The birdwatchers were bunched together in a tight flock of billed caps and binoculars, peering up a white oak for rare birds, when a 6-foot-6 red-breasted walker scattered them across the C&O Canal towpath like so many pigeons.
"Excuse me, excuse me please, I'm on a record pace," said Don Brown, who was moving up the narrow trail in a funky-chicken, arm-flapping strut that made you look behind him for a posse.
There were more blisters to break than records Saturday on the 10th annual 100-kilometer hike from Washington to Harper's Ferry. And most of the 77 people, as young as 14 and some older than 60, who gathered at Thompson's Boathouse at 3 a.m. for the start seemed more concerned with the blisters.
"I'd describe it as an air of desperation," said Dave MacMichael, a 55-year-old Washington consultant whose first attempt at the 62.7-mile hike last year left him hobbled beside the trail, about halfway home. "My blisters had disappeared. I was coming in on hamburger meat."
As sports go, hiking has traditionally been one of the least macho. The idea is usually to smell the flowers, think deep thoughts and bring enough cheese and red wine for a picnic lunch.
But the crew that assembled for Saturday's hike seemed a different breed. The one-day Harper's-Ferry-or-Bust walk is to normal hiking what the Indy 500 is to running a red light. We're talking marathon endurance, at least a little pain and suspect good sense.
"This really restores your faith in humanity," said Art Bruestle, an economist with the World Bank and a veteran of Harper's Ferry hikes. "Everybody but these few people have enough sense not to try it."
About half the people who begin the hike every year drop out before the end. One hiker last year quit while still in Georgetown, another three miles from the finish. Jim Landau is legendary; in seven attempts, the computer programmer has finished once--in 24 hours 19 minutes.
"I was just one minute off the all-time slow record," said Landau, a comfortably round man with a lean sense of humor. At 8 a.m., Landau had taken command of a spot well behind the pack, and explained why he persists in his long-distance quest.
"I've never jogged two miles in my life. I'm uncoordinated. This is the only sport I'm good in," said Landau. "Besides, my wife likes to boast about it. Between the two of us we bore a lot of people."
At the other end of the walking spectrum is Paul Kovenock, who has finished all seven of the hikes he started. He covered Saturday's 62.7 miles at a pace of more than 4 mph--on 45 minutes sleep.
"The same energy and commitment that gets you here in a hurry makes it hard to sleep at night," said Kovenock.
You know you're on a long hike when the first food stop isn't until the 25-mile mark at Seneca. Most made it that far. Most of the dropouts came at White's Ferry, 37.7 miles from the start, 25 from the finish. There the blisters became insidious and the hallucinations started.
"When you close your eyes at night, you still see those green trees going past," said Breustle, who was sitting out this year's hike to help with the food stop.
To combat the tedium of a trail that is almost absolutely flat, the hikers, many of them walking in pairs, sang scores from old movies and Broadway shows, played 20 questions and fantasized about warm bathtubs filled with Vaseline.
"I tried making up poetry last year, but I kept forgetting the verses," said Landau, who was driven from the hike again this year by blisters. "Mostly I think the same things I think of when I'm waiting for a bus."
Don Brown said he was moving too fast to think. When the 49-year-old Catholic University printer pulled into the White's Ferry stop he was as fired-up as an insurance salesman at a sales meeting.
"I've been jamming it since noon," he said, his slate-gray eyes jumping from the carrot he was eating to his watch. "I'm 24 minutes ahead of schedule."
Brown completed 1,540 miles of training hikes over the winter and spent time with race walkers to prepare for this one, but claims no special knowledge or secret technique.
About five hours later, when Brown reached the finish, before 46 others, his tonque was out and his spirit more subdued. He had broken the old record of 15 hours 19 minutes by more than half an hour, but he was 40 minutes behind his own estimate.
As each new finisher joined Brown, his mood improved until the room was dense with good cheer and the smell of old socks. Standing by a kitchen counter, Roman Wasilewski drank large glasses of lemonade and contemplated the scene.
"I have a theory that this is Tom Sawyer's whitewash again," said Wasilewski, a tall dark-haired man who had completed the hike on his first attempt. "Everybody keeps saying this is so much fun . . . I think once is enough for me."