From the Garden of Eden to the Dead Sea: Torreya 25K/50K, 2010
Back in the day, as the old timers like to say, the now long deceased E. E. Callaway of Bristol, Florida, used to write letters to the local newspapers and tell anyone who would listen, that his beloved Torreya State Park in Liberty County, was really the biblical Garden of Eden. Indeed, it is written (but not in the King James Version):
For Callaway, this theory was not just a flight of fancy. The Apalachicola is fed by four primary tributaries or “heads,” exactly like the river described in the Book of Genesis. In addition, some of the rarest plants in the world grow along the bluffs and steephead ravines on the east side of the river between Bristol and Chattahoochee. Among these are both the Florida torreya and the Florida yew. The torreya was officially discovered by botanist Hardy Bryan Croom during the 1820s and named for Dr. John Torrey, a famed naturalist of the time. Locals have long called it the “stinking cedar” for the strong odor it emits when it is bruised. They also believe it is the famed gopher wood from which Noah built the ark. This legend, of course, added strength to Callaway’s theory that he had found the Garden of Eden.
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The site identified by E.E. Callaway as the Garden of Eden is protected today as part of The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. Accessible via Garden of Eden Road, the preserve has paid tribute to the local legend by labeling a primary trail leading through the site as the Garden of Eden Trail. Be aware though, this is not a walk for the faint of heart.
“Not for the faint of heart”….good advice to remember.
There are single track trails here, traversing deeply shaded river flood plain and steep rooty ravines and sharply pointed cypress stobs laying in wait for the less than wary along clear shallow streams, these trails are simply not very runnable for those faint of heart. But those other runners of a more stout constitution may clearly be identified at the finish by their bloody knees and the ripped up flesh on the palms of their hands. There are sandy, piney uplands and wire grass meadows which offer welcome running after so much hard hiking, and 50′ high red limestone outcroppings unbelievably reminiscent of the red rocks of Sedona. If your timing is good (and lucky), a profusion of blooming red, pink, purple, yellow and white wild flowers that will make the most ardent botanist insanely jealous. And a longing glance back to the north while passing over the high point of the course, Logan’s Hill, where I can never help but to stop dead in my tracks, turn around and look, remaining many seconds too long for someone running a race against something or someone (because you lose yourself inside “there,” somewhere, many times, when you are out here), and then sharply draw in my breath in awe, for Torreya is really the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and you can follow the gentle folds in the crust of the earth for as far north as you can see. And 100′ beneath it all, running silently but running swiftly with the spring rains, is the omnipresent Apalachicola River. It is the largest river in Florida, created by the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee in Georgia, running 120 river miles south to the small coastal village of Apalachicola, where swarthy and deeply tanned oystermen still earn their living the old hard way, by the sweat of their brows and of their backs in the blazing sun, feeding their two pack a day habit. You won’t see them on the trails here, but you’ll hear the insane caterwaling of 3′ tall pileated woodpeckers or the comforting call of barred owls (“who cooks for you, who cooks for youuuuuu”). And if you are really fortunate, you won’t see the black bears who fear little or the Florida panthers reputed to be here as well, who fear nothing and no one.
Well, forgive me. It is the old Florida and by God, Torreya is a wonderfully wild and beautiful place and every time I run here, which is not often enough, I cannot help but feel connected to something much greater. Maybe old E. E. Callaway deserves more credit.
The race itself is a brilliant enterprise, one set of two loops or two sets, 25K or 50K. You’ll be out here a lot of hours no matter who you are or who you think you are, your eyes better be focused directly on the trail before you or else you will be eating some Florida dirt and limestone. That’s ok, the blood will clean it out in due time. Up and down, it is relentless and steep, often jumping from root to root, with a few miles of gently rolling trails after a few hours, just to start to remind you why you are really here and to give you a vestige of hope. Then some final climbing and stump jumping, to destroy that last vestige of the hope you might have foolishly been holding on to.
The race has been run three times. I have run the 25K three times. The first year I was coming off five ankle surgeries and “ran” 3:52 (yep, that’s like 14:58/mile and I was damn happy to finish standing). Last year I was in much better shape, the race was moved back six weeks due to tornado induced trail damage, to late May, the summer heat set in and about killed me, I ran off the trail for some additional but free hilly miles, the leg cramping did the rest, and I walked in the last two hours for a DFL in 4:28 (yikes, 17:18/mi). I had a year to think about it and I thought about it a lot. Maybe this year a little race strategy and more respect for the course would be in order. And I’ve gotten more chummy with the trails here. A little song has been running through my head: “Run when you can, walk when you have to, be who you are, that’s a part of the plan” (apologies to Dan Fogelberg). Maybe that will be my mantra when the going gets tough, and the going will get tough, you can count on it.
OK, time to tee it up. Off we go in the cool for now spring morning. I have decided to run/walk easy to the top of Logan’s Hill and then run the last 11-12 miles home like I stole something. The first 3-4 miles are steep drops and climbs, shoe sucking mud, roots and stobs and even some steep steps cut into the side of the hills by those manning Confederate gun emplacements overlooking the river, 150 years ago, give or take. I really do not want to leave it out here this early. The plan works well for about two miles, maybe three and then I find myself running with a group of four who are yacking and chatting and laughing it up, and I cannot stand the intrusion into my private psyche. I like the solitude and silence of running long, especially when you will need to go deep inside at some point and in this race you definitely will need to go looking for yourself in there, perhaps several times. So off I go, pace be damned.
The deeply shaded trail paralleling the big river here twists and turns, drops and climbs and it is easy to get away from external distractions. There is a younger woman running with me now, we are leapfrogging back and forth. Clearly she is weak on the uphills but revels in the downhills and we co-exist this way for a mile or two. Then I hear a telephone ring. Too early to hallucinate but then I hear it again. I asked her if she heard that or was I losing my marbles so early in the day. She says, “Oh, no, that isn’t a telephone, that is the alarm of my heart rate monitor.” Well, here we go again, I am out of there. I’ll see her later at the finish when she trailed me in about 35 minutes later and we’ll have a good laugh about that little conversation, but out on the trail the artificially induced noises are really bothersome.
That isn’t all. What the ???…I realize that for several miles now my underwear has been climbing right into my butt crack. It is like I have to pull it out every 30 seconds or so. Bad enough in a road race, here balance is a key and it is hard to balance with a water bottle in one hand and a handful of butt crack in the other. Damn. I was wearing old running shorts that I cannot bear to part with even though the inner support has long since worn out. I cut the inner briefs out and bought some micro briefs some time ago from Wal Mart, for support. I got dressed in the 4 AM darkness this morning and pulled this underwear out from the dresser, I am running my hands on the undies as I traverse the low lying swamps. Hmm…very soft, very nice…WHOA!!!!!!!! WHOA!!!!!!! WHOA!!!!!! Something tells me that Sharri’s panties have somehow made it from the drier into my underwear drawer and all the way to the Torreya Trail. Guess what? She is built differently from me and I am going to be tugging on these little buggers for another 2+ hours. Ladies, who designs the cut of your panties? This is slow torture. For Chrissakes…I am thinking of Cosmo Kramer, who upon being discovered to be eschewing all underwear by Jerry Seinfeld, shouts out for all the world to hear, “Jerry, I am out there and I am lovin’ it!!!” Well, I am out there but I ain’t lovin’ it. OK, you just have to be flexible when you run, something is always going to happen, usually the unexpected. Besides, I know that there is a healthy supply of Preparation H in my running bag. Hmmm…I don’t think I could grow to like this, but wonder when Dillard’s is having the next sale on….Never mind, back to the business of the trails… and a short tug every 30 seconds or so for the next 2 hours. Slow torture.
I finally come out at the first aid station, about 5 miles and 70 minutes out. I am hydrating with water and Ultra and initially dropped one Succeed cap in the bottle. It isn’t that hot yet but I am a sweathog and a little extra sodium gives me a bit of comfort. I am wearing a new fanny pack, but it was bouncing a bit in the back and was getting in the way of the “tugging” effort, so I had rotated it around to the front. I don’t normally wear a pack that way but interestingly it is positioned just below my belly button and somehow it has helped me find my spiritual “center.” I don’t know, maybe it just took my mind off butt crack issues, but either way, the race is a breeze so far.
So I pull into the aid station, pull out another packet of Ultra, dump it in and commence to pour water into the bottle. Except that I pour all of the water into the the now front facing fanny pack. Oh, rude, and when I bend over to pour out the contents I dump the Ultra out of the bottle all over the aid station table, as well. No more Ultra, oh crap. My only alternative is the Gatorbarf and water on the table for the next 11.5 miles and 2+ hours. So be it, what choice do I have? Nothing but another corollary to Murphy’s Law.
Necessity being the mother of invention I am thinking about the electrolytes dripping off the table and onto the Torreya Trail. Hmm, salt…I wonder. Ray The K always said to lick your bicep to assess your salt situation and I do that much to the amusement of the aid station worker. Hmm, very salty, maybe I should be concerned. Lo and behold, I ask and the aid worker points to a dish of sea salt on the table. I drop a small pinch into the Gatorbarf, and then drop in another just to be safe. It is rapidly warming up and some of the remaining miles will be in the full sun. Off I go, wet and sticky with orange stains from the Ultra running down the front of my shorts, along with the ever present butt crack issues. Next aid station, about 5 miles down the trail.
The trail crosses a paved road and I am back onto a rather gnarly downhill stretch of single track. About 300 yards down the trail I take a pull from my bottle. OMG, that is really nasty. The concoction is so salty, I feel like it must be like drinking from the Dead Sea. Now am I going to drink this stuff or suck it up dry for the next hour or more? I know that drinking this concentration of salt may not be the best idea, but are no fluids better? The internal debate rages back and forth. I opt for drinking, although sparingly. A mile or two later my wedding band is squeezing my finger, my hands puffy, the familiar back of my hands with protruding veins and knuckles have been replaced by the bloated hands of a total stranger.
I am on the connector trail between the loops now and there are several short but nasty climbs to the top. I promised myself that I would walk these and I make good on that promise. Finally, the connector drops me off on the Challenge Trail. A six mile loop and mostly runnable, this is the place to make haste if possible. Despite all that has transpired, two hours into the race and the day is suddenly perfect, the birds are singing, the sun is out, there is a gentle breeze, and it is the most glorious spring day in north Florida. I am thinking that it must be true, I AM in the Garden Of Eden! I am so high, time to stretch it out, and stretch it out I do. That I am picking off fellow runners one after another on the trail is all but irrelevant. It feels like the trees are flying by, I feel totally at peace and one with the land for the moment. I am going to ride the crest of this wave for as long as I can. These moments of pure bliss are so special and so rare in this life, inexplicably I feel tears of joy beginning to well up in my eyes. Not a good idea, I need to conserve that water.
In time all good things come to an end, and about the time I exit the Challenge Loop, make my way back down the connector and wander into the last aid station, the lack of water and the overabundance of salt is starting to take its toll. I feel bloated and imagine I am looking like the Michelin Man. From here on in I will push water and more water and a ittle bit of diluted Gatorbarf. Plain water has never tasted so good! I drink it up, I pour it on my head and feel it roll slowly down my back. I pour even more into my eyes. Filling the bottle more carefully this time, I am soon back on the trail and heading for home.
The last few miles need to be ground out, the essence of ultra trail running. The bear is always ready to jump on your back, when he does and he will, don’t let it ruin your day. The trails are back to their gnarly old selves and there are fallen trees laying across the trail here and there, enough to make you forget any semblance of pace. I am back in the lowlands, the shade is thick as are the ferns and palmetto along the trail, clearly marked for a change, and there are a few more streams to traverse. The day hikers have finally come out onto the trails, carrying enormous looking packs on their backs and I try to remember the feelings of near weightlessness I had many miles ago. They nod their heads knowingly in my direction as I pass. I appreciate the friendly greeting. You can go a long way out here without seeing another human being on these trails.
Ah, finally the big arrow pointing up the last steep half mile climb up to the finish. Some have finished ahead of me, some will finish behind me. Later, looking into their eyes, I know that for most of us, finishing place is not very important anymore. That we have been able to share this special place together is.
Torreya binds us together in a way that I cannot explain. The Garden Of Eden? Imagine that. If God threw us out, he most surely allowed us back in, even if just for a short few hours, to enjoy this little paradise.
Epilogue: Preparation H should be and was used quite liberally for several days. Sharri insisted that “our” underwear be retired to the trash bin, where it was given a proper send off. It took more than 30 hours for my electrolytes to regain a semblance of balance, when my kidneys finally began to cooperate and I could urinate again. My weight went from 150 lbs before the race to 163 lbs after the race due to all of that water retention.
I have never, ever so thoroughly enjoyed another 3:20 in more than 45 years of running.