One woman changed her socks every five miles. Several played word games to stay sharp. Others prayed to God - and Dr. Scholl. And some just leaned on each other and dragged themselves to the finish line - 40 miles from where they started.
In yesterday's 40th annual 40-mile hike for Boy Scout Troop 35, it didn't matter what you did to get from York, Pa., to the Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street, so long as you stayed on your feet.
About 100 people - boys, girls, parents and former Scouts - started in the darkness at 6 a.m., wearing orange safety vests as they walked down the North Central Railroad Trail to Baltimore. By 8 p.m., 42 had finished, the route was closed and the stragglers reluctantly surrendered to parents in waiting cars.
"You don't expect walking to actually hurt that much," said Matt Craig, 14, who runs track at Gilman School. Yesterday, he completed his second 40-miler. At the end, he said, "I was numb and I felt like passing out. But just to finish gives you a good feeling."
This exhausting, punishing test of will began with a challenge from President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Concerned that America's youth were soft, he urged them to hike 20 miles.
As the story goes, Troop 35's legendary scoutmaster, Carl A. Zapphe, responded with a "Hmph! We'll do 40!" So they did, or at least tried. Only one of the 56 boys and girls who started that first hike finished.
The completion rate has increased to about 40 percent in recent years, as the hikes have taken the Scouts, their friends and their families to Lancaster, Pa.; Gettysburg, Pa.; Annapolis; and the Eastern Shore.
"When I first heard of this, I thought it was some macho, ridiculous thing," said Sue Cornish of Towson, whose 18-year-old son, Curran, has completed four of the hikes. "But something about putting one foot in front of the other - all day long - it translates to other areas of your life."
She added, "But don't tell the boys that."
Several Scouts said this year's woodsy hike was easier than last year's, which took them on roadways from Jarrettsville to Lancaster in the sleet and rain and had lots of hills - "all of them up," said Peter Weitzmann, 16, of Cockeysville.
"It's fun to go home and be all sore, then go to school and have something to brag about," Weitzmann said yesterday somewhere around Mile 23 of the trail - a macadam road that once carried the tracks of the North Central Railroad.
"This is about natural resources and appreciation of the outdoors and exercise - the fundamentals," said Assistant Scoutmaster Douglas McWilliams. "It's not for the faint of heart, yet the thing that amazes me is how some of the slightest, smallest youngsters emerge at the end. It's more mental than physical."
There was, though, plenty of help along the way. Parents staffed checkpoints every five miles.
Some of the parents didn't even have Scouts on the trail. Their boys had left the troop long ago, but they couldn't give up the hike.
"My sons graduated from the troop 10 or 15 years ago, but I keep coming," said Tom Nassau, 59, of Columbia. He patrolled the trail on bicycle yesterday. "As long as I can walk, I'll be here."