Great Outdoor Provision Co.

Thank you, Bobby Murray Chevrolet!

Every expedition requires gear that can stand up to the test. The North Face MST Endurance Run Expedition was no exception. So when it came to finding the ideal “Mobile Aid Station” to handle the 1,000+ miles of varied terrain we went to our local Chevrolet dealer, Bobby Murray. If you’ve been in Raleigh long enough (since the ’50’s) you may recall Bobby L. Murray Sr. servicing cars in downtown Raleigh at Murray’s Gulf Service. Fifty years later the Murray Family is still offering the highest quality of service and professionalism to its customers and its community at Bobby Murray Chevrolet. Thanks Bobby Murray and staff for helping The Mountains-To-Sea Trail and making North Carolina a great place for adventure.

#MSTRun Recap

900+ miles later, Diane Van Deren reaches Jockey’s Ridge

9:37 a.m.

What began with a casual inquiry at a reception last October ended at 9:29am this morning when Diane Van Deren took the final steps up an 85-foot sand dune at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, 22 days, 5 hours and 3 minutes after leaving Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border. Her journey on the nearly 1,000 mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail set a record for the fastest crossing of the statewide path, beating by nearly two days the previous record of 24 days, 3 hours and 50 minutes set last year by Matt Kirk.

“Kate Dixon,” the 52-year-old Van Deren yelled as she ran the last few yards up an 85-foot dune, “that is a long, long way to go!” Moments later she embraced Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which benefited from Van Deren’s MST Endurance Run.

Van Deren began the day on the trail at 4:26 a.m., with 23 miles to go. The plan was to reach Jockey’s Ridge by 11 a.m. But unlike previous days when it had taken Van Deren 30 minutes to an hour to rev her body up to race pace, she started this morning out of blocks.

“When we got to the downhill part of the bridge” — the 2.5-mile Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet — “she took off,” said Christian Johnstone, one of her trail guides for the day.

In the first two hours Van Deren did the equivalent of a half marathon — 13.1 miles — in two hours.

At about the 10-mile mark, she began asking for periodic location updates from expedition coordinator and trail guide Chuck Millsaps. Around the 5-mile mark she asked for a phone and called her husband, Scott, her best friend back in the Denver area, Barb Page, and her manager at The North Face, Lisa Burnes.

At the 3-mile mark, at NC12 and NC 158, she met her support crew one last time. After getting water and checking her severely blistered feet, she asked for a moment.

“She asked for our hands and said a prayer,” Millsaps said. “She spoke about all we had learned from one another, about how grateful she was for us and how grateful she was that we had all arrived safely.”

Less than a half hour later she was standing atop Jockey’s Ridge.

“That is the hardest thing I have ever done,” Van Deren told a small gathering on the dune. “The only way I was able to do it was because of my team.” She then pulled them together for a group shot: Millsaps, Dixon, Support Crew Chief Joel Fleming and trail guides Sarah Millsaps, Russell Burke and Johnstone.

The declaration of being her biggest challenge yet comes from an athlete who has done the Hardrock 100, said to be the hardest 100-mile ultra race out there, seven times, and who did the 300-mile version of the Yukon Arctic Ultra and had so much fun that she returned the following year for the 430-mile version.

For record keeping purposes, Van Deren’s run began May 10. In reality, it began back in October when she was in town as part of The North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series. After sharing her story of battling through epileptic seizures to morph from a pro tennis player at the beginning of her career to an elite ultra runner 10 years ago, Chuck Millsaps with event sponsor Great Outdoor Provision Co., introduced Van Deren to Dixon.

Van Deren wasn’t familiar with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, so Dixon obliged with a quick elevator speech. Then, because she thought the ultra runner might be interested, she mentioned that a record had just been set for fastest crossing of the nearly 1,000 mile trail.

“How fast? Van Deren wanted to know.

24 days, 3 hours and 50 minutes, Dixon replied.

Hmmm …, thought Van Deren.

Van Deren submitted a proposal for an MST expedition, The North Face approved it, and in January planning began in earnest for the MST Endurance Run.

Recounting her journey across North Carolina — a journey that included fording waist-high creeks in the mountains and a tropical storm and tornado at the coast — she mentioned getting one tick somewhere along the way.

“One tick?” Jockey’s Ridge Superintendent Debo Cox asked. “If you ran all the way across North Carolina and just got one tick, then you set another record.”

Cox then spared Van Deren and her weary legs the agony of slogging through a half mile of sand back to her support vehicle with a ride in his ATV. Once again, Van Deren was grateful, this time for what lie ahead.

“I’m going to take a shower and shave my legs.”

Day 23: An hour away from Jockey’s Ridge, and the end

8:15 a.m.

“She’s really focused,” MST Endurance Run support team member Joel Fleming reported from the outskirts of Nags Head moments ago. “She’ll be at Jockey’s Ridge in about an hour.

Diane Van Deren got back on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at 4:26am this morning with the goal of reaching Jockey’s Ridge, 23 miles north, around 11 a.m. But rather than take a few minutes to get her legs going, Fleming reports she started running from the start. Running the seven miles to the bridge over Oregon Inlet, running the 2.5-mile bridge, running the remaining 13 miles or so to Jockey’s Ridge.

She’s expected to arrive by 9:30 a.m. EDT.

A full report later this morning.

Day 22: A day to savor, then the finish (maybe)

With 63 miles to go, Diane Van Deren will catch her breath today and enjoy the Outer Banks that treated her so harshly yesterday. Her plan as of 7:30 this morning is to put in 30 to 35 miles today, then finish her MST Endurance Run Friday morning. That would put her at 23 days and change, breaking the record Mountains-to-Sea Trail crossing of 24 days, 3 hours and 50 minutes set last year by Matt Kirk.

The recovery day is well-deserved after yesterday’s 50-mile-long battle with Tropical Storm Beryl, which regained strength and lingered into the evening on the Outer Banks.

“Yesterday,” support team member Joel Fleming said this morning, “Diane really proved why she’s a North Face athlete. She was a machine.”

Yesterday began at 3:30 a.m. under promising conditions. It was windy, reports Fleming, but dry. But about 15 miles in, that changed. The wind, reaching 40 miles per hour, persisted and the pelting rain, which would total 8.6 inches on the day, began.

“That’s when the elite athlete in her really kicked in,” said Fleming. Despite the conditions, which included standing water, Fleming said Van Deren picked up her pace, going from about 11 minute miles to a 9-minute pace.

“She blew off three check points all together, and the ones she did get stuff from she told her guide runner what she needed, they ran up and got it from us and she just kept running.”

On one elevated bridge crossing the wind was so bad that trail guide and expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps tethered himself to Van Deren. Harder to blow two bodies over the side than one.

At the height of the storm, around 5:30 p.m., the Mountains-to-Sea Trail took Van Deren and Millsaps through a swamp. “We started hearing a weird noise,” said Millsaps. “Diane had heard about ‘swamp music’ and assumed that’s what it was.”

Millsaps is more familiar with southern weather than Van Deren, who’s lived in Colorado nearly all her 52 years, and knew it was something else. Among the severe weather warnings issued in association with Beryl was one for tornadoes. Millsaps figured the funnel clouds to be about a half mile off.

Worried that the worsening weather might affect the ferry schedule — the goal for the day was the Ocracoke-Hatteras Ferry, which stops running at midnight — Van Deren again picked up the pace. She reached the ferry at 10:30 last night.

Yesterday, the plan had been to try and push today’s remaining 63 miles and finish tonight, around 11 p.m., atop Jockey’s Ridge. But last night, as the long day was coming to an end, Millsaps was having second thoughts.

“It seemed like such a disservice to someone who had been through so much to have her finish at night, in the dark, with no one around,” Millsaps said. “So we talked about some options and I said, ‘How about if you do 30 or 35 miles tomorrow, get rested up and finish strong and fresh Friday. Diane was good with that.”

This morning, under conditions that tourism types pitch when selling a beach vacation, Van Deren set off with trail guides Christian Johnstone and Russell Burke, both of Raleigh. Her destination: A night in Rodanthe.

At least that’s the tentative plan.

“Once she gets going, I don’t know,” Fleming said as she, Johnstone and Burke left the Hatteras Ferry dock at 7:50 a.m. “I think emotionally and mentally, she’s ready to let go. She might just want to finish.”

We’ll be back with a midday update.

Day 22: A push to finish, a desire to savor and enjoy


At her second rest stop of the day, around 10:50 this morning, Diane Van Deren was focused. “This is the part of the expedition where I really need to tighten up,” she said while adjusting gear. “It’s easy to let down when you’re nearing the end. But it’s also easy for things to happen. I could get heat stroke. I really need to focus.”

Yet counterbalancing her need to stay on task was an overwhelming urge to take a few moments, finally, to savor what at this point had been her 22 days and nearly 900 miles crossing North Carolina on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

“I’ve seen mountains, roots, rocks, cliffs, roaring rivers, endless streams, headwinds, a tropical storm, a tornado,” she said. In short, she’s seen a remarkable sampling of North Carolina and she doesn’t want the experience to wash over her and be gone.

“I want to enjoy the next two days and not push it so much, but really relish and embrace what we’ve been through,” she said as she walked along the shoulder of NC 12 on Hatteras Island under cloudless skies. “I want to take some time when this is over to appreciate it.”

The idea of not simply finishing her MST Endurance Run and moving on to her next scheduled ultra event, the Hardrock 100 in four weeks, struck her last night. After a grueling day, she got a visit from Lisa Burnes, her manager at The North Face.

“We sat and talked in my room for an hour and I told her I didn’t want to do the Hardrock,” Van Deren said.

Van Deren said it was the first time in her 10-year career that she’s decided not to do an event she was scheduled to do. As a sponsored athlete, such a move could be risky. After all, the sponsor is paying, in part, for the exposure its athletes bring.

Burnes response, according to Van Deren: “Well, yeah. D’uh.” Burnes was surprised she was even considering the Hardrock, an event Van Deren has done seven times.

Van Deren talked today about how intense the past few days have been, especially as her timetable in her quest to break the MST crossing record of 24 days, 3 hours and 50 minutes set last year by Matt Kirk, has been dependent on the coastal ferry schedule. One ferry, the last of the day, they made with just 10 minutes to spare. Another they made just before it stopped running because of bad weather.

She spoke like a tourist about things that would have tourists demanding a refund.

Of yesterday’s encounter with a strengthened Tropical Storm Beryl, she talked about the black sky, the dark ocean with, “I dunno, 20-foot waves?”, and “that funny noise. It sounded like a tugboat. Or an airplane.” Chuck Millsaps was her trail guide at the time and he was pretty sure what that “funny noise” was, having been through a tornado before.

“I wasn’t sure whether I should throw her into a ditch and cover her or what,” Millsaps said this afternoon. “I guess maybe I should have.” (Millsaps said his suspicion was borne out later when he was told of a tornado spotted right when and where they’d been.)

Of the howling wind that blew from all directions and made her progress difficult, she said with childlike fascination, “It was so awesome to see what nature could do.”

She spoke about how some mornings she’s had to be lifted into the SAG vehicle by her support crew, about how other mornings she’s had to crawl before her legs would allow her to walk, about how, on average, it takes her about 35 minutes of finagling before she can stand getting out of bed. You might think she’d want this ordeal to be over as quickly as possible. And, conceivably, she could do the 63 miles she had remaining today and finish atop Jockey’s Ridge sometime around midnight. Instead, at mid-day, with 43 miles to go, she simply wanted to savor everything she’s been through over the past 22 days.

“Let’s get to 30 miles, then decide what we want to do,” she told her support team at the 17-mile mark.

One option is to call it an early day, then get up around 1 a.m. Friday and arrive at Jockey’s Ridge to see the sunrise. Another option is to put in a 40-mile day, then hit the trail before dawn and arrive at Jockey’s Ridge mid-morning.

We’ll report back at day’s end with Van Deren’s plan for tomorrow.

Photo: Diane Van Deren in the lead, followed by trail guide Christian Johnstone, along NC 12.

Day 21: Battling Beryl to make the ferry

“On one level,” Diane Van Deren yelled into the howling wind and rain this morning, “this is very interesting. I have always been curious about what a tropical storm would feel like. We don’t have these in Colorado.”

Some might see a tropical storm with winds in excess of 35 miles per hour and torrential rains as a nightmare, especially if you plan to spend the day running in it. But elite ultra runner Diane Van Deren, who is closing in on her goal of breaking the speed record for crossing the nearly 1,000 mile statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail, sees as a new adventure.

Van Deren started today at 3:30 a.m. — after just two hours sleep. She had to in order to cover the 36 miles separating her from the Cedar Island Ferry and the 2 1/4-hour crossing to Ocracoke. Miss it and she’d have to wait three and a half hours for the next ferry. Three and a half hours she doesn’t feel she can afford this close to the end.

“Anticipating rain for the start, we were surprised by only heavy winds,” reports Chuck Millsaps, expedition coordinator and one of three trail guides who rotated watches with Van Deren. “But by sunrise the storms cells were hammering us relentlessly.” Bridges were especially bad, reports Millsaps, exposing them to “heavy winds that felt like sandblasting instead of rain.”

Added Van Deren, “I thought the snowstorms on Pikes Peak were wild.”

“The 5-mile section from the end of Monroe Gaskill Memorial Bridge was the most difficult stretch of running I have ever endured,” Millsaps says. Still, Van Deren wasn’t about to stop. And, again, she’d never run in a tropical storm before.

At 12:20 p.m., the crew realized they still had 4 miles to go to reach the 1 o’clock ferry. Van Deren picked up the pace, running sub 10-minute miles — in a driving rain, after already running more than 800 miles in 21 days.

“We made it with 10 minutes to spare,” reports Millsaps.

Van Deren continued up Ocracoke Island with the goal of making the Hatteras Ferry before it shuts down for the evening at midnight.

Van Deren is sponsored by The North Face, which over the weekend landed a team atop Mount Everest. Tomorrow, Van Deren hopes to plant another flag for The North Face, this one atop the sand dunes of Jockey’s Ridge.

“We have 83 miles left ‘til we top out at Jockey’s Ridge,” Millsaps said after catching the Ocracoke Ferry . “Hoping to celebrate Friday morning.”

Day 20: A Memorable Memorial Day, closing in on the coast

Diane Van Deren caught the Cherry Branch/Minnesott Beach Ferry this morning at 9:45, launching her 20th day on the MST Endurance Run. She’s now on pace to reach Jockey’s Ridge Friday at sunrise.

After the 20-minute ferry ride, Van Deren began her 75-mile day on the 20-mile Neusiok Trail, which penetrates the heart of the Croatan National Forest. In the dead of winter the Neusiok is one of North Carolina’s most enjoyable trails. The day after Memorial Day, with a muggy high in the low 80s and afternoon thunderstorms forecast, not so much. Fortunately, she’ll be able to draw on yesterday’s memorable Memorial Day for inspiration and distraction.

Yesterday began with trail guide Annette Bednosky again setting the day’s pace. Bednosky was Van Deren’s “companion runner” on Days 3 and 4 of the run, helping to shepherd Van Deren through 57 miles of challenging Mountains-to-Sea Trail terrain between the Pisgah Inn and Balsam Gap  in the Pisgah National Forest. Bednosky returned to school — she’s a counselor at Ashe County High School in West Jefferson — then was back this weekend to help Van Deren push through back-to-back 60-mile days. Bednosky, also an elite ultra runner, was vital in helping Van Deren maintain a record-breaking pace.

Bednosky passed the trail guide baton to Connie Lewis and fellow running friends, Eileen, John and Ron who got Van Deren to the outskirts of New Bern. At that point, Van Deren was reunited with Tom Hurd, who, with Billy Gorman, were fitting Memorial Day companions.

Hurd had helped Van Deren through a particularly challenging Day 15. Challenging because of confusing trail and extensive road travel. (The MST is a work-in-progress; where progress has yet to occur, the trail follows a temporary route along paved roads. Van Deren, more so than most, is sensitive to traffic noise.) Hurd is in the U.S. Army based at Fort Bragg, and Van Deren said that was apparent in his focus to complete the day’s mission.

“He would hold the water bottle just so so I could get to it more easily,” Van Deren recalled the following day. “He said, ‘Now, if you need to you can put your hand on my shoulder.’ He’s such a soldier.” Hurd’s presence was even more comforting because he reminded Van Deren of her son, a Marine. So after racking up high mileage across the hot and humid coastal plain Van Deren was especially glad to once again see Hurd. Their passage through New Bern was especially well-timed. Hurd safely guided Van Deren over the Neuse River Bridge which can be daunting even in a car.

“There was not a dry eye among the crew,” reports MST Endurance Run coordinator Chuck Millsaps, “as Tom and Diane ran through New Bern’s highly decorated National Cemetery as the sun set on Memorial Day.” The moment was especially strong for Van Deren, who was joined by two friends from childhood back in Littleton, Colo. Holly had traveled from Washington, D.C., Stacy from Raleigh.

The long day ended around midnight, near the aforementioned Cherry Branch/Minnesott Beach Ferry. Hurd and Gorman faced a 2 1/2-hour drive back to Fort Bragg, where they’d grab a couple hours sleep before reporting for training exercises at 6 this morning.

Day 19: With less than 200 miles to go, it’s time to focus

This morning, Diane Van Deren reached Mile 732 — which means she stopped in for the traditional Mountains-to-Sea Trail thru-hiker audience with Roy Whaley, owner of the Food Center in Cove City. Whaley has entertained many of the 28 trekkers who have traveled the entire MST since Allen de Hart and Alan Householder first did it in 1997.

“Whaley extends a helping hand, a meal and a shower to those who need it,” according to expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps. Whaley, Millsaps adds, “has seen the game face before.”

In the case of Van Deren, it’s a face flush with the heat and humidity being pushed inland by tropical depression Beryl, a face that, in Millsaps words, “has slept about as many hours in the past three weeks as there are days in this expedition,” and a face that, heading into the home stretch, is like a golfer smelling victory.

“We’re staring down a 200-mile putt and the green marshall has raised his hand and requested the gallery to be quiet as Diane lines up her final stroke,” says Millsaps.

It’s not entirely a metaphor. A decade ago, Van Deren had brain surgery to eliminate seizures related to epilepsy. The surgery was a success, but there were side effects, one of which is that noise can become overwhelming to Van Deren, particularly when she’s tired. Between the heat, the humidity and the abundance of 3-hour-sleep nights, Van Deren is especially susceptible to noise at this point.

Of Whaley and his previous thru-hiker encounters, Millsaps says, “Those who are moving fast he wishes them well and respects their need to travel light and fast.

“Diane is all about those two adjectives today as she must make the Neuse River Ferry by sunrise on Tuesday to line up this putt,” says Millsaps. “Like Whaley, let’s give her room to breath, wish her the best and she’ll be ready for hugs and high fives by Friday.”

Which is to say, if you turn out to cheer Van Deren on as she hones in on the finish, remember, this is her putt for the win; let her maintain her focus until Jockey’s Ridge.

Then the gallery can yell all it wants.

Day 18: More police, a house call, closing in on 700 miles

You either have to travel back in time or to Eastern North Carolina, apparently, to find a doctor who still makes house calls. On Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, no less.

On country roads north and east of Goldsboro — the Mountains-to-Sea Trail’s temporary home in the Coastal Plain — Diane Van Deren was joined by Goldsboro doctor/runner Maria Limmen. Dr. Limmen “had been following Diane online and could hardly wait to join up with the expedition,” according to expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps.

“Not wanting to be a burden, Dr. Limmen would drive ahead a few miles, park her car, run back to Diane and fall into Diane’s cadence of running,” reports Millsaps.  “She must have covered 20 miles in this fashion.  Dr. Limmen was most concerned about the blisters on Diane’s feet and offered medical advice as well as her phone number should assistance be needed.”

Dr. Limmen departed Van Deren and trail guides Annette Bednosky and Sarah Millsaps around mile 55 for the day, near the town of LeGrange, around 7 p.m. After a quick dinner, mile 700 for her MST Endurance Run loomed 14 miles ahead, and that became the goal for the day. Those miles would include another welcoming committee in the form of a “pretty hairy encounter” with dogs, and yet another meet-up with the State Patrol, which tends to happen when they run across you walking along an otherwise deserted country road in the middle of the night and there’s a crawling cargo van/support vehicle in your wake.

“A State Trooper pulled me over after I shadowed the trio across the Neuse River bridge,” says Millsaps. “He just shook his head and told me that we should have better sense than this.  I agreed.”

The team also agreed not to run the remaining four miles in the wee hours along busy NC 55.

Today resumed, early, passing the 700-mil mark downstream from Cliffs of the Neuse State Park.

Guide runners help Van Deren stay the course

Mark Rostan remembers well Day 6 of Diane Van Deren’s run across North Carolina. After their first rest stop of the day, at mile 10 in the Pisgah National Forest, he and Van Deren popped off the road they were on onto what he thought was the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

“We peeled off into woods and saw white dots [the MST’s signature blaze] at first, then we started seeing other colors,” Rostan recalls. They didn’t think too much of it at first; after all, the MST piggybacks on various trails in its run across North Carolina. This was probably one of those instances, he thought.

“Then we popped out back onto the road we’d started on 30 minutes earlier,” Rostan says.

Every day for the past 17 days on her quest to cover the entire 935-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail in record-breaking time, Van Deren has been accompanied by at least one trail guide. Brain surgery to eliminate epileptic seizures a decade ago was successful, but there were side effects. A key one for an ultra runner (roughly defined as someone doing events longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles): She can’t read a map. Her trail guides’ primary task is to keep her on track, and Rostan had just led Van Deren on a 30-minute loop.

“She could have cared less,” Rostan says. “As long as she was moving forward, she was happy.”

Rostan’s “oops” moment was one experienced by nearly every trail guide who has accompanied Van Deren. And every time, they report, her response is the same: Don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal.

“Being hired as a ‘guide’ had me pretty nervous knowing my past history of getting lost on trails,” admits Dennis Norris, who led Van Deren out of the gate on Day 1 from atop Clingman’s Dome. “And then, low and behold, I get us lost within the first hour.

“But rather than be irritated,” he adds, “Diane was positive and cheerful and never showed any doubt in me as a ‘guide’.”

Another key role played by the trail guide is to act, as guide Annette Bednosky puts it, “as a companion runner. You need to be asking, ‘Are you eating, are you drinking, are you keeping warm? You need to be the responsible person as you travel through the woods together.”

Led by the best

On her trek across North Carolina Van Deren couldn’t be in more experienced hands. The majority of Van Deren’s guides have a good idea of what the elite, 52-year-old Colorado ulltra athlete is up against. Like Van Deren, Bednosky is also a sponsored athlete (Van Deren by The North Face, Bednosky by Montrail/Mountain Hardware). She also won the women’s category of the Western States 100 in 2005. Guide Jill Miller has done the (in)famous Leadville 100, Norris is a regular at the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge, Doug Blackford cracked a rib and dealt with a timber rattler on the 100-mile Massanutten Mountain Trails Run, Mark Rostan won the men’s division of the most recent Freedom Park New Year’s Eve 24-Hour Race logging 125.79 miles. The list goes on.

The trail guide concept is common in endurance events.

“The rationale,” explains Bednosky, “is you don’t want the runner to become delusional and dehydrated and wander off into woods. You’re simply there to keep them awake and headed straight.”

For competitive runners looking to win a race or set a new personal record, the companion runner may also set a target pace — hence the more common designation as “pacer” in racing circles.

‘A trail runner goes into a rest stop … ‘

In Van Deren’s case, another key role for the trail guide is to act as distraction from the monumental task — running across a wide state such as North Carolina — ahead. Van Deren stresses “staying in the moment.” Doing so can depend on how good the trail guide is at keeping things lively. Like how the success of the Oscars or Emmys often depends on the host.

Monday, Jill Miller showed up at 5 a.m. with a full day’s worth of material — despite having flown in from Boston three hours earlier and getting just an hour of sleep.

She recalled her days as a Super 8 motel maid in high school (“I hated when the rodeo came to town. They were slobs.”). She told how she’d repeatedly misstated the name of the GPS tracking device strapped to Van Deren’s pack (I kept calling it a ‘G-Spot’. Finally, someone said, ‘Are you sure that’s what it’s called?’”). She talked about how modesty has little place in a long endurance event. The nearly 18-hour day passed much more quickly than it would have otherwise.

‘Companionable silence’

Sometimes, on the other hand, it’s not what a trail guide says, it’s what she doesn’t say.

Friday, UNC Wilmington student and triathlete Leah Carroll was Van Deren’s guide for a good portion of the day. Thursday had been especially challenging for Van Deren — navigating an overgrown stretch of trail, wading through waist-deep flood water and dealing with more road traffic than she had to date. (Another side effect of Van Deren’s brain surgery: Noise tends to wear her down.) Whereas Van Deren is typically up for conversation on the trail, on this day she was a bit frazzled. She needed quiet to “get into my zone.”

After one long stretch of quiet along Falls Lake, Van Deren asked Carroll how close they were to the next rest stop.

“About a mile and a half,” Carroll replied.

“Wow!” said a surprised Van Deren. “Seems like we just left Joel [support team member Joel Fleming]. That’s great. That means I’ve got a laser focus.”

“Companionable silence is important,” notes Bednosky, “It’s important to have an understanding that you don’t have to talk whole time.”

Who’s helping whom?

A much as Van Deren relies on her trail guides, it’s they who say they are benefitting from the experience.

After winning the male division in the New Year’s Eve Freedom Park Run, Mark Rostan says he fell into something of a running funk.

“I’d accomplished two big goals and it was, ‘Now what?’” Rostan says. “I was a little disinterested in racing, then this new idea came along and it kickstarted my running. It was nice to think of being a part of something big that was happening.”

“I think I got more out of it than Diane did,” says Rostan. “She kept saying, ‘Thank you,’ but really, my runner friends were so jealous of me. They could have gotten a thousand people to run with her. It’’s cool that it was me.”

Day 17: Welcome to eastern North Carolina

Over the last few days, as Diane Van Deren has neared the Coastal Plain homestretch of her trek across North Carolina, she’s asked those familiar with the region, “What am I looking at? What’s eastern North Carolina like?”

The answers have varied, but there’s been one constant. After noting the flatness, the heat, the agriculture, whatever, each person has added, “Oh, and the people are extremely friendly.”

Saturday, reports MST Endurance Run expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps, the locals didn’t disappoint.

Nearing the midnight conclusion of their 50-plus mile day in rural Nash County, neighbors noticed some unusual activity around the White Oak Hill Free Will Baptist Church. A Nash County sheriff, a state trooper and Pastor Tim responded to find Van Deren and her weary entourage. After explaining what they were up to, reports Millsaps, “We were warmly received and pastor Tim even unlocked the gym bathrooms for us.

“Camped at church for two hours,” Millsaps adds. “Awoke with the rooster crow at 2:30 this morning all set for a 65-mile day.”

Day 16: 600 down, 335 to go

May 27, 2012

“Talk to me, Joe!”

After four days and 83 miles on the trail with Diane Van Deren in her quest to cross the statewide, 935-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail in record time, I knew what that meant: Give me some good news.

I knew the news was good, but I didn’t want to oversell it. I was relatively familiar with this section of the Falls Lake Trail, a 60-mile trail that is part of the MST, but it was 12:50 this morning, it was pitch black and while I knew we were close to trail’s end — and to the 600-mile point in Van Deren’s MST Endurance Run — I wasn’t sure how close. The last thing you want to tell someone who’s been on the trail for more than 18 hours and whose feet are on fire, is that you’re a quarter mile from done, when in fact you’re a quarter mile and a yard.

“Almost there, Diane!” I hedged.

Shortly, at 1:08 this morning, we emerged from a hardwood tunnel onto a short gravel road, walked downhill for 50 yards and were at the tailrace below Falls Lake Dam — the southeast end of the Falls Lake Trail and Van Deren’s destination for the day. She commemorated reaching 600 miles, fittingly, with a photo with trail guide and Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail Executive Director Kate Dixon.

Diane_Kate at 600 miles
“Hi Joel,” Van Deren said to a waiting Joel Fleming on her support team. “Directly to the hotel and to bed, please.”

Another day, another 50 miles.

On this, Day 16 of her hopefully 21-day expedition from Clingman’s Dome, which she left on May 10, to Jockey’s Ridge, where she hopes to be Wednesday, Van Deren burned through four trail guides: Halle Amick, president of the Carolina Godiva Track Club; Leah Carroll, triathlete, junior at UNC Wilmington and part time Great Outdoor Provision Co. employee; Dixon; and me.

While the trail guide’s main job is to keep Van Deren on course, they also help her “stay in the moment.” That is, to keep her distracted from the enormity of the task at hand, in part through keeping her entertained. More often than not, though, it’s Van Deren who does the entertaining.

Someone asks Van Deren if her mom was competitive. Van Deren laughs.

“I’d be in a competitive tennis match, be very focused and get upset, and my mom would say, ‘Honey, do you need some lemonade?’”

Later she recounts the end of her previous day on the trail, a day marked by wading through waist-high flood water and navigating a stretch overgrown with brush and brambles. “Last night Joel brought me Waffle House, a comb and a new toothbrush. I was in heaven.”

Van Deren’s journey resumed early this morning from the base of the Falls Lake Dam. For the next 200 miles or so, her expedition will be on country roads through the Coastal Plain, an area where the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has yet to find a permanent route. To avoid the heat of day and traffic, she’s contemplating shifting to evenings, possibly trekking overnight and resting during the peak heat of afternoon.

Day 15: A brush with brush — but first, an important message

By Joe Miller
Now we come to the Fund Drive portion of the 2012 MST Endurance Run.

Folks, public hiking trails are one of the best bargains around. Precious few tax dollars are spent maintaining and adding to the tens of thousands of miles of hiking trail snaking across this great land. The vast majority of trail is built and maintained by hard-working volunteers who gladly forgo a day of pleasurable hiking to tidy up existing trail and add new path.

But our trails are not entirely free. That’s especially true in the case of a work-in-progress like the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that’s partly on public land, partly on private. The goal of the MST — a goal dating to the 1970s, is a statewide hiking trail linking Clingman’s Dome high in the Smokies on the Tennessee border with Jockey’s Ridge on the lip of the Atlantic Ocean. That’s a trail currently estimated at 935 miles.

As of today, 530 miles of Mountains-to-Sea Trail are complete. Most of those miles are in the mountains, where trail constitutes 314 miles of the MST (leaving 35 miles of road miles to be converted). In the Piedmont, 131 miles of MST have been designated (with 103 miles to go), and along the coast, roughly 60 miles are done (with 23 road miles to convert). The biggest gap is through the coastal plain (from Falls Lake dam to the Cedar Island Ferry), where only 20 miles of trail exist, leaving a whopping 227 miles to go.

It’s that coastal plain stretch that Diane Van Deren, in her quest to hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in a record 21 days, enters today. This stretch highlights the driving force behind Van Deren’s MST Endurance Run: to raise awareness and money for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in its quest to attain full-trail status. In all, 405 miles of the MST are on temporary road routes.

Folks, in addition to the goal of getting Van Deren to Jockey’s Ridge next Wednesday is the goal of raising $40,000 for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. As of Thursday, about $25,000 had been raised toward that goal. An impressive amount, but we still have $15,000 to go.

So, you may be wondering, where will my MST Endurance Run donation go? One place it won’t go is toward inflated FMST salaries. The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has exactly one paid employee to oversee this massive effort, everyone else donates their time. Last year, a total of 18,432 volunteer hours were logged to advance the MST.

“Our board will decide how to spend it,” FMST Executive Director Kate Dixon says of funds raised through the MST Endurance Run. “We have a lot of important projects going on right now that the money will be very helpful for.” Among those projects:

  • Working with North Carolina State Parks to forge a new trail route in the Coastal Plain. (We’ll expand on this in a day or two.)
  • Pushing for a new route for the trail out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
  • Establishing campsites on the Blue Ridge Parkway portion of the trail.
  • Acquiring the remaining tracts for the trail on the Eno River that will give us 150 miles of continuous trail from Hillsborough to Clayton.
  • Establishing campsites on Falls Lake and along the emerging Neuse River Trail in Raleigh and Clayton
  • “Better materials to help people hike the trail.” (Full disclosure: I’ve been developing those “better materials” — in the form of detailed hike descriptions, maps and photos — for the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. See an example here.)

So, you’re probably wondering, how can I help make the aforementioned MST projects happen?

The Great Outdoor Provision Co., which is sponsoring the MST Endurance Run along with Van Deren’s sponsor, The North Face, has established several levels of giving. Maybe you’re only an occasional hiker but love the idea of a hiking trail across the great state of North Carolina: you can donate a penny a mile, or $10 (based on a rounding estimate of 1,000 miles of MST). Hike a little more? Then become a member of the Nickel Club by donating 5 cents a mile, or $50. Get a tax refund that exceeded your expectations? What better way to help defray next year’s tax burden than with a tax deductible 10-cent-per-mile ($100) donation to this nonprofit. Join the Golden Boot Club with a 25-cent-per-mile ($250) donation, the Royal Sepulchre Hiking Staff Circle with a 50-cent-per-mile ($500) donation or, donate $1 a mile, or $1,000, and you will  get my services as trail guide/sherpa for a day hike anywhere of your choosing on the MST. (Why on Earth would you want to hike with me? you may well be wondering? Email me at and I’ll make my pitch.)

You can also donate an amount of your choosing. To donate, visit our Donation Page here.

Back to Van Deren and her push toward Jockey’s Ridge.

Wednesday, Van Deren began her last significant stretch of actual trail, entering the Eno River Valley in Orange County. Travel was good until late yesterday afternoon when Van Deren encountered an especially challenging section of MST along Falls Lake.

The Falls Lake section of the MST is one of the premier long urban hiking trails in the United States. With the recent completion of a bridge over Little Lick Creek, the trail runs continuously from Penny’s Bend in Durham County southeast to the Falls Lake dam in Raleigh, a distance of 60 miles. Some of that land is managed by North Carolina State Parks; most of it is managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. The WRC sections are managed for wildlife, and occasionally that means going in and doing a controlled burn — basically replicating the wildfires that burned unabated before the European invasion — to create favorable wildlife habitat.

Friday afternoon Van Deren encountered one such burn area that was quickly being replaced by the kind of lush vegetation that makes wildlife happy but that can slow the progress of even the most determined trekker. As expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps with Great Outdoor Provision Co. explained early this morning:

“We had hoped for more mileage yesterday but ran into a buzzsaw last night along Falls Lake just west of Rolling View. Or, rather, Diane needed a buzzsaw.”

That growth, combined with wet conditions generated by an afternoon downpour made for slower-than expected pace. (Van Deren is slowly recovering from severely blistered feet suffered during wet conditions in the mountains. She’s doing whatever she can to keep her feet dry and on the mend.) The day ended early — for Van Deren — at 9:30 last night.

Van Deren was back on the trail this morning at 6 a.m., with 30 miles of Falls Lake trail to go.

Day 14: The midpoint

Diane Van Deren reached the midpoint yesterday in her trek across North Carolina.

“The 500-mile point was reached today as we crossed Mt. Vernon Church road and Burlington Lake,” reports Chuck Millsaps, MST Endurance Run coordinator and Van Deren’s trail guide for the day. “Diane had told us months ago that at mile 500 she wanted to say, ‘I feel good!’ She gave a pretty convincing report as we broke that barrier.” Assisting with the milestone were Van Deren’s trail guides de jour Tammy Harvey and Travis Zarins, and support crew chief Amy Hamm.

Van Deren had more company on Day 14, though mostly of the four-legged variety.  “No bites but a lot of bark,” Millsaps reports. “Most folks have them tied up, but a pit-bull at 10:45 p.m. takes on quite a persona even when chained.”

Adding to the day’s adrenaline surge was a thunderstorm around 6:30 p.m. After a short rain delay, Van Deren and Millsaps continued down the road — Pentacost Road, for those of you keeping score — where they encountered a tree felled moments earlier by the storm. The tree’s owner was on the scene, surveying the damage.

“We explained our mission and they were wonderful to break out the chainsaws and remove the tree so we could pass,” says Millsaps.

The 50-mile day ended a little after 11 p.m., another 18-hour day at the office for Van Deren.

As for today, Millsaps said last night: “Planning a 4 a.m. start so we get a move on before the dogs wake up.”

Day 13: ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone”

Diane Van Deren had lots of company on Day 13 of her thru-trek of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Starting with a 5 a.m. visit with the local police.

“Out for your morning stroll?” the officer inquired.

“Yes,” answered Van Deren, “for about a thousand miles.”

A little latter she and trail guide for the day Bill Vann, a dentist and professor thereof at UNC’s School of Dentistry, were greeted by four State Troopers. Van Deren said it was the first time she’d encountered that many police officers and didn’t get a ticket. Do tell, Diane.

The day began around 4:30 a.m. at the post office in Danbury and followed country roads to the Watershed Lakes trails north of Greensboro. At the trailhead to Peninsula trail they were greeted by Mountains-to-Sea Trail celeb Scot Ward. Ward is probably as familiar with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in its entirety as anyone: He’s hiked the entire trail three times, including twice in 2009. The guidebook he recently published is being used by Van Deren’s MST Endurance Run expedition, especially for guidance on the country roads that make up the MST’s temporary route. (About 530 miles of the MST is complete; the remainder is temporary, alternative route largely along paved roads.)
Like Van Deren, Ward also has trouble staying put. In addition to three crossings of the MST, he hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2003, the Long Trail in 2004 and the Colorado Trail in 2007. He’d been at Trail Days, an annual celebration of the AT in Damascus, Va., before heading down to meet Van Deren, whom he greeted in a white stretch limo (when he’s not hiking, Ward drives for a limosine service in Lexington, Ken.).
Stalkers are often a problem for celebrities, but, fortunately, not for Van Deren.

Justin Stagner, a 5th grade teacher in Greensboro, was out after school running the Watershed trails in hopes of meeting Van Deren. His wish came true.

Van Deren and Vann called it a day at North Church Street near Lake Townsend after 45 miles.

Expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps says Van Deren waited until a “torrential downpour passed” to start hiking this morning, at 5:30. The plan for today is to cover 50+ miles, which would get Van Deren “close to the Eno area.”

Day 12: Just another day on the run for Diane Van Deren

Written by: Joe Miller

It’s 3:30 a.m. in another North Carolina motel, and another 20-hour workday begins for elite ultra runner Diane Van Deren. Van Deren is on Day 12 of her, hopefully, 21-day effort to run the 1,000-mile(ish) Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and will spend the next 45 minutes or so getting her feet to come to life. So far, she’s covered 388 miles on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, starting May 12 atop Clingman’s Dome and working her way east, eventually to Jockey’s Ridge, hopefully on May 30.

The trail thus far has been the most challenging she’s encountered — ever. This from an athlete who, in her 10-year career, has done the most challenging races in the ultra running realm, from the 430-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra (she had to pull a 60-pound sled for that one) to the Hardrock 100, arguably the hardest 100-mile race on the circuit. She’s done that one eight times.

Compounding the already technical challenge thrown at her in the Southern Appalachians has been a spell of wet weather that has left long stretches of trail sloppy and slippery, and has presented numerous inundating stream crossings — including one in the Wilson Creek area that was waist high. The conditions have taken a toll on her feet, which are riddled with blisters. Her left foot in particular has a debilitating blister between the second and third toes that has forced some creative doctoring from her support crew.

Still, Van Deren is a pro (literally — she’s one of The North Face’s sponsored elite athletes) and Day 12 on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is just another day at the office. Here’s how that day unfolded.

4:30 a.m. — Van Deren leaves the Fairfield Inn in Elkin with support team members Joel Fleming and John Millsaps, and me. She doesn’t like to eat first thing (“I like to have a good meal the night before”), but manages to down some oatmeal and a cup of coffee. The plan for the day is discussed. Because the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is a work in progress, nearly half of it remains temporarily routed on roads. Today begins with 20 miles of mostly country roads before tapping into the Sauratown Trail portion of the MST near Pilot Mountain.

4:47 — Van Deren and her support crew meet Jill Miller, her trail guide for the day. Miller is a fellow trail runner from Winston-Salem with an impressive race resume, including a sub 28-hour finish at the famed Leadville 100. The roughly  Sauratown Trail, from Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock, will consume the majority of the day’s run.

5:01 — Van Deren hits the trail, in this case a pitch-black stretch of two-lane Simpson Mill Road.

5:16 — First sign of daybreak. As Van Deren and Miller catch up (Miller was her guide a few days earlier in the mountains), Miller reveals she flew back from a funeral in Boston, got home at 2:30 a.m., slept until 3:30, then got up to join Van Deren. “You’re doing this on one-hour’s sleep?” Van Deren asks. “Bless you!”

5:45 — Van Deren’s progress is recorded every 10 minutes by a Spot GPS tracking device. Miller confesses that she’d gotten the name wrong in telling friends about the gizmo: “I kept calling it a ‘G-Spot.’ Finally someone said, ‘Are you sure that’s what it’s called?’” Officially, the trail guide’s role is to help Van Deren, who has a brain injury related to surgery to control epileptic seizures and can’t read a map, negotiate the trail. But as Miller proves, the guide plays an equally important role entertaining Van Deren and making the day seem not as long.

5:55 — Cresting a hill, Miller points out Van Deren’s highlights for the day: Pilot Mountain, Sauratown Mountain and Hanging Rock. “They’re your last mountains,” she tells Van Deren.

6:09 — Official sunrise. Van Deren has run four miles.

7:05 — Van Deren has run eight miles.

7:18 — “Passing time” games begin. Topic: Your worst job ever. Van Deren, whose working career began as a 17-year-old on the women’s pro tennis circuit, allows that she’s only filled out two job applications in her life. Miller talks about  working as a 9th grader at a Super 8 motel in Castle Rock, Colo., where she grew up. “I made $3.35 an hour and after a year got a nickel raise.” Also: She hated when the rodeo came to town.

7: 30 — Van Deren grows uncharacteristically quiet, then tells us that another side effect of her brain surgery is an acute sensitivity to noise. The cars and pickups whizzing by are especially bad. “It makes me irritable.” She likes when we talk, though, comparing it to a kind of “white noise” that she finds settling.

8:50 — Van Deren reaches the 400-mile mark in her run across North Carolina.

9:03 — The temporary MST trail takes us onto NC 268, a busy two-lane road with no shoulder. We agree we have no business being on this road.

9:08 — The Pilot Mountain McDonald’s looms up the road, our first stop of the day with the GOPC SAG wagon. Van Deren says she hasn’t been in a McDonald’s since high school, or maybe college. “Do they have breakfast?” she asks. She proceeds to eat two full breakfasts — pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage.

10:45 — Van Deren borrows Miller’s cell phone to call her friend Barb Page back home in Colorado. She does this every once in a while on her races and expeditions, she tells us, just to hear a close friend’s voice. She’ll also call another friend, neighbor Rob Howe, an emergency room doctor who does over-the-phone consultations. “I sent him a photo of my feet a few days ago and he said, ‘Wash them soap and water, keep them dry and don’t go through rivers, which have all kinds of contamination.’ ” Today’s run will include at least two dozen stream crossings.

11:05 — After 20 miles of paved road, Van Deren finally hits trail, the Sauratown Trail, which she’ll be on for the next 20-some miles.

11:15 — While relishing being on actual trail, Van Deren and Miller agree that North Carolina trail is harder than anything they’ve seen racing. “Leadville 100 is so much easier,” Miller remarks.

Noon — 7 hours, 23 miles.

2:14 p.m. — The GOPC SAG wagon reappears, around mile 28. As Joel Fleming and John Millsaps hustle to fill the runners’ needs (a chicken wrap, peanut butter-and-jelly bagel, Tylenol), Fleming brings up strategy. The wet weather of last week and Van Deren’s blisters have put the expedition about 36 hours behind in Van Deren’s quest to run in the MST in 21 days. Earlier, the plan was to cover anywhere from 50 to 75 miles, but that was based on bad intel suggesting the day was largely downhill. (It is not. As Miller, who trains here frequently, notes, “The Sauratowns are scrappy!”). “It’s getting hot,” Van Deren says. “It’ll start to cool off after 4,” Fleming answers. Van Deren says she’s shooting for 50 miles. “Anything else,” she adds, “will be gravy.”

3:26 — Emily and Steve, volunteers with the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, appear at the beginning of Sauratown’s Section 4 to cheer Van Deren on. Miller was concerned upon the upcoming stretch, which goes through a pasture. She was on it a couple weeks ago and the grass was waist high. Not-to-worry, Steve assures, he just mowed it in preparation for Van Deren’s run. Likewise, other volunteers have come out in recent weeks to clear leaves and rock from the trail.

3:34 — Thunder rumbles in the distance.

3:45 — Thunder rumbles closer. Though we’re under a dense canopy, we can tell the sky to the north growing gray. There will be some rain, but it’s light and refreshing.

5:50 — Another meetup, at mile 37, with the GOPC SAG wagon. Van Deren takes her shoes and socks off, lays on a mat and elevates her feet, propping them on the inside wall of the SAG truck. More strategy is discussed. Can we do 55? Fleming asks. Miller figures that would mean finishing up after midnight, after 19 hours on the trail.

6:03 — The latest rest stop proves especially invigorating. The trail now enters Hanging Rock State Park, and the first mile and a half or so has recently been widened and cleared of rock. It’s four miles up to Moore’s Knob. The pace picks up.

7:25 — Van Deren tops out on Moore’s Knob and takes a brief rest to adjust her shoes and take in the view. “That’s where you just came from,” Miller says, pointing west to Sauratown Mountain and Pilot Mountain beyond. “And that’s where you’re going,” she adds, turning east. “See how flat it is?” Miller does some quick math and says, “Hey you just broke your record! You’ve gone 431 miles!

9:05 — Darkness takes over as Van Deren descends through a draw choked with rhododendron and waterfalls.

9:35 — The trail spits Van Deren out on roadway once again. Miller estimates its maybe 3 miles to our next encounter with the SAG wagon, at the post office in Danbury. The sky above is clear, sheet lightening flashes distant to the east.

9:50 — More discussion about what to do once Van Deren hits the SAG stop in Danbury. Various options are discussed: take a two-hour nap in the SAG truck, then put in another 10 miles. Put in another five miles, on roadway, for a total of 55 miles on the day. Stop at Danbury, get a good night’s rest (meaning 4 hours), then get back on the trail at 4:30 a.m. Pros (the night is gorgeous and there’s little traffic) and cons (Van Deren needs to rest her feet) are discussed.

10:24 — We walk down NC 8 into the parking lot for the Danbury post office, where Fleming and Millsaps await. Fleming short-circuits any discussion by saying, “Here’s the plan. I’m going to take you to the hotel and get a good night’s rest. We’ll get back on the trail early in the morning.”

After 17 hours and 24 minutes and roughly 50 miles, Van Deren likes the sound of that.

Day 22: 24 miles to go

10:40 p.m.

Diane Van Deren logged 39 miles today, a “recovery day,” leaving her 24 miles to go Friday to reach Jockey’s Ridge. Her plan is to be back on the trail before 4 a.m. and reach Jockey’s Ridge State Park by 11. If that plan comes to fruition, she will break the existing Mountains-to-Sea Trail speed record by about a day.

Van Deren enjoyed perhaps the best weather of her MST Endurance run on this, the presumed penultimate day of her trek. Clear skies, temperatures in the low 80s and a steady breeze out of the southwest helped propel her up Hatteras Island.

Her day began at the Hatteras Ferry at 7:50 a.m. The day ended at 10:30 p.m., dictated in part by the 2.5-mile Herbert C. Bonner Bridge spanning Oregon Inlet. The bridge has narrow walkways on both sides and is particularly attention-getting in high winds. Expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps didn’t want Van Deren crossing in the dark, leading to the decision to end today’s trek about four miles shy of the bridge.

The plan for early Friday morning is to hit the trail before sunrise and reach the bridge by first light. Maintaining the pace she kept today would get her to Jockey’s Ridge around 11 a.m.

Day 11: An ‘easy’ 30 miles

May 20, 2012

Diane Van Deren took it easy today. She only covered 30 miles on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

“Our goal today was to get her rested up,” said Joel Fleming, who led the day’s support effort. After several days of wet, blister-inducing pain this past week, Van Deren did back-to-back 40-plus-mile days Friday and Saturday, getting her back on course to break the MST crossing record of 24 days.

Diane Van Deren (center) flanked by Sunday's great guide team

Today began at Stone Mountain State Park at 7:45 a.m. and ended at 5:15 p.m. about 10 miles shy of Pilot Mountain State Park. Van Deren had plenty of company on the trail today. Abran Moore Todd Williams were her official trail guides for the day and Annette Bednosky, who guided Van Deren for two days early on, from Mount Pisgah to Balsam Gap, returned for Van Deren’s last hurrah in the mountains. Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, was along for seven miles, and “some guy named Eric” who’d heard Van Deren was passing through put in four miles, Fleming reports.

As for those blistered feet, Fleming reports “they look better than they have since they got messed up.” That was another reason for taking an “easy” 30-mile day.

On Monday, Day 12 of her MST Endurance Run, the plan is for a big mileage day.

“The goal is 50 miles,” Fleming said this evening. “That’s what Diane would like to do. But we’ll see how she’s feeling.”

After putting in at yesterday’s stop 10 miles west of Pilot Mountain, Van Deren will pick up the Sauratown Trail between Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock, then proceed on to Walnut Cove.

Through her first 11 days, Van Deren has covered 388 miles, with roughly 560 to go.

Day 10: A horse race to Horse Gap

Diane Van Deren knows she’s had a good day on the trail when that day stretches late into the night. That’s good, because that means her feet, which have been battered by rugged Southern Appalachian terrain and wet conditions in her quest to run the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in 21 days, are holding up.

After slogging through rain and sloppy conditions in the Craggy Mountains, Black Mountains, Linville Gorge and Wilson Creek during Days 4-8 of her MST Endurance Run, Van Deren found dry relief — and less rocky and rooty trail — once she’d passed the base of Grandfather Mountain. In dry conditions, Van Deren hit the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at 8 a.m. Friday morning in the vicinity of Moses Cone Memorial Park and ended it 41 miles later, at Horse Gap where NC 16 crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Dry conditions have certainly boosted Van Deren’s chances to cross the state in 21 days, which would beat the current MST record of 24 days, 3 hours and 15 minutes set last year by Matt Kirk.

“She likes dry shoes,” Millsaps said earlier today. “We have a garbage bag in the truck with six pairs of shoes she trashed in the first seven days. On Thursday we had four fresh pairs shipped in.”

Van Deren’s feet were in such bad shape at the end of Thursday that her support crew suggested seeing a doctor. Van Deren declined. Friday, the support crew member Chad Pickens suggested a new method for wrapping her blisters. Pickens, like the rest of Van Deren’s support crew, works for Great Outdoor Provision Co., which is cosponsoring the run with Van Deren’s sponsor, The North Face.

“She was a little reluctant at first to try something new,” Pickens said this afternoon. “She said she’d never had foot issues like this before, even running in the Yukon. She’s used to training a certain way and is understandably reluctant to change.”

Although Van Deren had multiple blisters, Pickens said the primary troublemaker was a quarter-size blister between the second and third toes of her right foot. “That’s where the weight transfer occurs, so every time her foot hit, she could feel it,” Pickens said.

A blister, Pickens explained, is actually a protective device that forms to protect a damaged area. The problem was that the protective skin of the blister was gone, leaving an exposed, sensitive area. Pickens formed a donut out of moleskin foam, the moleskin forming a protective collar around the exposed skin. He filled the hole with Neosporin, covered the hole with gauze, then used Gorilla tape to hold the gauze in place. Off Van Deren disappeared down the trail.

Eight miles in, Van Deren asked one of her guides, Glenn Wells, to call Amy Hamm of the support team. “Diane wants to talk to you,” Glenn said. Hamm’s heart sank.

“Do you hear that?” Van Deren asked.

“Uh … no,” Hamm replied.

“That’s the sound of us running!” Van Deren said. “We’re back in business!”

Guide runners Jill Miller, Glenn Wells and Abran Moore provided outstanding support as Van Deren passed the Eastern Continental Divide near Laurel Springs around 10 a.m. and was expecting to make the Devil’s Garden Overlook, where the Mountains-to-Sea Trail leaves the mountains, heading down the Blue Ridge escarpment to tonight’s destination, Stone Mountain State Park. Tomorrow, the plan is to run from Stone Mountain State Park to Pilot Mountain State Park. That will be Van Deren’s first exposure to temporary MST routing along paved roads.

“It looks like 40-mile days will be the norm from now on,” said Millsaps, who estimates that Van Deren is about 36 hours behind on her quest to run the trail in 21 days.

Though she’ll be out of the mountains, Pickens warned that she’s not out of the woods, at least as far as her feet are concerned.

“Now, we need to watch for signs of infection,” Pickens said. “There’s still a number of things that could derail her.”

Van Deren gets her feet back

May 18, 2012

On the first two days of the MST Endurance Run, Diane Van Deren covered more than 110 miles. Then, the relentlessly technical trail and rainy weather started taking its toll on her feet. At the end of day Thursday, after especially wet weather through Linville Gorge and the Wilson Creek area, her support crew was trying to persuade the Colorado ultra runner to see a doctor. Van Deren, a veteran of multiple 100-mile races and the 430-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra, declined.

She emerged late yesterday from Wilson Creek back to the somewhat friendlier terrain along the Blue Ridge, only to be greeted by another inch and a half of rain over night; not looking good for her feet. Before sending her down the trail this morning, her support crew knew they’d have to get creative in dealing with Van Deren’s blisters.

“We patched Di’s foot this morning with a new ‘system’ on her blisters and sent her off for an 8-mile stretch of soggy terrain,” reports support crew chief Amy Hamm.

“We told her we would check in after 8 miles to see how the new blister patch was working and determine what today would look like,” Hamm continued. “Meaning: Do we need to contact a doctor? How many miles should we shoot for? What’s the weather threatening to do?”

Despite the uncertainty, Van Deren was optimistic as ever.

“This morning her spirits are amazing,” reported expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps. “There’s such a contrast between between what she’s feeling physically and what she’s experiencing, and yet what an inspiration she continues to be.”

Hamm was pensive as she waiting for Van Deren at the 8-mile mark. And then, a huge sigh of relief.

“Di’s first words to me were. ‘I feel great, I really feel great. I’m about to cry,’” Hamm said. “She said this 8-mile morning stretch was very emotional because her feet were dry, she could feel the terrain changing for the better, and she wasn’t feeling nearly the pain from the blister that she has been feeling. The new blister patch system is effective!”

Millsaps said, under the conditions, the support crew was hoping for a  20- to 25-mile day. “She was thinking more along the lines of hitting Horse Gap or Laurel Springs.”

That would be a 40+ mile day, and likely have Van Deren leaving the mountains for good tomorrow at the Devil’s Garden Overlook, where the Mountains-to-Sea Trail descends into Stone Mountain State Park and the Piedmont beyond.

Swimming Through Wilson Creek

Section 12 of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the 24-mile stretch between Linville Gorge and Beacon Heights at the base of Grandfather Mountain, is described as “Waterfall Backpack through the Pisgah National Forest.” It lived up to its description yesterday for Diane Van Deren on Day 7 of her quest to hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from end to end.

“Let’s just say we’re glad we didn’t tackle this section during the rain on Sunday or the runoff on Monday,” reports expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps, who accompanied Van Deren.

The bulk of Wednesday’s hike was through the Wilson Creek area, a rugged 49,000-acre area at the base of the Blue Ridge escarpment that includes Wild and Scenic and Wilderness designations. It’s best known for its abundance of waterfalls and for its numerous creeks that make them possible. Because of its protected status, there are no footbridges; every crossing is a rock hop/ford/swim.

“The Wilson Creek adventure was such a cool contrast to our day in Linville Gorge yesterday,” Millsaps reports. “The amazing vistas through the gorge were replaced by an incredible collection of waterfalls and stream crossings. We lost count after 15, eight of which were full-on fords, one that was waist high. Very exciting and truly ‘wild and scenic’.”

The day included a touch of back-home familiarity for Van Deren, who was raised and still lives in trout-happy Colorado. “Upon crossing NC 181 we ran into Sam Valone, son of the Great Outdoor Provision Co.’s owners, as he was returning from a successful morning of fly fishing,” Millsaps notes. “Sam reported on the trout that he had landed and released during the morning.” That was it as far as human encounters on the 13.5-mile day.

Adds Millsaps, “The hike provided splendid views over Raider Camp Creek, Harper Creek Falls, Bard Falls and trout sipping their evening meal.”

Today’s plan calls for Van Deren to climb out of Wilson Creek at Beacon Heights off the Blue Ridge Parkway, then continue north along the southeast flank of Grandfather Mountain. Drier weather is forecast.

Photo: Lost Cove Creek in the Wilson Creek area.

A blistering passage through Linville Gorge

Word from the high (and wet) country is that Diane Van Deren made it through Linville Gorge last night and is working her way today through the Wilson Creek area on her quest to trek the close-to-1,000-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail in a record 21 days.

“We climbed through Linville Gorge yesterday and pulled out at Table Rock around 10 p.m.” reports MST Endurance Run expedition coordinator Chuck Millsaps. “It was a great hike. Been a few years since I was in there so The Chimneys were a bit daunting in the dark but we figured it out.”

The aforementioned The Chimneys is a prominent and popular climbing area on the east rim of Linville Gorge. The MST manages to squeeze through The Chimneys on shelf trail that, in spots, is sheer rock face on your immediate right (heading north, as Van Deren is doing), sheer drop to your immediate left. Attention getting in daylight, more so in the dark, especially after you’ve been on the trail since daybreak. The Chimneys are less than a half mile from Table Mountain, where the crew ended Day 6 — another wet one, Millsaps reports — last night.

After putting in this morning at Table Rock, Van Deren will head northeast toward the appropriately named Ripshin Ridge in the Wilson Creek area. Van Deren won’t find relief from the brutal, wet conditions that have accompanied her the last three days. Wilson Creek is the land of waterfalls and multiple creek crossings, most of the rock-hop variety. Not great news for a trekker whose feet are showing the soggy wear of up to 20-hour days on the trail.

“Very blistered feet on DVD so we are taking 10-mile increments and making decisions on ‘What next?” to keep her safe,” reports Millsaps.  “Will not make Beacon Heights tonight but will come thru there tomorrow most likely.”

Beacon Heights is the point at which the Mountains-to-Sea Trail climbs out of Wilson Creek and rejoins the Blue Ridge Parkway for its last 88 miles in the mountains. She’ll hike more technical (rocky, rooty) trail along the base of Grandfather Mountain for 8 miles, get brief relief for a couple miles beyond the Boone Fork parking area, then face her last technical stretch as the trail runs through the Price Lake area spending a fair amount of time in Bee Tree Creek.

After a wet crossing of Boone Creek, Van Deren should have smooth sailing for the remaining 70-or-so miles of MST in Appalachians.

MST Endurance Run: The Appalachians Attack

Written by: Joe Miller

Sunday, Day 4 of the MST Endurance Run, began on schedule for Diane Van Deren with a 3:45 a.m. wake up call. After getting off the trail the previous evening at 9:36 with Annette Bednosky, her trail guide for the weekend, she’d gotten her first good night’s sleep — 4 hours. She arrived where the Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes the Folk Arts Center in Asheville ready to rock a 43.8-mile day.

The mischievous Southern Appalachian Mountain gods had other plans.

On Thursday, Van Deren began her quest for a speed-record crossing of the 1,000(ish)-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail, descending from the murky 4:30 a.m. dark of Clingman’s Dome en route to Jockey’s Ridge on the Atlantic, hopefully on May 30. By Sunday morning, she had covered 134.3 miles.

I tagged along with Van Deren and Bedonsky for the first five miles Sunday, a steady climb into the Craggy Mountains that began dry but evolved into a steady drizzle. No big deal to Van Deren, who once trekked 430 miles across Canada’s frozen tundra in the Yukon Arctic Ultra.

“The rain is meditative to me,” Van Deren said as she applied a fresh dose of moleskin at mile 5 Sunday morning. “It’s like music.”

That music was about to turn from Neil Diamond to Iron Maiden.

Welcome to My Nightmare

I peeled off at Craven Gap to perform my journalistic duty, with plans to reconnect early afternoon somewhere in the Mount Mitchell area. My journalistic duty took longer than expected, and by the time I was ready to reconnect, it was mid-afternoon. By then, the Craggy and Black mountains were enshrouded in thick (20-foot vis) clouds in a steady, drenching rain. As I drove up the Blue Ridge Parkway from NC 80 at 15 miles an hour, hunched over the steering wheel, a thought occurred: This is ridiculous. There’s a much faster and safer way to get to the top of Mitchell.

So I turned around, drove to the Black Mountain Campground and began the 5.6-mile, 3,600-foot climb to the highest point east of South Dakota’s Black Hills, 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell.

Mount Mitchell Trail is in considerably better shape than the first time I hiked it in the mid-1990s. At the time, it took the National Forest Service trail philosophy that essentially denies the existence of switchbacks. It followed path-of-least-resistance drainages, for the most part, resulting in a rocky, steep climb that was typically wet, often flowing. The trail came to resemble more of a trail when it became part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Despite the MST upgrades, it remains a steep, rocky, rooty, wet trail. Saturday afternoon, in a steady rain, it was as bad as it gets in warm weather. (Warm? Make that non-freezing; it was a wet 44 degrees.) The closer I got to the summit, the more I realized this would be a dicey descent, especially in the dark.

When I reached the top of Mitchell at 6 p.m. the place was deserted. No cars in the lot, the concession stand bolted shut. The wind was blowing, the rain was picking up. The mountain-top thermometer read 42 degrees. I found a sheltered spot and called expedition leader Chuck Millsaps with the Great Outdoor Provision Co.

I learned that the weather was even worse on the Craggy Mountain end. Van Deren and Bednosky had been pulled off the trail an hour earlier at Walker Knob, about 10 miles from the summit. The plan was to get Van Deren rested, let her feet heal, then resume at 5 a.m. the next morning.

I looked at my watch: It was 6:16. Sunset was in a little over two hours; darkness would come sooner in a cloudy forest. I skedaddled down the mountain and made it to my tent as Sunday faded to black.

Feets Don’t Fail Me Now

I mention my roll here mainly because of the accompanying photo (see below). I only spent 31 miles on the trail this weekend, both with Van Deren and trying to track her down. Yet those 31 miles of wet, rocky, rooty Appalachian Mountain trail trashed my trail runners (look closely and you’ll see the seam at my big toe is busted open, on both shoes) and my feet. When I finished those 31 miles and went to take my shoes off, I thought my feet were just wet. They were bloody as well. And those dark toenails aren’t the result of Goth toenail polish; they’re a sign that we’ll be parting ways by week’s end. That’s the damage done by just a fifth of the miles Van Deren has logged.

Van Deren is an elite athlete with the mental and physical wherewithal to cruise into Jockey’s Ridge on May 30 — or earlier. Provided the cantankerous Southern Appalachian Mountain gods let her emerge from their 300-mile reign with her feet in tact.

I talked with expedition leader Millsaps early this morning. Van Deren and trail guide Doug Blackford made it to the Woodlawn Work Center off US 221 yesterday afternoon at 5:30. That was the good news. The bad news: the rain continues and today’s route through the Linville Gorge includes a rock-hop crossing of the Linville River just below the gorge. The rain-swollen river is running high according to the USGS, very high, at 600 cubic feet per second.

“A crossing is unadvisable,” Millsaps said.

Van Deren has made clear from the start that her MST Endurance Run isn’t a race, it’s an expedition.

The Southern App Mountain gods are seeing to that.

Joe Miller writes about fitness and adventure in North Carolina, primarily through his Web site, 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.

Four days in, Van Deren hitting her stride

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, 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.

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Diane Van Deren: Seeking relief on a 1,000-mile run

Written by: Joe Miller

It started with a simple introduction: Host introducing guest of honor to a local dignitary. Ultra runner and The North Face elite athlete Diane Van Deren had just finished speaking to a captivated gathering at Kings Barcade in downtown Raleigh last October, sharing her remarkable journey from celebrated high school athlete to pro tennis player to epileptic ultra runner. In the intimate gathering that followed, Chuck Millsaps, with event sponsor Great Outdoor Provision Co., introduced Van Deren to Kate Dixon, executive director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, North Carolina’s thousand-mile work-in-progress trail linking Clingman’s Dome in the Appalachians with Jockey’s Ridge on the Atlantic.

Proceeds from Van Deren’s appearance, part of The North Face’s Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series, were benefitting the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Van Deren hadn’t heard of the MST, so Dixon obliged with an elevator speech. Because she figured Van Deren might be interested, she mentioned that a runner, Matt Kirk, had just completed the entire trail in record time.

“How long did it take?” Millsaps recalls Van Deren asking.

“Twenty-four days,” Dixon replied.

Millsaps could see the wheels turning. “I wonder if it could be done in less time than that … ,” Millsaps recalled Van Deren saying.

By the end of the evening the groundwork was laid for the MST Endurance Run.

Starting today from atop Clingman’s Dome, Van Deren will head east on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the hopes of reaching Jockey’s Ridge State Park sometime on May 30. If she can cover the roughly 930-mile trail in those 21 days it would eclipse Kirk’s record, set last year, of 24 days, 3 hours and 50 minutes.

Just one caveat to Van Deren’s race against the clock.

“It’s not a race,” Van Deren says. “It’s an expedition. If it’s raining and slippery, I don’t want to risk turning a foot. I just want to be in the moment. I don’t want to be pushing it through the Smokies. I want to enjoy the views.”

It may seem a curious approach for a professional athlete who’s had the urge to compete as long as she can remember. In the third grade she pretended to be a boy so she could play in a boy’s-only baseball league, she won high school state championships in golf and tennis in Colorado, and she left high school early for the pro tennis tour during its Billy Jean-Martina-Chrissy-Tracey hey day. She doesn’t deny her competitive drive. It’s just that in the 1990s her life profoundly changed, giving her a new perspective.

After leaving pro tennis, she began having what she calls “de ja vu moments. … They were these funny sensations that I thought everyone had.”

Eventually, the “funny sensations” evolved into full-blown seizures — not unlike one she’d had years earlier, when she was 16 months old. The seizures continued, drugs didn’t help. Finally, a new physician identified the problem: Van Deren had epilepsy. He was able to pinpoint the “focus” of the seizures in her brain; that portion of her brain was removed. The seizures stopped, but there was fallout: Her organizational skills suffered, she had trouble with time and she can’t read a map to save her. Her brain became … jumbled.

But she quickly discovered something that offered clarity: running. And the longer she ran, the better she felt. In 2002, she started running long distances competitively.

Her race/expedition schedule provides her with lots of clarity. She’s gotten plenty of relief over the years from the Hardrock 100, which, with a total of 33,000 feet of climbing, is arguably the hardest 100-mile run around. She’s done it seven times (she’s registered for an eighth, a month after she runs across North Carolina.) Also good for the mind, the Yukon Arctic Ultra 300-mile race, which she won in 2008. She found so much relief in that race that she did the 430-mile version the following year, coming in fourth.

“It’s like candy to a child,” Van Deren says of running’s impact on her brain injury. “You hear your feet, your rhythm, your breathing, but not the noise of society,” she says. “It’s healing. It’s very comforting to me.”

Some have described her ability to zone out and run punishing distances without appearing punished as her “super human power.”

“If I do have a super human power, it’s gratefulness,” she said last week as she wrapped up training at her home south of Denver. “I have my life back after having seizures for 10 years. To go through what I’ve gone through and not have to think, ‘What if … ‘ anymore … . I’m grateful every time I get to the finish line.”

To get to the finish line at Jockey’s Ridge on May 30 Van Deren has been taking long runs out the front door of her family’s home along Colorado’s Front Range. Their house — she’s married with three kids — abuts the Pike National Forest, where a variety of trails snake into the foothills. For extra credit she’ll head south toward Colorado Springs and run up 14,110-foot Pikes Peak.

She’s run races with loads of elevation change (the Hardrock 100). She’s run in horrendous conditions (the Yukon Arctic Ultra). And she’s run races with scary names (the 78-mile Canadian Death Race). Still, the MST Endurance Run is more than twice as far as she’s ever gone in a single event. How has she adapted her training for this particular challenge?

“I try to simulate what I’ll be doing for the event,” Van Deren says of her training. “For the Yukon, I’d go out at midnight with a 45-pound sled with 60 pounds of sand in it.”

For this month’s run she focused on doing back-to-back long runs. “I tried to train on tired legs,” she says. “I’d do 25 miles one day, then 20 the next, mostly running on rolly singletrack trail.”

Unlike most of her events which have aid stations and support, for the MST Endurance Run she’ll be on her own while she’s on the trail. (She will have a support team from Great Outdoor Provision Co. with her when she’s off the trail, and because her brain surgery left her unable to use a map, she’ll have trail guides running with her every day). Thus, she needs to carry everything she’ll need for the day — water, food, rain gear.

“I practiced carrying 12 to 15 pounds,” she says.

Hhaving the Rockies at her disposal has helped her prepare for speedy passage through the Smokies.

But again, it’s not a race.

“It’s a long event,” she explains. “It’s called an expedition because a lot happens along the way. Whatever happens, you have to work with that. You have to be willing to be flexible and move with those things rather than let them interfere.

“At the finish, I’ll know I’ve given it 100 percent, that I did my best. Whatever the outcome is, we’ll see. That’s how I go about approaching things. That’s what works for me.”

* * *

Follow Diane

Follow Diane Van Deren’s progress in the MST Endurance Run at on on Twitter, at

Read more about Diane Van Deren’s journey through epilepsy here.

Joe Miller writes about fitness and adventure in North Carolina, primarily through his Web site, 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.

GOPC Supports the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

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Some Models Not Available In All Locations. Please Call or see Current Price Sheet for Pricing Information.

Some Models Not Available In All Locations. Please Call or see Current Price Sheet for Pricing Information.

Some Models Not Available In All Locations. Please Call or see Current Price Sheet for Pricing Information.

Some Models Not Available In All Locations. Please Call or see Current Price Sheet for Pricing Information.

Some Models Not Available In All Locations. Please Call or see Current Price Sheet for Pricing Information.

Some Models Not Available In All Locations. Please Call or see Current Price Sheet for Pricing Information.