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Bald Knob Trail February 9, 2013
How long does a marathon take to run? Nine hours is too long. I felt like an utter failure.  I munched on a bagful of bacon on the lonely four-hour drive home. For others who ran that day on that amazing and cruel course, there would be celebration. For me, though, a bag of salted pork had I to remind me of unfinished business.  I was going home defeated, and I took comfort in crunchy, greasy, delicious slices of bacon, the Bacon of Shame.

The OBX Marathon on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is a fast, flat course with a high BQ qualifying rate, so their cut-off time is seven hours. You can expect volunteers to be ready to help out and cheer along people, but at some point, when does “try” become “fail”?  Everyone has limits – well, maybe not liars and con men. They can do anything, just like sociopaths. Where there’s a will, there’s a body in the trunk, and a baby in the oven. I ran my first marathon there in 4 hr 30 min, not bad. If I’d run 7 miles and walked the rest, I could have still finished within the cut-off time, picked up my finisher’s medal and waded through the ocean of discarded paper cups to a nearby beer shrine to claim my booty, argh. But at nine hours, why would you expect anything other than an arrow pointing you to the parking lot? If I’d run the OBX at nine hours i would’ve had to walk 13 miles back to the start, because the buses would’ve been long gone.  I felt like an idiot kid who missed the bus. I went to bed very sad and decided to figure this out. Why did I even try? More importantly, why was I considering another go at a practically impossible 100 mile course. Because balls, grit, gumption, because granddad tried, because 100 miles is a romance with obliteration, and is dark and beautiful. I figured I’d become a better person if i could deal with my own bullshit for 100 miles.

Yesterday, the day of the “race”,  I experienced a marathon self-destruct. I don’t really want to grovel for sympathy and pee all over myself for you like a neurotic poodle, but I feel it is going to happen anyways. Might as well get through this race report.

I won’t even name the event because I don’t wish any dishonor to befall the house that built it. If members of the club who host this dedicated flagellation find this post and gleefully pass it among themselves laughing hardily, then I can only hope that the ridicule that haunts my dreams will kill me when I’m an old and feeble man. Wait a minute. I am already and old and feeble man.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up. I didn’t really understand what 32,000 feet of climbing meant, much less 8,000. I’d run the Highland Sky Trail race, a 40-miler with 5,000 feet of climb, so I thought it couldn’t be so bad. I ran that three times, so I was ready to cowboy up and take it to the next level.

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The Wild Oak Trail in Virginia is a very difficult course to run.

I planned for the event for months. I put in close to six hundred miles training for this event over the course of seven weeks. I bought specialized gear, printed out maps, studied the terrain, dug deep on the net for any information about running this course. There’s basically almost nothing. What I could gather was that this was extremely hard. The two mountains were rough and tough, and the river was cold. It seemed I would make the first loop, see my car and wuss out. Any endurance event that places you right next to your car is going to provide that extra obstacle. Namely, that voice inside your head that wants you to stop suffering and call it a day. I made up my mind I would hypnotize myself, con myself into believing I could run this ridiculously hard course in the course of 36 hours. Run straight for 36 straight hours and overcome approximately 34,000 feet of elevation gain. Run one hundred miles straight ahead, and seven straight up. It’s not the first twenty you train for, it’s the last six.”  That’s the marathon spirit. But it took nine hours. I figured the next loop would take ten, and the last two would easily double the time. My concern was that I’d freeze to death. The temp would drop into the teens and I’d sit down somewhere under the stars and return, after a few short hours, to the stones upon which I’d tread so lightly.

So, what’s required of me to do something on this monstrous scale, to fight the doubts? I once saw a television program about some poor folks trapped in the Andes who hiked 70 miles through the mountains with no gear eating the frozen hunks of their fallen. I hoped that maybe I’d find someone foolhardy enough to brave it out with me. Fat chance, though, considering only one or two people  per year finish the four loops. The blizzard the night before probably took a chunk out of the roster of runners. There might have been twenty of us, but I think less. I literally had enough time to show up, check my watch, my pockets, and start running.

I figured I should just run as much as possible in January, in horrible conditions, with as little gear as possible. And that’s exactly what I did.  I over-trained in January because of schedule conflict. I was also involved in a run-everyday-of-the-month stage race for which I placed 2nd at 324 miles. Not bad. But, the lack of rest days caused me more harm than good. In essence, I applied a 100 mile race training schedule to a run-everyday model, and somewhere in between I sort of ended up beat up and stiff. I emerged from January fatigued and slow. I think had I rested a few days in January I would have been better off. Shoulda coulda woulda.

I had made my own energy supplements two days before. Right up until the day before the race I read up on dietary approaches. I didn’t install the water filter in my waterline in my backpack until the day before the race because I wanted to make sure it was free of mold.  I even made a motivational poster of my son’s face captioned with him asking me if he was going to grow up to be a wussy, too. I intended to place the sign at the race so I’d be forced to confront my own wussiness, to have to let my own son down. As it was, after I’d quit I would be telling  the picture of my son to get into something artistic, pulling slowly out of the park in my salt-grimed car, happy to be heading back home into wussdom. I’d gotten my ass handed to me on a silver platter. I read trail running, watched cool recap videos, ran day and night, grew ice beards for fun, tried to put myself in the moments that would truly hurt.  

The day before the race, I organized and packed everything. As I mentioned before, I prepared my own energy supplements, cut a nifty water filter into the water pack line.  I keep mentioning it because I was so proud of myself thinking I would succeed by creating a way to access the water along the course. The irony kills me. I filed my check list, collected my gear, checked and rechecked it all again, and then placed everything into the car. Everything was parceled by loop, so I had four bags of fuel packed, separate things within their own ziplock bags. Clothing was labeled per loop for changing. Extra items were packed and labeled. I had extra headlamp batteries, an extra headlamp, extra food, clothes, a first aid kit, soap, hand towels, a knife, and my cell phone to call in if I fell and broke my leg or something. I wore a scarf I could use to form a tourniquet or use to lash tree limb to a broken leg if I needed to drag myself to a place to build a signal fire. Ridiculous. I am the Don Quixote of trail running.

Earlier that day, while the bacon was filling the house with its aphrodisiac  perfume, I checked the weather for any last minute changes. Out of nowhere it seemed a blizzard was brewing in New England. Luckily, it looked to be north of my destination. I imagined smooth travel to my hotel in Harrisonburg, Va. The trip would take exactly 4 hours. I’d have dinner with my wife and son, get up and head straight out the door, ready.

The snow was so heavy it sounded like rain slapping on the windshield. I couldn’t see the lanes or the sides of the road because of the drifts. I grew up in Atlanta and Florida, born in Mississippi. This blizzard weirdness was too much. I knew I was probably in danger, but if I stopped off for the night, I could be snowed in where I was and miss the race. If I got stranded somewhere, I could freeze or be smashed by an onrushing vehicle on the icy road.  I tried to maintain steady forward momentum. I was good at that. At times I had no idea how many lanes were in the road,  At other times the wind kicked up the fine snow into a blinding wall that, weirdly, looked black because it was made of tiny balls of clear ice. It was like dark matter swirling in my headlights. Occasionally I chirped the brakes to see if the tires had traction. Nope, not at all. I was on ice and snow. Traffic quickly faded after nightfall, dwindling away under the crush of snow and wind roaring in with Blizzard Nemo. Say it like a wrestling announcer, “Let’s get ready to Nemoooooooo!” I knew if my wife was in the car she’d be completely freaking out. Truthfully, it was exciting for a while, but I kept going slower and slower the worse the weather got. This was supposed to be just a four hour trip.

Wrong! The trip took 7.5 hours.  Rising up into the mountains, from Elkins WV to the eastern slope of Monterey Mountain and on east out into the lowlands, I endured the worst Blizzard Nero had to offer those mountains. There was basically no one on the roads except for a few 4×4 trucks and the big ass plows. I drove through Monongahela National Forest, which basically is wild as shit. I saw a bear, A BEAR sliding down an oak tree like a fireman down a pole. I didn’t stop to take any pictures of the impressive snowfall, massive drifts and beautifully sculpted walls of snow whipped like meringue  in graceful undulations upon the knobby cliffs. Nope, I was power drifting switchbacks at 30 to 35 mph in a piece of shit Dodge Stratus on top of 2 to 4 inches of snow and ice. It was falling so fast the plows were useless. When I passed one – I passed four that evening – I hopped onto the wrong side of the road and rode its wake for a couple of miles. Minutes stretched into hours. I lost track of time for a while. I was dog-tired. Thursday night I’d stayed awake late taping and labeling bags and such and so I was going on four hours of sleep.

There would only be four hours of sleep for me that night, too. With each mile, the trip was inflating.  I was concentrating on making that next turn, going fast enough to keep the momentum and weight of my car moving me forward, and not so fast that the blinding winds blew me off the side of a mountain. I wasn’t watching the clock anymore. I felt fear, real fear that I was somewhere deep in danger. There’s no towns, no streets, no lights. There are deep woodlands, darkness and cliffs. And talk radio coming in on fuzzy channels. At one point I ran over a huge tree branch. I had no choice. It broke and made ominous loud banging sounds under my car that reverberated through my feet and hands on the steering wheel  as I powered over it. I could only imagine it had torn my muffler free or punctured a brake line. If I had tried to skirt it I would have slid off the mountain. If I had slowed, I’d have stalled and begun a horrifying backwards slide in the darkness towards a precipice or one of the flattened guard rails  and said precipice. By the time I got to my hotel, I was a nervous wreck. When I slammed my trunk after retrieving my night bag, eighty pounds of salted ice dropped from within my back bumper onto the ground, a mass big as a teenager, whump! I lay out my race outfit, showered quickly and lay down. I seemed to blink and I was again awake ten minutes before my alarm was set. I closed my eyes and drifted off.

I awoke in full panic mode, the alarm buzzing. I had just enough time to run to a gas station, fill up, grab a cup of coffee, a sandwich, and blast back onto a series of country roads to reach Wild Oak Trail. I made two wrong tuns, so I sped up. The pastures and gently rolling hills were a welcome contrast to the horrors of the previous night. I tried to get into my happy place, find my center. But I’d only gotten four hours of sleep. My eyes felt like raw little oysters screaming for tidewater. I put some drops in them, liquifying the outer membrane of my cornea in a burning gel of whatever the hell that stuff is. That was the second night in a row of very little sleep. I realized I had zero chance of doing 100 miles as I’d hoped, and was going to shoot for two loops and go home with my first 50-miler under my belt.

The Wild Oak Trail has over 8,000 feet in elevation gain. Most of it is over the steep slopes of Bald Knob and Little Bald Knob. The joke about of Little Bald being 200 feet higher than Bald is that’s it’s taller and steeper. It’s smaller in volume, true, but pointier. I actually felt parts of my lungs opening up on these climbs later that day, parts that I hadn’t felt existed in my body since I’d hiked up into the Dolly Sods in West Virginia in June. It was like discovering hidden rooms in one’s house.

Narrative:  We started out slow, in a group, with a few runners pulling ahead. I think there were a few stragglers behind me, but after a while I think I’d settled into the rear of the pack. I headed up a little trail for a couple of miles, climbed Bald Mountain chatting with Dave Woll, a pretty cool guy who liked running out of the eastern part of Virginia. He seemed to have memorized the course narrative pretty well. I was tired and couldn’t seem to grasp a cohesive idea of when and where things were. We passed an unexpected water drop, a really gracious thing for Dennis the RD to have put there for us. Maybe it wasn’t for us.  I didn’t want to dig into anyone’s stuff. Besides, I had my fancy water filter. Dave drifted off behind me to check his gear and I forged ahead. I was really enjoying the climb and pushed myself too hard. Every fifty yards I stopped to catch my breath. I was dizzy, not used to the elevation and thinner air.

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This was the course. I followed it from right to left. Bald Knob ascent from miles 17 to 13, and Little Bald Knob ascent from miles 10 to 7 were intense. The view atop the summits were amazing.

I got details of the course mixed up. I could tell something was wrong with me, but I chose to ignore it. I should have filled up at the little waterfall I passed, but at the time I thought my water supply was good. I was thinking to drink from the river, but then after mentioning it to him, Dave said the water was bad, and wait for the little creek we’d pass after the river. I decided to wait to fill up then, around mile 22, and then again at the waterfall on my second loop out, and maybe even the river. For some odd reason I also convinced myself there was another stream coming up any minute. I can’t explain why I was so sure of it. Craziness.

Every now and then I would stop to take picture. The scenery was impressive and the view spectacular. Because of the incline, I used a couple of tree limbs as hiking poles.

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I took a moment to relax by a little pond before pushing through to the summit. Bald Knob was really serene, and I relaxed for a spell to enjoy it before descending once again. The wind was blowing, but the sun was keeping me warm. Please, please reread the preceding sentence and realize : I was becoming dehydrated very quickly and didn’t realize it.

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Chillin’ by the pond
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Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink

I ran into Dennis at the river and he had a gobs of snacks and fluids, an oasis! He’d driven out and set up a table with goodies. I wasn’t a member of his running club, and so I didn’t take anything, just a couple of almonds. Dave came in right behind me and asked Dennis for a ride back to the lot. Seriously, this was a monster course. We were only 15 miles into it. I plunged into the icy waters of the river, carefully waded across and began the crazy climb up Little Bald. The water washed the blood from my left leg where I’d torn it pretty good on some long thorns. I grabbed two fallen limbs and used them as poles. I was out of water by this point, and my head was swimming, pounding with headache. I thought I was good. I was seeing bars of light flashing in my vision, and things were erupting with color around me, throbbing with pulses of light and movement. There were woodpeckers in the trees. Seemed very appropriate at the time.

I was looking at the snow and considered eating some of it I was so thirsty. My legs were cramping. In the end, I decided to smash the icy top layer of snow from the ground and break some up into chunks and put it into the water bladder in my pack. Believe me, this decision came after an hour-long debate climbing the side of Little Bald.

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Does that snow look clean enough to eat?

I figured it would melt after a while. I was wrong. I had food and electrolyte capsules in my pack, drink mix and chia seeds, and those things all require water to work.  Finally I made the summit at Little Bald.  I had five to six more miles until I hit the stream – there wasn’t any water in it, I would find out – and paused there to take a couple of pictures. It was truly amazing up there and made all the marathon drama really insignificant.

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Little Bald Knob Feb. 09, 2013
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Little Bald Summit, coming from right, going back down to the left
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Notice the white blaze on the sign. The Wild Oak Trail is well-marked.

About a mile into the descent I decided to go back home. Without water, my confidence all but evaporated. I was moving so slow. The temp was in the upper 30s or low 40s. I could see where some footprints on the path had formed from fresh running , so I knew people had come the way I was heading. I just kept following the white blazes on the trees, shoe prints or scuffles of leaves, unable to really make sense of the course description I’d brought. Finally, I broke down and surrendered to my thirst, dropped to my knees, ripped open my pack, and with fumbling hands opened the seal on the water bladder and dug out a handful of crunchy snow and ate two handfuls, imagining all the microscopic viruses gleefully entering my warm body high-fiving one another. Because that’s what they do.

If they had lungs, they were laughing.

Sad, my mind was totally scrambled. Sooner or later the trail would spit me out at the parking lot. I passed over a couple of lesser summits on my way down from Little Bald that I forgot about. I worried I’d somehow gotten lost and was walking back up to the summit of Big Bald again. I finally reached it. The last seven miles took me nearly three hours to traverse. I could have, on a good day, crab-walked faster than that. I can swim faster than that.  I reached the parking lot in 8 hr 59 min. That’s humbling, embarrassing,  shameful. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my hike along the trail and thanked Dennis profusely. I drank a gallon of fluids immediately. On the four-hour drive home, I drank another gallon and a half of fluids. I can only guess that I became so dehydrated from the extremely dry conditions following the blizzard. It was absolutely a perfectly clear blue sky, something you might see in the Mediterranean, not a trace of haze, smog, no jet trails, nothing at all. 

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Deep blue sky above

I changed clothes, told my motivational sign to get a job, maybe an artistic one, maybe something with an eye for detail and aesthetic purity, and so on. As I drove home in the dark, I peeled off slices of bacon from the uneaten wad I had packed for the trip, eating a slice, taking a slug of water. About halfway home I ran out of bacon, and disappointment bore me home. I got inside, dropped my gear, showered, and closed my eyes on the day. All that training and preparation lost on a few hours of sleep robbed from me by a harrowing drive through a blizzard, and a gallon of water. Horrible. Fortunately the shame will endure. Shame has a way of transforming into desire. In me, this shame would awaken deeper needs I wouldn’t be able to ignore. Dennis invited me back to try it again in October. Yesterday, I thought, no way, but today, the request seems perfectly reasonable. This is the way it is for me, probably for every runner. After the waaambulance drops me off at the bed, table, shower and what-have-yous, I lick my wounds, look myself in the mirror and tell myself to try again.

I know now what that trail will be like. I learned the hard way, which is as good a way as any. In the case of Wild Oak Trail, anything you learn from it is taken the hard way. The mountain is no easier in the fall. I can count on it. I have to be better next time, to honor the trail, if nothing else.

Despite my awful finishing time, despite resorting to eating dirty snow, devoting all that time  in December and January seemingly for  nothing at all, yes, I admit I’m sitting here turning this failure into a stepping stone, molding it on the  pottery wheel of hope, shaping it once again into an empty vessel to hold my dreams and hopes at improving.

The race was hard. I trekked the Wild Oak Trail in its entirety. Success is only the measure of the least amount of allowable failure. I chose to say I enjoyed the experience. There was so many wonderful moments during the struggle. Improvement is relentless. I hope to do it better next time. The Wild Oak Trail tasted my Bacon of Shame, and it wants more.  [Gong hit]