I’ve read this advice repeatedly as I prepared for this trip. I’m not a trail runner, at least not yet. I’m not a camper, at least not yet. I’ve tried to take each learning experience in small steps, reading and learning as much as I could before proceeding.
Until today, I’ve been doing well in no small part because I’ve staggered my runs (and base camps). I’ve intentionally started off in very basic places, giving me the ability to correct any mistakes without too much trouble. My campsites have been in well-trafficked places and my runs have largely been in well-traveled public spaces (minus the Shut-In trail in Asheville, which I approached with supreme caution.)
The Double Oak Mountain trail didn’t have the same intimidation level. It’s in the middle of a State Park, one with a beautiful lake beach, horse stables, a golf course, and scads of families in the campground. There are mileage markers ever .1 of a mile. There’s camping on the trail.
It had just enough fun attached to get me in trouble. Which I did.
I started up the Red Trail – the longest, hardest of the trails – with the intention of running 13.1 miles, a simple half marathon to get a feel for the park. The 6.6 mile out-and-back would take me about 1/3 of the way through the entire trail, far enough to see a few of the pretty sights but not far enough that I could reasonably convince myself that “I’ve come this far…”
Unfortunately, I put my map in my bag and never pulled it out. Before I realized where I was, I’d run about 1.5 miles off track, screwing up my run through the park. At best, I’d see the bottom of the Double Oak mountain.
I circled back to the split point – a walking ascent to the left (where I’d been) or the mountain bike trail to the right (where I’d started before correcting myself to the walking ascent) – and had to choose. Return to the North Trail Head, 4 miles back (for a 10 mile run) or head down the mountain bike trail and try to take the whole park.
Six miles in and feeling like a champ. I uttered these words aloud: “I can take 12 miles down.”
Here’s a few professional tips for new runners:
- don’t make decisions about adding length after you pee. You feel much better than you actually are.
- don’t make decisions after you’ve just refueled. See above.
- don’t make decisions about mile 18 based upon how you feel at mile 6. You will not feel three times worse; you will feel exponentially worse. Exponentially.
I ignored all of these rules, set about the down slope of the mountain bike trail and the long rise to the top of the mountain.
I was starting to feel the pangs of regret when I came across the first of the glorious – and earned – sights that would motivate me to continue moving forward instead of turning around.
Still, I figured if I paced myself, kept my desire to tackle the early part of this run under control, stopped for rest breaks after the big hills, I could more than manage the make the entire loop around the park even though I hadn’t packed the gear for a trip.
Plus, it’s a recreational area, I surmised. Surely there would be several water fountains and bathrooms along the route. And I decided to stop at every viewing point along the way and take in the sights since I wouldn’t be back around again for awhile.
A fool-proof plan. One that began to fall apart in just a few miles.
I was still going strong until mile 12 when I came across two very important elements:
- the only water fountain along the way (which I didn’t use to fill up my large 36 oz. water bottle, instead opting to fill my 16.9 oz, a mistake I still regret hours later); and
- an ultra-marathoner training for the Leadville 100 mountain bike race
I’d missed a turn-off that would have kept me on the Red Trail, and instead I was dumped into a parking lot at the South Trail Head. This was fortuitous, although I was annoyed at the time. I jogged to the mountain biker, asked for instructions, and he pointed me to the Red Trail, which was directly next to the water fountain.
He gave me instructions to circle back to the South Trail Head.
“Oh, I’m running the whole trail.”
“Are you an ultra marathoner?”
“Not yet. Not today.”
“Well, I’m leaving here in about 20 minutes. I’ll make sure you’re on the right path. You’re about 12 miles from the North Trail.”
Here’s the basic math I did at this point: I’m 12 miles into this run and the guy who does this for real asked if I did, realized I didn’t, told me in gentle terms that I was running a marathon today (remember I’d run 1.5 miles out of my way already), and now he was going to watch out for me.
I headed out on the trail intent upon getting as far along the route as I could before I bonked. I knew there were short cut trails along the way, ones that would cut significant distance off the run if I needed.
At mile 15, three events transpired.
- I realized I was down to my last 4 oz of water;
- my legs were spent from the nearly 4,000 feet of up and down and the 95 miles I’ve run in the last 8 days;
- I was in trouble.
All of this happened as I ran past the Oak Mountain Lake, a beautiful sight as you come out of the woods, run across a small dam, and disappear back under the brush:
I stopped to measure my water, to take in the view, and to contemplate my options. I was running the Red Trail, the hardest of the trails, on a Monday in low 90 degree heat. There weren’t other runners. There weren’t Rangers.
It was just me, four miles of trail, a mostly empty water bottle, and a mountain biker.
My guardian cyclists who – I am sure – altered his route to make sure that I was okay. He came by three times, slowing each time to talk with me about his father (completed Western States twice, and the Leadville 100 once), his ultra-marathon running, and the trail.
He gave me updates on distance, he made sure I was on the right track (twice I had wandered inexplicitly off the trail), and gave me advice on short cuts, which helped me cut about 6 miles off my run.
By mile 16, I was having a very hard time concentrating. I would lose focus. The synapses in my mind fired randomly. It’s hard to explain, really. I didn’t feel wrong, but I couldn’t think right. My mountain biking guardian angel must have seen that. He never pressed me for water, but looking back it’s pretty obvious he wanted to make sure I was going to be okay.
I jumped off the Red Trail at the last exchange, opting for the Yellow Trail – the most direct route back to the North Trail Head. It felt like an utter failure on my part but with fewer than 2 oz of water left in my bottle and a few more miles to go, I finally made a prudent decision. (One brought on my fatigue, desperation, help from my mountain biking cyclist, and no water. So: not really a decision.)
As I reached the last .1 mile marker – now Yellow instead of Red – I celebrated by downing the last swallow of my water. Hot, funky water never, ever tasted so good.
I hobbled to my car, now the lone one in the North Trail Head parking lot, opened the door and grabbed the two 16.9 oz water bottles chilling in my cooler. I drank the first down in seconds before calming myself.
As I sat in the car, air conditioning blasting in my face, I thought of this guy:
“I’ve come this far…”
That guy: he’s an idiot.
Lesson learned: don’t improvise on a trail you don’t know. (Or maybe just: don’t improvise. I haven’t decided yet.)