Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Cruel Jewel in My Crown

Riddle: I’m running away from myself and toward myself at the same time. What am I doing?
Answer: See below

A lot can be written here. There is something mysteriously soul-drenching about smearing oneself across countless miles of serrated wilderness. Those of us who do it know what it really means to be exposed. I could try and fool you -- convince you that once shed of flesh the spirit rises free. I could spin a story about resisting or even defying gravity, not just in one miraculous moment but step after step for well over 100 miles across a lush and notched landscape -- on a course that lures runners upward over 30,000 feet only to be dropped back down again. And while I do have a heightened sense of what glory feels like, I know better the basest attributes left when the body has been defaced.

Here’s the beginning: Guy Love asks me to help him run the Cruel Jewel 100 in northern Georgia. He says he wants to run it in 25 hours. Guy Love and I go back. He grew up in the tiny town where I now teach, the only son of two college professors. He approached me wanting to know about running ultras. I gave him the brief and some s-caps. Amongst his fellow trail runners at Virginia Tech Guy Love has blossomed. He crewed for me at the inaugural UROC a year and a half ago. So I want to help. And here is where the truth flashes subliminally across my cortical screen: I only want to help so much. In an instant I know that I won’t be waiting at remote aid stations working completely in service to someone else’s goals. I won’t be locked in a death-march with an imaginary short-rope connecting me to someone who barely has the will to continue. I see the overlap in our goals and that is about as far as I can stretch. I suggest to Guy that I enter the Cruel Jewel so that we can start and try to run the same pace together. Because I will be attempting a speed record of the 480-mile long Colorado Trail in July, most of my training is at 4 miles per hour, the same pace that Guy will need to maintain in order to complete the Cruel Jewel in 25 hours. And so we are agreed.

At only one point during the run was I aware of a significant tension between my stated goal of training for the Colorado Trail and a desire to compete in the Cruel Jewel. Guy and I have been trekking steadily for about 2 1/2 hours and are on our way down from Scroggin Knob toward Weaver Creek. At the bottom we will simply turn around and climb back up. We cross paths with the leader (Gabe Wishnie) early on the descent, so we know that he is already ahead by a significant distance (as much as 3 miles). Although I never consciously acknowledge engaging competitively, I find myself pressing hard when we turn around and begin to climb. Guy, who up until then had been running right with me, began to lag behind. Only gradually did I realize that I was glowing from the heat generated by the work of my many mitochondria at full bore. I was 15 miles into a 100 mile “training run” and I was causing the wheels to come off of my running partner. I had to consciously pull back and disengage. What Gabe, or anyone else, did on this run would be theirs. My job was to lock in a sustainable trekking pace to the end.

Many hours later, with darkness fully upon us, I had settled behind Guy. We worked mechanically up and down monstrous climbs, locked into the beam of our headlamps. Ours was a slow and gradual disintegration. The pace ground down like a machine with ball bearings stripped of lubricant. We rusted under the steady fog and drizzle, squeaking noisily across slick rocks and under fallen trees. At 2am we reached Buckeye Knob having covered 48 miles in 12 hours. We shook slightly with the cold and complete depletion of the effort. The two guys at the White Oak Stomp Aid Station literally gave us the jackets off their backs, and that may have been exactly what was required to keep us going. It got colder and rainier as we crossed over Coosa Bald. The descent to Vogel State Park was slow and torturous. We could imagine little that would keep us going. Race director Willy Syndram had listed that aid station as a quitter location, and we began to accept the real possibility that we would not proceed beyond it.

I had already hatched a plan to stop and take a nap, because I knew the turnaround was a cabin at the park. Guy finally said aloud that he had serious doubts about continuing, and that he was at least going to stop for a rest. When at long last we made the cabin after 58 miles and over 15 hours we met with what once again turned out to be exactly what we needed to continue -- though it would turn out to be an hour and a half later. The two women at the aid station had prepared hot peppery soup, and then grilled cheese sandwiches. We sat and ate and warmed ourselves. They would hear none of our sob stories, though, and simply left no room for us to quit. Although they threatened to shoo us out quickly, they eventually made way for us to doze on the soft beds long enough to recover our wits and see daylight again. I was still thinking that Guy was going to quit, and if he did, that I would probably quit too. But I wasn’t injured and I knew I could go on. But once again, the truth about myself emerged in an instant.

The way back would have to be driven by my goal. My trekking pace would get me back at just before dark. That was the motivation I needed to finish: a race against the darkness. And it implied a naked truth: I could not work in service to Guy Love. I had to tell him so, baldly -- I will leave you if you aren’t able to keep up. It sounds cruel because it is. I can see another kind of mountain top: the moral elevation of working for someone else, I just can’t get there. I have cried listening to the lyrics of Mumford & Sons “I will wait for you” because of what that really means: offering up yourself. The only thing that troubles me more than my selfishness is the possibility that I could fool myself into thinking myself better than that. At least, and it is cold comfort, when I put myself on an exposed and uncaring mountain ridgeline some distance from a challenging goal I will have to be honest. All of my success as an ultrarunner comes down to this -- I know myself.

Let me illustrate with a simple contrast that occurred to me about 85 miles into the Cruel Jewel. Almost 15 years ago I ran my first ultra. Although I had run competitively for 15 years before that, and had hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, I still got it wrong. The Mountain Masochist is about 53 miles long and requires about 8000 feet of climbing. Although there are substantial stretches of trail, much of the run is on gravel forest service road. I won’t recount the race -- you can read a more detailed account here -- but there came a point when I simply could not sustain my race as I had imagined it. I slowed to a crawl and limped along completely disillusioned. I had overshot, tackling what seemed the most challenging possible event and letting it literally cripple me.  It took around 8 hours and I did not run again for the next two years. At mile 85 of the Cruel Jewel I had been running for about 24 hours including something like 25,000 feet of climbing on terrain far more challenging than that of Mountain Masochist. I was methodically -- and effectively -- rolling out my plan to stay on my intended pace. I swung my arms to power up the climbs and immediately transitioned to a run on the descents. I stayed alert to my hydration and energy, anticipating and correcting any downward trajectory. I knew in that moment that, despite the apparent craziness of the endeavor, I at least could say that I had gotten it right. The extremity of the demand meant that I had little margin to be wrong -- in that case I would have slowed or stopped. I feel uplifted that I can claim that kind of certitude. I can do what I had set out to.

That jewel may be a lump of coal, I don’t know. The goals I set for myself are often couched in comparisons with others -- and I want to be better. It may be an inescapable truth that I am disposed to seek status at others’ expense. I know that I cannot completely give up myself in service to someone else -- that I cannot climb such a sacred mountain. My highest aspiration is for the kind of integrity required to climb the most difficult earthly mountains. What I glean from that may be a cruel jewel, but I hope it is at least real.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Whether and Running -- and Thunder Rock 100 preview

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.