This morning Ryan and I received news of a friend who passed away yesterday suddenly while out trail running with friends. It’s easy to say that at least he died doing what he loved, but I can’t say those words. He loved so many things including his family, friends, adventure and giving back to the community. Chad was a fellow race director, a loving father and husband, a large part of his local running community, an avid adventurer, a friend to so many, an inspiration to even more, a walking bundle of smiles and enthusiasm, and one of New Englands best trail runners and adventure racers.
Chad has touched so many lives with his enthusiasm and encouragement. He always had great advice and was a great listener. When I was struggling this winter he offered wonderful advice and a hug. He would help anyone, he put on one heck of a show at the Winter Wild races and he genuinely cared about people. He may be gone but he left behind a legacy.
Today has been filled with tears and so much sadness. Sadness for the loss of a friend, sadness for his family and sadness for his friends who tried for so long to bring him back to life on the trail by performing CPR. There have been so many times where I remember seeing his smile whether it be racing or race directing. I don’t think he had a mean bone in his body and when he spoke of his wife and children he glowed, you could feel the love he had for his family.
A month ago I had asked Emily to write a reflection of the Presidential Traverse we did together in August with Amy and Tony. Today I received an email with an attachment to her story. I didn’t want to read it, I didn’t want to post it. It was horrible timing, but something told me to read it.
I was outside with my little Jack puppy and looked at a beautiful sunflower in our garden which was just about the only thing that grew in it this year. I smiled, thought of the incredible life of adventure and love that Chad lived and opened up that attachment.
Emilys story had me smiling on a very sad day. She is a woman who has four children, could barely run a mile last spring, took on the mountain series this summer to achieve mountain goat status, punched her ticket to run up Mount Washington next summer and completed a one day Pressie Traverse. She is living a life as a loving mom, wife, friend and adventurer. I want to share her story, it brought me a smile today when nothing else could. Enjoy and remember to fill your life with love and adventure. You never know when you will take your last breath.
The decision to do a one day Presidential Traverse can only be explained by the toxic combination of the unwavering faith and encouragement of my friend and running coach Kristina, the euphoric feeling of running downhill towards the car at the end of a fun run with friends, and having no idea what I was agreeing to. One month later, having since been filled in on exactly what kind of undertaking this would be, my sister and I stood at EMS debating which pack would be most comfortable to die in. I gravitated towards a backpack since it was similar to the hydration packs I am accustomed to carrying and had a home for my 2L bladder. Amy tried on a large version of a fanny pack and immediately knew she had come home. Did I mention she is my older sister?
Two days later, with clothes and shoes laid out and aforementioned pack filled to the brim, I kissed my children either goodnight or goodbye forever and cuddled up to get some good rest by staring at a dark ceiling all night. Finally at 3am the apparently unnecessary alarm I had set told me I could now end my futile attempt at getting any sleep. In the dark I stumbled out of bed and into my clothes, choked down a fruit smoothie, looked over my gear checklist one last time and prayed my car would break down on the way to meet my sister. No such luck. I made it to our appointed meeting place safely and transferred all my crap to her car. At least now we could suffer together.
Through the dark and the fog and some weird shmootz that was all over her windshield we made our way towards our meeting place, Highland Center. Despite the fact that the fog and the shmootz made it difficult to see where we were going for most of the time, we made it there safely and ahead of Kristina. We huddled in the car shivering from cold and sheer panic wondering if the man next to us in the parking lot was the man that would be joining us today. We did not know what he looked like and as we only knew him by the name of Fish Stick we were a little reluctant to just holler his name out the window and see what happened. It was indeed Fish Stick and for those that are as curious as I was, the story of his name really is, as he promised, unremarkable. He on the other hand is remarkably friendly, patient and kind.
When Kristina arrived we all loaded into her car to drive it to the base of Madison where the adventure would really begin. As we drove, the sun came up and the air started to warm so any remaining shivers as we piled out of the car must have been from nerves. The way up Madison would be the longest sustained climb of the day since the Valley Way trail gets you to 4000 feet in just over 3 miles. However initially the terrain was pretty much what I expected being heavily wooded with rocks, roots and leaves. As we made our way closer to the top the way got steeper and the forest floor became more rock than roots and leaves, and eventually was just grouped boulders that formed a steep stair case with water trickling down. Between my La Sportive Bushidos and my trekking poles I had no problems with slipping and was able to stay upright. Kristina was letting me lead so I felt the pressure to keep a good pace. I chose something that was strong and steady but something I could keep up for a long time, what I call my listening pace. I was breathing heavy but not so loudly that I could not hear conversation around me and even sometimes interject here and there myself. However, Fish Stick and Kristina, having a far better fitness level, carried the conversation as Amy and I worked at keeping a good pace.
As the trees became smaller and the sky became bigger we made it above tree line and to the official welcome mat of the White Mountains-a sign promising death if you do not turn back now. Apparently the contents of our pack, spare pants and a few band-aids, qualified us to continue since we cruised right past. After a quick trip to the bathroom and water refill at the Madison hut it was time to tag the first summit. Here is where the terrain became less typical and less of what I had expected. Between where we stood and the summit of Madison there was a steep pile of large, craggy rocks. I have tripped my way through the roots and rocks of the forest floor, slogged my way through a mess of mud and wet grass and even slipped my way over the loose rock and shale of Franconia Ridge; but this was new territory. I often refer to running uphill as “climbing” but what we did to reach the top of Madison was more the literal interpretation of a climb, often times having to use my hands to steady myself and move myself forward. A month later I still have a small cut on the palm of my hands since this would be the way we moved through most of the remaining summits as well.
By the time we reached the top of Madison the wind was whipping all around and despite the hot sun it had cooled considerably. Standing on our first summit we looked ahead at the many miles and summits we were going to tackle that day. I would love to tell you that I was awestruck by the beauty and was filled with wonder, but it would not be true. Rest assured those feelings would come, but at that moment I was consumed by the whipping wind, wide open sky and self doubt. It was hard to enjoy summit number one while thinking about numbers two through eight.
Surprisingly, the way down Madison was harder for me than the going up. This would unfortunately be the theme of the day for at least the northern section of the traverse. The terrain at these summits is hard to even describe. Each summit is just a jumble of jagged rocks of varying sizes all messily thrown together. Few if any of the rocks have a flat surface so you are not stepping so much as precariously balancing on top of them as you move forward. Choosing where to step next becomes even more perilous when you consider that no matter how safely nestled these rocks appear to be within the pile, only two out of three actually are. Each step is like a grab bag surprise and sometimes what looked like a stalwart friend is actually a spineless traitor. Coming down for me was a slow, frustrating game of hot potato.
The next few hours were rather repetitive. We moved forward through the northern Presidentails one summit at a time-Adams, Jefferson, and Clay. We were making our way to the point where the summits completed would outnumber those to be completed, our halfway point-Mt. Washington. Climbing, sometimes on all fours, up steep summits and then picking, sometimes crab walking, down again my body fell into a rhythm and I began to relax. I found that my mind was well prepared for this day after spending the summer becoming a Mountain Goat. The terrain and distance were certainly different, but 80 percent of any run or hike is mental and I have become very comfortable with the feeling of going up and up and up before reaching the top of a hill. Each summit was just like a little Mountain Goat race.
It seems strange to say it but in a lot of ways the traverse was easier for me than the Mountain Goat series. Each race in that series was a short distance so I would push myself as hard as possible up each mountain working constantly at or close to my maximum capacity. A one day traverse meant that we had to keep a strong and steady pace without a lot of time at the top of each summit, but the distance and terrain also required that we move at far less than race pace. Coming down was hard, but climbing up sometimes hand over hand felt a little like being a kid again. Choosing which rocks to step on was like an adventure and squeezing through or staying low and scrambling up large rocks was exciting. Once I decided that I could really do this I was able to embrace where I was and really enjoy being surrounded by the indescribable beauty of being above tree line in the White Mountains.
I will not try to describe what I saw because I cannot, but I can try to describe how I felt. I felt small and insignificant, but in the very best way. I thought before the traverse that I might have felt frightened or overwhelmed in all that openness, that bigness. To my surprise I felt completely at peace. The God who with just His Word could make all of this majesty also chose to make and love me, and He put me here to enjoy it. It just felt like a gift. I am so grateful.
When we stood at the top of Mt. Clay and I knew we were standing on the last summit before Washington I felt downright giddy. We looked back at how far we had come and I knew from what I had been told and read that after Mt. Washington we were in the southern section of the traverse and the terrain would become much easier. This was a huge confidence boost. Also, despite a snack at the top of each summit I was getting hungry and I knew that at Washington we would get lunch and what I was really craving-a very large, very cold Coke.
From where we stood Washington seemed right around the corner. Looks would prove to be deceiving and by the time we were walking along waving at the people riding up on the cog railway I was fairly singing about how good that Coke was going to be. I was very thirsty and the way was longer than I would have imagined but, knowing we were approaching the halfway point, I was in good spirits. Sadly I cannot say the same for Amy. She is a strong hiker and in comparison to me at least, a fast runner. However, she had not done the Mountain Goat series over the summer and was not as mentally prepared for the frustrating, sometimes soul crushing feeling, of climbing up in what seems like an endless pursuit of a finish. Somewhere between Clay and Washington she was done. Physically she was moving along fine, but mentally she wanted to be somewhere else. I know this feeling well. It was how I felt last year when we did Franconia Ridge. It is such a hard place to be so my heart went out to her. I did my best to remind her of what we knew; that we were almost to the halfway point and at that point the hardest part would be over. All we had to do was get to Washington.
Hitting the summit of Mt. Washington after spending hours hiking through the northern Presidentials is very strange. When you are hiking in the Whites you come across plenty of other people. Sometimes you nod hello or even share a few words and there is a quiet camaraderie built of love for the hike as well as the view. The huts scattered around are small and quiet and unobtrusive. They almost look like part of the landscape; like they sprung up from the ground like the bushes and boulders around them. Washington is not like that. When you hike up the rock garden toward the summit you are greeted by a large concrete building that in another place would probably seem perfectly normal but here in these surroundings seems more like a random space station. As you arrive at the summit all sweat covered and exhausted, blisters on your feet and bugs in your teeth, you feel very out of place as you hike up past a full parking lot and through throngs of people wearing flip flops and sundresses. It was crowded and noisy and completely discordant with the last few hours of my life, but it did have the greatest thing known to man at that point in my life-ice cold Coke! It was delicious and one of the highlights of my day. I bought two.
This is where things got interesting. It was later than when we hoped to reach the summit of Washington. We had gotten a late start that morning and our pace, probably due to my slow descents, was a little behind what we had hoped. That combined with the fact that Amy was not happy made Kristina nervous about how the rest of the day would play out. As I drank in cold Coke and the happiness of the halfway point Kristina burst my bubble and gave it to us straight. The weather was holding up but she was not sure we should continue. At our current pace she did not feel confident that we would get out of the woods before dark and the only rescue past this point was by helicopter. We had three choices take the cog railway down, hike down Washington or finish the traverse without the summits. I desperately wanted to finish with all the summits but I trust Kristina and wanted to be smart. We decided the best compromise was to let the much speedier Tony (that is Fish Stick) go on ahead while we finished without the summits, reserving the right to see how we felt at each one and try to fit them in.
In the midst of her “come to Jesus” talk with us, we could see Kristina and Tony having little whispering side bar conversations and an attempt at a subtle transfer of emergency equipment from his bag to hers. Unbeknownst to us he had handed her what I call the death blanket, a sleeping bag type thing that rolls up to the size of a soda can, and had made a plan that not only would he go ahead and enjoy the summits but that he would get Kristina’s husband Ryan and hike back up to us with food and medical supplies once it got dark. Apparently Kristina’s faith in us is shakeable after all.
With a revised plan in mind and an extra coke in my pack we headed back outside and pushed past tourists to get a picture at the Washington Summit sign, Kristina says hikers earn the right to push drivers out of the way here. We hiked down the still rocky but less steep descent to the Lake of the Clouds hut where we took a final bathroom break and made sure our headlamps were in working order and in an easy to reach pocket of our packs. With that we headed out to finish the traverse.
Now we had been told that the southern section of the Presidentials-Monroe, Eisenhower and Pierce-was easier but easy is a relative term, particularly for the crazies that run in the Whites, so you never really know what to expect. For once I have to agree with the crazies. It was so much easier, even the descents. We picked up the pace significantly and were even able to run some sections of it. Much to my delight we hit all three of the remaining summits and the sun was still up as we headed down Crawford Path to get to the car.
As we traveled down further and further below tree line the forest floor returned and we left behind the open sky and craggy rocks of the mountains. The sun continued to get lower as we did but we were able to make it out of the woods without headlamps and before any of the wild animals tried to eat us or mate with us. As we got closer to the parking lot and Kristina’s faith in us was renewed she shared the plan that she and Tony had made to save us in the dark wilderness and we had a good laugh. Who knew we had been so close to disaster?
With no finish line or cheering crowd, no fanfare other than a proud coach beaming from ear to ear, we posed for a picture before crossing the road to where the car was waiting for us. After big hugs and a quick change into dry clothes we left Kristina snuggling her Jack Puppy and hit the road for the long drive home. We had pulled into that parking lot with the headlights on and were pulling out just shy of having to turn them back on. Still unidentified shmootz all over the windshield, dirty shoes and clothes in the back and one more Coke for the road we drove home with mountains towering beside, behind and before us. It was a long, hard and wonderful day that had us covering 21.5 miles tough miles and 9000 feet of elevation. It was done. We made it.
My one day Presi Traverse was such a gift and I am so glad that I did it. My only regret is not being able to move faster so that I could spend more time at each summit taking it all in. Having done it and loved it I would do it again in a heartbeat if I could either spread it out over two days or if I was in a place with my fitness that I could cover the distance more quickly allowing me more time throughout the day to just sit and absorb. For now I will settle for what I have done and see what other adventures are in store for me up there.
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