Just when I thought I'd seen it all while running through the woods...
This past Saturday started off a little rainy, which I knew would make my tune-up run on the Bull Run course a muddy affair, but by the time I drove to the course, the rain had happily stopped and the sun was coming out. Sure, the trail was still a sloppy mess, but I appreciated not being wet up top as well, especially since the air temp was in the 40s. As I started running, my plan was for an easy 18-20 miler as a final tune-up for the race this coming weekend. Everything started off routinely enough as I made my way through the first couple miles to the concrete "steps" that help folks get across Pope's Head Creek on their way to the rest of the course. Here's a photo of what these clever steps look like (Aaron Schwartzbaud photo from 2008 BRR).
A few miles up the trail, I came upon the next river crossing, only this time I was surprised to see the concrete steps were completely submerged by the stream (with the dirty water this time of year, I couldn't see them at all under the surface) - I guess the overnight rain raised the water level a foot or two. Even though this swollen stream wasn't more than 10 feet across, I didn't feel like getting soaked on this chilly day, so I decided to turn around and run back the way I came before tacking on a few (hopefully drier) miles on the southern part of the course. I took a new (and surprisingly dry) route back to the start, and the wimpy side of me was patting myself on the back for such wise decision to avoid the river crossing.
As I arrived back at that original Pope's Head Creek crossing, I picked up the pace and prepared to hammer the long climb back up to the parking lot. I made the final 90-degree turn off the trail to the concrete crossing steps, and I was shocked at what I saw. ...or, rather, what I didn't see: The steps were gone! Apparently, in the hour since I originally crossed over those steps at the beginning of my run, the creek swelled up a good 3-4 feet and my path home was now hidden under the suddenly raging current of the opaque creek. Crap!
I took a moment to think about my predicament, and when I processed the big picture, I realized I was now trapped between the suddenly roaring rapids of Pope's Head creek in front of me and that other swollen river 5 miles back to the north. What to do, what to do...
Since the creek in front of me met an even larger river immediately to my right, I decided to bushwhack up-river in order to find the safest place to cross. I was hoping for a large downed tree or a narrow passage or a dolphin with a harness on its back...*something*... that could get me across the swollen river, but after a mile of hacking my way up the river bank, I found no such relief. At that point I accepted the fact that I'd need to get a little wet in order to cross the river, so I headed back south to try my chances at an area that looked the least imposing to cross.
When I arrived at the area, I saw I could walk about 1/2 way across (30 feet or so) in ankle-deep water before taking my chances with the last 30 feet of deeper surging current (since the water was so dirty, I had no clue how deep it was, nor what the footing was like on the bottom). I found a sturdy stick to give me another point of balance in the deep water, and with a deep breath I said "Ok, here comes the fun part"...
I carefully made my way through the ankle-deep section and realized the river bottom was composed of lose and jagged shoe-box sized rocks. So much for good footing. As I started moving into the deep part, I felt the icy-cold water bite at my skin as it rose past my knees. At that point I was moving quite cautiously, planting my support stick at a steep angle to brace myself against the force of the current. Between the power of the current and temperature of the water, I was ready to admit defeat to Mother Nature and congratulate her on kicking my butt on this day. Unfortunately, as the water rose up to my waist, and its force had me leaning with tremendous stress on my stick, I knew there was no turning back; trying to shift my weight to turn around at this point would immediately knock me from my feet and send me down the rapids.
The branches from the small bushes on the shore in front of me seemed so close at this point (about 10 feet away). Even though the riverbank immediately rose 100+ feet in a steep cliff on that side of the river, I didn't worry about what that climb would be like, I just worried about grabbing one of those branches to pull myself to safety. I thought surely the water would start to become more shallow as I moved closer to the shore, but the steepness of the bank, clearly the result of years of river-erosion, told me there was likely little relief coming my way until I grabbed those branches. With about 8 feet to go, and the water now at mid-waist, the stress from the current's force had my legs and stick at screaming at red-line levels. I know the saying goes "It never always gets worse", but I was about discover the exception to that rule.
As I planted my stick for the next step, the pressure from the water was too much and in an instant I heard the stick snap and was immediately knocked from my feet and sent down the river at Phelps-like speed. It was freezing cold, tremendously disorienting, and really really REALLY not what I had planned for my easy afternoon workout.
Two flashes of my backwoods training immediately clicked through my brain. First, I needed to fight my instinct to put my feet down searching for the bottom - The most dangerous part of being pulled down a raging river is not what you see above the water, but those rocks, downed trees, and random debris that lay below waiting to snap your legs as the current rushes you down the river. Second, I needed to slowly try to make my way toward the shore as the current allowed. Trying to fight it on any level would be completely useless and exhausting. Lucky for me, after just a few seconds, the river's natural bend brought me within a few strong strokes to some over-hanging branches on the shore. I saw my opportunity and with a quick surge I was able to grasp the branches and pull myself to the safety. Phew!!
Of course once I pulled myself out of the water, the wind-blown 45 degree air told me that I needed to get moving fast to generate some heat. Climbing the 100 foot cliff in front of me looked like a great way to accomplish this goal, so up I went. My hands were pretty numb, but I did my best to wrap them around every branch and root I could find to help pull me up. As I neared the top, I figured I'd have a good 1/2 hour bushwhack search to find my way back to the trail that leads to the parking area, but apparently the Gods of Trail Running decided I finally deserved a break: When I crested the top of the climb, the trail was just 5 feet in front of me. Woohoo!
10 minutes later, I was back at my car...stripping off my freezing wet clothes as fast as I could (I apologize to any woodland animals who came upon this sight on an otherwise pleasant afternoon). I saw that one of my Vasques now had a big slice through the fabric across the top (no clue when this happened), and I laughed a bit when I realized my feet were already basically dry even though there was still a puddle of water in my shoes. Thanks Drymax!
So what was the lesson learned here? Not really sure. I have no clue why that river swelled up so much an hour after the rain stopped, but if I can take anything away from this ordeal, I guess it was a nice training session for my attempt at the Barkley Marathons next year!