On Rabid Rabbits and 38 Miles of solitude

Rebekah and I wanted to get some running in while we were in Ohio visiting relatives. Knowing nothing about the area other than it being semi-rural and that every high school would (hopefully) have a track, we asked her brother, who had paced her for the second 50 at Rio Del Lago 100, for help; where do you go for an Ohio adventure? After receiving a long list of ideas and distances, we decided on a 32 miler around a lake in the East Fork State Park, east of Cincinnati, near the Kentucky border. There are three trails around the lake – a backpacking trail, a mountain biking trail and the Steve Newman World Walker Perimeter Trail. We decided on the perimeter trail, indicated to be roughly 32 miles, thinking we could get it done in 8 to 10 hours of solid effort. Other than planning hydration and fuel, we didn’t plan much more; nut butters, gels, various chews and amino supplements would carry us through from trail locations A1 through A9, each indicating a primitive camp with reasonable goals of anywhere from 2.2 to 7-plus miles and water at one location at least. I wore a white shirt and hat, suspicious of the Mid-Western summer sun and Rebekah wore compression with her running skirt. Both short sleeved with sunscreen and maps of the trail system, we arrived a little after 6 AM with high hopes and high energy, ready to take on our own little ultra in a place we had never put in any real miles either on the road or trails, at least not me.

As we pulled into the lot at the A1 trailhead, I was relieved that the whole area is heavily forested. The lot was empty except for a hen turkey with a younger bird foraging near a large pond. I greeted the birds, causing them to scurry away, not my intended objective. While there were no signs of other human life, and we were first to hit the trail, the wildlife that day would be unexpectedly abundant, thriving in the warm and humid environment where it rains regularly. We, though, had no idea we would encounter so many animals.Feeling restless as the sky lightened, we took off on a trail marked appropriately, Rebekah ahead and receding into the twilight of the trees while I fought with my waist pack. Still and humid, I had acclimated somewhat but was a little slow to fully embrace training in an environment completely different from our temperate,  Coastside terrain up and down Montara Mountain. So: no mosquitos, Good. But, being first on the trail, we had spiderwebs to deal with. A lot of them. Basically, whoever led ran through them, with little spiders about the size of a pencil eraser on up to a dime either dropping onto the trail or hanging on to the web as we swatted them away, usually with no idea where the little eight-armed critters landed – sometimes ending up inches in front of my eyes off the bill of my hat, which was creepy. Harmless as they no doubt were, it just made for slow going as we sometimes stopped to move the webs aside to avoid spiders on our clothes or necks or faces. I just mostly took the lead and dealt with it, us both accepting the reality that this is what you get being first on the trail.

The beginning of the journey – except for the webs, was fine. Not too sticky, bearable, on somewhat clean single track that wound over and around low rollers under dense cover of young forest along the perimeter of a man-made reservoir that was always within sight. Gently, we paced ourselves with 30 plus miles in mind. After about 3 miles, I mentioned that movie The Blair Witch Project, where the kids get lost and wander in circles before ending up back where they started, slowly going insane. About then, Rebekah says she thinks we are running in circles. I am highly skeptical as we make progress…until we suddenly emerge back into the same clearing we parked in; no freaking way. Okay. The map showed us we got a cool 3.3 mile warm up. Now I want to stop and take care of something at the car and Rebekah wants none of that – it’s 8 and we made poor time swatting spiders, and haven’t even started our journey yet. Blair Witch indeed.

Across the road the CORRECT trail led away to the East and we were off. The trail being Somewhat maintained and not too mucky, we made good time on this stretch, winding around and along a small creek despite the spiders. Eventually the trail transitioned to a wide expanse of pathway, poorly carved out through dense trees by a tractor at some point. Muddy, swampy, lush and bug infested, the forest filled with crickets and birdsong surrounded us as we picked our way around the mud and over fallen trees and branches. Deer made themselves known by loudly walking through the brush, their long white tails waving goodbye as they bounded away. Slower going. The murkiness ended at an old paved road that promised a speedier trek – save for spiders; so many of them. This went on intermittently as the road changed up to trail, before fire road, then single track and to more paved roads long abandoned.

Historically, it seems that past generations had built roads that led to either the numerous rivers in the area or eventually the reservoir that was completed in 1978;  majority of these strips of asphalt are now in disrepair. As these roads are so completely overgrown and crumbling now, it is hard to imagine someone making the effort at carving the plentiful paths we randomly encountered on our trek, through the countryside. Midwest builders must be tougher.

The trails that make up the Perimeter trail are not maintained. They are marked by blue and green squares painted on trees every so often, camouflaged into the landscape. You have to pay attention and actually think to find your way – only a few official signs on rotting wood posts mark significant intersections. Occasionally there are colored arrows painted on the abandoned strips of asphalt, but they are all fading away to nothing, and it mostly is a treasure hunt – pay attention and you’ll be fine (a Yelp search will yield complaints from a backpacker who attempted a 13 mile trek and wasn’t happy with the results due to poor trail marking). These squares and arrows will lead you to roads, pathways so old you sensed that some were actually cut through the wilderness by pioneers and early farmers in the nineteenth century – wide, lush carpets of grass that invited us to pick up our pace and lifted our spirits after sloshing through mud under dark tree cover. We crossed steams and rivers, stopping to pick out fossils in the flat stones, remnants of the inland ocean floor that was Ohio millions of years ago. We passed deer, each either staring of darting off, in groups or alone. Frogs hopped here and there – the sign of a healthy ecosystem. Mosquitos were not a problem if you kept moving – the best bug repellant. After a few hours, cicadas began their growing and fading chorus, drowning out the constant gentle song of crickets. And not another human being. Hour after hour.

We traded places, each moving ahead of the other, aware that our pace was not as expected. We passed through a field full of tall thigh high large-leafed plants.  Rebekah yelped as one brushed her leg, leaving a large red welt in it’s place. Stinging nettle on steroids. I left my GPS watch charging on a counter back at the house, so we had to guess at our pace and distance. Just go. Rebekah at about mile 12 commented that Hokas didn’t seem to be appropriate there because of the technical, rutted rocky surface made impassable in some places by fallen trees and limbs obscuring our view of the trail. I reflected on that at length, and at about mile 13, responded that I disagreed – I have twisted my ankle to one degree or another three times in the past year on free and clear trail and this was no different than any other terrain we regularly tackle – and within a half mile I promptly folded my left ankle on a rutted descent. Dingbat. So. How well did we plan for this journey?  I left my watch with GPS and compass at the house. I left my first aid wrap I brought to Ohio for just such an occasion at the house. I left the IBU at the house. Just run? Just ask for trouble. ‘Beck had IBU, so that was better, and eventually I forgot the stiffness.

And now a few words about water. We both brought our hydration packs, my 1.5 and her 2.0 liter; I carried a 16 oz handheld and a 17 oz soft flask, and she carried a 20 oz hand held. And it was humid. And We sweat, just dripping at times. Another item to carry in future: a filtered straw or two. Why? After about 5 hours, with the start-stop of spider swatting and clearing our own trail of limbs and fallen trees ( we were the only trail maintenance for the season, apparently), making it around the lake in one day might not be feasible. By noon or so I began to look at the occasional farm houses that backed up against the perimeter trail in hopes of a spigot to refill, as we were running low and already conserving water. I finally decided that I would knock on a door and ask to use a hose. Approaching a house near the A3 point on the 9 point route around the lake, I noticed the front door was open with the screen closed. A German Shepard was not happy to see us, and eventually the only human being we would encounter that day, an elderly woman who would not give her name, hesitatingly allowed us, after suspiciously glancing past me and at Rebekah, to refill our various vessels with a hose while holding disgruntled Duke the Shepard back from the flimsy screen door. Interestingly, she volunteered in a district southern/country drawl that there are 96 miles of trail around the lake. And with that, serious questions began to arise.

After we set off, our spirits lifted, we tried to make better time as we bushwhacked our way beneath the continuous canopy on the section of trail between A3 and A4 that truly felt abandoned. Overgrown and littered with branches, we talked about the fact that I also did not bring the headlamp I had brought to Ohio (!); could we make it around this lake by dark?

Two miles later everything was completely in doubt as the trail suddenly emptied onto a huge expanse of planted soybean field. At first we walked the perimeter looking for clues or signs for the trail that must continue on the other side somewhere. No longer shaded by tree cover though, the hot Midwestern sun beating down on us with 60-70% humidity making the hunt for our trail a real labor and not a joy, our spirits sank. After nearly 45 minutes, we gave up. Someone had apparently bought some land, cut the forest and plowed and planted soy, with corn-cobbed evidence of the previous seasons crop scattered randomly. No more trail. Gone. Resigned, after roughly 15 or more miles, we started back, our fantasy of circumnavigating an Ohio lake and state park totally devoid of any other human life now just our own little DNF.

The effort had been tougher than we anticipated, the heat and humidity like a weight tied to us from behind. By then, legs were a bit fatigued; my ankle had stiffened. I had a good high from the stress and heat and began to trip over things with the double stack height of my Stinsons. We both moved deliberately, and mostly silently except for the crunch of vegetation and constant bird song and insects. And then, there was the rabbit.

Hiking our way at a decent pace beneath tree cover, we followed the trail around toward the right in a hollow of sorts, the trail leading up and away. Hearing a rustling that at first I thought was wind in the trees, there was an unconscious acknowledgement that something was not right. Then we saw a rabbit running in circles through the leaves at high speed. Fascinated, we watched it eventually jump down into a small depression and face us, staring out at us with angry, beady dark eyes almost like…it was possessed. I, a semi-high runner drunk with heat and 20 plus miles of bush whacking and creeping dehydration, decide to take two steps forward to get a look at the little fella. About then, Rebekah says “there’s something wrong with that rabbit”. And as the cute little rabbit starts to leap up and straight at me, CHARGING right at me, she shouts “that rabbit is RABID!” and holy you-know-what, I am FREAKED out, leaping in the air and right over it as it raced past and beneath me, it’s rabbid little teeth probably looking for my calves. I took off, yelling “run!”, assuming the best for Rebekah who was actually right behind me. I have said more than a few times that I would die and kill for her, professing my love and adoration. I guess that means with the exception of being chased by rabid rabbits. How freaking humbling. 40 shots in the stomach I DON’T need….

That was good for some laughs for quite awhile, our spirits again lifted. Onward. Eventually, water running lower, with Rebekah hiding the true extent of her dehydration from me, it becomes all about conservation. We are no longer running, trying to conserve perspiration. I don’t spit, saving all moisture. I am hiding that I am really thirsty. And then a turtle. Not a rabbit, just a turtle,
sitting on the trail, it’s little feet sticking out and it’s head pulled into its shell. Bright yellow patterns make this creature mesmerizing. Cool. After a while, we decide to move on. Mud. Branches. Sweat and heat, a flock of mature turkeys scatters and lightens the mood. And eventually a snake. Again – I gotta take a look after it moves away from us and turns to face us (idiot, right? Guy can’t seem to catch a clue). I move closer and it shakes its tail- and then I am just moving away, picturing this thing, this 4 foot rat snake, chasing me out of the forest, with me screaming like a little girl. Just shoot me. Rebekah had sat down in fatigue and thirst, watching me, rolling her eyes. Time to leave the fascinating wildlife alone.

And the rest was just tough. The last five miles were dry, hiking in determination; just get it done. The deer and lush greenery and constant bird song no longer fascinating, merely a natural background made less brilliant-green by thirst. I had stopped fueling with my parched mouth miles back, knowing we were close to the car, Rebekah feeling similarly determined. Upon reaching the car, we got it together and drove back to civilization and beverages and a  booming Midwest thunderstorm  and torrential downpour enjoyed over a barbque dinner. Our DNF in our own little quest for adventure was completely satisfying in its absolute effort and connection with nature- rabid rabbits and all.

Midwest runners must be tougher.

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