By Maggie Miles
November 6, 2020
Tara Dower was standing on the side of a country road in the middle of nowhere in western North Carolina. She’d just come dangerously close to getting clipped by a car and was the phone with her husband and parents.
“I don’t know if this is worth the risk,” she told them.
Dower, of Hot Springs, North Carolina, was on the first stretch of a journey she began Sept. 1 to become the fastest known person to complete the Mountain-to-Sea Trail by foot. The hiking trail stretches almost 1,200 miles across the state from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to the sand dunes of Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.
Clocking in at 29 days from start to finish, it’s a goal she would ultimately achieve, but not without some hardship along the way.
She’d already endured many painful, physical injuries. Five days into her journey, on her birthday no less, Dower developed fat deposits in her ankles and knees. Everything from her knee down was swollen, she said. She experienced piercing pain that exploded down one leg and up the other. She ran like that all day.
“It felt like someone was shooting me. Probably the worst birthday I ever had,” joked Dower, 27.
According to Ryan Thomas, Dower’s support crew lead, who is making a documentary about her hike, that was the stuff they were prepared for. They all knew Dower had the physical capabilities to complete her goal; it was the unexpected, unseen challenges that really took a toll.
“She would have blisters, shin splints, bursitis, cuts and bruises from falling – I would physically be pulling toenails from her toes — and she would come back and say the hardest part was being alone and the mental space that she was occupying,” Thomas said. “I just thought, ‘How was that the truth? How is that worse than the brutally painful torture you’re putting yourself through?’”
Dower was often isolated, running or walking hundreds of miles of winding country roads with barely a shoulder to speak of by herself. Sometimes people pulled over to ask her weird questions. Other times, drivers swerved, pretending to try to hit her, she said. She described one moment when a carload of four men came dangerously close, then laughed as they drove away.
“That was super disheartening and I actually cried for a long time after that,” she said. She was almost hit so many times she gave herself the trail name “Roadkill.”
She felt incredibly vulnerable out on those country roads, Dower said. Her mother drove out to make sure she was safe, and her friend Megan Wilmarth joined her for moral support.
“I completed 375 to 400 miles with her — I didn’t even get half — and I was tired and exhausted and irritable, so I can’t even imagine what was going on in her head every day,” Wilmarth said. “We would talk about it, and she would cry but I still don’t fully understand, and nobody ever will other than the people who do crazy (stuff) like that.”
According to Wilmarth, one really hard thing was that Dower usually had her husband, Jonathan, now in basic training in the military, with her during these kinds of adventures.
“So, it was cool to see her learn to trust herself and know that she can do it – and it was a whole process,” Wilmarth said. “And as a single woman myself, it was really inspiring to see that and be like, ‘OK, I can push myself farther than I ever thought I could push myself.’”
A lot of planning went into Dower’s effort, Wilmarth noted – spreadsheets of information, mileage, places to stay. Dower put her life on pause. She saved up a lot of money, she sacrificed.
“There is no guarantees in these,” Wilmarth said. “She could have gotten hit by a car; she could have broken an ankle. So, just the fact that she got out there and did it is incredible.”
Thomas said the real key was Dower’s perseverance. “Even in the times when emotions were running high and maybe her mind was racing and things weren’t working out as we had expected from the start, and even when the trail didn’t feel like she wanted it to feel that day, there was a persistence that there was always a next day.”
Dower and her team set small goals and checkpoints, things for Dower to look forward to — a resupply stop, for example, or a chance to overnight with friends — to get her through to the end. That worked for a long time. And then, with one week left, severe malnutrition hit.
“I couldn’t complete sentences. My brain felt like scrambled eggs. My body was shutting down. I couldn’t eat,” Dower said. “I would work so hard to eat food and then I would throw it all up. I wasn’t really there. I was not present. I asked my mom, ‘Am I dying?’”
Dower decided to walk the rest of the way and took advice from her nutritionist sister-in-law, who could tell based on Dower’s complexion on a Zoom call that she had extreme iron deficiency and recommended Dower eat whole wheat bread, spinach and easily digestible foods like baby food.
And then, on Sept. 29, after days of waking up at 3 a.m. and running, walking or hiking an average of 40 miles a day, Dower crossed the “finish line” at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. Her friends and family were there to cheer her on. Her official and fastest known time to complete the 1,175-mile-long trail: 29 days, 8 hours and 48 minutes.
“It was a huge relief,” Dower said. “It was kind of like freedom finally, because for a month I was stuck – I wouldn’t say I was stuck, but I had this goal in mind and I couldn’t do anything but walk eat and sleep for a month.”
She passed campsites with families enjoying each other’s company around a fire and wished she could do that, but she couldn’t. She walked 90 miles of beach and saw people enjoying vacations she couldn’t take. All of it helped set her mind on finishing the remaining trail ahead of her.
Dower said she felt a mix of emotions at the end: a sense of accomplishment after all of the trials and tribulations; and gratitude to her support crew and most of all for the lessons she learned from the experience; but she was also wistful.
“I feel like I have this secret to living fully,” she said. “In society we’re trying to do everything to live as comfortably as possible, and that’s not doing us a favor. I lived so uncomfortably for a month and I miss the way I lived and the way I felt. It’s really odd that I miss it.”
Because she said despite it all, she never felt more alive than when she was on the trail.
To learn more about North Carolina’s Mountain-to-Sea Trail, visit mountainstoseatrail.org, and follow Tara Dower on Instagram to see photos from her hike across the state.