Last Monday was weight lifting and a 6 mile easy run with hill repeats (repeats with a 20 lbs. vest and dumb bells). Tuesday was an easy 10 mile run with more weight lifting. Wednesday was 7 mile run with speed intervals along with 45 min on Stairmaster. Thursday was an off day for recovery so I would be fresh for a long run on Friday.
Friday was a clear crisp morning with temps hovering in the low 30s. I gathered all my running gear (change in cloths, phone, knife, food, extra water, ice,…) along with my CamelBak water backpack for extra water and weight. I usually don’t use the Camelbak because of the sloshing sound of water, but I need the extra weight to make my long run feel more demanding than usual. I arrived at the parking lot next to the trail head at FATS – Fork Area Trail System (favorite long run trails) which consists of 40 miles of awesome trails on 6 hilly loops in a remote area. There were several vehicles already in the parking lot, which was not unusual for a Friday morning ride by those starting the weekend early. All were mountain bikers, and I was the only runner in the lot (not unusual). One group of riders is passing buy on their way to Atlanta, and stopped in for a 2 hour ride on epic rated trails.
I doubled check my gear, and headed out on the first of many loops on a perfect day. The first two loops were Skinny and Brown Wave. Brown Wave is the lower 7 mile loop which extends from Skinny loop (think figure eight). After warming up and running easy on the first few miles, I picked my pace up a little, but not too much, although I was really feeling great and in the moment, I have 30+ miles on the plate today. The trails were in fantastic condition as a few riders went by going the opposite direction. There are a few hills which I struggle with and always slowdown for them, but not today. My legs felt really strong and craved to run hard up the hills. All the Stairmaster and hill repeats must be paying dividends in my training because I felt really strong as my pace never changed with the extra weight on my back. I have reference points along the trails which I check my time to get a feel of what kind of a day I was having. I was 5 minutes ahead of my best time 5 miles into the loop with an average pace of 9 min/mile.
I stopped at the Skinny and Brown Wave junction to continue on with the lower Brown Wave loop. I tossed a gel down as I talked for a brief minute to 3 bikers taken a break before they continuing on with the Skinny loop. They were out of breath, and in complete amazement of how I was able to run both loops in the same day. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was only warming up and planned to run three more loops after this. I wished them a safe ride and made my way down to the lower loop for another 7 miles of awesome running. What a perfect day I said to myself over and over. Weather was perfect, I felt very strong with not an ounce of fatigue, and was in the moment. I felt I could run strong all day, and was going to do just that. Back to my 9 minute per mile pace, flowing between the trees on soft pine needles, and driving it up the hills. I’m now at a nice downhill section going to the Savannah River for the lowest section of the loop. I remembered last fall during the FATS 50K race that I hammered this section. I was doing the same today with great memories of the race, and thinking how much stronger I was now. I made it to the river in record time and hit another gel to ensure I don’t run out of energy for the climb from the river to the main trail head. I also finished my Perpetuem drink and was now sipping on water from the CamelBak.
Still feeling awesome, and just flowing along the trails as I continue to hammer the hills in complete control. I was excited at how strong my legs felt and very pleased with my training efforts as of late. The changes I made to my training plan are making a positive difference. I was also 10 minutes ahead of my best time at this point, and felt that I was running at a comfortable pace.
I just ran passed the 2 miles to go mile marker (before returning to Skinny loop junction) and thought about stepping up my pace for this uphill section. Up and over a few more small hills, and I rounded the corner when two bikers caught my eye ahead on the left side of the trail. My first impression was they stopped to take a break, but quickly realized as I approached them that there are three of them and one was motionless on the ground. In a nanosecond my world went from perfect to crisis mode. One of the bikers was giving the older man on the ground CPR while the other was standing there in disbelief. I immediately ask what had occurred and how I could help, as I tossed my backpack on the ground. They had just arrived to this point 3 minutes ago and found this gentleman on the ground wrapped around his bike, unconscious, and not breathing. I looked at the gentleman on the ground and he was blue/purple in the face and non-responsive. All I could figure was he hit a tree really hard on his bike and broke his neck or had a heart attack. One of the bikers was doing CPR but had no signs of progress; no pulse, and I could tell he had passed. I immediately called the emergency number I keep in my phone to the local forestry service that maintains this area (as recommended by the bulletin board at the trail head) and informed the man of our emergency. He said to call 911 to dispatch emergency personnel. The other gentleman had called 911 just as I was informing the forestry service but was having a hard time giving them direction to the middle of no where. I told them of the loop and trail system we were on and how far it was to the power lines which had an access road. The other biker said to run and meet them at the power lines and bring them to us. I took off running in a full out sprint with plenty of adrenaline to burn off. I made it about a quarter of a mile up the trail and saw a clearing above the ridge line which looked like it could be a closer road. I ran up the ridge and did find a forest service road much closer than the power lines. Just then 3 more bikers were riding downs the trail towards the unconscious rider and I hollered for their help. Just happens to be the unconscious man was a part of the three riders but was lagging back from the pack. They said it sounds like it was there friend and two of them went racing down the trail to him while the other stayed with me to get help. Just then a forestry service truck showed up along with medical assistance. I led them down the embankment to the trail and to the unconscious older gentleman. They checked his vital signs, and said he has passed. It was very obvious to me when I had arrived, but you can’t stop trying until it’s official. I waited until the police and more medical support arrived. I talked to his friends he was riding with and they said he was in great shape, rode these trails 3 times a week, but not unusual for him to lag behind during rides. They waited for him at the Skinny / Brown Wave junction but got worried when he didn’t show. They went back to see what the problem was when they came upon me. They said he had two sons and a wife. He moved from California, and they (him and his wife) now live in the area. I could tell they were in shock of what had occurred. I slowed down to take it all in when nothing more could be done as I stood over his body, and thought about his wife and sons who have no idea their day is about to take a very bad turn. I felt sad for them. I gave my statement to the police for the record and they asked if they could give me a ride back to my vehicle. I said thanks but no thanks, I need to run back to the parking lot to burn off this adrenaline and gather my thoughts.
I called my wife at work and told her about what had occurred. I didn’t want her to worry if she had heard about a fatality on local trials. She made sure I was ok and told me a run back to the parking lot would be good for me, but to call her afterwards. I took off running with a heavy cloud of disbelief of what just occurred. I kept running through my mind how this guy woke up and was out riding the trails on a perfect day with friends, and now his body goes without life. The trails took on a completely different meaning as I made my way the 5 miles back up to my truck. I knew I had to stay on the trails to work this out, but wondered what it will be like returning to this spot when going out for my next long run!
In the parking lot were more police cars, investigators, and forestry service personnel. I saw the three friends getting the guys personal belongings from his truck to give to the police. I talked with them some more and told them I was sorry for their friend and the family. They said the medical personnel said he had a massive heart attack and there was nothing any of us would have been able to do. They thanked me for helping and appreciated me being there for their friend. I also talked to the ranger who I called earlier and he said something that helped put things in perspective. “It is most unfortunate, but his time was up and he was doing something he loves out on these beautiful trails with friends. This is how I would want to go.” I was planning to run 30+ miles that day but was no longer in the mood after all this. I only got half the distance in, and felt great physically, but was done for the day mentally.
This was a reality check for me. Slow down for a few days and give thanks for all I have. Don’t take for granted your day will be complete and you will awake the next day with sun in face. This also does not mean you stop living either. Life is often too short and we need to not waist a minute. Time waits for nothing – It keeps ticking with or without you.
The Brown Wave trail has been tainted for me and I need to go face it head-on. I need to revisit this spot, give thanks for what I have, and move forward. This spot will now be a reminder to appreciate all that I have, and to press forward with life - The clock is ticking. Wish me luck as I face my challenge, miles into the woods alone.