Mike Schyck did it.
Sitting with his legs dangling off a boulder atop Mount Katahdin, the Lemon Bay wrestling coach admired the breathtaking view from the mile-high northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Sun shining on a perfect day, his mind was surprisingly empty in the moment. All the bruises, blisters, shivers and sweat of the past 95 days had burned off like the low clouds in the valleys below.
His cell phone rang. It was Lance.
“Did you cry like a baby when you got to the top?” his son asked.
“I didn’t,” recalled Schyck on Saturday morning. “When I was walking down, I was passing somebody I had passed on the way up. They congratulated me, and I told them at that time what I was doing this trek for, and that’s what got me choked up.”
Schyck had departed from Springer Mountain, Georgia on March 22 with the hope that by July 4, more than 2,190 miles later, he would stand at the summit of Katahdin with $20,000 raised for the Manta Rays’ wrestling program.
He beat the date by 10 days. He beat his goal by nearly double, raising more than $38,000.
“I didn’t know it was going to affect as many people as it has,” Schyck said. “There are 150 people who have donated or pledged … and about 50 of them, I don’t even know. I had a couple of guys that I hiked with, who aren’t from our community but liked what I was doing, and they gave either $250 or $500. I’m humbled I was able to affect enough people the way I did.”
The affect the journey had on him will last a lifetime, for while Schyck knew he would struggle and that he would be pushed well beyond his personal comfort zone in just about every imaginable way, he would never stop. He would finish what he started.
He just didn’t know how.
A product of Florida’s flat land and beach sand, Schyck was aware trekking up mountains and down into valleys would present a steep learning curve. Then there was the weather.
He read up on what clothes he needed for each environment and condition. He knowingly overpacked because being cold or wet was unacceptable. He ordered the best items Amazon could deliver.
“Being from Florida, I didn’t like to be cold so I carried probably more weight that most,” he said. “If anyone did a shakedown of my pack they’d tell me to get rid of all the clothes. No way.”
Schyck found his trail legs not long after completing the first 100 miles of the trail, where it passed into North Carolina. With every step, he was approaching the Smokies. The massive ridges along the Tennessee-North Carolina border would be his first serious test.
He had been stopping for the night in the gaps between peaks, but that plan was beating him down, for he was faced with the prospect of climbing a mountain at first light each day.
After crossing Fontana Dam in North Carolina, the heart of the Smokies rose before him. The trek had been relentless and each day the degree of difficulty increased.
Worse, he was completely alone.
“I remember I was ready to tap out,” Schyck said. “I remember coming over Fontana Dam on my way into the Smokies and I didn’t see anybody. I didn’t see people for a couple of days and I’m now going into the Smokies and it weighed on me. I don’t want to do this.”
By then, Schyck had raised $18,500, tantalizingly close to his goal. He also fretted about what sort of message he would be sending his team if he bailed when the going got tough.
“I started thinking about all the money I had raised and the impact it would have on my message to my team, the disappointment of friends and family and people who donated,” he said. “My best friend sent me a bunch of texts, I talked to the president of the booster club and a couple of my friends in town and they pulled me off the ledge.”
It was a hard reset. The mentality he had developed over decades of wrestling at the highest levels took over.
“From that point, I had to attack this thing like I was an athlete,” he said. “So I would get up every day and figure out what my end point was, how many miles I was going to put in, and I would put myself a carrot out there to chase, whether it was a hostel or a restaurant. If I finished early, so be it. If I finished late, so be it.”
He passed through the Smokies, but Virginia provided no respite. Early on, a white-out blizzard nearly froze him to the bone. Cell service was virtually non-existent and thwarted his attempts to call Lance and congratulate him for being named the Class 1A Wrestler of the Year. The shelters were lean and the nights were pitch black with bears prowling the perimeter.
While the trail had been unforgiving, Schyck discovered he could lean into the unique culture and community of the Appalachian Trail in order to push on.
“On this trip it almost felt like … it was scary to do this by yourself and not with a group of people,” he said. “You had to use your instincts to trust people, you had to figure out what would keep you the safest and thankfully you had some good people out there who really wanted to help.”
Throughout the trail, volunteers were on hand to ferry people to nearby towns. At times, hikers could off-load the heavier items of their pack to someone who would drive the gear to a point further down the trail for pick-up, allowing the hiker to “slack-pack” that day’s stretch.
Every once in a while, there was “trail magic” – where a person or group set up camp and dispensed hot food, drinks, snacks and offered a variety of free supplies.
And there was something else happening.
“Weirdly going through this, not to get spiritual, but it felt like someone was watching out for me,” he said. “That’s what I felt going through it. Weird things happened early on.”
There was the morning he left a hostel in the small town of Hot Springs thinking about his son only to look up to see he was walking down a street named Lance.
“Someone was watching,” Schyck said.
Another day, his dad playfully texted him to quit the whole endeavor and come home so he could make him some blueberry pancakes. Later that day, Schyck rounded a corner and came upon a trail magic site where the person behind the grill was making blueberry pancakes.
“How does that happen?” Schyck said. “That was weird.”
The trail spends more time in Virginia than any other state along its length and from the Smokies through the Blue Ridge and on to the Shenandoahs, it never lets up.
On one particularly rough morning, Schyck topped another difficult mountain and all he wanted to do was call his daughter, but there was no cell service. He trudged on, missing his daughter more with each step. When his heart was at its breaking point, a concrete trail marker rose up before him. Atop the post was a river rock painted red. On it was one word, painted in white:
His daughter’s name.
There is a unique spot in the trail where it exits Virginia that provides thru-hikers with a peculiar hurdle. Known as the Four State Challenge, hikers are compelled to cover 44 miles in 24 hours while crossing four states – Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
For the week leading up to the challenge, Schyck and a friend moved through the Shenandoahs at a blistering pace, covering more than a marathon per day. He did a long stretch of it in a pair of trail shoes built for speed, but they were paper thin.
By the time he reached the challenge’s starting point, his feet were trashed.
Still, he and his friend took on the challenge, moving at a break-neck speed all day and into the night. Total darkness caught them just as they started the 12-mile trek through Maryland, the most rugged span. His friend’s headlamp quit.
“If mine went out, I don’t know what we would have done,” Schyck said. “You couldn’t see a thing and it was just the hardest terrain.”
They emerged into Pennsylvania at 12:30 a.m. The most difficult part of the trail was behind them.
Pennsylvania would live up to its trail nickname as “Rocksylvania” but Schyck moved as if it was all downhill. The trail cut through the corner of New Jersey and over tiny bits of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Vermont’s Green Mountains and the Presidentials of New Hampshire opened the door to Maine.
Two days out from Katahdin, Schyck faced his final challenge. The weather was good, but it wouldn’t last. If he was going to summit on a good day, he needed to reach last campground by that evening. The campground had just 12 spaces, available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The problem – he was 35 miles away.
“I did a 35-mile day,” Schyck said. “I made it.”
At midnight, Schyck reached for some ibuprofen to ease the ache in his legs, only to discover he had run out. He spent the next hour or so messaging his legs, then at 1:30 in the morning, he decided to eat, something he hadn’t done at any point.
“When I got up, I probably felt the best I had felt the whole trip,” he said. “And it was a perfect day.”
Maine had been all tree roots and Katahdin was all boulders. He scrabbled over the last part of the trail and covered the final mile and a half along the Katahdin’s ridge until he reached the summit.
A short while later, sitting with his legs dangling off a boulder the Lemon Bay wrestling coach admired the breathtaking view.
His cell phone rang. It was Lance.
Schyck flew to his parents’ home out of Bangor the following day. His mom treated him to a pedicure and got someone to clean up his grizzly bear beard.
He’s still struggling to find his everyday legs, for he feels as if he’s still in motion, backpack bearing down on him propelling him forward.
He’ll be coming home to Englewood sooner than later, and a return to the wrestling life beckons. He has missed out on the opportunity to help Lance during his rehabilitation from ACL surgery. He has missed out on coaching his team during summer camps and tournaments and he’s eager to read the riot act to those who have been slacking off.
“It sounds harsh, but I’m going to give them some hard truths,” he said. “Early on, when I was on the trail, I had no options. There were no tunnels through those mountains. I had to go up them or quit.
“I could have quit but I didn’t,” he continued. “My goal was helping our team. We may have some heart-to-heart talks. It means the world to me, the commitment, and I’m trying to instill in the guys that quality.”
About 90 percent of the money that was pledged is already in the wrestling club’s account. That money will be put to use immediately as the Manta Rays travel to the Megatron event in Orlando, then the Florida Pride wrestling camp.
That he can do these things with the Mantas as Lance enters his senior season means the world to Schyck. All it took was traveling 95 days down 2,190 miles of bad road.
“I’m truly grateful for all the support I got, all the people who followed and supported this weird, crazy adventure,” Schyck said. “I figured if I did something like this, I would raise a little bit of money, but I didn’t know the extent. I’m just so grateful for the people who came out of the woodwork. I’m really humbled.”