Monday, November 10, 2008

Are You the Sweeper?

A view of the Pinhoti 100 Mile Endurance Run.....from behind.

Where to about a deserted country road. Mike and I arrived 30 minutes late to the spot that had been aid station #8. There was a wide spot in the dirt road about 50 yards from where the Silent Trail crossed it. Just as Mike had parked his truck and began to outfit himself for a cold nights run his cell phone rang. It was Vic (one of the race volunteers, his torn calf muscle was the reason we were out here in the middle of nowhere... but that's a story for another time), whose voice was going in and out due to poor reception. Mike shouted into his phone "We're on the trail, we're on the trail!". Then Vic's voice was gone. Mike shrugged and said "Maybe he heard that or maybe he didn't" didn't much matter to us at the time. We were set to go....and did.

Aid Station #8 to #10 The Silent Trail:
We started out about 8pm Central.The moon was cut in half, 12o'clock high and as bright as full. The trail was somewhat technical, rooty, with a hint of rock. As we wound our way into a creek valley Mike pointed out these little glowing pinpricks, watching us from underneath the fallen leaves all along the trail. The Wolf Spider, his eyes seemed to be everywhere. Good thing it's not a summer night, I told Mike, There's no tellin' what other kind of creepy crawlers we would be dealing with. About 30 minutes later Mike announced that something "with some weight to it" had moved between us across the trail. Other than that it was a quiet run in the dark. Oh, one thing about night trail running, the going is slow and the distance is incomprehensible. It took us over 2 hours to cover the 6.8 miles to aid station #9. We were absolutely sure we had passed it abandoned as #8 had been when we crossed a dirt road about an hour and a half into our run. So we were sure when we saw lights ahead of us on the trail we were seeing #10. But it was the fully manned, fully stocked #9. We filled water bottles, ate leftovers and talked to the aid station workers. They told us that the last runner was about an hour ahead of us so we took our leave in haste. Somewhere in the dark on the way to #10 we heard a lonely coyote on the mountain ridge above us howling at the half moon. It was on the climb up the ridge that I began to hear music. Mike thought he had heard someone sneeze earlier but we never were able connect these noises to any source. At some point we noticed that the trail blazes had changed. Up until then the trail had been marked very well, with orange flags (which had little reflectors attached) and little white thumb tack reflectors hammered into random trees. The trail blazes were a simple stripe of paint but for the last mile they changed to triangles and we hadn't seen a flag or tack since the blazes changed. So 5 minutes from aid station #10 we ended up back tracking a mile to make sure didn't miss a turn off..... we didn't.

Aid Station #13 to #14 Naps and Hypothermia:
At aid station #10 I met Victor, the torn calf guy. He arrange a ride for Mike and drove me himself to aid station #13, Porter's Gap. Bruce Young and his son Cameron were sweeping #10 to #13 and were already well gone before our arrival at #10. So I had to wait for them at #13 and continue from there. I really didn't realize how cold the night was until I had nothing to do but wait. Someone had hooked up a small generator and plugged in a space heater. I swear, I believe I was colder sitting in front of that heater than I had or would be all night. I was aching to get started again. Two guys had dropped out while I waited (this would've been about mile 68).
One sat across from me at the heater. He told me his wife was also running and that he didn't want her to know that he had dropped, he was afraid that she would follow suite. So every time we saw flashlights coming down the trail he would run and hide behind in the woods. Finally Bruce and Cameron arrived, I talked to them for a minute then hit the trail. It didn't take long to shake off the chill I had built up waiting at Porter's Gap. I ran alone for about 15 minutes before I caught the last runner. I could tell he was having some trouble with his legs. He said he was very tired (imagine, after only 70 miles). While we were walking he stopped and turned to me "Are you the Sweeper?" yeah. "So I'm it then?" tag. "Do you have a watch?" yeah. "I'm going to sleep right here. wake me up in five, do ya mind?" no I don't mind. With that he laid right down in the middle of the trail and was dead asleep within seconds. I turned off my flashlight (Mike's actually) and sat looking at the stars. They sure seem put more of them in the sky when you're out in the country. Hey man, wake up, it's been five. He sprang to his feet, thanked me and took of. He told me that it didn't take long to recharge his battery and I guess he was right. I ran behind him for a ways until we came to the new last runner. This guy had it rough. His wife had left Porters Gap with him because "he didn't look so good". She was walking her arms around him. He was shivering, staggering and babbling nonsense. His wife asked me if we had much further to go. I said I didn't think so but I didn't tell her what I did know. We had ahead of us was a switchback trail that climbed 1000 feet to "The Pinnacle". I didn't tell them this because I new I had to keep them moving. At the top was aid station #14 and there was no better place for him than there. As we climb he kept mumbling, he would tell me he was sorry then he would ask me where we were. His wife was very concerned but kept him climbing. We reached the #14 all intact "Are you the sweeper?" yeah, look this guy's not doing so well. The volunteers had a nice campfire encircled with foldout chairs, they wrapped him up in some wool blankets and sat him next to the fire. He fell asleep almost immediately though he continued shivering. I sat by the fire beside him for few minutes and warmed myself (not too much though, I didn't want to get spoiled). While I was there I talked to Andrew (from GUTS), he told me that the guy who came through in first place stopped here at the Pinnacle and took a 3 hour nap. He ended up finishing in fifth place. Well enough chit chat, we decided the guy I had helped in was going to stay, the sun was starting to come up so I had to get a move on to make the finish by cutoff. They told me before I left that there was a guy about 30 minutes ahead of me, I thanked them and trotted off.

Aid Station #14 to #17 Left for Dead or What Used to Be:
The next section of running was pretty uneventful. With the new last runner well ahead of me I had a chance to stretch out and really do some running. With the sun coming up to my left I couldn't have picked a better time to run this ridge line section. It was about 7am. when I reached a rocky outcropping. As I walked to the edge I could see the shadow of the mountain ridge drawn on the bottom land and further west another mountain ridge rose from the flats and took off north. The edge was a sheer drop, probably 800 to 1000 feet. Course markers kept the night runners 30 yards clear of this cliff and you had to climb over a couple of boulders to get there. One misstep here and you might not get found. With the detours and having to pick up trial markers every few minutes (not to mention this was the first time I had run with a backpack) the hours were starting to wear on me. And the going was still slow, it took me over an hour and a half to cover the 5 miles to aid station #15. "Are you the sweeper?" that's me. Turns out I had arrived just a few minutes after the runner in front of me. He was sitting in the back of a volunteer's jeep. They had just pulled him of the course, we were about 30 minutes past cutoff. I recognized him as they drove him away, it was the 5 minute napper. The 'head guy' volunteer approached me "He argued with us but he finally gave in. By the way, there's a man and woman about an hour ahead of you. Good luck." And with that they started packing up. The next section was very easy, I had pulled out my map at #15 and saw that about 3 miles of the next 6 was dirt road and it was an average downhill run to #16. When I left the dirt road the descent shifted into high gear. There were a lot of open fields with waist high under brush, rough and brittle, all briers and stems. Coming down the mountain I saw the napper walking up towards me. "Have you seen an older, Hispanic man? My father was supposed to be at the next aid station, his van is there but I can't find him." Man I haven't seen a soul for the last couple of hours. "Maybe they radioed ahead that they had pulled me and he got a ride to the finish." Maybe, I really have no idea. "Can you believe they pulled me at mile 80? I had four and a half hours to finish 20 miles, I could've walked and still made it. You saw me after my nap last night, I was really moving." I know, that really sucks. He continued to follow me back down to #16, or what had been #16. The nappers car was parked on a dirt road there and he took off. Leaving me standing on an old dirt road next to a pile of plastic trash bags. On top was a sign 'Aid Station #16'. I pulled off my pack and looked at my water bottle, almost empty. Well, take a drink and keep moving. I had about a 4 mile run, all dirt road, to #17. Or what used to be #17. Here is where I was starting to worry, it was starting to warm up and I was out of water with about 10 miles to go. I was tired, my feet hurt....... stop bellyaching and get a move on.

From Aid Station #17 Home Thank God:
Over the river and through the woods and so on and so on..... another few miles of dirt road then a cut across some hilly countryside. I was well off the mountain ridge by this point, running through a forest that was just a couple of years past a good burning. Whomever had marked this trail picked this section to really go flag crazy. It seemed like I was stopping every 10 feet to pick up the next one. I ran across a lake dam with two hands full of flags. Then... up ahead..... it can't be..... it is!!!! it's aid station #18!!!! Thank God!!!! (as exaggerated as the last line seems to be it doesn't come close to the exhilaration I felt on the way up the hill) "Are you the sweeper?" the 'head guy' asked a they were packing up. The one and only, do you guys have any water left? "Yeah, we saved you a cup, it's sitting on the hood of my truck" Thanks, anyone been by lately? "Yep, there's a man and his wife about a mile ahead of you. You'll probably catch them, he's not doin' so good." With that I took my shot of water, unloaded the markers and started the last 5 miles of this Odyssey. Well the 'head guy' was right, after 20 minutes I caught up with the latest and last, last guy. He was using a walking stick and had a pretty pronounced limp. He told me his blisters had blisters. His wife had been pacing him for the last 14 miles. "They tried to pull me off at the last station, said I was 30 minutes past cutoff. I acted like I didn't hear them." You're a better man that me, I'd told them to go to hell. This guy was something else, I knew how bad he had to be hurting but he kept leaning on that stick, smiling and joking the whole way in. We finally reached the Sylacauga High School football stadium an hour after cutoff, I was just glad to be done when he said "31 hours ain't so bad, is it?". All I could do was laugh... no it ain't. The stadium was deserted save for one woman with a clipboard to record that he did finish. Everyone had left, volunteers, runners, families. His wife almost knocked him over hugging him at the finish. That ain't so bad either. I thought about what the last last guy had said as I was eating a double whopper w/cheese in the Burger King parking lot. From where I was parked I could see the part of the mountain range I had just left behind. I spent 17 hours in the mountains and I was already missing them. I wondered when I would be in the mountains again. I finished eating and decided to take a quick nap before I tried to drive. As I drifted off to sleep.........


John said...

Hey Mountain Goat! Love the blog. Keep it up and keep it entertaining.

CR said...

Clockwise. Counterclockwise. I love "Old Yeller", too!

So glad that you've started this blog, David. I'm going to really enjoy living vicariously through you. :)

Can't wait to read the conclusion of "Are You the Sweeper".