Saturday, February 21, 2009

2009 Black Warrior 50km

2009 Black Warrior 50km
Moulton, AL
February 21, 2009
Official Results

It has been quite some time since this race has been over, but I find myself on an airplane from the middle of nowhere and heading back home with nothing but time on my hands.

Time is an interesting concept. Unless you are the best of the best and competing for the overall win, you are competing against the clock, and are measured by time. Even when in the elite class, you are still racing the clock, but maybe more motivated by position than time. Over the years, races have added ways for those of us not winning races to feel good about ourselves, including age graded times and age group awards, to name a few. They provide some motivation and sense of accomplishment to know that you are the fastest male between the ages of 30 and 34, but it is not the same as competing for the overall win. In my running career I can say that the when I have been lucky enough to win a race, I value that more than winning my age group or even setting a personal record. Because the formula for winning is so elusive, we mostly end up running for a certain time that we have set for ourselves as a standard of performance, given our training and fitness level.

Ever since the Rocket City Marathon in December of 2008, I had been fascinated with the idea of trying to run 50km (50,000 meters or 31.07 miles) in under 4 hours. This was my own standard of performance that I felt would make me a successful ultramaratoner. The pace to accomplish this feat is 7:43.43 minutes per mile. This standard is, of course, subjective and others would argue that to be thought of as a good ultra marathon, you had to run faster or maybe not as fast; none of that mattered to me, because this was my goal. I had loosely thought about making a substantial attempt at the Fat Ass 50k on New Years Eve at the Huntsville Cross Country Park. This effort was quickly thwarted on that day, when after 19 miles, the excess baggage I had in my body from not being recovered from the marathon, started barking at me in terms of pain in my left arch. I was running well for the first two hours, but decided that I would call it a day and start to focus on Mountain Mist. I would never give up in any race just because I wasn’t going to win or run a certain time; that is not my style. The New Years Eve run is composed of a 1 mile out and back, followed by ten 3-mile monotonous loops. Of the many starters there are few finishers. This is not an excuse for not finishing, just a fact of the race. It was also fitting that I needed only 18 miles on this last day of the year to hit the 3,600 mile mark for the year, a goal that I had for the year. Had I needed 35 miles to hit my goal, I most definitely have run 35 miles. That said, with only 18 required, I actually listened to my body when it was saying that it was not ready to run 50k in under 4 hours on this day.

After the first of the year, I switched my attention to trail running and building endurance for Mountain Mist. I had a very disappointing race in 2008 when I thought that breaking 5 hours on this difficult course would be a walk in the park, and yet I struggled to finish in 5:17. Due to the rugged conditions in Mountain Mist, I had parked my thoughts of the sub 4-hour 50km in the back of my mind to focus all attention on January 24.

I learned a lot about myself at Mountain Mist, including my passion for endurance running. I had never really been a fan and done it mostly out of obligation that local elites seem to unknowingly put on you. After all, before moving to Huntsville, I knew one ultra marathoner and the idea of going longer than 26.2 miles seemed downright retarded. (Forgive the expression, it is only a figure of speech, but seems fitting). I was feeling good in this race and went our hard early and hung with the top dogs for as long as I could. Once they pulled away, I still ran strong and I think that I surprised quite a few people when I ran 4:32:15 and finished 6th overall. It actually become my modus operandi during the race, as every time people remarked at where I was in the pack, I got stronger and ran harder. This had not only bettered my previous Mountain Mist PR by 45 minutes (listed separately from most 50km race PR's due to difficulty) I had also shattered my old 50km PR (albeit a soft one) by 10 minutes. I felt great during the entire race and was able to 'sprint' the last 1.75 miles from Rest Shelter at low seven minute pace.

Going into Mountain Mist, my next endurance race was set to be the Boston Marathon. Coming out of Mountain Mist, I suddenly had a desire to run more ultra events and again toy with the sub 4-hour 50km concept. It took me about a week to commit my intent to run the 50km at Black Warrior in the Sipsey Wilderness. This meant that I would have three weeks to recover and get ready to run the muddy horse trails in the Bankhead forest. Three weeks is plenty of time to recover from a hard 50km before running the next 50km, right? It makes sense only to an ultra runner as we have a slightly skewed perception of time.

In the recovery time between races, I made two trips to Sipsey to experience the trails first hand. The initial training run was on the orange loop with Joey Butler and the gang. This section was full of mud and ruts and lots of horse poop. If this was my only training run there and I had not already signed up, I would have forgone the $40 entry fee and stayed home. That said, Laura, Siri and I went out the weekend before and ran the 11 mile yellow loop. This section was very runnable, as it wound around the edge of wooded bluffs into and out of coves making s-curves. Having seen this section, which would be in the later stages of the race, I was glad that I had committed. If we were lucky and the course dried out at all, I might be able to have a run at that sub 4-hour 50km.

Fast forward to race day, noting that the week of the race we had some decent storms in the area. This rain undoubtedly would mean that the stream crossings would be deeper and the mud would be muddier, if that is even possible or even a word. It was a fairly small crowd of less than 200 runners, competing in either the 50km, the 25km or the 50km relay. At the starting line, I saw quite a few people from Rock/Creek Racing team, including Jamie Dial, who finished 2nd at Mountain Mist and his wife Wendy, who was the top female at Mountain Mist. Besides the Tennessee crowd and locals Jason Reneau and course record holder Heath White, I didn't see many people who had a legitimate shot at the overall win. That meant, as I alluded to earlier, that the rest of us would be racing against the clock.

The mass start took the combined field climbing uphill for 2 miles up a gravel road. Since we were mixed in with the shorter distance runners, we probably took the pace out a little too fast. On the hill climb, I met a guy from Duluth, who I would later discover was ultra running great Andy Holak. He and his wife had planned a southern family vacation around this trip, so Andy was running the 25k and his wife was competing in the 50km.

My splits early on where insane and I knew that I was running too fast and even though I would slow once we got to the technical trails, I was probably ruining my chance at hitting my goal time. That said, I pushed on foolishly at a ridiculous pace through the first aid station near mile 6 where Laura was waiting to hand me a fresh bottle of water. I had a great hydration plan laid out that also went out the window when I started running too fast up front. I passed up aid and went on, chasing the pack that had long since left me. I went through the first six miles in under 44 minutes, averaging 7:20 pace.

The next six miles between aid stations 1 and 2 are sort of blurry so I won't make up memories that I don't have about them. We separated from the 25km runners shortly after the first aid station and then the fun really started; we had our first water crossing, which was no more than ankle deep, but which is just deep enough to have a lasting impact. Coming off of the water, was a short climb in a very muddy section where I nearly lost a shoe. It is hilarious now but not so funny this. Mile 9 was the toughest as I remember, climbing up 220’ from start to end, which is probably why the mile was nearly a minute slower than the rest of them. I went through the next six miles in just under 48 minutes, averaging 8:00 pace and now 7:40 pace overall. This did not bode well for my overall time goal as I was nearly at my average pace with 19 miles yet to run.

At aid station 2 I did take a fresh bottle from Laura and dropped my outer shirt as the temperature had risen steadily. When coming out of this aid station, I heard yelling from behind me. This turned out to be Jason, who was running his style of ultramarathoning. This includes busting his ass from aid station to aid station, but then stopping to refuel and chat with the volunteers before heading out strong again. Jason was waiting for me and we proceeded to run together for the next few miles. It was only 5 miles to the next aid station and the footing was pretty good but the course began to roll much more and the climbs were taking their toll on me. I lead for the first few miles, asking Jason if he wanted to lead, to which he did not. Somewhere before the aid station I was in the process of eating a Power Bar Gel Blast, which had not gone down so well and somehow I coughed and it came back up my nose. I had a hard time breathing and stopped immediately to get water and regain my composure mostly. Jason thought that I had cramped and when I later told him why I stopped, we both laughed. Within a few seconds, I was running again but now from behind Jason. I ran through these five miles at 7:52 pace, bringing me to 2 hours and 11 minutes for 17 miles coming into aid station 3.

Jason had built a slight lead, but was standing at the aid station when I arrived. For the first time all day, I stopped at an aid station to refill my bottle and we talked with the volunteers. I knew that I was now running toward a personal best time, but that it would not be under 4 hours on this day. This aid station was slightly remote, so Laura would not be here, but back at aid station 2/4. The volunteers at aid station 3 talked about the recent burning of the forest and that there was a tree just ahead that was ‘ready to go’. I didn’t understand what she meant but didn’t ask any questions either. For the last couple of miles heading into aid station 3, the park rangers had conducted a controlled burn. Some trees were still smoldering and there was ash and soot in the air. In the low parts of the course, the smoke was terrible and it made you feel like you were running in a campfire. Together, Jason and I left the aid station and quickly found out what the volunteer meant by ‘ready to go’. There was a large tree on the edge of the trail that had smaller branches stuffed into its base that were acting as kindling and were lit on fire. The flames were shooting out across the trail and the heat was very intense. When she said ‘ready to go’ she meant ‘ready to be engulfed in flames making the trail impassable’. We just ran around it, but I imagine as other runners came through, they had to make the route wider and wider to avoid getting burned.

I was no longer going to try to stay with Jason, but instead went into somewhat of a maintenance mode, trying to just maintain a decent pace until I could pick it up on the gravel road again toward the end. It would be a long five miles until the next aid station, where Laura and Sirius Beagle would be waiting for me. The smoke in the air was really bothering my breathing and I coughed more and more as I ran along. It was around mile 20 that I was passed by another runner. He looked strong and had been chasing me for quite a few miles and despite trying to hold him off, he passed by and quickly vanished from sight. My how I gain strength from passing other runners and my how demoralizing it can be to get passed. With frequent walk breaks mixed in with short jaunts of running, I logged a slow 44 minutes for 5 miles into aid station 4 with 22 miles complete in a few minutes under 3 hours. I was still focused on my overall time; it just was going to be slower than I had hoped.

I got a small lift from seeing Laura again. The small crowd of people at the aid station looked to be having a grand old time, watching the runners come and go. I always get motivated seeing people and it gives me strength, but at the same time I love the solitude that the wilderness provides in an ultra marathon. It makes you dig deep and overcome mental demons to push forward when there is no one around. Our sport is not one comprised of crowds cheering but of the defining silence of your inner soul.

From aid station 4 to the gravel road would be another six miles, to which I would have to maintain a decent pace if I expected to set a personal record for this distance. I was having trouble doing any math on what I needed to run to hit a certain time, so I tried not to think about it at all. We were back on the more difficult part of the course that I had run on my first trip to the course a few weeks prior. With a mile or so to go before the last aid station, we had a road crossing where Laura was set to meet me. I was sort of confused as to which way to go once I crossed the road, which was odd since I had been here only a week before, but you are never thinking quite right after running for this long, so having Laura point out the way was great.

The course was still demanding and my effort to pace ratio showed this to be fact. I felt like I was working so hard, but barely averaged under 10 minute miles in the hour that it took me to reach the gravel road. My overall pace had dropped by 25 seconds in just an hour, though I didn’t realize this at the time. I was focused on making it to the gravel road so that I could see what I had left for a strong finish. That had become my mantra; ‘just make it to the gravel road and then we will see what you have left.’ I was repeating this over and over in my mind and maybe even out load a few times. When I finally did reach the road, I looked at my watch and used some quick math to realize that I could still break 4 hours and 20 minutes. I chose to not stop for any last minute aid, thinking that it would just slow me down and I still had half a hand bottle of fluids remaining. If I were going to make a solid push to the end, I wouldn’t need more than that. I remember seeing Mike First Place and he shouted some very encouraging words that helped propel me out onto the road and on my way to the home stretch.

Somehow I felt strong again and started to pick up the pace. The gravel road was all mine and it was time for redemption against the slow middle miles. It was about three miles back to the finish and I was going to try to run faster and faster, given that the road would gradually slope back downhill to the end. I was using the strength that I had gained from a fast finish at Mountain Mist, where I pushed my pace into the seven’s for the last 2 miles, now at the end of another ultra marathon. My mind knew that my body was capable of running fast at the end of a long race and my leg turnover began to increase until I was running in the low 7’s again. The weather was still cool, but I was steaming and pulled off my shirt and wrapped it around my bottle. I wasn’t about to let something so small as that slow me down when I was on a roll. In the last mile we reclaimed all of the downhill we lost at the beginning of the race and I was really cruising. As I looked at my watch, I had gotten back lost time from earlier and now realized that with one last final push, I might be able to finish with a time of 4:15. It is incredible how just 30 minutes prior I was slogging along and hoping to just finish and now I was sprinting to the end with a time goal within my grasp.

The gravel turned to blacktop and the finish was just ahead on my left. I powered through the end where the clock noted my time as 4:15:32. I was so astonished by how I had finished that I didn’t realize that I was done. For some reason I assumed that I would have to run all the way back into the park toward the lake, but instead the finish was just off the main road. Laura and Siri were there, waiting for me and I took a few steps toward my pup and she barked with excitement. I didn’t bark, but I was equally excited to see her and be done as well.

It took me the time to change my clothes, get a hamburger from the grill and sit down on a pick nick table to realize that I had just run a 50k in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Sometimes is takes hours or days for this to sink in, but today it was almost right away. Holding the hand made wooded finisher award for 4th place overall under my paper plate of food seemed like just the thing to do! We stayed long enough to see some others finish and talk with some friends after it was over. We were a long way from home and I was in need of a nap, as was the rest of the family after the 4am wake up call earlier that morning.

In reflecting back, this race was always about time, but not about the time on the clock. It was about the time I spent out in the woods, running alone, dealing with the mental emotions and physical challenges that were thrown my way. It was less about the hours, minutes and seconds that it took me to actually run the distance and more about the time it took for me to realize that I was doing exactly what I love. The feeling of crossing the finish line after such an endeavor is amazing and it is impossible to reproduce in any other aspect of life. It wouldn’t do any justice to it for me to attempt an explanation, so I will not even try. I will just say that I had the time of my life.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

2009 Winter Winds 2mile & 4mile

2009 Winter Winds 2mile & 4mile
Huntsville, AL
February 15, 2009
Official 2 Mile Results
Official 4 Mile Results

Each year the Huntsville Track Club puts on the Winter Winds Road races in mid February as an unofficial kick off to the spring road race season. The 2 mile race begins at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon and then the 4 mile race begins just 30 minutes later.

So your options are:

A) Race one, not both, of the races and put forth full effort
B) Jog the 2 mile as a warm up and then race the 4 mile hard
C) Race the 2 mile and then use the 4 mile as a cool down
D) Race both all out and begin to suffer half way through the 4 mile race

Living in this masochistic running community that encourages crazy running behavior, there really is only one option, D.

Just a few weeks off of the Mountain Mist 50km, and working off of a post RCM recovery, I had done little speed work through January, so I knew these races would not be easy. My goal was to go out hard in both races and just hang on as long as I could. After all, is there another way to race?

In the 2 mile I did in fact go out hard and that I did. We left the parking lot and headed out onto Blevins Gap at a pretty quick pace, chasing Josh (Whitehead) and David (Riddle). I was running in the top 10 through the first 1/2 mile and then when we hit the top of the first hill, I started to push the pace and moved into 4th. Making the first right turn, I hit the mile in 5:19. I was feeling fine as this was so early in this myriad of races, but I knew that George (DeWitt), Donald (Bowman), John (Krichev) and a host of others were right behind me, all with sub 11 minute speed. My pace slowed slightly as we came back up Double Tree, which at a 40' climb over 0.15 miles in a 2 mile race, seems brutal. I made the turn back onto Blevins and headed back to the finish, all along thinking about the great kick of the guys behind me, who at any time could turn it on. On the last turn into the Grissom High School parking lot, I glanced several times back to see the gap to John. Finally I knew that he couldn't make up the gap, but instead of slowing, I pushed hard through the finish. My second mile was 5:29, giving me a total time of 10:48. I was second in my age group of 30-39 and 4th overall and clocked an official personal record at the 2 mile distance. I had hit similar times to date, but they were in the first two miles of 5k races.

01 David Riddle, 27 Time = 9:46
02 Josh Whitehead, 30 Time = 10:24
03 Blaise Binns, 16 Time = 10:31
04 Eric Charette, 33 Time = 10:48
05 Jon Krichev, 32 Time = 10:53
06 Kevin Betts, 31 Time = 10:53
07 Trip Richert, 17 Time = 10:58
08 George Dewitt, 50 Time = 10:59
09 Phillip Justin Holl, 18 Time = 11:06
10 Donald Bowman, 41 Time = 11:15

So it was 2:11 pm and I had maybe 20 minutes to recover and prepare to run all out again. I can barely type the words without laughing hysterically. Given that it was a little cold, I put on a long sleeve shirt to stay warm and jogged a little to shake out my legs. Luckily, the 4 mile race started a little late, so I had 24 minutes to rest before starting again. That is the great trick of the Winter Winds; race hard in the 2, have more time to rest before the 4; or race easy in the 2 and have less time to rest before the 4, but have fresher legs.

In sticking with my selection of 'D' from above, I started the 4 mile race in the top 10 by the time we Blevins. It was obvious that Lucas (Sieb) was going for the win and early on, it looked like no one would challenge him. It felt like we were running too easy by the top of the first hill, so I decided to make a move on the long down hill. It turns out our first 1/2 mile was 2:57, proving that it was far too slow. The next 1/2 mile was much faster, at 2:43, putting me at 5:40 for the first mile. I was again running in 4th place. I ran the second mile strong in 5:38 and was feeling decent. That is about when the bear jumped on my back. I held onto 4th until Briar Hollow, when George proved to be too strong and I could not hold him off anymore. I told him to take the inside on a corner and then he was gone. Doubling back through the field, I am sure that I looked like I was struggling, because I was. My 3rd mile was 5:52.

John was running stride for stride with me through the eastern part of the course. On the slight uphills, he would close the gap and then I would surge on the downhills putting some space between us. This went on for 3/4 of a mile, back and forth. Finally back on Blevins, I just didn't have another push. We were running mid 5 pace and with the lack of speed work over the past 10 weeks, I just didn't have anything left. John was with me and I told him that I just didn't have anything left and let him go past. This actually proved to be a motivator, as I then stayed with him. I tried to make another move before coming back into the school parking lot, but he was surging too. We ran the last mile in 5:39. If not for slowing in the 3rd mile, this would have been a pretty good race.

I finished at 22:49 in 6th place and 2nd in M30-34. This was pretty far off my PR (22:01 in the first 4 miles at Dam Bridge 10k in Nov 08) but I am fairly satisfied given the conditions, the amount of work I had done leading into this race for training and the hard 2 mile race less than 30 minutes before the start of the 4 mile.

The one thing that stands out to me about this set of races was that i had to work really hard during the race to hit these times. They are somewhat inline with my race times from last fall when I was in peak condition, but I just had to work harder to hit them. That tells me that by April when I am in top short distance race shape again, that if I put forth this hard of an effort again, I should be able to race better than last year.

Oh, and by the way, David (Riddle) caught Lucas after running a 'slow' first mile. David took top honors in both races.

01 David Riddle, 27 Time = 20:42 5:11
02 Lucas Sieb, 16 Time = 20:48 5:12
03 George Dewitt, 50 Time = 22:39 5:40
04 Trey Broadway, 17 Time = 22:42 5:41
05 Jon Krichev, 32 Time = 22:45 5:42
06 Eric Charette, 33 Time = 22:49 5:43
07 Donald Bowman, 41 Time = 22:58 5:45
08 David Purinton, 41 Time = 23:05 5:47
09 Greg Reynolds, 26 Time = 23:25 5:52
10 Stephen Baker, 27 Time = 23:34 5:54

Friday, February 6, 2009

2009 Pacific Crest Trail Run

I am not invincible...

The plan was perfect; every detail had been meticulously reviewed and all possible angles had been considered weeks in advance. Maps depicting the topography, distances between checkpoints and water sources were printed. The gear was all packed that would provide shelter from any possible condition. Contacts had been made to experts on this section of trail, to tie up any lose ends or fill in gaps of information that could not be found on-line. In a way, I was more prepared for this adventure, than I was for the work conference that brought me to Southern California. It would take a perfect storm to derail what would be a once in a lifetime experience; a long run on the longest continuous footpath in the world, a trail stretching over 2,650 miles. The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT begins near Campo, CA along the US/Mexico border, traverses through California, Oregon and Washington, before reaching its northern terminus at the Canadian border. These are the types of adventures that make the everyday training run and the monotony of the mundane miles all worth while.

Upon arrival in San Diego on Sunday, I started to pay attention to the 10 day forecast. Most models had called for gorgeous weather through Wednesday, with bright sunshine and highs in the upper 70's. This was a great escape from the abnormally cold weather that I left behind in Northern Alabama. Beyond mid week, there were desperate reports on the conditions, with some sources calling for rain and others for clear conditions. Despite the differing forecasts, one thing that was consistent was that the temperatures would be cool in the mountains on Thursday, with a ten degree range of 40 to 50 degrees between the low and the high.

The week progressed along swimmingly, with a great mix of running and long hours of work. This was highlighted on Monday with a run from downtown San Diego to the village of La Jolla. On each trip I've made to this area, now three in 4 years, I have managed to find the time to make it to La Jolla to take in the sweeping views along the sandy cliffs. Watching the sunrise/sunset at Scripps Park has almost become a right of passage for me. Some of the best photos I have ever taken are from this area, capturing the peacefulness and serenity of the open waters. The coastline here ranks near the top of my list of places that I would love to call home. If I had more time on this glorious day, I would have easily turned around and run back to San Diego, turning a 17 mile run into a 34 mile run; I was just that inspired by the landscape that it nearly warranted missing some work, but I knew others were waiting on me to show up on the conference floor for preparations.

The days passed along, from Monday to Tuesday and from Wednesday to Thursday. On Thursday morning, I had gone to the airport after shaking out my legs on a five mile run, to pick up a rental car. The compact rental from Hertz would be the means of transportation from the Hyatt Convention Center, to the Boulder Oaks Campground, 55 miles to the east along Interstate 8. This is where my journey would be begin and end, with as many miles out and back that my legs would carry me. The conference closed at 1:30 local time and after packing up my equipment, I made it back tot he hotel and with a quick change, was out the door. Along the way, I surfed through the AM radio dial, picking up some Spanish radio, then ESPN radio and finally locating an updated forecast. It was definitely going to rain, with predicted rainfall totals ranging from 1/2" at the coast to an inch or more in the mountains. It would just be a question of when it would start, as the skies were still very blue with only some light clouds. It seemed to take forever to get out of the city, but as I did, the outline of mountains toward the east started to take shape. I was amazed by the fact that despite having been here in 2005 and 2007, that I was now experiencing something new, by escaping the coast and heading inland toward the Cleveland National Forest. I had my gear in the passenger seat and I raced along the freeway, beaming with excitement for what I was about to start. I updated my Facebook status one last time from my Blackberry, and as I passed signs marking the elevation, I added comments to my status. First 2000', then 3000', then 4000', before returning back down to 3000' near my exit from the Interstate.

At exit 51, I turned off to the south and drove along Old Highway 80. Normally I would not pay attention to exit numbers, but as I looked at the map I noticed that it had been quite a few miles since the last exit and the sign along the highway noted the the next exit was still 3 more miles away. This area was very desolate, as the road wound between peaks and down through valleys. On a summer day, this would make for a great road trip from San Diego to Yuma in a convertible. Based on my conversation with Ed Martinez, the race director for the PCT 50k, he had instructed me to park at a turn off on the side of the road, just outside of the campground, to avoid having to purchase a national forest permit. In his last email, he also noted that the campground was closed due to frog mating season; we quickly mentioned that this was a legitimate statement, despite the absurdity of how it sounded. I pulled off onto the gravel and began to change from my jeans and Rocket City Marathon shirt. I had brought along my Mountain Mist tech shirt for this run and I pulled it over my head, dawned my hat and and grabbed my back pack. I had enough food for a day on the trail, 90oz of water and extra clothes to help combat any conditions. At 3:15 pm, I started my gps and stepped onto the trail heading north. I snapped a self portrait, using the tail fin of the rental car as my tripod.

Fairly quickly, I came across a gate, which I assume helped to keep animals out of the interstate right-a-way. I ran under the interstate and then through a series of switchbacks to the other end of the right of way.

There was no warm up period before the quick ascent, so my legs became fatigued quickly. After reaching a runnable section of the trail, the weariness had worn off. The first section of the trail alternated between loose rocks and soft sand, making the footing poor at best. I had expected to cover no more than 5 miles in the first hour, given the trail conditions and the steady climb from three to four thousand feet. After the switch backs, the PCT travels along the crest of peaks, not quite at the top, but high enough that the views were very picturesque. I ran with the camera in one hand, taking a snapshot whenever I could. It took a few miles before I was out of sight and sound from the highway. I had hoped to reach the middle of no where faster, but the desert mountains lacked the thick tree cover of the eastern mountains that I was accustomed to. I enjoyed the views that this openness provided, but it also made it difficulty in seeing the next few miles ahead and how the trail hugged the mountains, before disappearing around the bend.

At about the 4 mile mark, I crossed what would be the last sign of civilization, with the paved road of Kitchen's Creek Rd. This road was shown on the maps that I had printed, and now were stowed safely inside a plastic bag in my camel back, to prevent getting wet, should the rain from the forecast move in. I stopped to take a few self portraits next to the PCT sign post before moving on.

The trail had very few markings, but there were no other side trails, so it was not difficult to stay on track and avoid getting lost. I had forgotten to start my GPS after taking off, but within a few minutes realized that wasn't tracking my position, so I started it up. I estimated that I had only lost maybe a half a mile. Running around the next bend reminded me of the Mount Leconte trail on the AT near New Found Gap. The trail was less than a foot wide, with a steep cliff on my left and a drastic drop off to my right. One mis-step and there would be nothing to prevent tumbling for a 1000 feet. Some loose rock on the trail made this section a little treacherous, and thus slow going. I came across several stunning rock formations that also warranted photos.

Coming around the bend, reveled yet another set of never ending peaks and a trail that continued to slope upward. Looking ahead, there was an ominous sky hanging over a nearby mountain. It was difficult to tell if the trail went toward the dark sky, or if it would turn sharply and head around it. I was about 5 miles into the run and hoped for the later, or it would end up being a long and wet run. I stopped at about the 1 hour mark to grab some nourishment and to create a video snapshot of my initial assessment of the trail. Some of the best memories that I have of running 22 miles on the AT last February were from the video dialogue that I had created using my digital camera. I was going through a rare patch of foliage, with some green leafed trees running parallel to the trail, in a narrow stretch. I used my gorilla pod to attach the camera to one of these trees and record some thoughts that I had been gathering while running along the trail.

The trail profile showed that I would continue to climb up another 1000' to the point where I thought I might turn around and head back. This meant more switch backs and rocky ascents. I was moving along at about 5 to 5.5 miles an hour, given my brief stops to take pictures. I had estimated that after the turn and running back in the dark under the light of my headlamp, that I would average about the same, given that I would be coming back downhill, aiding my speed, but be limited by the same footing and darkness. I passed a sign on a dirt road that pointed off toward Cibbets Flat. The trail map noted that water was available down just a half a mile. I still had a pack full of fluids so had no need to check out the spring below the trail.

After an hour and a half, I had gone above the 5,280' mark, running at a mile above sea level. It had started to lightly sprinkle as well, forcing me to put the camera away and just focus on the trail. I had thoughts at this point of turning around. I honestly pondered making this a 16 mile run, and not a 20+ mile run. The reasoning would be to keep the majority of the run in the daylight, and to avoid the heavy rains that were now eminently ahead. For foolish reasons, I decided to go on to at least the 10 mile mark, making it an even 20. As I recall, I thought that when I would retell this story to friends and family, that it wouldn't seem like much of an adventure if I ran less than 20 miles or 4 hours. So I moved forward, for all of the wrong reasons. I have few regrets in my life but at times I look back and question my judgment.

The sun had long set, and given that I was now in a green valley between peaks, even if it were still in the sky, it would not provide any light. I reached the 10 mile mark and decided that this would be my turning point. I remembered back to the 1/2 mile section that I didn't have my gps turned on for, so in reality I had gone out 10 1/2 miles, so this would end up being a 21 mile run. Earlier in the day I had gone out for an easy 5 mile run, just to shake out my legs and make room for the apple fritter that I had been craving since the one I had the day before, at the Starbucks in the hotel. This meant that the log book would go on to show a marathon in the distance column for this day in history. I found a tree to hang my pack and provide some shelter from the rain, which had picked up and with the darkness moving in, the temperature was now dropping. I went into my dry clothes and added another layer on top. I was still feeling great and in my second video update, I noted how peaceful it was to have 100 square miles of countryside to myself, while at the same time, i did feel isolated from the rest of the world. I had a few gel blasts to keep up my energy stores as well.

After making the turn, it was like the sky opened up and the rain started to fall in sheets. It was still light out, so I was able to make very good time in the first two miles, despite the rain and now the muddy terrain and slippery rocks. I had some minor numbness in my fingers, as the temperature was still dropping. I only had another 8+ miles to go and was moving fast enough that my internal core body temperature was still fine. I kept telling myself that this run would make me stronger mentally, given the conditions. I finally had to pull out my headlamp, as the frequency of tripping over rocks began to the increase, and with the speed I was moving, I wanted to make sure I had some light to guide my way.

Sometime around mile 12+ is when I started to worry. The rain was now coming in sideways with low hanging fog, it left me with extremely poor visibility of no more than my next foot strike. I was ready for running in the dark, running when tired, running in the rain and various combinations of these elements. The only thing I had not considered was all of these happening at the same time, along with the zero visibility. I was only able to see my next step which brought my pace had slowed to less than 5 miles an hour. With the rain falling steady, I ran with my head down, so the rain would fall of my brim and not further incapacitate my sight. I ran this was for another two miles, celebrating slightly with each beep from my gps, indicating that i was another mile closer to the rental car. I was back at the sign for Cibbets Flat and found some shelter. I had waited to put on my outer shell mostly because I didn't want to stop in the elements without any protection. As a pulled out my dry clothes, I noticed that my hands were shaking slightly. Clearly I was cold, but while running I hadn't really noticed how bad it had gotten. The external temperature was now in the upper 30's by my estimate, despite the fact that I had dropped down 1000' since the turn. I was very cold, but was still making good time and knew that I didn't have much time left before getting back tot he warm and dry car.

The next mile was one of the worst I can ever recall. I was back in the area where the trail was narrow, the footing was poor and despite the fact that I could not see the drop off, I knew that it was on my left. I needed to be very careful. With the reduced visibility, I was now moving along at about 4 miles an hour and had encountered the one thing that I had not prepared for in the weeks leading up to this run; an ever falling body temperature, brought on by the wind, rain, darkness and low visibility. This recipe slowed the pace and prevented me from moving fast enough to keep my body temperature up. I was shivering pretty badly now, not just in my hands, but all over. I had only experienced this once before and that was last spring after the Boston Marathon. In that race, my body temperature had gone dangerously low and I had developed stage one hypothermia. My fingernails had turned blue and despite feeling coherent, apparently I was not. Having felt this before, I knew what it was like and that I was nearing that state. I was afraid to take my gloves off to check my fingernails, but figured they weren't a normal color. I had more than 5 miles to go and at this rate, it would take me 75 minutes to get back to the car.

Despite the ever worsening conditions, I remained calm. Throughout the course of the work week, I had been under constant stress, speaking in front of groups as large as 50 people at a time for hours on end. After one particularly stressful software demonstration, a customer and close friend mentioned that even when the demo software had faltered, I recovered well and drew the attention from the crowd away from the center screen, enabling a co-worker to recover the software. He said that even under close scrutiny, I remained calm, cool and collected. This stuck with me throughout the week and came back to me at this time. I figured that I had two options; I could panic and put myself at further risk or I could remain calm, giving me the best opportunity to come out of this situation unscathed. I was glad that I had my superhero cape on underneath my many layers, because it gave me the strength to choose the later. I stopped to check my cell phone for reception. If I needed to phone for help, I would need a signal to get out. I was at a low point between peaks and my phone displayed indicated that it was searching for a signal. I decided to run another mile and check it again, knowing that I would be near the Kitchen's Creek Road crossing and that a signal may be possible. I stowed my phone back away inside a hotel plastic garment bag and then in my backpack for now.

In the next mile I actually felt like I was warmer than before. In having done some research on hypothermia, I remembered that this was only a false sign of comfort and really indicated that the condition was moving from stage 1 to stage 2. Yet, I still remained calm in the face of adversity. I recognized the signs of hypothermia and was experienced enough to know that it would be very dangerous for me to be out in these conditions for another hour or more. I decided that at the Kitchen's Creek Road crossing, I would try my cell phone again and call for help. I would swallow my pride and take my health and condition and the concern of others into consideration and do the right thing. It was at this time that I realized that I was not invincible. So many times before I had blatantly looked into the face of danger and laughed; done things that carried risk without flinching; living a life where I was not afraid of anything. I needed help and was going to ask for it. I was calm, but I was scared.

I got to Kitchen's Creek Road and dug out my cell phone. I had one bar and was able to dial out. Not knowing who else to call, given how far away from San Diego I was, I knew that 911 was my best bet. I dialed it and after a brief recorded message from an operator, was put on hold out to abnormally high call volume. It was like a nightmare that I couldn't wake up from that was now only getting worse and took an unbelievable turn when I lost the signal. I tried walking around, holding the cell phone up in the air (while in a plastic bag) hoping that it was pick up a signal. After what seemed like 10 minutes, I got a signal and dialed 911 again. Only this time, the cell tower signal was not picking up AT&T, but Movistar Wireless. I didn't notices this until someone picked up on the other end and was speaking Spanish. I hung up and tried again, only to have the same result. Apparently I was close enough to the border that my cell phone was now on a Mexican cell carrier. I thought to myself that I couldn't have scripted a worse situation than this and now my phone calls were being answered in Spanish. Still, I did not panic. I pulled out my map and decided that I would be better off heading down the paved road, than back onto the trail. It would leave me 3 miles away from the car, but would get me to the highway faster than the slow going of the trail. The only thing I did not know was how far away from the highway I actually was. This way I would just have to flag down a car on the freeway and they could drive me back to my car. Before leaving, I was smart enough to eat a blueberry Cliff Bar. I figured that some sugar would help me out, possibly providing a little rush of energy to carry me down the hill.

I started to move along, but my form was all over the board. My muscle movements were now being slightly compromised by the hypothermia and I couldn't do more than walk along. I realized that even if I made it to the highway, that the mere warmth of the car heater wasn't going to do the trick. I really did require medical attention, so I stepped off the road, got out of the rain and tried 911 again. It felt party foolish for being so close to the car and calling for help, but underneath it all, I knew it was the right thing to do. This time I was connected to the operator. I informed her of my emergency and she put me through to the San Diego county dispatcher. I was now trembling violently and could barely hold the phone, let alone get out many legible words. Somehow I was still coherent enough to accurately describe my condition and my location. I knew the nearest exit number from earlier and it helped her to locate my position on the map. I knew well enough to ask the dispatcher to repeat everything back to me, making sure that I had clearly stated it and she had clearly heard it. I held on the line while she dispatched the paramedics. They would be there in about 10 minutes and she held on the phone with me while I waited. I asked her if she could just talk with me and keep me engaged until they arrived. I can't tell you what we talked about, because I don't really remember, but know that it was enough to make me focus on everything else but being cold.

And just then, I could see headlights approaching. It wasn't an ambulance, but a pick up truck. I had my headlamp on, but with the poor visibility, the truck drove right past me, even while I waved my arms. Luckily, the break lights came on and the truck pulled over. A man stepped out and asked if I was the stranded hiker. So that's what I had become, a stranded hiker... I said yes and he introduced himself. I didn't catch his name, but he said that was some sort of off duty special forces member who was nearby and acting as the first responder. The dispatcher made sure that I passed his name and unit to her so she could be sure that he was legitimate (I can only assume?) before hanging up. He had me get into his truck and out of the rain. It was a little intimidating as he had a sidearm in the door. I didn't really make the connection as to how he found me, but sat in his truck for a few minutes until the paramedics arrived.

When they pulled up, they had me get into the ambulance and immediately covered me with blankets. I was surprised that they didn't have me take my wet clothes off, but I assumed they were out for my best interests. I was able to tell them my name and other vital information as they assessed my conditions. I still felt very coherent, but maybe I was just trying so hard to not lose it. In later research, I would read that stage 2 hypothermia was accompanied by mild confusion, even though the victim may appear alert. Now I wonder if I was making any sense at all when talking with the paramedics.

They took my temperature after about 15 minutes and it had risen to 94 degrees. This can only mean that I was in the 92 to 93 degree range when I was on the phone with the dispatcher. I commented to paramedic Osorio that 94 degrees didn't sound so good. He said that he had seen worse, but that it still wasn't good, especially since they had been warming me for a while. They finally had me take off my wet shirts/jacket and added heat bags to under my neck, under my arm pits and to my chest. At some point they drove down the mountain and back to the car, but I don't really remember when or much of the ride. They two responders were very nice and extremely helpful. They kept talking to me about where I was, why I was in the mountains, about running, about the tattoo on my back, etc. Again, like the conversation with the dispatcher, it wasn't that deep, but it was what I needed. I was still shaking so much that it hurt.

Osorio took my temperature again after awhile and it was now 96 degrees. I had moved out of stage 2 hypothermia thanks to their help and was now nearing normal. I knew that everything would be all right once I stopped shaking and the pain in my legs from cramping had become the primary concern. Per their policy, they recommended that I seek further medical attention and that they transport me to the nearest hospital. I figured that as my condition was steadily improving and the nearest hospital was probably an hour or more away back in the city, that I would decline and drive myself back. We were back at the car now, and Booby got out and started my car for me and grabbed my dry clothes. They took my temperature one last time and I was now just under 98 degrees and in the normal range. My heart rate had returned to normal after a period where it was was racing with the adrenaline of the situation. My blood sugar was normal, thanks to the smart move of eating the Cliff Bar before making the call. Finally I was ready to sit back up from the gurney and get dressed. I thanked Osorio and Watson profusely and later regretting not getting more information from them so that I could send my gratitude. I don't know the level of severe danger that I was actually in, so I can't say that they saved my life, but I know that I was able to walk away form the situation because they were there for me.

As I drove back to the city, with the heater on high, I tried to retrace my day and figure out what I had done right and where I had gone wrong. I was prepared for anything, but had not considered so many cards stacked against me at the same time. This will not stop me from experiencing the world through these adventures into the mountains and wilderness again, but I will do so with more caution. I had hoped to return with a tale describing the greatness of the trail, the scenic views, pictures that would make best selling postcards and video of me as I took it all in. What I came out with was a better respect for things that you can not control and a better understanding of myself.

It took the perfect storm of elements coming together all at once to define the backbone of this story and make me realize that I am not invincible, but it was my courage under pressure to remain calm, in a situation which would have engulfed most people, that will forever define me as a person.