Even as I started across the field and followed the wooded trail under cover of darkness, I felt the slimy coating of sweat begin to form on my skin. The humidity was oppressive, even in those early morning hours. With temps predicted to hover around 100 degrees later in the day, the combination would certainly be problematic.
But for now, other issues presented themselves. My progress was slowed as my internal plumbing decided to awake. A few stops along the way was not the loveliest way to begin the day. However, I continued to pick my way around one blow-down after another, soon realizing that the storm damage in this section was even worse than before. It was endless. Though my legs still felt very much intact despite the miles of the first two days, it was tiring to have to crawl, wiggle, and slither through or around the offending branches. It became so ridiculous that I lost interest in trying to be fast. Anyway, fast was probably impossible for me regardless of the circumstances. Rather, I pulled out my phone and snapped pictures. Somehow, I justified my slow speed by documenting the carnage in the forest. The pictures don't do it justice.
I was glad to temporarily put the obstacle course behind me. As I climbed the ladder I realized the trail was leading me into new territory. The path traversed grassy meadows and open cow pastures. The countryside, with a lonely road below and old farmhouses and barns scattered across the landscape, was picturesque. For a few moments, the difficulty and frustrations of the past couple of hours vanished. I drew in a deep, cleansing breath. Ahhhh. Well, perhaps it wasn't quite as cleansing as I thought. The heavy scent of manure overpowered the sweet smell of cut hay. I turned my attention back to following the 2x4 inch white trail blazes painted on rustic fence posts while avoiding an unpleasant splat into a fresh pile of poo.
I got it. But there was a price to pay, of course. More downed trees. Now I ran past a shelter and started a long, not-too-steep descent. Normally, a stream parallels the wide trail. I was wet-sweated and had been sipping routinely from my hydration pack. I really needed to drink more at the rate I was losing water. The data guide claimed many streams along this section. Surely, I would be able to refill in preparation for the coming 2,000 foot climb.
I was disappointed to hear only the faint sound of a trickle. There was certainly no gushing water washing over the rocks in the stream. I kept an eagle eye out for even the smallest pool. Finally, I left the trail to head down through the brush in an attempt to capture some of the precious liquid. While I was in the stream bed, Eric cruised by. He stopped and chatted momentarily. Though I expected him to catch me given my slow rate of speed, it was disturbing to see him so soon. I followed him for a while but he disappeared quickly down the trail. Eric must be half Ninja. No downed tree seemed to bother him. One moment he was on this side. The next, he was gone.
Continuing to be cautious with the amount I was drinking, I pushed onward and upward on the steep and rocky path. A sign warning of the presence of bears caught my attention. About a mile from the top, I turned to see Rob and the ever-plugged in "Techno-Gadget TroyBoy" approaching from below. We exchanged a few words as they took the lead in pursuit of Eric, now presumably at least ninety minutes away. Not long after that, I placed my lips to the drink tube and drew in. Nothing. I could tell the bladder was collapsing on itself. Uh-oh. This could mean trouble.
The data book showed a spring-fed lake at the top of the climb, complete with a pipe and catch basin at the east end. I could see it now: a sparkling lake shimmering reflections of the clouds above, the pleasant sound of fresh, clear water flowing from the pipe, and a quick, refreshing dip in the pond to drown the oppressive heat. Trouble is, I nearly ran right past the pond. Rather than a beautiful sight, the surface was covered in a thick layer of green slime, bullfrogs croaking claim to their accommodations. The pipe and catch basin were bone dry, nary a drop to be found. Troy had already left. Rob was with me trying to wish water from the well. When that proved fruitless, Rob turned and walked away, leaving me to cry a few tears.
"Now stop that," I admonished self. "Don't waste what fluid you have. You may need those tears. Crying does you no good."
As I had no choice, I stood and walked back to the open and exposed trail across the flat mountaintop. Someone had scribbled a note on the wooden sign. "Next possible water 12 miles." I gulped, noticing that my dripping, sweaty skin was now as dry as Ezekial's bones. In fact, I must have stopped sweating sometime ago; even my once drenched shorts and top were completely dry. I was in trouble.
"God, I really need you. Help me. I need water. I don't really care how you do it. If you want to make it come out of a rock, fine with me. Or, send a shower if you like. Anything you choose is fine. But I really don't want to keel over out here."
With that, I dialed back my emotions as well as my speed. The prospect of no water for hours spawned the "fight or flight" instinct. I started running. Quickly, however, I reeled it back in. I needed to conserve what energy I had. I also found I had a cell signal. I placed a call to James, the crew chief, but just got his voicemail. "James, if you get this, we are all in trouble. No water for miles. Can you get to road crossing 623 and drop water? Thanks." I'm quite sure I sounded pitiful.
Eric had designed the event to be self-sufficient during the day. In other words, he would not have the crew meet us to offer support. We were on our own. Though an admirable approach, perhaps it was short-sighted given the extreme temps and unreliable (non-existent) water sources. I certainly felt increased pressure due to the arrangement.
As I walked along, I noticed something strange. My thighs, normally sporting wrinkly, saggy, cellulite-encased skin, looked tight and fresh. I stopped to take a closer look. Yep. They looked like my legs did twenty years ago, maybe even thirty. If being dehydrated meant better looking legs, maybe it was worth it. I decided to leave a note in the event I keeled over and died. "Last request: Please let my legs show in the casket. They look better now than any other part of me. Thanks for understanding."
After two more miles of trekking in the hot sun, I looked up to see a shelter silhouetted against the bright sky. Smoke from a small cooking fire rose into the air, providing a delightful scent. A young man, perhaps in his early twenties, milled about, his shirtless chest revealing a slim but athletic build. And there on the ground were two gallon-sized jugs filled with water. I was staring at the liquid gold when he turned and said, "Hi. I'm cooking up some fish I just caught. Want some water?"
Water? Sure! Fish? Where in the world did he just catch fish. It made no sense at all. In fact, I wondered if I was delusional. But sure enough, the water was wet and wonderful.
"Where did you get it?" I quarried.
"Oh, down the mountain about a mile and a half. I marked the way to the spring with arrows. It's an easy one to miss."
I thanked him profusely, told him Anne would be coming along shortly, and started down the mountain feeling revived and grateful. "God, You do provide. You are Jehovah Jireh. Thank you!"
The spring was little more than a slow drip out of pipe, a leaf directing the water into my bottle. I stayed there for as long as I dared, having another thirteen miles to conquer. Again, I made my way back to the trail, a relentless progression of ups and downs, footing rocky and treacherous. It was slow going, still hot and oppressively humid. The miles went on and on and on. Anne passed by, having made up ground on me. It was depressing to see her scamper by. I felt added pressure again knowing I would be the last to arrive back at camp. Though no one said it out loud, I was fearful the other runners saw me as a monkey-wrench boogering up the works. I hated that feeling. Maybe I didn't belong out here.
After what seemed an eternity, I looked up to see a giant boulder marking the trail crossing. There, lined up like soldiers, were bottles of water covering the surface of the rock. There was even one can of lemon-lime soda. Knowing I was the last of our crew through this point, the contents quickly disappeared into my waiting stomach. Jehovah Jireh.
I was able to pick up a little speed (all relative, of course) in the last five or six miles. The trail become more runnable as it hugged the mountainside, past another shelter, and then descended to the road crossing, our camping spot for the night. I was overjoyed to reunite with the others, some now fresh and revived after their evening meal. James offered the best bacon cheeseburger I've ever eaten. The day had taken it's toll on everyone, as it turned out.
Now, I had to set up my tent, prepare my pack, and try to sleep before my alarm sounded at 4:15 a.m. Given my performance, every day would have to be an earlier start to keep the finish times within reason. It was a lot of pressure. More time on my feet and less time to recover and sleep. Was it a recipe for failure? Time would tell.