Monday, August 18, 2014

Trailrunning: The Horror Movie

From the waist down I felt like a horrorshow: all pain and gore, my calves felt like some psychopath was standing on them with  spiked boots.

On the descent from the Grays Arch area I decided that on the drive home I was going to swing by Joe's house and carve him into little pieces with a rusty hand saw.   

Then I changed my mind.  I decided I'd put him in a woodchipper.  And as I chipped him piece by piece I'd give him just enough gels and water to keep him in misery.  It was too good for him.  Rugged Red!  Bloody Red is more like it.

Move you dead thing!  Live, my monster!

This distance running thing is a chemical equation I just haven't figured out.  I'm not eating and drinking right.  I think that's why I'm being gobbled up by some alien monster at around mile ten on every long run.  It's not that my muscles can't keep going but that they're depleted of something crucial to their successful operation.

The middle miles of the Swift Camp Creek Trail are a creepshow place.  Not only does the trail squiggle through the dark folds of Clifty Wilderness but it's not as well-travelled as other trails in the Gorge.  It's seven miles long and does not loop.  That keeps out a lot of riff-raff.

While Swift Camp Creek Trail doesn't loop it does butt up against Rough Trail.  My scheme was to run both consecutively.  The total distance is about 17 miles.  I know this, not because I ran 17 miles, but because there were two miles I didn't run.  Well, actually there were four miles I didn't run.  But we'll get to that.

Other than the fact that 99.947% of people I know would flat be horrified at the mere thought of running 17 miles there are two ways to do this run:  east to west with Swift Camp Creek Trail first or west to east with Rough Trail first.  Depending on your perspective either direction could be more horrifying than the other.

Rough Trail has big climbs while Swift Camp Creek doesn't.  From a purely physical effort Rough is the beast.  Because of this I had decided when I attempted to flee the slavering monster I would do Rough Trail first leaving Swift as a more "mellow" finish.

The night before, when I was still planning to stick to the Rugged Red course for my big weekly training run, Mandy offered to go out with me and run a shuttle.  It was the perfect opportunity to give my Rough/Swift scheme a go.

The impromptu-ness of my attempt necessitated a different approach.  I wasn't sure I could cover the distance.  I've been stalling out around 10 miles.  I didn't want to run out of gas in the middle of Blair Witch country on Swift Camp Creek.  There's no easy way out, no cell service, no SAG access and it's kind of a spooky place when you're all alone.

East to west profile
I decided to reverse direction and start at the Rock Bridge trailhead (southern terminus of Swift Camp Creek) and head north and then west on Rough Trail to the Martin's Fork trailhead.  That put the "easy" running at the beginning, but also had me passing through the more remote and committing segment of the run when I would be fresh and strong.  It's a seven mile trail with only one option for shortening at four miles where Wildcat Trail climbs out of the gorge and back to Sky Bridge Road.  It really only shortens the route by a mile or so and dumps you out in the middle of an uninhabited road.

Choosing that direction also gave me the option of shortening the run at the end.  Once Rough Trail gains Pinch Em Tight Ridge it is possible to shorten the route in two places.  The first is where Rough splits off from the Sheltowee.  That drops a full two miles and two big climbs off the run.  The second option is a little further on Rush Ridge which would drop one mile and one climb.  Once you pass Rush Ridge into the Grays Branch section you're in it for the full butchery.

It's a disturbingly exhilarating feeling to watch your significant other drive away into the shadowy fog leaving you with miles of ground to cover all alone.  Feeling strong enough to fight off a chainsaw wielding psychopath I ran down the rough asphalt trail away from civilization.

I've been intimately familiar with Swift Camp Creek my entire adult life.  But I'd never run the trail so I wasn't immediately sure what I was in for, but I quickly discovered it's a great trail to run.  It's fairly level as it contours along the western wall of the Swift Camp Creek Gorge.  I've always thought this drainage had enough merit on its own to draw outside attention even if it hadn't been attached to the Red River Gorge area.

The landscape is stunning.  The trail is high enough on the steep hillside to provide spectacular views of both the gorgeous streambed below and it's myriad side waterfalls as well as the colorful and towering sandstone cliffs on the opposite side of the gorge.  Oddly enough I realized somewhere past the unofficial Turtleback Arch side trail that between there and Wildcat Trail was an area I had not visited in nearly twenty years.  It won't be that long before I return I assure you.

I came off of Swift Camp Creek feeling good.  I knew my clock was ticking extra fast as I wasn't quite halfway through, but I was very low on fuel.  I was a little more tired climbing up to the common trailhead between the two paths than I expected too.  I was hoping for a strong second wind.

I paused at the trailhead to text and let Mandy know I was off Swift Camp Creek before dropping into Rough Trail.  In short order I was down into Parch Corn Creek and then tackling my second, climb of the day up toward Chimney Top Road.  I felt distinctly more flayed as the humidity choked me and as my legs began to grow stiff and heavy.  I walked a couple of easy sections telling myself it would help me go faster later on.  Oh how wrong was that logic!

Once again I was at the Rough Trail parking lot on Chimney Top Road.  Some backpackers were loading up to head out so I made a strong showing as I ran straight through the gravel lot, but I slowed once I was out of sight into the trees.

The steep descent comes quick, and on this newly familiar section I really began to see my folly.  I ran the upper half strong, falling easily down the hill, but near the bottom I found myself slowing over step-downs and gingerly avoiding obstacles.

The long climb out of Chimney Top Creek slayed me.  I had nothing left when the trail leveled out near the top of Pinch Em Tight Ridge.  I'd already decided on the shortcut in lieu of a full Swift Camp Creek-Rough Trail traverse.  I tried to run, but the slightest hills thwarted me.  At one point I was walking and stopped to scrape some pine duff out of my heel and found myself breathing hard. I sat down on a rock to try and stretch out my hamstrings and my big thigh muscles threatened to seize up.

It took some effort to drag myself to my feet.  Once I was shuffling along the trail again I texted Mandy:

At 12.5 miles I checked my pace.  I noticed I had been going for three hours and twenty-two minutes.  I decided I could run and get 13.1 miles in 3:30 or less.  It was a gruesome sight I'm sure.  I probably looked like the run/walking dead.  But I managed to do it.  Then, with about two miles to go to the car, I stopped trying to run at all.  

It was a long two miles.  There were shadowy thoughts.  I had humorously hostile thoughts about Joe.  I basically had to crawl down the upper parts of the Martins Fork section of Rough Trail.  Back along the creek I was able to walk along almost normally, but that's when I began my homicidal mental tirade.

The last mile a second burning thought took over my brain: food.  As bad as I wanted to hunt Joe down and murderate him I also wanted to eat.  I was disturbed by my quasi-cannibalistic tendencies, but I assure you I'm not a man-eater.

I sent one last text home once I had service again:

"Going to swing by Joe's on the way home.  Pack a bag and get us two tickets to South American.  I'm going to murder him."

My ordeal wasn't over once I was in the car.  For fifteen miles my calf muscles ached as I described earlier.  At one point I was moaning so loud people were rushing of of their houses to see what kind of horrorshow was speeding past.  Then my gas light came on.  Ugh, I would have to stop and get gas before going home to die.

It was just as well, I was out of tart cherry juice and barbed wire at home.  I could fight the zombie hoard at the Kroger gas station and then pop in for some antioxidants and zombie repellent. 

Bean had her second cross country practice that night.  As I told another parent about my run (he delved until I had no choice but to tell him) it didn't seem like such a big deal.  On paper my adventure sounds matter-of-fact.  But at each step along the way the outcome was uncertain.  In the middle of Swift Camp Creek Trail I had no idea how I would feel or how I would handle the Rough Trail sections.  When my legs succumbed to the monster of exhaustion I didn't know how I would make it to my car.  When it was too agonizing to descend the last hill I didn't know if my legs would buckle underneath me.

I have faith in my inner strength and in my own resourcefulness, but I'm also cognizant of my own limitations.  Sometimes you just don't have the stuff in front of you to solve the chemical equation.


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