• Derek Dutton

Big Cedar: The Amphibious Challenge

As if running one hundred miles wasn’t challenging enough, environmental conditions are often unpredictable, and sometimes even dangerous. As for Big Cedar, conditions were unfortunately both. I was fairly intimidated going into the race as it was my first 100 mile attempt, but I was certain that given my competitive spirit placing in the top ten percent was somewhat of a reality. My 100 mile training cycle was not exactly what I anticipated and also cause for concern. Before the race I felt tired, used, abused and really just ready for off season. Unfortunately these kinds of races are planned months and sometimes years in advance so “not feeling ready” just wasn’t a valid excuse. My team was staged and ready, and I was running this race come hell or high water.

In the beginning

                The start line was motivating, with approximately 40 people infected with the same kind of crazy as you— makes for a good day. As with any competition, within minutes of toeing the line the serious competitors/ athletes are easy to find. Out of the gate, things felt good. I had identified a strong runner, someone who had twenty 100 milers under his belt, and decided keeping up with him would be a good goal for me. Taking off I felt strong, the top two athletes were going a bit faster than I intended to, personally, but I figured I would hang with them as long as possible. Conditions were not ideal but they weren’t completely miserable. It wasn’t uncomfortably cool, and the moisture in the air created kind of a misting effect. All in all it was a good start to what I had hoped would be a “fun” race.


Skipping forward to the end of the first twenty five mile  loop . . . pure hell and agony. Once we started, periodic showers made the Texas clay the perfect consistency to absolutely drive you (bat-shit) crazy. At certain points, it felt as if you had at least 15 pounds of mud on each shoe. This mud/clay was absolutely terrible and probably the worst threat to my race that I thought I would encounter. Somewhere towards the end of the first loop, if the mud wasn’t bad enough, a young lady caught me. She seemed to be prancing or at least floating across the top of the mud making her pursuit look effortless. This in conjunction with the mud was a real blow to my morale. At this point I assumed I was in the top 3, and bumped to 4th-5th. Overly concerned with “making the cut off” this young lady seemed determined not to let the mud, or anything else for that matter—including me— get in her way. I would find out later, just how determined she really is.


                After the first loop I was devastated. I had a nagging knee injury from my training cycle that I knew was going to be a factor if the muddy conditions didn’t change. Luckily for me, sort of, conditions did change in the second loop: the rain came. With more rain the mud stuck less and less. The less the mud stuck to me, and my shoes, the better I felt. In fact, as the water fell things seemed to be getting easier and easier. Even running in shin to knee high water felt like a blessing compared to that god-awful clay trapping you like a man sized sticky—trap. By the end of the second loop my motivation returned, I wasn’t exactly sure where I stood with my competition but I knew they were well ahead of me. At this point I abandoned my ranking and set my sights on finishing this brutal race instead. Leaving the 50 mile check point I felt amazing. More rain made for easier loops and I was really beginning to pick up some momentum. I soon realized that the weather was taking a toll, not just on me, but my competitors as well. It was taking such a toll that I finally realized that it was giving me an advantage! There were several amazing athletes in the race that had tons of experience and were absolutely faster than me in the long run. However, my time in the special operations community has given me an intimate perspective when it comes to stress, fatigue, and poor conditions. I realized at this point I was getting stronger, and it was time to make up for the pottery class from hell in the first loop.

Then the real rain came.

Rain Rain Go away

                The rain felt like a scene from Forrest Gump. It came from all directions at some point, and portions of the trail that shouldn’t have standing water, did. It was raining so hard that it was difficult to see your hand in front of your face. The next few check points were a bit surreal for me. Shortly after the 50 mile I caught up to my running companion at the start (bib 131), I assume he lost the trail at some point as I found it hard to believe that I would catch him. I was feeling good so I kept going and put distance between him and another female that had been closing in on me also. I was feeling great. I felt so good that as I came into the Truth Corner checkpoint I felt obligated to give them an idea of what my last portion of the trail looked like. So, I crawled my way, ever so dramatically, under the tent on my hands and knees. Little did I know, at this point they had “paused” the race. There seemed to be more people huddled under the canopy than normal but having run well over 50 miles my capacity to reason was substantially limited. My teammate/ crew chief (Mike Campbell) informed me that they were holding us there because of flash flooding. This was a valid concern, as I could attest to the poor conditions. What I didn’t realize is that Katie Graff and I were the male and female leaders at this point. Shortly after my arrival they said we could continue on but anything after this point would be done “at our own risk”, fair enough. The lead female: Katie Graff, was eager to head out so I asked her if she cared for me to join her since the conditions seemed pretty dangerous. She consented of course, and we set off on what would seem to be the longest “2.9 miles” in the history of running.

The Flood

Although we were quite aware of the deteriorating conditions, Katie, her pacer, and I were hardly prepared for the next portion of trail ahead of us. There was water EVERYWHERE. Water was in places it shouldn’t have been or, at the very least, places you wouldn’t think was even possible. We found ourselves making water crossings that didn’t exist earlier in the day. When I say crossing water, I mean crossing raging streams caused from the flash flood conditions. Many of which intimidated me, despite being a competitive swimmer and lifeguard with a plethora of water rescues. To be safe we made many crossings with our arms linked together as a team effort. There was one crossing however that seemed and proved to be the most daunting. There was a portion of the trail that had substantial wooden bridge crossing. Unfortunately for us, this bridge was overturned and washed downstream into a giant debris pile. Clearly this water was moving and exceptionally dangerous. Slightly upstream from the debris pile was a tree that reached nearly to the other side. However, my experience with flash floods and debris piles is not one of positivity so I recommended that we try crossing further up steam. Using the log/tree as a safety line before the dangerous debris pile I felt confident that even if I was swept downstream the log would afford me an easy out. What I did not anticipate was the determination of my new best friends. Since it was my idea to cross the raging waters up stream I figured I should be the first one in the water. As I entered the water it was clear that a crossing didn’t look good. I was soon up to my chest in raging flood water. It didn’t take long for me to be swept away, but the stubbornness of my newfound teammates refusing to let me be washed downstream alone, clung to me despite my efforts to let go of them. So, just as soon as I was swept away, the raging waters pulled all three of us in effortlessly. I wasn’t overly concerned at this point because I, like any good Army Ranger, had a backup plan. All three of us reached the log unharmed. I was slightly concerned the log might shift on us so I made no delay in exiting from the water. As I moved I looked to my left to ensure everyone was okay. At this point we were all intact. Then out of nowhere I saw Katie’s hands slip from the top of the log towards the bottom. Panic set in quickly as I was quite aware of the strength of the raging water. I was struggling to function myself, so when I realized she lost her footing I knew things were escalating quickly. On top of being swept downstream, my main concern was the debris pile and my knowledge of undercurrents. As a rescuer I knew it was going to be a very bad day for at least two of us if she was pulled into that debris pile underwater. My greatest fear was almost realized when she was very nearly pulled under the log despite having a hold of me (on her right) and her pacer (on her left). Like a scene from a suspense movie, she was being pulled away from me no matter how hard I pulled back. In my desperation all I seemed to muster was “do not let her go under (water)”, as if that wasn’t obvious enough. Luckily, somehow, Katie and I were able to link elbows and I was able to use my body as leverage instead of brute strength and pull her out. I don’t suppose the image of her face nearly being submerged, will ever escape me. Fortunately we all made it out from the aborted river crossing, and despite my original hesitation to cross an unstable debris pile we finally made it across. We continued our journey for what seemed like 15 miles (in reality it was barely five). In this five mile stretch we encountered numerous water crossing, rain that seemed like it was coming from the ground up, knee high water on every portion of trail and even a mystical lake on top of a hill which seemed to swallow the trail itself. It was a wild ride and it was no surprise when we were just outside the next checkpoint and saw headlamps moving towards us down the trail as volunteers began looking for the two misfits, and pacer, that were still “in the race”. We found out shortly, that the race had been canceled twenty minutes after our exit from the last checkpoint.

Although I wasn’t disappointed at the time of the cancellation, having been through watery hell, I was overcome with frustration when I realized Mother Nature had just robbed me of my first 100 mile attempt. Worst yet, there was plenty of race left having been stopped only 65 miles in. So, at that point it really was anyone’s race and we will never know who would have finished in the top 3. All I knew was that the conditions were so poor that it actually gave me the confidence that I would certainly be one of them. It was a great race, and would have been glorious to finish . . . but I suppose there is always next year.

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