I suppose I could start from the beginning, telling you all about every last detail of my short-lived adventure. (And I will. Only later.) But I am compelled to speak first of the decision day. Day five. The day I said those three (two if you count the contraction) fatal, final words.
The fifth day of the Tour de Virginia, the 568-mile brainchild of phenom ultrarunner Eric Grossman, started early, but not as early as I would have liked. I knew going into the event that I would be the slowest of the five runners. Given the choice, I moved my own start time on days earlier into the wee hours, hoping to hold off being passed by the more able runners as long as possible. However, on this particular morning, I started at 5:22 a.m. along with Anne Lundblad and Rob French. We were all staring into the face of a 46-mile day in extreme heat and humidity. On previous days we found nearly every spring and water source had gone dry and expected more of the same. But that wasn't my only problem.
I felt sullen and alone the prior evening. The second half of the fourth stage went wrong. A blister deep under the ball of my left foot developed, making each step on the rocky ground painful. By the time I reached the end, I had again been on my feet and moving for over thirteen hours. Though a few other blisters appeared, it was the forefoot that made it nearly impossible to bear any weight. The thought of 46 miles by dawn's early light seemed impossible.
Then there was the issue of dehydration. Three times I awoke that night, prying apart my dry lips and hobbling to find dozens of ounces of water to quench the thirst. On two stages I had stopped sweating in the record temperatures. That couldn't be good. And sleep? What sleep? In the last five days, I had slept 2-4 hours at most per night. Something had to give.
My goal coming into this adventure was to be positive and upbeat, like Anne Lundblad, always the optimist. I didn't do such a great job at that during the South Beyond 6000 event three years ago and didn't want to repeat that poor attitude. But even with much resolve, it was a struggle to see through the current challenges. I massaged my feet in the night, hoping to stimulate them back to the land of the living. I came up with a scheme for protecting the forefoot. I downed calories in preparation and packed more than normal volumes of liquid and food. Then, with the click of my stopwatch, the countdown began.
It was not long before the other four runners were out in front. It was going to be a long, lonely day--again. I knew the decision to start the stage was a decision to finish the stage. There was no support along the way. No one to pick me up. I was on my own come what may.
After several hours, the trail found it's way down into the town of Pearisburg. Though still early, the sun scorched me. I felt wilted and limp, much like the crops in untended gardens along the way. I even knocked on someone's front door to ask for ice water. It was only 8:30 a.m. but I was already coming undone. Thankfully, an unexpected pleasure of ripened blackberries along the narrow path provided temporary distraction.
Crossing the New River bridge, I pulled my phone from it's protective pouch and dialed Gary's number. "It will be a miracle if I finish today." I tried hard not to cry knowing he would worry. Still, I had no choice but to continue.
Not long afterwards, on a steep and rocky climb leading out of town, the skies broke into the conversation I was having with myself with thunderous claps and lightning strikes too close for comfort. Then the rain and the wind came. Instantly, my molten feeling turned into shivering. I had prayed to God for relief but felt this was a little overkill. Am I never satisfied?
Thankfully, the storm did not last long. Like a little bug, I drank from water-filled depressions in rocks. I couldn't count on springs and streams further up the trail. I would take anything. "OK, God. I am grateful for the relief and this extra water." I moved on.
Once atop a ridge line, I hiked and hiked, ran a little, and hiked some more. The hours piled up higher than some of the rock formations. Often, I glanced at my laminated card to see how far it was to the next landmark; perhaps a shelter or intersecting trail. But when I became discouraged at how long it took to get to the next destination, I pulled it out less often.
Before this adventure, I told myself I could get to the end by patiently hiking. How hard would it be to walk for twelve or fourteen or sixteen hours a day? Well, it was hard. Hard to be patient and hard to keep hiking. I realized I wasn't enjoying this. I wondered how David Horton and Jennifer Pharr-Davis did this for weeks on end. I knew to expect sore feet and blisters. I knew to expect down times. I knew I shouldn't make rash decisions. And yet, I knew that I really didn't want to do this for the next nine days. Perhaps I loved the ideal of the adventure more than I was capable of completing this one.
Eighteen miles remained. The descents hurt my feet more than the climbs. As I marched on, I felt as though I was stuck in a time and distance warp. It didn't seem like I was making any progress. Each time I took out that blasted data card, the numbers just didn't work out. I tried calculating how much longer. Six hours. No, seven hours. Five hours? Still five hours? I was confused. Nothing made sense. Was I really moving forward? When I cried, I scolded myself. "Stop that. It's not doing any good. Just keep going." I did.
I knew I had to get to a road crossing before the final seven or eight miles; Mountain Lake Road, Route 613. That was my new goal. "Lord," I prayed outloud, "Could you please put it on someone's heart to be at that intersection? I don't want to be out here for another three or four hours." I had no one in mind. Anyone would do. But what were the chances, oh ye of little faith?.
Several miles later, a tiny sparkle of water caught my eye. I stepped off the trail to take in much needed water. As I glanced up, a t-shirt clad runner bounded toward me, wife and dog a short way behind. "Hi," I called out. He turned, startled to see me.
"Hey, you wouldn't happen to be Rebekah Trittipoe, would you? I'm Kirby." Huh? I could hardly believe it. I had put a link to his race on my website but we had never met. How he made the connection, I'll probably never know.
We spoke for a few minutes about my race. I mentioned I had decided to call it quits. "Well, if you need a ride, we'll take you. We were planning to run a half-mile more. If you want to wait, we'll meet you at the road."
"How far is the road?" I quarried.
"Maybe a half-mile." Wow. My journey would soon be over.
It was not long before I arrived at the mountain-top road, a lonely, empty parking lot (save Kirby's car) off to the side. Once the couple returned, I climbed in the back seat and started chatting with my saviors. The road down the mountain was very long and twisted. "That sure seems like a long way to go for a two-mile evening run," I offered, curious about their choice of venue.
"Yeah. We seldom come up here. Not really sure why we chose to come tonight. But the grandparents are watching our daughter and we ended up here."
I knew why they came and told them so. There's no doubt. God directly answered my prayer. Jehovah Jireh. God does provide.
After a deep, cleansing sleep, I can't say I have not second-guessed my decision to abort the Tour. Maybe I could have started another day. But then again, maybe the 102 temps would have done me in as much as my still-swollen feet. Doing this with no support during the day makes a difficult task even more challenging. Rob French also abandoned the effort yesterday. I am getting older. I don't recover as well as I used to. In those five days, I spent more than twleve hours more on the trail than the leader. That's like a whole other day for me. So, it is what it is. There will be no more triumphant finish line for me.
Do I regret starting? No. I would rather start and fail than never to have begun.