Billy Hutchings, social-clinical research assistant with Institutional Planning and Effectiveness, participated in the 28.3-mile CureSearch for Children’s Cancer Ultimate Hike on Saturday, June 1. The hike took place on the Foothills Trail, starting just south of Upper Whitewater Falls in North Carolina near the state line and ending at Oconee State Park in South Carolina. The event raises money for the fight against children’s cancer, and Hutchings is within $200 of reaching his goal of raising $2,500 for the cause.
Originally from the Boston area, Hutchings joined the WCU staff about a year-and-a-half ago. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business/marketing from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s degree in public affairs from WCU.
The Reporter: How long have you been a hiker?
Hutchings: I started hiking shortly after moving to this area. I was more accustomed to an urban environment, so I wanted to start trying new activities that this area had to offer.
The Reporter: How did you get started?
Hutchings: I started by joining the Asheville Hiking Group and still do most of my hikes with this group. They offer hiking organizers who know the trails and can provide a description of what to expect. The hiking organizers are volunteers and it’s free to join.
The Reporter: What is your favorite trail?
Hutchings: I like different trails for different reasons, so it’s hard to pick one. Some are good for long-range views. Some are good for waterfalls. Some are good for the changes in terrain. I like doing a variety of hikes. I would say the most challenging hike I’ve done was Raven Cliff Falls, and more recently, Cold Mountain.
The Reporter: What inspired you to register for the Ultimate Hike?
Hutchings: I never worked directly with (late WCU Provost) Angi Brenton but was impressed with her initiatives. The news of her condition came out at the time when I was first made aware of the CureSearch Ultimate Hike. I was having serious reservations about committing due to the distance – 28.3 miles in one day – and the aggressive fundraising goal of $2,500 per hiker, but when I thought about the challenge that Angi and her family had to face I told myself I should not be afraid to take this on. Although CureSearch Ultimate Hikes are to raise money for pediatric cancer research, the connection was profound to me.
The Reporter: How did you prepare?
Hutchings: We had bi-weekly training hikes led by volunteer coaches starting in late March. The first hikes were shorter but with steep inclines and declines to build up strength. The last few hikes focused more on distance to build up endurance. Our last training hike was 20 miles of trails through DuPont State Forest. I have also been a regular at WCU’s fitness center focusing on cardio and leg exercises.
The Reporter: How did you get to the trailhead for the Ultimate Hike?
Hutchings: The Asheville-based hiking team stayed at a hotel in north Georgia that served as “Hiking Headquarters.” We had a high-carb dinner and went over organization and safety procedures. Then, we had to be on the shuttle vans at 3 a.m. to drive to the starting point to begin hiking around 4:30 a.m.
The Reporter: What was your pace like?
Hutchings: I started at a fast walking pace but fatigue slowed me down after 15 miles or so. Parts of the trail are pretty narrow and are on the edge of steep drop-offs and as your legs start wearing out you have to be slow and careful.
The Reporter: What was the weather like?
Hutchings: We had some light rain at the beginning and, ideally, it could have been a little cooler in the afternoon, but overall Mother Nature was kind to us.
The Reporter: What wildlife did you see or encounter?
Hutchings: Although I occasionally heard some things that could have been an animal moving around nearby, I was somewhat surprised that the only wildlife I saw the entire time was a black snake. I thought I may have heard a timber rattler towards the end, but I did not investigate. Ironically, the next day I had a bear run out in front of me while driving on Interstate 40 in Asheville that nearly caused a multiple car accident. I think I would feel safer coming across a bear out on the trails.
The Reporter: How long did the hike take?
Hutchings: It took me approximately 13 hours.
The Reporter: What ran through your mind?
Hutchings: I was determined to not constantly try to figure out how much longer I had to go to the next aid station or finish line, but after awhile there wasn’t much else to think about. It did not help that I started this hike on less than an hour of sleep. Although I could train for the distance, there was nothing I could do to prepare myself for getting up at 2 a.m. for a 3 a.m. departure from the hotel to the trailhead. The lack of sleep may have made it harder to control my thoughts.
The Reporter: Was there ever a point you thought about quitting?
Hutchings: No, but unless you opt out at one of the three aid stations along the trail you don’t have a choice. You have to keep going because you are in an area with no cell phone signal and it is only accessible by foot. The last aid station comes up after about 22 miles and by then I really, really wanted to be done with it, but at that point you have about 6 miles to go until the finish line. Unless I was injured, there was no way I was going to quit after making it that far.
The Reporter: What were the high and low points?
Hutchings: The worst part for me was probably a few miles after the second aid station which was set up at about the 11th mile. Physical and mental fatigue started to set in. Meanwhile, I knew that the last aid station was not coming up until about mile 22. What made it worse is at this point I was hiking alone. I did not plan it that way, but if I had slowed down and waited for someone to catch up I was afraid my leg muscles would tighten up. At the same time, I was not capable of going any faster in hopes I would catch up to someone else. I had heard from other hikers that it is important to move at your own pace. However, if I did this again I would make more of an effort to stay with at least one other hiker. I went a very long time without seeing another person and I believe that made it more mentally challenging than if I had someone with me.
The best part was seeing the finish line coming up. For about the last quarter mile, there are signs of dedication to children of those hikers or volunteers who have either lost their lives to cancer or are currently in treatment. It is a very sad sight but an important reminder as to why we just endured this physical challenge: to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
The Reporter: Would you do this again?
Hutchings: In the later stages of the hike I was asking myself that same question and at the time the answer was “No!” However, soon after you finish you have the realization that you are capable of completing the distance and the soreness slowly begins to fade. Later that night you are celebrating the accomplishment with the other hikers who finished – most of us did – and remembering why you took on the challenge in the first place, which was to raise money for CureSearch. I may do this or something similar again if it is for charity.
The Reporter: What else would be interesting to share?
Hutchings: Some of the hikers and volunteers for Ultimate Hike have lost children to cancer, and that helped bring an extra sense of purpose to this event. This Ultimate Hike consisted of Asheville- and Charlotte-based hiking groups that collectively had raised about $72,000 by the time we gathered for our post-hike dinner the night of June 1. I have raised about $2,300 but am still trying to reach my personal fundraising goal of $2,500. Although the hike is now complete, I am still hoping to make that number.
Interview by Teresa Killian Tate and printed in edited and condensed form