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.”