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“The same mountains. The same hut system. We both grew up in New England. We both went to Middlebury College.
And now we’re both living in Europe.” Katie Schide, a native of Gardiner, Maine, is sitting at a rooftop café in Zurich, Switzerland, ticking her way through a list of the things she has in common with her trail-running pal, Hillary Gerardi.
At 26, she has the lean, borderline lanky look of a swift road runner. Her blonde hair is tied quickly at the back, giving the impression of someone who has better things to do with her time than spend it at a mirror. A scientist by training, she has the reserved style of someone who is an astute observer. In conversation, she reflects before answering, and chooses words cautiously.
In both personality and stature, she and Gerardi are notably dissimilar. Gerardi thinks and speaks quickly, nimbly bouncing between pent-up topics of discussion. At 5’ 1”, she’s less speedy when running through flatter terrain. “She’s pretty open about not liking running,” says Schide. But get her on a technical climb or descent, and she’s fast and nimble.
Halfway around the world from their native New England, she and Gerardi, 31, have more in common than many siblings. Back in New England, their circles overlapped so much as to be nearly identical, but the five years between them meant that they never quite intersected.
“And now this. It’s crazy.”
This is big news in European trail-running circles. In race after race for the last year, the two have been scoring top finishes across Europe in some of the most competitive events on the continent.
The first half of 2018 got off to a head-spinning start for the two New Englanders—and foreshadowed stronger results to come. In April, Schide trekked to Madeira Island, winning the 85-km Madeira Island Ultra by nearly 13 minutes. A month later, she won Annecy, France’s Maxi-Race, also 85-kilometers long. In June, Gerardi took fourth behind three of the strongest female mountain runners in the world at the Ultra Skymarathon, also on Madeira. A few weeks later, she won a wildly technical team race up Switzerland’s Monte Rosa. At the end of June, she took first in a short, steep vertical kilometer race in Chamonix, France. In July, Gerardi and Schide teamed up and crushed the competition at the three-day Pierra-Menta stage race, a course with a cumulative 23,000 feet of climbing over 70 kilometers. “What’s most impressive, is that they are doing well in the most technical courses in Europe,” says Carbondale, Colorado’s Megan Kimmel, who has been trail racing in Europe for 10 seasons. “That’s not something for which American trail runners are normally known.”
Still, Schide and Gerardi are clearly making names for themselves. And, somewhat improbably, they started not in Boulder, Flagstaff or one of the other towns across the United States that incubates many of the country’s top trail runners—but in largely off-the-radar New Hampshire. How did two hikers from the Granite State’s rugged White Mountains come to stand atop podiums at some of the world’s biggest trail races?
Neither Gerardi nor Schide took a track that would have suggested today’s outcome. Gerardi, now married to an American climbing guide, works as development director for CREA Mont-Blanc, an environmental-research and educational nonprofit based in Chamonix, France. But her early days were spent in the sleepy Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Her father worked as a fisheries biologist, her mother as a tax preparer.
“We weren’t super sporty,” admits Gerardi. “We spent lots of time outside, but not doing sports.” Running never crossed her mind.
“I partied in college. I had dreadlocks and lived in a notorious party house. I smoked a lot of weed and played ultimate frisbee,” she says. “Every now and then I’d think about turning over a new leaf. I’d run a few times and that would be it.”
When a summer job leading hikes fell through, Gerardi found herself driving home to Vermont, from North Conway, New Hampshire. She passed a roadside lodge for the non-profit Appalachian Mountain Club. “They probably like hiking!” she thought. She pulled in—and was hired on the spot. She spent the summer there, answering hikers’ questions.
For her part, Schide took a less serendipitous route to the White Mountains. High-school summer vacations were spent backpacking sections of Vermont’s 272-mile-long Long Trail, with trips interspersed to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. On an overnight to a hut, Schide was captivated by the work of the AMC college-aged crews.
“They were having so much fun working together,” she says. The fitness of the team impressed her, too. “I remember seeing a woman carrying a guy on a wooden pack board during a crew dinner skit. I thought, ‘I want to be that strong!’” She applied and was hired.
Like Gerardi, however, running was mostly an afterthought. “Running was training for field hockey, nothing more. I once ran a half-marathon. I wasn’t the least bit competitive.”
Torture Boards and Technical Terrain
Altogether, the two spent a combined nine seasons in the hut system of the Appalachian Mountain Club, or AMC. The organization’s eight alpine huts, scattered throughout the region’s 48 craggy 4,000-foot peaks, are a popular draw for New England residents seeking something akin to full-service European mountain cabins. The college-aged crews on which Schide and Gerardi worked welcomed overnight guests, cooked meals and provided a steady stream of backcountry information.
“Working on the crew is a transformational experience,” says
Megan Farrell, 27, who was a contemporary of Schide’s and now lives in San Francisco. “It teaches you the essence of meaningful, hard work. It’s a true and honest experience.”
For both Schide and Gerardi, working at the huts was physically transformative, as well. Crew members took turns packing garbage down to the valley, and then massive loads of fresh food and supplies back up. At Madison Hut, where Schide was hutmaster in
2013, that meant twice-weekly pack trips of 3.8 miles down to the valley trailhead, then packing supplies up 3,550 feet.
Because they were hauling boxes, the crews used specially designed tall, wooden pack boards with leather straps, nicknamed “torture boards.” Sixty pounds was a typical load. Gerardi, who weighs 110 pounds, once carried 90. In the face of tipping over sideways or backwards, agility is key.
“You can’t afford to ration or reduce the load, and you have to be at the hut in time to shower and serve 50 guests. It might be 90 degrees outside with 100-percent humidity,” says Farrell. “It would seem easy to quit. But you don’t, because in the huts you learn that the hardest things are possible and you can’t let your crew down. Packing breaks you and makes you really strong.”
“Sometimes you’re carrying 12 dozen eggs. You can’t flip over. If something goes wrong, you learn to recover,” says Gerardi. “A seasoned crew member can move quickly with a large load over difficult terrain.”
Packing, it seems, was ideal training for technical trail running.
The White Mountains proved to be an ideal training ground in other ways, too. At 5 p.m. each evening, crews gathered to prepare meals for as many as 100 guests.
“Everyone needed to be in the kitchen with their apron on for ‘Go Time.’ You didn’t want to let the team down,” says Schide. Crew members who were packing, or on their days off, or visiting friends at distant huts would time their departures down to the wire.
“I always used to calculate,” says Gerardi, “When is the last possible time I can leave?”
“We’d have an eye on our watches, pushing hard, wondering, ‘Am I going to make it?’” says Schide. The routine is known around the huts as the “Late-for-Go-Time Hike.”
“You’d have your head down, moving as fast as possible over gnarly terrain,” says Gerardi. Looking back on those days, Gerardi sees those experiences as laying the groundwork for her success at the short, steep, often technically-challenging vertical kilometer or “VK” races at which she has excelled in the last year. “What is a VK after all? It’s a Late-for-Go-Time Hike.”
The fast, hard hikes continued during midday breaks, which were often spent moving quickly through the mountains to visit friends working at neighboring huts. During her summer at Greenleaf Hut, on the side of the 45,000-acre Pemigewasset Wilderness, Schide would hike a roundtrip of 15 miles and 6,900 feet of vertical to visit friends at Galehead Hut.
“It’s a long day. It’s all rocks. It takes guests over eight hours one way,” she says. “You’d get there, eat lunch really fast, hug your friends and run back for work.”
“We learned to move fast,” says Gerardi. “You’d meet friends in the valley or go swimming somewhere, and then realize, ‘Oh, crap, I just have an hour and a half to get back to the hut and it normally takes me two hours!’”
It wasn’t just making time that Gerardi and Schide learned. “The White Mountains are such a different style than just pure running,” says Kimmel. “Those trails are some of the most technical and slow in the country. They teach you how to focus on your footing and to be light on your feet, how to position your body and react.”
For season after season, the two moved quickly through the mountains. To Mount Washington for lunch. Across Franconia Ridge to see a friend. Over the iconic Presidential Range for dinner. Down the precipitous Falling Waters trail, and back up the Old Bridal Path—an 8.5-mile loop with nearly 4,000 feet of descending and then climbing. In time, the two had ticked off almost all the big routes in the White Mountains. Except one.
End to End, in a Day
The litmus test for seasonal workers in the White Mountains is covering all eight mountain huts in a 24-hour period. First accomplished in 1932, the exact route of the huts traverse has varied over the years. Typical stats include 52 miles and 19,000 feet of vertical, amid much of the roughest, rockiest terrain the White Mountains have to offer.
Both Schide and Gerardi were drawn to the traverse.
“It’s a mythical challenge that proves you’re a badass,” says Gerardi, “and I wanted to be a badass.”
During Schide’s first summer in the huts, she watched a lot of people attempt the traverse. “I’ve always wanted to take on challenges I’m not sure I can complete,” she says. “I was enthralled.”
Schide ticked off the traverse on three separate occasions, first in 2011 at age 19 in just under the 24-hour goal. In 2012, she lowered her time by four hours. Two years later, she was 10 minutes faster. “I really like the idea of traversing from one place to another. When you finish, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
“I remember going into Madison Hut at about 5 in the morning,” says Gerardi, of her first traverse in 2008. “Everyone was asleep. I grabbed some leftover cookies. An hour or so later I watched sunrise from the Northern Presidentials. In the afternoon, I reached my crew at Greenleaf Hut. They had hot soup waiting and cheered me on saying, ‘You’re going to make it!’”
She did—in 22 hours. But, she says, “It was the hardest thing I had ever done. My legs hurt so much I couldn’t sleep.”
Not everyone is as successful. Gerardi once found two trail workers sleeping on a remote peak, about 40 miles in. The duo was wearing leather hiking