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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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"Are you experiencing any cabin fever? And don't know what to do with all your spare time? I can't wait to see you and hear about the trip."

- Steve Michael, ultra running friend


Beautiful plaque Jim had made to commemorate our AT Adventure Run. What a fine surprise!

 Jim cruises into the aid station at Long Mountain Wayside during the Mountain Masochist Trail Run.  10-15-05

Steve is our buddy from Atlanta who ran with me the first two days of this adventure run. We stayed in contact throughout the trek, and his support and  encouragement meant a lot to us as we journeyed north.

Steve also has a good sense of humor, as his recent e-mail indicates. Even though we're retired, Jim and I have been pretty busy in the three weeks since we got home and there hasn't been much of what we'd call "spare time." So we got a chuckle out of that question.

I can't begin to imagine the transition from the Trail to a job right away! I don't know how anyone could concentrate on work within days of finishing a long trail, even if they were crewed and didn't spend the nights on the trail (which would make it even more difficult).. Maybe focusing on work helps facilitate the transition for some folks, though.

Anyway, we're happy we got to spend some time this past weekend with Steve and his wife, Bev Oberer, at David Horton's nearby Mountain Masochist Trail Run, which Jim, Steve, and I have all run several times. It was my first ultra and Steve's first 50-miler. It's one of my favorite races to run or work.

Steve chalked up his seventh finish in this difficult 54-mile race in the Appalachian Mountains near the Blue Ridge Parkway a bit north of Roanoke, Virginia. I didn't run the race this time but Jim ran quite a bit of the first half with Steve, so the guys got to talk together a lot.

Jim made it to 41 miles and decided to drop at that aid station. There was no cut-off there, but the volunteers told him he had only ten minutes to run uphill 1 miles to the next aid station, which had the "firmest" cut-off time in the race. There wasn't much point in continuing. He caught a ride back to the finish with fellow VHTRC member Caroline Williams and her husband, Walker, while he had the chance.

Jim tried hard to finish MMTR. He's done it before and knows how difficult it can be to finish within the twelve-hour time limit. Although he didn't have much distance or speed training since Vermont 100 in July, he's a strong uphill walker. I encouraged him to run Masochist when he was vacillating about whether to go. He was entered in Horton's three-race series, had finished the first two races in the spring before we left for the AT adventure, and stood to earn a handsome series award (a nice cold-weather top from Patagonia). I thought he might regret it later if he didn't try.

I don't think he regrets trying. He's got some soreness and DNFs are always hard mentally. But he gave it his best shot and is actually a little surprised he got as far as he did. I'm very proud of him for trying and I feel guilty because I know why he wasn't able to train adequately.

I never considered entering the race myself. Although I have finished it several times, the last time I missed a cut-off. I haven't run or even walked much in the last three weeks. I've been too pooped from the AT run. I'm just happy that I feel like running again now.

During the race I got in at least eight miles while I was parked at the aid station at Long Mountain Wayside (Hwy. 60) waiting for Jim. I spent the first hour running and walking two miles south on the Appalachian Trail along Brown Mountain Creek and back up to the road. I ran this on Day 49 and described the freed-slave farming community that used to be in this spot. You can still see old house foundations and rock walls.

I loved being back on the Trail, if for only an hour.

After helping Nancy Horton unload aid station supplies from her van, I spent another hour running and hiking two miles up Buck Mountain on the forest service road which MMTR runners follow for a few miles during the race.

As I ran back down I saw the first six men in the race going up. Most were running at a good clip. MMTR is the final Montrail Cup series race; the men's and women's fields were very competitive. The first woman, Anne Riddle Lundblad, set a new course record and it was the first time in 23 years of the race that two women finished under eight hours. Annette Bednosky was the second female.


It was fun to run the gradual hill back down Buck Mountain for two-plus miles and not have my knees hurt. And running for twenty-five minutes straight is something I haven't done for a few weeks, either. I was happy.

When I finished running I noticed several trucks and horse trailers sharing the wayside parking area with crew and volunteer vehicles and the school busses used in the race to transport runners and drop bags (see photo below). I've never seen horses on  the Masochist course before but loved running with them at Vermont. About a dozen riders and their horses proceeded on up the forest service road used by the runners. Jim didn't see them when he went through later.

I asked Nancy if she needed any help at the aid station. She said no, at least not yet. I soon saw a need - twice runners started up the adjacent Appalachian Trail and not the correct route on Buck Mountain, as they did last year when I also sat out the race. (I'd just had foot surgery.)

For the next couple hours I stood or sat behind the aid station between the AT trail head going north and the forest service road to direct runners the correct way. I also told some of them about the three-mile hill if they said they'd never run it before.

Therein lies an interesting phenomenon: one's perspective.

My perception of "gradual," "moderate," and "steep" trails - either up or down - has totally changed since running and hiking the Appalachian Trail. In retrospect, I see that this was occurring by the time I reached Virginia, well before I encountered the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

The reason I didn't understand how difficult some parts of the Trail would be is that I didn't have a complete frame of reference, or perspective. I think this is an important concept if you're contemplating running or hiking the AT, especially in New England.

Even though I've climbed three of the highest peaks in Colorado (Elbert, Massive, and Pike's Peak), none of them required the type of climbing or extensive bouldering the AT does. In fact, no climb in any previous race or training run that I have done fits my new definition of "very steep." I learned this definition on the AT.

To me, "steep" uphill is "reach-out-and-touch-the-trail-in-front-of-you." Only someone of Matt Carpenter's ability can run up any of this.

"Moderate" is huff and puff, but still do-able at a walking pace and at least partly runnable if you're strong and well-trained.

"Gradual" is fast walking or even running uphill off and on for someone slower like me.

Of course, there are many gradations in between. "Very steep" is nearly vertical, like the rocks requiring you to find hand- and foot-holds to climb up or down. No one "runs" this; they slither. Then there are "moderately steep" and "moderately gradual." You get the idea.


So during MMTR I told some of the runners who'd never been up Buck Mountain that the climb is about three miles long but "gradual," with some plateaus that are runnable.

Afterwards I heard from two of the male runners that going up Buck Mountain was not "gradual" but difficult. I felt kinda bad. They probably equated me with people who tell runners the next aid station (or shelter) is "only half a mile" when it's really double or triple that. Bear in mind these men had already run twenty-six "Horton miles" before climbing this mountain. When I've run it previously, Buck Mountain was no treat when I was already tired. I used to think it was hard, too.

But guys, compared to the adjacent "moderate" incline on the AT - and to the AT as a whole - the road up Buck Mountain in MMTR is "gradual."


One of the fellas mentioned this to me during the post-race dinner, so I told everyone at the table what was going on. Jim later said that the climb up Buck wasn't as bad as he remembered from before. After going up and down some of the same tough mountains that I did on the AT, his perspective on what is "gradual" and what is "steep" has also changed.

In fact, Jim now even considers the whole MMTR course as "easier" and "more runnable" than he did previously. He's experienced much more rugged trail now. His perception has been altered.

As time passes, it will be interesting to note how the AT has changed other perceptions in our lives. So many things in life are defined by one's own personal experience and perspective - just remember that they can change over time.


I knew Jim was up to something the last couple weeks, but I didn't know what. I didn't want to ruin his surprise so I didn't ask questions or snoop.

A few days after we returned home from Maine, I got him a fancy card and wrote a heart-felt, sentimental thank you for all he'd done to help make my AT dream come through. He truly sacrificed months of training and racing, fire service volunteering, and free time to crew me on this adventure run, and I owe him BIG TIME. He told me he was "doing something special" for me, but wasn't ready to let me know what it was.

Horton also wrote that he wanted to say something about our accomplishment when we came to MMTR. I thought maybe he just meant talking to us about our AT experiences. But no, Jim and David both had something more in mind and I didn't put two-and-two together.

Jim had the beautiful plaque in the photo at the top made for me by a local friend and asked David to present it to me at the pre-race dinner Friday night in front of several hundred runners and their families! I'm glad Jim stayed on the stage with me to share in the presentation.

It was a total surprise to me and I regret to say I wasn't prepared with a proper response at the time. Although David recognized the hard work Jim did crewing me, I should have also publicly thanked Jim for that and thanked David and all the folks in the audience who had followed our journey for their encouragement and support, too. I've done it in this journal and in person, but missed my opportunity at the microphone. <sigh>


Jim chose one of my favorite quotes to have inscribed on the plaque. I've used it at least once in this journal:

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go."  (T.S. Eliot)

I want every reader to take that message to heart and "run" with it. There is at least one thing you've always wanted to do but something is holding you back. Often it is the fear of failure.

Stop waiting. Make it happen!

Thank you, Jim. The plaque is beautiful and a tangible memento of our teamwork. I'm glad the photo you chose is the one of BOTH of us at the summit of Mt. Katahdin, because I couldn't have reached my goal without you by my side all summer - literally (part of the time) and figuratively (all the time). Your support was critical to our success.


It's always great to see our old friends and meet new ones at races. We knew MMTR would be a wonderful opportunity to talk with folks we hadn't seen for several months or since last year. And it was!

David Horton was very busy orchestrating the large race but I got to talk with him piecemeal before, during, and after the race as I helped fold shirts, get runners checked in the morning of the race, and hung out at the finish line. He passed me twice in a vehicle while I was running and walking up Buck Mountain and joked that I should check out the adjacent trail (the AT) sometime. HA! We'll have to find another time to sit down and talk about our wonderful adventures on the AT and PCT this summer.

It was wonderful to see our Roanoke ultra buddies who have been so supportive of our trek - Neal Jamison, who was there Friday night selling his two books but didn't run the race; Jay and Anita Finkle, who find the time and energy to run several ultras a month; and Dru Sexton and Graham Zollman, who are closer to our age and speed. All five have followed our trek closely and have written many notes of encouragement to us. Three of them were able to provide me with  transportation to trail heads and company on the AT when Jim went to Illinois for several days to visit his gravely ill sister, thereby keeping me on schedule..

It's also because of these fine folks that we're in the Roanoke area to start with. (Horton's proximity helped, too.) They were so helpful to us when we first inquired about living here, and so hospitable when we visited in March of 2004, that we knew within a week we wanted to retire here.

Several of my old Atlanta friends returned to MMTR, too (they're now Jim's friends, too) - Steve and Bev, Janice Anderson, Ragan Petrie, Bill Harmon, and one of my former co-workers at the Juvenile Court, Helen Castronis, and her husband, who ran MMTR for the first time (and finished).

Then there are all the other folks we know from the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) who came to run or cheer, and other runners we know from races all over the country. What a fine reunion for us in Lynchburg! I don't think I've ever attended an ultra anywhere and didn't know at least a few other participants. Despite the thousands of people who run ultras, it's still a pretty small "population."

We also met "Lone Wolf," AKA David Blair. He had on an AT shirt, so Jim struck up a conversation with him on race morning. I was busy with check-in duties and didn't get a chance to talk with him until he'd finished the race. Lone Wolf has thru-hiked the AT five times since the 1980s and has done sections many other times.

I realized today that he's the guy who was crewing and hiking with "Maineak" (Scott Grierson) in 1991 when Maineak and Horton were both vying for the AT speed record. When I ran MMTR in 1992, Maineak - and I think Lone Wolf - both ran the race at Horton's prompting. I wish I'd remembered that and talked with Lone Wolf more about it this weekend.

Lone Wolf began another thru-hike at Springer Mountain this year but quit at Neel's Gap because he "missed home." I think the thru-hiking thrill is gone for him, at least on the AT, but he still loves running and hiking on beautiful trails. I hope I run into him again soon so we can talk more.


I knew from talking to David Horton and reading his book and numerous thru-hikers' journals that the transition back to reality after being on the AT (or another long trail) for weeks or months can be difficult both physically and emotionally. I will document these phenomena later in two post-run entries after I've had time to work through more of the stages.

But I'd like to mention one aspect that's been a bit of a surprise - my emotional instability the past three weeks, particularly how easy it is for me to cry.

David mentioned to me this weekend that he cried a lot during his epic run on the PCT this summer. I cried only twice that I can remember during my trek (Day 117 and Day 141).

Now the tears are frequent and they confuse me. I can see some possible reasons.

I dreamed and planned for the journey for so long (36 years!) and now that it's over, there is a bit of a let-down. Several readers have asked, "What's next?" I have no solid plans yet for another big adventure.

How do I top what I just did?? It will be hard.

The physical fatigue of covering so much distance this summer almost certainly affects my emotions, too. I haven't slept well for a month and my hormones are all screwed up. All that is enough to make me cry!

Almost every day tears come to my eyes at least once and I usually don't know the exact cause. But Friday night I knew, at least for that time.

After the pre-race dinner everyone was invited into Heritage High School's plush auditorium for previews of two new videos about the Pacific Crest Trail by Journeyfilm. One DVD will feature several hikers. The other is about David Horton's new speed record and will be available in December.

As we sat there in the dark watching fast-paced clips of the PCT from the "trailers," tears flowed down my cheeks. And I knew exactly where those particular tears were coming from:

I wanted to be back on the Appalachian Trail again. I missed it.

The AT exerts a powerful force on the people who tread its footpaths. It is hard to fully understand the lure until you've experienced it yourself.

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil