Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Foothills Trail Attempt 2010

Wherein 6 brave souls face great physical, mental, and emotional challenges in an attempt to complete the Foothills Trail but are foiled by extreme heat, humidity, and fatigue*.

From left: Dan Hartley, Chad Henderson, Jim Cobb, Charles Raffesnperger, myself and Jason Sullivan

Months in the making, this epic adventure run was set for Saturday morning at 4:00 a.m. So all the logistics went down on Friday, and it got complicated.

Long story short, we all met on Friday afternoon at Oconee State Park, the end point of the run, to set up our campsites so they would be waiting as we finished. After setting up at Oconee, we then headed to Table Rock State Park, to set up camp, spend the night, and be ready for a 4:00 a.m. start.

Between setting up 2 camps and driving to the Laurel Valley entrance, Burrell's Ford, and Cheeohee Road to leave food, water and supplies, my head was spinning. I couldn't remember what (if anything!) I had at each point.

The comic relief of setting up the "elephant tent" was a much needed distraction. Seriously, what is wrong with this tent? (In less than 100 words).

Also under the heading "comic relief" would be the ever-goofy Jason and Sam. We all had a blast driving out to the Laurel Valley parking lot, Sam sharing her fine taste in music with us while Charles and I tried to catch glimpses of the beautiful orange moon while Jason snapped pictures as if his camera were going to die before he could reach his goal of taking 100 pictures or something.**

Jason practicing mug shot face (in case BMF Park Ranger wins Round 2).


It goes without saying that 4:00 a.m. arrived too soon. We gathered and nervously began our walk to the Foothills Trail head. Unspoken, but in the back of all of our minds, was the fear the Park Ranger would show up and ruin any chance we had at this run. As we walked quietly through the darkness on the road which leads to the trail head, we suddenly saw a car slowly approach us. It slowed, then pulled over, and my heart dropped into my stomach. I was sure we were done.

Luckily, it turned out to be Scott Hodukavich. He was there to introduce himself and let us know he would be providing us support and aid (and HOW!). Scott drove on down to the trail head and snapped a group photo of us at the start. He also said I had just missed Denise Martin, who drove down for the "start". I was really disappointed I didn't get to connect with Denise after all she did to make the trip.

In fact, before I go on, I have to say that a defining characteristic of this run has been the generosity and selflessness of people like Denise, Scott, Ken, Walter, Terri, and the many others that joined us, through their choice or not, as things unfolded.

As you'll soon see, this is pretty much just what Charles, Jason (for a part of it) and I experienced, as we all experienced very different things over the course of this adventure... I'm still finding out about everyone else's individual and group adventures...amazing.

I had our start time as 4:23 a.m.

Table Rock to Laurel Valley Entrance

The first section of the trail starts at Table Rock State Park and takes you to the Laurel Valley parking area on Hwy 178. Jason, Charles, and I all ran this section together.

We all agreed that the first five hours of the run seemed to fly by. Charles, Jason, and I were having some great laughs as we hit the top of Pinnacle Mountain at about 6:00 a.m. We took a brief sit down break to enjoy the start of an incredible day.

Soon, we were off to climb Sassafras Mountain (South Carolina's highest point), and before we knew it, we were descending to HWY 178 where we found Scott waiting for us with an aid station to beat all aid stations. Can you say frozen towels and watermelon? Thank you Scott! These smiles are the real deal.

I wish I knew what we were laughing at!

Jason's fondness for Nicot cookies knows no bounds.

Laurel Valley to White Water Falls
Laurel Valley has 34 miles of the most beautiful section of the Foothills Trail. It is somehow beautiful, simple and mysterious all at the same time. Adding to its allure (and danger): there is no bail out point through here. Once in, you have to get to the end at White Water Falls or turn around and head back to the parking lot. Or do what I did. But seriously...don't.

Unfortunately, as the 3 of us began climbing the first of the many, many stairs that define Laurel Valley, the temperatures climbed and the humidity rose.

Temperatures in the 90's plus high humidity meant the triple digit heat index was in the critical zone. At best, we were all going to fade. A lot. The reason is simple: if your body is unable to control its core temperature, it uses fatigue as a defense mechanism. Fatigue forces you to stop what you are doing immediately, thus (hopefully) lowering your core temperature.

As I did from the start, I continued to drink 20 ounces of Accelerade every hour and tried to take 2 S! Caps every 2 hours.

Luckily, I seemed to be able to catch the occasional brief break from the heat now and again from a slight breeze or a quick dip in a rushing stream or river. Charles did not seem as lucky. He was losing sweat at an alarming rate. In fact, it seemed to me that I could actually see him losing weight. That got my attention and I was hoping against hope he wouldn't succumb to the fatigue and cramping I'd seen him go through on earlier runs through this section.

We slowed down and took every opportunity to cool off, but it was not enough. Before Charles would make it out of there, the heat would have him totally beat, toasted, roasted, fried, baked, rocked, trashed, whipped out, and spanked.

As Charles' condition continued to decline, I looked at the map to see how close we were to Cane Brake. I was not actually concerned with his safety at this point, but Iwas trying to think ahead. I suggested that I go on ahead to find Ken and bring him back. We decided against this idea. Then, Ken suddenly appears as if out of thin air. Apparently, he had noticed that too much time had passed without seeing us come through, so he started hiking in to us***.

The timing could not have been better. Within a few minutes, Charles got worse. He began throwing up and he seemed a bit disoriented. It seemed to me he was getting worse fast. Ken's manner had taken on that way professionals have when they are handling a crisis situation. He was cool, but definitely in charge. I think that scared me the most.

The three of us made it to Toxaway Bridge and Ken was able to get a text out to Walter, to ask him to come up to Gorges National Park to get Charles and take him back to Oconee.

At the bridge, Ken and Charles would make a right and head to Gorges National Park. I would make a left and head to Whitewater Falls. I felt exremely good, and assured that Charles didn't need additional help to get out. I made the decision to go, on my own, at least to Whitewater Falls. (Afterward, I heard it was a difficult 5-mile trek to get Charles out, and Ken called in Scott Hodukavich to assist).

I knew it wasn't good common sense but then , according to Oscar Wilde, "common sense kills people everyday, one lost opportunity at a time", right? I could tell Charles wanted to say something but didn't quite trust his own ability to think straight in that moment. So, full of "go big or go home" attitude, I set off at 5: 50 p.m. to complete the 19 miles to White Water Falls.

I felt strong, I was not dehydrated, was running most of the way, and calculating what time I should be at the Falls. I kept coming up with different answers, but I thought it should take me about 6 hours if I made 3 miles an hour. (I know that sounds slow, but my god this section is hard). That put things at midnight. I'll admit, I was hoping Ken called ahead and told them when to expect me. If I was still standing at White Water Falls, I wanted to try for the next section.

What I definitely underestimated was the mental toll fatigue was taking on me. It was subtle at first, then more and more pronounced. I missed a double white now and then, but always turned back within a short time and got back on course.

But then, even on trail, I was thinking that parts of the trail looked wrong. I would have thoughts like, "I thought this part was way back there at the start of the section?" and I would have a little panic attack about it. I was also obsessing on the bridge you get to right before climbing up to the Falls- the one you have to scale the big rocks to get to... I kept trying to figure out where that bridge was, yet at the same time I knew exactly where it was. I felt like I was losing it a little bit.

When I came up to the Hilliard Falls sign, I definitely thought that the last time I had been there we had approached the sign from a different angle. But i couldn't be sure. That really bothered me, because I knew I needed to go left of the sign to be on trail. But that wouldn't be true if I somehow had come up to the sign from the wrong direction. It was becoming very hard to think things through and I was feeling panicky.

At this point I just became more and more disoriented. There's a double white here, so it's tricky already. I knew I was looking for the trail to start climbing. But no matter which direction I took, it didn't climb, and didn't seem to be right. I kept back-tracking and somehow going over the same bridges and sections over and over again.

I finally felt so exhausted I knew I had to rest for at least an hour. I lay down in the middle of the trail and dozed/ rested from 3:00- 4:30. I stared at the beautiful orange moon as it sunk lower and lower in the sky.

I had some pretty deep inner conversations with myself in those 90 minutes. Not the usual chit chat, either. More of a communion with the still part of myself, the part that always knows what to do, what is right, what is truth. If nothing else, I am grateful for being in that extreme situation as it forced me to lose all but my essential self, if only for a short time. In doing so, I was able to gain a certain clarity about my life. If the price for that experience was a 30 hour trail run, I think I got off cheap.

At 4:30 a.m., I tried to get up but could barely move I was so sore and my feet hurt so bad. I was crying and swearing it hurt so bad just to shuffle down the road. But eventually it got a little better, and eventually I did find the correct trail from Hilliard Falls. It was so close- I just hadn't gone far enough down one of the trailheads. Unfortunately, I faced several mammoth climbs on feet that were swollen, blistered, and tender.

I got near White Water Falls at about 9:30 but even then, I was not 100% I was on trail. I was still disoriented and now I was getting desperate. I was seeing things (houses, people, forestry service trucks parked down the trail) and I was afraid I'd get some crazy idea in my head and do something really dangerous. At one point, I was convinced I should bush whack up the ridge because Hwy. 107 was right there. So, when I saw the sign, "Bad Creek Parking Lot 1.5 Mi.", I cut down that trail and within moments found two hikers who helped me by calling the sheriff.

The rest, they say, is history. There was a search party waiting for me. Everyone was so relieved I had been found (including me). I was so tired, I just wanted to sleep. So, that's what I did.

I later learned that several people went back into White Water Falls looking for me, including Scott Hodukavich****.

* And possibly Wood Nymphs.
** Official time of death: 6:10 a.m., July 24.
*** Ken Sturm is a rock star. I hope you never need saving, but if you do, I hope you know Ken.
**** Scott Hodukavich is also a rock star, and I will be forever paying him back by coming out and supporting him in adventures.

Note: Thanks to Scott Hodukavich and Jason Sullivan for all the great pics!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Stoking The Fires At Shut In

The plan called for a 30-35 mile run on the AT yesterday with Aaron Ligon and Dave Pryor. However, last minute issues kept Aaron from driving up from Charlotte, and as a result, Dave and I decided to meet at Bent Creek and put the miles in there.

I arrived at Hard Times Trailhead few minutes early. Right after I pulled in, another car pulled in, parked, and left the tunes blaring. I sat back and relaxed and took advantage of the early morning "free concert" while I waited for Dave. After a few minutes, I started chatting with the runner, a very nice gentleman named Wally. I was wearing my Flying Pig shirt, and we talked about what a great race the Pig is. Soon enough, Dave pulls in the lot, gets out of his car, and is like, "Hey, Wally, how's it going?" (I should not be surprised, as runners seem to be a close knit group, but I have to admit, it still seems so cool when things like this happen).

It turns out Wally is just looking to run for 2 hours, and he's up for following us. After discussing a few possible routes, I liked the idea of running the Shut In Ridge Race course, as I have never been on the course, and this is a race that Leopold is very interested in completing in the next year or two.

This ended up being exactly the experience I needed to put me in the right head space to attempt the Foothills Trail. The plan- run 2 15-mile loops which capture 15 of the 18 miles of the Shut In course. I've heard Shut In is a Beast, but that the real challenge is the last 2 miles, and today we were not running those last 2 miles, we were taking a side trail to connect back to Hard Times.

Here's how it unfolded:

Loop 1: 3 hrs. 20 minutes (13 min. mile average pace)
We set off up Hard Times Road, which sets the tone right away. It's a pretty good ascent, and it lasts for 2-3 miles. At the top, I realized we had averaged 11:20 pace, which is slow for these guys, but too fast for me. At the peak of the hill, you get on the Shut In Trail and begin a vicious climb. I could tell there would have been a great view if the trees were not so hugely overgrown.

Eventually, you come to a portion that is really pleasant. It's like you're in a bowl, and you're running on a ridge all along the inside. There a nice rhodo tunnel, and there's just a very peaceful feeling.

I was happy to find I had gotten my food and hydration right. I went back to Accelerade, and had zero problems- except perhaps needing a little more water than I had, and not finding it on the trail.

We eventually got back to the trail head, and although it had been a good run, I was feeling like my legs didn't really have much more. Dave was having issues with his plantar fascia, and I completely backed up his decision to stop at one loop. It was decision time for me: end with a shorter, faster run and call it a day, or continue?

As much as I wanted to call it a day, I knew I needed something more. It wasn't enough to be physically tired. To face the 24th, I needed to know I could be mentally tough when it counted. That I could push through the physical pain, the mental pain, and beyond if need be. I set a goal for the second loop- slow down, power hike anything too steep to run, but run every runnable part of the trail.

Loop 2: 4 hrs. 25 minutes (17 min. mile average pace

It seemed "perfect" to have to start on the 2 mile climb. I thought,"This is what I am going to feel like climbing out of Laurel Valley- if I'm extremely lucky." I made myself slow down and not stop until I reached the Shut In trail at the top. I hiked the first climb on the Shut In trail, and made myself run as soon as it leveled off. The next section, that was previously so enjoyable, was no longer enjoyable. I was hurting. I wanted to walk so badly. It was disheartening to feel like that on a nice pleasant fairly flat section.

Disheartening soon became something akin to despair. I hung out in this horrible emotional place for a little longer, until I had to find a way to change it. Change it or stop- those were the only two choices. There's a moment, where it is just that clear. You know you simply cannot continue to take the pain, and the only answer is to find a way to transcend it. As I've discovered before, more often than not what it takes for me to do this is to focus on the beauty of the experience, to connect to the trail, to nature, to the powerful forces inside and outside. That experience somehow seems bigger than the pain in my body. Although I still feel the pain, I find I can cope.

I came down Side Hill, realizing I was finishing up. I felt dehydrated, and unsure if I was going to hold it together on the long downhill. I got it in my head that I was going to lay down in the creek when I was done. That's all I thought about- how rewarding the cold, cold water would feel. It felt like it was a million miles away. The last two miles literally lasted forever.

Light at the end of the tunnel time- I could hear the water. Then, I could see it. Not surprisingly, it was at this point that I knew if I had to keep going, if there were no water, only more miles, I could do it. I would do it. That's when I knew I had gotten what I came here for.

Time to taper for the Foothills Trail Run.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Foothills Trail Run Preview

We plan to commit our breaking and entering Foothills Trail Run during the much anticipated pre-dawn hours of July 24th.

As this plot unfolds, it is becoming apparent that most important part of this delinquincyadventure run will be to foil the elaborate security mechanisms set forth by the State Park Ranger (played by Samulel L. Jackson), who, for reasons beyond my comprehension, is determined to keep the Foothills Trail one of the most unsung, underused, and underrated long trails in the Southeast.

With no financing and backing from a wealthy ex-casino owner, our elaborate sting will involve a number of interlocked distractions which must be coordinated precisely. It goes without saying that I could tell you our plan, but then I would have to kill you.

So, you ask, "What is so important that you risk banishment from a State Park death and dismemberment so much?

There are lots of answers to this question, but what comes to mind right now is that the Foothills Trail Run represents a great challenge to me, one that I expect will push me to my personal limits just to finish. I will be surrounded by pain and adventure so thick it's a foregone conclusion I will finish the day a very different person than when I started, no matter how my day goes.

To be continued...