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Laurel Valley Whitewater Endurance Run

Toxaway River*
A lot has been going around me and in the world lately. First, death of a dear friend. Then, the war between Hamas and Israel. Genocide of Christians and other minorities in Iraq. Friends going through Chemotherapy. Then more friends find out they have cancer. Death in extended family. I wish there is something I could do. I want to be out there to fight for justice and human rights, to deliver aids, to do whatever is needed. Instead, I live in a perfectly peaceful bubble, sit at a desk eight hours a day, and go home. Perhaps it’s the powerlessness that prompted me to sign up for the Laurel Valley Whitewater Endurance Run the last minute, a race which is known for its difficulty and beauty, and also one that has been on my radar for two years but I never did have the courage to sign up till now. 

A few things you need to know about the Laurel Valley run:
  1. No one knows exactly how long the course is. Most veterans I’ve talked to agree that it’s 35 miles.
  2. “One way in. One way out. You are on your own.” This is a self-supported run.
  3. There are thousands of steps and dozens of foot bridges. They are slick.
  4. The run crosses five river gorges: Laurel River, Toxaway River, Horsepasture River, Thompson River, and Whitewater River gorges, by ways of beam and suspension bridges. 
Sometimes, doing something difficult is better than being comfortable and is just what I need. God must have known that, too. He persuaded RD Brandon Wilson to let me in the week of the race. He even softened his heart to let me run with my friend, Sam Mishler, instead of running as a sweeper as the race tradition would dictate. Logistics also fell into place. Sam had a plan and he willingly accommodated me. I met up with him and most of the racers Friday evening at packet pick-up and dinner. There, I met up with a few more awesome people, like Jeff McGonnell and John Teed, whom I ended up spending the rest of the pre-race hours with, in an RV at the finish in Upper Whitewater Falls.

The race began at Rocky Bottom with a flight of wooden stairs and many more to follow. Coupled with the 5 a.m. start in the dark, the first few miles were slow going. I didn’t mind that a bit since I had prepared for a long day. My plan was to stick with Sam and his plan was to break nine hours. I believe we both started in a comfortable pace, but he would pull ahead on the downhills and I knew he took the ups extra easy for me to catch up. Sam said he didn’t remember much about the first 10 miles since he had only run them in the dark. Ironically, I remember some of it because I have run the Bench Marathon before, which is an out-and-back on the first 12 miles of this course.

My spirit lightened up with daybreak. It had only been an hour and a half, but it felt longer since I wasn’t running in the dark with ease. Up till that point, we had only seen another runner and her name was Lisa Arnold. When we made an excursion by crossing a bridge that needn't be crossed, she yelled for us.  Trail runners are good people.  Soon, we reached the bench at the bottom of a long descent, the furthest point I had been on the course. Beyond that, it’s new territories for me.

Sam and I chatted a little more in the daylight. The course alternates between technical and rocky trail and pretty smooth double tracks. Those were very enjoyable miles. Running on double-tracks gave me a chance to look up more and take in the beauty. Yes, it’s going to be a long day, but where else would I want to be?

Horsepasture River Bridge*
Around 16 miles into the run, we finally came to a good water source at Toxaway River where we could refill our bottles. It’s my first time drinking iodine-treated water: it looks like rust and it tastes like rust. The direction says to wait 30 minutes. I waited an hour till I took the first sip. It was tolerable...and that’s about it. While refilling our bottles, John Teed came upon us. I was happy to see another runner and a familiar face. For the rest of the run, we would see each other many more times. Sometime it’s us who caught up to him. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Being a seven-time finisher (now eight), he knows his time on the course. At the Horsepasture River bridge, he told us we have another three hours to go.

Around 23-25 miles in, Sam hit a low patch. Our running rhythms gradually changed from my catching up to him during ascents to his catching up to me in descents. The gap eventually widen over the next few miles to where he was nowhere in sight a few minutes at a time. However, I knew he’s a great endurance athlete and was confident that he’d eventually come out of the bad spot. It must have been near Thompson River Gorge where I was crawling through the rocky terrain and where the white noise drained out the sound of his footsteps that he sneaked up behind me. What a relieve to see him! I let out a loud “yes!” and we started trucking together again.

Bridge and boulders before the long ascent up the falls.*
Finally, we reached Whitewater River and only a long climb was between us and the finish. Here, John Teed caught us once again... with welcomed news: the longest he had taken to finish from this point was 21 minutes. With that, he sped in front of us and we followed suit. The long climb consisted of very little running. It was mostly steep, giant steps. I caught up to John one last time at the top and he encouraged me to go ahead. Second shelter on your left, he said. I “sprinted” down that paved road and arrived at the finish. There were more people at the shelter and parking now than when we left for the race at 3:30 a.m. I got a few congratulations from the spectators, most were astonished that we just ran 35 miles. Well, I was, too. And guess what, we broke eight hours! 

It has been three days since the race and I’m now back at home, back at work, and back to the bubble. So, what purpose does LV serve? I believe it inspires me to seek out ways to do more and to push myself to do hard things. As much as I love running, I don’t think running alone would satisfy our deepest need as human beings. I believe we are made to serve and moments like the times at Laurel Valley are there to inspire, as means to a greater end.

I want to thank you everyone who has shared this unforgettable run and experience with me, especially Sam. Thank you John for his hospitality. Thank you Jeff for all his advice and stories. Thank you Brandon and his son for all their effort. Thank you Claude, though not being able to be there this year, pioneered this run 19 years ago. This run simply strips away all the unnecessary things we have added to running and racing and offers what is most important and wonderful: heart, people, and beauty.

*Images are provided by Jason Sullivan at Foothills Trail Ultras.

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