The Perils of Trail Running

The Perils of Trail RunningObstacle races and mud runs are typically 90% trail running and 10% obstacles, so when people ask me how to train for an OCR I say, “Run lots of trails.”  Taking my own advice, with a long run on my training calendar, I set out to find a nearby trail system that might give me about 10 miles or at least two hours of run time.  Little did I know, that soon I would be in real peril, fearing for my life, and totally over-estimating my current fitness.

A little back story:

I’m a big guy: 6’1″, 220, and a former track sprinter.  After college I turned to triathlon for my competitive fix, and excelled at sprint distance events, but always bonking at the longer events.  When the SavageMan Triathlon started in my home town, I finally decided to tackle a 1/2 Iron Triathlon and I finished, but only after spending over 8 hours in the mountains of Western Maryland.  It ruined me for endurance.  “I’m never going long again,”  I said.  Flash forward to the OCR boom, and I decided to tackle Warrior Dash first, a Tough Mudder, a Superhero Scramble, and some of the most insanely difficult races including the Spartan VA Super, and both 2013 and 2014 Vermont Beasts.  Those last three races all kicked my butt into next week, literally.  Massive cramps and crushing bonk had me sore for at least 10 days afterward.  So this year, I knew if I was going to finish strong, or even compete toe-to-toe with some of my friends, I had to add more long trail runs.

Enter, Sleepy Creek State Park.  After checking google maps for a place to run (I was traveling on business), I decided to take a trip to Sleepy Creek State Park: a 22,000+ acre park in West Virginia featuring some mountain top ridge runs and a nice lake.  On the way in, I even stopped to talk with a Park Ranger who gave me a paper map and some general guidance on the terrain.  Since I had forgotten my FuelBelt, I decided to run with my “Go Bag”: a large hydration pack that I keep in my car at all times.  The pack contains a myriad of emergency items like first aid, a flash light, iodine pills, a folding saw, and even a splint (in case I break a leg), plus a 1 liter hydration bladder.

Mistake #1: Poor Nutrition Preparation

I failed to pack any calories whatsoever and didn’t have any electrolytes, Gatorade, or mustard packs.  I sweat heavy, and cramp a lot in events lasting over 3 hrs, so even though I’ve lost 10 pounds recently (down from 230), I’ve done so on a Slow Carb diet that is heavy on protein and vegetables, but not a lot of carbs.  That means, I probably started this whole trek with very little muscle glycogen reserves after doing a strength training session the day before.  Lesson:  Pack food and electrolytes for any trail run that might even remotely last more than an hour.

So I felt prepared for an emergency, but I was not prepared for the coming bonk.  I parked my car, strapped on my pack, and headed out to do what I thought would be a five-mile loop.  I studied the map and headed out on the trail, watching closely for a turn onto a power line easement that bisected the entire park about 2 miles in.  More like 2.75…..

Mistake #2: Unfamiliarity With My Route

I look and feel terribly at this point, even though the views are beautiful.  That far ridge behind me where I first popped out of the forest trail.

I look and feel terrible at this point, even though the views are beautiful, don’t let the smile fool you. That’s the far ridge behind me where I first popped out of the forest trail.  It’s way farther than it looks.

The trails before the power line road were shaded and cool, giving me a false sense of ease.  I ran atop a flat ridge with steep sides and the valley below, so when I came to the power lines, the trees disappeared and the road dropped off the side of the mountain in a steep, neck-breaking, ankle turning scree of rocky death.  By the time I hit the bottom, I was almost four miles in, hot, sweaty and starting to realize this route was further than I thought.  As I crossed the stream (or crick as they say ’round here), I chose to continue up the other side onto the far mountain, instead of turning onto the trail the Park Ranger told me to take, that would have brought me straight back to the lake.

Mistake #3: Pushing Ahead, When I Should Have Cut My Losses

By the time I reached the top of the other mountain, I was now five miles in and totally bonked.  Luckily, I found a gel in my pack that I place there only two years before.  I think it expired in 2008, but desperate times call for drastic measures.  Afterward, I found the top of the ridge (what I thought was the halfway point of my epic journey) and tried running some of the flat sections.  If I had followed the Rangers route or even turned back at this point it would have been much easier than blindly forging ahead.

Mistake #4: Grossly Overestimating My Current Fitness

Nothing prepares you fully for the Vermont Beast, but I’ve always done that one on sheer will, determination, and the emotional encouragement of others.  But now, my back was giving out, my lungs were on fire, and my legs were tired and bloody.  As I fumbled on, along the far ridge, a sinking feeling started to creep in:  “I’m way out of shape, I’m too far to turn back, and what if I have to spend the night out here?”  I knew if I just kept running, I’d get out of there faster, but the trail was deteriorating the deeper I got, and every time I tried to run, I just got winded immediately: a possible sign of dehydration or heat exhaustion.  Plus, there was no one within miles to keep me going with moral support.  There is no DNF when you’re alone in the woods.  You must push on.

Mistake #5: Miscalculating the Map Distances

Sleepy Creek MapAs I pushed along the ridge, I knew I had to find a trail that dropped down off the side of the mountain and headed toward the lake.  Eight miles in, and still no trail off the mountain, so I pressed on.  I found a small pond that seemed to mark the turn on the map, but still no trail.  Another half mile past where I thought the trail would be, I finally found the path down off the ridge, even more overgrown than the last.  But what I thought would be about another 800 yards down the side, turned into a mile or more.  With a tangle of overgrown bushes, downed trees, and loose rocks, the downhill that I thought would speed me up, slowed me down even more.  I could see the sun inching closer to the top of the mountain behind me and the creeping voice began again.

Mistake #6: Poor Choice of Footwear for the Terrain

I decided to wear my Inov-8 Trail Rock 245 shoes for their low drop, minimalist feel, and excellent grip.  In reality, I hadn’t run in them for months, the terrain was not muddy, and they lack a rock plate.  I would have been better off in my regular trainers that had more protection from rocks, and were much more broken in.  As I scaled down the side of the mountain, my wet feet began to blister, and I wished I had used some Bodyglide in my socks before setting off.

Mistake #7: Forgetting About the Realities of Chafing

On a normal three to five-mile road run at home, I normally don’t use Bodyglide, never wear a pack, and typically do not blister.  When you are out there for more than an hour things start to chafe.  My armpits were raw, my feet blistered, and I just wanted it all to be over, but by the time I got to the “small” lake on the map, my heart sank as I realized there was no way across (I’m an excellent swimmer and planned a quick dip to cross when I created this route in my head earlier).  The massive lake was shallow, with dead trees sticking up in the middle, and covered by lily-pads and scum.  Plus, with all the cuts on my legs there was a good possibility of infection from the funky looking water.  As I looked at my GPS again, and saw the actual size of the lake, I was crushed.  On top of that, the trail completely disappeared and I still had miles to go.  As the sun started to set, the negative little voice wasn’t just back, it was quickly becoming a reality.

How I Survived and Made it Out

You can’t go back in time and erase your mistakes, but with a little luck, determination, and a few skills you can correct your course, ultimately getting yourself out of crappy situations.  Here are some of the things I did right, after effing up so badly, that eventually got me out of the woods, safe, and marginally sound.

Fix #1: Keep your head

Always stay calm when you’re in the woods.  Never panic, lose your cool, or let your fears get the best of you.  It’s okay to fear bears and rattlesnakes (both a possibility out there according to the Park Ranger), but not the boogeyman.  What I mean is, your fear of real possibilities, like hypothermia, dehydration, and severe injury, should help guide your actions, but never let imaginary spooks freak you out.  Also, don’t get desperate and do something stupid.  I thought about swimming across that lake, but it would have been a disaster, no matter how good of a swimmer I think I am.  I knew I had a flashlight, so even if the sun went down, I could keep going.  I even had an emergency blanket, so I knew I could stay warm or make a small shelter if I needed to stay the night in the woods.  I had iodine tablets if I needed to get more water.  Even though the trail disappeared, I knew that I could bushwhack around the lake and pick up the road on the other side.  I had a cellphone with GPS, so even though I lost the trail, I was never lost.  When you panic, you forget all those positive things, like take your clothes off, eat dirt, and run screaming in circles.

Fix#2: Keep Moving

If you’re truly lost in the woods, stop moving (it will be easier for rescue parties to find you) but I wasn’t lost, so moving forward was essential.  I knew where I was and where I needed to go, but it was just a lot farther than I planned.  I huffed and puffed, but never stopped.  When I could run, I ran.  When I could walk, I walked fast.  I just kept moving, in the proper general direction, one foot in front of the other.

Fix #3: Improvise

When the trail disappeared, I could have wasted a lot of time looking for it, but instead I just looked at my GPS, the setting sun, the terrain, and the lake, then headed off in the direction I knew I should go.  It takes confidence, but I’ve been hunting, hiking, and camping my whole life, so I trusted myself and my woodsman knowledge.  Sometimes there is no path to where you want to go in the woods (or life) and you just have to forge ahead anyway.  When I finally reached the end of the lake, the path kept going straight.  I knew from the map, that I needed to go a different direction, so I just turned off the trail and made my own way.  As I went, I checked off landmarks in my head, like streams that I needed to cross perpendicularly to stay on target, or sounds from campers on the far side of the lake.  My reward came when I finally climbed a steep embankment, pushed through some brush, and landed squarely on the road that would take me back to my car.

Fix #4: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

As I slogged down the road, I noticed that the little beacon on my phone GPS that represented me, wasn’t headed toward the car, but on a parallel course over a mile away (see mistakes #2 and #5).  To my left was the lake, where it should be, and to my right was a mountain.  Grabbing the map, which I had stored thinking I wouldn’t need it anymore now that I was on the road, I realized (to my horror) that I would need to hike halfway down the lake (again) and then turn up a road that would zig back up the side of the mountain in the other direction.  I contemplated bushwhacking straight back to the car, but the side of the mountain was daunting and I was pushing past 10 miles and three hours in the woods on almost no calories.  With the sun fully behind the mountain and the light fading fast, I knew it would hurt, but I could make it.  Maybe another hour or more, possibly another mile or so, but I would press on.  And on….. and on….

When at last, I reached the real road, I began to despair, because when  I looked at the map again, I realized I had been jogging/walking down a service road, that met up with the real road, and my car might still be over two miles away.  I began to pray.  I prayed that someone would come along and give me a ride.  That some other human being out there would take pity on a muddy, sweaty, bleeding weirdo with short shorts.  I kid you not, some campers in a pick-up truck turned the corner just a few minutes later and I flagged them down.  I knew I looked haggard, and in this introverted selfie kind of world, it’s weird to ask strangers for help, but I swallowed my pride, and jumped in the back.

What I thought was just a little drive down the road, turned out to be almost three miles up hill to my car.  A journey that would have likely taken me another two hours in my broken state.  I feel silly complaining when I think of the people who do the Ultra Beast, World’s Toughest Mudder, or Infinitus.  But I’m not built like them, and I don’t have the endurance that they do.  I used to count my races 100 meters at a time, not 100 miles at a time.  I drastically overestimated my abilities, and woefully underestimated those woods.  I paid for it, but luckily not with my life or limbs, even though that danger was a reality I had to face.  For the lessons I learned that day I paid my tuition with dehydration, dry-heaves on the car ride back, the shakes, the skin on my feet, some blood, and a bunch of cramps that kept me awake that night.  And you can bet while I was out there I told myself I’d never do that again, but now that I’ve had a day to recoup, and I’m writing about it, I wonder if I could go a little faster next time…..

Here’s my actual GPS data on mapmyrun.com