At the end of August, four members of the Off Road Pursuits Endurance Team; Dax, Jess, Toby, and Paul, will be heading up to Yosemite to begin fast-packing the John Muir Trail. This 210 mile trail runs from Yosemite National Park to Mt. Whitney and the current plan is to complete the route in 7-9 days. Last weekend, three of us; Dax, Jess and Paul, went to the San Jacinto Wilderness for a training/simulation weekend along the PCT beginning from I-10 and heading South to Hwy 74. Things did not go as planned!
I was going to write a recap of the weekend but I decided you’d probably read about it from a better and funnier writer. The following is Dax’s recap of the trip and was originally posted on his blog at DirtyRunning.com.
How far are you guys goin’?
22 miles today, I answered, nonchalant and with the confidence of many miles under my belt and races through tougher terrain. Three times that distance might have worried me, but 22 miles I could do in my sleep.
Do you have water?
Yeah, we all answered, and I lifted my pack up slightly off my shoulders, all fourteen pounds of it. I weighed it the night before, weighing myself on the scale, 168, then put the pack on and weighed myself again, 178. A ten pound pack filled with a sleeping bag, pad, cooking stove made out of a cut up aluminum can with denatured alcohol for fuel, a bivy sack to keep the bugs off at night, a change of running clothes and socks, a grab-bag of sugary gels, chews, and bars, a backpacker’s dinner (Nepalese Lentil Mix — it’s hard for me to even type those three words now without feeling my throat close up and my stomach try reach its way through my mouth), and oatmeal for breakfast. When I added the 1.8-liter bladder filled with water and Skratch, the total weight of the pack was 14 pounds. At the last minute I decided to bring my new handheld water bottle, because 1.8 liters didn’t sound like enough, and I stuffed a handful of salt tablets into the small pocket.
You guys are crazy, he said shaking his head. He was stretched out on a rock, his pack propped up next to the water fountain at the trailhead on the desert floor, Palm Springs. He was dark with deep wrinkles written by the sun, maybe darker now in my mind, could have been Middle Eastern or Mexican, but I prefer to think of him as Native America.
There’s no water for 20 miles, he said as we started up the trail, and I smirked, I had run 20 miles without any water before. 20 miles with 2 liters shouldn’t be a problem.
I didn’t look back, but if I did, I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have been on that rock, he would have vanished and the heat waves would have shimmered in the distance and the low strum from a Spaghetti Western’s steel guitar would ring out, and I would shield my eyes from the blistering sun, and suggest (again) that maybe we should take the tram up to the top instead of making the 22 mile climb to the top of the mountain. That way we would be fresh for the 29 miler we had on tap for the next day.
I didn’t look back.
It wasn’t even that hot, maybe 80 when we started, working up to 90s as we climbed towards Mt. San Jacinto. It felt hot, though, and I sipped from the tube connected to my water every 15 minutes or so, making sure to stay on top of my hydration, and trying to take a gel every half hour.
We heard the rattlesnake before we saw it, coiled up on a large rock directly off the trail surrounded by some dead desert brush, and Jess, who was leading at the time, froze at first, then tried to back into a rock which didn’t give, then, after what seemed like too long to be face to face with a ratter, ran up the trail. I was a big help behind him, yelling back up, back up, run forward. The 4 1/2 foot diamondback didn’t want anything to do with us. It uncoiled and found a safer spot away from the trail.
I’m out, Jess said, sucking a tube connected to a dry 2-liter bladder. We were about 7 or 8 miles up the side of the mountain. I checked my water. I had a few sips left in my bladder, and my handheld was half full. Paul ran out of water soon after, then I followed. We all shared towards the end, so it didn’t take long. We weren’t supposed to be out of fluid this early.
My tongue was swollen, I found it difficult to talk, and I was stumbling a little. I definitely would have failed a sobriety test, but I was aware enough to know that I was dehydrated. I wasn’t able to take in any nutrition, because I couldn’t swallow. We all just put our heads down and headed up the mountain. There was no sense retracing our steps back to the desert floor where by then it was 108 degrees. Plus, we were ultrarunners. What’s a few miles without water or calories? Pretty soon we’d hit the trees which meant shade, cooler temps, and then soon after that, water.
I was able to stomach a packet of baby food (it was really just pureed fruit in a pouch, but I like to call it baby food because at this point I was acting, and felt like a baby…maybe I should call it little princess food) which gave me enough energy to run for a bit. My stomach felt like it was going to revolt at any moment, but at least we were running, there was some shade, and we were done with the worst of the climbing for the day.
We were supposed to cross a campground with water, but we ran into a parking lot. There were a few kids sitting on a picnic table, and we asked them if there was any water around and they told us there was some at the campground about 1/4 mile down, no more like 3 or 4 miles down the road, someone corrected. One of the girls asked if we needed water and we casually said sure, and that we would probably die if we didn’t get water soon, really die, so if they could help us that would be fantastic. One of the guys in the group looked at us like we may come back and take the women and start our own commune in Northern Idaho, but they were all really nice, and at that moment, as one of the girls refilled my water, they were the most beautiful people in the world, almost as beautiful as the couple who saved our asses the following day.
That water didn’t last too long, and by mile 20, after some more steep climbing, lack of food, and more dehydration, I was feeling pretty low.
Finally, we crossed muddy section of trail, hiked up a hill, found a trickling stream of mountain water sliding through the rocks, and filled our packs and bottles. I sat on a rock, and downed one bottle, then another one. Then I puked everything up.
I’m not a quiet vomiter. When my wife is sick, she’ll go throw up in the bathroom that is just a couple feet away from our bed, then come out and tell me that she threw up, and I’ll respond “really? That’s so cute,” because that’s what you’re supposed to say, right? She usually just heads back to the bathroom after that.
I freaking shake the walls when I vomit, and in this case, the forest. Luckily I had friends that were supportive, and realized that even when I am at my lowest, jokes and photo documentation are necessary. Jess even offered to hold my hair back, accomplishing the rare double-whammy bald joke and vomit joke.
We walked a few hundred yards down the trail, and there was a big, glorious, clear stream. We all dunked our heads in the rush of ice-cold water, and I’ve never loved water so much as at that moment. It was a beautiful thing.
Dousing myself in the water helped me pull it together for a little while, but after walking, pulling off the trail, deciding that I wasn’t going to move another inch and that first thing tomorrow I’d take the tram down and hitchhike to the car, we all decided that the best thing to do was make the 2 1/2 mile hike to the campground and leave the decision for the next day.
Wanting the day to be over, I forced myself to run some of the next section, and once we hit the downhills, I started feeling like myself again, just with absolutely zero calories in me, and dehydrated, but at least I was able to run.
We made it to the Strawberry Junction campsite in time to set up camp and make dinner before it got dark. I tried to stomach the Nepalese lentil mix, but it sounded so much better in REI than it tasted that night. Trying to conserve water, I didn’t put in enough, so the result was a dry, hard-to-swallow micture of pepper and lentil powder. I was able to eat a few spoonfuls and keep them down, but every bite was a battle, a battle I eventually lost, so I just surrendered and curled up in my sleeping bag.
Last thing I said that night was “if you guys here me call for my mom, don’t worry, I’m just having a nightmare about today.”
Shockingly, I didn’t sleep well that night, but I woke up feeling good. I was in major caloric deficit, but I was able to eat some oatmeal. I didn’t even think of bailing on the 29 mile run. I probably should have, but it was a beautiful mountain morning, cool and crisp, and all I wanted to do was run, and for the first 15 miles or so, I felt great.
Jess told us that the majority of the climbing was done in the first 3 miles, so once we did that I felt like I was home free, but 26 miles was still a long way to go. We refilled with water at about mile 10, and that was the last water we would see on the trail, but we were ultrarunners, and we could easily make it 19 downhill miles on 2-3 liters of water.
It wasn’t all downhill, and on a different day, without the dehydration and nutrition issues, and if I were rested, this 29 mile section would have been amazing, beautiful, and sure, hard in parts, but mostly runnable. The problem was that it wasn’t a different day, it was that day, and my body was done. I couldn’t ask it to do anymore, and I was reduced to a slow walk on the uphills, stopping frequently to rest in the shade.
It felt that we had some good miles under our belts and that the car would be about 2-3 miles away, but then I heard a loud yell. I looked down the trail and saw Jess sitting with his head in his hands and Paul shaking his head and the mountains rang with a loud “fuck” and I realized that there was a slight possibility of some bad news.
The PCT sign read “HWY 74 10.8 miles.”
At that point I was probably capable of 1.5 miles per hour. And we had gone through all of our water. This was the first time I thought that I’m not sure I can make it. I wasn’t scared or anything, and I knew I wasn’t going to die, and that night I’d be in my own bed, but I remember thinking that’s probably what people think before they die on the trail. That everything is going to be okay, and the is no way this cold happen to me. I’m an ultrarunner.
We made the best decision of the day and took a sharp right turn off of the PCT and headed the 3ish miles to a lake and some cars, hoping to hitch a ride back to my car. At the bottom of what seemed like 1,000 switchbacks we “interrupted” a couple on a blanket and asked for some water. They shared their extra with us, and for the second time in two days, strangers came to our aid.
It’s embarrassing to think back on it now, how helpless I felt, but one of the big lessons I learned (aside from the “water is important” lesson) is that I need to take ego out of it. It’s easy to feel invincible at the start of a long run, or during the planning stages, but there must be a respect and healthy fear of the conditions, of the trail, and of the distance. It was a humbling day on the PCT, a day that I know my limits were reached physically, and when Jess came tearing down the road, horn blaring (we sent him hitchhiking, because he was the only one without a beard, and he had the best chance of getting picked up…that, and the fact that he could still walk), I felt true joy that I was out of danger, that I had water, and that I would soon be eating a bacon cheeseburger and drinking a beer, sitting around a table planning our next adventure.
To read about other great adventures and the musings of Dax, be sure to visit his blog at DirtyRunning.com.