July 23, 2007

Lost in the Forest

I never imagined I would be spending my birthday lost overnight in the middle of an isolated forest. But as night crept in I found myself clueless how to escape...

Yesterday I drove to the Talladega National Forest to run on the Pinhoti Trail system. The Pinhoti stretches for dozens of miles and (supposedly) will eventually meet and join the Appalachian Trail.

My training plan called for a 2 hour run, and of course I wanted to do it on the trail. I started the run about 445 pm on Cave Creek Trail and planned to run to Nubbin Trail, then turn back when I reached Odum Trail. To Odum would be around 7.5 miles, so I wasn't sure I would make it all the way there by my 1 hour turnaround cutoff.

The run out was great, although it seemed like I was running forever. I hit my hour mark 15 minutes past a 2 miles to Odum sign, so I turned back there after an estimated 7 miles.

Coming back was passing much quicker than going out, and I was cruising. Felt great! I took the long gradual climbs a little slower and flew down the descents.

I reached my last landmark on the trail, a cliff with a steep drop a long way down into the canyon, and I knew I only had about 2 miles left. It was 630. It took me several minutes to find the trail connector at this point, and when I did it didn't really look familiar. But - it was the only trail I saw after about 5 minutes of looking, so I assumed it was the right one and blamed the lack of recognition on being tired (and the fact that my memory absolutely SUCKS!). And so I ran...

I ran for about 10 minutes when I was convinced that I was on the wrong trail. This one looked like an ATV trail, not a hiking trail. ATVs aren't allowed on the Pinhoti or its side trails. But I knew that landmark was right, and I had spent a lot of time looking for the trail and this was the only one I saw. So I kept running, assuming that this trail probably exited the forest soon.

WRONG!! I ran for another 10 minutes or so, and then started to get a little concerned. This trail had lots of diversions and intersections with other trails, all of which looked like ATV trails. I made a couple of left turns, then veered right. Then realized I was lost. It was 720.

At this point I had been running for 2 1/2 hours and had been out of my Gatorade Endurance for about 30 minutes. I had brought 2 Clif Bars with me, 1 of which I ate at the 1 hour turnaround. Man, it seemed like forever since that 1 hour turnaround...

The light in the forest was disappearing quickly. I veered left at the next trail split, thinking I was headed west back toward the road I had driven in on. I was sprinting now, concerned that I was lost and running out of light.

I started thinking about the very real possibility that I would be sleeping in the middle of the forest tonight. Would anyone come looking for me? The only person that knew where I was going was 1500 miles away in Colorado. And all she knew was that I was running on a trail an hour and a half from my house and that it might someday connect to the Appalachian. I have this week off, so noone at work would get concerned that I didn't show up. The kids were with their mom.

After about 10 minutes, I lost the trail. It apparently just terminated in the middle of nowhere... It was about 740, and I'd been running for 3 hours.

I decided that I should try to get back to the cliff, the last landmark I felt comfortable that I recognized. I turned back and ran as fast as my body would allow.

I'd been without any drink for an hour now, running the whole time, and I was feeling parched. My legs were aching from being anaerobic and without any fuel for 2 hours now.

I crossed a creek when I was trying to get back to the cliff, so I filled up my bottle and downed it. I then filled it again so I would have water through the night. At this point I was nearly certain I would be staying in the forest...

I tripped over more roots and rocks than I ever care to again. Between my aching legs and the impending darkness, the roots seemingly jumped up to trip me whenever I got close.

I finally recognized the first ATV trail that I had been on and ran until I was back at the cliff. I climbed out onto the open ledge of rock and peered out, hoping to see the road down below. Nothing. No road. No sound of cars. No human lights. Nothing. I stood on the cliff for a couple minutes trying to decide whether to hunker down here for the night, or to try to find my way somewhere else. It was a few minutes after 8. It was basically dark beneath the canopy of the forest, although the sky was still light grey.

I decided to search one more time for the right trail. I stepped off the cliff and then I saw it - my trail! There was overgrown foliage blocking direct sight of it, but I caught a glimpse of it through the greenery. I was so excited I started sprinting again.

Until I face planted again. With about a half mile to go, I could no longer see the ground and gave up on running. And of course, it was now that it started raining buckets... I gingerly marched through that last half mile until I finally got back to the trailhead and my car.

I've been humbled many times along this journey to Ironman. I've relied on total strangers for a ride home when I flatted with no extra tube. I've lost way too much skin trying to ride faster on downhills than I had any business riding. I've been lapped in the pool by a 200 # granny.

And now I've been lost in the forest. What an adventure!

Thanks for joining me for My Daily Spin.

17 comments:

rocketpants said...

Yikes! That doesn't sound like fun. Glad you found your way back safe and sound without having to spend the night in the forest.

Matt said...

"Adventure" is right. You forgot "attacked" by birds and forgotten wheels.

stronger said...

I'd have found you by Friday ;)

bari said...

What a frightening experience! If you plan on running in the forest again, you might want to invest in a good GPS device.

IronJenny said...

Welcome back to the car!
That had to be scary...
Jenny

Iron Girl Nyhus said...

Whew! I was wondering where that story was going to end up! Glad you're safe :)

Bike Chick said...

I'm glad you are safe and sound and back home. One thing for sure, you are ALWAYS going to win the "have I got a story" contests!

Megan said...

Whoa, that's freaky - glad you made it out!

hak said...

As some who's spent his fair share in the middle of nowhere, the only time I got lost and had to spend an unplanned overnighter was when I listened to my ego instead of logic.

I "knew" I was taking the right trail and that this diversion "had" to be the right direction...even if it didn't logically make sense.

The price for that decision was cheap: Just a long night in a T-shirt and shorts with the temps in the low 50s in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Funny how our brains work when that sensation of being lost kicks in when we're in the woods. :)

Glad you made it out in one piece.

hak

momo said...

i got lost in the woods when i was about ten at girl scout camp. i remember it to this day - how quiet it was except for my breathing, the fear i felt that no one would ever find me.

i'm glad you're out safe!

RunBubbaRun said...

The craziness of trail running, I get worried about that too when I'm racing as well. I know the feeling well.

Glad you made it back, I'm sure we would have looked for you before the start of IMWI..

TJ said...

bread crumbs......they'll get you home every time.

glad you made it out.

Lana said...

Trails are very scare in the dark...very scary! Take the cell phone the next time!! Last winter I got lost on mtb trails with my sister and my 10 year old son...and boy was I scared. Thankfully, we had a cell phone and finally got a hold of someone about the time we found our way to the road. And the bad part is that I had my Garmin GPS and couldn't figure out how to navigate with it! Believe me, I read the instruction manual as soon as I got home. Be careful out there!

Donald said...

It's a very primal thing to be out there with no sense of which way is out, especially as darkness falls. I've been there, and fortunately found my way out each time. Glad you did the same.

TriShannon said...

How scary! Glad you made it out!

Iron Eric said...

I hate getting lost on trails. It sounds much worse at night. I have been reading Dean Karnazes's book. This dude runs and runs and runs. He seems to always know where he is going. He will run on trails at night including badwater. Amazing. I am glad that you made in out in enough time.

21stCenturyMom said...

I'm really impressed you found your way out. "I made a couple of left turns, then veered right." That sounds so much like me - just keep poking around - something is bound to happen!

I'm glad you got back. Happy Birthday!