Written by: Joe Miller
A large building loomed out of the dark woods to our right.
“Is that the Folk Arts Center?” Annette Bednosky asked slightly perplexed. It was — the very same Folk Arts Center we’d set off from 15 minutes earlier, at 5:01 this morning.
“Well,” said Diane Van Deren, “we just did a 14-minute warmup lap.”
To Van Deren, it was a “so-what” moment. When you’re spending up to 20 hours a day for 21 days hiking a thousand miles, what’s 15 minutes?
This morning was the start of Day 4 of Van Deren’s attempt to break the speed record for trekking the entire Mountains-to-Sea Trail, from Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border to Jockey’s Ridge on the coast. Her MST Endurance Run is sponsored by The North Face (Van Deren is one of the outdoor gear company’s elite athletes) and the Great Outdoor Provision Co. The goal: raise awareness — and $40,000 — for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a work-in-progress trail spanning North Carolina.
Since starting her quest before dawn on Thursday, Van Deren has covered about 145 miles. This morning wasn’t her first wrong turn. “We walked around for about an hour on Clingman’s Dome trying to figure out where the trail went,” Van Deren says of Thursday morning’s fogged-in 4:30 a.m. start. “Finally we just picked a trail and went.”
Fortunately, it was the right trail.
Rockies, meet Southern Appalachians
In her first three days Van Deren, who has lived in Colorado nearly all of her 52 years, has tried to get a handle on hiking the rugged Southern Appalachians.
“On the first day it wasn’t that I didn’t want to go faster, we just couldn’t because of the trail,” which she described as better suited for rock climbing in spots. After her 4:30 a.m. start, she and her trail guide for the day, Dennis Norris, pulled into their campsite for the night near Balsam Gap South at 2 a.m. Were it not for their support team’s chance encounter with a couple of locals, the two likely would have continued on until dawn, making for a 74-mile, 25-hour start.
On a map, the MST appears to snuggle up to the Blue Ridge Parkway near the gap. In reality, it’s a little over a mile. When GOPC support team members Chuck Millsaps and Joel Fleming got to the gap a little past midnight, they had no clue how to get down to the trail in the dark. As they were tromping around, a pickup pulled up.
“This voice said, ‘Are you boys lost?’” Fleming recalls. The two were … concerned.
The pair turned out to be a local couple, Wayne and Karla. They’d grown up in the area; in fact, Karla’s family had gone hiking in this very area. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll find the trail for you.” She did, then, worried that the pair might miss the Mountains-to-Sea connection in the pitch black, hiked down with them.
Sleep? Who needs sleep?
Van Deren is notorious for not needing much sleep — four to five hours a night tops, even on a long expedition. After she and Norris arrived at camp, ate and got settled into their tents — about 2:30 a.m. — Van Deren couldn’t sleep. She thought she heard rustling in Dennis’s tent next door.
“‘Dennis!’ I whispered. ‘Are you awake?’ Van Deren said. “I figured if he couldn’t sleep, either, we might as well get back on the trail.” There was no answer.
On the trail the next day, she mentioned the incident to Norris. “I guess you weren’t awake,” she said.
“Oh, I was awake,” Norris replied. “But I figured if you knew I was awake you’d want to get up and get back on the trail.”
A day on the trail
The Trail Guides’ main purpose is to help Van Deren navigate the often tricky MST. Brain surgery ended the epileptic seizures that had plagued her for 10 years, but resulted in collateral damage. She has trouble with time (“I’ll put dinner in the oven,” she says, “then forget about it until the next morning”). Her organizational skills are shot. And, most pertinent to the MST Endurance Run, she can’t read a map.
But the guides also provide welcome companionship. “I train in solitude, and most of my events I do alone,” she said before the run. “So I’m really looking forward to the company.”
In Bednosky, she has the company of a fellow elite ultra runner. The 45-year-old Jefferson resident is a member of the Montrail/Mountain Hardwear Racing Team and the USA Track & Field Distance Team. Their easy discussion throughout the day ranges from common acquaintances in the distance running world to cooking to sports bras.
Describing how she ate on a recent self-supported ultra event, Bedonosky says, “I had my bra jammed with everything but breasts.”
Van Deren, who, a little while earlier had discussed how she consults with The North Face on product design, adds, “The North Face Wanted to name a bra after me. Look at me: Why would they name a bra after me?”
Keep on trucking
In addition to not sleeping, Van Deren is also known for her relentlessly upbeat attitude.
Fleming recalls trying to get himself psyched up for Van Deren’s first rest stop on Day 1.
“I was thinking, I need to be a cheerleader. I need to lift their spirits,” he says. “Then Diane comes bounding in, waving her poles yelling, ‘We’re here! We’re here!”
“She’s easily the most positive person I’ve ever met,” says Fleming.
“She’s awesome,” adds Amy Hamm, the third member of GOPC’s support team. “She’s killing it.”
Van Deren was killing it early Sunday morning, her attitude buoyant even after Bednosky estimated that the day’s especially challenging 43.8-mile leg, from the Folk Arts Center to NC 80 at the Blue Ridge Parkway including a long climb up 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, which would be delayed until Monday morning due to weather. Buoyant even after stopping to swaddle her blistered soles in duck tape. Buoyant even as a light drizzle evolved into a steady rain, which the forecast predicted would evolve further, into afternoon thunderstorms.
“I’m having fun,” she said at a brief rest stop five miles in. Then, turning to Bednosky, she said, “Let’s go, coach!”
Joe Miller writes about fitness and adventure in North Carolina, primarily through his Web site, GetGoingNC.com. He’s the author of three books, including “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” (2007, Mountaineers) and “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press). He’s currently working on another book, “Adventure Carolinas,” due out in Fall 2013 from UNC Press. And, he’s a trail runner.