Cheers rang out as we saw the trailhead marking. After over 2 hours, we had covered just under 2 miles, rising up 2000 ft, and taking turns pushing a mountain bike up the technical trail; we were all relieved to have finally left Joplin behind. Standing on Main Divide, our hardy group of five looked at each other thanksful, but also exhausted and now concerned.
Skip turned to me. "Addy, got any water left?"
"I'm out" I frankly replied. Nothing to be done about it now.
"Me too" "Me too"
Going around in turn, it ended up Jessica was the only one with any water left, and it wasn't much. So here we all were, 10 miles into an isolated 22 mile run, with temperatures pushing past 90 degrees, and we were out of water. Things did not look good.
Now, the day certainly hadn't started so ominously. I arrived at Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary at around 6:20 am, meeting and greeting familiar faces as well as new. This day promised to be one of the bigger turnouts for an OCTR event and it was fun to finally meet some of the runners that I had heard mentioned before. After most everyone had arrived, we grouped up into vans to carpool to the start. This was one of the first out and back runs I had done, and I was excited about the distance we were going to cover. However, even before we left, there was lots of talk about bringing enough water. The last group who had done this run had run out and ended up drinking from a stream. However, with my 64 oz of water, I felt relatively confident. Added to that, a member of the club was very kindly going to leave water for all of us at around the 12 mile mark. Against my better judgement, I left behind my extra handheld and joined the rest of the group.
The whole crew, all 22 of us! Photo courtesy of Jessica
We all immediately split into different factions, based on pace. As planned, Skip and I were going to stick together in the back, and were joined by his other "Love from the Back" runners Nattie and Beiyi. The four of us took a nice and leisurely pace, enjoyed the early morning views and the coolish air. It promised to get hot later (and the fact that we were sweating a little already didn't bode well) but it was nice for the time being. From the beginning I planned to walk most of the hills, and stuck with that more or less, while still keeping up with everyone else.
3.5 miles in we hit the first landmark, the flags. I signed the book there, and then we continued on towards old camp, our next destination. Skip kept trying to give us false hope about the arrival of the final descent to old camp, but soon enough, it was there. As we neared this point, a number of runners passed us going back. Some of the group was just doing 16, and so turned around at old camp. These were the smart ones :)
At old camp we took a break, sat down around an (unlit) campfire, and refueled. I checked out my hydration pack and was reassured to see 40 oz or so still inside. It seemed like that should be able to handle 14 more miles. Jessica was there waiting for us with her bike and after about 20 minutes we all headed out together. Shortly though, it became readily apparent that that mountain bike wasn't going to get itself up the trail easily, so we all offered to pitch a hand, trading off as we went up the grueling trail. The first half didn't seem so bad, and we were all proud of how well we were doing on the trail. But then it started getting hotter, the bike seemed heavier, and the trail steeper. It seemed like we were never going to make it to the top. I tried to mimimize my water drinking, but it was just too hot.
And this brings us to the start of the story. Hot, dehydrated, out of water, and so far from the finish.
As we recovered from the arduous climb, we refueled, all eating a lot and trying to regain some energy.
On the water front, there was still hope. The promised water in 2 or 3 miles. We headed on, not too quickly for fear of sweating too much and dehydrating faster but steadily nonetheless.
A jeep approached and we begged a water bottle from them. It was some of the best water I have ever had. Seeing how happy we were, they gave us another bottle. Between the 4 of us (Jessica didn't have much since, with her bike, she'd be down much sooner) we each got about half a bottle which rejeuvinated us and raised our spirits. Onward we went, running some and walking some, down the wide trail.
Now, for almost the entire run I had had to use the bathroom (ironic since the one thing I needed to retain was water). I've never done that in nature before. But, I finally gave in, went for it, and while weird, was also quite relieving. Feeling much better, I continued on, knowing that our promised water wouldn't be too far away.
I saw the others who had gotten down before me, who announced that there was no water. Well, things just got a lot more interesting. The irony here is that there was water, 4 gallons, plus ice, that had been left. Unfortunately, there was miscommunication on its location and we never found it. Hopefully some other dehydrated runners will stumble upon it and be helped. But, for the time being, we had to figure out what to do. Beiyi was still up on the trail and didn't seem to be doing that well. A yellow hummer was approaching. The man inside rolled down his window and asked if we were okay. We admitted we weren't, we were out of water. Without saying a word. He got out of the vehicle, went to the back and presented a 36 oz bottle of water. As we thanked him, he gave us a few of his business cards and told us that he had also given a bottle to a woman up the trail a bit, Beiyi. The kindness of these strangers really really helped us, and we really owe them so much.
In a few minutes Beiyi approached and we figured out our plan of attack. We were now 9 miles from the finish, and we each had about 12 ounces of water. The Laurel Springs were only 4 miles away, and those became our next goal. Jessica headed down on her bike, and we continued down main divide on foot, quickly separating. Beiyi fell back again and I kept close to Skip and Nattie, but still a bit behind them. I was rationing my water, having one sip for every 1/2 mile I completed, hoping that that would be motivation enough to get down. Lots of thinking about stranded people on boats and islands and how they managed without water. We also started fantasizing about what we'd like to do when we finished. Strawberry Daquaris and swimming pools were popular fantasies. Nattie wasn't doing that well, and gave in, draining her water after about 2 miles. We were really getting discouraged despite our attempts to raise each other's spirits.
Finally we saw the sign. "Laurel Springs 1/4" with an arrow pointing to a side trail. The idea of an extra 1/2 mile total seemed frustrating. With the heat I was worried about how much water there'd be, if there was any at all. Holding my small amount of water left in the bottle close to my chest, I followed Skip and Nattie down the trail. We reached a broken down picnic table, not exactly promising. It was hot and the trail was narrow and it didn't seem like we were getting any nearer to a water source.
And then, suddenly, we were there. A shaded, green, wet oasis! We took turns placing our bottles underneath the water trickling water, drinking in the cool wet wonderfulness. It was amazing to suddenly have access to the thing we had been without for hours, and to be in such a beautiful place enjoying it. Skip took some and poured it on his head, exclaiming how great that was. He then offered me the same experience, and, my was it heavenly. The water was so cool, and it felt so great to get the salty residue off of our faces. There were pools of muddy water all around us, and I finally decided to give into the urge and dip my feet in a shallow pool by the dripping water. As I put the first foot down, I was shocked to discover that it wasn't a few inches deep, it was more like 4 or 5! I stumbled and my other foot plunged in, the water covering my feet and going halfway up my gaiters. We all laughed at the mixture of shock and pleasure on my face, and I encouraged the other two to do the same. It felt heavenly. In turn Nattie, and then Skip took foot dips, and all of them gave quiet moans of appreciation. The water really did feel that good. Skip and I both took off our shirts briefly to soak them to keep us a bit cooler and we loaded up on water from the springs. It was amazing how much difference the stop made. Everything seemed so much more approachable now and we were ready to take on those last 5 miles.
The only thing that worried us was that Beiyi never joined us at the springs. She had gotten much more water from the Hummer man, so we hoped she was doing okay. Not too long after we left the springs, a mountain biker was heading up the trail so we asked if he had seen a woman in a blue shirt. He had, but she was walking with a man. Was that her? We had to hope it was.
Finally after getting water we felt like we could run a little again. Our bodies were pretty beat by this point, though, and we still need to take walking breaks. We had pretty much drained our food by this point, but I had some ginger chews, which we all enjoyed. The heat was still feeling pretty oppressive, but every once and a while a cool wind would revive us. We continued pushing, trying to will the finish closer. Soon, we saw cars. They had to be ours. We weren't that much further. We started seeing hikers, and took that to be a good sign. One woman with her daughter asked us if this was a loop course. We started laughing, looking slightly crazy I'm sure, explaining between laughs that we had been going for 8 1/2 hours and almost 22 miles. They moved on. Skip and I started running more now, knowing we were just a few short miles from the end, and going downhill.
We let out a cheer as we reached the gate and headed into the parking lot. At the gate was a less than reassuring sign. I guess, had we known, it just would have been one more thing to worry about. We didn't see any cats, so not to worry :) Nattie finished a few minutes later. After 8 hours and 52 minutes, we had completed our journey, not without some moments of fear, exhaustion, and also enjoyement. It will definitely be a run that is sure to be etched in my memory for a long time to come, and, if nothing else, taught me a good number of lessons about running on an isolated trail :) We later found out that it was, in fact Beiyi who was with the man, a hiker she had connected with towards the end. Without the springs stop she finished about half an hour ahead of us.
All in all, if we had been more prepared, this run has the potential to be great. Unfortunately, you need an incredible amount of water to really be okay on this course. We figured with a 64 oz camelback, two bottles stowed inside (adding another 48 oz or so) and 2 handhelds (adding another 40) you might be okay. Maybe. But you'd probably still run dry. That run is just brutal, especially now that the So Cal summer is upon us. Still, the views were beautiful and some parts of the trail were just visually spectacular. I'm glad I got to experience my hometown moutain, even though it was in less than optimal circumstances.