Maine 100 Mile Wilderness - Abol Bridge to Monson - August 5-6, 2011
The story of my training and preparation for the 100 Mile Wilderness is an essay in and of itself, suffice to say that I went into this adventure feeling confident, prepared, and looking forward to the time I would spend with Emma, Jeremy, and the nine others taking part. Emma and I were being crewed by our friends Mindy and Pete, we drove up to Abol Bridge together on Thursday afternoon and set up camp that evening. Never having been there before we thought it wise to at least locate the trail head, which turned out to be only about ¼ mile from our campground.
Emma and I woke at 3:30 AM, had a quick breakfast and got suited up for the day with 12 pound packs and headlamps. For food and drink I was carrying with me 3 liters of diluted Nuun, a 16 oz handheld bottle, a bottle of Ensure, 2 GUs, a few S!Caps, 1 Honey Stinger Wafer and a bag of trail mix. My additional gear consisted of a first aid kit, map, compass, toilet paper, digital camera and video camera. I was anxious to get going and the time passed quickly until our group of 12 met at Abol Bridge at 4:45 AM. After introductions I went over a few details for the runners and their crew, and we all walked across the bridge over the Penobscot. In what little light there was at 5:00 AM we could just barely see each other on the road, but the trail was a black tunnel leading into the unknown. I counted down from 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 we stepped off the pavement and into the Wilderness…
0 miles Abol Bridge (588’) START
For some reason I felt like the other runners were holding back waiting for someone to lead the way, so I went to the front and set the pace for the first ¼ mile. Jason Smith (7:16 @ Pineland 50 mile) was right behind me and we chatted for a few minutes, it was obvious he was taking a different approach to this run than me and I knew I didn’t belong out front so I pulled over to get a video shot of everyone running past. I had tried to make it clear to everyone that this was not a race, but everyone is entitled to approach it however they like. I feared for anyone who had a racing mentality going into this. Even though none of us knew the terrain I felt like I had a more realistic expectation than some of the others and knew that going out hard was not a good plan.
3.5 miles Hurd Brook Lean-to (710’)
Roger was telling a story and I had to tell him to keep quiet as we went past the lean-to so as not to disturb the sleeping hikers. I was cognizant not to allow our adventure interfere with anyone else’s enjoyment of the Wilderness. Roger is a very accomplished road marathoner, and will be the first to admit that trail running is not his strength, but in these early miles he was moving well. Emma and Jeremy weren’t far behind, but I found myself moving at Roger's pace rather than theirs so I let him go and settled in with my fellow Trail Monsters.
6.0 miles Rainbow Ledges (1,517’)
Looking at the elevation profile there is apparently a climb up to Rainbow Ledges but it doesn’t stick out in my mind. It was too early in the day and we were feeling too good to take notice of a small, gradual uphill. Emma, Jeremy, Joe and I stopped briefly for a photo, had hoped to catch a view of Katahdin but the air was thick with fog and there was no view to be had. The weather forecast called for maximum humidity in the morning, one of my biggest fears, but at least the temperature was low enough for relative comfort.
7.8 miles Rainbow Lake (east end)
Views of the lake were filtered through the trees and although there could have been views towards Katahdin the fog and cloud cover was still thick enough to prevent us from being distracted. In an attempt to warn Emma about an upcoming hazard Jeremy called out “teeter totter” after stepping on a pivoting bog bridge. Unfortunately in Scotland they don’t use the word “teeter totter” so Emma had no idea what he was talking about and almost wiped out when she hit the log.
11.2 miles Rainbow Spring Campsite
The four of us stopped here to grab a bite to eat and Joe went down to the spring near the lake to refill with water. The terrain along the side of Rainbow Lake was very wet, muddy and rooty and it was very hard to get in any kind of running rhythm. Finally the humidity was starting to break, the temperature was still relatively cool and although I was pretty much wet from head to toe the air at least felt better. I drank an Ensure, it seemed a bit early but I didn’t have a big breakfast and I didn’t want my stomach to forget that it needed to work today too. My eating strategy has become to eat early, and consistently throughout the long run and try to minimize the large, one-off intakes of food.
13.0 miles Rainbow Lake (west end) Side Trail
During this first section there were several opportunities to divert from the trail and take in scenic views but we were focused on keeping our heads down, sticking to the trail and trying to cover as much terrain as efficiently as possible while we all felt good. That’s not to say that we were trying to get miles in the bank, the pace was easy but focused.
15.0 miles Rainbow Stream Lean-to (1,020’)
There was a dramatic river crossing here across a couple of too-thin logs above fast moving water and a rocky riverbed. Emma took off ahead to find a spot for a pee break, Jeremy and I followed shortly thereafter and Joe and Julian weren’t far behind. I assumed that Jeremy and I had surely passed Emma squatting off-trail, so we started walking to allow her to catch up, but all of a sudden we spotted her coming out of the woods about 50 yards ahead. It was lucky we saw her when we did because if we had been a little bit further back she would have assumed we were off in front and ran to catch us, while Jeremy and I would have kept moving slowly to allow her to catch up resulting in us splitting up for the rest of this first leg. Once we regrouped we found ourselves in a stretch that was a bit more consistently runnable which felt good for a change.
17.4 miles Pollywog Stream (682’)
By now we’d settle into as good a rhythm as could be expected. Overall the terrain was technically pretty nuts, although mellow in terms of elevation. We were having fun telling stories and making jokes and I thought “yeah, I can do this all day and night… and into the next day.”
18.8 miles Crescent Pond (west end)
It was along this stretch that I captured what would turn out to be my favorite photo from the whole run. There was a gradual climb of a few hundred feet over the last few miles to the first crew checkpoint, the terrain was becoming less rooty and more rocky, with a high tree canopy and lush ground cover of ferns and moss. Large boulders were scattered across the hillside, glacial erratics topped with toupees of fern. Absorbed in the terrain, time became unimportant, almost irrelevant. I was beginning to realize that moving at a comfortable pace was more important than beating the clock, enjoying the experience was more important that finishing faster than the guys who did this last year.
20.0 miles Pollywog Gorge CHECKPOINT #1
As we approached the first crew stop we could here voices up ahead so we gave a few shouts to let them know we were coming in. When we arrived there were chairs set up with our drop bags in the seats, our gear boxes nearby and the crew, Pete & Mindy, moved quickly to take care of our needs. There wasn’t much room for parking on this stretch of dirt road but luckily it was a very quiet area so we didn’t have to worry about logging trucks going past. While we were getting socks changed and bladders refilled Joe and Julian came along, paused very briefly and moved across the road to continue along the trail. Since both of them were running without crew there was no reason for them to stop here.
Pete told us we were doing good on time, I think it took us about 5 hours to cover the first 20 miles, but I really wasn’t paying attention to time. For the sake of record keeping and planning another attempt I can see the value of keeping track of time in and out of each of the crew stops, but in the moment all that mattered was making sure I was prepared to take on the next section. I drank another Ensure, ate a few mouthfuls of mashed potatoes, restocked my supply of gels, S!Caps and Nuun, took another bag of trail mix, changed into dry socks and shirt, but kept the same wet shoes and shorts on.
21.2 miles Nesuntabunt Mountain (1,520’)
The second leg of our journey started out with a steep climb up Nesuntabunt Mountain, about 550’ in just over 1 mile. The fog was finally clearing, humidity dissipating and the temperature rising, but under the dense tree cover it felt very comfortable. The views from the top were good, but distant cloud cover obscured some of the mountains so we didn’t linger.
23.1 miles Wadleigh Stream Lean-to
After the steep descent from Nesuntabunt the terrain leveled out and became somewhat runnable again. We passed a lot of hikers through this stretch, most of them smelled like section hikers but there were definitely a few through hikers. Most were very friendly, several seemed confused as to why there would be so many people moving so quickly out here and with no camping gear. Several seemed to think we were racing and attempted to tell us how far ahead the next runners were.
Just as we started to feel the temperature warming up we were rewarded with a stony beach on Nahmakanta Lake where we stopped for a quick cooling off. The water right at the shore didn’t feel as cool as we had hoped but it felt great to rinse our faces and hands. Emma went in up to her knees and found the deeper water to be very refreshing.
25.7 miles Nahmakanta Lake (south end) (650’)
From the lake we followed Nahmakanta Stream along very level ground that had a few good opportunities for running, with the occasional root cluster or bog bridge thrown in to make sure we didn’t get too carried away.
28.9 miles Nahmakanta Stream Campsite
Shortly after passing the campsite Jeremy and I discovered we were both extremely low on water, and realizing that the next spring was about 4 miles away we decided to get water from the river. I filled my bladder about ¾ full, dropped in 6 iodine tablets and finally got the chance to use the handheld bottle I had been carrying for the first 30 miles. I drank from the handheld for the next half hour until the iodine had done its job, then put the empty bottle back in my pack.
32.6 miles Pemadumcook Lake (southwest shore)
After leaving Nahmakanta Stream we hit a very wet section of trail that was either slippery bog bridges or root infested trail. I hate bog bridges, they look easy, but are more often than not half rotten and slick as shit. Early on we started calling these “wonky logs” because in Scotland they don’t use the term “teeter totter”. Anyway, there were a lot of wonky logs in this section, so many that we had to start abbreviating the term to just “wonk.”
33.2 miles Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to (710’)
By now Emma was dangerously low on water, but just in time to refill at the spring where we found Julian refilling his bladder and Joe looking for the trail. The spring is only a short distance off the trail and is very easy to access, with the freshest water filling a shallow pool before flowing down into Pemadumcook Lake. Joe and Julian took off ahead, Emma, Jeremy and I were just a few minutes behind but in no hurry to catch up.
35.0 miles Sand Beach, Lower Jo-Mary Lake
Just as we could start to notice that the temperature was maxing out for the day we came across the most beautiful, white sandy beach on Lower Jo-Mary Lake. The three of us dropped our packs on the beach and waded into the lake to cool off. We were already soaked from sweat and the wet trails so a little additional water didn’t make things worse and actually did a great job perking us up. Within a few minutes of getting back on the trail we were greeted with another fantastic surprise, Mindy running down the trail towards us! It was wonderful to see her and we were grateful that she hadn’t gone past while we were cooling off in the lake. I’m not sure that I gave her the warmest welcome though, I think my exact words were: “it will be so nice to hear someone else fart.”
Mindy reported it was 5.67 miles back to the road she had come from and Checkpoint #2, which sounded like an incredibly short distance but seemed to take a long time to cover. She also reported that she had seen all the other runners ahead of us in this section, which made it seem like we weren’t that far behind, but we were.
36.7 miles Antlers Campsite (500’)
The trail got a little confusing through here as we couldn’t see any white blazes, but plenty of blue ones on the trails to the lean-to, lake and privy.
38.0 miles Mud Pond (outlet)
There were a couple fun river crossings here, not quite the drama we were hoping for but nice to cool the feet off. Mindy’s company provided a mental boost to all three of us and put us in a good frame of mind to tackle the next section where we knew the terrain would start to get a little more difficult.
40.9 miles Jo-Mary Road CHECKPOINT #2
After being wet for most of the last 11 hours I felt the effects of trench-foot and swamp-ass and couldn’t wait to make a complete wardrobe change. The combination of Hydropel on my feet and the roomy toe box of my Roclite 295’s meant that my forefoot was slipping around inside my shoe with every uneven footfall (which was pretty much every one). I was also starting to get some chafing on my undercarriage from the wet compression shorts and around my waist from pack. Clean, dry clothes never felt so good.
Apart from the dead body on the ground it was a like a little party at Checkpoint #2, everyone was in good spirits with lots of stories to tell. The body belonged to Jason, apparently he wasn’t dead, but had knackered his knee about 10 miles before the checkpoint and had no choice but to destroy it as he struggled to make his was to the checkpoint. Roger was also there and had decided to drop, this kind of terrain was not his cup of tea. The third member of their group, Hogan, had gone on ahead some time before and was hoping to meet their crew for the first time at Checkpoint #3, but Roger had to call the crew back to pick him and Jason up. When Hogan arrived at Checkpoint #3 his crew wasn’t there and he had to rely on other crews for support. This situation is the perfect example of why I said, long before we started, that every runner needs to have their own crew.
Mindy, Pete and Alison (Jeremy’s crew) moved like pros to take care of our needs and get us back on our way as quickly as possible. I ate more mashed potatoes here, a few mini bagel pizzas, and drank a Mt Dew, then refilled my food supplies with the same as before, this time taking 2 bottles of Ensure. I changed into my glasses and also made sure to pack my headlamp, we realized that we were starting to slow down and it was beginning to look unlikely that we would finish the next section before it started to get dark. Joe had already come through before we arrived, Julian was there when we arrived and left right behind us. Even though Julian was attempting to do this unsupported his wife was still there to meet him at the checkpoints in case there was a change of plans. After a quick plank in the middle of Jo-Mary Road Emma, Jeremy and I took off with heavy packs but a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm for the section ahead.
44.6 miles Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to (880’)
Somewhere around here I saw my first hallucination of the trip, a little winged frog flew right in front of me across the trail. I was surprised that my mind was playing tricks on me so early on, and quite disappointed that I had not discovered a new species of avian amphibian. Turns out it was just a falling birch leaf.
46.9 miles Crawford Pond (outlet)
The decision to bring our headlamps on this section brought about the realization that we were moving very slowly. We ran every chance that we had, but overall our pace was slower than I had expected. At this point I had no doubt that we would finish, but I was trying to come to terms with the fact that it was going to take much longer than I had anticipated.
49.2 miles Little Boardman Mountain (1,980’)
The stretch of trail between 40 and 57 miles is pretty much all uphill, with Little Boardman Mountain making up the next appreciable climb. The sun was getting low as we climbed and I had hopes of great sunset views from the top but there was too much tree cover to really enjoy the scenery. Coming down off Little Boardman we turned our headlamps on. There was still plenty of light in the sky but under the tree canopy we needed the additional light to see the rocky terrain on the steep descent.
50.5 miles Spring
By now it was officially dark, and we were lucky that Jeremy spotted the little sign mounted above eye level on a tree indicating the side trail leading to the spring. It was about 1/10th mile down a steep trail to the spring with a pitifully weak flow. We were all low on water, having covered almost 10 miles since the last Checkpoint, and it took a while for all three of us to fill our bladders from the trickle. It was also at this point that we realized we had covered more than 50 miles and Emma was now in uncharted territory both in terms of time and distance covered.
52.4 miles East Branch of Pleasant River (ford)
After a short but very steep drop on rocky terrain we hit the East Branch of the Pleasant River and crossed with the aid of rope strung across. Even though we hadn’t covered as much ground before night set in as we had hoped there was a certain sense of adventure that came with the darkness, and the river ford helped amplify the feeling that what we were undertaking was definitely a remarkable expedition.
52.7 miles East Branch Lean-to (1,225’)
Once we passed the lean-to I knew we were getting close to the next checkpoint and we all got excited with the anticipation of seeing our crew again. It was hard to gauge distance in the dark but when I thought there was a chance of being within ear shot of the checkpoint I put on my best Nick Palazzo impression and shouted “WHERE’S MY FUCKING SOUP?” Five seconds later we turned a corner and saw a tent pitched just off the trail. I felt so bad, but in our frame of mind it cracked us up. It was a few minutes longer before we saw glow sticks in the trees ahead and we knew we had arrived.
54.7 miles Logan Brook Road CHECKPOINT #3
BEST. CREW. EVER. Glow sticks, warm ramen noodles, Beastie Boys. Everything I asked for was right there when I needed it. We were lucky to have such a dedicated crew. Pete remembered how much I enjoyed the mini pizza bagels from the previous checkpoint and made sure I got a few more this time.
I refilled my pack with the usual items, changed into a t-shirt with a long sleeve on top and packed another layer in case it got cold over night at the higher elevation coming up. My feet had remained dry over the previous section, but due to the saturation from the first 40 miles they were in a pretty delicate state and I was starting to develop blisters and hot spots. In fact, my whole forefoot felt like a hotspot. I drained two blisters at this checkpoint, greased my toes and changed my socks.
Julian came into Checkpoint #3 a few minutes behind us and decided he’d had enough of the Wilderness. I realized we were actually moving at the same pace as him so I offered for him to join us over the next stretch and promised his wife we wouldn’t leave him, the reality of us “outrunning” anyone at this point was null. Something about traveling back to the US from Africa the day before had left Julian feeling understandably jet-lagged.
With glow sticks attached to our packs we set off on the 2000’ + climb up White Cap Mountain.
56.3 miles Logan Brook Lean-to (2,480’)
I expected the lean-to to come about halfway up the climb and I was actually surprised how quickly we reached it, but was then surprised at how long the second half of the climb took. Much of the climb was made up of large stone steps set into the mountainside which allowed for a fairly regular hiking rhythm, albeit slow. My feet didn’t feel the significant improvement I had hoped for after changing socks and treating the blisters, the hot spots were spreading thruoghout my entire feet and every step burned. It was also during this climb that Emma started feeling a pain in her knee that was significant enough to cast doubt on her ability to finish. She brought this up but I was quick to dismiss it, in hopes that ignoring the problem would make it go away.
57.7 miles White Cap Mountain (3,650’)
Shortly before reaching the summit of White Cap there was a clearing just off the trail with a steep cliff drop-off allowing expansive views to the north. We turned off our headlamps and sat down to enjoy the midnight scenery. I first noticed the Big Dipper, and then tipped my head back and nearly fell over backwards. The starry sky was three-dimensionally enveloping. Rather than a distant black layer dotted with stars there was depth and sense of space in the sky above and for the first time while looking at the sky I felt like we were part of something much bigger. When I brought my eyes back down to the horizon I could see the aurora borealis streaking up into the sky from behind the distant mountains to the north.
A cool breeze reminded us that we’d been stopped long enough for a chill to start setting in and we needed to keep moving. The final push to the summit was all boulders and we were anxious to get back down into tree cover and out of the wind. I was encouraged that the next 10 miles were mostly downhill, but knew that the terrain wouldn’t allow those miles to come quickly enough.
59.4 miles Hay Mountain
Following White Cap there are three smaller peaks on the way down to Gulf Hagas, and it was coming down Hay that the reality of our situation started to sink in. We paused for moment on the trail and I felt compelled to sit and give my burning feet a rest. Emma stretched her aching knee, and Jeremy, who had been battling a headache, sat behind me and was the first to vocalize what was eating away at each of us. There was now a good chance that we wouldn’t finish this. I wanted to reserve judgment until after the sun rose in hopes that the sun would bring new life. Regardless of what decision we ultimately made we still had 9 miles to go to get to our next checkpoint, and that’s a long way when you’re coming down a mountain in the middle of the night after being on your feet for over 20 hours. We sat and thought about the situation, and ended up closing our eyes and sleeping for a few minutes.
Apart from wanting to sleep, and my burning feet the rest of my body actually felt pretty good. The biggest problem I was dealing with was that I had gone into this adventure with the expectation of finishing between 30 and 34 hours, but it was clear that if I was to try and finish that it would take me well over 40 hours, and that was something I hadn’t prepared for. Nor had our crew.
61.0 miles West Peak
The next little up on our way down was steep on both sides and we found ourselves frequently pausing to stretch. Every time I turned back to make sure my quiet partners were still with me my equilibrium was skewed and my head would spin. I continued to call out “blaze” to confirm that we were on the trail and as a way of making sure there was some form of communication happening, even if limited to single syllables.
61.7 miles Sydney Tappan Campsite (2,425’)
After dropping down West Peak we approached a spring a realized we’d need to refill our bladders for the final stretch. By now we all knew that finishing was not an option and getting to Gulf Hagas safely was the priority. The idea of napping next to the spring was brought up, but I really didn’t want to drag this out any longer than necessary. As we filled our bladders from the small, shallow pool of the spring the first rays of daylight were starting to filter through the tree canopy.
62.6 miles Gulf Hagas Mountain
As we started our last climb up Gulf Hagas Mountain we were able to turn off our headlamps, but the daylight didn’t bring with it the second wind I had hoped for. The exhaustion was more mental than physical, the intense focus on the terrain for so many hours left us longing for anything that would allow us to move without having to think about where we placed each foot.
Gulf Hagas Mountain was a cruel little lump of rock with a series of mini summits that all look identical and almost had us convinced that we were running in circles before we finally started to make the descent. When we knew we were finally headed off the mountain we had to take a break, and the three of us removed our packs and laid down right in the middle of the trail for a 10 minute nap. I was rudely awoken by a biting ant, and that was enough to get me up and moving again, if not for myself than at least for our crew who would soon be expecting us at the next checkpoint.
63.5 miles Carl A. Newhall Lean-to (1,860’)
When we passed the lean-to I knew there were only 6 miles left, and it was all a gradual downhill, on terrain that was significantly easier that most of what we had covered in the previous 64 miles. We should have run this section with reckless abandon, but none of us were capable of doing any better than a walk.
67.0 miles Gulf Hagas Cut-off Trail
After the longest 3.5 mile stretch of trail I’ve ever walked we finally saw a sign up ahead indicating the Gulf Hagas Cut-Off Trail. It was critical for us throughout this journey to break it up into manageable sections. 2.5 miles left, lets get this over with. After one of my many pee stops (they were coming every 20 minutes at this point) I attempted to run to catch up with Emma and Jeremy. It wasn’t pretty, but did serve to confirm that I had no right thinking about continuing on.
69.0 miles West Branch of Pleasant River (ford)
At the sight of the Pleasant River we realized we’d pretty much made it to where we were going to end this adventure. We waded into the middle of the knee deep river and sat down with our backs reclined against boulders, cold water washing away the dirt and the doubt. A sense of relief filled each of us and we began to realize the positive aspects of what we had accomplished. Nearly 70 miles on some of the gnarliest terrain Maine has to offer is still something to be proud of, and the time spent with Emma and Jeremy on the trail will stay with me forever.
69.5 miles Gulf Hagas CHECKPOINT #4
After a few minutes in the river two familiar faces appeared on the far river bank. Pete and Alison had walked down from the last checkpoint with emergency supplies on their backs prepared to find us on the trail and carry us out if needed. I felt guilty about letting them wait and worry, but in true selflessness they just wanted to hear the stories of our journey through the night. We chatted away as the five us covered the last half mile up to Katahdin Ironworks road and Checkpoint #4, our finish line.
My dad was there waiting with Mindy, our chairs and gear boxes were laid out with everything ready for us to restock and keep moving. It was a little sad to admit that we weren’t continuing on, but we had many hours to come to terms with this decision and we knew it was the right one. There were hugs, and the smiles that had been missing for the last few miles finally returned.