Monday, May 17, 2010

Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run: Day Three: The Crux

I-20 crossing to Maxwell Gap (CR-70), 54 miles, ~14 ½ h

    Little did I know waking up this morning that today would be the defining moment for me for this entire adventure.  Today I’d set the tone for the rest of the journey.  Yesterday was a long day, followed by even less rest.  We did have a wonderful Mellow Mushroom pizza for dinner in bed from my fantastic crew (thanks Blake, Kathy and Sara for going way out of the way to get it!).  But starting out this morning in a light rain and some of the coolest temperatures we’d seen so far, it was very difficult to get going.  I knew from studying the route that the first 36 miles or so of today’s trail would be some of the most runnable sections of trail we’d likely see on the entire Pinhoti.  I also knew that today had some of the more difficult sections of the Pinhoti trail coming in the final 18 miles of today’s goal.  That meant that I really needed to take full advantage of the first 36 miles in order to give me enough time to get through the very difficult last 18 miles with as little night running as possible.  It was a tall order, but I really had no choice.  If I had to stop short of my planned mileage quota for Day Three then that left me quite a bit of catching up to do on the subsequent days if I had any hope of achieving my Sub Seven day goal.  It was make or break time.

    All the same, it was still a rough start.  Luckily we had some friends in tow this morning with Blake and David coming along for the ride.  We still made quick work of Horseblock Mountain (where severe tornado damage was still evident by the huge open spaces and downed trees everywhere, bit thank you to everybody involved in re-opening the trail through this area, I know it must have been a Herculean effort!) and soon found our rhythm by the time we hit the US 78 crossing some 6 or so miles later.  Our crew was waiting for us there with some Hardies Egg & Cheese biscuits! Wonderful!  So good and really hit the spot! Now all greased up we continued on across a rail-road crossing and began the slight ascent of Brymer Mountain.  Sure enough, just a few minutes up the trail we could hear a train coming along the tracks we’d just crossed!  Talk about timing! 

    While I was warming up and starting to really hit my stride, I realized that Eric was still struggling a bit.  He was complaining about some blisters on his feet; I could tell his gait looked a bit off as if he were compensating.  Somewhere in this stretch, perhaps a mile or so out from our next crew access point at USFS 523 crossing (I think) Eric suddenly sprinted ahead of us saying that he was going to attempt to get his feet worked on and try not to hold us up when we arrived.  So Eric and David disappeared ahead; Blake and I plodded on making steady progress, running the downs and flats and attacking the ups aggressively.  Before too long we arrived at the road crossing and saw Josh and the rest of the crew tending to Eric’s feet.  I was a bit antsy to keep going, but I decided to give Eric a chance to get patched up.  I wandered around the crew area, eating a bit of this and that and sipped from my water bottle.  After about 10 minutes or so, Eric was patched up enough to continue, though I could see in his face that he was hurting; bad! 

    We all shuffled out of there, but it soon became clear that Eric was struggling to keep up with the more aggressive pace I was setting.  It was perhaps a bit quick, but, like I said, this was the time to be aggressive; it was very cool out, this was some gorgeous and gentle single track we were running and we had to make great time to leave us enough time to negotiate the final, brutal, 18 miles of the day. 
So it didn’t come as a complete shock when we dropped Eric all together after another mile or so.  Blake and I kept looking back but no Eric and soon later we approached the next crew location at USFS 531.  Kathy and Sara had come back to see us.  They asked where Eric was and I just shook my head.  What could I say?  A quarter mile later we emerged onto the road crossing and I told Josh that Eric was still having trouble.  What could I do? 

Luckily, Eric and I had agreed upon a simple protocol should an occurrence like this arise.  At anytime, the stronger runner could choose to separate from the other runner and continue on; that was the purpose of having essentially two crews on hand.  The stronger runner would set the bar for the day’s mileage (hopefully meet the day’s quota) and the other runner would have to also match that mileage even if it took extra time to get that far.  I’d been warned by long trail running legend David Horton (who’s advice I sought before taking on this endeavor) that a team effort for something like this could create all kinds of problems as it is difficult to always be on the same page in terms of each runner’s highs and lows; that separation not could be, but would be inevitable.  That was why I insisted on having enough crew people and vehicles on hand to be able to split up when and if necessary.  More likely than not, even the stronger runner would struggle at some point, the other runner would rebound and all would be reunited at some point.  Who knows?  The other part of our pact was that, should worse come to worse and one of us refuse to continue, that they would stay on as part of the crew and support the other. 

So with a heavy heart, I told Josh and my crew that I was invoking our agreed upon protocol and continuing on alone.  What happened behind the scenes after I left USFS 531 I may never know, perhaps Eric will provide some more insight on his own personal account.  All I know is, I received very little information about Eric’s status throughout the rest of this day, though I repeatedly asked Josh (the only crew person I had the rest of this day) to let me know.  Anyhow, there was no time to feel guilty or regretful; I still had a big day ahead that would truly test my resolve.  So I put my head forward and kept going.

I wasn’t a mile and a half out when, sure enough, fleet footed David had caught up to me!  I just couldn’t lose this guy! Ha!  We were now entering the Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area; some of best single track I’ve ever run on in Alabama.  Awesome!  I think David really appreciated the quicker pace this morning as he was actually able to do more of a running stride and not have to walk.  David is such a fast, long striding runner that he had trouble yesterday with our pace as it was right between a walk and run for him.  He said he was surprisingly sore afterwards!  Anyhow, we continued on the never ending, winding single track until we popped out into the Pine Glen Campground, site of the start of the Pinhoti 100 Mile Trail Run (this 100 mile race basically follows the reverse of the route we’d taken to this point, bypassing the Cheaha Wilderness Area and exiting the Talladega National Forest at Bulls Gap to run on a series of gravel/paved roads to finish in Sylacauga).  I didn’t stop too long at Pine Glen, just topped off my water bottle, grabbed some frozen black berries that Josh has sitting out and blasted out of there.  The next 3 mile section was possibly the flattest section of trail on the entire Pinhoti (accept for the road sections of course).  The route follows the bank of Shoal Creek towards Sweetwater Lake and it is indeed very flat, though flooded in a few spots.  David and I made great time through here and soon popped out into a large meadow with a breathtaking view of Sweetwater Lake.  Wow!  We arrived shore side and it was here that David, wisely, decided to call it a day.  Thanks for the companionship David!  Standing there, drinking and munching it suddenly seemed like the ground was moving.  I stopped and just stared at a single spot and realized the ground wasn’t moving, but thousands of tiny toads (frogs?) where hopping around!  You had to pick your steps carefully not to step on any of the little buggers!  I said good bye to David and headed out once again. 

I’d done a pretty good job with keeping my feet dry most of the day (23 miles so far) but just around the bend of the contouring trail that followed the bank of Sweetwater Lake, I came to a creek crossing that was extremely flooded.  Doh!  No way across without getting waist deep (way above my peter line).  So despite getting my feet wet, the cool water felt very invigorating!  Sometime later, still moving at perhaps 5 mph or better (my splits seem to confirm this) I arrived at the next crew spot near Coleman Lake and a Woodpecker farm (restoration area?).  Along the way I passed the famed Shoal Creek Church, one of the oldest in Alabama; pretty cool, to bad I didn’t have time to check it out more. It did indeed look very old.  I quickly swapped bottled, downed some calories, put on some sunscreen, the sun was out and baking now, and sped on.  This area of long leaf pines, the most common tree I one sees throughout the Talladega National Forest looked a bit more sparse like a burn and been through here recently.  I think this was another Woodpecker area and they like the open spaces?  Anyhow, I ascended Rattlesnake Mountain (luckily no snakes were spotted) and continued on some wonderful singletrack  all the way to the next crew spot at USFS 540.  I reloaded, grabbed an additional bottle as this next stretch was to be a bit longer and more technical.  I was 30 miles in and after this next 6 mile section I’d be starting into the rough final miles of the day.

Leaving USFS 540 I began to drop, drop, drop down into a deep watershed and began following the Twenty Feet Creek.  This was a very narrow area with frequent stream crossings.  I was dreading wet feet earlier, but no longer.  It was hot out and I took full advantage of every crossing by dipping my hat in the water and splashing my bearded face. 

Did I mention I was sick and tired of cobwebs?  Occuring so frequently that I don’t even bring it up in my report was the constant battle I had with getting spider and catepiller webs all over me!  It seemed like I couldn’t go more than a minute without running through a web of some sort! Awful!  I’m sure some of the bumps on me at the end of the day were spider bites!  Second to the webs, but only just so, were the frequency of ticks I had to pick off me.  So every 10 to 15 minutes or so I’d remind myself to stop where I was and check myself for ticks. I’d always be able to pick of 3 or 4 and that is no joke! Blah!  Anyhow, I digress, but that is an important theme to keep in mind of the sort of constant that remained throughout the entire Alabama section of the Pinhoti trail (ironically the Georgia side was much better, but more on that later). 

Deep into a canyon along Twenty Feet Creek I came across a narrow section that was completely blocked by a tree that had blown over from high on the steep embankment; its branches blocking the path like a fence.  The only way around the blockade was to scramble up the embankment and crawl over some more branches and then drop steeply back down to the trail.  The single track trail continued to amaze as I approached the Choccolocco Creek Watershed (basically an earthen dam blocking the creek to create a small reservoir).  So quiet and serene; this is one place that I want to revisit.  I strode alone along the path across the earthen dam, which was buried in high grass, deep in thought and feeling truly blessed to have the opportunity to do things like this. Wow!  I re-entered the woods and soon began a long downhill to the CR 55 road crossing near Burns Trailhead.  I’d covered the previous 36 miles in right around 9 hours which wasn’t bad considering all the punishment I’d endured from the 100 miles of brutal trail the previous two days.  I now had to, once again, don my Nathan Hydration Pack (Synergy) as the next 9 mile section would not be nearly as runnable as what I’d seen today.

So, loaded up to the gills, I crossed the road and hiked back into the woods and began a long steady climb up the eastern flank of Red Mountain.  The real challenge lay past this approach with the upcoming Dugger Mountain.  The ascent wasn’t so bad as I was deep into the heavily shaded woods so it was relatively cool.  I cleared the small gap and began a gradual descent to Jones Branch Road (not much more than a wide, double track through the wilderness).  I crossed the road and began to immediately climb, in earnest now, up to Dugger Gap.  It was quite a bit steeper going, but I was feeling my oats once again and continued to push hard.  Soon I’d arrived at Dugger Gap, but the climbing continued to attain the main ridgeline of Dugger Mountain.  The trail here was very overgrown in spots with a huge sea of poison ivy often spilling over into the trail. I tried to pick and choose my way through, but at some point it’s just impossible to avoid; takes too much energy.  Well, this wouldn’t be the first (nor last) time I’d have legs covered in poison ivy rashes! Ha!  I’d finally arrived at the Dugger Mountain ridgeline and began the long, snaking ridgeline walk.  This section seemed to go on forever!  It was extremely beautiful, and I could imagine the views would be sublime during the winter with less foliage on the trees.  This was yet another place on my list to revisit in the future.  Finally, though I’d reached the far end of the mountain and began a pretty steep descent down into the North Dugger Flats.  In this final stretch out to USFS 600, one crosses this stream multiple times and each crossing was quite deep and refreshing!  All the same, I pushed hard this final bit trying to run as much of it as I could as the previous miles were not very runnable.  The road comes into view and there is Josh and his Xterra.  I’m faster than he expected here as I’ve still averaged almost 4 mph in this last stretch, not bad considering the rougher terrain.  I reload my pack, grab my head lamp as it will be a close call whether or not I can clear the next rough 9 mile section  without a light, and continue on; back into the woods once again.

This first stretch isn’t so bad, and eerily reminiscent of the Choccolocco Creek Watershed I’d previously passed through earlier that day.  This time it’s the Terripin Creek Watershed am crossing into and soon I arrive at a similar looking earthen dam crossing; grown up high with grass, serene and quiet and I’m all alone.  Beautiful; the sun is now low in the western sky, the shadows everywhere are getting long; the heat of the day is starting to bleed away.  All too soon I’m back into the woods, back into the cool darkness.  After a couple of creek crossings, it becomes evident that this trail means business!  Without any warning the trail turns steeply uphill following a clear fall line right uphill!  Thankfully there are a couple switchbacks here, but boy is it steep!  I pause for a rest at a minor gap, sitting for a minute or two.  I’m beginning to get tired, and I still have the real meat of the climb up the dreaded Oakey Mountain to come!  Whew!  I regain my feet and plod on up the trail, beginning the very long, steep incline wedge up to the Oakey Mountain Crossing (a gap on the knife edge ridge).  Up and up it goes without any break in the steep grade.  A tough way to end the day!  Soon I’m climbing with my hands on my knees, all bent forward into the hill; gasping for air.  For over a mile this continued until suddenly it was over.  I found myself on the narrow ridgeline.  I immediately sat down on a likely looking rock and took a minute to collect myself.  All this way up to this ridge and now the trail horseshoes around and simply heads just as steeply back down the other side of the ridge!  This climb has really slowed me down and the sun is sinking fast.  It’s become a personal goal of mine to clear this section and make it to the Chief Ladiga Rail Trail before I dare turn on my headlamp.  Therefore I’m now almost sprinting down the mountain with near reckless abandon as it gets darker and darker.  Where is that rail trail I say to myself?  Surprisingly I don’t trip or stumble in this descent; I’m in the zone and soon enough I pop out of the woods yet again but onto the paved rail trail.  I turn to the right and start to run along the path; the surface is strangely flat and solid after miles of rough, rocky terrain.  Dimly head I can see some lights in the dusk, it must be Josh (who else would be out here this late on a Monday night?).  I still haven’t bothered to turn my headlamp on as it’s an easy, flat surface to run on so I think I may have surprised him coming out of the darkness; again ahead of schedule.  I averaged right at 4mph for this section, which is quite shocking to me considering how beaten I was climbing up Oakey Mountain.  I think I strongly influenced that average by bombing down the mountain to the rail trail.  Technically I’d met the mileage quota for the day at this point (CR-94 crossing), but as the next access point was only 1.6 miles (and a steep climb) away I decided to keep going one last section.

There was no question now that I needed my headlamp on.  It was fully dark out now as I left Josh and began to climb up Wilson Ridge; headlamp ablaze.  This turned out to be a longer and tougher climb than I expected. Boy!  I also started to go into cool down mode as this was bonus mileage and I’d worked really hard over the previous 52+ miles.  So I just took my time climbing up to the ridge, not pressing at all; trying to drink and eat as much as I could stomach.  I finally gained the ridge and began down the other side towards Maxwell Gap.  I was deep in thought, just in cruise control really; only paying enough attention to keep spotting the light blue blazes and turkey markers in the dark.  All of a sudden there was an explosion above my head!  Perhaps 3-4 feet above me a wild turkey was sleeping and became startled as I past underneath.  He erupted into an unsteady flight, crashing through branches and disappeared into the night!  It scared me back awake, the adrenaline pumping once again and I was now flying down the trail to the gap.  Time to get done!  Not long later I broke out of the woods at full stride.  I was finally done for the day and extremely proud of myself.  This was a make or break day in my book; toughest day by far (highest mileage and longest time on the trail) but one that had to be endured to keep on schedule.  Tomorrow would mark my next milestone; crossing the state line into Georgia and passing through halfway in my long journey to the Benton MacKaye trail.  But for now it was off to Subway for a glorious tuna fish sandwich, a quick ice bath then to bed and blissful unconsciousness!

To be continued…

For more information about the Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run click here.