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The Wild Oak Trail: Two Days to Remember

By John Dodds

The announcement that Dennis Herr will be at MMT has caused me to think back on the several runs I’ve had on the Wild Oak Trail. I’m still trying to block out the memories from a couple of those runs, but those memories – like the piece of toilet paper that sticks to the heel of your shoe when you come out of the restroom at the restaurant – just won’t go away. You know, I’ve written quite a few of these articles, and no one has accused me of writing great literature. It’s not for trying, mind you. I’ve always wanted to write a great opening line – one that people will remember. Like: “THIS is the forest primeval.” Or: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Or: “’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house.” So, let’s give it a shot and pretend we’re starting over:

The Wild Oak Trail: Two Days to Remember

By John Dodds

The Wild Oak Trail is not a forgiving trail. THIS – and only a few other truths – are self-evident.

Not bad, huh? OK, so I’m no Longfellow, but you have to admit that nobody’s going to quarrel with those first nine words.

First day to remember. Last summer was my third run in the past two years on the Wild Oak Trail with Russ. It was a day to remember. It was a day to remember for Steve Burton as well. And it was and still is a day for Russ to remember since the two of us won’t let Russ forget. Because it was all Russ’ fault. I know there are many of you out there that pride yourself on enduring all kinds of hardship on the Wild Oak Trail, like snow, ice, extreme heat and humidity, lack of water, etc., and you’re probably thinking you’re pretty tough. But then again, you haven’t been on the Wild Oak Trail on a run organized by Russ. I don’t want to brag – no, actually, I do want to brag: Steve and I handled everything that that trail (and Russ) threw at us that day. We had a successful training run that day, and success for a training run organized by Russ means no fatalities. I have to admit the bar to gauge success is set pretty low.

The day I’m going to describe came two weeks after I ran Badwater in Death Valley. Badwater plus running the all-road Old Dominion Memorial 100 in May caused people to believe that I had regressed to being a roadrunner (notwithstanding the fact that I ran Laurel Highlands in June and a loop at the Wild Oak Trail in the spring). So, I was just going to sneak out for this run with Russ and Steve to preserve my new-found roadrunner image. The passage of time now allows me to publicly recount the events of that day.

Russ had a plan. Knowing that the course is just over 26 miles with over 7,500 feet of elevation gain on a warm day in late July, Russ decided that not only would we not plant water at certain places before the run but we would also not carry any extra water. For example, Russ had a 100-ounce Camelbak, and I had 4 20-ounce bottles. Clearly, not enough. But who needed extra water when Russ had a plan? If you have run with Russ, you know he always has a plan. And for the most part, his plans work. You’ll notice that I underlined the word “most.” It reminds me when I went to Home Depot and bought a new garbage disposal, and the box said, “Fits most sinks.” It probably did, but it didn’t fit my sink when I got it home. And Russ’ plan didn’t work either.

Russ’ plan had two parts. The first part was where we were to restock our water from something called Mitchell Creek. I came to realize that Mitchell Creek is sort of like Camelot. While it actually has a name, and people actually believe such a place did exist, it doesn’t really exist any longer. Cutting to the chase: we never found Mitchell Creek. What we did was run along trying to listen for running water. What the hell kind of plan was that? But every now and again, Russ would make us stop and listen. I felt like I was watching Tonto in a Lone Ranger show. Except Tonto could always figure things out. Like, bending down and examining hoof prints, and saying: “Kemo Sabe, 3 horses, maybe 24 minutes ago.” Or something like that. Now picture Russ, stopping, listening intently and asking, “You guys hear anything?” And for the umpteenth time, we’d say no. Okay, this went along until we pretty well knew we were long past where Mitchell Creek was supposed to be.

I didn’t really know the Wild Oak Trail that well (and still don’t) but we got to the top of one of the climbs – I think it was Big Bald – this was the third of our big climbs, so we were well into the run and almost out of water. Russ decided that we would make an assessment of our water situation. The assessment revealed that we were almost out of water. Russ told us to try not to drink until we went down the mountain to the river and then we would take another assessment. So, we made it down the mountain, and, of course, took another assessment. To no one’s surprise, we were still almost out of water. I was doubting the utility of taking these assessments since they always seemed to show the same thing.

Anyway, looking at this ever-inviting flowing river in front of us, Russ said we couldn’t drink out of the river because we’d get sick. He pointed out that Dennis Herr could drink out of the river and not get sick, but he further pointed out that we weren’t Dennis – and that’s because, unlike Dennis, we’re mere mortals. I noticed people camping nearby and suggested a 3-part plan. I figured my 3-part plan was better than Russ’ 2-part plan because I had one more part. Here was my plan then: (1) we ask the people for something to drink; (2) if they said no, we would offer to pay for something to drink; and (3) if they still said no, we’d steal it from them. Russ nixed this idea because we still hadn’t come to part two of his plan.

So – here’s part two of his plan. We would cross the river and go up Little Bald where we would find a spring along the trail where we would get water. I had seen this spring before on my two prior outings there, so this was a possibility. And, we did find the spring. It was BFD. While this acronym pretty much has a universal meaning, in this context it means “bone- f……-dry.” Which is not too surprising for late July. Not surprisingly, we took yet another assessment: still almost out of water, with over two hours to go, and now no plan. In other words, we were screwed. Thanks, Russ.

Getting started. Let’s leave our three travelers there at BFD Spring and go back and see how we started this training run. Not well. Since Russ had organized this run, he led the way. Besides, he had the GPS which made him look like he was in charge. No matter where we were, he always knew what the mileage was to that point and what the elevation was. The only problem was that we weren’t always where we were supposed to be. It seems that soon after we left the parking lot, Russ missed the turn up the Wild Oak Trail and realized his mistake when we came to the river. Unfortunately, we weren’t supposed to come to a river. So, we backtracked until we saw the sign for the trail. By this time, we had lost 30 minutes. With water being a precious commodity that day (let’s not forget our travelers on Little Bald), this extra 30 minutes was a very costly 30 minutes.

Now some of you might be thinking something like this: “Hey, it’s not Russ’ fault. You other two guys missed the sign, too.” And, of course, you would be wrong. It’s always the job of the person in front to know the way and watch for signs. It’s the job of the other people to follow and whine and complain about the weather, trail conditions, whatever. How can they be expected to do this and watch for signs, too?

And speaking of complaining about trail conditions – a lot of the trail was overgrown, making it very slow going. We had not planned on being on the trail that long a time. This would exacerbate our water situation. Somehow I thought this was Russ’ fault, too.

Stinging nettles. Back to Little Bald: as we continued on our way past BFD Spring, we encountered stinging nettles that had overgrown the trail. They were unbelievable and made our legs itch like crazy. Russ would constantly admonish us not to scratch our legs saying it would make it worse. He was probably right, but we didn’t care. It took quite a while for the rash and welts to go down. Again, I thought this was Russ’ fault.

Sharing Water. When we got to the top of Little Bald, we took another assessment. This would be our last assessment because, frankly, they were getting to be rather pointless. Since I had the least water to begin with, Russ offered some of his water to me. Out of his Camelbak, he filled up half my last 20-ounce water bottle. Which, if you do the math, is 10 ounces. But later on the drive home, he was adamant that he had given me 12 ounces of water. I have to admit that the ensuing argument was rather childish:

Russ: It was 12 ounces.
Me: Was not.
Russ: Was, too.

Nearing the end. For about the last hour of this run, we pretty much didn’t talk at all. A while after that, I thought to myself: “If Russ hadn’t gotten us lost at the beginning, we’d be done by now.” I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but it was at that point that Russ said, “You know, guys, if I hadn’t gotten us lost at the beginning, we’d be done by now.” Steve and I didn’t say a word, and we all continued on in silence. With about a quarter mile to go, we did something I’ve never done near the end of a run before. We walked. Yep. We stopped running and just walked. It was just a moment of spontaneity where we had just had it. The parking lot was a most welcome sight.

Hunting mushrooms. Things improved at the parking lot. For one thing, Dennis was there. The original idea was for him to get there earlier and ride his bike up the mountain and join us in the last part of our run. He had been delayed. Lucky for him as we would not have been the best company that day. We told him what a really, really tough run we had, and he was probably chuckling inside as he listened. He didn’t tell us we were a bunch of wimps.

There were several pickup trucks in the parking lot and several good ol’ boys with baskets of mushrooms. We overheard them talking about the various mushrooms they had and how they had been out “hunting mushrooms.” I said to Russ, “Shouldn’t I point out to them that what they really mean is that they were “gathering” mushrooms rather than “hunting” mushrooms?” He gave me one of those don’t-you-say-a-damn-word looks. I guess Russ didn’t want me to offend their masculine sensitivities. So, instead Russ asked them how they prepared the mushrooms, etc. They raved about one type (I think they said leather bracket), and Russ, ever the observant one, said: “You know, they all are brown and look the same to me, so how do you know which one is that one?” Since this is a family-oriented website, I’ll have to let Russ tell you what they said.

Let me point out here that apparently “hunting mushrooms” is the correct term. Here’s a definition from the web: “ Mushroom hunting (or mushrooming) is the activity of searching for mushrooms in the wild, typically for consumption.” I guess there is some logic to this; after all, we do have Easter egg “hunts.”

Where have all the flowers gone? Someone once told me that this was one of the great unanswered questions of our time. This is the title of my second favorite anti-war song after “Alice’s Restaurant.” Anyway, I told that person that if you listened to the lyrics of the song, the question is answered. The real unanswered question in the song is this: “When will they ever learn?” And that’s what I keep asking myself after going on a training run with Russ: when will I ever learn?

Email closure. It’s not unusual to see an exchange of emails following a run, giving thanks, talking about how great the run was, etc. But consider Russ’ email the next day to Steve and me and then my response:

Russ: Sorry for the choice of yesterday's course. In retrospect, I could have chosen one that had less overgrowth and more water available. But as John says - "Nobody died." Thanks for running with me. I enjoyed the company - especially the constant trail chatter as we descended Little Bald back to the car! It was definitely an adventure.

Me: About the constant trail chatter at the end: you were always in our thoughts, but Steve and I just didn't want to verbalize them. Death Valley is good training for running with you, Russ.

Second day to remember. Some of you have probably been wondering why the title says “Two Days to Remember” and I’ve only talked about one day so far. That’s because I haven’t gotten to the second day yet. The second day actually took place in the summer of 2004. Russ asked me if I wanted to go run the Wild Oak Trail. I had never run it before, and I asked who else was going. He said the only other person was Dennis Herr. Of course, I had heard of Dennis, but I had never met him. I knew that this trail was pretty tough, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep up. Dennis and Wild Oak are pretty much synonymous terms. And one more thing, Russ said. We’re not just going to do the Wild Oak loop; we’re going to do a 35-mile route. Against my better judgment, I agreed to go.

One memory from that day is still in my mind. We were in a section of the trail that Russ described at the time as “rolling hills.” Some of you might be puzzled by this description and rightfully so. To make that description fit the terrain at that point would require some serious redefinition of the words “rolling” and “hills.” Anyway, at one point I was walking up one of those “rolling hills” when Dennis, who was some distance ahead of me, stopped running, looked back at me and said, “John, is this too fast of a pace for you?” I could lie and say no, and then I’d probably die in the next hour or so. Or I could confess the truth, even though I was a little reluctant to do so. So, I chose my words carefully and said: “Just a tad, Dennis, just a tad.” Fortunately, he slowed down – just a tad. What I then realized from all this was that he was actually watching out for me, making sure that I would be able to complete the run.

Three weeks later, a number of us from the VHTRC, including Dennis and me, ran the Bighorn 100 in Wyoming. Let’s just say I finished. Dennis had a great run and finished ahead of me – by more than a tad.

When I look back on that first run on the Wild Oak Trail, I do so with a certain sense of braggadocio, pride and awe. You see, I ran the Wild Oak Trail (and more) for the first time with none other than the legendary Dennis Herr as the guide. How’s that for a great trail running experience?


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