Sunday, May 5. Beautiful crimson sunrise this morning – something like a rose. Somehow that corner of sky had made way -- everywhere else the gray of early dawn was giving way to the heavy and darkened shadows of clouds billowy with moisture. I awakened unusually alone in the house and faced point blank the toughest aspect of being human: the whether.
Whether or not to run. That is the question, infrequently posed. Most of the time the question is settled. Each season we commit to a team or a race – and the workouts follow. Some programs are more flexible than others, but any good program will not readily yield to the predictable shifts in atmospheric conditions.
Running events, likewise, go on rain or shine – and thank goodness. We do not want to hand over our decisions to a capricious nature. I ran in the Promise Land 50K in 2006 – held in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia and directed by David Horton. Thunderstorms were forecast and delivered. As we climbed 2600’ up Onion Mountain before dawn the skies unleashed an absolute fury at our insolence. We reveled in it.
Last weekend I traveled to the Hiawassee drainage basin in southern TN. The precept was a 100 mile event -- called Thunder Rock 100, planned for 2014 by Rock/Creek Outfitters in Chattanooga. Randy Whorton put together a 3-day version and invited enthusiasts to preview his course. The start and finish are along the Ocoee River, and the course crosses the Hiawassee River and runs along numerous smaller waterways. The area is as lush and wild as anything on earth. The weekend got progressively wetter with rain falling much of Sunday. Of course there was never a question of whether to proceed.
|Matt Hawkins, John Wiygul, Eric Loffland, and Eric Grossman after day 3 of Thunder Rock 100|
When we came to the Hiawassee River crossing 18 miles in on day 1, the wide traverse was supposed to be knee deep. We scoured the steep bank for a suitable entry. Everywhere we looked the water ran deep and fast. I was with Matt Hawkins, John O’Brien, and John Wiygul. We are parents except for Wiygul, who is one fit 23-year-old. He runs for the Rock/Creek team, competing in ultras and triathlons. I’m down in waist-deep water, slowly placing my chicken-thin legs to find footing against the torrent of icy water, when Wiygul plunges past me. When the water is chest deep and sweeps him off his feet he makes 6 or 7 strong strokes to cross the channel and regain his footing to a small island in the river. Whorton has cleared a trail on the island to the launch point for crossing the main channel of the river, where a rope has been fixed.
Along with Hawkins, I try to follow Wiygul’s lead. When I get swept off my feet I flail my spindly arms through the water. As I’m being swept downstream it is instantly clear that I can’t make it to the island, so I settle for a large blown down tree extending into the channel from the island and “straining” objects, like me, out of the water. Hawkins has done the same thing and after some attempts at gymnastic maneuvers we scramble across the tree and emerge onto the island, shaken but also invigorated by the adrenaline surge that goes along with visions of being carried away in swollen rivers.
We have landed in a thorny thicket, from which we have to very gradually move to get to the cleared trail. When we finally make it we see Dawson Wheeler, the owner of Rock/Creek, who is en route to setting rope across the small channel. Smiling with excitement, he says water is being released early from the dam in anticipation of all the rain that is supposed to fall over the weekend.
We have the rope to cross the main channel, but when the river sweeps us off our feet it becomes a hand-over-hand traverse. I didn’t give too much thought to what would happen if I lost my grip, but suffice to say that swept along with the swift current was the remainder of my adrenaline as well as most of my body heat.
Our small group recollected itself and probed around for the next section of trail. The drop in core body temperature was disorienting. Wiygul had downloaded the course onto his phone and was using an app to track our progress. It wasn’t perfect though, as we had learned earlier when the indicated course took us on an extended bushwhack. When he told us this time we needed to backtrack a considerable distance, we were skeptical. We ended up asking a passing ranger about any nearby trail that went up the mountain and were quickly directed right across the road. At least the climb warmed us back up.
After running several miles, we were approaching 6 hours on the day -- and, I thought, likely getting toward the end of the 30 miles we were supposed to cover. Sure enough, we soon see Randy’s truck where the trail emerges onto a dirt road. We aren’t finished, though. When we ask how far to go, he says “some number of miles.” When pressed he says maybe 6 or 7 miles. When Wiygul says that we have already done 27 miles (according to his GPS) on a day that is supposed to be 30 miles long, he says OK, maybe it is 3 miles. (I’m not making this up). An hour and a half of survival shuffle later we finally finish. Randy finds us at the trailhead and before racing off to check on another runner locates some recovery drink in his truck for us: bottles of microbrew. I felt better almost immediately.
Fortunately I missed the evening libations, which I heard later included moonshine. I had proceeded directly from the finish to Knoxville to catch my son’s soccer match, take him and a friend to the Melton Dam campground, spend the night, and then return for another morning match. That concluded, (two wins) I returned to the heart of the rainforest, and joined the second stage in-progress.
I started at the finish of day 2 and ran backwards along the course so that I could turn around when I crossed paths with the runners and just finish with them. I didn’t realize that I’d be running the John Muir and Coker Creek trails twice, thereby getting a double dose of the wildest, most treacherous, and most beautiful parts of the Thunder Rock 100 course. I felt immediately rejuvenated and happily bounded upward in elevation, taking the technical stream crossings in stride and feeling no ill effects from day 1. I ran about 2 1/2 hours before crossing paths with Wiygul, who was again in the lead group. I turned and ran with them until the next turn and then reversed direction again to find the main group.
Randy was running with several others so I joined them for the long descent past Coker falls and then along the John Muir trail. We were along the Hiwassee river when the guys started showing signs of wearing down a little. They asked Randy how much running was left. He said “about a mile.” Four miles later we finished for the day.
The group had reserved cabins near the river where we retreated for showers, beer, and dinner. I’ve met some unique folks, and groups, associated with ultrarunning, but with these guys I was ready to start taking notes for a future ethnography: The Rock/Creek Tribe of the Hiwassee Basin. Before I could even get started, though, I went native: discussing the advantages of scheduling my Colorado Trail record attempt around the full moon, swapping homemade energy bar recipes, recalling Appalachian Trail thru-hiking adventures. As soon as I’d start to think these people are crazy I’d also realize I fit right in with these people. I got up early for day 3 to cook my usual pre-run oatmeal with nuts and raisins and everybody else was doing the same thing.
So I was a bit surprised when out of the group of around 20 revelers only 4 of us actually ended up starting the 3rd and final stage from the little town of Reliance to the Ocoee Whitewater Center. I knew better than to heed any quantification of the mileage for the day. I did pay attention, though, when Randy said “follow the Benton MackayTrail the entire way.” He was, notably, not among the 4 of us. Our group from day 1 was reconstituted with one substitution: John O’brien had gone home and Eric Loffland had joined. We banded together a bit more tightly than the previous two days. We had assumed a more methodical shuffle, and the near constant rain dampened any feelings of spryness we might have still had.
One long stretch of double track had been recently bulldozed so that the exposed clay grabbed tenaciously at our shoes. We couldn’t avoid it, and as we toiled for footing I thought this would surely be the definitive difficulty posed by the final stage. As we ran through pleasantly graded single track in the Little Frog wilderness my suspicion seemed confirmed. We emerged onto Highway 64 knowing that we had one loop on the opposite side of the Ocoee to complete to arrive just a couple of miles upstream at the Whitewater Center. Kris Whorton and Wendy Parker were there to offer aid and encouragement, having finished a shorter route. Kris said the loop should be about 10 miles. That seemed long, but I was used to going further than expected.
We got a good pace going, even up the climb, and just shrugged when 2 miles up we passed a sign for a side-trail to the Whitewater Center. It said “2 miles” and we knew our loop was supposed to be longer and that we were supposed to go another 8 miles. Wiygul must have got an itch, because he started pushing the pace. He and I snaked around the wet and winding trails as fast as we could go. We splashed through creek crossings and ducked around branches. I figured we’d be done in less than an hour at that pace, so what the heck. When the trail ended at an absolutely torrential creek crossing even Wiymur hesitated, throwing his arms up and looking back at me. The he turned, spotted the trail on the opposite side, and waded in. I waded in after him, not wanting to give it too much thought. I was immediately transfixed by the necessity to stay upright despite a LOT of molecules of water bent on toppling me. We crossed the same creek 2 more times and then started climbing in earnest.
Wiymur stopped and checked his phone. He said we were way off the track shown. That had happened, before, though, even when we weren’t. We rationalized that maybe Randy had accidentally entered in a shorter route that wasn’t the intended race route. We were certainly still on the Benton Mackaye Trail -- we had been scrupulous about following the signs. I told Wiymur that if we got 1 1/2 hours out on this loop and still hadn’t starting curling around to go back downhill that we would know we were indeed off course. We kept climbing until we were 1 1/2 hours out. My altimeter said we were at 3600 feet. The Ocoee River is at around 800 feet. We were nearly to the top of Big Frog Mountain and headed toward Georgia.
We descended a lot faster than we had climbed. We picked up Hawkins and Loffland and turned them around as well. We crossed the creek, now raging even more swiftly, 3 more times. A little over an hour later, when we finally crossed the bridge to the Ocoee Whitewater Center, we were spent, cold, and hungry. Hawkins and I had been fantasizing about Chicago style deep dish pizzas, and now we sped off in opposite directions to find the closest high-calorie joint. I settled for McDonalds. It was getting late in the day and I didn’t want to do a lot of driving after dark. I can be pragmatic -- just not about whether to run. So of course I will run today, and simply soak up whatever the weather throws at me.