Dark Sky 50 miler for May the Fourth, 2019, in Pickett State Park and Big South Fork Forests.
Layers and textures of forest: My words want to tumble forward, pressing out and growing in green and lush drippings of fern fronds and pink bulbous lady slipper flowers hanging on tiny stems, my thoughts want to surge out with a force of stone scarred and scratched, etched and oozing with thousands, millions, of years of changing. My heart still beats wildly with memories of the yellow trillium, the monkshood and hundreds of tiny unnameable flowers and fungi, the rocks with colored ooze, and stones home to universes of moss and sandwort and all manner of wort. All hues of green and brown swayed together so they turn kaleidoscopic as we plunged into the forest and rose up out again and again.
First, up before the dawn, the whippoorwill sang. I haven’t heard one since my grandmother sold the family farm, where the whippoorwills’ home was at the fork in the road and it sang daily. I lost myself in listening to the whippoorwill, my memories, and preparing for the race, mixing the sports drink for my pack; before I realized, it was almost 6 am, the start of the race. I threw my Stormtrooper shirt on and the backpack. A quick run downhill and I was at the lodge.
I couldn’t find my friend, my running partner from my last race in December. I thought it would be easy with only 108 registered runners. He thought it would be easy. We would just meet at the race start. But, I was skimming into the race start that morning, checking in, making sure I had what I needed, and taking a bathroom break.
Suddenly, the race was on, and we were all moving in a herd and I hadn’t found B anywhere. My playlist started with Jimi (a lot of Jimi for this one), “Let Me Move You” was the first to move me.
Because we were so far out in the forest, I didn’t have cell service since the day before when we exited the interstate, which was about an hour away from the park entrance. B, my running partner who I met at my last race, was staying at Charit Creek Lodge (camp) in Big South Fork, and my husband and I stayed at Pickett State Park, where the race started and ended. The parks are on the line of the time zones, so part of the time my phone said CST and part of the time, it said EST, but it wouldn’t communicate via text or phone to anyone. This became a mental challenge as I couldn’t keep track of my time properly, not to mention I was mesmerized by the beauty of the forest. First realization, I should have worn a regular old watch. Next time. And, I reached out to the trees, traced fingertips across bark as I passed by.
Terry, my husband, was my one-man crew, so even though I didn’t see B, I knew that Terry would be at some of the aid stations, and that would help bolster me along. This was my first 50 mile race, and while I felt prepared as I could be, I just didn’t know if my body would agree to push past 31.069 miles (50km), my farthest distance until the 50 miler.
The race began with a quick jaunt through the trails around the lodge/rec center at Pickett State Park, and someone said it best in front of me, “Great, it’s the obligatory first walk of the trail run.” Yes, once you run a few trail runs, you soon realize that if you don’t angle yourself to get toward the front of the pack (regardless of if you are a fast finisher or not—remember, the finish is far far away, so it’s not about that), then you will be stuck on a single track in a long line of trail runners who are forced to walk due to the middle group. The middle group does the run/walk early. The front runners keep running for a while to create distance and walk later, much later, and some probably don’t walk much at all. I do walk in the middle and at the end, but in the beginning, I just want to get going. If you get stuck at the beginning, you walk, and if you are like me, this creates a lot of anxiety because I am stuck in a pack like a road run, and that’s why I don’t do road races; I don’t want to be in a crowd of any sort. I like to join with one or two runners, but if that can’t happen, I prefer flying solo. I know how I like to run and when I am forced into a condition, then the anxiety rises up. I choose runs with less people so that the crowd isn’t a factor. I get such bad anxiety in big road races that I have vomited for miles and once the anxiety gets started, it’s difficult for me to turn it off. This is both unhealthy and embarrassing. So, I will never set my sights on a Boston Marathon. I love the forest and running in it beyond anything, and it doesn’t cause me to vomit even after 50 miles. I can’t imagine hitting the pavement anymore than we had to in this Dark Sky 50 miler just to get from the trails at Pickett State Park over to Big South Fork trails. We ran about three miles, at the most, of pavement.
That morning, when we finally got to that first little stretch of pavement, I was happy because the herd could break apart and spread out. I was actually a little panicked at that point because I needed some trail and some good space. I didn’t see B anywhere. I was trying to get toward the front a little more just to see if he was up there. At the Bell Ringer 50km which we partially ran together, he was in front of me for a long time in the beginning of the race, so I reasoned that he must be in front of me again. Still, as we neared the trail head, I hadn’t seen him.
“If 6 Was 9” played about this time and I was ready for the forest. When we exited the pavement and hit the trails into Big South Fork, it was beautiful. I eased into my stride, so happy to run at a peaceful pace. The views around the rock formations and small caves kept me going and longing for more.
About the time I was listening to “Mojo Man” and fighting with my earbuds to fit correctly in my ears, I realized that I had been traveling behind two guys for a while. I would get closer to them and then back off again, giving them space. They asked if I wanted to pass.
“No way,” I said. “I appreciate you letting me cruise behind you guys.”
I knew that riding their wave was great, and I didn’t want to move. J started the introductions, and he was our trail leader. He was adept, and I felt confident being on their path. J was experienced with some impressive runs on his resume, but he didn’t tell me that. P told me. P is training for a 100-miler, and he has some 50s under his belt. He said that he had met J and kept running farther and farther. I was so relieved, and knew I was with the right guys, especially when J gave the trail a good cussing when his hat fell down a ravine into a waterfall as we rounded and rounded and rounded.
“Little Wing” was there and I felt as if I was walking through the clouds, in a fairytale, but I was in the forest. I felt like a kid with my cousins slashing our way through the saw briars and following cow paths into a “holler” on our grandparents’ farm, not that far away (maybe one hour west) from where we were running as the crow flies. Trombone Shorty was playing by this time. A little “Buckjump” and a little “Hurricane Season” went great with all the hopping.
J and P were the best trail leaders. I knew that they would get me to B if he was up there. We crossed many streams, creeks, and I swear one of them was a river, gushing, and we used the rope because they told us “Don’t be rockstars. It’s slippery.” It was indeed slippery. We clawed up banks. I was hearing Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings by then, and was “Settling In” as she reminded me to “Be Easy” Baby. We hopped trees, straddled trees (I bear hugged because I am short), slid off stones, navigated jagged points of rock, slid down leafy trails, turned, and bounced around giant rock formations, creeks and streams, tiny waterfalls, slick bridges, and slanted bridges, slatted bridges, ladders, and rock paths, rock ledges.
And we were at 13.something. A bunch of crew and volunteers suddenly cheered. There was a giant pickle asking me questions. Huh?
“Do you need anything?”
No, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. That’s all I felt, gratitude for everyone there. Nashville Running Company presented the race and the volunteers were all wonderful.
Terry was there. “You’re doing great! You have good time. Do you feel okay?”
“Yeah, it’s beautiful in there,” I said, even though we were still in the forest; we were just crossing a dirt road at that point, but I meant the trails; it felt like being enfolded into the trails.
“You have us way the fuck out here in the sticks!” he said. “Whoa, these Jeep roads. I almost got the little car stuck.” He was so nervous that he couldn’t refill my pack at first, and he was fumbling with it while talking to me. We finally got it in and I ditched the storm trooper shirt. I was already soaking wet. The humidity started to rise. My fingers swelled as I left the aid station, telling Terry that I love him.
My playlist had reached The Rolling Stones, Dance Pt. 1, who said to “Get up, get out, get into something new. It’s got me moving, ya’ll.” I headed down the trail to find a good spot for a bathroom pit stop. I noted that I had already drank a 2liter of Vitargo. My fingers swelled and I realized that I forgot to get the handheld bottle with plain water. I was happy to have a fresh 2 liter in my hydration pack, but I really wanted plain water more and more and was irritated with myself for forgetting it.
I lost J and P somewhere in all that, too. The beauty kept coming but so did the challenges. I had to follow the white flags on my own, as my own leader, and sometimes I got a little panicked when I couldn’t find a flag, but eventually, I grooved with it and found the rhythm.
Alicia Keys sang what my heart thought, “I keep on fallin in and out of love with you,” to the trail. I climbed rock stairs, wooden stairs, tiny wooden stairs with a leg span for men 6 feet tall. I am 5 feet tall, but I leaned into them and bounded down, hooked around the switchbacks. “The Weight” by The Band played and I felt it lift me up a little lighter, a little easier.
Yoga came in handy. I felt as if I was playing trail “Chutes and Ladders” at times. I stretched, lunged, walk skip or jump your feet up from plank, yep, got that covered on the Sheltowee Trail. Left an eka pada rajakapotasana back by the creek, malasana under a medium sized waterfall, hanumanasana! between two trees to the limit! “Message to Love” from Jimi played and that’s what I felt. Great love and respect for the forest. Gulping it in. Slip on down and breathe, breathe.
I would catch sight of runners ahead and behind me sometimes. No B. J and P were long gone. I was following footsteps of other runners sometimes. We passed each other sometimes and everyone was encouraging, everyone cheered each other on, everyone was kind. “Goin’ Up the Country” by Canned Heat reminded that “the water tastes like wine” and that we could “jump in the water, stay drunk all the time.” I definitely felt groovy without any need for alcohol. The John Muir trail dipped into dark forest winding, and I was thinking of all the footfalls that had traversed the trails, thinking of timelessness, and sometimes the dream state held me. I was looking into the valley from the top of a rock perch with a bee hive buzzing all around me and then I was down in the ravine with big boulders, crows cawing out warnings, and then it started to rain, to pour down, and a full on gulley-washer waylaid me, as I was headed for the aid station at mile 20-something.
I got little paper cups of water and drank a lot of it. The rain poured down. I was so happy. Again, I was incredibly thankful for the volunteers who hiked out there with water and sat in the rain for us. My fingers went back to normal, and I settled into a run and then a walk and a run and then a walk.
I didn’t see Terry at the aid station, and I worried about him trying to hike in to it and missing me. He broke his foot a little over a year ago, a bad break, and these wild, single-track obstacle-ridden trails could be treacherous for someone like him. Still, I had to go on. I had no way to contact him. My phone didn’t have service. I stopped taking pictures because everything was wet.
I zipped the phone up and didn’t listen to music either. Trumpet flower blooms littered the trails which were lined with foam flowers. Some rhododendrons bloomed their pink tongues out toward the rain. The trail turned to slush, and mud holes that got deeper and deeper as we ran alongside the river. I stepped in mud up to my knees and I plunged forward trying to navigate through slippery mud dirt, sloshing mud like thin concrete with holes that threatened to swallow me. The creeks and streams poured through the trail toward the river that sang beside me. Slushy, sloshing between rocks, the trail became a creek and a stream. I thought that I was running up the river at one point.
I sat in a waterfall and felt my skin sting and burn from chaffing. The cold water soothed it. I counted to twenty seconds and ran again. I ran and ran, saw the sliding footprints of other runners as they had tried to navigate the trail. I sat in another stream and counted to twenty. “Cold, cold water.” And, I ran again. Moving onward, the trail finally pulled up and up, still holding mud holes and dirt slicks and running streams, but moving up nonetheless, until finally I reached the split to Charit Creek.
Terry was there! Hallelujahs! And they were playing Jimi. I was “Home” for a few minutes.
“Have you seen B?” I asked.
“No, I haven’t seen him anywhere,” he said.
I took out my earbuds and moved around my phone, discovering a peppermint stick I had put in that morning. I couldn’t eat anything, but I left it in the pack and gave the pack to Terry to refill. I took the handheld water bottle, thanked the volunteers and headed out on the small loop at Charit Creek toward the Twin Arches. I was so happy to be relieved of my pack for a short loop. And, I was waiting for this part. I wanted to see this more than anything else on the run.
My hands smelled like peppermint and a song started to play in my head, “a peppermint stick for old Saint Nick. Hang it on the Christmas tree. A holiday season. Loopdeloop. He’ll be coming down the chimney down.” All mixed up and playing in my head. “Peppermint stick. Loopdeloop…down the chimney down…” I realized after I had already traversed the wooden plank horizontal stilt bridges over the swampy area and was climbing into rock formation territory that I had forgotten my phone to change the music in my head and to take pictures. It was still in my pack. That deflated me. I was down, “he’ll be coming down the chimney down” my legs were sad, and I almost cried as I passed gorgeous rock formation after rock formation.
“Loopdeloop. Leave a peppermint stick.” I thought about dropping out and getting my phone and coming back around, taking pictures of this loop, and then just walking out with Terry. I was tired anyway. I had already ran farther than ever before in my life. I had felt love and gratitude all morning. I was immersed in the beauty of the earth and the human spirit. “Peppermint stick for ole Saint Nick. Hang it on the Christmas tree. Holiday season!Whoopdedoop on this loopdeloop. Coming down the chimney down…merry bells keep ringing. Whoopdedoop on this loopdeloop…”
Ugh, I laughed and tried to shake off the loopdeloop happening in my brain. I looked up to the majestic stones, the rocks towering, sheltering, snuggling together. Then, I came to the Twin Arches and met C. He was standing underneath it. I had been following him for a little while at some distance back. He said, “wow, it’s incredible!” Or something like that. I was so taken aback by the beauty of it, that scene, that it didn’t matter how he phrased it, I felt the same sense of wonder.
We headed back down the trail and C led the way. He introduced himself and told me that it was his second year to run the race. I told him that it was my first 50-miler and he said, “you’re doing great, much better than I did last year.” He explained that it was hot the previous year and he dehydrated, barely finishing the race. This year, the rain made it challenging, and as far as I was at that point, he said that I should definitely keep going. Walk, see how far you can get, that was his advice. We made it back to the Charit Creek aid station again. I took a bathroom break, picked up my pack from Terry, telling him I’d see him at the end, and headed up to Gobbler’s Knob, the big hill many had warned me about.
Mush! Climb! Push! I kept going and met up with C again around one of the bends. We reached Gobbler’s Knob together. My time was all messed up at that point. They said to keep going, so after some water, I headed off down a double track Jeep-like trail. C stayed behind at Gobbler’s Knob for a rest in a chair for a moment. If I sat down, I wouldn’t get up, so I kept moving.
This was one of my least favorite parts of the course. Miles of Jeep road. Gravel. I didn’t enjoy the views as much, but I knew that it was a way to get from trail to trail at times. I turned the music on again and it was Jimi’s “Wild Thing” which definitely helped me along. Finally, after another aid station, I plunged back onto a single track into the forest to Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away”. It met up with a trail we had been on that morning. I put away the music again and crossed the creek(river) that I had crossed with J and P. I held the rope and swayed into the water as it poured through the banks from the earlier rain.
I made it to the second creek(river) crossing and the bank was a slick mud slide down. A woman was scooting down on her butt. A couple of other runners were headed up the other side. Three volunteers were waiting for everyone to cross. They were clearing the trails, checking to be sure that everyone was going to be on time because it was getting late at this point. Once it got dark, it would be difficult to see in the deep forest even with a headlamp. I held some trees and started to descend the bank toward the creek(river) crossing. “I’m sorry that I’m in your way,” the woman said. She was almost in the water by then.
“Oh, you’re not at all. I’m fine to wait here,” I said.
The volunteers told me about the rope about the same time that I saw it in the mud. I grabbed it and started down the bank. The woman had reached the water. I took about three steps when the rope came undone and I slid until my ankle slammed into a rock. I was worried. It popped hard against the rock. This was about the fifth or twenty-fifth time I’d fallen depending on how you count them. I sat there for a few minutes. The volunteers came to help.
“Put it in the cold water,” one suggested.
“Just sit as long as you need to,” another said. “You’re almost there.”
“Yes, yes,” I said. Another helped me slide the rest of the way into the water.
“I can bear weight,” I said. “It’s okay. Just popped the shit out of it.” I held the rope and started across the creek(river) surge. The current knocked my legs out and I slid on the rocks. The rope swayed out with me. “Just hold on and sit there for a minute,” one of them said. “You can just take a bath,” one of them said.
“Okay, I’m up,” I said. And then the current knocked me down again and the rope swayed. My legs were simply tired, and I couldn’t get my footing. I held on and sat with the water again. “I think I will sit here for a while,” I said. Finally, I made it across.
“Just walk the rest of the way if you need to,” one of them yelled after me.
“I will,” I said.
After a little walking, I ran again and turned on the music for a final round. Big Mama Thornton wailed “I’m Feelin’ Alright” and then “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, Baby, because I feel it in my bones.” All along the creek and up through the forest. It was the same way we entered that morning. I ran my hands along the flower petals and moss. I was past 40 miles at that point.
I took some pictures because I knew the Jeep road and then the pavement would be at the end, not many more great views, just getting home. I turned off the music after Rusted Root played “Drum Trip” and I was nearing a runner who I wanted to ask about the end of the course. She told me that we were at the final 5.4 miles to the finish. She had ran some previous 50s and maybe longer, I can’t recall exactly what she said because I was tired at that point. She told me that I had definitely earned this first 50 miles of mine, as the pouring rain had made the course really tough. Many people had dropped at the aid stations due to injuries, she said. I hadn’t noticed, but I wondered if B was one of them. I was hoping to see him at the finish, already having completed the race. About the time I was going to ask her name, she took off for a bathroom break. “So don’t forget to hang up your socks cause just exactly at twelve o’clock, he’ll be coming down the chimney down.” I realized that the “loopdeloop” and “coming down the chimney, down!” were spinning in my head again.
The Jeep road and pavement were uneventful. How I loathed them both but I had to admit that I was happy to be out of the mud. My clothes were drying out a little. I had plenty to drink. I kept moving forward. The woman passed me again once we reached the pavement and I followed her from the group camp and ranger residence out the road. As we climbed up the final hill toward the Pickett State Park turn into the lodge/rec center, two boys about eleven years old cheered from a trail where they had laid their bikes down.
“We got up when the race started and we’ve been waiting for everyone to come in all day,” one of them said to the woman up ahead of me.
I couldn’t hear what she said, but it was kind, and they talked some more to her. I told them thank you as I passed by them. Behind me, they debated together on which way to go.
Finally, we crested the hill and were in the home stretch. The boys passed me on their bikes, cheering, telling me that I was almost there and doing great! I could hear the cheers as the woman in front of me crossed the finish. Then, I could hear the cheers for me. I saw Terry. I was both calm and overwhelmed as I crossed the finish line and received my Finisher’s Medal. P was there, congratulating me. He said that he and J were looking for me to finish anytime. I thanked him for running with me for a while that morning. Terry and I talked for a moment and he took pictures.
I saw J, who had went to change clothes, and we congratulated one another, too. Terry didn’t see B anywhere. The next day, when I finally had cell service, I found out that B was behind me a little ways, and he didn’t make the Gobbler’s Knob cut off.
It poured down rain about thirty minutes after I finished. I put my stinky black running clothes out in the rain and joked that a skunk would show up to mate with them since they were speaking skunk language. It poured and poured rain for much of the night. Terry and I stayed in a rustic cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, young men who were out of work in the 1930s. The park contains a small museum that tells the story of how the men of the CCC constructed cabins, the lodge, and miles and miles of road and trails and more.
It was all possible because of their work. Terry and I talked about them, how we each had thought about those men throughout the day, how we could understand why they loved it there and wanted to build something beautiful. I would stay and build something beautiful there, be in that forest. Terry built a fire and we ate pizzas that he made. I drank vegetable broth, coffee, and tea, and iced my legs.
The rain stopped by the next morning and the whippoorwills sang again. Terry and I went out on the trail before leaving the next day. We took a very short hike to a waterfall and sat among the rocks beside the glowing green sandwort. We reached our hands out into the water falling from the forest above us.
“Let Me Move You” Jimi Hendrix
“Mojo Man” Jimi Hendrix
“If 6 Was 9” Jimi Hendrix
“Little Wing” Jimi Hendrix
“Buckjump” Trombone Shorty
“Hurricane Season” Trombone Shorty
“Settling In” Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
“Be Easy” Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
“Rock Me, Baby” (Live) The Rolling Stones
“Dance, Pt. 1” The Rolling Stones
“Fallin’” Alicia Keys
“The Weight” The Band
“Message to Love” Jimi Hendrix
“Strawberry Swing” Coldplay
“Goin’ Up to the Country” Canned Heat
“We Gotta Live Together” (Home) Jimi Hendrix
“Happy Holidays” Andy Williams
“Wild Thing” Jimi Hendrix
“Over the Hills and Far Away” Led Zeppelin
“I’m Feelin’ Alright” Big Mama Thornton
“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” Big Mama Thornton
“Drum Trip” Rusted Root
Nashville Running Company’s Dark Sky 50 miler