The toughest trail races always seem to be the most beautiful.
After a slow, but personally successful Laurel Valley 35-mile trail race in the foothills of South Carolina in August, it seemed natural to take the next step and hit a 50-miler. And, as usual, I gravitated towards a rugged one – the Georgia Jewel 50-mile race along the Pinhoti Trail in North Georgia.
The difficulty of the race was not the climbs, nor the descents. It was the rocks. Sure we climbed – a lot – but the millions of jagged, gnarly rocks, made covering long stretches an agonizing, ankle-stability challenge. I found myself with a face full of dirt multiple times along this course, concurrently teaching those around me a whole new slang of cuss words.
A lot of reports have come out already about this race, so I’m tardy; but I wanted to wait until I really gathered my thoughts and could reflect on the impact the race had on me.
50 miles of gnarly trail goes like this…
The first 25 miles
“Do you two do this the whole race?” asked a female runner motoring up the pitch black paved road alongside me.
Yup, I may have been out of ultrarunning for awhile, but me and Weezy picked up right where we left off – two smack-talking friends, finding ways to emasculate one another as loudly and as obnoxiously as possible, completely oblivious to our annoyance of others on the trail.
It’s just how we roll. I apologize. …not really, tho.
After 1.8 miles, we dipped onto the Pinhoti trail and would not see pavement again until the return, 46 miles later.
Rocks, Rocks, Rocks
For the first hour, I ran completely in the dark, with a dim, cheap ol’ headlamp, while trying to negotiate an almost laughable rock garden. People were busting @$$ everywhere, including me. I was begging for the sun to come up before something really bad happened.
After sunrise, I found myself moving better-than-expected along the high ridges of the first 10 mile section. I wish I had some cool, dramatic things to write about during this section, but it was simply a beautiful morning of sunshine and slow, rock-skippin’ runnin’ through the woods.
I didn’t even stop at the first aid station, 10-miles in, and instead just headed into the damp canyon-like section feeling confident, and completely forgetting how much difference there is between a 50K (30-33 miles), and a 50-mile race.
A good climb out of that deep canyon woke me up a bit, but once again, I found myself up high, running a rocky ridge with incredible views, a nice breeze, and a really comfortable feeling; however, people started passing me, which led me to believe I was being too comfortable, but I just didn’t care. My goals were different. I had no time goals, no place goals, no-nothing goals – I just wanted to be able to say that 5 months after being in the hospital, I completed 50 miles, and that’s it. I wanted to prove to myself that I can do anything, while also working to eliminate “I can’t” and “I quit” from my vocabulary.
Some Things Become a Necessity …Like Breathing
I sometimes find myself still in a state of shock from my ordeal.
Technically-speaking, I have a handicap. And not only that, but I have a handicap inside of my body. It’s not visible to the outside world. The only people who would know are family, friends, and much of the ultrarunning community that know me from races and this blog.
I don’t limp, have a prosthetic leg, or wheel around in a chair – I have nerve damage – nerve damage that makes breathing difficult, and right-side mobility a challenge.
Sitting here writing, I can obviously breathe; but when the going gets tough, I struggle. When I push my body aerobically or anaerobically, experience immense stress, or position my body in an elongated position, I simply cannot get enough oxygen and I experience all of the symptoms that follow oxygen deprivation like muscle weakness, cramping, fatigue, loopy brain and loss of dexterity.
But worst of all, is the shear panic of fear. If you have ever been a situation when you cannot get a breath, you know it is one of the most scary, helpless feelings in the entire world. This is one reason the video below resonates so well with me.
Handicapped is, as Handicapped Does
Once the parking attendant at St. Joseph’s Medical Center started calling me by my first name, I knew I had to do something different.
I stopped chasing a cure, doting over various doctors, and decided to just kept going as best I could until I can’t anymore.
That’s what ultrarunners do. We just keep going.
The second 25 miles
Weezy, Sully, and Bo caught me around mile 22 and I was really glad to see those guys. I had been running alone for most of the race and I knew Weezy’s ridiculousness, coupled with Sully’s stories of South Carolina runnin’ folk, would keep me entertained and less focused on my rapidly increasing fatigue. It was getting hot. Rising body heat and my “situation” don’t play well with one another, so backing off was a necessity for me. I kept telling the dudes to push on ahead, but they never really did. A sort of unspoken brotherhood was going on, so that was cool.
But when we hit those infamous switch-backs, with the stone steps, that ended up dumping us into a long climb to the top of John’s Mountain (I think it was John’s Mountain) to the turn-around, I sorta fell out.
I really don’t want to harp any more than I have to on my “medical issues”, but in short, during tough climbs, my heart-rate skyrockets, requiring more oxygen, but I can’t get enough oxygen. This depletes my legs (and other muscles) rather quickly and taxes the muscles that are taking place in lieu of my paralyzed diaphragm.
No oxygen is no oxygen. It affects my brain, my heart, my legs, my arms – and it became very obvious, very quickly, even to me, that I was inches from falling out at the top of the mountain.
I barely even remember being up there.
A Snappy Recovery
Luckily, and I attribute this to my new interest in other varied activities like martial arts and boxing, my recovery from this ordeal was swift and speedy. By the time we got to the bottom again, I was 80% together – but wounded for sure.
Again, I tried to get the boys to go ahead, but again I’d find myself right there in the midst of ’em.
It was really hot now. Like, 1:00 pm, sun overhead, 82 degrees and humid, hot; and we were climbing our butts off, making our way to the 33-mile aid station, where after leaving there, we’d be climbing yet again.
After summiting those climbs, I got ahead of the boys as we descended into the 33-mile aid station for no other reason than I felt good, was in a groove, and just letting gravity do its thing. A few blisters had developed by now, but nothing crazy, so it was in-and-out of the aid station pretty quickly.
And Now: The Sufferfest
I knew it had to hit me eventually.
As I topped out of the 1-mile climb from mile 33, back onto the high ridges, I started to get really woozy.
“what if I’ve pushed it too much?” I’d ask myself …then quickly dismissing it, calling myself terrible names of weakness, and continuing on.
Bo was the first to catch me at around mile 35, yelling, “hey man, Weezy dropped out, man” in that southern accent you ONLY hear in South Carolina. “he stayed right ‘der in the chair at the aid station and said he couldn’t go on.”
At first I was mad. Then, disappointed. Then, knowing we all rode together in Weezy’s car, I started to loathe the ride home picturing our boy all sad and dejected. Turns out, that never happened, thankfully, but at the time, I was really baffled.
And Then There Were Three
The three of us pushed on together, with Bo jumping ahead by a few minutes, but Sully hanging right with me. That Sully is a good dude, man. I wouldn’t have done it. Still not sure I would today – I’m just made different – but, fearing I may have pushed it too much, I appreciated his company more than words can say and can only hope that someday I can be that selfless.
At the 40-mile aid station I saw a female runner friend of mine who looked pretty rough, but I knew she was tough as nails and I tried to get her to continue with us and not drop-out so deep into the race. It was disappointing for me that she couldn’t continue and it made me reflect on previous races where I was in the same boat. That feeling is just horrible. For me anyway…
I don’t have a lot to say about the last 10 miles. The rocks were eating me alive. What was easy, rolling climbs and descents on the way out, became evil quad-killers and feet-chewers on the way back.
Sully and me, just gettin’ it done.
As we popped out of the trail and hit the road for the final 1.8 miles, I wasn’t quite ready for civilization. I had spent over 13 hours at that point buried in the woods, and the cars just seemed foreign, and fast, and bothersome.
Weezy was standing at the base of the hill, pretending to film me, and yelling encouragement, but it all just sounded like Charlie Brown’s classroom teacher to me. I was in an emotional place.
I conquered a lot of demons on that trail, Saturday. I proved a lot of things to myself, and became that much more secure in my decision to just live my life and hope for the best. Free from medicines, and MRIs, and CT scans, and waiting room music, and $7 parking fees, and grouchy desk nurses, and fights with insurance, and… well, I’m just not doing it.
So then the next question becomes – what 100 am I going to do?