I’ve written before about finding excuses not to take proactive steps to fight the Huntington’s Disease demons. I’ll try to never quit that battle. However, there are some times when you have to stop doing something, like driving, to insure your safety and that of everyone else on the road. That’s a very difficult thing to do, since it means losing your freedom and admitting that the disease has gotten the better of you
I hope I never have to make that decision or have someone else make it for me. But, if it happens, I hope I’ll accept it with dignity and good humor. This past weekend I was faced with a situation where it was becoming increasingly obvious that I would have to give up an activity I have engaged in and loved for many years.
I have been running a wilderness trail race since 1997 each year in the South and North Carolina mountains. It’s called the Laurel Valley Whitewater Run. I had finished 15 years in a row until last year, when I filled in for the Race Director so he could run his own race for the first time in many years. His name is Claude Sinclair and he is a delightful Southern Gentleman, as well as having been an excellent runner in his younger years.
Laurel Valley is sort of unique. It’s a point-to-point race that starts in Rocky Bottom, SC and finishes at Whitewater Falls, NC. The trail is called the Foothills Trail and the GPS measured distance is 35.7 miles. However, the many climbs and descents make the actual distance probably closer to 40 miles. Duke Power owned the land at one time and built the original trail laying wooden steps up steep hills instead of building gentle switchbacks.
It’s a tough course and there are no exits other than the start and finish. Once you begin you have only two options – finish or turn back to the start. There is also no support like most races have. There are no aid stations, so you have to carry all your calories and purify water from streams and rivers for drinking. The first year I ran there were 18 runners. It has expanded since then to around 60 at the maximum, but remains a purist’s race.
My time the first year was 11 hours and my best was just under 9 hours. About 6 years ago I started volunteering to be a safety sweep – following the last runner to make sure everyone finished safely. My times had started to slow and that was a way to allow for that. I have had some adventures doing that, but did get everyone home safely. Two years ago in 2011 I noticed my speed had deteriorated more. I had to almost run to keep up with sweeps who were walking leisurely (as leisurely as you can in that kind of terrain).
Fast forward to this year. I celebrated my 67th birthday on Friday, August 9th, at the traditional pre-race dinner held at the Gatehouse Restaurant in Beautiful Downtown Pickens, SC. I have organized that for a number of years at several locations. I had trained about the same as in years past, so I felt pretty good about my chances for a finish. About half of the registered 55 runners attended.
On Saturday morning the race started at 5:00 AM and I took my place in the rear with 3 other sweeps, by coincidence also Marines - one active duty and two Formers. One of them had been in Force Recon, the elite USMC special ops folks. I told them to move at their own pace, but not to pass anyone. Claude requires first timers to run sweep for their first year. It was sort of heartwarming to be called “Sir” by these studs.
The first part of the LV trail is not very difficult, but I always take it slow in the dark to make sure I don't go over a precipice and end my race early. Well, after about a half an hour the other guys were way out of sight and earshot. That's not been a problem in the past, when I've consistently caught people.
After about 2 hours of mixed climbs and descents, I bottomed out by a stream, where I refilled one water bottle. There's an old campground at that spot, and I knew it was a place where trail finding can be dicey. I seemed to remember that going right was where I had had trouble in the past. So, I headed left on an old logging trail - they crisscross the Trail in numerous spots. After about 100 yards I saw a white blaze, which is the Foothills marker. I know I did, GolDarnit. The trail marking can be spotty, so it's not unusual to see a stretch without them.
After about a mile of steady climbing, I knew I was in trouble. “AW FUDGE!!” That's what I screamed to anyone who was listening. No one was, since I was about an hour into being lost in the LV wilderness somewhere in the vicinity of Laurel Fork Falls, where I would have been had I taken the correct turn on the Foothills Trail. My gut told me if I kept moving uphill I might run back into it at the Falls.
If I retraced my steps I would lose even more time on my already tenuous progress. The only hope was to keep climbing and hope I could find the Falls. There were a few signs that identified the trail as being in the Laurel Fork Falls Protective Area. At about 3 hours, normally the time I would be at the Falls, I gave a Final Aw Fudge and gave up. Laurel Fork Falls is about 9 miles into the race and is identified to the runners as a good place to turn around and go back to the start if it's not your day. The active duty sweep had a government sat phone with him and I figured he would assume I did that if I disappeared. Cell phones don’t work in that terrain.
The trip back to the start wasn’t all that easy, since there are several decent climbs. I also had a little trouble finding the right trail again after my detour. Finally I reached the 50 downhill steps where I had started with high hopes earlier. When I bottomed out on the flat parking lot I sprinted 20 steps and raised my arms in a victory salute to what would probably be my last LV. Of course no one was there to see it – only about 20 cars waiting for their runners to finish and be shuttled back.
I got back to the start at just at 6 hours 15 minutes race time. The sat phone guy had figured it out and there was someone at the start to pick me up within about 45 minutes. I had them drop me at my motel, where I picked up my car and drove to the finish to help shuttle runners back to the start. The sad thing is that I was still moving fairly well. I had fallen only once and navigated the difficult parts without much trouble.
The trail was a mess due to recent heavy rains, and there were two bouts of crashing thunderstorms mid and late afternoon. I was sad not to be still running, but glad to have missed those. Folks finishing after 3:00 PM were quite unhappy. That would have slowed me even further and might have put a finish in darkness. It was the right decision for both me and the RD, who would have had to wait for me.
What next? My age related deterioration has obviously caught up with me and the chances of finishing again would be slim. After a couple of days thought I decided it’s time to retire with as much dignity as I can muster after a pitiful effort
Claude, the Race Director, has a history of bad knees and gave up running for a number of years before entering his race two years ago. He started to run again out of the blue and found a level of training that his knees could handle. He also suffers silently from Crohn’s Disease. He didn’t finish the race. By sheer coincidence he turned around at about the same distance that I did. He’s undergoing a series of new knee injections, but isn’t hopeful he’ll ever be running seriously again.
He has accepted my offer to help him as a permanent Assistant RD, so I’ll be at LV again next year. For both of us, IT WAS TIME TO QUIT!