 pounds of fruit on my back.
This year’s 27+ mile hike involved a watermelon. I toted it for 7.2 miles. Me & the melon shared Moonstomper trail and Homestead together. We stood atop the rocks at Bear Cliff Overlook — where there was nothing to overlook. Just fog.
But I wasn’t tramping alone with grocery store produce. I partnered with Craig, one of our hikers, and of course, Maisie the Wonder Dog. Martin and 38 other Xtreme participants were scattered along the trails as well.
To back up, my Xtreme Hike 2016 book report begins on Friday morning, with our 4 1/2 hour road trip to the mountains near Blacksburg, Virginia. Along the way, we stopped to grab energy bars and drinks.
And browse the clothing racks.
Mike Johnson snagged some reading material.
When the 5 of us (me, Martin, Annie, Mike and Maisie) finally ascended the mountain road to our destination, “Mountain Lake Lodge,” we could barely see the resort through the fog. (Or “clouds,” as Martin kept saying.)
Fog, clouds, whatever. The hotel and its cottages were blotted out by hazy white. But we had the details: Mountain Lake Lodge is an old resort, dating back to the mid-1800s. And it is best known as the filming site for the 1987 movie, Dirty Dancing.
Hence, the watermelon. Movie fanatics should be familiar with the scene: Jennifer Grey (“Baby”) and Patrick Swayze (“Johnny”) meet, and Grey awkwardly explains her presence in the staff quarters by saying, “I carried a watermelon.”
This spurred Dave Lemen, Xtreme Hike participant and committee member, to create a secret fundraising challenge, which he revealed Friday night: an extra $1,000 donation to the team willing to tote a 15-pound watermelon from start to finish.
Folks weren’t exactly clamoring for the honor. Everyone just glanced around the room. I caught the gleam in Mike Johnson’s eyes and we volunteered “Team Brynn” to ferry the fruit… to the relief of others (and the dazed astonishment of those at our table.)
Fortunately, I was reminded that Craig Connolly was part of our crew. Not only is Craig a veteran of this event, but he’s speedy. Xtreme Hike isn’t a race, but he has finished in front the last three years. (Staff from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation chart each participant’s time through the hike, to keep track and account for everyone involved.)
After dinner on Friday, we readied our packs. And Saturday morning came way too soon. We convened at 4:30 am.
Craig volunteered for Leg 1 of melon transport. And as it happened, Maisie and I kept pace with him for those first 7 1/2 miles. Our headlamps bobbed in the dark and we paused periodically, to snap the light sticks hung the previous day, to guide the way.
In the early morning light, we reached the rest station first. And after a quick snack, we transferred the watermelon into my backpack.
During the first leg, I’d asked Craig about the added weight. He claimed, “It isn’t that bad.” He even said, “Sometimes, I forget it’s there.”
Well, when it was my turn, I did not forget it was there — a solid, 15-pound orb riding my spine. We departed at 7:35 am, and I felt every bulky minute and every weighted incline, until 10:30 am, when we completed the 7.2 miles of Leg 2.
Two sections down, two to go.
I was downright giddy, freeing that fruit from my pack, and I happily left it for the next volunteer (or victim) from our team.
Melon-free, I was energetic and recharged. Maisie, Craig and I blazed through Leg 3. We didn’t discuss the fact that we were leading. Because Xtreme Hike is not a race. The goal is to finish, not to win. But silently, we were thinking: we’re in the lead.
We took a longer break before the last section, propping up our feet. I fed Maisie beef jerky. Then we began the most difficult portion, with the steepest, lengthiest climbs. As the front runners, we had cracked the light sticks in the dark, and adjusted ambiguous signs for those in our wake, but on Leg 4, we suffered a setback:
We were sent out in the wrong direction.
The rest stop staff and volunteers realized the error when the next set of hikers arrived, and questioned the route. They were sent the correct way, while we were radioed to turn around and start over. Stunned, Craig and I retraced our steps as quickly as possible.
Ultimately, our detour tacked on 2.5 additional miles and wasted time. At the rest stop — our start-over-again point, we learned that the two hikers who had trailed right behind us all day, had a 30-minute lead.
We had 6.5 miles to make up the difference.
And that’s when we abandoned our fake, blase attitude about when and how we finished. Though exhausted and sore, we speed-walked at a ludicrous pace, half jogging/half stumbling when we hit rocks and roots. We barely talked — we were too winded — and around each turn we peered ahead for the leaders. When we didn’t see them, we wondered how long we’d sustain our crazy pace.
The hikers ahead of us — nice people, who’d maintained a consistent pace all day — would’ve finished first, had they not been pursued by demented, excessively-competitive maniacs.
At some point along the mountain trail, we caught up with them. They kindly yielded to us on the narrow path… though they had little choice with Maisie trotting behind them, panting heavily and practically nipping their heels.
So, extra miles aside, Maisie, Craig and I were first to hear the cow bell and whooping and clapping at the finish line. That was at 4:23 pm. Afterwards, we shed our socks and shoes, sat down, and cheered the other hikers as they celebrated their final steps. Included, were our teammates who’d heaved the watermelon over those grueling miles to the bitter end.
My thanks to every hiker who hoofed so many miles this past weekend, despite aches, pains and blisters; and also thanks to the volunteers who kept everyone fed, hydrated and motivated.
Finally, my deepest gratitude to the supporters who contributed to Xtreme Hike and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. You’ve taken a step, as did we, in helping Brynn and others with CF.