Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Near Perfection

*if you like this blog, you might enjoy my book:"Quiet the Noise: A Trail Runner's Path To Hearing God"

Near Perfection

6 weeks before my first ever “stage” race in 2013, I decided my injuries were healed enough to give my legs, feet and most importantly, my spirit, a test. 

A running buddy – Aaron “B-D” (who recently read my first book and gave me a wonderful personal review on it due to the parallels he saw in his life) was planning a mountain run and I accepted his invitation.

Up to this point, I had not run over 10 miles or 2 hours in almost 5 months and this run would be between 3 and 5 hours on tough mountain trails.

A test of the body, mind and especially spirit to say the least.

I could tell that at least my spirit was recovered as I was looking forward to this run all week – getting excited, talking friends into going, friendly banter going back and forth via text messages and Facebook, etc.  This is always a good sign as I know I am building excitement, and more importantly, accountability, so I won’t be tempted to back out on the run!

As the week progressed, I got in a few decent runs, and even did a 2 mile run, in the rain, with my whole family on Saturday (the run was on Sunday) – that was a lot of fun, first run with my wife in years!

The weather was not looking friendly for 99% of the population (i.e., cold and rainy).

Of course that meant it was perfect weather for me!

Saturday night I had a very nice “date” night with my wife (kids were both at sleep-overs and we had a gift certificate for a fancy steak restaurant) – can you say free fun for the adults – and got to sleep around midnight.

Up at 5:30am to get ready, leaving at 6:15am for an 8:30am start time (this run is out of Vogel State park and is about 1.5 hour drive away).  At one point this run had over 10 people going, but that number dwindled as the weather report looked more likely to be “Rami Friendly”.

Drove up with Tim “M” (famous in my group of runners for doing a 4 hour run still drunk from the night before) and it rained, I mean poured at times, the whole way up. 


When we got to the park there were only 2 guys there and only 1 more showed up (the leader of the run - Aaron). 

So, a total of 5 brave souls to head out on a rainy cold morning.

Did I mention, perfect?

These guys finally listened to me about warming up and started out slow, almost too slow for my taste but it was perfect (there is that word again) to get warmed up before the run really started. 

This loop (“Coosa Back Country Loop”) is about 13 miles long and has over 1 mile of elevation gain in it.  2000 feet of that gain occur from mile 2-6 (I think, don’t quote me on this, but it is close). 


My type of day!

The run started off with all of us staying together.  There is a very nice, gentle downhill trail for about 2 miles after a bit of an uphill and we enjoyed it together.  At one point I had to run ahead cause I can’t run too slow going down hill.   Hurts me physically (tough on my knees) and spiritually (being the only place I can go semi-fast, I like to take advantage of it).

Then the climb started.  Tim and I were both feeling really good, it was not that cold at the bottom and we were warmed up and ready to go.    

So we went.

We were together for a while then separated for a bit so I decided to do my Rosary then, the timing could not have been better, I caught up to Tim just as I was finishing the last decade.  I dedicated it to all the people in the world that cannot enjoy physical things, like this run, that bring them happiness.

Again, perfect.

As we neared the top, I started to get cold (and so did Tim) so I took off to push harder and warm up more. 

When we got to the top we tried to keep going, but we really didn’t know the way so we had to wait for the other guys. 

And we got colder.

They show up about 10 minutes later, talking about stopping to check out and pick the ferns that they could make a salad out of later.


At this point Tim and I realized we needed to know the way back (it was a loop, not an out and back) and we had to head out on our own.  So the leader tells us:

“Follow the signs for the Coosa Loop, green tree marks, downhill, then one final climb, then blue tree marks all downhill after the last climb”.

Note the last sentence, “all downhill after the last climb”.  This is important. 

I listened.

Tim did not.

So, Tim takes off and dusts me, as usual, on the first very steep descent – my legs were so cold and wet it felt like running on rocks.  Well, I actually was running on rocks, but my legs felt like rocks also.

I figured I would not see him again till the run was over.

But I did.

I caught up to him when the run flattened out a bit and we ran the end of the descent together.

We had both warmed up and were feeling good, chatting, in great moods, loving life and feeling blessed.  He also told me at this point that if we separated and I went ahead he could find his way back.

Another important point to remember.

Then we crossed a road and started up the final climb.

I have never done this climb and when I  looked at a map later two major things jumped out at me.

1. It was straight uphill, no switchbacks at all.

2. The name of the climb was “Slaughter Mountain”. 


At this point (about 2.5 hours into the run) I was really starting to feel good and decided to just go at my own pace.  I turned on my i-pod with my Linkin Park mix and got into a zone. 

This is really one of my favorite things in trail running.  All alone (but with the knowledge that I have people behind me if I get in trouble), no rush to get back, great music, amazing scenery, body feeling good and just disappearing into the moment.

All along this run the prevailing prayer for me was “let go” and “surrender”.  Interesting because I really didn’t think I was holding on to anything but this was what kept hitting me in my alone and down times.  Maybe letting go of worry and continuing to trust the Lord and my faith.

By the time I got to the top of “Slaughter Mountain” I was really feeling good, but it was windy and cold again so I had to keep moving.  At this point I decided I would run constantly until I got back to the car.

The descent off this mountain was amazing.  It was pouring rain so I was running through streams and mud and it really was downhill almost the whole way.

I felt amazing.

At one point I came to an intersection that had 3 choices, I chose the one that said “Coosa Loop” and went downhill.

Remember, I listened.

Tim did not.

I really started to feel better and better, more and more I realize that my body is meant to do this stuff for an extended period of time – all my nagging injuries were gone, my breathing was awesome, I felt close to God and at one with nature.

This is really when running is at its absolute best for me.  Pure joy and connection.  Not thinking about anything except the moment.  No worries, absolute peace and serenity.  Absolute peace and serenity while barreling down a mountain as fast as I can go, over rocks, roots, streams and mud.  In the pouring rain.  


Only those that have done it can understand.  When people tell me they hate to run, I get it, because the first 20 minutes of almost every run I do is pretty miserable.

What these people don’t realize is that 20 minutes is not enough.

Stick with it and get to the “other side” of that initial misery and you can find a beauty and flow that occurs very rarely in life.  What is even more ironic and hard to understand is that after 20 minutes (or an hour sometimes) you get to the flow place and find peace.  Then after 4/5 hours you get to a “raw” place of suffering that has beauty in its’ own special type of misery. 

Then after 5 hours, and 10 hours, and 24 hours……  well, you know.

Hmmm, stick with things through the initial pain and struggle and there is peace waiting for you on the other side?  A metaphor for a life well-lived?  I think so.


Then I came to some slippery parts of the trail.  Ok, truth be told the whole trail was slippery but I am pretty sure my legs were not working quite as well at 3 hours that they were at 1 hour.

I slipped a few times (warning) and then took a nice fall (after ignoring the warning), landing with all my weight on my knee that had been bothering me months ago. 

Praise god it was really soft and thick mud, no harm at all except a few scratches and dirt on my hands and legs.

I did slow down my pace at this point and enjoyed the rest of the ride.

I ended up going off trail a few times but the minute the trail went uphill I knew to turn around

Remember, I listened.

When I got back to the campground I really did not know if I was in the right place because I thought this run would take 4 – 4.5 hours and it was only 3.5 hours at this point.  Turns out it was “only” 13 miles (would have been longer if we added a spur but no one wanted to this day) and I was having a good day. 

I ran through the campground parking lot, hoping to see something I recognized.  When I saw the entrance to the trail that we had entered 3.5 hours ago, I crossed myself and thanked God for an amazing day, a safe day, my body performing so well and my mood being so amazing.

That was really the best part of today, my spirit.  It really soared.  Not sure why, great combination of a new favorite trail, cool wet weather, getting back in shape, taking time off so I am fresh, etc. 

Not gonna question it or analyze it, just go with it.

Anyway, I got back to the car and proceeded to enjoy one of my favorite things in the world:  changing out of cold, wet clothes after a long tough run.

Got changed and settled down for a snack and to wait for the other 4 guys.

After about 30 minutes, Aaron, Franco and Steve ran in looking good and happy.   They told me they were 30 minutes back cause they did an extra climb, but that was a joke.

But, still no Tim.

I knew something was up cause even if he totally fell apart physically, he would only have been about 30 minutes behind me.  I figured he took a wrong turn (same one I did) at the end and added a mile or so to his run.

I figured wrong.

2 of the 5 guys had to go, but Aaron stayed behind to keep me company.  He and I sat on the porch of the visitor’s center, getting to know one another better (easier to talk when your heart rate is not 150+ but not quite as fun) and waited.

And waited.

Now it was 1:30 and I was starting to get worried. Not worried about him being lost (this is a wilderness but it is not quite like being in the Rockies at 12,000 feet), but about him possibly being hurt.

As much as I give him a hard time, I did say a prayer or 2 about his safety at this point.

Remember, on a normal day there would be tons of hikers out, but this was not a normal day!

At this point I decided to go talk to the girls behind the counter in the visitors’ center and see what the protocol is in a situation like this.  We have had people get lost, or get hurt, or both, but there is always someone else out there, or they have a phone, or they just show up 30 minutes after we finish.

So, we had no idea what to do.

The ladies behind the counter were really helpful and could tell we were not that worried cause we did say: “is it just OK for us to leave his stuff here, with a $20 bill and let him find his own way home”? 

Guy humor, gotta love it.

Now we got to learn about North Georgia search and rescue.  They called the Park Ranger (who wears a gun, btw, that was a surprise) and he showed up in about 15 minutes.

Keep in mind it is now 2pm, 2 full hours after I got back, and we are very similar paced runners (except I am faster, leaner and much better looking – just ask Tim).

The ranger was also very nice and asked us a bunch of questions, the answer to all of which, except one, was a resounding “No”!

-         Does he have back country / camping experience?  No!
-         Does he have a lot of equipment?  No!
-         Does he have a cell phone with him?  No!
-         Did you guys put together a plan of what to do if one of you got lost…… wait, maybe…….oh yea, No!
-         Does he have a map?  Of course not!
-         Is he dressed well for a rainy cold day?  Depends on what you mean by “well”?  He is wearing shorts, one layer and a very light rain jacket.  So, really, No!
-         Is he in good shape?  This was an interesting one, that we ultimately answered, Yes!  I know he is very strong mentally, but I also know he had not done a bit of exercise in 5 weeks (since my DNF at the night race).  For most people this would be a big problem, Tim seems to do better when he doesn’t train, so I was confident in this positive answer!

So, armed with 1 Yes out of 7 questions, the ranger told us what the plan was.  Turns out they have a team of volunteers that they mobilize when this type of thing happens.  Since we knew the last place he was, they get about 5 people and send them in from different directions to search for him.

He also said that most of the time, right after they mobilize this team, the lost person comes wondering out of the woods with a good story to tell.

Just as he is saying this, and I mean, just as he finishes his sentence, one of the girls comes out and says:

“Is your friends name Tim?” (say this in a very, very Southern accent)

Can you say, absolutely perfect?

Turns out he is walking on a road about 7 miles away, and asked someone driving the other way to call Vogel State Park for him. 

Well, actually he didn’t even know the name of the park we left from, he just asked for a “state park close to here”.

So, to make a long story not too much longer, he was fine.  The ranger went to pick him up (not embarassing at all). He said he ended up running 10 extra miles, or maybe 13 so he ran a “full marathon”.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my overall pace was 16 minute miles, and I was “running” faster than him so he probably “ran” about 6 extra miles in the 2 extra hours he was out there.  Still a bit longer than the planned 13 miles.

All is well that ends well and I learned some valuable lessons (Tim did not, but that is not my issue):

-         Everyone bring a map, even if you think you know the trail
-         Everyone put their cell in a baggie and bring it – leave it on (the ranger told us they can “ping” you to very close to your location if you have a smart phone, and fairly close with just a regular phone)
-         Have a plan if you get lost, although I am not sure how well this would have worked.  It’s not quite like Disney World where we can all meet up under the big castle or talk to someone who works there and have them call our parents!
-         Keep to my old plan which is never to leave my “wing man”.  The place where the trail got a bit confusing was fairly clear to me, but I run trails all the time and Tim does not.  This is not because I feel bad that he got lost – he should have prepared better and listened to instruction – I just don’t want to wait 2 hours on a Sunday again after I am done!
-         Tim brings out the worst in me cause we are so competitive together and he has left me after I helped him through runs – but I am not going to lower myself to his childish level (I know you are reading this and smiling, Tim).

This was one of those days that had absolutely everything I love about trail running.  Extreme weather, good friends, tough climbs and fun descents, good alone time and good running-with-others time, adventure, some worry, and ultimately peace and happiness.

I will cherish it, remember it and learn from it.   

The one thing I don’t think I will ever be able to do is……..

Duplicate it.

 *if you like this blog, you might enjoy my book:"Quiet the Noise: A Trail Runner's Path To Hearing God"