An Awesome Autumn in the Mountains: Dupont Forest Trail Marathon
By Gordon Cherr
“Just imagine how it feels . . . . the cool mist surrounds me.
On the mountain top as I reach to touch the clouds
I breathe in the cool, crisp, refreshing air.
It nourishes me, bringing me energy and feeling that surface.
When one day I am old and grey all alone,
I’ll somehow call upon my neurons to connect
And I’ll come back to this very day again.
For it’s here that I can come back alive.”
Valry Stoudmire, 2004
The drive from Asheville to Hendersonville, North Carolina, and from Hendersonville to the DuPont National Forest in the early morning of October 17 was eye candy for the Florida boys. Cool, gusty, swirling winds and leaves of red and orange and purple were everywhere we looked. A perfect day for running a marathon in the mountains. Nevertheless, the steep drive up Sky Valley Road to the start did serve to get one’s attention, and I know that it did bring me back, if but temporarily, to reality.
We gathered in a big field near the start, myself, Gary and Peg Griffin (lending moral support), Jay Yanovich and Pat Judd (from Pensacola), and I even saw Andy Colee from Valparaiso. I was interested in locating some old Asheville running mates, and was not disappointed on that score either. First there was Lloyd Basten, joking with me at the start about my obvious lack of adequate preparation, training in all too flat Florida. Lloyd is the most patient of runners and I told him I would probably see him around Mile 20, where I expected him to catch me. As it turned out, it was at Mile 25, but no never mind, it was no surprise to me. Then a chance encounter with Ann Riddle. Ann had recently finished 6th in the 100K World Championship (!) last month in Europe, averaging under 8 minutes/ mile for the entire 62.1 miles. She saw me and gave me a confused look, like “where the hell have you been?”, and then broke into a big smile. “You are going to pay for leaving us”, she said. She was indeed right on that score.
Actually, despite the beautiful, nearly perfect weather and some fairly reasonable and injury free training, I was worried about running this course. It seems that my last 3 marathons and ultras have all ended the same dismal way, with terrific cramps in my left calf. Then three weeks ago, running one last 20 miler with Jeff Bryan and Corey (my son), the same disaster struck right around mile 16, out at the Greenways. Oh, boy. I have been hydrating, I have been taking electrolytes (Succeed), I don’t know what else to do. I am determined to finish this race.
I have made a deal with Gary though, and we plan to run together, shooting for 4 hours. Just to finish, nothing fancy here. Gary, himself, is in recovery from various injuries and ailments, and he has his own trepidations this day too. But don’t waste your time making deals with Gary Griffin, the gun goes off and he just runs away. Bye, you bum… In reality that is the law of the jungle for ultra runners. You really are responsible for yourself and no one else, and no one else should be responsible for you. So, have a good run this day, my friend. I know it isn’t personal.
The first few miles are downhill on a gravelly logging road. There are around 200 starters and the first few miles in any trail marathon or ultra are always confused, with people trying to figure out a pace and usually looking for someone to naturally hook up with. At least for a while. The funny thing about trail ultras, if there is such a thing, is that people come and go out of your life all day long, sometimes several times during the day. And there are even long stretches where you find yourself running all alone as the trails twist and turn, you can hear runners around you but you can’t see them at all.
But back to the first 2 miles. The road is wide, the footing solid and I notice these mile markers facing backwards, on the other side of the road. One says Mile 26, the next one I pass says Mile 25, then I pass Mile 24 on the same side as I am running. Even I can figure out that we will all be retracing our steps on this road later in the day, the disconcerting fact to be filed away is that the first 2 miles are a steep downhill, so the last 2 miles are going to be run on a steep uphill. What is it with you race directors anyway?
“Sugar, ah, honey, honey
You are my candy girl
and you’ve got me wanting you.
Honey, ah, sugar, sugar
You are my candy girl
And you’ve got me wanting you . . .”
The Archies, 1964
I know the hills are coming, and I have promised myself to walk the uphills in an abundance of caution, but this day is simply too gorgeous. So, screw it! The first miles are coming so easily, 9 minutes/mile, hardly breaking a sweat, man. The leaves are breathtakingly beautiful in the deep forest, the course is also heavily shaded, the footing soft and forgiving with very little technical running. Around Mile 3 we pass under an old fashioned covered bridge. This is part of a turn around area and the leaders are coming through. They aren’t laboring just yet, but clearly are not having a good time. I, however, am having a very good time. Then we hit the first major uphill of the course. Many people are starting to walk, but not me. But after about 15 minutes of steady climbing a little voice in my ear suggests that I save it for later, Assuming that there will be a “later” for me this day, I do slow to a trot and then to a race walk until the hill is crested. A few minutes later I see Gary, Pat and Jay coming back towards me, all running together, and Gary says something about being amazed at what is up ahead. That normally is a bad omen, I figure it means an even bigger hill is coming, but instead a single track pine straw covered trail takes me to the most incredible waterfall that I have ever seen. The water seems to shoot out of a narrow opening in the rocks way above, and then the flow suddenly widens and the water cascades down all sides of the rocky waterfall. It looks all the world like a white bridal veil, and it suddenly strikes me that this must be the aptly named “Bridal Veil Falls”, mentioned in the race packets. The scene is simply breathtaking.
Working my way back up from the falls and I am passing people way too fast. The course is mismarked here and my mile 4 is run in about 4:30, and some of the runners are chuckling about setting a new PR for the mile. However, I pass Mile 4 right at 36 minutes, and I am right on schedule still. Suddenly there is a huge crash in the woods next to us and everyone is shocked out of their lethargy. I assume there is a bear coming and turn, expecting to see the worst, but it is another runner who has made a pit stop and is rejoining the pack.
The course changes radically around Mile 5-6 and we are now running and walking these long uphill pulls. An especially steep and long Mile 7 deposits us, of all places, onto the level runway of an airstrip, sitting on the side of the mountain. The far end of the runway seems to drop off into thin air (and it does), but the view of the surrounding mountains behind it is awesome. The mile or so of flats is refreshing and it is tempting to pick up the pace, but I don’t want to mess with what seems to be a very good thing. I am 8 miles into this race, on pace and barely suffering, all things given.
There is a large pack in front of me and I do pick it up to catch the group. There are about 6 guys in the pack and a lone woman about 5 yards ahead of them. Everyone’s gaze appears to be intently set on something up ahead and no one is saying a word. Then even I get it. The lone woman running ahead is wearing very thin grey tights and let’s say that she is really wearing them well.
I can tell that these guys are going to be mired behind her for the next 17-18 miles or so, and while I don’t blame them one bit, one of the guys is conducting an impromptu discourse on erectile dysfunction (“ED”), it is time for me to move on. So I catch up to Ms. Grey Britches and we pick it up a little bit more. We run together for about the next 5 miles, she is a cross country runner for the Western Carolina University Catamounts. I did ask her why she was wearing tights, it was cool, but not so cold and she tells me that she didn’t want anyone to see that she hadn’t shaved her legs in a few days. Someday someone will write a book about conversations during a marathon or ultra, between total strangers.
Once off the airstrip we are back in the woods and some much more serious climbing is going on. I have convinced myself that some walking is called for, but only after I find myself suddenly distracted. Like that unwanted, disliked and loud neighbor who sometimes comes knocking at our doors, my quads are starting to announce their not so silent protest at what we have been doing for the past nearly 2 hours. Damn it, this was sooner than I had expected. Well, sooner than I had hoped. Maybe I should have started walking earlier. Well, too late now, Bunky, just do the best that you can. We’ll deal with it later. As it turns out, we deal with it sooner as opposed to later.
“He said ‘I was in my early forties with a long life before me,
when a moment came that stopped me on a dime’.
And I spent most of the next days looking at the x-rays, talking ’bout the options and talking ’bout sweet time.
And I asked him when it sank in that this might really be the end, how it hits you when you get that kinda news, man, what do you do?
And he said ‘I went sky diving, I went Rocky Mountain climbing, I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named BluManchu. And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter and I gave the forgiveness that I’d been denying.’
And he said ‘Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying’.
Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”
On my drive up to Asheville a few days before the marathon, I stopped to see my very sick friend, Wes, at the Greenville Hospital. Perhaps dying of bladder cancer, fighting his demons like a banshee. This has been eating at me for days now, making running and this running seem awfully insignificant. But Wes is a fighter and win or lose, he will fight the good fight. He is living like he is dying because he is. But so are we all. We will all lose the fight, but our individual salvation lies in how we live, hence how we die.
Right now I am thinking deeply of Wes and of dying. I have been winding down the miles, and I can live and run with that pain and make it to the finish, but then at Mile 16 I am rudely awakened to my mortality by the electric shock that suddenly grabs my left calf and sends it into painful spasm. I am jumping up and down on my good right leg and trying to rub out the cramped calf in my left leg and cursing aloud at my misfortune. I didn’t deserve this! For whatever reason this happens at a big aid station and concerned race workers come running over to try to get me to lie down. I push them away and tell them, not too sweetly, to leave me the “F” alone.
I begin to crawl off and try to think about what to do. I have been drinking fluids and taking Succeed every half hour and even before the start and I am at my wits end, feeling more than a little sorry for myself. Then suddenly I see Wes in his hospital gown, with those tubes running in and out of him everywhere and that damn nasty respirator hose that he is tied to, perhaps forever, and the funny thing was that when I saw him he was not mad or sad but actually smiling at the curve that his life has sent to him, and he wasn’t willing to give an inch to even begin to feel sorry for himself. And I hear that Tim McGraw song pounding in my head and I think that maybe it is time to start living like I was dying, to get up, get moving and just deal with whatever had come my way. The next thing I remember is that I am up and hopping down the trail, the race workers and spectators are clapping and cheering for me and basically treating me nicer than I deserved to be treated.
I have a big pile of Succeed in my running pack, and plenty of Ultra in my bottles and decide that I am going to take Succeed until I stop cramping. I feel a cramp coming on and take two more Succeed. This stops for about 30 seconds and the process is repeated. The cramping is spaced out now, maybe 2-3 minutes apart and I keep pounding those pills and drinking like mad. I know that my kidneys may be shocked shortly and don’t want that to happen. This goes on for the next 2-3 miles and by Mile 19 the cramp in my left calf has vanished. Mostly. I have taken at least 20 Succeed. Don’t try this at home, folks. I am a professional.
I have not been paying much attention to the trail and I suddenly realize that a few minutes ago I entered a beautiful forest of tall rhododendrons, and they make a canopy over the trail. The running trail is single track and very rolling now, and while I am not willing to push it or to push off hard, I am starting to make some better time once again. I have been passed by so many runners over the past 3 miles I have lost count, but like true competitors everywhere, everyone has had a word of encouragement or a pat on the back for me. And as I start to pass these folks in groups of two’s and three’s, I can see that we have all been battling our private demons. It is my turn to lend encouragement and a kind word.
The Mile 21 marker passes and I know that I am going to finish this race standing. I’ll walk it in if I have to but would rather not. There is some chatter behind me on a long uphill and two of the Western Carolina Lady Catamounts have caught me. We hook up for a few minutes and on one rather rooty section, one of us (and I don’t know who) catches a root and down we three all go. It might be more pleasant to lie here for a while but the two young women are up and running and yelling at me to come on. They don’t have to wait long, and but for a hole the size of a dime in my right knee and a matching one in my right shoulder, I am no worse for wear.
The goal is to be patient now and hope to make the finishline before I wind down completely. We come out of the forest onto a familiar looking road and head down a big hill. There are runners coming the other way, many struggling, more walking, and when I see the Mile 24 marker I find little comfort in the fact that we are on the last downhill stretch, because we will have to turn around and run up for two miles to the finish.
It takes forever to reach the last turn around. I grab two big cups of Gatorade and someone throws a cup of water on the back of my neck. Oh, that felt good! My mind is lost somewhere in a fog, honestly, if it wasn’t for the other runners going my way, I would have been completely lost. The uphill stretch seems to go on forever and I am lost somewhere within myself when someone puts his arm around me, squeezes my shoulder and says “so have you had fun on the hills today?” It is dependable Lloyd, just cruising along, he has hardly broken a sweat. “You’re late” I say, having expected him to catch me by Mile 20, and here it is, Mile 25. I expect that Lloyd will run me in, but he sees the two Lady Catamounts and off they all go with a little wave. Vintage Lloyd, not bad for a guy nearly 70!
Somewhere up ahead music is playing and a crowd is cheering. I am nearing the finishline. Off to the side I see Gary and Peg, Pat and Jay all waiting for me, cheering me on along with a great number (to me) of spectators, race workers and other finishers, and I am one very happy camper to be crossing that finishline.
“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
In ’65 I was seventeen and running up 101
I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on . . . .
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too”
Jackson Browne, Running On Empty
See ya around.