• Arabelle Romeo

Once again, not getting what I set out to accomplish brought me more than I could ever wish for...

It’s been anything but an easy time at my workplace since I returned after H9 Fierce Dragon 200, coupled with the emotional up and down of going from accepting how the race went to feeling totally defeated just hasn’t made the last 12 days any easier. The other night over dinner we talked about it and Rich said enough people have asked for his race report that he needs to get it done. I responded that I still don’t know what to say... he said “it’s just a story- tell it like it happened- your race ended when the real work began.” His report is now finished and posted several days ago and I don’t want to read it until I’ve written my own I guess I need to get on it. H9FD200 consisted of a 20 mile traverse across the mountains from Vogel state park to Skeenah Gap and then back...5 times. This doesn’t really sound impossible...I thought initially “oh, 40 miles a day. Totally doable.” I had been on the Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT) twice and felt like I had a super run both times. I think they both lasted for somewhere between 16-20 miles each time. The DRT is no joke. From Vogel to Skeenah and back is the gnarliest 40 miles you can imagine- somewhere around 12 or 13,000’ of climb, unpredictable weather...and that shit is steep- up AND down. It’s hell on your knees and toenails, what’s left of them after a day. It’s not like running a leisurely towpath 40 miles a day. With that groundwork laid.... Pre day one. We both left work early and packed the car and headed to Skeenah Gap. We had no idea what the “aid station at the turnaround” was going to look like and my food allergy issues are so ridiculous that we filled a couple of military steel ammo boxes with non perishables to stash in the woods at the turnaround so we at least knew we’d have food at mile 20. We then drove to Vogel and got ourselves settled in the cabin of a good friend of Rich’s about 15 minutes from the start line. We arrived in the dark and it’s somewhat of an On Golden Pond setting in the middle of a beautiful nowhere...and the alarm was set and we didn’t have the code. Unfortunately we didn’t know the alarm was set until we opened the door and it went off. As runners’ we like for these minor disasters to happen before the race, makes us feel like we’re getting the bad stuff out of the way ahead of time so the race will be smooth sailing. As though 5 days on the DRT was going to resemble anything even close to smooth sailing. We managed to resolve the situation  and send the police away satisfied and I made us some dinner and we unloaded all of our stuff onto the table and countertops to get organized for the week. I had made up crockpot meals and froze them the week before so I got the next day’s meal set up before we went to bed so all we’d have to do was turn it on before we left it the morning.

The start was scheduled for 8:00am. We were awake, fed, dressed, drop bags packed and twiddling our thumbs by about 5:45. I get up at 4:15 for work every day, which means Rich is awake by 8:00 was a pretty late start for us. We tried to go back to bed and rest a little longer and finally just headed to Vogel to Cabin 21 where we would be checking in every day for the next 5 days. There were only 6 of us registered for this race. Let’s pause on that for a moment... And one of the 6 was the race director. So all 6 of us met at cabin 21 just before 8:00am on Tuesday morning. We had the option of leaving a ziploc bag with things we might need at mile 10 (or 30 on the way back) and an amazing volunteer by the name of Rick would deliver those bags to a bear proof locker placed at Bryant Gap 10 miles into the course. The weather was decent and Rich and I were in pretty good spirits. As we headed out, one of the other runners, a sweet guy named James, came along with us and commented he had never been on the DRT and was glad someone knew the way... I was admittedly not so excited about this. Rich and I lead some pretty busy lives and our trail time together is nothing less than intimate. We have 5th grade jokes no one would understand nor want to and references to conversation history of literally hundreds of hours on trails that we simply couldn't explain to a newcomer, and sick as it may sound- 200 miles on foot together alone on the DRT was something we had looked forward to like some people would look forward to a cruise. We got to the border of the park where there was a road crossing, a place we had agreed we would be stopping to eat and shed a layer of clothing and as we arrived runners #3 & 4 came by and our new friend announced he’d be following them...within minutes Rich had me laughing with his usual ridiculous jokes and the miles started passing by quicker than I could keep track of. As we climbed we came into what appeared to be some sort of winter wonderland. From a distance it looked snow, but as we got higher up we could see the sun shining on this crazy frost that seemed to be shooting outwards from the leaves and branches of everything. Rich said something about “hoar frost” which I needed him to repeat 3 times until I finally asked “you mean like a hooker??” I was clearly hearing “whore frost” and from a man who uses phrases like “stuck like a hair in a biscuit” I figured there was probably some crazy southern connection to be made between prostitution and this amazing display of beauty in nature...evidently “hoarfrost” is a grayish-white crystalline deposit of frozen water vapor formed in clear still weather on vegetation, fences, etc.

We arrived at Skeenah a little after 5:00pm and went off the trail to find our ammo boxes and pull what we needed before headed to the aid station. We made our way over to the aid station and we were pretty happily surprised to see the full spread laid out for so few runners... this was where my race pretty much checked out... It was cold and i was pretty excited to hear that there was hot vegetable soup. It was dark and canned soup is mushy so I wasn’t really paying attention to exactly what was in it until some light came through the tarp and I saw a couple noodles left in the bottom of my cup. It was too late, I had already eaten it and I tried to pretend it might not be a big deal and pushed away the panic thoughts that were forming. I guess I thought if I shoved enough different stuff into my stomach maybe it wouldn’t notice the gluten...I ate a couple pickles, some gummy lifesavers, vinegar potato chips, a cookie from my ammo box and I drank a can of coke. That was the last I was able to eat the rest of that night. Within a short time my stomach started reacting and I felt like I had a huge gurgling rock rolling around in there. It started to get cold and being behind on calories was adding nausea to the mix. I wanted to just get back, knowing there was a crockpot full of potato lentil soup waiting for us in our warm cabin. I figured my stomach would work things out when we got back and I got warm and got some rest and by the next day I’d be fine. We ran straight through Bryant Gap without stopping and ended up finishing the first day in about 16 hours. 2 runners had come in before us and James came in after. There had been talk in the morning from the others of turning straight around and going back out...everyone seemed to have wised up and decided to rest and get warm before going back out. We got back to the cabin around 1:00am and I wasn’t able to eat at all. I decide to just get some rest and hope that the gluten would be done doing it’s thing by morning. I wasn’t feeling better in the morning and forced down some oatmeal and waffles to try to get some calories in me, but everything was still going right through me. We made our way to Cabin 21 and headed out for day 2 around 8:00am and by the first climb I knew it was going to take way more than I had to get across those mountains. The mental struggle had begun. The constant questioning of whether or not I could make it, should I send him ahead and just run at whatever pace I could muster with the little energy I had, what would that mean when it got dark, would I stand paralyzed in fear on the top of that mountain with the deserted tent pitched in the middle of the trail afraid to run past it alone, and the deciding question- would he even go on without me if I couldn’t keep up and decided to drop during the night? I knew the answer to that- we’d been through it before. There’s the agreement that everyone runs their own race and if one can’t go on they don’t hold the other back, but in the end he won’t leave me alone sick on a trail in the dark. We reached Mulkey Gap, around 15 miles out, at 3pm. Up until this point our day had consisted of me struggling up the climbs on no calories, forcing food down in hopes of gaining some calories and then ending up behind a tree 10 minutes later when those calories went through me. The downhills were manageable and I coasted a bit and felt slightly optimistic, but anything that was slightly uphill and required energy became nearly impossible. I had a phone signal at Mulkey and forest service road ran through it. It was sunny that day and nearly 40 degrees. I knew if I dropped there, he’d agree to continue running. I suggested I try to make it up the climb out of there and If I couldn’t make it, I’d come back down and call it in. I made it about 10 yards before I got sick again and doing my best to put on a strong face I turned around to go back. I told Rich I didn’t want him to think I was a quitter, he reminded me that he had been out there with me the whole time and could see what I was going through. I decided there was a reason I wasn’t supposed to be out there with him and as he hesitantly headed up the mountain without me I laid down on the trail in the sun and curled up in a ball and waited for a ride. My heart was a little broken, but knew I needed to get that out of the way- it was no longer my race and I needed to make sure I had my head on straight to make sure Rich’s race was everything he had hoped for. My ride showed up in an hour and I made my way back to the cabin. Got cleaned up, took a ton of pepto bismol and went to bed. I slept a few hours and was able to eat some oatmeal when I got up and it managed to stay in my stomach. I drove back to cabin 21 around midnight and sat with Rick the race volunteer until Rich got there at 2am. He was cold and exhausted and we got in the car to drive back to the cabin and he was snoring within seconds. We got back, got him showered and fed and I stayed up to wash all of his clothes and get them into the dryer before heading to bed myself. A few hours later we got up and I made breakfast and packed his drop bag while he got himself ready. I had taped his knee and feet the day before and now they needed a little more tape. I got him to the start and he headed out by 8:30 for day #3. I went back to the cabin, grabbed everything I needed for myself and then returned and headed out with Rick. We delivered the drop bags to Bryant Gap and hung out there in the rain for a little bit to see if anyone came through, but we had just missed James who had left Vogel early that morning. We drove to Skeenah and after helping Rick get his truck unloaded at the aid station, I crawled into a sleeping bag to get some rest until Rich got there so I’d be fresh to pace him back across to Vogel. The rain let up a bit later in the day and the RD showed up and said Rich had passed through Bryant earlier than we expected, so he was moving and I needed to get ready. I changed into my running gear in the back of the truck and then went to the aid station to wait. RIch came in before 6pm and despite having been wet all day he was in good spirits and seemed to be moving really well. We headed out after he ate and started the climb out of Skeenah. Things felt right again, I was happy to be out there with him. I led the way and he stay right behind me the whole night. We made it to the top of Coosa Mountain without stopping once during the mile climb. I’ve paced Rich before and I’ve crewed him enough times and run with him enough to read his cues and know when to pick things up and when to slow it down. At the beginning of day 3 he was talking about just getting through the day- it would mark a “fun run” having completed 120 miles and would get him a piece of hardware...but in my heart I knew there was no way I was going to let him stop there. By the end of the night, we got in close to 3am, he was talking about what needed to happen by morning for him to be ready for the next day. We had discussed on the trail that night that the reason I believed had to exist for me not being out there finishing my race was simply that one of us needed to take care of the other. Driving to and from the start/finish everyday and getting everything ready for the next day would have never happened if we were both in the condition he was in. We got back and once again got him fed and showered and in bed and I took care of the laundry and then headed to sleep myself for an hour. Morning 4 was tough at first, but as Rich got moving around the cabin he commented that he didn’t feel nearly as bad as he had expected. He was still making jokes and smiling and being his positive self...and he was moving. I watched impressed as he walked down the stairs leaving the cabin, shaking my head that a 50 year old man could run 120 miles in 3 days with god knows how much elevation and still walk down stairs. He got off to a little later start on Friday, but it seemed like everyone did. The weather was going to be better than the day before, this seemed to offer some optimism. He was headed out by 8:30 and this time I went back to our cabin and slept for a few hours before driving back to Vogel and meeting with our friend Chris who had just come out to witness the idiocy of people running back and forth across the DRT in January. He gave me a ride out to Skeenah where I hung out and waited for Rich, who once again was moving faster than we expected. We were out of there around 6pm and I told him my goal was to get him back to Vogel, around that lake and in the car by 3:30am so he could be in bed by 4 and get a few hours of rest before day 5- we had been told the weather was going to make the last day difficult. He said he’d do what he could, but I felt pretty confident. This night was special. The sky was clear, the moon was so bright that you could see the shadows of the mountains looming ahead. We could see the lights of the next city in the distance and watch as they got closer during the night. I realized on top of Rhodes that I had tears rolling down my face...I was so overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for the life we lead- running in the moonlight on top of a mountain in the middle of the night when everyone else is just hanging out at home and missing out on all of the beauty and tranquility we were experiencing up there. By this time I had long forgotten that it had at one point been my race, I was so happy that Rich wanted me out there pacing him and that we were able to experience that trail at night together. We stepped back into the park that night in what Rich told me was record time for him to run from Skeenah to Vogel, and that was with nearly 160 miles on his legs. We made it around the lake loop and everyone in cabin 21 was surprised to see us back so early- we were in the car headed to our cabin by 3:29. Day 5. The shit hitting the fan. The forecast looked horrible. Rich left cabin 21 around 8:30. There was the option of running that damn lake loop at the beginning or at the end, you just had to do it and collect your book page out there to prove you’d done it because evidently that extra mile Rich left he told me he’d save the “victory loop” around the lake for me to run it with him at the end. I don’t know why that made me so happy, I guess just knowing that he was so strong and had made it so far that we were actually talking about the end of the race and it was within reach. Day 4 had been special because of the peace and tranquility and the time to reflect on the beauty of our life and all that we’re capable of was the literal calm before the storm. Day 5 was a veritable shitstorm. There wasn’t time for reflection on anything, there were times when the focus was simply on staying alive. I knew I needed some rest to be strong for him that night, I did have 100 miles of DRT on my own legs at that point and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy out there. Storms, torrential rain and later snow was predicted and 55mph winds were expected on top of Coosa...and a high of 17 degrees. These are all conditions that would prompt me to throw in the towel at my own race and go nurse my reynaud feet back to life...but never for a moment did I even consider not running with him. Before bed at 4am I had put out a bunch of messages looking for someone to give me a lift out to Skeenah that day. I woke to a response from Carrie Roy who lives up that way. I had met her a few times in person and knew that Rich always talked about how great she and her husband Matt are. She said they’d be able to drive down and give me a ride and asked if I needed anything else. I told her I was considering going to walmart for rain gear and she said she’d look over what they had. I got some sleep and then packed a Rubbermaid container with dry clothes and shoes and all of the things Rich had asked for me to have for him at Skeenah. The RD had said everyone was required to have a change of dry clothes out there that day. I met with Carrie and Matt at Vogel at 3:30 and they had full rain gear with them in our sizes, still in the saints right there. As we drove out to Skeenah, I realized why Rich always spoke so highly of them- these were some of the kindest happiest people I have ever met. Their interaction with each other is inspiring, their generosity is beyond words and Carrie’s laugh is genuinely contagious.

We arrived at Skeenah to find that the RD was planning on stopping the clock for 2 hours to let the worst of the storm pass. Rich made it in by 6pm and we spent a bit of time wringing out his gloves and trying to dry them on the little heater in the aid station. We got him fed and into the dry clothes I had brought and the rain seemed to have let up a little at 8:00 so we headed out in every layer we had with the rubber rain gear on top of it. Half way up the climb out of there I thought I was going to die and started pulling everything off and stuffing layers into my pack and tying things around my waist. This was no indication of what was to come. Rich kept telling me about the horrible winds and rain he had encountered on the way over and it truly seemed like it must have passed with the storm. He explained to me what to do if I saw a tree falling and honestly I was more concerned about the screech owls screaming in the distance. (He did tell me I need to quit listening to those damn murder podcasts) Things seemed to be going smoothly at first. We made it up Rhodes and to Tent Mountain- where Rich told me he had actually opened the tent the day before because he couldn’t run past it a whole week and never know if there was a body in it... and then I heard it- the jet plane howling he had told me the wind sounded like. And then the snow came. But it wasn’t soft pretty snow, it was wet and sharp and that howling wind was whipping it against us. From that point on, the night seemed to last forever. My reynauds was full tilt at that point and even my hands were a mess. The rain gear was probably all that was saving us, but it was impossible to stay warm. Our base layers were soaked from sweating so much when we left Skeenah and the sub-freezing temp just wasn’t allowing us to warm up. We got to Coosa and all I could think was that it was going to be the worst up top, I just needed to get us up there, get us back down and by the time we hit the forest service road we’d be out of the wind. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We plowed up Coosa without stopping and Rich made the comment “my little Arabelle that could” at the top- I just kept thinking “I want to get us off this mountain alive as quickly as possible.” We started down the other side and I kept waiting for the wind to die as we got lower, but the howling continued. Rich’s knees weren’t allowing him to move very fast on the downhill and I have a thing about not leaving your runner behind when you’re pacing, so the struggle of holding back enough to not make him feel like I was leaving him alone and still trying to move fast enough to not end up in a state of hypothermia became this whole shortening my steps and almost trying to jump up and down more than running forward. We finally made it to the forest service road and I knew Rich needed to eat, but our hands were so cold and stopping long enough to get out food felt risky in the wet cold. We were both shivering and struggling and the involuntary vocal expressions of pain in the form of grunting and groaning had officially begun. My feet were soaked and the pain was so horrible, but everything else hurt so bad from the cold that it all just seemed to blend in. We finally slowed down enough for Rich to eat a pop tart and then picked up the pace again and ran for seemed like hours on that rutty rocky road filled with puddles that were more like lakes at this point. We reached the road crossing into Vogel State Park and the wind still hadn’t stopped. The trail was a little more manageable than the FS road had been, so we were able to move a little faster and momentarily feel like things might get better. But the wind didn’t stop and by the time the trail dropped us out onto the road in the park I could barely stand up straight, I was running so hunched over from the cold. As we ran down the road towards the mile loop around the lake, Rich said “please humor me for a minute and lets stop in the park restroom and warm you up.” We went into the ladies room and he had known it would be crazy hot in there from the heater on the wall. I took off my mittens and while I was going to the bathroom he stood drying them and trying to warm them up at the hand dryer. I came out of the stall and saw him there and I lost all composure. The tears started flowing and I could barely get the words out to tell him how proud I was of him and how grateful I was that I could part of this.

We had a moment and then I said let’s get this shit done and get you that 200 mile plaque! We got our gloves back on and headed out and as soon as we hit the cold air outside we both burst out with a yell of “FUUUUUUUUUUUUU**!!!!!!!!” As we approached the lake loop it was around 6:00am and there were people in the park starting to stir. The looks we got were priceless- like what kinds of idiots are all geared up like that to go for a run on a morning like this?? We made it around the lake and back to cabin 21 by around 6:30am. I can’t even describe the admiration I have for the grit and determination Rich is made of. I have learned so much about myself in the time we’ve spent together, I know I’ve mentioned before that he’s made me realize I am capable of so much more than I thought I was. He told me during that last lake loop that he had learned something new about me during this race and wondered what it means... he had observed that I was was willing to do more for his race than I’ve ever been willing to do for my own. I know what it means... I love him.

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It’s taken me a minute to get this written...weekend before last I experienced some pretty wonderful stuff. Earlier this year Rich and I were invited to run a trail 5k on the property of some friends