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.