Best put by my dad, “The weather was bleak: cold and windy with alternating periods of rain, hail, sleet, and snow; just enough precipitation to turn the 50 mile trail we were about to run into a slippery mud pit.” We were as prepared as we could be and at 6:30am, set off on our adventure. Little did I know just how much of an adventure it would turn out to be!
Three miles in and I heard a scream that pierced my ears and sent shock waves down my spine. As I turned around, I saw my dad lying flat on his back, gripping his side. He fell and he fell hard. I thought for sure he broke something and as I extended my arm, he lifted himself to his feet and surprisingly, but not so surprisingly, continued to run. That’s what we do. We run.
There was only one aid station on this part of the trail and it was at mile 7. I honestly didn’t know if we could get to that point but as we approached, my dad went straight for his relief, potato chips and a cookie! I looked at him and knew he wasn’t going to stop so we continued on into the bleak wilderness, covered in mud and being showered with little white balls of hail. With each step he took, I knew he felt pain which pained me. He is a relentless runner. Someone I’ve looked up to my entire life and I knew even with pain, he would muscle through this course! I just wanted to get to Mile 16 where he could at least determine if his ribs were broken! I kept thinking to myself, “just get to mile 16. Emergency personnel is waiting. Get to 16.”
As 16 finally approached, I saw several runners dropping out of the race, frustrated and overwhelmed with the conditions, ripping off their bibs, sliding out of their mud packed shoes, gathering their belongings, and walking away. Believe me. The thought crossed my mind more than once but as I looked down at my watch I knew if I ran hard for the next 12 miles, I could make the first major cutoff at mile 28.1 but I had to run and I had to start RIGHT NOW!
My sister and brother-in-law helped me prepare as I slid off my socks and slipped into a fresh pair of shoes. My feet never felt so good! I looked up, saw my dad, and pointed to the medical truck. I told him I still had time and I was going to head back out and he nodded his head and said GO.
I was dead last but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was my dad was safe with medical care and I had time on the clock. So I left and for the next 12 miles, I ran those deep woods alone and as hard as I could. I just kept telling myself I was going to make it.
After 25 or so miles though, you start to lose mental stamina. You can’t really calculate times well, your pace always seems off, and you keep asking yourself the same damn questions. I was reaching that point just as I reached the first cutoff aid station. Overwhelmed and literally tired of running, I looked up and asked the volunteer, “did I make it?” To which she replied, “Yes! But you have to get going so you make the next one. You have an hour to go 4.5 miles.” To many, you would think that’s easy to do but on this day, with these conditions, on this course, it wasn’t!
8 weeks prior to this event, I injured my hip. So, I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before the pain set in and that time had come right about then. I was both elated and sad. Elated because I had just run 28 semi-painfree miles when 3 weeks ago, I couldn’t even run 5. Sad, because I still had 22 more to go.
So, at this point, the race became a game to me.
“Just get to the next cutoff station, Leslie. You get there and you get to continue on. You don’t, and they’ll cut you.”
So, I ran. That’s what we do. We run.
I made it to the next station and it was like deja-vu. I looked up and asked the volunteer, “did I make it?” To which she replied, “Yes! But you have to get going so you can make the next one. You have 50 minutes to go 3 miles.” I knew I could do it. So I set off on what was known as the “Do Loop”. Let’s just say, they made an “I survived the Do Loop” sign and I took 10 seconds of precious time to take picture in front of it for proof that I indeed survived it! As I approached the same volunteer at the aid station on the way out, she seemed elated to see me. (Maybe a bit surprised given the conditions!)
I didn’t even ask but I heard “You have 45 minutes to go 2.4 miles. You can TOTALLY do it!” she said with a gleeful smile. So, I set off at mile 33 and all I was focused on was going 2.4 miles and arriving at the next aid station by 4:15pm.
10 minutes had past and as I looked up I saw red markers. I stopped. I closed my eyes and remember reading:
“Follow BLUE TAPE. Red tape will be placed where ever you should not go. DO NOT CROSS RED. Most importantly NEVER TURN AROUND AT AN AID STATION.”
I looked up. I was completely alone. I looked at the trail. It was different. I looked at the trail markers. They were different. I looked around and all I could see was miles and miles of forest and not a single person in sight. I could feel my face turning red. I could feel my blood pressure rising. I could feel heat cover my body as if someone just put a warm blanket around me. I stopped. I closed my eyes and decided to turn around. I thought to myself, “you’ve only gone 10 minutes out of your way. Just go back and find the right trail.”
I went back but I wasn’t on the same trail anymore and this is where things started to go very wrong. In desperation, I grabbed my phone and called my sister.
“Erin. I’m lost. I need you to ask the volunteers if I should follow the trees that are marked with blue AND red. I see both but I do not see any blue ribbons. Am I on the right course?”
I could tell she was scrambling. I could hear her call out and ask the question. No one seemed to know the answer. In complete desperation I started to run. I thought to myself, “just run and you will find that trail”. I came up to two bridges. I thought to myself, “Finally! I found a landmark someone is bound to know about!”
“Erin. I found two bridges. I need to know, should I take the right one or the left one? Does anyone know?”
I could hear her ask the question. No one seemed to know of any bridges.
The panic started to set in and I started to lose focus. I was no longer calm and I was riddled with anxiety. Scared and completely lost, I told Erin I could hear water and I was going to find it and follow it. That was until the water split and I was staring at a huge crossing with no bridge and no visible way around it to the other side. I started to cry.
I looked down at my phone and realized I could “google” my way out. Frantically, I typed in “Fountainhead Park”. This is what I saw:
All I could focus on was that RED MARKER on my GPS. “How do I get to that red marker?” In a complete panic, I set out to reach that marker. Crying and desperately seeking help, I sent this screenshot to my sister and started to run again. I could hear her scrambling for help. “Does anyone know where she is by looking at this?” Silence is all I heard.
20 minutes had passed and I felt like it was a lifetime. Then she asked me, “how much battery power do you have?” and that my friends, is where I really fell apart. Not 10 minutes prior, I had 60% and as I looked down, I saw it was now at 30. I was running GPS, I was using an app as a compass, and I was talking to my sister in the deep woods. My battery was draining FAST! I knew it would die in a matter of minutes.
I was spinning in circles, caught in a trail loop that had no exit, and broke down in complete despair. I could hear my brother-in-law exclaim, “Tell her to stop running and stay put! We will find her! Help is coming.” But I didn’t want to wait. I wanted OUT of those woods!
I was tired. I was hurting. I was disappointed. I was scared. I wanted OUT! I couldn’t think straight and when I looked down at my GPS again, I finally realized the WHITE DOT was near a road! I was much closer to that dot then the RED one. My mission had changed. To save battery power, I told my sister, “I’m hanging up and I’m going to head through the woods to find that road.” Hesitantly, she said, “Don’t go anywhere. They will find you.”
There was no stopping me. The adrenaline was pumping through my veins so fast and so hard that I was deaf to the world. All I could hear was my heart pounding. All I was focused on was getting to the white dot. After a few more minutes of running through the woods, on no trail, my GPS marker started moving in the right direction! I was out of that infinite loop and headed back.
I remember calling my sister back and shouting, “I see a BLUE MARKER Erin! I see a blue marker!” I could hear her relief. “Good Leslie! Now stay put. They will find you.” I didn’t stay put. I told her I was going to follow it and I would meet her at the checkpoint.
In my mind, I still had time. However, my watch told a different story but I never looked at it to realize that I was off course by 3 miles and 40 minutes had already passed. Through that entire ordeal, I was still focused on getting to that next aid station and going another 14 miles.
Then, I saw two volunteer rescue runners coming my direction. I heard a gentlemen’s voice call out “Leslie? Is that you?” I threw my arms up in the air and shouted, “Yes! It’s me! I found the trail!” He ran up to me and I could see his relief. I fell into his chest and let out the most exhausted, overwhelmed, and completely defeated cry that even I wasn’t expecting. At that moment, I knew my race had come to an end. I looked up at him and asked, “can I make it?” His face said it all and I knew it was over.
As we walked back, all I could think about was how far I had gone, how hard I had fought, and how defeated I felt. We pulled up to the aid station and I saw my sister, brother-in-law, and my dad who apparently is stubborn, I mean relentlessly determined, and continued passed mile 16 and made it to 28 with 2 seriously bruised ribs! Unfortunately, he too was also told, “this is the end.”
It’s hard not to look back and analyze every little detail of the race. I try not to live in the past but today, I needed to. I needed to look back to LEARN and to hopefully TEACH. I NEVER want to feel that way again. I was lost and unprepared. That means I have an opportunity to educate myself and others on what to do to if you get off track in a trail race.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR A TRAIL RACE
- PRINT THE COURSE MAP: I didn’t have anything on me other than my phone but what if my phone had died, then what? You cannot rely on battery operated technology. I was not only using it to call people, but I was using my compass app and my GPS on Google. Google is a powerful tool but it can’t help if you don’t have any battery power to actually use it. Print the course map and highlight mile markers, aid stations, and cut-off times. Laminate (or use tape) to keep it from getting wet and store it in a pocket.
- OBTAIN AN EMERGENCY NUMBER: Had my sister not been there to crew us, I wouldn’t have had anyone to call to ask for help. Imagine having the technology to ask for help but not having anyone to call that is actually ON THE COURSE. So, before you even start the race, contact the race director and ask for the number to call in the event of an emergency. Then write that down on your course map too.
- CARRY A WHISTLE: I shouted. No one responded. Maybe they could have heard a whistle. At the very least, had it gotten dark, I would have been able to use that to scare off any animals that wanted to greet me. Had I not had my phone, I could have used that as a signaling device as well.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET LOST
- STAY CALM & DO NOT PANIC: The worst thing I did was panic. I couldn’t think straight. My mind wasn’t clear therefore I was making poor decisions. So, take a deep breath, regain composure, drink some water, and then THINK.
- THINK: How did you get here? Get out your map or phone and see if you can figure out how to get back. If you can’t then STAY PUT. I had just run 33 miles and I kept running when I was lost. I was getting myself further and further from my starting point. Luckily I was in a terrible loop but had I not been and kept running, I would have drifted away from those trying to find me.
- OBSERVE: Look for your footprints. Try to find landmarks. Are there any clue that you can pick up on to help you figure out where you are or to communicate to others to help them find you?
- CALL FOR HELP: Obviously, if you have your cell phone, call for help and let them know you are off the trail and are unable to find your way back to the course. My GPS was intermittently working, but had I had a better connection, I could have shared my location with my sister so they could find me. THIS IS HOW YOU SHARE YOUR LOCATION (using an iPhone):
- Open up Messenger
- Text your contact
- Go to the right hand corner of the text and click “DETAILS”
- Under Location, Click “SHARE MY LOCATION”. This will drop a pin on the other person’s phone sharing your current location.
- GET NOTICED: Your goal is no longer about finishing the race or making a cutoff, your goal is to BE FOUND. Help searchers find you by using the universal distress call which always comes in threes: three shouts or three blasts on a whistle. Start calling for help with your whistle.
As I stated, my intention on sharing is to EDUCATE. I may have ended the race sooner than I wanted but I did not fail. I learned some valuable life and running lessons out there and my hope is that by sharing my experience it will help someone else. At the very least, I am now prepared for my next trail race!
P.S. After settling in after the race, I decided to look up my run on Garmin Connect to see just how far off I was and where I kept running. This target shows you just how much I was “scrambling” to find my way OUT!