Trailblaze Challenge: Endurance hike helps provide mountaintop experiences for children with life-threatening illnesses
By Kim Grizzard
Sunday, January 21, 2018
Make-A-Wish was there for Ally Hart when she was at her lowest point, during her senior year of high school as both she and her mother battled cancer. The promise of the wish that would come was enough to lift her spirits and give her hope.
So it seemed only fitting that two years later, Make-A-Wish would be part of Ally’s mountaintop experience as well. As she stood on Pilot Mountain in the fall of 2016, Ally knew that her marathon climb was more than a personal accomplishment. It was a way to raise the hopes of other children with life-threatening illnesses.
“It was just really kind of a full-circle moment,” Hart, 20, said of completing the 26.5-mile endurance hike to benefit Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina. “These people that worked for Make-A-Wish and all the volunteers, they had done so much for my family. I’m just so appreciative of them, so doing the hike was kind of a way of saying thank you and giving back.”
Hart, a 2015 J.H. Rose High School graduate, is the first “wish kid” to complete Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina’s Trailblaze Challenge. She and her volunteer wish-granter, Marilyn Rosenthal, walked together on the daylong hike that takes participants on a journey of more than 25 miles as each one raises $2,500 or more for Make-A-Wish.
Founded by Make-A-Wish Central and Western North Carolina, the challenge has grown to include Make-A-Wish chapters from South Carolina and Mississippi to California and Hawaii. Last year, the effort, which took hikers along the Sauratown Trail that connects Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain state parks, raised $250,000 for Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina.
“It is a challenge,” said Luanne Lane, corporate relations manager for Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina. “The mileage is a challenge. The fundraising is a challenge.
“It’s going to take you out of your comfort zone in a lot of ways,” she said. “But it’s all for a great cause.”
Rosenthal has been a supporter of that cause for more than 15 years, serving as a wish-granter and WISH (Women Inspiring Strength and Hope) Champion by committing to raise $7,500 annually (the average cost of granting a wish) for Make-A-Wish. When she and Hart were asked to speak on behalf of the organization at a Trailblaze Challenge meeting, Rosenthal had no idea that she was about to begin a new journey with Make-A-Wish.
Hart, a student at Appalachian State University, loves the mountains. The wish that she had been granted in 2015 was for her family to travel to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for skiing. At the end of the Trailblaze Challenge meeting, Hart said she was interested in joining the hike.
“I said, ‘If you’re going to do it, then I’m going to do it with you.’ It wasn’t up for a discussion,” Rosenthal recalled. “If she’s going to do this, then why shouldn’t I, a healthy person who has not even been through the things that she’s been through?”
While physically fit, Rosenthal, a lifelong dancer, had no experience as a hiker. But she was even less prepared for how the hike would affect her emotionally. More than a year and a half after the challenge, she still gets choked up when she talks about completing the course.
As a wish-granter, Rosenthal works to ensure that children receive what they ask for, but most of the time she is not present for the experience itself. During the Trailblaze Challenge, she got to share in the moment when Hart, who had regained her strength following treatment, achieved her goal of reaching the top of Pilot Mountain.
“I wanted to walk this with her because it’s like taking control over what you thought was going to control you,” Rosental said. “I wanted to be there to watch that and to experience that with her, to see that magic happen and it did. I wouldn’t take anything for that. It was the most magical thing I’ve ever seen.”
Make-A-Wish was not a cause that Mary Beth Corbin had been devoted to prior to last spring’s Trailblaze Challenge. While she and her husband had supported the organization financially through his employer, she initially was drawn to the climb as much as the cause.
“For me it was more of a personal challenge,” said Corbin, an avid hiker who has led a seminar about the Appalachian Trail. “For me it was, ‘Can I do this? Can I walk 26 and a half miles in a day?’”
Corbin, executive director of the Office of Student Transitions at ECU, is no stranger to hiking the mountains of western North Carolina. She has spent as much as a week at a time on trips she refers to as “car camping,” completing day hikes without having to lug camping gear along.
So when she saw an advertisement for Trailblaze Challenge, Corbin invited some friends to join her. Members of the group of six, nicknamed “The Hiking Pirates” completed Sauratown Trail in 12 hours.
“I was familiar with that terrain, but probably the most I’d hiked in a day was 8 to 10 miles,” Corbin said, laughing. “It was intense. When you’re walking up to the top of Pilot Moutain, you’re exhausted.
“I really said to myself, ‘The people we’re doing this for are probably hurting a lot more or having more difficulty than I’m having right now,’” Corbin recalled. “So my feet hurt; that’s nothing compared to what these kids are going through.”
Janna Pugh did not have to try to imagine what a family goes through when a child has a life-threatening illness. She and her husband lived through it 15 years ago when their son, Davis, was diagnosed with cancer before his second birthday. Following a year of cancer treatment, Make-A-Wish sent the family to Disney World. That wish for then 3-year-old Davis was one of the first for Rosenthal, who began as a volunteer in 2002.
So when Rosenthal suggested she take on the Trailblaze Challenge, Pugh simply couldn’t bring herself to say no, even though she does not consider herself a hiker or a runner.
To help prepare participants for the challenge, Make-A-Wish offers training hikes in eastern and central North Carolina in the weeks leading up to the marathon hike in May. Training for this year’s challenge begins next month with a 2.6-mile hike at Greenville’s River Park North and continues through the spring with hikes of up to 20 miles or more.
“It is more than show up for a race, do it and be done,” Lane said. “We work our way up on mileage. … The theme is, ‘It’s not a race, it’s a journey.’”
Pugh found that scheduling conflicts made it difficult for her to join other hikers on many of the training outings, so she laced up her hiking boots and put in miles around her neighborhood. But the flat terrain of Greenville did little to prepare her for the mountains ahead.
“It is, without a doubt, the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done,” Pugh said.
“I was a little naive,” she said, laughing. “I think if I had known, I don’t know if I could have persevered through it quite as well. It’s almost like the more pain I had, the more determination I had. … It’s so crazy that you can put your body through such stress and such strain and such pain and at the end come out smiling.”
One reason Pugh was able to push forward was that her husband, Frankie, along with son, Davis, and daughter, Hadley, accompanied her on the weekend, meeting her at rest stops along the way and encouraging her. They were there to cheer for her as she crossed the finish line at Pilot Mountain.
“When I looked at Davis at the end and I had reached that goal, he’s 17 now and so many years have gone by, but it was like what he had gone through came back so fresh in a sense,” Pugh said. “It was just this overwhelming feeling of, ‘I did it, and he’s done it.’”
For safety reasons, challenge participants are not allowed to continue on the trail past nightfall. Make-A-Wish volunteers available at various aid stations can provide transportation to help hikers catch up miles if they fall behind.
As she made her way toward the finish line with Hart, Rosenthal began having back pain that required her to rest at one of the stations. She sent Hart ahead with another group, asking fellow hikers to watch out for her.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to continue,” said Rosenthal, who later finished the trail. “Ally had this look of determination, and I wasn’t going to stop that.”
Though the final steps of the climb up Pilot Mountain seemed like endless stair climbing, Hart wouldn’t let herself quit. She thought back to her journey with cancer and how her father and mother, who is now cancer-free, had met her at every rest stop to cheer her on. She remembers thinking that when she was sick, she would have done anything to be outside hiking. She thought about other Make-A-Wish kids and the obstacles they faced. She didn’t want to take her experience for granted.
Hart not only made it to the top, she backtracked afterward to offer support for Rosenthal.
“This is definitely the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.
“Make-A-Wish just had such a big impact on me. They did so much for me, and I wanted to be able to help give that to other people.”
An information meeting on Trailblaze Challenge will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Great Outdoor Provision Company, 530 S.E. Greenville Blvd. A Greenville area kick-off meeting will be held at 3 p.m. Feb. 3 at River Park North, 1000 Mumford Road. A 2.6-mile hike will follow. The registration fee for the hikes, set for May 18-20 and June 1-3, is $100, and participants agree to raise $2,500 each for Make-A-Wish. For more information, visit eastncwish.org.