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It's been less than a month since Dane and Connie Ward, both in their mid-50s, finished walking 2,178 miles.

The retired Walker county educators recently returned from a six-month hike of the Appalachian Trail, which runs through 14 states from Georgia to North Maine. The couple now are encouraging other retirees to make the journey.

"There's nothing special about us," said Mr. Ward, 57. "Anyone can do this if they have the determination."

The Wards have documented their travels on a Web site, where they discuss how they planned the trek, how they lost weight doing it and how they picked up the nicknames "Tagless" and "Tag-along."

"Just getting away from the TV, the daily news and all of the distractions that society can offer, it takes a while, but it brings about a very peaceful feeling," Mr. Ward said.

He lost 35 pounds and his wife lost 20 on the journey, burning an average of 5,000 calories a day and eating whatever they wanted, he said.

"We feel great, and we're determined to maintain it," he said.

The couple started the trail in March and walked straight through, finishing on Sept. 23. They usually began each day hiking at about 5 a.m., about two to three hours before most of the younger hikers got started, and sometimes walked until they needed lantern light, Mr. Ward said.

Carrying backpacks weighing about 30 pounds each, they hiked about 13 to 15 miles a day before going into a town or shelter to eat and rest for the evening, he said.

Mr. Ward earned himself the nickname "Tagless" when fellow hikers caught him cutting the tags out of his clothes to reduce the weight in his backpack. The hikers nicknamed his wife "Tag-Along."

Sometimes they hiked alone, sometimes they met others on the trail and hiked with them. About 1,500 people started the trail within the past year, but only about 25 percent completed it, the couple said. The key is preparation, Mrs. Ward said.

The couple went to hiking and backpacking conferences to learn what types of shoes and gear they needed, as well as how much gear they needed. They read journals by other hikers on the Internet and took mini hikes near their Rising Fawn home in the Georgia mountains to test their equipment.

Preparation took about two years, the couple said.

"We joined the Y and all that, but just getting on the trail and getting your feet used to the rock and mud is the best preparation," Mr. Ward said.

Those who took on the Appalachian Trail this year endured muddy weather with record-breaking rainfall. Wet weather affected some hikers so badly, their shoes became unglued and decomposed while they were walking. The Wards each went through four pair of hiking shoes in six months, they said.

The couple also endured mosquito clouds and 20-degree morning and nighttime temperatures.

But one of the biggest challenges was avoiding injury. One slip on a rock could cause injury, sending even a well-prepared hiker home without completing the task.

There also are mental challenges. Several people started the trail then said it was too hard to complete, Mrs. Ward said.

She said there were times -- the Fourth of July, for instance -- when she missed celebrating the event with other family members, but she was determined that she wasn't leaving the trail.

"I was never going to give up," she said. "We were really determined, but we'd see people who said, 'We're getting off. We don't want to do this anymore.'"

ON THE WEB

Read the couple's journal during their hike at http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=262822

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