To Wait and See

I played all my cards right to the best of my knowledge, everything went exactly to plan, and in the end the Long Trail won again. As I’m writing this at 6:11am on Tuesday, this would have been my third morning on the trail. Had I still been hiking, I’d likely either be descending Bolton or climbing Camel’s Hump. The steady rain that had been predicted for this morning never came to be. In fact, there’s a very pretty sunrise and it’s nice, cool, and dry out. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Gee… how very symbolic. Part of me is kicking myself. In typical runner-amnesia fashion, I’ve already forgotten how awful I felt yesterday.

On Sunday, July 3rd, a little after 2:30am, I gave my dad a hug at the Journey’s End Trailhead and disappeared into the night, my headlamp lighting the way. The approach trail and the northern section of the LT in general was muddier than I remembered, though I at least expected it, since Jeremy Howard, who had also recently attempted an FKT on the trail, gave me the scoop the day prior. I reached the northern terminus at the US/Canada border, marked by a small pillar. I turned off my headlamp, my eyes adjusting to the starry sky above, and took a blurry photo for evidence that I was there.

At 3:07am I was off. The trail has some relatively gentle, rolling and runnable hills in the first few miles. It was my third time running/hiking this section, so I knew what was coming. For someone who might not know any better, they might wonder what all the fuss is about. How hard could the Long Trail be?

I felt relaxed and at ease. Right before I started, a friend had texted me saying he went out for a hike and saw a warning sign for aggressive elk in the area. He said for the next few miles he was on high alert, listening intently to his surroundings, and feeling very anxious. Then he said as that was happening, he thought of me and all the miles I put in the dark on my trail adventures, and there he was at 7am, feeling nervous because of a sign.

A couple days before starting, I went and visited Kristian “Captain” Morgan and his mom, trail name Gun Section (GS for short), in southern Vermont in the midst of his Appalachian Trail FKT attempt. GS was waiting at a road crossing for Captain to come through, and I went up and introduced myself, and she knew exactly who I was. She and Kristian had followed my AT record attempt in 2020. She said she admired me, woman to woman, for how many nights I hiked in the dark alone, and asked how I could do that without being afraid. I told her, honestly, that I always felt afraid when thinking about hiking at night alone. Theoretically, it is a scary thing to do. But every single time, once I’m actually out there, it’s fine. I feel like I’m just “part” of the outdoors and everything else that’s out there. I asked her if that made any sense, and she said it did.

These two polar opposite things: feeling positive and confident about my ability and plan, then being pulverized by the mountains over and over; then having some natural fears of bears and the dark, which end up being the last thing on my mind once I’m out there… the “amnesia” goes both ways!

It wasn’t long at all before the first hints of daylight came peeking between the trees, around 4am. A couple minutes after 5:00am I could see well enough to turn off my headlamp. The trail dipped in and out of the woods on a ski slope before I emerged up on Jay Peak, the first major climb and descent of the trail, though it was already my fourth mountaintop in 9.7 miles.

In fact, I didn’t count until now, but I climbed exactly ten mountains in the first day:

1.5 – Carleton Mountain (2661 ft)

3.8 – Burnt Mountain (2569 ft)

7.4 – Doll Peak (3371 ft)

9.7 – Jay Peak (3858 ft)

12.3 – Gilpin Mountain (2931 ft)

13.3 – Domey’s Dome (2908 ft)

14.6 – Buchanan Mountain (2905 ft)

20.2 – Haystack Mountain (3203 ft)

25.5 – Mt. Belvidere, ~1/4 mile from summit (3360 ft) 

36.1 – Butternut Mountain (2679 ft)

39.9 – Laraway Mountain (2789 ft)

The trail was every bit as rugged and beautiful as I remembered. Nearly every climb was rewarded with stubby, fresh smelling pine trees, knobby roots, big boulders, bright green moss, and occasionally a brilliant view. Nearly every notch or gap offered soft dirt to shuffle on, fragrant ferns, and flowing streams to replenish my water.

I was glad I had put a little more thought into what I carried with me, compared with the Pinhoti Trail earlier this year. I ditched a few comfort items, and was just overall a little more strategic with my selections. I’m not religious about gear, but the little things really do add up. I was able to take around three pounds off of my pack base weight (so its weight before food, water, and any gear I’m wearing), from 11.6 pounds to 8.5, which had to have made a meaningful difference going up and down all those mountains.

As the morning went on, I started to get what I’m going to call the Morning Scaries. They’re sort of like Sunday Scaries, aka feelings of intense anxiety and dread that routinely occur every Sunday, except in my case it is every morning on the trail. This happened to me on the AT and it’s a feeling I know very well. I started to think about the many mountains ahead, I started questioning my ability, and I wondered how I would ever do what I was setting out to do. The answer is always the same: one step at a time.

I had given myself a range of how far I would go on my first day. I hoped to at least get to Corliss Camp, where Nika Meyers (who set an unsupported women’s record in 2019) ended her first day. Beyond that, I also had the option of Laraway Lookout at mile 40.3, Codding Hollow at mile 42.2, and Roundtop Shelter at mile 45.7. My plan was to keep hiking as long as there was daylight, so however far I could go before needing a headlamp was where I would stop. I felt motivated to get to the Duxbury Trailhead by Camel’s Hump (around 88 miles) in two days. I had my first resupply there. Any miles I did today were fewer I had to do tomorrow. But then I got freaked out thinking about how far away that was, and how hard it would be, and told myself just get to Corliss Camp. I didn’t have to get to Duxbury Trailhead in two days.

Around 10:00am I made my way from the road crossing at Hazen’s Notch to the top of Haystack Mountain. Along the way I decided it would be good to eat some “real food” I had packed. I tried to be deliberate about packing some fresh food along with the packaged stuff. Among some goodies I packed was an array of delights from Hender’s Bakery in Waterbury- a lemon blueberry poppyseed scone with icing, a homemade “pop-tart” with fresh blueberries, and homemade peanut noodles. I pulled out the peanut noodles, which I had packed in a ziplock bag, inspired by my friend Tara Dower leaving one of her crew stops on the Benton MacKaye trail carrying a bag of spaghetti, which I thought was amusing. I didn’t want to stop completely to eat lunch, so as I walked I used a plastic fork to twirl up the noodles, shove them in my mouth while holding the bag underneath as to not spill anything, and all the while getting peanut sauce all over my nose and chin. While hiking up a steep mountain. It was really silly and dumb. Note to self, just stop for a few minutes and eat the noodles… it will be okay! Haha.

The weather was very pleasant, maybe in the 60s/70s and partly sunny, though I was very much drenched in my own sweat for most of the day. I reached Eden Crossing just after 2:00pm in the heat of the day. I was about to enter Devil’s Gulch, which I remembered was the section where I chafed horrifically last year.

As I descended into the gulch, it became clear how the chafing had happened, as history seemed about to repeat itself. I was at low elevation in the heat of the afternoon, no breeze, moist air trapped in the valley, already drenched in my own salty sweat. I started to feel that familiar sandpaper-like, bristling feeling on my legs and immediately stopped, whipped out my med kit, and slathered Run Goo all over my inner thighs and butt. I giggled at the sight of my legs covered in goo and thought, Not today, Satan!!, very fitting for literally being in Devil’s Gulch, and nearly texted Jen Henry as much, as she had tended to my wounds while crewing for me last year. But no cell service, so on I went.

The Run Goo worked, and I was glad that I had learned from last year and prepared for that scenario. The rest of that section was very easygoing trail, and I shuffled along at a comfortable pace. I cruised up Butternut Mountain, though I was not exactly stoked about yet another long, uphill climb. I couldn’t remember what the trail would be like between then and Laraway Mountain, and said out loud to no one in particular, “Pleeease be a nice ridgeline!” Glenn called me just then, and I answered while I walked. I answered, “Hey.” He said, “What are you doing?” I smiled and responded, “Well, that’s just rude.” He knew exactly what I was doing! Then he said “You sound tired.” And I said, “Yeah.” *silence* “Well, I better go so I don’t waste my phone battery.” I’m a great conversationalist on the trail.

I reached the summit of Butternut and the trail began to dip back down, though thankfully not too far down to Corliss Camp (only a “mere” 800ft, ha!), my first option to stop for the night. I took a turn at a side trail to filter some water and waved hello to the caretaker. It was still so early in the day, around 5:30pm. All systems were good, other than simply feeling tired, so I continued on my way. I followed the trail up again, feeling very happy that I was on my last big “up” for the day.

I reached Laraway Lookout, my second option for calling it a day, around 7pm. The view was beautiful, and I stopped to take a quick picture. I noticed my cell phone battery was getting pretty low, so I decided to get out my charger to charge it while I was walking. I opened up my electronics bag, which held my charger and a few other gizmos. But no charging cable. I had literally laid out all of my things on the floor the night before, and immediately packed them in my bag, or so I thought (side note, I found the charging cable just now sitting on my kitchen table- somehow it just did not make it into my pack). Just then, my phone died. I blinked and thought, okay. I packed up my things, started to descend the mountain, and thought through the implications of not having a working phone. Navigation was one thing. It was a good thing I’d done every section between where I was and Camel’s Hump at least twice over, so I felt confident about where I was going. However, I would have to rely on memory for crucial places to get water, before the long stretches without (right before Codding Hollow and just past Bolton, I could remember at least). Communication was another thing. Thankfully, I had my GPS tracker with texting capability in case of emergency, and I didn’t forget the charging cable for that. Loneliness, perhaps, was the last thing. I was now largely cut off from the world, which can sometimes be nice, but sometimes not.

I knew I had another charging cable waiting at mile 88, and concluded it would be okay to not have a phone until then. The only thing I felt bad about was my family and Glenn worrying if/when they didn’t hear from me. They had my tracking info, but I kept getting a message on my screen throughout the day “Ensure that the device has a clear view of the sky.” Not exactly possible with so many trees on the LT! So, who knew what they were seeing.

The sky began to dim and I thought about how anxious I felt mid-morning, and now here I was, descending Laraway Mountain with plenty of daylight still and feeling fine. The day had gone spectacularly. I thought of all the road crossings I passed throughout the day where my crew had met me last year, the memories returning easily as I revisited each spot. But this time there was no one waiting, it was just me. Then I started to feel sad. Then I started to cry.

Then I started to think about all kinds of things and the floodgates opened. I thought of how I tend to dwell on the negative aspects of the past, and all the things I’ve done wrong or regret. In that moment, however, I could only think about good memories and moments, and felt so thankful, while feeling the heaviness of loss all at the same time. Why dwell on the bad when you can remember the good? I felt these long lasting feelings of bitterness being replaced with feelings of empathy and forgiveness. Life is too short. The trail has this way of breaking you open and exposing the things buried deep down inside of you. History also has a funny way of repeating itself. There I was retracing my steps, the very place I had been howling in pain the year prior, and now tears were streaming down my face for a totally different reason.

I stopped at a stream to refill both my soft flask and Nalgene, knowing the water pump up at Roundtop Shelter wasn’t working based on comments I’d read on Far Out before my phone died. It was kind of buggy down low at Codding Hollow, my third option for stopping, at mile 42. The trail would not be difficult from there to the shelter, another 3.8 miles, plus it would be higher up with a nice view (and fewer bugs). And it wasn’t even 7:30pm. So onward I went. From there, as expected, the trail was easygoing. A bunch of skinny, blue plastic tubes for collecting maple sap criss-crossed over the trail just above my head. I remembered Mikaela Osler, who holds the women’s unsupported record, wrote that she ended her first day camping in someone’s sugarbush. I thought she meant literally a bush, which was confusing because I’ve never heard of a sugar bush, but I just now learned thanks to Google that sugarbush means “a plantation of sugar maples”. Thinking back to the blue tubes, this makes much more sense now. Ha!

I arrived at Roundtop Shelter at 8:40pm. In my notes I had predicted it would take me around 18 hours to get there, and I had done it in 17 hours, 33 minutes. I smiled and gave myself a mental pat on the pack. I did it! I used my GPS tracker to text a pre-set message to my mapshare, “I’m checking in, everything is okay.” There was one other hiker who had gotten set up on one side of the shelter. We said hello, and I started setting up on the other side of the shelter. I can’t remember the hiker’s name, but he was very nice and heading NOBO on a thru-hike of his own. He said he was playing phone tag with his wife. My eyes lit up when he mentioned “phone” and I asked if he had an iPhone cable by any chance. He did, but unfortunately it wasn’t compatible with my charging device. So close, yet so far! I had already taken care of my nighttime “chores” of eating dinner (several pieces of leftover pizza) and brushing my teeth while hiking my last few miles on the trail, that way I could just clean up and get to bed ASAP, and that’s exactly what I did. I fiddled around with my watch trying to figure out how to set the alarm, since I couldn’t do it on my dead phone. I pressed every button and scrolled through every screen of all the meaningless features I would never need, but no alarm setting (I now know that I should have pressed and held the lap button- ugh). I asked the other hiker if he happened to have a watch and if he’d be willing to let me use it to set an alarm, and he said sure! Before I could warn him, he said he was guessing I’d be getting up very early (and therefore disturbing his sleep), and said, “Don’t worry about it, I’m excited about what you’re doing and happy to help!” D’aww.

I was settled in bed by 9:15am and had my alarm set for 2:00am. Maybe my perspective is skewed, but nearly five hours of rest in a record attempt like this seemed luxurious and I was very pleased with myself. Stringbean, who holds the overall unsupported record, went the catnap route, taking a couple hours of rest at Laraway Mountain, then another two hours rest near Bearhollow Shelter 13 miles later. Alyssa Godesky got to Bear Hollow Shelter in 19 hours then slept for about 4 hours before continuing on. Nikki Kimball ran 68 miles all the way to VT-108 and slept for about five hours as well. I wanted to give myself a shot of reaching Duxbury Trailhead by the end of day two, and knew I’d have to start early in order to do so.

I woke up at exactly 1:58pm without an alarm. I reached over and grabbed the watch which had been sitting next to my head, ready to press the “off” button as soon as it started to beep to lessen the chances of waking up my new hiker pal. I took some time to tape up some hot spots on my feet, which were in good condition overall. No blisters forming, which was great. I got everything packed, put on my shoes, the nice hiker wished me well, and onward I went.

I had a great start to the second morning. All systems felt good and I was moving well. Since I had gone up and over the last few foothills to the Lamoille Valley the night before, all I had to do was cruise down from Roundtop and enjoy some easy miles on a bike path along a river before turning up on a long, gravel logging road marking the beginning of the ascent up Whiteface. I was glad I had done this section twice before, as there are not many blazes marking the trail along this road. Had it been my first time, and with no phone to double check that I was still on track, I certainly would have questioned whether I missed a turnoff somewhere.

I passed by the gate on West Settlement Road, where I had ended my first day in my supported attempt the year prior. It was just after 4am, which was about the same time I started the day from that point last year. Pretty cool! What I didn’t think about until now was the difference in start time on the first day, which translated, meant I was actually around two hours ahead of my past self. Even cooler! The climb got steeper and steeper and it began to hit hard how tired I was. I was sweating profusely and my energy felt extremely low. I had eaten a high cal natural food bar for breakfast within the last hour, but maybe I needed more food still. I decided to take a full break to just sit down, reset, chug water, and eat more (in this case, the hefty iced scone I’d been saving from Hender’s). I had the luxury of time to be able to do so. I continued on my way, hoping to feel a burst of energy from the carbs, sugar, fat, and extra hydration, but there was no noticeable difference in how I felt. My legs didn’t want to go, my body didn’t want to go.

I trudged up Whiteface, pausing every few minutes in a bit of shock by how hard everything felt. I knew Whiteface would be hard, but I didn’t expect to feel so depleted that early into the day. Looking back, from the valley to the summit of Whiteface is a 3,000+ foot climb over seven miles. Of course it felt hard. That being said, I was moving incredibly slowly. Every mile took me over thirty minutes. I didn’t feel like myself. The only way I can describe it was feeling totally zapped. I wasn’t sore, nothing felt “wrong”, I just had zero energy. If that was indicative of how the rest of the day would go, I was screwed. Whiteface was only the first tough peak of the day, next came the steep ski slope Madonna Peak (my favorite for its open grassy fields and all the wildflowers), a long, tough descent to Smuggler’s Notch, then the climb from Vt-108 up to Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont at 4,393 feet, then Bolton… I could only think, there’s no way I can do all that. Then I thought of the half inch of rain forecasted the next day, and the very tough section from Duxbury Trailhead to Camel’s Hump, the very many steep, slippery rocks I’d have to navigate, the thought of being exposed on mountaintops to rain. The Morning Scaries hit me hard. I couldn’t see how I’d be able to recover when I already felt so bad, and my efforts felt useless and futile. I decided I couldn’t do it. And that was it.

I descended from the summit of Whiteface to the Whiteface Shelter, which was empty. I sat down feeling dull and listless. Not even a couple minutes later, I heard the clacking of some hiking poles, and out emerged another hiker. As I’d passed Bearhollow Shelter early in the dark that morning, I had seen someone with a headlamp getting ready for the day. It must have been him. He asked me if I hiked by early that morning and I said yep, that was me. Then I asked, hey do you have a phone with you, and it would it be alright if I used it to call my dad? Without hesitation he said sure, and he even had three bars of service. I called my dad and left a voicemail saying “Hey, just wanted to let you know I’m doing okay but my plans changed. I’m wondering if you can pick me up at VT-108 at Barnes Camp. It’s 4.7 miles from here, I should be there in maybe 2 hours, give or take.”

I had based my distance off of what the sign said at the shelter, but either the sign was wrong or the 4 looked like a 7, because it was definitely another 7+ miles to the road, unbeknownst to me. I thanked the hiker and said maybe I’d see him down the way, as he was pausing to collect water at the shelter.

In a continued daze, I descended from the shelter and made my way to the next destination, Sterling Pond, where I saw another sign saying there was in fact over six miles to the road. Oh boy. I texted my dad with my tracker and said it might be closer to three hours, or 11am.

The nice hiker who had helped me out caught up to me a little bit after that. He was fresh, upbeat, and hiking very enthusiastically. We said hello again, and he said my dad had called back and he was able to tell him that it seemed like I was doing fine, and gave some further details on where to meet me. So nice of him! We then talked about Mansfield and how much of a zoo it would likely be, being it was the 4th of July. He then asked, hey do you have any sunscreen? And I enthusiastically said yes, happy to be able to offer some kind of trail magic to him in return for connecting me with my dad. I told him how I just felt gassed, and he said “Well, it seems like you’re moving well!” I hiked with him for a little, but couldn’t match his upbeat pace, and on he went.

The last several miles up and over Madonna Peak, then the big descent to Smuggler’s Notch where my dad would meet me, were just filled with silence and continuing to feel stunned. I just sort of felt nothing. The closer I got to the notch, I felt a twinge of regret, wondering, “Is this the right choice?” Then I looked to my right across the valley toward Mansfield, rising higher above me as I was dropping down, and couldn’t imagine doing it after how I felt on Whiteface and Madonna.

The faint sound of cars whizzing by in the distance grew steadily louder, and just a little after 11am, as predicted, I emerged from the trail at the Barnes Camp Visitor Center, where my dad was waiting on the bridge and gave me a smile and a big hug. We zipped over to a convenience store where I got a big Gatorade and egg salad, then made our way to my home base in Waterbury. And it was over, just like that.

As I wrote on a social media post shortly after stopping, I can’t believe after so much planning, preparation, and feeling very ready for this challenge, that I was able to let go of it so easily not even two days in. I still feel a bit stunned by it all. I’ve received many messages of support from friends and followers that can empathize and relate, which I really appreciate. I am really taking it all to heart. Part of doing this kind of thing is really putting yourself out there for sharing a goal publicly, an actual requirement for premiere FKT routes. I love and hate this aspect, because it leaves one open to criticism and embarrassment as well.

My immediate thought of what went wrong, was that I was in over my head physically. I was physically zapped, I had started too early and gone too far the first day, I did more than I should have, I have no idea how to self-regulate, I was too fast, I was too ambitious, I underestimated the toll all the mountains and carrying my stuff would take on my body. But. Looking at the facts, with my past experiences on big days on the LT and backpacking the Pinhoti with a heavier pack, and what I know about myself and my ability, I don’t think what I set out to do was unreasonable.

Mentally, I was unwilling to accept that I was making slower progress than anticipated on the second day. I didn’t know if I would have been able to get myself back out of the well physically; the terrain was only going to get harder as I went on, so things weren’t looking good. I was unwilling to be flexible with what I expected to happen, versus the reality of what was happening. Instead of allowing things to unfold, I wanted a black and white scenario, I was on or I was off, and I decided I was off and pulled the plug. I have done this exact same thing in real life, to my detriment. I have very little patience for waiting and seeing how things turn out. I want to know immediately, and I don’t like ambiguity, which can lead to abrupt, rushed decisions.

I reviewed everything I ate on day one, and was surprised to see I only took in approximately 2,000 calories. I had a good mix of “real” food and carbolicious snacks like fresh pasta/veggies, dried fruit, olives, pizza, fruit/nut bars, and a pastry, but maybe I simply didn’t fuel enough which could explain why I felt more zapped than I needed to on day two. Part of my eating “dinner” in the last few miles toward where I stopped on day one was wanting to be considerate to potential other hikers in the shelter by not making noise from opening wrappers, or attracting animals to the campsite with the smell of food, so I didn’t eat anything after stopping. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but maybe that was a hinderance in my recovery.

My friends and family have graciously pointed out to me that I’ve had a lot going on in my life this year, I just ran a 50K; there are many factors that could have played into why I felt the way I felt. In my mind I have actually been in a good place mentally with my recent life changes as things are swimming along with my move, and I felt fine after the 50K, and my logic was that it was just a 50K and just 4,000ft of elevation gain, that’s really nothing in comparison to the task at hand on the Long Trail. So this all makes me question how good I am at discerning whether I am actually fine, and if there is a switch in my brain that I am very good at turning off to convince myself of that. This goes for both endurance events and life in general. Was I actually doing fine when I passed Corliss Camp, Laraway Lookout, and Codding Hollow at the end of day one, or was I ignoring the things my body was telling me? Am I doing fine with all of these big life changes, or are there still things deep down that I’m pushing aside? Is it a skill to be able to shut off the alarm bells and be a work horse, or is it self-sabotaging?

This has all certainly given me many things to think about! My time in Vermont has not yet come to an end, so for now I am allowing some time and space to recover, process, and figure out what I want to do with the rest of my time here. Thank you to all that have followed along and reached out with kindness and caring these past couple days. It means a lot to me. ~Mercury


Thanks for reading. If you enjoy my writing, please consider buying me a coffee. Another great way to support is by sharing this with a friend or family member that might like it too. Until next week!❤️

2 responses to “To Wait and See”

  1. Long Trail: A New Approach – Day 5 – Mercury on the Run Avatar

    […] Peak and Sterling (Whiteface) Mountain, the mountain that had broken me just two weeks prior in my second record attempt. Then down the other side to my destination, Bear Hollow Shelter. To achieve a record, I’d […]

  2. Long Trail: A New Approach – Day 6 – Mercury on the Run Avatar

    […] Mansfield and actually excited for the next section. Smuggler’s Notch was where I’d quit my self-supported attempt a couple weeks ago, where my dad had come and picked me up. I remembered just how physically […]


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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