Hike Across Maryland 2005

In 2004, a local running store advertised a clinic for its customers. The clinic offered to analyze a runner’s stride, provide a free tee-shirt and also review one’s nutritional intake, all for $15. I was intrigued so I sent the store my money and signed up.

Upon arriving at the store at the scheduled time I noticed many seasoned runners, or, at least they seemed like they were because they were dressed like professional marathoners. I never thought of myself as an experienced runner but I was excited to consult with the gait analyzer, a nice fellow who was spending his time that day with each clinic participant encouraging them to keep their heels low, run a straight line, and keep the toes pointed in the right direction. When it was my turn to get on the treadmill, I rolled up my jeans and jogged for a few seconds while my step was videotaped. The analyzer beamed pleasantly and said, “You know what? Your gait is absolutely perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing!”

Some people are captains of industry, some are politicians, and others solve difficult global problems. I realized on the day of the clinic my only God-give talent is a perfect gait, I can put one foot in front of another better than anyone else! I certainly haven’t excelled at anything else in life.

I wondered how I could showcase this newly discovered skill. I decided to participate in the “Hike across Maryland” in May 2005 sponsored by the Mountain Club of Maryland. This event is held in the odd years, the next one is scheduled for May of 2007. This event required one to traverse the Appalachian Trail, starting on the Pennsylvania line and ending at the Harper’s Ferry Bridge, in one day. All I had to do was figure out how I was going to walk 41 miles over several mountains on a very rocky trail since I had never done anything like this before.

I tried to tell my mother about my intentions, though she didn’t seem to get the enormity of the situation. During our talk mom changed the subject; my father’s stomachache was a better topic. My best friend was assured that I would be raped in the woods by an errant psychopath, “The Maryland woods are crawling with prison escapees and homeless people, it’s not safe!”, she proclaimed confidently. I was grateful there was no significant other in my life; I didn’t want to argue about my plans with a man. I saw that I could forget about any moral support, nobody understood my need to do this. Heck, I didn’t understand my need to do this.

Christmas Day 2004 I ventured on my first training hike. I drove to Pen Mar, PA and set out to find the starting point. When I began my walk I noticed the trail was more treacherous than I had envisioned, the ground was slippery and my water tube froze. This was going to be much more difficult than I had suspected.

I recruited a few of my friends to participate in the event. I thought that the camaraderie would make my training a snap. Unfortunately, I was quickly saddened to learn my friends didn’t quite have the enthusiasm for this event that had started to bubble up in me. I then attempted to hike with a group of seasoned hikers but during our walks our yin and yang didn’t seem to be in synch. The group hiked fast, they talked a lot, it seemed like the forest was filled with chatter, resulting in a brain-splitting headache for me. My confidence wavered.

It was months until May and I needed to build up my endurance to complete the 41 miles on the mountain, yet 15 miles was pretty much my threshold at this early stage. I made the uncomfortable realization that I would have to train on my own if I was to be successful yet remain sane. Could a middle-aged woman with no athletic skills pull this off without anyone’s help?

The ensuing weekends were soon taken up with a training hike on Saturday and recuperation on Sunday. No longer would there be time to spend with my friends and family. This endeavor would be purely for my own personal benefit. I wasn’t going to even get a free shirt. Was I wasting my time? What if I failed?

To avoid boredom in the upcoming months, I designed a variety of training hikes. One was the Baltimore Marathon where I discovered new neighborhoods in my own city. Another day I walked 30 miles on the beach in Ocean City, it was empty and beautiful. I walked miles through the woods in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. I saw many beautiful winter vistas and landscapes. The mountain trails was littered with Boy Scouts learning to backpack, but I never saw a Girl Scout troop. In fact, I never met another woman walking alone in the backcountry either. I walked in freezing temperatures, in snow, in slush, in rain and even had a few nice days. I climbed the hills of Hunt Valley at lunchtime during the workweek not far from my office. I pushed myself so far that sometimes my feet blistered and bled.

My endurance improved with each week. I concentrated on climbing steep rises without stopping. I worked on my physical endurance making sure that I could walk the 13-15 hours that this event was going to span. I altered my food intake and learned to eat while I walked. I became faster, stronger, and leaner, my singular goal became to move as fast as possible on a mountain.

The event started at 5:15AM on May 7, 2005 where our group of 105 avid competitors, 25 women and 80 men started on the Pennsylvania line in pitch darkness. Hikers had come from all over the US and few foreign countries to compete, I felt extremely at ease among these people even though most had much more experience than I. We ascended on the first steep rise by the glow of our headlamps. I found myself moving far faster than I have ever trained. I maintained a steady pace allowing runners and speed hikers to glide past me. Through shear dogged determination and adequate preparation I was able to cross the into Harper’s Ferry after 12 hours and 45 minutes. I was the 6th woman to cross the finish line.

I still can’t think of a reason why I did this. I am pretty much the same person as when I started, although I now believe that I can achieve the impossible if I put my mind to it.


Mike said...

Hi, my name is Mike and I just received notification for the upcoming 2015 HAM, googled "preparing for the Hike Across Maryland," and found your blog. Do you have any suggestions on training beyond what you outlined in your blog, as well as any recommendations on what and/or what not to carry on the HAM? I appreciate any advice you can provide.

Cham said...

It really depends on your current level of fitness. This is basically a math problem. It's January now and HAM is usually on the first week of May, so there are 16 weeks between now and then. You'll need to be able to walk 42 miles with 6900 feet of elevation change by then. If you have a regular job, every Saturday will need to be booked with some type of hike between now and then. By the end of March one should be able to perform 20 miles on the roller coaster in Virginia. If one doesn't stick to a schedule then expect to fail. All I can say is create a plan, then work the plan and you will be fine. I trained alone and was better for the journey as I could be more flexible. Training hikes should be where you want to go, they do get long and boring so make sure you are where you want to be.

As far as supplies, make sure you can carry 1.5-2 liters of water because there will be a few long stretches, and I'd take some liquid energy packs too, to prevent your legs from cramping between check points.

Mike said...

Thanks for the reply. I have been hiking shorter distances on weekends (usually around 5-6 miles per outing), using the treadmill during the week, and working out with kettlebells throughout the entire week. I think I need to probably start to increase my weekend hike mileage while maintaining or possibly reducing parts of my existing exercise regimen (I do work full-time and have a family). I'm also just a bit over two hours from PenMar, so maybe I should go hike from there a time or two.

Which part of the hike did you find most difficult?

Cham said...

I got news for you, the treadmill is not a trail. Treadmills are cake, Maryland trails not so much. The only way to train is outside, in the crappy weather and on a trail so one can get used to rocks, more rocks, did I mention there were rocks?

I made a couple of mistakes that I would care not to repeat. There is a checkpoint along Wolfsville Road where I failed to refuel and get water because I was feeling pretty good. I walked up to the ridge on South Mountain and my feet cramped up. Somebody gave me some water and I sucked down some liquid food, and I was on my way but I should have eaten something. I also should have hiked with lighter shoes. I believed a sales person at REI when she recommended the worst hiking shoes ever, I ended up with lots of blisters.

Headlamps have greatly improved since 2005, go ahead and purchase as many lumens as you can afford for the weight. Vision, it's a good thing.

Mike said...

I have merely been using the treadmill to increase endurance and have been hiking the AT in PA this past summer, so am unfortunately familiar with the rocks. My ankles hurt just thinking about them.

I backpack in a pair of low top Patagonias which are on the heavier side, so will follow your advice and will probably go with some trail runners.

I will also go shopping for lots of lumens since I also enjoy seeing where I'm going.

Thanks again for your advice Cham, it is greatly appreciated.