Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lost in the Woods

Two to four inches of snow and ice had fallen the night before, coating the mountain with white and obliterating the distinction between trail and woods. I arrived at Keyes Gap, WV at about 2:30am, backpack full of body and hand warmers(just in case), as well as my usual mountain trail running paraphernalia. As I started on the trail, headlamp illuminating the way, I noticed a single set of footprints headed in the same direction. Despite the flickering thought that the tracks could be those of an axe murderer, I was relieved to have something to follow that would keep me on the trail. The night was clear and cold. Bright stars flickered above the trees, and the lights of the valley could be seen whenever the ridge narrowed. The trail climbs up for a 1000 feet or so, then runs along the ridge for several miles before hitting the section called the roller coaster - a series of climbs and descents to weary the best of hikers/trail runners. The first few hours were uneventful; the night was quiet with only the soft crunching of my trail shoes to break the silence. As I got into the higher elevations, the ice became harder and the axe murderer's tracks began to fade. Now, I had to look down to watch my footing, and look up to keep an eye on the white trail blazes. I was cruising down a steep descent when suddenly those white blazes disappeared. There was no distinct trail anywhere. I ventured forward and around the bend shining my light into the surrounding trees for the trail markings. Not seeing any, I turned around to retrace my steps back to the last marker I saw. Everything looked the same, and I had left no footprints in the encrusted snow. I wandered up, to the left, back to the right, down the hill - nothing. A little surge of panic welled up. "I'm lost!" I took a deep breath and thought it through. I was heading south and was more on the east side of the ridge. If I headed back up the ridge - west and north - I should cross the trail eventually. If I start going down the other side I missed it. While I was contemplating this action, nature called, and I found a tree to squat against to have my "mystic moment." I turned my headlamp off for privacy. As I sat there contemplating life, I saw a light through the trees. "I wonder what that is?" Another hiker? It wasn't moving. A house? Then I heard a voice from within, deep and low "Go toward the light." Okay, I thought as I finished my business. Getting my bearings I headed toward the light and low and behold within minutes saw the familiar white blaze of the trail. I sighed with relief and hugged the tree just for good measure. Heading down the mountain, I next came to a power line road. Several limbs and trees had fallen and the power company had cut them up and pushed them to the side of the road. The problem was, they blocked and obscured the trailhead. I ran up the road until I passed the federal park boundary signs. I ran back down the road, looked from where I came out of the woods to the road and saw nothing. Eventually, I crashed through the woods and was able to pick the trail back up pretty easily. Now I was climbing again. As I crested the top of the ridge and arrived at one of the few overlooks on this section of trail, the first rays of morning were creeping over ridge. I stopped to let the sun bid me "Good morning" and then headed down again. At the bottom of this ridge, I also made a wrong turn on one of the many switchbacks, but knowing I had to cross the creek at a certain point, I just followed it back to the trail. Now I could turn off the headlamp. Up the next ridge and back down again. A couple of early morning hikers greeted me. I reached Route 7, crossed it and began the next section of the Appalachian Trail. By now, I was in rhythm with the woods. Up and down I went. The sun's rays sparkled against the ice-enclosed branches and trees creating a winter fairyland. I crossed a raging stream, getting my feet wet, and surged up another steep ridge. I was getting close to home. At the next road crossing, I realized that my time was up so I ran that last three miles on the roads, reaching my driveway in the warmth of the noonday sun. I never did discover what that light was on the mountain, but I learned this: When you're lost and need direction, go towards the light and you'll always find your way home.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Swinging Bridge 50K - January 16, 2010

The race advertisement said 80% trail, no significant elevation changes but crosses up to a dozen creeks and numerous short hills. Doesn't sound too hard, right? So, I crawl out of bed at 3am to dress and make the 3 hour drive down to the race site. After an hour of driving, I stop to get gas and realize I've left my purse at home. I had stuck $20 in my pocket, but didn't know if that would buy enough gas to get down and back, plus we were supposed to pay for parking at the state park and I didn't know how much that was going to be. Panic! I spotted a Sheetz gift card sitting on my dash that was slated for someone else - and decided I could use that and just replace the card when I got home. Onward I went. Finally, I pulled into the state park and found the race site. There were three port-a-potties at the registration site. Those were it for the duration of the race (and the start/finish line was a little ways down the trail). I figured there were about 100 people there for the race, but I didn't know how many were going to do the 35K and how many were doing the 50K. Some were probably like me, sitting on the fence until we actually were running the race. Besides, there was that little thing called a cutoff time that could pose a problem. It was cold and I was shivering, but it was supposed to warm up to the 50s later in the day. I was happy they finally said "Go!" Off we went, single file through the woods. The trail started off fairly wide, but the farther along we ran, the narrower the trail became until soon it was a glorified deer trail. The hills started right away, nothing really steep, but I began to realize this was going to be a lot hillier than I first thought. The second obstacle was logs. Logs were down on the path everywhere. Some you jumped over, some you climbed over, and some you climbed under. After about a mile and a half, the line of people I was following reached the first intersection of confusion. "Where did the white trail blazes go?" We went one way, but it didn't seem right. Finally, someone went off in the opposite direction. "Here they are!" Now we're climbing an even bigger hill. The path widens out and several people pass me, then on the down hill I pass several people back. I just love to open up and let gravity take me down the hill. Now we're running along a creek. Oof! Down I go. "I'm ok!" I say, and pick myself up. Down a slippery bank, sliding backwards this time onto my rear-end. "I'm ok!" The first couple of streams were shallow and in the woods. They were still frozen and you sort of skated across them. Then we came to the real stream. The larger streams had fairly steep banks on either side. So you would have to climb down to the creek, wade across it, then climb back up the other side. These banks got muddier as the day went on. The water was freezing and calf high, in some places knee high. When you climbed out to the other side your feet were numb until you got moving again. I was moving along and felt the presence of a few people behind me (not much room to pass on the trails), so I stopped to let them go by. There were 10 people or more right behind me. They go by and then they miss the trail and end up behind me again. As we came out of the woods at one road intersection, I fall flat on my face. I'm thinking "I'll just lie here a while and contemplate life" But then, these two guys come by and literally pick me up and set me back on my feet. They did point out the ambulance down the road. So it's 7.5 miles into the race, and I don't know how many times I've fallen, but I'm having a little pity party. I've about given up doing the 50k and thinking that a 35k training run in these woods might be enough for me. One of the guys walks with me and then runs with me once I start moving again. He is in the army and was in Iraq back in the summer. He tells me of the RPG that he could have reached out and touched as it shot by their helicopter, the pickup truck full of Iraqi policemen that was blown up right before his eyes, and the mortar that landed near him but didn't explode. His wife told him that he didn't come back the same. How could you? It reminds me of the incredible sacrifice our soldiers are making, and of the challenges they face on a daily basis. Real challenges, life and death stare at you in the face all the time. He helps me down one of the slippery banks and up the other side of the creek and then he moves on. Now I'm content, as I watch the runners move farther away from me. I like running alone in the woods. But I really have to go to the bathroom! Finally I reach the aid station at the 10.5 mile turn around. No porta-potty. "You don't happen to have a bathroom, here?" I ask. "Well you can go down the road there, and turn left into the woods." Ha ha - that's exactly what I do. As I head out of the woods there are 4 other women squatting in various places. I head back on the trail, enjoying the peace and quiet, when the 4 women catch up to me. They seemed pretty content to stay behind me, and so I lead for a time. The women talk nonstop as they run. Some people love to talk during a run - the companionship makes the miles go by. But me, I love the solitude of the woods. I stop to get a rock out of my shoe and they move on. Now I'm really alone. I begin to relax and view the race like I intended - as a training run. I'm recontemplating the 50k. After all, I'm the warrior princess, I can't wimp out at the 35k mile marker. I think about all my friends who just completed the Disney marathon, for some their first marathon ever, or of those who did the Goofy (half-marathon on Saturday, marathon on Sunday), and how they pushed through and finished. So I decide that if I can make it back by 4hrs 30 min, that gives me 3 hrs to do the extra 10 miles. Piece of cake, right? For the first 10 miles, my paces ranged 10:34min to 13:55, depending on the hills, the number of obstacles etc. On the next 10 miles my paces ranged from 12:44 to 16:59, depending on whether I needed a potty break or how many times I fell down, etc. So by the time I got to the 35k mark the time was 4hrs45min into the race. 15 minutes before cutoff! I asked them if they would pull me if I didn't make it back in 7:30. When they said nope, this was the only cutoff that counted, I headed down the new path for the last 10 miles. As I headed out, other runners were coming back. I realized that most of the runners did the 35k. Up and down the hills I went - some of the climbs were not "short" as the advertisement said. This was as gnarly a trail as any I had been on yet. On one creek bank, I sat on my rear-end and slid down to the creek, crossed it, then crawled on my hands and knees to get up the other side. At the final turn around and the last five miles, they informed me that there was one other person behind me. I said, "Oh, maybe I should slow down, so I can be last." I did slow down, but not intentionally, although I knew that as long as someone was behind me I was okay. In the end, I passed a guy who seemed a bit lost. Now there were two behind me. Right at the end, one of the guys caught up and passed me, finishing about 30 seconds ahead of me. Next, I crossed the finish line in 7:36:48 and the final guy was 3 seconds behind me. 31 people did the 50k, of those 4 were women, so I was 4th woman overall! And of us 4 women, we were all 40 or older. Go masters women! I was proud of myself for sticking with the game plan. It would have been real easy to quit after 35k - it wouldn't really have been quitting since it was an official race distance, but for me it would have meant taking the easy route out, of not pushing myself to the limit. How will I get better unless I test myself, to know what it will take to finish the race strong (no matter what place you come in). So that's what I did.