A River Runs Through It, Unfortunately.
Saturday morning, 10 days ago: As I was drinking coffee and enjoying the sunrise, I glanced at my training plan — the one bending my 50 plus year-old body into shape for an upcoming 50k Ultra Marathon in Auburn, CA. Coach Laura had assigned me a 25 mile trail run for the day.
Wanting to avoid the mental grind of running the same old training routes, I asked rhetorically and loudly — “What better way to get in shape for my race than to do the training run on the actual race course?”
My cat, Kona, who was busy napping in my lap until my booming voice startled him, turned his head, looked contemplatively into my eyes and appeared to acknowledge the logic of my plan — at least that’s what I read into his furry facial expression.
The race is from Foresthill, CA to to Auburn, CA, mostly on the Western States trail along the American River. The river has spent millions of years dragging rocks and dirt from the Sierras downhill into the Pacific Ocean and it now sits deep inside a canyon of its own creation.
I had never run on these remote trails inside the canyon before, but the course route was available on a running app that purported to give spoken turn-by-turn directions for the entire course.
So what could possibly go wrong?
A couple hours later, Laura dropped me off at what would be the start line and gave me some last minute tips, like “don’t run too fast, don’t trip on a rock, and make sure to drink — it’s hot out here.”
“Yeah, yeah, and look both ways before crossing the street, don’t take candy from strangers. I get it,” I thought, impatient and eager to get started on this exciting little expedition.
I had loaded up my hydration pack with enough gear, food and water to support an invasion of a small, laid-back country, so I felt certain that I had every contingency covered.
Kissing my coach good-bye, I took off down the narrow single-track trail towards Auburn.
Life was good. The legs felt fresh, I was running fast and I still had a little shimmy in my hips jumping over the odd rock or root.
Not bad for a 51 year-old, I thought.
Looking at my watch, I guessed that I would arrive in Auburn in about 4 hours and 30 minutes.
At mile 13, about 2 hours into the run, I had dropped 2,000 feet of elevation from the northern rim of the American River Canyon (now way above my head up an almost vertical cliff), to a few hundred feet above the river. From here, looking down over a steep slice of earth, the river was mighty impressive. And impressively mighty. Had we really had that much snow in the Sierras last year? I wondered.
You could literally see the gushing, roaring river sawing the earth open.
I took a picture of the river and texted Laura, letting her know that I was crushing this run and that I was already only 2 hours away from Auburn. Not that the text message had a chance of escaping this geological pit of cellular impossibility.
I was pretty sure that I was the only human within 10 miles in any direction.
Running west along the trail, I stared transfixed down the steep drop-offs into the river. The terrifying view distracted me from the work of running and made the next few miles seem easy-breezy. But breeze-wise, the Canyon was seriously lacking. The lower I went, the hotter it got. And by mile 18, I had completely emptied my hydration pack and both of my emergency water bottles.
Still, I wasn’t worried. According to the map, I was coming up on a place called the Poverty Bar. And since bars need to have an ample supply of water to make Gin and Tonics, I figured I’d take the opportunity to reload my hydration pack.
I even brought my driver’s license in case I got carded.
Also, according to the map, at the Poverty Bar, I would cross the river — and where there’s a bridge there’s civilization, right? Maybe I’d even find a 7-Eleven and treat myself to a Slurpee.
The trail dead-ended into the river.
No bar. No 7-Eleven.
And, most disturbingly — no bridge.
Poverty Bar, it turns out, is just a rocky shoreline along the American River. I still haven’t Googled it, but I can now safely assume that the word “Bar” has multiple meanings — and that the person who named this desolate excuse for a beach “Poverty Bar” wasn’t the alcoholic I was hoping for.
Incredulously, I explored the shoreline for a way across the river — and found nothing. Not even a lousy abandoned inner tube.
And my running app, which had guided me to this spot with amazing accuracy, was no longer my friend. “You have arrived at Poverty Bar. Make a left across the river.”
Irritably, I answered “How?! There’s no bridge, idiot.”
Unfortunately, the app had not achieved Artificial Intelligence status. It ignored my question.
But she didn’t completely shut up. In fact, she was a regular chatter-box.
“Make a left across the river,” she said every time I walked near the spot along the river where the bridge should have been.
Now, you may reasonably wonder why I didn’t just kick off my shoes and ford the river holding my backpack over my head.
The reason was simple: I would have been bowled over and launched into the rapids within 5 steps after entering the river. This thing was to people crossing rivers what a 5 alarm fire is to buildings without sprinkler systems.
From where I was standing, I’m not sure I could have crossed this river in a rubber raft with an outboard motor without getting swept into the rapids — which were inconveniently lurking a mere 50 yards to the west.
“Options, what are my options?” I thought.
With the “River of Death” blocking my way forwards, I looked back the way I had come. Perhaps I could run back towards civilization?
The impediment to that route out was the inconsiderate 2,000 foot high canyon standing between me and the nearest road or cellular connection. I remembered a dirt road that crossed my trail maybe 5 miles back, but I couldn’t be certain that it would take me out of the canyon. For all I knew, that dirt road was a driveway to some cranky survivalist’s armed encampment. And even if that dirt road did lead somewhere promising, the run would take hours and the climb out of the canyon would be monstrously hot.
And I was out of drinkable water.
I could fill my pack with river water to get me through, but there had to be a better option than to risk a long, hot run up the canyon wall, fending off diarrhea in search of a sucker who might consider picking up a smelly, filthy ultra-runner hitchhiking his way to Auburn.
Exploring the shoreline up-river I searched desperately for an easier place to make the crossing. But except in this few-hundred yard stretch of pebble beach and the area directly across the river, the canyon walls along the river were completely impassable.
I paced back and forth along the river bank, unable to make a decision.
“Make a left across the river!” the app insisted for about the tenth time. The app-voice was getting annoyed with my pacing and felt compelled to order me across the river every time I walked near the river.
I was angry at myself. And, if I’m honest, the app was starting to get on my nerves as well — like it somehow knew the best option here.
Although, to be fair, the app never promised me a bridge.
“Make a left across the river!”
Dehydrated and hot, delusions began replacing clear-headed thinking as I became increasingly desperate.
Maybe the app knows best? Maybe the app is telling me that it believes in me. Maybe, just maybe, the app had googled my triathlon results and was telling me, with its limited vocabulary, that I needed to stop being such a baby and that I should swim across this raging torrent.
“Make a left across the river!!!!!”
“Ok, fine. I’ll think about it!” I said, now casually conversing with my $1.99 friend.
According to the map I had reviewed prior running myself into this mouse-trap, if I could cross the river, I would have 6 relatively easy miles of running to my destination in Auburn — where I would have an air-conditioned ride home.
Even without water, that part of the adventure was doable.
But man this river…
I waded tentatively about 3 yards off shore, up to my waist in glacial runoff. Standing here, bracing myself against the violence of a million gallons of water rushing downhill I could see a little farther around a bend in the shoreline.
Still no bridge.
In its center, the river was clearly much deeper than a human. And it was rushing by at an impressive speed. To gauge what I was dealing with, I timed a butterfly surfing by on a tree branch at a speed of about 100 yards in 20 seconds.
At least 50 yards separated me from the beach on the other side. In my triathlon glory days a 50 yard swim would take me about 35 seconds. So by that math, I’d make it to shore about 100 yards to the right of wherever I entered the water.
This seemed increasingly doable. Except that I had never swum across a raging river wearing running shoes, loose clothes and a giant hydration pack.
Oh yeah — and I had never swum in water this cold without a wetsuit.
Check that — I had never swum in water this cold, period. You’d have to be nuts or desperate to spend even 10 seconds in water this cold.
Fortunately, I was desperate.
But then, logistics reared its ugly logic.
What was I going to do with my iPhone? What about my earbuds?
I tried to put them under my hat, thinking I could keep my head above water as I breast stroked across the river. But being the owner of a phone the size of a small television, and possessing a head sized on the Cantaloup end of the melon spectrum, my hat wouldn’t stay on my head with the phone inside it.
This was fortunate, because looking back, breast stroking across the river would have been a terrible decision. I’m a slow breast stroker under the best of circumstances. (Cool the raunchy jokes, people. This is life and death stuff here.) And slow breast stroking was just a fast way into the rapids.
I dug through my pack for something waterproof. And there it was. The solution to all my problems. I had a small sandwich bag that held my Ibuprofen. But as I tried to jam my phone inside the bag, the bag tore.
I sucked the last drops of water out of my hydration pack to console myself.
And that’s when it hit me. The bladder of the hydration pack was water-proof. I mean, logically, that bladder keeps water from spilling all over me when I run, so it followed that it should keep water out as well. I threw my electronic gadgets into the hydration pack and sealed it tight.
“I’m a genius,” I realized.
And now, on a roll, I just kept getting smarter.
Blowing air into my hydration pack through the straw, I created a first-of-its-kind life vest. And after I blew into the two soft-bottles on the front of my vest, I was guaranteed not to drown — though I was not guaranteed to survive an impact with the rapids.
But, with my balloon-filled vest likely to slow me down, I realized that all bets were off as to whether I could swim the 50 or so yards in anything approaching a minute. Which meant that I’d be swept at least 100 yards downstream by the current as I attempted the crossing.
I set out to find a departure point about 100 yards up-river, settling on a rocky beach with a gentle entry.
“Make a left across the river!” the app shouted from inside my hydration pack.
“Yeah, yeah. You win. We’re both making a left across the river. You might want to hold your breath.” I said sarcastically.
I walked out slowly into the rushing ice-water. Numbness came on quickly. With great mental effort, before I lost all feeling in my lower extremities, I plunged into the river.
Like in every cold-water triathlon I’ve ever done, my head nearly imploded when my face hit the water. And as usual, I had to consciously stop myself from gasping in a lung full of water.
Swimming directly for the other shore, trying to keep my face out of the water, I could see the trees moving quickly from right to left. The river was ripping me downstream even faster than I expected. Either that, or I was swimming slower than I expected.
Realizing it was the latter, I made the difficult decision to abandon the lifeguard swim-stroke.
I stuck my face in the water and called upon 14 Ironman’s worth of near-drowning experiences to get moving as fast as possible through the churning river.
Halfway through the river, the effects of the cold took hold. The exposed skin on my face, arms and legs were starting to burn.
On the positive side, I was making progress. The other shore was getting closer and the river was dragging me on a perfect arc to the beach on the other side. I just needed to keep up the pace and I would be free of this unplanned mid-run ice-bath.
That’s when one of the water bottles in the front of my vest popped loose and launched upward like a sea-to-air-missile, smacking me painfully on the tip of my frozen nose. This sequence of events also had the unfortunate effect of making me more buoyant on the right side of my body than the left, completely destroying what little rhythm my rusty swim stroke had possessed.
“Not good,” I thought.
But I’ve been a mostly bad swimmer my whole triathlon career, so having to overcome a crappy swim stroke is nothing new to me. And, half a minute later, my hand hit pebbles on the bottom as the river bank approached.
Suddenly, miraculously, I was staggering, gasping, shivering onto shore, like Leo DiCaprio surviving the frozen river in The Revenant.
Elated at surviving by own stupidity, I did a short celebratory dance.
But the celebration died a sudden death when I glanced around my new beach and couldn’t spot a trail up the side of the canyon.
Panic, and not a small amount of nausea suddenly set in. Was I going to have to swim back across the river to get out of here? I desperately hoped not. I wasn’t sure I could do it again.
And if I got back across the river, my app would just tell me to “make a left across the river.” I didn’t think I could take the disappointment in her voice.
Besides, she wouldn’t have sent me here for no good reason, I argued to myself. Other than not having a bridge waiting for me, she had been on course all day. I trusted her.
There had to be a trail around here somewhere.
Squishing around in soaked shoes, clothes dripping, I started walking gingerly down-river on frozen feet, along the bank, looking for a way out.
“This might be a trail,” I thought, following a windy, sandy patch of ground. But a quarter mile later, the “trail” died out into a field of boulders.
On the bright side, I found myself standing in the sun — which was nice — and warm.
With the sun eating away at the hypothermia and my clothes quickly drip drying, I took off my hydration-pack/floatation-device, and extracted my phone and headphones, emptying the air out of the balloon-sized bladder.
“Make a right turn on the Western States trail,” gurgled my app-friend from a somewhat moist iPhone.
“Oh oh,” I thought. “That doesn’t sound right.”
While the phone was still working, I quickly fired off a text message to Laura, announcing that I was going to be a little delayed because someone had forgotten to build a bridge across the river. Remarkably, the text message latched itself to a stray radio-wave and was delivered.
Laura responded almost immediately with, “Ha ha, I wondered about that!”
Not, “Oh my gosh, thank God you survived, you poor dear!” Or, “you’re so brave. My hero!”
That’s my wife. Tough to impress. Funny how I love that about her.
With my core temperature stabilized and my brain thawing out, I headed back to the place where I had climbed out of the river. There had to be a trail here somewhere. Otherwise this race course wouldn’t make any sense. And my app would be wrong. Which was impossible.
Valiantly, as she fought off her watery end, the app gargled, “make a right turn on the Western States trail.”
I searched for packed dirt like I was an archeologist hunting a lost civilization. And then, looking up cliff, I saw it. A razor thin trail climbed steeply up the face of the cliff.
“Hey there it is. It just goes straight up the cliff. Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“Make a right turn on the Western States trail.”
“Yep, so you’ve said.”
I was back on the trail.
And there ends the adventurous part of the adventure — at least the part of the adventure that involved me facing peril and near doom. Because the rest of the run involved nothing more than a 6 mile run with no water — except for the stuff squishing in my shoes, of course.
Sadly, my phone and my friend the app did not survive the expedition. Apparently there had been a bit of sports drink lurking in the bottom of my hydration pack when I threw the phone inside for the journey across the river.
The last I heard from my app was “continue straight on the Western States Tr… .” And then she was gone.
It was a lonely few miles to Auburn after her unfortunate passing. But I took consolation in the knowledge that my app had fulfilled its purpose in its short life — to get me to the destination safely. And as I ran up to Laura there at the end of the trail, I could almost imagine my app saying to me proudly, “You have arrived at your destination.”