Friday, December 9, 2011

Backyard Adventures in the 'Rock- Part I

I live in an astonishingly beautiful and cool place - Chimney Rock, NC. It's only 25 miles south and east of Asheville, but what a difference 25 miles makes. I'm smack in the middle of some incredible country- Hickory Nut Gorge, Lake Lure, and Rumbling Bald Mountain are all within a mile of me. In fact, my house sits at the base of Round Top Mountain and the view of this beauty from my kitchen window is amazing.

A word about Round Top Mountain...First, and you can almost see it from the picture above, I have direct access to it from my yard via a trail that connects to Silver City Road. Silver City Road takes you right up to the base of it, where the picture below was taken. Another very cool thing about this mountain: it was featured heavily in "Last of the Mohicans" as the Indian Village.

Like I said, there is a trail just 25 feet from my back door that leads to Silver City Road, which then accesses trails that dart in and out of State Park and Private Property. No driving necessary. It's really incredible.

I've already spoken with the Ranger who said I'm fine to be back there because my property accesses the State Park property directly. Although, he said, I may encounter problems with the owners of the private property. Which I did, one day. Said owner indeed has a lot of issues, but apparently none with me. I finally had to ask him, straight out, "So, are you going to be upset if I run back here?" to which he said, "Hell, No! I don't care if you're back here!!" (He's a real character). So, case closed. In my mind, I'm free to make the entire gorge my playground.

Recently, I've had two really good adventures "exploring" my backyard. This is the first adventure...

I went home early on the Wednesday before Pinhoti to get a run in and explore the trails behind my house. I wanted to see where one particular trail led, because the last time I was back there, it seemed to literally just "end", and I am finding that this is true of these trails- there's no defined trail system, per se, just a bunch of interconnected trails that locals and hunters (and rock climbers) know and use. Often, they just "end".

So, I left the house at 4:00 p.m., completely unaware I was in for one of the best adventures EVER and would not be home until after 11:00 that night.

It took 45 minutes to get to the point where the trail appeared to dead end. You go in between these two amazing rocks and are kind of dumped into a rock garden and the trail disappears.

I explored the possibility that the trail went up the side of a mountain here, and I spent a good 30 minutes hiking/ bush whacking up the mountain and eventually concluded there was no way that was a real trail. It terminated at a junction where you had to traverse a sheer drop-off that I was far too scared to even attempt.

As I was climbing down the mountain, I gave Charles a call because I'd learned that reception was good here. I told him about what I was doing, to which he said. "Just don't get lost, honey." Of course, I said I was insulted that he would say such a thing, and then assured him I'd be really careful.

Then I made a stupid mistake. I went back to the spot where there was clear trail and explored the possibility it crossed a small creek and took up again on this hillside. There was no real trail to follow, and all I was going to do was to bush whack around a big rock outcropping and see if the trail appeared anywhere on the other side. When I got around the other side, I saw that clearly there was no trail there and Idecided to head back and call it a day as it was now close to 6:00 p.m. and I would soon be losing the light.

Well, the big rock outcropping that was so recognizable on way over was not nearly as recognizable coming from the other direction. In fact, I suddenly didn't recognize anything and even though I had come only about 100 feet, I began to fear I wouldn't make it back before I lost the light. I suddenly felt stupid for laughing at Charles' request for me to not get lost.

It was getting darker, and I was where I thought the creek HAD to be, but instead of a little creek crossing, I came to a giant granite drop off and had to retrace my steps back, which was even more disorienting. I tried to think. It seemed logical to head down, as eventually I would have to come out somewhere near or on Memorial Highway. So down I headed, and I went quite a ways only to come to another giant granite dropoff. I now head my head lamp on, and decided I was done trying to find my way down. With all the leaves, I couldn't see where sure footing was, and it just seemed far more dangerous to climb down than to climb up. Plus, I had talked to David about this area, and he said that if you climb up you will intersect a road at some point.

Honestly, I didn't know what to do, and I was on the verge of panicking. Instead, I just decided to make a decision and stick with it. I was going to climb up, and I picked a line to follow and hoped I would intersect a road. It was completely dark now, and I was bush whacking up the side of a mountain, going up, over and around granite rock outcroppings.

This picture is from adventure #2, but is an example of the rock structures I had to the night!

At one point, I climbed up a large rock structure that brought me to the saddle of the mountain. I went down the saddle, only to discover I had to climb some more if I had any hope of accessing a jeep road or any road at all. This last climb was so densely forested that I was climbing on my belly in spots so that I could go under the branches of trees because they were too thick to get through any other way. The branches had snagged my pack and opened it and I lost my jacket, gloves, and water bottle. Now I was really thirsty and I had no water.

Hours went by and I kept bush whacking...just straight up- hoping for...I don't know what. When road! I had intersected what was clearly a jeep road. Hooray!! I called Charles and told him, and I decided to follow the road to the right as it went slightly down hill. After about 200 feet, it became more and more over grown, and finally it was clear that the road just ended there. Damn!

I turned around and went the other way, and the road at least did continue. It became a more and more pronounced road, and after climbing a bit, started a descent. It seemed like I went about 2 miles or so, and then I saw lights of a house. That was comforting. Suddenly about 1/2 mile later, the road dumped out onto a paved road, and all of a sudden I knew exactly where I was. I was at the top of Old Schumont Mountain Road!! Amazing. What a relief to know where I was! David lives about 2 miles away and I texted him to see if he was home. He was, so I asked if he could come get me and give me aride home, which he did.

Even though I know it was stupid to get myself in to that situation, I have to say that bush whacking up Schumont Mountain in the dark, and then suddenly popping out onto the road and knowing where I was...was thrilling. I was proud of myself for keeping my wits about me and not panicking. Right or wrong, I made a decision and stuck with it- and it just happened to work out well for me.

To be continued...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Foothills Trail: Sub 27:00 and First Female Double Finisher- Say WHAT?

Usually, after a “significant” run like FHT I find that it takes me for freaking ever to gather my thoughts in any kind of cohesive way and write a race report. By the time I’ve processed the experience emotionally, I find the details of the race have already begun to fade from my memory, which makes writing it up that much more difficult.

Not this time. No emotional processing necessary. Honey Badger just!

So, here goes.

First, attempting the FHT over Thanksgiving weekend was a last minute decision. Originally, I passed on this organized attempt, thinking it too close to the Bartram 100’s on December 10. But then... I noticed Naresh was signed up for Bartram and was also attempting FHT...So, yes. To answer your question, if my friends jump off a cliff I will follow them.

The week leading up to FHT was a whirlwind of ADD-induced planning. For the first time, I found myself attempting FHT sans Charles and I was suddenly in the position of being the “experienced one” on the trail. Stop laughing. Stop it now.

The logistics of an FHT attempt are always daunting. It’s a point to point run, so you’re dealing with shuttling people and cars and aid between Table Rock and Oconee State Parks. Any logistical challenges like multiple start times only serve to amplify these challenges.

Also, you’re not allowed to be on the trails after 30 minutes before dark, so you have to commit to camping at one or both State Parks. And you can’t just book one night at a site, there’s a 2-night minimum at either of the State Parks. Then there’s cell phone reception/ coverage issues. What a nightmare! Cell reception is just plain crappy. You’re lucky if you can send a text, and if you’re able to, you may never know if the person you sent it to received it. More than anything, lack of cell phone coverage has caused a comedy of errors to play out again and again. This attempt would turn out to be no different in that respect.

The adventure begins....Thanksgiving Day.

Mimi was kind enough to get a site at Oconee for Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. As I drove to Oconee State Park to meet Mimi and Naresh, my excitement began to build. Whereas up until that point, I had been preoccupied with planning a “finish”, I suddenly started to consider going for a 24-hour finish. I went as far as leaving a message on Naresh’s phone, saying something like “I hope you don’t get this- I’m losing my mind with excitement and actually thinking about going for the 24 hour finish. Please slap these thoughts out of my head when you see me.”

In my mind, I had no business thinking sub-24. I was going into this run after a 75 mile week culminating in a hard Saturday run on trails at Jones Gap State Park and a double SSSR (Seven Sisters Summit Run) on Sunday. But the little voice in my head reminded me that I recovered very well from the weekend, and my legs had felt downright bouncy on my recovery run on Tuesday. I was also thinking a Foothills Trail finish would go a long way in healing the wounds of not one but TWO Pitchell DNF's in October.

Thanksgiving At Oconee State Park - Cool
Soon after arriving at Oconee and finding the campsite, I met Scott Chapman for the first time - what a cool guy. His plans were to run from Table Rock to Laurel Valley entrance and then be available to run, crew and assist at various points on the trail.

Thanksgiving dinner was a wonderful meal of Tandoori chicken and Naan, courtesy of Naresh. Did I say it was wonderful? It was soooo yummy! As we stood around the campfire talking and drinking beer, the temperature began to drop- finally to the point it drove us in to our tents for the night around 9:30 p.m.

The next morning, Mimi, Naresh and I set about finalizing our drop bags and talking about the trail in general. I had made us all some navigation notes that highlighted some of the trickier parts of the trail.

We made a short trip over to the WWF overlook platform, which was jam packed full 'o tourists, and we hiked down to the bridge so they could get a feel for the climb over the rocks as you begin your ascent out of WWF.

We headed back to the campsite around 3:00 to meet Lester Farmer. Soon, Chad and Mark rolled up and shortly thereafter we all left Oconee and stopped along the way to drop a few aid bags, drop off vehicles, etc. Finally, we arrived at Table Rock around 7:30 pm.

It was incredibly cold! I ate some boiled peanuts and could not get warm around the fire, so I opted to get a couple of hours of sleep in the back of Naresh's car. At about 11:00 p.m., I went up to the restroom to change and to text Charles. When I returned to the car, I saw that Scott Hadukavich had arrived. Somehow, it just ain't a FHT run if Scott isn't there.

Last minute preparations, and before I knew it, we were moving silently as a group down to the Trailhead start point with our headlamps off. Memories of previous runs filled my head, where the fear of waking the ranger seemed far more intense than it did this time. As usual, we took a couple of group photos before someone called the official start time (12:04 a.m.) and off we went, climbing up, up, up, towards Pinnacle and Sassafrass Mountain.

Table Rock to Laurel Valley Entrance (14 miles)
12:04 - 4:35

I felt exhilarated at the start as I took in the beauty of the trail. Even at night, this trail is simply gorgeous. We all stayed pretty close to one another for the first few miles, as clothes and gear were adjusted, and everyone got used to the trail. I was a little worried about Mimi as she was apparently already having some issues with her headlamp.

I realized pretty quickly that I felt good. It's a good 9-mile hike up to Sassafrass, with tons of elevation gain, but I was handling it really well and my legs somehow felt fresh.

Near Pinnacle Mtn., I made a note of where Charles had broken his arm in February, and I found myself missing him. The run didn't feel quite the same without him. I love the way he's always ppointing out what's coming up next on the trail, and how we run together so comfortably.

Right about then, I turned to Naresh and said, "No offense, Naresh, but I miss Charles." Almost immediately after that, we came up on what I thought was a left-over Halloween joke. Someone had hung a skeleton on the trail! So weird...

A few minutes later we popped out of the trail at Sassafrass and started crossing the road to where Chad would be waiting for us with water. At first, nothing unusual registered with me. There were several cars parked here, but I assumed Big Easy and/ or Scott H. were there as well. Suddenly I see the "FARTHER" license plate and I realize Charles was there! He had totally tricked me and come up a day early to surprise me! In fact, he had to have already been on the road when I texted him right before the start. I love it!

After quick hello's to Charles' doggies, a water refill, and some food, we all took off for the LV entrance. I know that Naresh really enjoyed the nice downhill descent to Laurel Valley. He's an amazing downhill runner and when I caught up with him at Rocky Bottom he told me he'd turned off his headlamp and cruised down the trail. Sweet! I checked my watch at the Hwy 178
crossing and noted that we cam e in at 4:16 a.m.

We walked up to the Laurel Valley entrance parking lot and were treated to another awesome aid station. However, it got cold really fast when you weren't moving, so I tried my best to get what I needed and move out of there. I know Naresh was freezing, and I thought he headed back out a couple of minutes ahead of me. I noted that I left the parking lot at 4:34, and headed up the stairs to Laurel Valley. I remember hearing Chad tell Mark to take it slow and and to not try and “crush” it. Those two made a good team, I thought.

Laurel Valley To White Water Falls (34 Miles)
4:35 a.m. - 3:42 p.m

The Laurel Valley section is probably the most well-known section of the FHT, as it has it's very own race - the Laurel Valley Ultra. It's a beast of a section, but this time I had a very different experience running through here. I found it to be way more runnable than I ever remembered, and with few exceptions I had no difficulty staying on trail. I made it my main goal to run every runnable part of trail, and I found that I ran a lot more of this section than I ever have before.

Lester and I traded positions for a few miles, and eventually we caught up to Mark. This in itself was a big surprise, as I thought Naresh was ahead of me. I asked Mark if he'd seen Naresh, and he said no. I told Lester I was worried Naresh had maybe gone off trail, but I didn't know what we could do about it at this point.

I kept moving, but as Canebrake and Heartbreak Ridge closed in, I was so ready to be see humans again. I remember Charles saying he'd see me at 8:30 at Canebreak, and I think I ended up arriving around 9:00. As planned, Charles and Scott had hiked in to Cane Brake and set up a mini aid station of awesomeness, and when I finally heard some hollering, I cannot begin to tell you how happy I was. I immediately went off trail and had to correct!

I asked them if they'd seen Naresh, and that's when Charles told me Naresh had taken the road at the LV parking lot instead of the stairs but had corrected himself after a few minutes. But instead of being a couple minutes ahead of me like I thought, he was a couple minutes behind me- I just didn't know it.

I got some food and Gatorade, and was eager to keep moving as I suspected I was making good time so far, and with no navigation problems, I was becoming increasingly confident I was having a good run. Plus, I really wanted to get in to WWF in under 12 hours.

At one point I began to overheat with two shirts on, so I had to take the long sleeve shirt off I was wearing underneath my shirt and tie it around my waist. This is when I noticed my watch band had broken and my watch had fallen off. I got my phone out of my pack to see what time it was, and I don't know if it was just me having nearly 50 miles on my brain and body, but I would swear that the clock that's usually on my phone display was no longer there! I went into my phone menu to try to find the clock, but...seriously? I can't do this shit on a normal Tuesday without Leopold's help. There was no way in hell I was gonna figure out how to display the time on my phone under these conditions.

As I got closer to reaching the WWF bridge, the not knowing what time it was started messing with me. Then the climb out of WWF started messing with me more. OK, there's no better way to say this than how Mark put it:

"The two mile trek up to the parking lot was, as I said about a hundred times on the way up, retarded. Many people quit at this point, and I totally get it; those last two miles were hell."

I was about to start yelling, to see if I got any yells back- good lord! Surely I had to be close enough for people to hear me by NOW? As I was about to scream, "CLIMBING OUT OF WWF SUUUUUCKS!!!", I heard music. Then, I see Scott Chapman at the top of thill, looking down at me and playing his accordion. Well, that's a first. Awesome!

God, it was so good to sit down! I desperately wanted to change my clothes, get a beer, and then get out before I had too much time to think. I asked Charles what time it was, and I was so surprised to hear it was 3:42. I made it through LV almost 45 minutes faster than planned!

Charles tended to my every need, and even moved the car strategically so I could change my clothes. I felt bad that I was cranky and tired and just didn't have the energy or inclination to show him how much I appreciated him being there. After 20 minutes, Charles put me back on trail, showering me with compliments and encouragement. To all you future crew members, I cannot tell you how much compliments help! Even when you know they are bold faced lies!!

White Water Falls To Sloan Bridge (4.7 Miles)
4:05 p.m. - ?

This section was a good confidence booster. As I began the initial climb, beer in hand, I remembered the last time I was here. Rob Rivas was pacing me and Charles, and I had not gotten enough food through WWF. Everything I ate and drank at WWF did not stay down, and I was puking before the first climb ended. Essentially, my last attempt ended right here. In contrast, I felt super good this time, and I was working on faster leg turnover up the hills and running anything resembling flat or downhill.

I remembered that this section ended where you would hear cars and so I just kept listening.
Knowing that Charles would be at every point between here and the end was extremely reassuring. Also helpful- the way he would focus me on just the next section as he sent me off each time. He'd say things like, "This next section is just 3.9 miles. Remember how it's technical at first, then it gets more runnable?"

Sloan Bridge to Fish Hatchery (3.3 Miles)
? - 6:50 p.m.
I don't like this section.

Fish Hatchery To Burrell's Ford (3.9 Miles)
6:50 p.m. - Where is everybody?

Best...section....ever! After the technical torturefest that was the last section, the trail suddenly seemed very runnable. Runnable, and somehow downhill, too! There were some narrow ridges here, and some technical spots, but overall I was able to get into a really nice groove through this section.

I came up on Mark and Chad and hesitated to pass because in all likelihood they'd just be passing me back. But pass I did, and I remember Chad saying I was on my way to a PR, which totally fueled my fire, and I could not WAIT to get to Burrell's Ford to share my excitement with Charles. When I thought I surely had to be getting close to where he could hear me, I started yelling out. I did this several times, and eventually I figured he was inside his car and couldn't hear me.
The next thing that happened freaked me out. I fully expected to run into the parking lot from the trail. I know when we drop aid there, the trail leads directly to the parking lot (right?). So, when suddenly I was dumped onto paved road and not in to parking lot, I panicked. Did I get off trail somehow? WTF?

Burrell’s Ford To Cheohee Road (10.4 Miles)
? - 11:52 p.m.

I probably made a mistake in not spending more time trying to find Charles. I'd only taken 1 hand-held with me for this last section because it was so short, so I was out of water completely, although I did still have food in my pack. More important than the water situation, was the anxiety produced by missing the aid station. I didn't know if I had gone off trail or not. I didn't know if Charles was waiting for me or not. I had a lot of miles to dwell on this and it was a big distraction.

It's a testament to my state of mind that it never occurred to me that Chad and Mark were right behind me and they would tell Charles what happened.

At least going in to this section I knew I was on trail. It was anybody's guess for a lot of those miles. And I've heard this before, but this section is just plain freaky. You go by the Chattooga River for a lot of the miles, and I kept wondering how the freaking river could be on my right one minute and then my left the next. Does the river wind UNDER the trail somehow? Am I running in circles? Am I hallucinating?

At one point, I was worried I was going in circles, so I saved the last bite of my KitKat and placed it on a rock on the trail. I told myself to remember that the side with the bite on it is the direction I was going. WTF? Things were getting weird, alright.

I scared off two large animals in this section, although I never saw them- one was a deer for sure, but the other seemed much bigger. Most likely a bear.

I refilled my water at the river as I took the trail that goes all the way to the river instead of the "high tide" alternate trail. I was definitely dehydrated as I had plenty of food but couldn't eat it because my mouth was so dry I couldn't swallow. I was starting to get really tired through here, and all I wanted to do was get to the part of the trail where I stopped hearing the river- then I'd know I was almost to Cheohee Road.

Several hundred hours later, I thought I might be getting close and I started yelling out. No deal. Crap!

I came to a series of trail markers that confused the hell out of me. I think these are new, and they mark the FHT East, Chattooga River South, and some other shit. I wandered around these signs for quite a long time trying to figure out which way to go. Finally, it occurred to me that I didn't want ANY of these other trials, so I should just keep following the white blazes like I was doing. Shit! How stupid did I feel that it took me that long to figure that out! < When I got close to Charles and Scott's campfire, and they started yelling. What a relief!!! I tried not to stay too long, but when I got up from my chair I was so stiff I could barely walk. When Charles sent me off, I'm sure he thought it would take me several hours to cover the last 6 miles. I was moving like the Halloween lady I saw on the trail earlier.

Cheohee Road to Finish (6 Miles my ass)
11:52 p.m. - 2:55 a.m.

I started out walking so slowly I wondered if I would start hearing the river again. Then it just changed- just like that. I was like, "You have six miles left and you've been doing great. Is this how you're going to finish? You don't even hurt that bad. You can totally run the flats and walk everything else." So I started running, and it really wasn't that bad. Although I kept remembering that this section was long, so it was hard to get in to that, "I smell the barn" mode.

At this point, I had absolutely no sense of time. But I knew I was getting close because I saw the white triangular markers for Hidden Falls (the detour I took last time). Then I saw two triangular markers, one for FHT and one for Hidden Falls. I think this means that they both share the FHT for a portion of trail.

Then I saw a third triangular marker for Tamassee Knob Trail, and I'm like, Jesus, who else is gonna join in on this?

The next thing I know, I'm back on a ridgeline, then on trail that seemed to keep dropping, then rising, and then back on ridgeline, then winding around a hillside. It was my first bad feeling that something was wrong. But I didn't see how I could have done anything other than what I was doing, so I remained calm. I came up to a sign marking State Park property- and this, too, was unfamiliar. Unfamiliar is bad.

Next, I'm on a saddle where I looked down on either side of the trail...and then I started this vicious climb that literally brought me to my knees. To reference a private joke between Naresh and I, I knew I was fucked. I turned around, and headed back the way I'd come. I was so incredibly tired and a little bit scared, and a LOT wanting to be finished.

Eventually, I walked right in to the trail marking with a double white blaze indicating I'd gone down Tamassee Knob Trail. It was so clearly marked, I couldn't believe it. I took the FHT trail, and finished not long after that, thankful for the slight downhill.

There was no one at the Oconee sign, and I figured everyone had come in already and Charles probably had to take Chad back to his car. I sat there for a minute, then thought to get my phone to see what time it was. I turned the phone on, and the clock display was still missing, but if I hit the side button, it showed the time. Did my phone always do that?

Finish time: 2:55 a.m. (26:51)

I sat down on the ground and used my pack as a makeshift pillow. The next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes, and I was laying flat on the ground in the leaves. I had completely fallen asleep - for 45 minutes! I had to laugh at the image of a car driving by and seeing me. Surely, I looked like a dead body.

I walked back to the campsite and put my pack in the tent so Charles would know I was there. I headed for the showers, and in the middle of my shower, Charles knocks on the door and everything was alright again.

I learned that he had gone down the trail to meet everyone, but of course by then I had taken Tamassee Knob. It turned out no one had finished before me, AND I had broken 27 hours. With bonus miles. It took a while to sink in, but I realized I was the first female double finisher.

I am crying as I finish writing this- I have no words to describe how freaking cool this run was and how happy I am.

P.S. A few "Thank You's"

Charles, Scott H, Scott C -
Thank you for the aid stations of awesomeness and your support. I wouldn't have finished without you guys.

Chad -You just ROCK. I want you as a pacer next time!

Lester, Naresh, and Mimi -
We didn’t share too much time on the trail, but it was enough to know you were out there. Glad you are all safe.

Naresh and Mark- Wow. I am so inspired by you both and Naresh, I am so happy to be your friend.

And, always, always, to Jason Sullivan - Thank you for bringing this trail to my attention and for all the work you do promoting these FHT runs.