2007 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
 
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  RISKY BUSINESS/DOING NOTHING FATAL  

TUESDAY, JUNE 5

 
"I hope I never stop seeking adventures. When I do, that is when I will become old."
- David Horton, in a post to the internet ultra running list serve in May 
 

 

Readers of our previous journals know that David Horton is one of ultra running's legends. Not only has he won major ultra marathons like the difficult Hardrock Hundred, run across the entire USA, and set course records on both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails (photo below), he has also mentored and inspired thousands of new and veteran ultra runners to challenge themselves on the road and trails. What a legacy! Never one to rest on his laurels (or to sit still for very long), David's hatching new adventures even as I write this.

So are Jim and I. Although we're "not thirty-five any more" (our favorite line), we like to THINK we can still be as adventuresome as we were, um, twenty-three years ago. Obviously we aren't as strong, flexible, or fast as we were then, but we can still dream and run and push the envelope pretty well for Olde Pharts. The challenges change as we age, but they are still challenges to us. That's the point -- reaching beyond our comfort zone, adding zest to our lives and keeping our spirits young. Like David, we never want to be "old" mentally or psychologically.

LIVE LIKE YOU WERE DYING

One of this year's popular songs is "Live Like You Were Dying," written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman and sung by Tim McGraw. I'm not as big of a country music fan as Jim, but I love the message in this song about a man who had a life-threatening illness in his early forties. He chose to turn it into a positive, life-altering experience. His advice to others: live each day as if it's your last.

I've mentioned this theme in my two previous journals. It's one of the things that motivates me to seek new adventures. Life is just plain too short, even if I live a hundred years (my goal). You've got to make most of your minutes count, doing things that are meaningful to you and your loved ones. The message comes through loud and clear to me every time I hear of someone dying "too young" from an illness, accident, act of violence, whatever. Bad news every day from around the world (e.g., Iraq) and right next door (like the recent Virginia Tech massacre) keeps me not only vigilant but determined to make each day truly count.

It hits me especially hard when another ultra runner suddenly dies, as has happened at least twice since I wrote the last journal. I'm not sure of the cause of either death, but both Marc Witkes and Lisa Conover were seemingly very fit athletes still at or near the top of their game. Events like this really make me think about all the living I want to do before I get "old," let alone DIE. You can do what you think is right to be fit and healthy, including running, but you just don't always know what might be going on inside your body.

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

There is a lot over which we have control, however, such as the deliberate risks we take every time we seek "adventure." I've joked about being an adrenaline junkie. It's not really quite that bad. I can think of many athletic adventures I'll never try because they are too risky for me at my age.

I had a list of things I wanted to do before I was thirty, thinking that I'd be too "old" to do any of them later in life. I accomplished most of them in my thirties, forties, and fifties! Your perspective changes as you age, and you realize you CAN still be active and adventuresome. I'm tempering some of those goals as I near my sixties, but I'm still doing things most women my age have given up. I hope I can continue to inspire other older (and younger!) folks to seek their dreams, athletically and otherwise.

When I began yesterday's run in Segment 4, I had a lot of fears about the terrain and weather conditions because of the late snows and heavy runoff. I promised Jim (and myself) I wouldn't do anything "stupid" or "heroic" to complete the segment if I ran into what I considered insurmountable difficulties that would put my life or health at risk.

I did that a couple times on the Appalachian Trail two years ago because I was so doggone focused on finishing, but I've had waking and sleep time nightmares ever since when I recall the scenarios. Although I thought at the time that I was using my best judgment, was I? And would I continue on through flooded rivers or icy mountaintop boulders again if ever faced with those or similar situations?

I'm not so sure now. You'd think I'd be more bold after successfully crossing four dangerously flooded streams in one day, but I think I'm less likely to attempt that stunt again in the future unless it's "necessary." That time, it was only necessary the fourth time or I would have been stranded overnight just a quarter mile from the truck. [I'm referring to Days 121 on Mt. Madison in New Hampshisre and 141 in Maine (photo above). See AT journal link at left.]

Every time I go out into the wilderness, as I'm doing on any run/hike in any mountain range, I'm taking on risks. That's not my primary intention. I'm seeking fitness, solitude, new things to see, beauty, and some adventure, but it's never meant to be a life-or-death thing to prove I'm a tough cookie.

DEEP SURVIVAL

A couple months ago I read a book that several people on the internet ultra list highly recommended, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. I now recommend it highly, too, as much for couch potatoes as adventure-seekers. Author Laurence Gonzales includes fascinating examples of life and death events in the military and sports arenas and explains what happened in terms of the mental and psychological processes that occurred before and during each situation that resulted in life or death.

It's not your typical "survival guide" describing how to plan adventures and what to do if such-and-such happens. As Gonzales explains in the last chapter, "This book is not meant to tell people what to do but rather to be a search for a deeper understanding that will allow them to know what to do when the time comes - and it always comes, in some form, for all of us."

The book is as much science and attitude ass behavior, explaining how one person can come out of a risky situation alive and another dies. All the way through the book I could see myself, things I've done and not done in the tightest spots in which I've gotten myself on remote mountain trails. And I realized that I've been exhibiting more "survivor" behavior and thought than not. That's a good feeling!

Consider this quote on page 15:

"It's easy to imagine that wilderness survival would involve equipment, training, and experience. It turns out that, at the moment of truth, those might be good things to have but they aren't decisive. Those of us who go into the wilderness or seek our thrills in contact with the forces of nature soon learn, in fact, that experience, training, and modern equipment can betray you. The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it's not what's in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It's not even what's in your mind, it's what's in your heart."

I find this fascinating -- and hopeful, because I probably couldn't even start a fire without a match (which I usually carry). However, I've learned other basic survival and self-defense skills, I try to anticipate and prepare as best as possible, I think my reasoning and decision-making is usually pretty decent when confronted with a new situation, and I exhibit some of the key characteristics, like a sense of humor and awe at the power of nature, that Gonzales lists as critical to surviving risky situations. He definitely recommends everyone learn basic survival skills, but also promotes learning the survivor's frame of mind.

THE RULES OF ADVENTURE

In the appendix, Gonzales lists his "rules of adventure." It's a good synopsis of the book and a guide to doing nothing fatal (the ultimate meaning for the running acronym, DNF).

One of the "rules" I have trouble with is when in doubt, bail out. It's so easy to get caught up in the adventure and the end goal (usually that day's rendezvous point with Jim) that I do not want to turn around and go back to the start. As Gonzales says, you have to ask yourself if continuing on is worth dying for. Of course not, but your mind can play tricks on you, rationalizing away all common sense. That happened to me in the two AT situations I cited above. In both cases I persevered and found alternate routes down to safety without completing the sections until later. But I should have bailed out even sooner each time and gone back the way I'd come.

My situation with the deep snow in CT segment 4 yesterday wasn't nearly as dire as the AT events, but it was still a potentially dangerous one if I'd gotten lost or injured. I knew from my GPS that I had no more than two miles to go to get down below the snow and I could see I was on the right GPS track (or close enough to find the trail again). I had enough fluids, calories, and clothing/emergency supplies to last overnight, if necessary. I was warm and had the energy to posthole for several hours. My main concern was reaching Jim before he gave up on me and went back to the trail head where I'd started the run.

I realized while I was in the snowfield that I was exhibiting some of Gonzales' survivor behavior. My cognitive functions and perceptions were heightened. I noticed details I wouldn't have noticed if I'd been running on dry ground. I found the snow-covered forest serenely beautiful. I was able to laugh at my clumsy attempts to posthole through waist-high drifts, sometimes rolling out of the holes because I couldn't lift my other leg high enough to proceed forward. I stayed calm and focused, finding success in every drift I crossed because I knew it brought me closer to my goal. I was optimistic I could get through it, did what was necessary to get there, and did not give up.

Those are the same qualities that have gotten me through other tight spots in the wilderness -- and life in general. I'm not cocky enough to think I can survive ANYthing, but it's reassuring to know I've exhibited survival qualities in the past.

SHOULDA, WOULDA, COULDA

In retrospect, there are at least three things we could have done differently before yesterday's run on Segment 4 to make it safer and less stressful for both of us:

  • we should have both carried whistles (maybe Cody would have heard Jim down below us if he'd been using the whistle instead of yelling). I carried it daily on the AT, but not the CT, where I really need it more;
  • we should have made a better effort to contact the Forest Service to see if they had more information about the snow conditions on that segment;
  • and we should have purchased this year's CORSAR (Colorado Search and Rescue) cards before doing either CT segment. Without that inexpensive "insurance," folks who are rescued have to pay for it.

Otherwise, I think we planned our run as well as we could, especially having a Plan B.

Despite all this, Jim was very stressed out not knowing how I was doing or where I was. He knew from the two female hikers that there was a difficult snowfield on the route that I'd have to go through. Since we didn't have phone contact, he couldn't call me to see how I was doing. If he'd found the trail turn-off at mile 5.4 (going his direction) instead of heading up the mountain the wrong way on the logging road, he would have run into me at about the time I was expecting to see him. He might not have liked the snow, but he would have been relieved much sooner to have found me and known I was OK. It just shows how easy it is for either one of us to get off-trail. (The very tame end of this segment is shown below.)

One of Jim's first comments when we connected was,  "Never again." I wasn't sure exactly what he meant until we talked later. I was afraid maybe I wouldn't even be able to complete the Colorado Trail this year

Later he tempered the comment by saying he's got to stop worrying about me so much. I don't know how he'll do that. We both care about each other very much, but I don't worry about him nearly as much as he worries about me. Maybe it's a gender thing. I don't see myself as being weak or needing to be taken care of (well, sometimes it's very nice to be taken care of!) but I certainly want him to care enough to come find me, or send in the rescuers, if I don't eventually show up where we're supposed to meet.

Fortunately, Jim remains willing to crew for me on my CT and other long trail runs, and I'll do the same for him. As married partners, we have to compromise so we each can find fulfillment in our lives. I want to be able to explore new trails without feeling guilty about Jim worrying about me. He needs to let go some of the fear that I'll get hurt or die out there. He was worried every day I was on the AT, which was fairly tame compared to the Colorado Trail (Seg. 8 shown below)..

The Continental Divide Trail will be more risky. It's even more remote than the CT, not marked well, and there aren't any GPS waypoints to guide me. It remains to be seen if I do much or any of it this summer except where it runs contiguously with the CT. Stay tuned.

I'll close with another good quote from Gonzales (p. 294) that sums up this adventure thing pretty well for me:

"The perfect adventure shouldn't be that much more hazardous in a real sense than ordinary life, for that invisible rope that holds us here can always break. We can live a life of bored caution and die of cancer. Better to take the adventure, minimize the risks, get the information, and then go forward in the knowledge that we've done everything we can."

I want to die thinking, "I did it all," not regretting all the things I wish I'd done.

Philosophically yours,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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