On Terry’s last day, I was training for a 50k trail run known as “The Big Schloss.” You probably haven’t heard of it. Pretty much nobody has unless they have actually run it before or volunteered to support the insane fools who ran it, and that is okay. There are no t-shirts, no finisher’s medal, no hats or schwag-bag giveaways. It’s nothing but a little pack of hard running wankers charging over rugged mountain terrain, stopping at checkpoints every now and then while looking forward to some hot food and cold beverage at the finish.
I had never run a 50k before, and that was okay too. I love to trail run, and I had forced myself to do a marathon before despite my terrible allergy to running on pavement. My friends were doing 50k runs, so why shouldn’t I do it too? My mother once told me something about reasoning like that, but I don’t recall what it was. One of my best friends got a DNF his first time out on this particular 50k because he came very, very close to death while on trail. Obviously this made it an optimal event for me to start my ultra-running career with.
The day prior I had done some interval training on the track at the Altamont School just after daybreak and managed to squeeze in a quick trail run at Oak Mountain just before sunset. I had resolved to take a day off so I did a little recovery jog, a couple of barefoot quarter miles and some walking in the morning. Afterward, a coworker told me about a crisscrossing web of trails that led all the way uphill to Altamont. That set my mind to thinking.
In the evening, I decided that maybe I could have a little night time run, just to pretend that I was a real ultra runner and not some trail-slogger aspiring to do a wimpy little 50k. I geared up and said goodbye to Terry, who was working late at the office. She told me to have a good run. I drove to the Trak Shak to see about getting some replacement hydration flasks and maybe a headlamp. There was a teeming herd of runners milling about in front. Apparently I had chosen a popular time to go to the store.
Tracy hooked me up with the flasks, and I asked about a headlamp. He said they were testing a new lightweight headlamp and asked if I might like to give it a try. I told him that if he let me test it I would use it at night, in the dark, on trail, in unfamiliar territory within 3 hours. He handed it to me right away in exchange for my promise to deliver an honest assessment of the headlamp after I finished.
I returned to the office with the new gear just as Terry was leaving. I waved goodbye to her and went inside to prepare for running at night under the tiniest sliver of a waxing crescent moon on craggy, rocky, gravelly, root-crossed trail that I had never been on before. I mixed up some Accelerade, filled the flasks, mixed some Endurox, and stuffed my pouch with gel packs. I put my ID, health insurance card, business card, ultralight cell phone, and a $20.00 bill in a ziplock sandwich bag that I shoved into the zippered back pocket of my running shorts together with my Princeton Tec Attitude hand torch.
I drove up to the track at Altamont just as darkness began to get comfortably settled in for the night. Two people had independently given me information that indicated I might find a trailhead near the tennis courts. I fired up the headlamp and ran a bit on the track to test it. This headlight didn’t diffuse its beam nearly as much as I was used to. However, the tight orb of light seemed more than adequate to light my way, and it stayed firmly fixed wherever I pointed it. I liked the ratcheting swivel allowing me to point the beam straight ahead, straight down, and everywhere in between. It had a smooth action and held fast in whatever position I moved it to.
The light didn’t fizzle out or show any signs of technical SNAFU, so I headed downhill to the tennis courts and began jogging the perimeter. After a couple of laps and a few side-trips down false trails didn’t yield any good prospects for a trailhead, I decided to go back to the car and try to pick up the trail at the JCC. Once I managed to get on trail, I marveled at how well this tiny light could make a circle of intense moonlight in the middle of the darkness that surrounded it. The beam was definitely toward the blue side of the spectrum. I saw every rock, crevice and root on the steep uphill before me until I decided to try the switchbacks. The little circle of bright light was the perfect size to fully illuminate a small patch of the whispy singletrack sweeping back and forth in front of me as I charged up the hill.
A little too perfect. After a while, I began to think I might be hallucinating. If I had been on mile 20 or so, that might have been plausible, but I had only done about two. Something else had to be going on. I stopped and closed my eyes. I saw a bright corona with a black spot in the middle of it. My retina was getting tired of the intense circle of light. Time to get out the hand torch.
I started to run a bit with my lightweight Princeton Tec Attitude and the head lamp, and the two seemed to pair up really well together. I found my way up to Altamont School and discovered where the Altamont trailhead actually was (the farthest point away from where I had been told to look). I turned around and began working my way back through the labyrinth of switchbacks. Then my phone rang.
Instead of ignoring it and checking the message later as I would ordinarily do, my intuition told me to answer, so I did. I pulled the ziplock bag out of my back pocket and hit the green button without bothering to take the phone out of the bag.
The call informed me (1) that Terry had passed away from a heart attack that evening and (2) that it was my duty to inform everyone else in the company before the next morning. Part of the curse of being trained in rescue and life support is that sometimes when you hear things like that, a certain feeling can creep in to your consciousness. Sometimes you feel as if you could have saved the life if you had been there on the scene. The events that followed taught me that one of the ways I cope with adversity is to focus on what must be done right away and just keep going.
All of a sudden, I began to truly appreciate having that headlamp with me on that run. I angled the headlamp up off of the trail and began scanning for the quickest way to scramble back downhill to the car. The intense light and focused beam made the job easy as I swept my head back and forth. I bailed out of the trail system faster than I thought was possible and I went back to the office to start working the call list.
After I discharged my duty, I realized that Terry would want me to keep on kicking ass, so I did. I headed back out to the Altamont trailhead and started another run. This time I paired up the headlamp with the hand torch from the get-go. The combination was perfect. I zipped back and forth along the singletrack switchbacks, my worries lost in the joy of having found such an urban wonderland of trails so close to my office, wondering if the people of Birmingham realized how lucky they were to have such a great place to play right in their backyards. After a few miles, I realized that I hadn’t been paying particular attention to where I had been going. I hadn’t bothered to do a single thing to keep my bearings. I guess I was a little distracted.
That was another point where I truly appreciated that particular headlamp. For the first time ever, I felt the need to use the breadcrumb function on my Forerunner. Pointing the spotlight straight down was just the ticket. I looked forward with the hand torch while I kept an eye on the wrist-mounted GPS screen lifted into the bright circle of light cast by the tiny headlamp. Very little stray light scattered to diminish my focus and attention. After a few twists and turns, I meandered back to the car and packed it in for the night.
The most amazing thing about the gear and the day’s run was that it taught me something about myself at a time when I thought I didn’t have much left to learn. When drastic situations arise I manage them by focusing on a single task in front of me much in the way that headlamp focused a spotlight wherever it was pointed. When the immediate crisis has passed I cope by running and writing.