Yesterday was a big day in Baxter State Park. Ultra runner Scott Jurek completed his 46 day 8 hour and 7 Minute epic hike/run of the entire Appalachian Trail, beating the previous supported speed record by a whopping 3 hours and 12 minutes. (I say whopping sort of in jest, 3+ hours is a lot if you are racing in the Tour de France. It isn’t so much when traveling cross country on foot, running in the rain after dark. Scott was initially quoted as wanting to break the record by as many as four days. So in the end, 3+ hours was a bit of a nail biter). I was lucky enough to be on Baxter Peak when Scott finished, and it isn’t hyperbole to say it was an honor and a privilege to be there.
When I left home (and my computer) on Friday morning, Scott was somewhere in the 100 mile wilderness. That was the last I knew specifically of his whereabouts. My sister and I went to Baxter State Park on Friday night, for a camping trip long planned, and now happily coinciding with Scott’s approach. Our plan was to hike the Hunt trail on Saturday, but we really didn’t expect to actually see him on the trail. I thought at best he might come through at night after we had left. After our hike Saturday morning we realized that we had friends with a group site reservation on the other side of the park for Saturday night, and that we could throw caution to the wind (yes that is what you call it when a 39 year old mother of two and a 42 year old dog owner get crazy and spontaneously decide to spend an unplanned night out camping), spend a second night in the park, climb Katahdin on Sunday and maybe just maybe get to see Scott finish. After an afternoon swimming in Togue Pond (that was me walking down the entrance road soaking wet in just my sports bra and underwear-I’m sure I’m not the first to have pulled that maneuver), exploring the Debsconeag Ice Caves, and I’m sorry to say, sitting at Abol Store with my lap top trying unsuccessfully to get the latest update from Scott Jurek’s Delorme Live Tracker (worst 2 dollars I ever spent) we headed to Bear Brook to join our friends. It was hard to get used to the idea that, after over a month of being able to know exactly where Scott was just by going to a website, and having actively done so to follow his journey on the Maine trail, we now had to go blind. The cell coverage in the Baxter/West Branch region is spotty and strangely ephemeral, and for ATT users, nonexistent. We kept trying and then finally, with a sigh (of resignation and then relief), gave up. I realized we would just have to hike and hope for the best. The illusion of my exacting control was over. Scott was coming, we thought most likely then next day, and we just hoped we’d get to be there, so we put ourselves in the best position to do so.
We were on the Chimney Pond trail by 6 am Sunday morning, thinking that if he had pulled an all nighter and just pushed through, there might be an early to mid morning finish. In fact Scott did pull an all nighter (while I was in my tent, trying to sleep and wishing the rain would stop, Scott was making his way through the end of the 100 mile wilderness in the dark, pulling his third all nighter in a row), arriving at Abol Bridge at 4:30 that morning, where he stopped (and presumably slept for a few hours), before pushing the next 10 miles or so to the base of the mountain (at Katahdin Stream Campground, the trail head for the Hunt trail).
We arrived at the summit at 11 o’clock to find a small crowd of people already there waiting, including media crews from Runners World and irunfar, and the roving Baxter State Park Ranger. The big question on everyone’s minds was “Where is Scott?” No one seemed to know, but slowly the picture came together. The ranger radioed Katahdin Stream and learned that Scott had arrived at KS in the morning and was waiting for his crew to drive in (though if you look at the tracker retrospectively it appears he left Abol Bridge at 7 am, traveling the 10 miles into KS in 3 hours, arriving there at 10, and immediately continuing on up the trail). We learned that he left KS at 10:30 (again, looking at the live track it appears he left at 10), making the final push up the 5.2 mile Hunt Trail. A little while later some hikers arrived with a satellite phone, and one of the locals (who was reporting for the website irunfar) commenced trying to text various people for information and load the live tracking website (technology crept back in, for better or worse). My group was especially interested in an estimated finish time, because we were wondering if we were actually going to stay to see him at the summit. If it sounded like it wouldn’t be until late afternoon, I had my doubts that I would be able to convince my sister and our companions to stay, ‘real life’ has a way of gnawing at you, calling you back. At one point, my sister, a little overwhelmed by being on the top of the mountain (Katahdin has a way of doing that to people) and the crowd that was forming, said she wanted to leave. I pretended I didn’t hear her (sorry sis) and in the end, she was really, really glad we stayed. Once we knew Scott was indeed on the Hunt trail, I think we all knew we were probably in it for the long haul, and after a little discussion we essentially decided to stick it out.
This was on the top of Katahdin mind you, and all kinds of interesting things happen on the top of that mountain. I almost always run into someone I know up there, and Sunday was no exception. When we first arrived I noticed a fellow in the crowd that looked familiar, but I discounted the feeling because the person he reminded me of was a Canadian runner I had met at the Skyrace du Mont Albert a few weeks ago. Why would a guy from Fredericton be there? A little while later he came up to me, and in fact it was GB, the man I ran with during our Canadian trail adventure. He had come all the way from Fredericton to see Scott summit. Definitely a kindred spirit.
Then this young guy came over and started chatting with us and before we realized it we were being interviewed for Runners World, providing the texture and backstory of how regular people were following Scott’s journey, and as Mainers what we thought of his struggle along our home state section of trail. As of this writing, they haven’t used anything we said yet, but our photo is up on the RW website so I think we’re pretty much famous now anyway.
Next a guy hiked up with a large camera bag strapped to his chest, and asked if someone would take his photo (that was a common question that day, as it is every day at Baxter Peak—I probably took summit photos for different groups with at least 8 different phones that day). Mike Peterson had a different kind of summit photo to take, and it was a real honor to be able to be part of it. Mike is a participant in the Summit Project, a Maine initiative to honor fallen veterans by hiking memorial stones up Maine’s mountains and to Maine’s special places, telling the stories of those vets along the way. Mike told us about both his father in law USMC Sergeant (and WWII vet) Bernie Gerry and Summit Project honoree USMC Corporal Joshua Barron, having carried stones for both of them up the mountain that day. Bernie’s stone was a piece of slate, and not too heavy, but Josh’s stone weighed at least 10 pounds. The weight of the rock however is a constant reminder of the weight of the sacrifice on the part of the vet. I’d heard about the project and followed it casually for a while, but it was an entirely different experience seeing it in action. Thanks Mike, for being there that day.
As if this all weren’t enough to keep us busy while we waited for Scott, a couple appeared (seemingly off the Knife Edge) in full wedding regalia (she in a strapless full length gown with train, he in Air Force uniform), both sporting hiking boots. They were celebrating their second wedding anniversary and posed for wedding photos around the summit. When the photo session was complete they changed out of their wedding clothes and back into their hiking gear for an anniversary meal of what appeared to be peanut butter sandwiches.
All the while we chatted amongst ourselves, making connections with many of the other curious and admiring people who had made the strange journey to the top of the mountain to see a man at the end of his endurance. We shared bits of information and speculation and the anticipation of not really knowing what to expect.
Even with all that excitement and conversation, we never lost our focus as the new question of the day became “when would Scott and crew come into view at the top of the Hunt Trail Spur?” I knew that as long as the visibility was good, binoculars would be a valuable commodity at the peak, and I actually remembered to bring them with me Sunday. Once Scott and crew crested ridge and gained the table lands, we would be able to watch them cross the nearly two miles of alpine tundra as they approached the peak. Each human form that appeared on the horizon was immediately examined, and the binoculars were passed around as we all, friends and strangers alike took our turn and weighed in on whether or not it was him. Finally at around quarter past 1pm, a large group appeared on the horizon and we knew it was him. For the next 45 minutes we watched as they grew closer, eventually learning that the two people who kept darting out in front were photographers, and Scott was in teal at the head of the main group. We watched as he stopped briefly for a picture with the orange hatted Baxter Trail crew, and we could hear the cheering when he crossed paths with a girls camp group that had summited and was on their way back down. We lost sight of them as they ascended the short steep uphill near the summit, and then there they were coming up the last few hundred yards. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
Scott officially made it to the summit at 2:03 pm, lowering his face to rest on the wooden sign marking Baxter peak in what could only be sheer relief. His support crew, including first and foremost his wife Jenny as well as ultra runner friends from out west and members of the local Trail Monsters running group, filled in around him, and he and Jenny enjoyed a long loving kiss.
No one really knew what would happen next. Just like the entirety of the undertaking, the ending didn’t seem to have much of a plan. Would Scott give a little speech? Would they just leave? Would there be a bunch of media business? An empty space of expectation filled the air after he arrived, not quite awkward or uncomfortable, but one asking quietly to be filled. Such is the reality of living a public life. Luckily, the support crew knew what to do, and several bottles of champagne were pulled from packs and one by one handed to Scott and he shook them up, sprayed the crowd, taking a long long pull from the first one. We watched for a while as they celebrated, and Scott did in fact gather his thoughts (perhaps it was the champagne talking) giving a heartfelt speech of thanks to all of the people who supported his journey in a material and physical way, as well as all of us who sent words of encouragement, either online or in passing on the trail. When some of the media types started asking goofy question like “Wow Scott, you just set a new speed record of the Appalachain Trail—HOW did you do it?” we knew it was time to leave. We had accomplished our goal, and gotten so much more out of the day to boot.
I thought of Scott as we made our way back down the mountain. The record breaking part of his journey was over, but he still had 5.2 miles to go back down before he was really done. That and then the long drive back to Colorado; ‘reality’ tugs at all of us eventually. The previous AT supported speed record holder Jennifer Pharr Davis wrote a lovely reflection yesterday on the news of the imminent falling of her record. In it she advises Scott to “hold the record lightly” as she acknowledges that record itself means essentially nothing, and that the meaning of experience comes from the relationships forged with friends and family and with oneself. Yes, hold the record lightly but hold the experience tightly, keep it close, nurture it and let it grow.
Thank you Scott (and Jennifer Pharr Davis, and so many others who demonstrate that our limits are fantasies of our own creation) for inspiring us, for letting us join you along the way, and letting us feel, in the end, like we were part of your journey. And we look forward to seeing you back east next year, when your friend Karl Meltzer comes calling and needs your strong legs and good pacing, not to mention your fine, fine blue and black striped running shorts…