I abandoned all conventional wisdom and rather than resting completely after my 32-mile Hot to Trot experience, I chose to head out to the mountains of South Carolina to participate in the Laural Valley White Water Run.
At somewhere around 40 miles, this would not only be my longest distance, but due to the extreme hills, it would far surpass the amount of time I have ever spent on my feet in one outing.
Oh, and the race is self-supporting. There are no aid stations every X number of miles like there are in most ultramarathons. Nothing. Once you go in, there are only two ways out: Finish, or turn around and head back to the start before you log 20 miles.
Because of the extremely hilly terrain and long, steep climbs, the race director makes all first-timers run “sweep”. Sweeps are runners that start after the rest of the race field and our jobs were to ensure that no one was left alone. The trail is marked well with white blazes, but the intense heat and brutal course terrain has proven over the years to potentially be very tough on a few of the other athletes. I ended up sweeping a very nice lady named Terri Hayes, but more about her later…
Why I was drawn to Rocky Bottom
Growing up, I was closest to my grandparents. I emulated my tough-as-nails grandfather and craved the love and attention of my grandmother. My grandmother was from rural, upstate South Carolina. Growing up she’d tell me wild stories of her father, Carl “Will” Drake, the “unofficial mayor of Rocky Bottom”, as the local newspaper once called him. He lived as a mountain man in Rocky Bottom, a small mountain community on Sassafras Mountain in Pickens County, SC. He had a reputation of being a kind and gentle man …that is, until he got hold of the whiskey; Being an entertaining drunk, he’d have a few sips and march up and down the mountain with an ol’ shotgun slung over his shoulder hootin’ and hollerin’.
My grandmother would share many stories of ol’ Will Drake gettin’ drunk and causing trouble with his brothers. Sometimes, he’d get lonely up there and set up detour signs to route tourist traffic past his doorstep where he’d be sitting out front, with that ol’ shotgun, waving to the people. He had a few run-ins with the law, but it seemed they all knew him, and most of the law officers would just “tell ol’ Will to go on home”… and, he’d usually go and sleep it off. If they did have to take him to jail, he’d tell my grandmother, then a little girl, to sit outside the jail house window so he could give her various instructions. You probably can’t picture it like I can – but I laugh when I think about those nutty mountain people.
My grandmother died in the Fall of 2005, but right before she died, she came to Atlanta and asked me to take her “back to our land at Sassafras”. We spent time on her land and visiting with some of the mountain locals who actually knew Will, my great grandfather, and had even more interesting and entertaining stories regarding him and his antics. Despite his wild nature, they all loved him and his heart.
By participating in this run, I was hoping to add some personal closure to the death of my grandmother and perhaps meet the spirit of my great grandfather somewhere on those mountain trails. Did I expect to see a ghost? No. Of course not – but I did hope to feel something out there that would ease the emotional loss I felt regarding my grandmother’s death; and perhaps, in some odd way, meet my great grandfather on some kind of spiritual level.
You t’aint in Atlanta no more, boy
Man, my first 10 hours in the mountains was a big eye-opener for this city kid. When I got into Pickens County around 8:00 P.M. the night before, I couldn’t find any food because the two or three, small, side-road country restaurants were already closed. There were no QuikTrip stores or 24-hour convenience stores. No ATMs. Just mountains and trees and winding roads.
My hotel was called, “A Nice Little Motel” and consisted of four wooden rooms adjacent to the Country Store. When I made reservations and asked for directions, the lady said, “Aw, just say your lookin’ for Shirley’s Place, they’ll know whatcha mean…” – but thank goodness I found it, ’cause there would have been no one to ask where “Shirley’s Place” was…
Because the store was already closed, they left my key under the mat. I thought that was funny and certainly nothing you’d ever see in the city. Imagine that – people trusting people.
This is when I met Doug Dawkins. A longtime ultrarunner who apparently puts on a 50-mile race somewhere in North Carolina. He was very nice and we talked about what I could expect for the next day. He told me, as a sweep, I should expect to be out on the course for at least 12 hours. wow – 12 hours…
Getting to the starting line
Since there was no alarm clock in the Nice Little Motel, my wife, still in Atlanta, set hers and called me a 3:30 a.m. to wake me up. S’ok, I couldn’t really sleep anyway. I was too excited about the run …as well as a little frightened at the raw nature of what I was about to attempt.
By 4:00 a.m., I was driving to the finish line to leave my truck, and then ride to the starting line with other runners. I’m not sure how it happened, but I ended up bouncing down the road in the back of a small pickup truck, with four other runners, making our hour-long drive to the starting line. It was dark, a little chilly and I was hungry. I asked the other runners who had been here before, “do they have any food at the start?” ….One guy, grinned a little, and said “nope.”
Thankfully, another runner gave me a granola bar and while I ate it, I listened to their stories of 100-milers and other ultras they’ve done, before the inevitable happened…
“How many ultras have you run?”, I was asked.
“uhh… I have only run two 50K races and one 8-hour timed event with 32 miles being my max distance to date”, I sheepishly admitted. “And the 32 mile run was last week. This will actually be my furthest distance so far.”
They were a little surprised by this which only made me more nervous.
At the starting line, I just kind of stood in amazement at all the ultrarunning talent in attendance. None of these runners knew me, but I knew a lot of them through all my ultramarathon research and reading. Some I recognized from ultras in which I have participated in Atlanta, but most were mountain runners from NC and SC. By the time I snapped out of my trance, it was 6:20 a.m. and the race start preparation began. The runners left the starting area, and as sweeps, we took off about five minutes after them.
Once you go in, there’s only two ways out
Once you start this race, you only have two choices – Run to the end or quit early and make your way back to the start. There is no way for any vehicular traffic to come get you. You’re on your own. …Cool!
The edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains is a really beautiful place to run. The nature was as raw as it could be. Huge trees, whitewater rivers and streams, and an almost 100% single-track course. I was amazed at how well the course was maintained being that is was so out in the boonies…
I had a very difficult time getting into the swing of everything for the first mile or so. For one, I was carrying an hydration backpack which I was not yet used to carrying. Coupled with my two hand-held water bottles, the pack added extra weight and hassle. “Great”, I was thinking to myself, “why not add some extra weight to an already PR distance.” …sheesh. Second, we got lost in the first mile and had to retrace our steps to get back on the course. Grrr. Not a fantastic way to start.
I skarfed down a mocha-flavored caffeine gel pack and an electrolyte pill and felt instantly better. I ran the next 3 miles or so alone, just checking out the nature, getting a feel for the trail, and listening to my body. So far so good. “A little bit of a rough start, but I’m in the swing of things now. ”
The Vet Tech from Hendersonville
I caught up to another group of runners around mile 4-ish and ended up running the next 10 miles or so with a girl named Lisa (I think — I’m terrible with names). She was an excellent person to run with although I kept feeling like her pace was faster and that all my yapping was probably slowing her down …If, so, sorry Lisa. But she was interesting and we both share a deep love and appreciation for animals and most of the conversations related to animals, nature or travel.
This was very pleasant time for me. I felt good and was running effortlessly for the most part. We’d chill out a little and hike the steep hills, but for the most part we ran along rather comfortably, maybe 10-minute pace-ish, and commented on our surroundings.
Drinking from the river
Being a self-supported race, the only water available was straight out of the many rivers and streams. I had purchased purification tablets to prevent Giardia, a nasty gut-wrenching bacteria that is sometimes found in recreational water. A few runners from previous Laurel Valley races have experienced it, so most were treating their water.
The first time I stopped to refill my hydration pack and water bottles was the only time I treated my water. After that, it became a hassle and I thought to myself, “I’m pretty immune to a lot of stuff – Forget it – I’m just going to drink it…”
I guess I got lucky, because I never got sick and I never had to drink a bunch of chemicals, either. Win-win.
A side benefit of the rivers that really saved me was the fact that I could lay down in them. Shirt, shoes and all …just plop right down in the cold water. It soothed my aching feet and leg muscles beautifully and really gave me some added recovery throughout the day. I must have done it 10 times or more.
Up, up, up ….and then, up, up, up again
Deceptive summits are not very pleasant. There were many times during the middle part of the run where I would shimmy up some steep climb, that looked relatively short, only to be presented with a lot more “climb” around the corner. I let out quite a few cuss words in these situations, but it’s ok – I was mostly alone at this point.
I don’t know much about mountains, but during the middle of the race, I felt I was mostly climbing, running some ridges, climbing again, and then running some more ridges. This is where I got my spiritual on. I was alone. No runners in sight and I hooted a few times to make sure none were in earshot either.
I began my conversation with my grandmother.
I won’t go on about all that. It’s personal to me and boring to you – so let’s just say I am a little more at peace with her passing than I was before I entered that forest.
And then there were two
After the largest river section of the race, I was feeling pretty good. I had caught back up with some of the runners who were ahead of me so I soaked in the river for about five minutes, refilled all my hydration gear, sucked down a gel and immediately started the VERY steep climb out of the gorge and back on the trail.
It was now around 1:00 p.m. and I had been running for about seven hours. One more hour and I would be in uncharted territory. That was a little worrisome, but exciting at the same time. I was running along nicely, proud of my race management thus far, and figuring I had to be well over halfway through the course; and that’s when I met Terri Hayes.
Terri is 64 years old. I realize women aren’t typically fond of having their ages announced, but I feel confident that Terri is proud of her accomplishments at her age and can care less about all the “girly stuff”. She sure as heck should be proud. She’s done a lot of races in her life, including some of the big name 100-mile races such as Western States. She’s lived all over the place including California, Hawaii, South Carolina and who knows where else. I got a big kick out of this woman and really enjoyed spending the next 5 hours with her.
When I ran up on Terri she was having a very rough time. I’ll be honest, I was scared. Not just for her, but also for me. I was a sweep. It was my responsibility to stay with her and especially during her condition at the time. What would I do if something terrible happened to her? I really did not think she was going to make it another mile, let alone another 15-20 miles; but she proved me very wrong.
After some gel nutrition, a little water and some encouragement, she became much more alert and alive and pushed on with a sort of “no choice” determination that really moved me. She would stand at the bottom of some of the steep climbs proclaiming that she just couldn’t lift her legs; but I’d look back and here she’d be coming… still moving.
Then on the downhills, even when she was feeling awful, she’d break into a little sprint-like run and force herself to push down the trail. I loved it! I couldn’t help but think there was some sort of spiritual intervention here. Somehow, I needed this experience with Terri as a sort of a component to my ultra experience in these mountains.
I hope I can be as dedicated, stubborn and pleasantly feisty as Terri when I’m 64 years old.
Ha! 1.7 miles my butt!
It was getting late in the day. I had been moving for over 11 hours and I was starting to really fatigue. I believe the ultra-esque word for this period is “the wheels were falling off”. I was tired and starving. I was ready to stop running.
Then, BAM! In my face was a wonderful wooden sign stating 1.7 miles to the Upper Falls Parking Area. Woo Hoo! I took off. I knew Terri was right behind me and I knew she was going to finish, but I was so fatigued that I sped up in an effort to get to the end sooner rather than later.
So I ran.
And I ran.
And I ran.
“This is the longest 1.7 miles of my life… and, why don’t I hear any waterfalls?”
Still kept running.
Then I started cussing again. Cussing at the Park for lying. Cussing at my legs. Cussing at myself for taking off with 35+ miles on my legs without knowing the true completion point.
Then I found another river and just plopped down in the river and waited about 10 minutes for Terri to catch up. …and that’s when she told me, “that sign lies. I tried to tell you but you took off.” I felt like an idiot.
No such thing as an easy ending
So we crossed the stream and quickly came to another spot in the river where we had to actually scale some big boulders at the edge of water. Then came some very steep steps built into the mountain. Then some very steep rock steps. Then even more steps. I felt like I was doing squats.
And then more steps.
This is probably one of the only times I did not smile for awhile. I was mad at all these steps.
and then, just like that, I began seeing tourists, all of whom were looking at me like I just crawled out of the mud. I was dirty, bleeding, exhausted, grumbling and huffin’ and puffin’ like the little engine that could.
And I did.
Approximately 12 hours and 24 minutes later, I arrived at the finish area, with Terri just behind me.
It wasn’t long ago, like 3 or 4 months, where I proclaimed that the SweetH20 race was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Well, now Laurel Valley is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.
Even if it wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to do after coming off 32 miles last Saturday, I’m glad I did it. I feel I gained valuable training and experience for the next challenge, the Mountain Masochist 50-mile.
Full speed ahead.