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.