Laurel Valley (Joy & Despair)

 

It’s 5:15am and like any good RD, Claude Sinclair is on time and issuing orders. Everyone is to be in a vehicle and ready to ride in five minutes. Lock and load - people.

 

5:20am Three other sweeps and I exchange introductions in the back seat as Claude and his better half(read wife “-) navigate the twisting mountain roads of Laurel Valley. Talk moves to the topic of Dramamine as the blacktop turns left then right sometimes coiling back upon itself like a snake moving through the grass.  It is our first hint of what the day’s travel will be like.

 

6:30am The runners are in a large circle now, bending up/down, stepping left/right and bumping into each other like a gathering of chickens waiting to be feed. No worry today, as their appetite for adventure will not go unquenched. “Listen Up” Claude says after the obligatory ‘ do’s and don’ts ‘ for the course, “GO”.  The first ten yards of the course are a 60 degree climb up wood block steps. More foreshadowing of what’s ahead, I think to myself.

 

The team of eight sweeps begin a few minutes behind the wild pack and we are a team with a mission. Our job, and we’ve all chosen to accept it, is to push a Jones counter over the entire Laurel Valley course to once and for all settle the question as to the distance of the course. Estimates range as widely as from 31-40 miles but after today there will be no doubt.  The counter consists of a bicycle tire, some gadgets, and a three foot handle. The tire rotates slowly as we begin to get the feel of the single track and the sweep team begins its journey. We have only two Rules: 1) Don’t pass a runner for any reason [they walk ahead we carry them], 2) Keep the counter wheel on the trail at all times.

 

We obey the Rules as if our lives depended on it.  The Team will not fail in its mission.

 

The Sweep Team members take 30 minute turns pushing with the counter wheel.  Rocks, roots, mud and muck do not impede the wheel as it is pushed mile after mile across these foothills(read Mountains) of north and south Carolina. Two hours into the endurance event a couple of the counter pushers get a bit froggy and take off with the precious counter at a gallop.  They disappear around one of the thousands of switchbacks we will cross today.  We begin to joke about this saying the wheel has pulled them away and would not be denied the ground it must cover.  I notice we have begun to personify the wheel.

 

Six hours into the run and we all know each other’s names and have become masters at filling and purifying water from the streams.  The streams seem endless and I’ve already seen more today than in two months of running in Charlotte where I live.  I talk to Mike and Sue, both from Michigan, and we gage each other’s trail savy.  The range is broad from my newbie status to their Barkley veteranship.  Apparently my legs will be pushed a bit today as sweep or no sweep some of these guys have been around the block.

 

We weave through the forest on what seems like countless twists and switchbacks.  There seems to be no end and the sweep team is eventually pulled into smaller packs.  I work hard to stay with the front pack and wonder often if I can maintain.  Our journey takes us up a hundred steep gorge walls and still the wheel rolls on, never stopping, always turning.  If a tree is over the trail then we crawl under ensuring the wheel stays in contact with terra firma.  Large logs and rocks are rolled up and over and again the wheel is not denied.  We begin to call it “THE WHEEL”. 

 

The sweep team never stops talking, joking and recounting stories of adventure gone by and those yet to be. And THE WHEEL rolls on.  Mike calls it ‘the wheel of destiny’ for a while as it never stops. Several times the wheel takes control and he runs down the path calling back “somebody help me, the wheel won’t stop”.  We talk about putting a seat on the wheel and riding it like a unicycle. The run wears on every imaginable topic is discussed but in time we always return to THE WHEEL.

 

Eight hours and the team has only had one brief encounter with any runners and that one quickly took off never to be seen again. Amazing the energy that can be obtained with the thought of NOT coming in with the sweeps.  In the next hour or so several of us have a bad patch and beautiful trees and endless rock shapes and sizes lose their appeal.  Now it’s just a dirt path through tall plants and of course THE WHEEL.  Talk turns to throwing the wheel over one of the falls or doing various and sundry harmful things to the wheel. Yet it is one of us now and as with each other after deriding and joking about it we once again accept it. After all we have traveled so far and seen so much together. THE WHEEL is now a part of the team.

 

Ten hours and we have caught our second wind.  We once again are laughing and joking about how close we must be the metal bridge.  The bridge is a landmark that tells us we have only one more climb to the end. There are five of us with the wheel now; Mike, Sue, Jay, Leon and myself.  The wheel holds us together and even though Sue has taken to pushing the wheel most of the time now it still pulls us all along.  Always turning, never ceasing it rolls.

 

Ten and a half hours and we find a course sign.  It must be for those brave souls willing to climb down to the bottom of the falls and venture a full two miles into the mountains from the White Water Falls entrance {our finish}.  We’ve seen many waterfalls today along with lakes and streams unending.  The sound of cascading water has become a constant backdrop to the tree studded valleys and innumerable rock studded trails.  The energy of those closest to THE WHEEL picks up SUE has the closest connection.  The Metal Bridge is found and THE WHEEL is guided over rocks the size of small homes. The handle is passed up to those who have climbed above and THE WHEEL is pulled up and retaken to continue on. The final ascent would make a rock climber smile but after ten plus hours we can only wince at the site.

 

Eleven hours looms and we push it to break this barrier we’ve set for ourselves over the last few miles.  I struggle to catch the powerful legs of Sue the mountain tamer and tackle the last two flights of wooden steps as the tourists whisper amongst themselves at the site of this motley crew climbing out of the gorge propelled by some type of contraption.  Thirty seconds of my remaining energy catches me up to Sue and Mike.  The four of us turn the corner and can see the finish line.  THE WHEEL wants to taste the cool grass and pulls us off the paved tourist path toward the shed where snacks, soda, and glorious rest await. THE WHEEL takes charge and we go from fast walk to jog to keep up.  We all finish strong and collapse together as numbers are read off of Sue then Mike and I. And then it is time to read THE WHEEL’s number(distance counter).

 

Claude looks at THE WHEEL as we hold it up like the Holy Grail for him to review and read. Eleven hours pushing it and we don’t quite know how to let go.  Claude’s face goes through a gambit of emotion as we try to discern the meaning of his silence.  First Questioning, then Mystification, followed by Insight and Recognition next. I would like to say there was a fraction of a second of sadness in his eyes as Realization seeped in but the next thing we saw clearly was Humor. With a sparkle that flashed into tears of laughter, Claude pointed out that the key part to the Counter was missing and must have fallen of somewhere during the last just under eleven hours.  Everyone began laughing at the idea of pushing this contraption of spokes and rubber and hand held rod over 31-40 miles of rugged mountain trails only to end up with nothing.

 

It was laugh or cry so we joined in and laughed along. Humans can have a dark sense of humor and ultra runners are the leaders rather than the exception.  We joked back and forth with Claude over the futility of the endeavor and in the end all agreed that the Mystery of the Laurel Valley trail length might not be destined to be revealed. 

 

I got cleaned up and stopped back by the picnic shelter to grab a soda and thank Claude for an experience I will never forget.  Friends were made, mountains crossed, quads crushed, and lessons learned. Not a bad day, nope, not bad at all!