Sunday, April 6, 2014

Rule #7

Rule #1: Don’t die.
Rule #2: No cops. Don’t get arrested.
Rule #3: Have fun.
Rule #4: Keep moving forward.
Rule #5: Smile. You love this sh*t.

These have been my top 5 adventure rules since I’ve started this crazy non sense we call ultra running. I’ve oftentimes passed these rules on to family and friends when they travel… with slight variation on some of the rules…

Of course these are just the first of many rules that will eventually be officially instated. Like for instance…  Rule #6: Drink locally when applicable. This was officially instated a few months ago with the blessings of Jason Green. After this weekend’s adventure… I want to officially announce Rule #7.

Rule #7: Always look before bounding over objects (ie: logs, trees, rocks)

A week ago my wife told me she had to fly up to South Carolina for work, so I immediately started formulating an adventure weekend. I called my buddy Stephen to see if he was free and up to help crew me on a trail adventure out in the Sipsey Wilderness area.

Over the course of last week I plotted a route that I wanted to take. The Sipsey isn’t a formal recreation area and is mostly back country trails with vague markings at the beginning and ends of each trail, so it’s easy to get turned around. And for the record… men do not get “lost”… they get “turned around.” So you can put together what my response was when the moment came when Kati said… “Just say you got lost. Turned around. I got turned around dear.

The last time I stepped foot in the Sipsey Wilderness was when I was a kid. My Sunday school teacher was an avid hiker and always took us on hiking adventures. So to say the least… the area is pretty much unfamiliar to me, and I honestly wasn’t too terribly happy with the map I printed off the internetI shot a quick direct message to Alabama Outdoors asking if they sold a map of the area. They did… but the only maps they had were in their Mobile location and that was just too far out of the way. So what do they do? They rush ship one over to the closest location to me! Boom. Huge thank you to Alabama Outdoors!

Finally Friday came around. I swung by Stephen’s house and loaded up the mountain bikes and headed up to my parents house for the night. 

I met Stephen up at the grocery store to pick up a few supplies and brews. We came back to the house and tried our best to plot out meeting spots for him to drop me aid.

Saturday morning came too soon. I crawled out of bed, ate a quick breakfast, and we loaded up the truck. BRRRRR. I wasn’t really expecting it to be so chilly… but not that it mattered. I would be warm a few minutes into the run. It was a little over 40 degrees when we made it to the parking lot. I grabbed my pack and Stephen and I started walking down the forest road to the trail head. Since my Garmin only had a limited battery life… he let me borrow his 310XT in which I quickly dubbed Regina George” after the first section of trail. It’s plastic, pretty… but a mean girl. It wouldn’t stop buzzing at me.

“See you in 4.5 miles.”

Within the first 100 yards I was thigh deep in a river crossing. If you’re ever sleepy or dragging in the morning… just hop in some freezing water. I promise you’ll be wide awake.

I crawled up the bank on the opposite side refreshed. I waved as I passed a group enjoying a warm fire and cup of coffee at their campsite near the river. I continued along the muddy single track for a few miles enjoying the rising sun peeking through the woods. My left ankle snagged a root about 3 miles in… but nothing serious… just one of those “I really wish that didn’t happen” moments.

After a couple more miles the trail dead ended at an intersection. I purposely over packed my vest since it was easy to get “turned around” out there, so I really didn’t need any aid… but I told Stephen I’d meet him at the trail head so I scurried up the ridge to the top. No one in sight. Humph. There’s no way I beat him here. I gave him a call but reception was so bad that he could only make out a few words. So like two high school sweethearts fighting… I hung up and immediately shot a short to-the-point text telling him to meet at the next aid.

I headed back down the ridge and continued onwards. Everything was going great… until Regina. She wouldn’t stop buzzing at me. I stop to take a picture… BUZZ. I stop to grab something from my pack… BUZZ. I stop to shoot a text… BUZZ. LEAVE ME ALONE REGINA!!!!!! At about the time I yelled this into the wilderness I hit a root and Supermaned it down the trail. I could hear her laughing… BUZZ. I picked myself up off the ground, pulled out the leaves that somehow managed to get inside my shirt, and carried on… Rule #4.  

I continued on the ridge until I came to the next junctionRule #5.

Stephen had biked down to the junction so I wouldn’t have to do an out and back to the trail head to get supplies.

While I was scarfing down a banana and granola bar, Stephen was explaining how there was no possible way for him to meet me at the next aid. No worries… I’d pack heavy and meet him at the next one. It would have been roughly 6 miles to the next aid drop but now it was more like 13.

The next 6 miles were flat and fast. It was on this trail that I came in contact with the first human of the day… Billy. I saw Billy from a distance. Billy was a bigger man dressed in camouflage with a nice big rifle slung over his shoulder, staring intently at the ground…  

Z – “Are you tracking something? Want me to run along the side of the trail?”

Billy – “asdjkdf aldiwea cannalske *spits chew* asldkjfi navsdk.”

Z – “Ok then… good luck!”

No clue to what had just come out of this man's mouth. Gibberish. For a split second… my mind went black and nothing but crosshairs filled my eyes. I could feel the red dot resting on the back of my skull... Sniper Wolf…

Then like Eminem I snapped back to reality… this is Alabama. Billy most certainly did not have the figure of Sniper Wolf… and almost everyone in the woods around here wears camo and carries a gun.

I continued down the trail until it I reached the next junction. I took a right and blasted down the next portion of trail until I saw two men on horseback coming around a curve. I came to a walk so I wouldn’t startle the beasts...

“WHOOOOOAAAA horsie! We’ve got a walker up ahead.”

A walker. A walker. He called me a walker. Thanks Jack and Ennis…

I brushed that comment off with a quick dip into the sub 7min mile range just to prove a point to the enormous crowd of ZERO waiting at the next trail head.

The next section was only about 7 miles long. I was feeling fresh still, I was making good time and well ahead of my projected pace.

Rule #7: Always look before bounding over objects (ie: logs, trees, rocks)

I was moving pretty quickly through a downhill section of thin single track. The trail was well traversed so it had a lip on each side of roughly an inch high… just enough to do some damage to your ankles if you landed wrong. I came across a pretty large blown over tree. Slow down and be cautious? Nope. Speed up and bound.

It’s amazing how quickly the human brain can process scenarios…

As I cleared the log I looked down on the other side… snake. "&$*@!"

Immediately my brain raced.

Option A:  Land. Black snake… more than likely not venomous… land on it and run like hell.

Option B: Dodge. Dodge it… possibly breaking/spraining an ankle in the backcountry… and then having to worry about the snake still hanging around…

I went with option A.

I landed directly in the middle of the snake. I felt it wrap around my calf. I flipped out.

I slung my leg back and forth. I made moves Justin Timberlake would be jealous of... I cursed more than Samuel L Jackson in every movie he’s every played in combined. I ran aimlessly.

The trail ended at a cliff side drop off. After catching my breath and very carefully examining the area... I sat down.

BUZZ. I wanted to push Regina in front of a bus.

Where the hell am I? Did I stay on the right trail? I couldn’t process anything. I was thrown completely. I collected myself and took a look around. I saw a trail in the distance at the base of the cliffs… Is that it? I wasn’t sure if it was the end of another trail or still a part of the trail I was on. So I back tracked a mile or so back. Still… nothing looked familiar. I must have seriously blanked out. 

I climbed to a top of a ridge and shot Stephen a message. “Stepped on a %*$@)$& snake. Having to back track. Looking for the right trail.” 

I guess I probably should have said something about how I was fine and not bitten… but shortly after I sent it I lost service again.

I went back to the edge of the cliff where I had sat down. I decided to venture down to check out the trail below. I climbed down the rocks and hit the trail. It was well traversed so it must have been a main trail.

 I followed the trail for a few miles until I came across a controlled burn area… 

BUZZ. I wanted to throw Regina in the ashes… I wanted to put her in the burn book…

Mile 20ish. I still had no clue where I was... not the slightest. But then… the “Big Tree” came into sight.

I am saved!!!! “I know where I am!!!”  Rule #3.

The “Big Tree” was definitely nowhere near my intended route… but since I was there… I took the time to cool off in the falls and grab a picture.

Now that I knew where I was going, I picked up my pace. I headed back through the controlled burn and ran alongside the river. I saw a group of hikers with frustrated faces and a map out. I gave them directions to the “Big Tree,” double checked my route, and carried on.

I finally got to another river crossing. I wanted more than anything to just take off my socks and shoes and enjoy the cool water. Stephen was probably worried to death since he hadn’t heard from me since the “I stepped on a snake” message… so I opted for a quick half body submerge before hitting the trail back to the trail head.

I got to the top of the ridge and the 10 buzzes on my phone let me know I had cell service. I shot Stephen a message before reading any of them. I told him I was fine and would be here in about 3 miles. After he replied I read his messages. Like a good friend he called the park ranger. The park ranger said it was still too early to worry, so he never came out to the park… Rule #2 still intact. My phone died shortly after reading the last message.

My mother gave me some prayer beads that she picked up from her first trip to Israel. I take these beads with me on every major ultra I run… on every crazy, dangerous adventure. There's a sense of comfort, love and protection these beads give me.

With about a mile left to the trail head… I came across a graveyard. I was running a good pace as I approached the site. I slowly walked into the graveyard, dropped down on both knees in front of an 1800s tombstone, clutched my prayer beads, bowed my head, and prayed.
I thanked God for keeping me safe. I thanked Him for giving me good friends who are patient and would do anything for me, for a family that supports me and my craziness, for the ability to venture out and explore this beautiful world. I prayed for guidance for my sister as her family is making big decisions, for safe travels for my wife in the upcoming week

A few minutes passed and I got up and started walking out of cemetery… I turned back and shot one last apologetic prayer up to the sky… “sorry about the language...” (I’m thinking given the circumstances He’ll probably give me a pass… I like to think He probably found it pretty amusing).

I ran up to the trailhead where Stephen was parked. He just smiled. “Kinlock and a beer?” Rule #1.

Till tomorrow…


  1. Great adventure and a great recount. Among your obvious physical talents, you are a very entertaining writer that just flows smoothly. Keep writing Zach and I'll keep reading. I'll also keep moving forward and smiling. No cops!

  2. I just screamed so loud that my whole family came running into the kitchen. Great story!!!

  3. I love reading your experiences! Makes me wish I was your age again! I am so glad that these things mean so much to you. I wish more people loved the pleasures that God gives us. Nature brings those who haven't heard of Him to the knowledge that it is more than just a tree or creek! I love you all so much <3

  4. Great story!! Looking for the next one!! Don't leave me hanging!!