LETCHWORTH STATE PARK - About two-thirds of the way through his nearly 48-mile hike around the perimeter of Letchworth State Park, Blake Mosher was feeling it.
Not a fan of road hiking - “I’ve got kind of crummy knees, so I have to walk the road sections,” – Mosher was in the midst of a three-mile stretch of asphalt along Park Road, from the end of Deer Run Trail near the Gordeau Overlook to the head of the Smoky Hollow Trail, near Eastover Brook.
“On that three-mile road section, people kept asking me for damage reports and I said ‘My mind is gone,’” Mosher recalled during a phone interview Wednesday. “When your mind is tired you stop feeling the pain in the knee, the upset stomach, stuff like that. I was just slogging at that point. It was raining, I wasn’t having much fun walking on that road. But with all my great pacers walking me down the road, I was able to manage it.”
A few hours later, after crossing a makeshift finish line friends and family had crafted from a pair of leafy branches, Mosher sat on the tail of his van and relaxed for a well-deserved moment.
“It was great to have everyone there supporting me,” said Mosher, who started his hike just over 14 hours before finishing it. “I really, really could not have done that many miles without everyone.”
The hike around Letchworth State Park, which Mosher completed July 16, was not the 21-year-old’s first choice. He’d originally planned to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which spans the 2,653 miles between the U.S. border with Canada and Mexico.
“We were really excited about it,” said Mosher. “I was raising money for a great organization called JDRF, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and so I had all these great sponsors who were excited to see me do my hike.”
Mosher’s online fundraiser is still active and accepting donations. As of Friday afternoon, it’d raised $5,720 against a goal of $26,500. To access it, click here.
With the coronavirus still washing across the U.S., Mosher didn’t want to be responsible for spreading the virus from small trail town to small trail town. So Mosher, who was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes five years ago, started casting about for some other hike to serve both as a means of challenging himself and of giving back to the Juvenile Diabetes community and those who’d supported him in the lead up to his scrapped PCT hike. His mind soon turned to Letchworth.
While he was born and raised in the Bay area of California, near San Jose, Mosher’s father and grandparents own Trout Creek Ranch, an organic hay farm in Bliss, Wyoming County. Summer trips to the family farm were commonplace, said Mosher’s mother, Lori. While there, Letchworth was a favorite destination for the whole family, she said.
“It is our favorite place to go, for sure,” said Lori Mosher. “We get a lot of visitors to the farm and we always go out to Letchworth, go see the falls and hike a lot of the trails.”
Mosher sat down with a map of the park’s network of trails to try to hammer out a route. He was already intimately familiar with the first half, a spur of the Finger Lakes Trail along the east side of the park from the Mount Morris Dam, south to the hamlet of Portageville in Wyoming County, having hiked it a couple of summers prior with some friends. After finding the best route back north, along the west side of the park, the entire hike came in just shy of 48 miles - quite a bit farther than Mosher had initially been aiming for.
“I was too excited about the trail to be willing to cut any miles off of it,” he said. “I wanted to do Mount Morris, down the Finger Lakes Trail to Portageville and then back up the west side to the Mount Morris Dam entrance to make kind of a full loop, to see all of the park. So I decided to go for it.”
Mosher started bright and early the morning of July 16, hiking the first five or so miles with his father, Brett, as the sun rose.
“It was phenomenal, gorgeous,” Mosher said. “It was a good warm-up.”
From there, Mosher occasionally switched running mates. A childhood friend and fellow distance runner, Kelsy Hastings, paced him for one leg. His girlfriend, Rachel Hildebrand, paced him for another.
On many legs, Mosher had more than one running mate, said his mother, Lori.
“We had people showing up and wanting to walk that hadn’t said they wanted to walk or run, kids that showed up and said ‘Hey we want to run with you.’ Blake was like ‘Yeah, let’s go, let’s do this,’” she said. “Then we had family members of friends who Blake barely knows came to honk their horns and cheer him on, then we had just people who were at the park and happened to be there and saw all of us standing there and applauding and cheering him on with our posters – they were questioning, ‘What’s going on? What’s happening?’”
Once they’d reached Portageville, Mosher and his hiking mates turned north, crossing the Genesee River before continuing on up the west side of Letchworth via its network of trails until finally arriving at the Mount Morris Dam area, near the park’s northernmost entrance in Mount Morris, at around 7:15 p.m.
The scene at the finish was “freaking incredible,” said Hastings, and “super emotional,” said Lori Mosher.
“Most of the people who had been there throughout the day were at the end,” said Hastings, who’s been a distance runner since joining cross country as a high school junior. “We had the signs and a little finish line made of tree branches. They ran through the finish line and it was really exciting.”
During the hike, Mosher overcame stomach pain, muscle tightness and other challenges that come with hiking 48 miles in 14 hours. As a diabetic, there were other things he had to contend with as well.
Mosher’s pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, the hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. To compensate, he has to periodically inject himself with synthetic insulin to keep his levels stable. If his blood sugar levels get to high, he can experience what’s called a hyperglycemic episode. If they go too low, a hypoglycemic episode can occur.
“It effects a lot of your organs and functions, but primarily your brain,” said Mosher of the symptoms he experiences during such an event. “You feel like you’re dying, at least I do.”
Keeping his levels stable is a high stakes balancing act in the best of times. Doing so during a 14-hour, 48-mile hike is a challenge of a different order.
To do it, Mosher leaned on his support team, his continuous blood glucose meter,a small device attached to his body that automatically reads his blood glucose levels and sends readings to his phone every five minutes, his insulin infusion pump, which Mosher uses to inject the hormone into his body as its needed, and a goodly number of Clif bars, whose nutritional value yield more stable blood glucose levels than a high-sugar juice or soda would provide.
“I think I had eight by 12 o’clock,” said Mosher of the Clif bars. “It was really gross. By the end of it, I was having a really hard time getting it down.”
As a distance runner herself, Hastings has firsthand experience with the pain inherent in traveling such a long distance.
“Sometimes even from the start you’re suffering, you’re in pain and it’s hard to move your body because you’re so in your body when you’re running,” she explained. “You have to find a way to distract yourself from that – that’s why it’s so mental. You have to look to nature or find anything on the trail that gets you excited and gets you motivated and takes your mind off the pain in your body.”
As to tackling such a task while dealing with the symptoms of diabetes, “I can’t fathom it really,” Hastings said.
With each passing year since his diagnosis, Mosher said he’s gotten better and better at managing his disease. It’s a process though, and no matter how good you get at anticipating glucose levels and tweaking food intake and insulin doses, there’s always the potential for curveballs.
“It’s definitely scary when you have to have that talk about the worst that could happen if he starts to crash and passes out,” said Hastings. “...that’s a scary conversation to have because that’s the reality of it.”
One such curveball came during the latter half of the hike when Mosher’s infusion pump detached from his body, causing his blood glucose levels to spike at 300 milligrams per deciliter - about three times a normal level.
Luckily for Mosher, the spike came during one of his favorite legs of the hike through Letchworth’s Smokey Hollow and Big Flats trails. The high of running in such a setting with such a group of people helped counteract the mental fatigue and physical pain he was experiencing at the time.
“They were amazing fun,” said Mosher of the two trails. “It was right when the thunder storm was going on, we were getting dumped rain on and it was muddy and fun… it was just me, my endurance runner friend, my girlfriend and one of my other friends. We just ran as a pack and it was super freeing.”
Looking back on his hike, Mosher views it in a few different lights. It was definitely a personal challenge, a means of testing himself against an absurd number of miles in an absurdly short amount of time. But it was also a way to show people that diabetes, for all it is, is not the impediment to living a rich life that some think.
“It’s a daily struggle for sure. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop living my life the way I want to live it,” Mosher said. “...I want to inspire people, especially people living with Type 1 Diabetes, that they don’t have to let diabetes determine what they can and can’t do, that they can choose to live life on their own terms like I have.”
Mosher graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara this summer with a degree in biological sciences. He’s working at an immunology lab at Stanford University next year before going on to medical school to study endocrinology. His ultimate hope is to help discover a cure for Type 1 Diabetes.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Mosher on Thursday departed for Utah, where he and some friends planned to tackle the Uinta Highline Trail, a 104-mile stretch of mountains passes and glacial valleys that Mosher said covers “some of the most rugged and remote wilderness areas” in the western U.S. The entire hike should take about seven days, he said.
“Because of its ruggedness, it doesn’t get a lot of visitors,” Mosher said, “so I’m really, really excited to head out there.”
And while he was forced to defer his dream of hiking the PCT this summer, Mosher was adamant that each and every one of its 2,653 miles remain in his future.
“It’s a lifetime dream of mine,” he said. “It’s going to happen, it just depends on when.”
To learn more about Mosher’s hikes and diabetes research fundraising and awareness efforts, visit his personal website, here.