(Full disclosure: All of the photos below were stolen off of the web, and are of places I went long before I owned a camera or started taking pictures.)
So this long run I have planned is coming up in just under two weeks now, meaning, among other things, that part way through September I can start doing something with my free time other than running as a form of preparation for yet more running. It turns out that distance takes time, and not just the time it takes to cover miles but also the time it takes to harden legs against prolonged abuse. My training plan is pretty low mileage—averaging about 35 miles per week with higher peak weeks. There are plenty of folks in the world who will tell you that anything less than 60 mpw may allow you to finish but not race a marathon, and others who are running 90+ mpw in pursuit of the coveted “personal best.” Even still, I feel like all I’ve done all summer is work, run, cook, and pack lunches and snacks as I transition back to the start of the list and repeat. With any luck, it will allow me to achieve my time goal at the Equinox, but we’ll see.
There was a time when I did other things. I spent a good fifteen years self-identifying as a climber first, whatever the hell else I happened to be doing with my life second. I haven’t done much climbing for awhile now, but that has nothing to do with running. Prior to climbing, I was actually introduced to technical rope work as a caver. My dad spent a little time in his college years poking into caves in southwest Virginia and beyond, and maintained an interest in caving as he moved forward with his life. He took me on a few introductory trips once I was in high school and then turned my loose to the Virginia Tech cave club when I too wandered off to college.
The Virginia Tech cave club was an active group of students and locals, situated with access to some pretty amazing cave systems, including caves with substantial in-cave vertical. But once you start talking vertical caves in the lower 48, you start talking about TAG. TAG is a karst region centered on Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. Hence the name. The area is characterized by a number of pits, surface and sub-surface, that make it something of a vertical caving playground. The crown jewel is Fantastic Pit, a 586 foot drop in Ellison’s cave, the deepest in-cave drop in the lower 48 (exceeded by a pit in Alaska—everything is bigger, and apparently deeper, in Alaska). But there is a lot more to the region than just Fantastic.
Fantastic Pit, Ellisons Cave
The region hosts the annual TAG Fall Cave-in, a coming together of cavers in a field to cave by day and socialize by night. I first went with a guy named Brian. We packed his circa eighties-era Mazda RX7 with plenty of rope, sleeping bags, and, given the size of a RX7, likely little else. By day we bounced surface pits with names devised to evoke respect and awe—Valhalla, Neversink—and those with names more mundane, but no less impressive in the flesh—e.g. Stephen’s Gap Cave.
Valhalla (Caver, barely visible, on rope ascending in yellow about half-way up for scale.)
By night we admired the bonfire from a safe distance. The TAG Fall Cave-in bonfire was, at least at the time, truly epic. A dedicated crew was in charge of piling timber to heights requiring a crane, dousing the whole with any number of different petroleum byproducts, and stuffing the nooks and crannies with fireworks, widely available from giant outlets as soon as you cross south into Tennessee. The fire crew wore t-shirts with photos of a prior year’s burn, flames leaping into the sky made all the more impressive once you realized that the tiny silhouette in the foreground was not a person at all but a telephone pole. It turns out that the local utilities had seen copies of that picture and stepped in to limit the height of the structure in subsequent years. The fire was, nevertheless, something to behold, and made just a little dangerous by the fact that a bottle rocket could suddenly ignite at any time and fly in your direction. I assume the bonfire remains central to the evening events at modern day cave-ins, an assumption supported by the fact that the online cave-in FAQs state that pictures of the bonfire are only allowed before noon. I can only guess that is an attempt to keep documentary evidence out of the hands of the current regulators.
The following year, a TAG caver named Mike (I think?) moved to Blacksburg to go to graduate school. Mike was part of a dedicated group of Atlanta based cavers that spent significant time in Mexico exploring and mapping huge cave systems, and he thought nothing of heading to the TAG region for the weekend, all in the name of training. No surprise, he offered to lead a group of us from Virginia to the cave-in that year. We teamed up with some of his other friends and picked up where Brian and I had left off, bouncing pits.
We also headed further underground to do some in-cave drops. One such trip was to Surprise Pit in Fern Cave, a 400-foot drop. As is the case with a number of caves, the entrances take some hiking to reach, and in the case of Fern the hiking took us straight uphill. One of Mike’s buddies (name forgotten to history) was in his thirties—maybe older. Like Mike, this guy spent time in Mexico on trips better characterized as expeditions. He was pretty focused and pretty intense, and while happy to show us around, he looked at the weekend as simply another opportunity to train. As such, he volunteered to carry the rope up to Fern (or simply though is he let any of us carry it we would slow the whole operation down to the point of hopelessness). Sufficiently burdened with 500-feet of static line, he faced the hill and started to move. We fell into step behind, a group of six or seven total. Gaps opened almost immediately. I don’t remember how long we spent grinding uphill, probably somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes. I do remember reaching the cave entrance second only to Mike’s friend. He looked at me as I approached.
“You’re pretty fast. Do you do anything to stay in shape?”
Stay in shape? I was, what? 19? My body ran on enthusiasm and hormones. I gave him the honest answer: “No.”
Mike’s friend thought on that for a second. “Just wait. You’ll have to in time,” he said, and went on getting his gear together.
I wonder now to what degree the 19-year old me could have gotten up and around the Equinox course. Fact of the matter is Mike’s friend was right, and I have lost the ability to safely jump off the couch and attack real athletics. As a consequence, I too train. Luckily, I take pleasure in it, and regardless of the result on race day, can sit back and reflect on a season executing a plan without missing a single scheduled run or inviting injury. That, alone, should put me in better position than 2005.
(Surprise Pit, Fern Cave)
Incidentally, we did try to bounce Fantastic Pit on that second TAG trip. Four of us opted to try on our last day, all tuckered from a good week of hard caving. To get to the Fantastic lip takes a little bit of time underground, including negotiating a 100-foot plus drop. We got to the pit, conveniently and permanently (at least at the time) rigged to rappel by a local rope company (PMI). Chummer, called such to distinguish him from the other Dave in our party, went first. Water levels were high. Where he should have been rappelling free and dry, Chummer found himself in a full waterfall, at risk for bone-crushing hypothermia. He changed over and ascended back to the lip, and we called it a day.
I rode back to Blacksburg with the other Dave. As, I believe, can only happen to the young, we pointed the car north expecting to be home in about eight hours, but ended up in Kentucky, as evidenced by the giant “Welcome to Kentucky” sign we flew past. Kentucky? How does anyone survive their youth?