September 28, 2020
Alex and I stamped our feet and shivered in the falling darkness. We stood at a place called Blackrock Summit, a bend in the Appalachian Trail maybe 30 miles from the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. In the light of our headlamps we had set up a makeshift aid station, four boxes of snacks and bottles of water, two hundred yards up a rocky grade from Skyline Drive. Will, our runner, still was a couple of miles away, according to the GPS sensor he carried. We were his support crew.
We had met Will about eight miles south at Turk Gap, his first stop for aid 12 miles after he started running at Rockfish Gap, near I-64 and about midway between Charlottesville and Staunton, Va. He hoped to break the record for the “fastest known time” or FKT, for traversing the 107.8 miles of the Appalachian Trail that passes through the Park. He is very fast. The record, set just 36 hours earlier, is 23 hours, 14 minutes, 23 seconds. If anyone can break the record, it’s Will.
It was chilly, probably in the low 40s, when we arrived at Turk Gap about 6:00 PM. The clear mountain air has a sharp bite to it. I pulled on two thermal shirts and a hooded sweatshirt. We hauled the aid out of Alex’s truck. He had packed food and snacks, cold-weather gear, water, and Tailwind, a powdered energy drink mix. We set up a table and chairs. Promptly at 6:30 Will emerged from the forest. He nodded, grabbed some cookies, refilled his water bottles, and disappeared up the trail. That’s how you get to fastest known time.
Something wasn’t right when we got to Blackrock Summit. We drove a bit further, looking for a white AT tree marker, then backtracked and parked. Alex ran up a short spur and found the AT. He checked his watch. We waited. We pulled on our gloves as our fingers grew stiff. Alex’s phone rang, it was Will. We were off—the rendezvous was Blackrock Gap, a mile back. Will good naturedly ran the extra mile. He fueled up and was gone. As we drove towards Doyle’s River Overlook, we saw Will’s headlamp flash through the trees as he crossed Skyline.
At Doyle’s we had gained elevation and could pick out in the distance the twinkling lights of Charlottesville. The cold took our breath away. We parallel-parked our vehicles to deflect the wind. I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. Alex lit his propane stove and cooked us a hot meal. We sat huddled, guzzling steaming ginger tea.
Above us a bright quarter-moon had risen, the stars glowed brilliantly in the wilderness sky. The wind abated, the crisp mountain air revived us. We got Will’s gear ready, then saw his headlamp moving toward us. He trotted in looking strong, but a little strained. He had taken a spill miles back, his knee was acting up. He now was a few minutes behind his projected arrival time. He grabbed his refilled drinks and a sandwich and headed into the darkness. Eight miles, or two hours, to the next rendezvous.
At Ivy Creek Overlook we backed Alex’s truck up to a chain across a fire road and set up the aid station. Since we had time, I slumped in the van and closed my eyes, my blanket pulled tight. For a while I heard the soft twanging of Alex’s country station as he heated up Will’s soup. I slept for an hour.
We went through the aid-station drill when Will arrived. He had pulled on his long-sleeved running shirt. We handed him a cup of the hot, savory chicken soup, just the thing for a trail runner at 35 miles. Will stuffed a peanut butter sandwich and some cookies in his pockets. He was ten minutes behind his projected time. We walked with him to the trailhead. “Razzle-dazzle,” Alex yelled, and Will was gone.
Smith Roach Gap was another quick stop, seven miles up. The wind had abated but the chill still penetrated. We stood peering into the darkness. Will showed up in good spirits, but still behind schedule. He lingered, gulping soup, then waved and reentered the trail.
To get to South River we drove five or six miles to our point of entry to the Park at Swift Run, then three more miles up the Drive. We found the trail access point, then had to hoof it, carrying the boxes of aid a hundred or so yards to the AT. At that point the trail descended from higher ground, Will could coast in. We waited. Alex checked his watch. We walked a short way up the trail and listened. Nothing. We turned back. Soon we heard footfalls and saw the glow of Will’s headlamp. He was walking. For the first time since we met him, he sat. The knee injury from the fall had stiffened. He stood and stretched, then took a few tentative steps and felt pain. He rubbed the knee and pondered going on. A few minutes later he dropped from the run. He had covered 50 miles. We picked up our aid boxes. Will limped with us back to the vehicles. It was about 4:00 AM.
In this time of pandemic, the AT still beckons. Virginia has more than 500 miles of the Trail, the longest segment of any state. Shenandoah National Park’s 108 miles is the northern segment. Further north are the rocks of Pennsylvania and Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness. You jump on the trail and go, watching for those unique white blazes.
A few years ago, on a bitterly cold January day after a fresh snowfall, two friends and I climbed the Pass Mountain Trail, which links with the AT west of Sperryville. We passed an AT shelter, folks were camping. They waved, I shivered.
The AT always is in season. It conveys something mysterious, something magical. Not escape, exactly, but the awareness that traversing rugged places trains us to persevere, to move forward, to overcome. The Trail is about climbing rocky ascents to see the pale sky of the western horizon, the green hills to the east, then descending through deep gorges along plunging streams. Will knows he’ll get his FKT. The Trail is long and tough. We’ll be back.