Lost in the woods. (This isn’t a metaphor.)

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12/31/2016

Dunn 50K ‘Fat Ass’. (Fun-group run, no awards, no bibs, no timing.  Just a run with friends.)

Dunn is our local forest, tough terrain, and only a few really run in it regularly.  For most of us, this was a chance to experience new territory!

Spencer designed the inaugural course with help from our friend Cary Stephens.

They’re diabolical dudes.

Course was WICKED hard.

Steep goat hills, bushwhacking, game trails, technical and jaw-dropping scenic views.

PERFECT stuff for an ultra to test limits and close out the year.

The course was impeccably mapped/marked. We were all given a turn-by-turn sheet with GPS mileage/flagging directions, overview map with elevation profile and detailed section maps.

We were set.

I ran the first part of it with a tribe of five women.  We all run ultras, the distance wasn’t freaking us out. New terrain that isn’t super-well defined had us being cautious and sticking together.

The directions were precise and easily followed even if the course was ridiculously difficult. Flagging was perfect. We were all happy that Anne Miller was willing to navigate while we followed along.

At the half way point two of the women in our group were done.

Anne Miller was one of them. Fighting a cold for a few days, she told us before we ever started that morning, she was only going 15 miles.

At the only aid station/turn-around, Bonnie Wright, Rita Van Doren and I loaded up on water, chatted quickly with Spencer and Bonnie’s husband, Mark.  Said good bye to Jen and Anne. Hugged the Miller clan and took off for the second half of the course.

Things were great for the three of us until we hit 20.62.

This is where we went wrong…

And I will say, for the record, that it’s not so much a ‘we’ went wrong.

I feel like this mistake was largely mine.

I was the one who convinced Bonnie and Rita to go with the mileage and visible ‘landmarks’ instead of the signage.

Our directions said to follow the sign and flagging and that we would be going up a steep bank and into the trees. We were to follow the green flagging up the side of the hill, bushwhacking.  We saw a steep section of the bank that was pretty heavily torn up with what looked like shoe prints.  No sign. No flagging.

But we were at the EXACT mileage marked on the directions.

We went past the section for about .2 of a mile looking for the sign or flagging.  We didn’t see any. And NONE of the turns had been off by even .1 of a mile to this point.  Figuring that the mileage had to be right – since it matched the physical description of what were looking for, we went back to the spot where the bank was torn up. We finally agreed that even without the signage, we should go up the bank and into the trees scouting for green flagging.

We knew we had to go .3 of a mile uphill once we were in the trees.  (In this ultra designed by Spencer and Cary we quickly learned that given any vagueness about the intended direction; the answer was always GO UPHILL.  Kind of kidding… Kind of not.)

At that .3 of a mile mark, we still have no flagging.

We’re totally bushwhacking on a forested canyon/side hill at this point.

We keep going, looking for flagging or a road.

We talk about going back or forging ahead to the road that HAS to be uphill from us and scouting for more flagging.  We made the group decision to keep going up the hill. It was a SLOG.  Downed trees, tall ferns, no trail, holes the size of truck tires… Not fun. Slow going. Yet totally in line with the rest of the course we had experienced.

We’re banking on the idea that at the top we’ll have been headed in roughly the right direction and be close enough to see familiar flagging.

Yet somewhere in this mess we begin to realize…

And actually admit…

We’re lost.

And we can’t backtrack.

We don’t even know how to backtrack at this point.

We’ve gone over the uphill mileage stated in the directions — and still have no road or flagging.

Somewhere in there we all agree that I need to call Spencer.  I get voice-mail. I leave a detailed message telling him time, distance, where we think we are.  I say that we’re together and staying together no matter what.

I state clearly in a back-up text at this point that we know we’re *&%$ing LOST.

Spencer is at the start area and there is NO cell reception.

With more climbing and guessing and bushwhacking we finally DO get to a road.

Hallelujah!

Short-lived happy dance!

We re-group. We each kind of grab an idea for problem solving, keep each other in sight and get to work.  Bonnie and I go one direction looking for flagging or signage or intersecting trails or landmarks.  The road dead ends.  Rita was trying to harness technology to help us with GPS or maps. We didn’t have enough connectivity. We gather up again, and head down the road in the other direction looking for flagging or identifying marks of some sort.

We’re more than an hour lost at this point. Spencer has a voice message from us, but no one else knows we’re lost.  Bonnie has also tried to call her husband, Mark.

Mark is with Spencer in cell-phone-no-man’s-land. And we have spotty/random reception at best.

Then it hits me.

ANNE MILLER.

She’s my friend.  She ran with us. She knows the forest.  And we can get calls out.  Just not to the guys at the start line.

We call or text Anne.  I don’t remember which we did first.

HERE enters our Guardian Angel.

For the next 3+ hours we either text or call Anne and she would try to helps figure our location, collect and get information to Spencer.  She leaves her house, brings her son Andrew and they head back to the staging area. (Andrew knows the Dunn as well as Spencer and Cary and had JUST run the 50K course earlier that day.)

She texts us at one point when we admit that we’re pretty damn scared…

“We will not abandon you!”

And not to spoil the ending of the story; but she didn’t.

Neither did Spencer or Andrew.

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Knowing we were ultimately trying to navigate to a peak to get back on course or get to a recognizable spot, we opt to go uphill on the roads when we get to a ‘Y’.

After a few other turns and decisions – aiming to keep climbing up hill – we eventually hit a road with RACE FLAGGING.  RELIEF!!!  I think Bonnie and Rita would agree with me — this was a moment of profound relief.

As we start following the flagging it occurs to us — this race is loosely an unconnected, 2-loop course.  We don’t know if we’re on the first loop, the second loop — or if we’re headed to the start or back to the half-way point.

We’re still kinda lost.

BUT we have flagging to follow.

We follow the flagging looking for landmarks that match our turn by turn sheet.  We can’t quite get what we are seeing and what’s printed in the directions to line up enough to help us figure out where we are.

We’re getting text messages/calls out to Anne as we have service and/or landmarks to report.

We had made it clear that the three of us were sticking together and following the flagging even if we were going the wrong direction or on the wrong ‘loop’.

Details get hazy at this point, but we kept moving and communicating. We eventually get to a spot where I can get a call out to Spencer/Anne. And this time we have clear enough landmarks, details of where we are and what we’ve traveled through…

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They know where we are!

They’re sending Andrew up to rescue and guide us in. I’m told that he will be coming from our backs.

We are told to keep moving, keep following the flagging.

It’s starting to snow.

It’s getting dark.

Even with headlamps we’re having a LOT of trouble finding the flagging until we’re right on top of it.

We start this routine where Bonnie scouts for flagging, Rita stays about 1/2 way between the two of us and I stay by the last known flagging. Bonnie would find the next flagging.  Rita would call back to me and I’d move to catch Rita. I’d park by the new flagging while Bonnie searched ahead.

Without even talking about how to make it work…  We just worked out how to make things work…  TEAM WORK.

I realized on that side-hill that this was TEAM WORK in all its gut-clenching, hard-working, glory.  I remembered thinking these were woman — very much including Anne — that I would now do anything for…

Anything.

Anne, Spencer and Andrew all knew we were safe at this point.  And it turns out we were on the last 5 – 6 miles and headed in the right direction

But the three of us sure didn’t feel safe just yet.

We felt lost and scared. We were getting cold and we can’t see the flagging which we’re supposed to be following so we don’t get LOST again…

We’re scrambling up this horrendous, ridiculous, face of a mountain — when I look back down the climb and see a headlamp.  I BELLOWED out Andrew’s name.  I didn’t know I could yell that loudly.  I’m pretty sure Corvallis, 20 miles away, heard me.

Andrew reaches us.

This 20-something young man, who has now run this ridiculously steep grade TWICE in a single day, arrives on the side of the hill to find 3 crying, exhausted, cold, GRATEFUL middle-age women waiting to be rescued.  He calmly asked if we all had good batteries in our headlamps, if we were warm enough or needed gloves/coats and tells us that we were going to keep moving. He asks me to text his mom, because his mom would be worried about him.  I do just that.

Efficient, calm and we are on the way to the finish line following Andrew’s lead.

So much relief.

Andrew ran with us, walked with us.  Chatted to us.  Listened to our rambling/frantic re-cap of the day’s adventure. He even helped Rita re-tie her shoe when her laces came undone and her hands were simply too cold to function.

We ran a bit of a short cut just to get back to the start area and end this epic adventure. We were greeted with fierce hugs and a warm fire.  And Mark’s hot chocolate!

I hugged Anne like my life depended on it. At that moment in time that was exactly how I felt.

The three strongest feelings that day?

My gut when I KNEW we were lost.

My head when they said they knew exactly where we were.

My heart and soul flooding with gratitude for my friends.

Two days later Bonnie, Rita, Anne and I were texting about the fact that we’re still emotional about it all.  It could have had a different ending.  And we all know that.

There is an incredible gift in these uniquely strong and fire-tested friendships that are built on and around the trail running community.

I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life.

Rita, Bonnie and I ran just short of 30 miles, so we didn’t officially do the 50K.

We managed to climb 7,100 feet of vertical gain.

Lost. Found. Friendships. Teamwork. Problem solving. Logical thinking. Communication. Battling fear. Fighting for others. Selflessly helping others. Sometimes this ultra running thing has very little to do with actual running.

Thank you Anne, Andrew, Spencer for getting us off the mountain and to the finish line. 

Bonnie and Rita…  Thank you.  

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