There is often joking out here on trail about Thru Hiking Olympics. All sorts of different events are discussed: backpack packing, sleeping bag stretches, eating contests, the Two Week Challenge (hiking Oregon in two weeks), bear hang rock-putting, the list goes on and on. But we felt that by far the most badass was the double marathon. It is what it sounds like, you hike a double marathon, 52.6 miles, in one go. As the end of California loomed on the horizon we knew that our only chance to attempt it was nigh. We would never be able to pull it off in Washington, the elevation profile wouldn’t allow it. Not that California is flat, the section where we were planning on attempting the double marathon had 10,000 feet of elevation gain, but it was flatter than Washington. We knew we had to go for it.
The alarm went off like a gun at the beginning of a race, a very long race, and we were up. We choked down some pop tarts, tore down the tent, and set off at a steady pace. We knew that if ever wanted to get to camp we had to keep up a three mile an hour pace. This was challenging right off the bat thanks to a nine mile climb out of camp. Our packs were lighter than they normally would have been because we had ditched so much gear in Mount Shasta, but we were still carrying a lot of food and water availability was scarce so we had a lot of water too. After our slack packing experience we know that the key to accomplishing big days is to minimize the time you spend breaking. This means hiking eight miles between breaks, breaking by water so you don’t have to make multiple stops, and keeping your breaks between ten and fifteen minutes. Other then that it is just a mental and physical endurance feat, trying to keep your body moving at a rapid pace, telling yourself it will all be worth it in the end.
The day was a warmer one, and early on we had a lot of sun exposure. We were walking on a well packed trail that has a thin layer of dust on top, typical of California. This kind of trail makes you extremely dirty but it also shows tracks very clearly. And so all morning we were treated to a parade of giant bear tracks, sometimes walking the same direction we were, sometimes walking towards us. They could have been days old, there aren’t a ton of people out here to cover them up with human tracks, but still, it made us paranoid and we did a lot of shouting and singing. After a couple of views of Shasta from the south, we ended up back in the woods for the rest of the day which was a blessing because the sun was scorching. In the shade it was cool though. We were also vigilantly looking for rattle snakes since I had almost stepped on one the night before heading into camp. By two o’clock we had done thirty miles. Only 23 more to go…
Even our best efforts couldn’t keep our breaks below fifteen minutes and we knew that we were loosing time, that we were looking at a very late arrival to camp, but once we had done forty miles we didn’t feel like we could back out. We were committed. Around that time the sunlight began to fade rapidly and we had to don our headlamps. I love hiking around dusk, when everything is cooling down and the sky is awash with different colors. But hiking at dark in the woods, that is not my favorite time to be hiking. My headlamp must have turned itself on in my pack because I despite having fresh batteries it was dim. I had to focus religiously on the trail and resist the urge to swing my Beamon of light around every time I heard something crash in the darkness. We turned on the podcasts for comfort and distraction. Fourteen miles, ten miles, six miles. It wasn’t until we got below six miles that things seemed inevitable. Not easy by any means. At that point we were getting water and taking a break on a bridge, both of us grimacing every time we moved thanks to the aches and pains in our legs and feet. I could feel hotspots, Kyle looked miserable, but we were both determined.
Of course, California knew that we were coming to the end of our time there and it wasn’t about to let us off easy. At about four miles left we discovered a pit of hornets in the middle of the trail. I don’t know how else to describe it, there was a large hole in the trail, about a foot wide, and lining the inside of it were hundreds and hundreds of sleeping bees. I literally gasped and recoiled when I saw it. We switched on our red lights and sprinted past it. Then we encountered an even scarier foe, a skunk. Up until then I hadn’t even considered that the most terrifying creature we might meet on trail would be so small and cute. I first glimpsed him sprinting away from my dim headlamp, heading up trail, his incredibly fluffy and luxurious tail ruffling along behind him. I didn’t say anything to Kyle yet, wanting to protect his fragile state from the truth, no point in freaking him out if we never saw the vile creature again. But then, about two minutes later, my light found him again, about fifty feet up the trail, rolling around playfully, licking his crotch, strutting and scratching and frolicking. Skunks must be the most carefree creatures in the world, they know nothing wants to mess with them.
We froze, unsure of what to do. Unlike most unpleasant trail companions, skunk have the ability to attack from a very long distance. Even with a rattle snake you can comfortably stand thirty feet back and throw rocks at it. But it seemed in that moment there was no safe distance from a skunk. We backed up as far as we could and threw a very large log into the bushes by him, hoping to scare him off trail. But he seemed unwilling to head back into the woods, and instead sprinted down trail away from us. We followed cautiously. I wondered if skunks were revengeful bastards. Would he have the foresight and planning to be laying in wait for us in a bush and sneak-spray us as we walked on by? I scanned from side to side. Kyle pointed out that if we got sprayed we would never get a ride the next day. Finally we spotted him, doing his little smelly dance of the trail. We located rocks and started chucking them in his direction and I saw him disappear into the bushes next to the trail. A terrible smell started to fill the air, burning my eyes and my throat. I had never experienced a skunk spraying in real life and it was awful. Without knowing how far he was off trail we decided our only option was to make a run for it and for the second time that night we sprinted up trail. After 50 miles of hiking your body is not exactly overjoyed to be sprinting.
The last couple of miles seemed to drag on and on but finally we made it into camp. After twenty hours of hiking we had successfully hiked a 53 mile day, it was surreal. We were exhausted and blistered and stiff but we got camp set up, rinsed off under a spigot, and gave our feet a quick massage. Large trees ringed our campsite but above us the sky was clear and filled with thousands upon thousands of stars. They were so bright they took my breath away and I felt so full of life and happiness and strength. Of course people are going to wonder why in the world we would hike a 53 mile day and it is hard to explain. There is something about being able to use your body in such a mind boggling way, you can’t resist seeing what it can do. I mean, if you were Simone Biles wouldn’t you just want to do backflips all the time? Or if you were Alex Honald of course you would taken extreme pleasure in climbing things other people just can’t climb. I understand why Dean Potter couldn’t stop BASE jumping. There is a joy in testing the limits of this vessel in which we live our lives. It’s the only one we have, I want to know what it can do, I want to feel like I have really used it before I can’t use it anymore.
We climbed into our tent, happy and dead tired and I passed out as soon as my head hit my stuff sack. I probably slept for an hour or so when suddenly I woke, gasping in pain. I was sleeping on my side and my hips were radiating pain, back and forth, from one to the other. I groaned, afraid of waking Kyle up but unable to mask my pain, and rolled onto my back. As if I had released the pain in my hips it flooded down my legs, pulsating and throbbing, and I choked back tears. It felt as if someone was prying all of my joints apart with a crowbar, pulling all of my muscles apart the way you shred chicken with two forks, electrifying my legs with shocks. It felt like growing pains, like my legs were trying to grown two feet in the span of a night, the worst growing pains. It was an ache that roved my lower body. It was what it must have felt like when Professor Lockhart vanished Harry Potter’s bones in his arm and he had to grow them back using Skelo-grow. It was excruciating. I twisted and turned, trying to get comfortable, but no position would make the pain go away. I felt as if I had been in a terrible accident, I felt nothing in my upper body, it felt completely normal, but below my belly button everything was on fire. Kyle told me the next morning that he had experienced the exact same thing, we must have missed eachother in the night as we both tossed and turned in a fitful sleep, so tired but unable to rest. This is going to sound crazy but the ache in my legs, it felt like an itch that only one thing can scratch. I knew the only way my legs would stop hurting was to get up the next morning and keep walking. And that is what we did.