Friday, October 1, 2010

Foothills Trail Traverse

Last month at Laurel Valley, as I was struggling up Whitewater Falls, Byron Backer mentioned the upcoming Foothills Traverse that Jason Sullivan and friends were doing. I had planned to go along with Jason’s group on their first attempt , but still recovering from NMAR, I reconsidered doing a 77 mile run in the foothills in July. Although my response to Byron was, “that would mean I would have to run this section again” which was sucking pretty bad at the time, I did start thinking about it.

In the end, I signed on with Jason’s group and began getting ready. I’m not sure what Jason does for a living, but if it does not involve planning and organization, he has missed his calling, because I think it was the best planned “fun run”that I have done.

To get to the point, I met Jason, Psyche, Charles, Scott and Byron at Table Rock State Park at 7pm Friday night. Byron had generously offered to help the crew the adventure and although I originally planned on starting earlier, I waited until 7 so I could take advantage of knowing Byron would be at some of the trailheads, since I was going to be running solo. This would be the first time I had done a night section solo and I was a little nervous about it. At 7:08pm, I shouldered my pack, carrying enough to support myself for the first 47 miles. If only I had packed more batteries.

The first part of the trail is a well-used route to the top of Pinnacle Mountain, an open rock face with a spectacular view. At least it was spectacular that night. The lights of the cities glowed in the valley below, while above, the full moon was rising out of the clouds. The lights below reminded me of the section of Hellgate, where I have looked down and imagined all the normal people in the world, home safe and comfortable in their beds. Everyone was together here and spent a few moments admiring the sight. I took off, wanting to get some miles down, but a half mile down the trail, I came within one stride of stepping on a copperhead crossing the trail. He curled up next to a log on the edge of the trail and had no intention of moving on. So, I waited a few minutes for the rest of the group to make sure they avoided him. After that, I quit running so fast downhill that I couldn’t see what was coming up in the trail. I ran for about a half hour with Scott, but then was alone for the rest of the trip.

That brings us to….

Rookie Mistake #1.

Not packing enough batteries. I’ve run enough at night to know better. I have no explanation for my actions. As uncomfortable as I was about running solo at night, I would have thought I would have carried several pounds of extra batteries. I was using different lights and a different system and what worked in the past did not work this time and I was unprepared.

First, I bought a new Black Diamond Spot and used the batteries that came with it. The package said it would run 50 hours, so I figured I would be good to go for 11 without any problem. I wore that as a headlamp. Then I borrowed a Spot to use as a handheld and knew that only two of the three batteries were fresh, but for some reason I did not replace them. Then I wore my Petzl on my chest strap to give some diffused light and kept it running all the time. I brought 4 spare lithium batteries. The system worked really well…for a while.

Four hours in, the handheld started to die, which did not surprise me. I replaced the batteries and took off. An hour in, the headlamp grew dim. So much for 50 hours and now I only had one extra battery. I turned it off to conserve whatever power it had left. When I did that, I noticed my Petzl’s indicator light was orange, warning me that it was low on power. So I turned it off, too. I had about seven hours to go and one light with fresh batteries. How long would it last? I had no clue, so I switched it to the dimmer mode. I figured I would use each light until they all died and then build a fire and wait until dawn. I couldn’t move too fast with a dim light, but it was better than wasting time by not moving at all. The full moon was not any help under the canopy of the trees.

In the middle of the night, as I approached a place where the trail intersects with an four-wheel drive road, I saw someone standing there hollering at me. Great, I thought, I’ve crashed a party. Hmmm…maybe they have batteries. But instead, after the man ascertained that I was not a homicidal maniac, I learned that a family had come out there at midnight, gotten a flat tire and was mad at 911 because a tow truck had not yet arrived. They believed they had been left for dead because it had been two hours and and before they decided they should keep me in case they started to starve to death, I made my escape. I figured they probably didn’t have any batteries.

I have seen many bears and even more wild hogs (who were much more aggressive) out on my runs and I didn’t feel the need to run silently through the night alone, hoping to have wildlife encounters. I turned on my external speaker on my Ipod, let my bear bell jingle some (not too much- way too annoying) and promptly scared away anything within a half mile, especially when I started singing along to “Crazy Train”. The system worked very effectively on a skunk, who I smelled long before I found him, running away from me with his tail straight up.

However, as a result of my light situation, I moved a lot slower than I intended and I made myself motion sick from using only one light. When the sun FINALLY came up, I was nauseous and walked the final three miles or so up to the top of Whitewater Falls. The heat and sun had really cranked up and the final climb to the car was pretty rough.

Byron was waiting there and he told me I still had a shot at 24 hours, that I would get feeling better and start running again. I did get to feeling better (ginger chews and spaghetti-o’s) , but I was already at least an hour behind of where I expected to be. I loaded up with enough supplies to last me to Oconee and was off again.

The next couple of sections were nice. I was moving fairly well and the trail was actually pretty nice and scenic. That brings us to ….

Rookie Mistake #2. Not studying the map and not having clear directions to the trailheads. Tony was going to meet me at Burrell’s Ford and walk out on the trail some and meet me. When I got to Burrell’s Ford, way ahead of when he expected me, the truck was there but Tony was not. I found Jason’s car and retrieved the best-ever ginger ale out of his cooler and tried to figure out what to do. I wanted some things out of the truck but it was locked and I was worried that Tony would not know that I had come through and would sit there waiting for me. As I stood there a while debating what to do, Tony came back. He wasn’t sure which direction I was coming from on the trail and was looking for me. I grabbed some things and took off, but I couldn’t tell him where the next trailhead was. He was just going to look for where it crossed 107.

The next section sucked and this is where I started to have a mental meltdown. I felt like I was moving pretty fast for as rough and rooty the trail was. I came across a mileage sign which indicated I was moving at faster than 3 miles an hours, faster than I thought I was, so as the trail improved, I know I was running faster. But I didn’t know how far it was to the next trailhead. After two and half hours, I was sure I would be there any minute. Every time the trail changed (moving away from the river, turning back toward the river, climbing a ridge, passing campsites), I was positive I was there, but the trail just kept going and I had one letdown after another. Then I found another sign that indicated I still had a long way to go to the trailhead and I was crushed. I thought I was making really good time, I was running hard, but I was going to end up running in the dark again. And would Tony find a trailhead? Would he worry because I was so late? I really wanted to sit down in the middle of the trail and cry. At that moment, I looked up the trail and there was Tony. He had hiked in about four miles to find me. It didn’t matter then how much farther it was and how much longer I had to go, I was just so glad to see him. We hiked out together to where he parked the truck, 4.6 miles from the finish.

Twenty-four hours was not going to happen, but if I could cover the 4.6 in about 70 minutes, I could finish under 27. I finished SCAR in 26 on a bad day and I would be darned if I was going to finish this in 27. I ran hard and once again got so frustrated that it was taking so long. I sprinted the last part, finally finding that sign that marked the end of my adventure, 26 hours 58 minutes later.

In my final analysis, SCAR was much tougher physically and the Foothills was tougher mentally. I will go back and do SCAR again. I have no further interest in the Foothills.

The mistakes I made that cost me the 24 hour mark were:

1. Not packing enough batteries to make good time at night and then making myself nauseous so I lost even more time.

2. Between the trailheads at Whitewater Falls, Sloan Bridge and Burrell Ford, I wasted well over an hour regrouping. At Whitewater Falls I was trying to get my nausea under control and once I knew 24 hours was not going to happen, I was a little more leisurely.

3. When I was not where I thought I was after Burrell’s Ford, I gave up mentally for a time. I didn’t care if I ate and I didn’t care if I ran out of water. I didn’t care if it was time to use my inhaler. I didn’t care if I finished in 24 hours or 48. Tony finding me gave me the mental push to finish.

I really appreciate all of Jason’s planning and help, Byron’s crewing and encouragement, my mom coming to help get my car back home, and Tony rescuing me once again. Both Scott and Psyche also successfully finished and I am looking forward to reading their stories. Now that I know I can run in the dark with very little light, I can tackle even bigger adventures.