If you spend time in the outdoors, eventually something will go wrong. It’s a law of nature. But if you survive, those epic failures become the best stories! We’ve all read about amazing accomplishments in the wild, but now it’s time to tell us about the not-so-great times and what you learned from them. Share your best #EpicTrailFail stories on your own page, include this paragraph as a header, and then provide a link in the comments here or here. We’ll curate and circulate the best stories in future posts. We can’t wait to read about what you’ve survived!
Arionis of Just A Small Cog and Rebecca of Wild Sensibility.
I drive to beautiful Sisters, Oregon all day Saturday, April 9, 2016, to run the Peterson Ridge Rumble 20-mile trail race with young Alaskan Malamute Conall the next morning. It’s a long, seven-hour drive from our home in central Idaho, through some pretty boring – in my opinion – eastern Oregon landscapes. In Sisters I meet my Seattle trail-running friend Suzanne at the hotel where we’re sharing a room. Proving she knows me well, Suzanne brings me sugary treats, including Dr. Pepper-flavored Jelly Bellies. (If you spend any time around me, you know I’m addicted to diet Dr. Pepper.)
To stretch all of our legs, we all take a stroll around Sisters before dinner. Sisters has a nice, pedestrian-friendly downtown core. Conall’s delighted, saying hello to people telling him how gorgeous he is. The town of Sisters is named for the nearby Three Sisters volcanoes, which are still snow-capped in April, offering a beautiful backdrop.
The reason I’m willing to drive so far to run this race is because the Rumble’s 20-miler (there’s also a 40-mile, ultra-distance race) is dog-friendly. Always has been, since its inception in 2003. When Sean, the race director, created this event as a fundraiser for the local school’s track team, he was running trails with his Siberian husky Sascha. We met when Sean saw me and the girls hanging out at the start of a trail race in Washington (the girls and I were there to sweep the course of markings after the race). Sean was drawn to them like a magnet. When he mentioned his event, I knew I had to try it.
The girls and I ran the Rumble the next three years, 2004, 2005 and 2006, before and after we moved to Idaho. It’s always worth the long drive and overnight stay.
Then life intervenes, and the girls never run it again. I thought I took Finn to the race soon after I adopted him in 2008, but I can’t find our names in race results. I’m sure I wanted to, but never followed through. Then, in early 2015, almost two years after the girls pass, I get Conall as an eight-week old puppy. I want another Malamute because I want – need – a trail running companion as savvy and strong as the girls had been, a dog whose eyes, ears and nose alert me to wildlife when we’re in the forest. (Finn the Aussie is a great trail dog, with plenty of endurance, but he doesn’t alert to wildlife as I would prefer. Instead, he chases whatever he sees moving, and that’s not good, especially when it’s a black bear.) I begin introducing Conall to trails – with Finn’s assistance – from the get go, slowly and carefully building his muscles, bones and endurance while teaching him trail manners.
Conall’s progressing so well that in early 2016 I decide to sign us up for the Rumble, even though he’s a bit young, having just turned one in December. I want Sean to meet Conall. I want Conall to experience the Rumble. I know Conall will love being around so many people and dogs. I also decide to leave Finn home; keeping track of two dogs during the race would be too much.
Being April, though, the tail end (pun intended) of our long snow season in Idaho, our training has been lacking both in distance and heat tolerance. I worry when the forecast is for temps in the 70s. I’m also worried this distance might be more than Conall’s young body can easily tolerate. He’s like a teenager; all bravado and enthusiasm that might, or might not, carry him to the finish line. He has already done several ten mile runs with me and Finn over the summer and autumn, but he’s never gone 20 miles. I haven’t either, for quite some time. But I know from experience that a solid running base can power you through longer-than-usual miles. So yeah, I’m confident but also a little anxious, determined to watch Conall closely, making sure he drinks water at the aid stations, willing to walk or even drop out if he seems stressed.
Short version of the race: Conall gets an official finish. I do not.
Longer version: There are over 400 humans and 46 dogs in the race. This is a surprise; I had no idea it had grown so much over the years. Those numbers make for crowded single-track trail and stressful running conditions with a dog, especially in the early miles. I keep Conall on leash, but he typically runs off leash and several feet in front of me; given how big and fluffy he is, he makes a better door than window, especially on trails. Around mile six, I catch a toe on some lava rock and because Conall’s still pulling on the leash, do a full-body slam, coming down hard. With bruised ego and scrapes on one palm but otherwise okay, I get up, dust myself off, and rethink my race strategy.
I decide to let Conall off leash to avoid another fall. The trail is more technical than I remember, lots of small, embedded rocks to trip on. Initially Conall runs just ahead of me, as we do at home, or sometimes he tucks right behind the runner just ahead of us. This goes well for a mile or so, until Conall spies a sexy Jack Russell terrier up ahead and decides to run with her and her person, ignoring my attempts to call him back. Even that’s okay, though, as I’m keeping up and keeping him in sight, until I leave his leash at the eight-mile aid station. Quickly realizing my error, I dash back to retrieve it, calling for Conall to stay. He’s already on the outbound trail. He looks over his shoulder at me, looks ahead at the disappearing terrier, and makes his choice. It isn’t me.
I don’t see Conall again for miles, despite being assured by race and aid station volunteers along the course that he’s looking great and just a quarter mile ahead of me. Always “just a quarter mile” ahead of me, no matter how fast I try to run. Arrggghh! I grow increasingly worried about the heat – temps are reaching the low 70s – and whether he’s drinking any water at aid stations. I’m thinking not. Is he going to get heat stroke? He’s a friggin’ Malamute, running in a thick fur coat through high desert terrain, no snow or free-running water in sight.
Not fun thoughts, these, elevating my own heart rate as I keep pushing my pace in an effort to catch up to him. I trip three more times during the day, although thankfully I don’t hit the ground again. My race goes to hell with anxiety. I haven’t seen Conall for a long while. I keep hoping the terrier’s human will ask an aid station volunteer to hang onto Conall until I catch up, but at each aid station or trail junction manned by volunteers, I’m told he went through just a few minutes earlier, “looking great – what an awesome dog!”
Getting these periodic reports reassures me that Conall’s sticking to the trail. Oddly, that’s the one thing I don’t worry about; I’m sure he’ll stay where he knows the other people and dogs are running, especially since he’s never been on this trail before.
Finally, around mile 17, I beg a ride from a race volunteer to take me to a spot near the finish line where the trail spits racers onto streets near the edge of town, close to the finish line at the school. I’ve had a few miles to worry that if Conall goes into the finish area/parking lot on his own, he might get hit by a car, get lost, picked up by someone, who knows what. It will be a chaotic scene at the finish and I’m not sure how I’d find him. I can’t bear thinking about it.
I’m pretty sure hitching this ride will put me ahead of Conall on the route. The volunteer drops me where trail meets road. From there I walk back up the trail a half mile and wait. A few runners who recognize me as Conall’s person assure me he’s just behind them, still running. “He’s a cool dog; he ran with me for a while…” is a common, somewhat reassuring comment. Finally, I see Conall trotting down the trail, alone. The sexy terrier is nowhere in sight. Conall looks hot and tired, tongue hanging long, panting from exertion but okay. It’s almost as though he doesn’t recognize me at first, which is weird. But he seems fine, if tired. I give him some water, then leash him up, figuring hell, he’s run the entire route, he deserves an official finish even if I don’t. Together we run the rest of the course, Conall setting the pace onto and around the school track and across the finish line. (I don’t let them take my tag from my race number since I’m not an official finisher.)
My friend Suzanne finished ahead of us. She’s shocked when she hears my story, but happy we’re together and Conall’s none the worse for wear. We both have long drives home ahead of us, so we say our goodbyes. I decide some food would be a good thing before I start my drive, so Conall and I hang out at the post-race BBQ for a bit.
Conall gets a baked pig’s ear for his 20-mile effort, I get a burrito (which I share with him).
The woman with the terrier comes up to me while I’m eating my burrito to say how much fun it was to have Conall run with her. Huh? Because she now has a young child with her, I say as graciously as I can muster, “I was incredibly anxious about him, especially with the heat. I kept hoping you would either let me catch up, or ask someone to hold him until I could.” She’s completely surprised at the suggestion, totally clueless that I might not have thought it was okay to lose my dog for the day. I’m tempted to draw an analogy to her child being lost, but hold my tongue.
I know, though, that the fault for what happened is entirely mine. I know I can’t control the actions – or inactions – of others; Conall wasn’t her responsibility. She was focused on her own race. Maybe her terrier never leaves her side, ever. During the winter, while xc skiing with Conall off leash, he had, on a couple of occasions, gone “deaf” and started skiing with someone who had greeted him, someone skate skiing much faster than my classic striding style. Only because they stopped was I able to catch up and leash Conall, keeping him close until they got out of sight. So I knew Conall was young and enthusiastic, that his recall wasn’t perfect, which is why I started the race with him on leash even though leashes aren’t a race requirement. I just never dreamed he would spend nearly three hours running without me.
I should have waited until he was two – no longer such a teenager – to attempt this race with him off leash. Ah, hindsight.
Still, all’s well that ends well. Driving home, I decide it’s unlikely I’ll do the Rumble again, and not because of what happened with Conall. A race that ten years ago* was a fun, casual, relatively small gathering of trail runners – a few of us with dogs – has become quite popular and too big for me, more like a city marathon crowding onto narrow single-track trail. But hey, Conall had a blast. And it is here at the Rumble, mid-race on a stretch of trail near a turnaround where runners went both directions, that a young twenty-something racer coming toward me smiles and says, “You’re badass!”
I’m sure, in the moment, that my silver hair and age (59) prompt the comment, not my pace. But I’ll take it.
Conall and I arrive home at 10:00 pm, greeted by a very happy Finn MacCool. Our little pack is reunited and all is good in our world once again.
Update 2019: We haven’t been back to the Rumble, even though Conall never again did an unplanned “walkabout” like at the 2016 race. Did he decide, that day, to never let me out of his sight again? Did he connect those dots? I’ll never know. Now, though, Conall keeps close track of me and Finn and anyone else running with us in the forest, making sure we all stay together, all the time, like a good pack-oriented Malamute should.
*For comparison: In 2004, there were 127 humans and eight dogs in addition to Maia and Meadow; in 2005 and 2006, human entrants averaged 121 and there were eleven other dogs. I clearly slowed down in the intervening decade: in 2005 the girls and I ran 17 miles in 3 hours and 16 minutes (3:16); in 2005 we ran 18.5 miles in 3:18; and in 2006, when, in an abundance of caution I had Maia run the first half with me and Meadow the second half, with friends shuttling them to/from the hand-off at the halfway point, we finished 18.5 miles in 3:28. In 2016, Conall finished 20 miles (to my roughly 18 miles) in 3:58.
Feature photo: The start of the 2013 Rumble 20-miler. Photo: CC BY-NC 2.0, Michael (a.k.a. moic) McCullough.