Lost Runner

April 6, 2011 by Gary "Story Hawk" Henry

This story was originally published in the June 2010 issue of Ultrarunning Magazine

Day two of the three-day race was done. A cloudy night engulfed northern Arkansas’ wild and mountainous Ozark National Forest as completely as if it lay 10 miles deep beneath a chilly lightless sea. Yet one runner still fought. Not the course or the trails; he’d lost those. Now, Mike DeMeritt, 48, West Chicago, battled on through the tomblike darkness and humid, low-40-degree temperatures without a light, warm clothes, or food, except for a water bottle and a few swigs of honey. It wasn’t just darkness he struggled through as he tried to find the trail. Briars, brambles, branches, rocks, roots, ledges, holes, all unseen, tore and tripped the lost runner already aching from the previous day’s 50K and the 41 miles he’d completed before losing his way. DeMeritt had entered Northern Arkansas’ sixth annual “Three Days of Syllamo,” March 12-14. The brutal Ozark Mountains stage-race pits entrants against a 50k on day 1, a 50-miler on day 2, and a 20k on day 3 – all on the rocks, roots, climbs, descents and water crossings of the Syllamo and Syllamore trails that snake through the 33,000-acre forest. Course profiles look like the fangs of a T-Rex. It wasn’t just the tangled, jagged forest punishing Demeritt. Thoughts of the worry and trouble his absence was bound to cause tortured him. It started with one costly mistake. After realizing he’d missed the turn from road to trail about 50 yards after the 41-mile aid station, and going several miles wrong, DeMeritt didn’t backtrack – even though he knew he should. “I’d blown my time (he was in 6th place out of the aid station), and backtracking would make it worse,” he said. So DeMeritt decided to find his own way back for an “unofficial” but “still awesome” finish. “I’m stubborn that way,” he said. “Big mistake.”

h2. Search

When DeMeritt hadn’t shown 20 minutes after the 8 p.m. cutoff, Race Director Steve Kirk and volunteer Greg Eason ran the trails between the Barkshed aid station where DeMeritt was last spotted and the start/finish at the Blanchard Springs Campground race headquarters. They came up empty. They called the Forest Service and the Stone County Sheriff. Soon, Ranger Joel Parkinson and three deputies were searching the roads while Sheriff Todd Hudspeth co-ordinated from race HQ. Kirk, Eason and volunteers Paul Turner and Cal Hill took on a grimmer task. Just before and after the unmanned aid station at Gunner Pool, the course trail nears the cliff-edges of bluffs several hundred feet high. Knowing DeMeritt was lightless in darkness so complete “you couldn’t see your feet,” as both Kirk and DeMeritt later said, the four men checked the bases of the bluffs. “Joel told us we’d be looking for a body,” Kirk said. “He told us, ‘if you can’t handle it, don’t do it.’ We went.” They searched among the jumbled piles of talus and broken boulders, the wild twisted trees and brambles at the feet of the bluffs, their headlamps and flashlights casting grotesque shadows on the cliff walls. Nothing. Back at race headquarters – nothing. Though past midnight, the thought of DeMeritt alone and lost in the Ozark Mountain night drove Kirk, Eason, Turner and Hill back out to scour the trails between Barkshed and the finish once again. Nothing. They had no way to know it, but DeMeritt had gone to ground for the night about 8:30 pm. Now coming up on 5:30 am, the exhausted search team laid down for an hour’s rest, to begin again at dawn. The authorities moved the search headquarters up the hill to the Blanchard Springs Visitor Center where cell phone reception was better. There was also a place for a helicopter to land and launch.

h2. Bad night

Realizing the forest had far too many weapons to fight off-trail and blind, DeMeritt found what scant shelter he could for the night. A shallow depression by creek’s edge, bounded on one side by a fallen tree served as cold lodging. Dried leaves made an unsatisfactory blanket. I constantly shifted positions to try to stay warm,” De Meritt said. “I was shaking with cold. I’d nod off then suddenly snap awake. Wild sounds filled the dark woods. DeMeritt said he heard frogs and birds, and other things crawling and skittering through the leaves, all unseen. “I heard what sounded like a crazy man laughing, far back in the woods. I even called out one time,” he said, “but of course there was no answer. I heard it over and over, exactly the same every time.” Time crawled. DeMeritt’s watch gave him a moment-by-moment account. “I thought about my favorite foods,” he said. “I craved fried chicken. I thought about my warm bed, and how much more I’d appreciate it after this.” The regret and guilt piled up, despite his effort to concentrate on just surviving the night. He thought about the phone call the authorities would certainly make to his spouse Valerie. The night ticked on in chills and screams and shudders.

h2. Dawn

With the first hint of sullen gray dawn about 5:30 am, DeMeritt was on the move. For breakfast, he swigged water and swallowed the last of the honey from his plastic “honey bear” bottle. He was stiff and sore at first, and wobbly on his feet. He used an improvised walking stick to steady himself and to help bushwhack through woods. After two hours of slogging through the cold creek, climbing crumbly limestone ledges, and forging his way through the ever-present briars and brambles, DeMeritt found the trail. “I thought I was almost home,” he said. He wasn’t. After an hour’s fitful sleep and some oatmeal, Kirk and his volunteers walked up the hill to the search headquarters. There, a sleek white heat-sensor-equipped OH-58 observation helicopter, called in from neighboring Baxter County’s Sheriff Department waited on the lawn. Since Kirk is the expert on the forest’s trails and logging roads, he went up. Along with the helicopter, the expanded search included about six Forest Service trucks combing the logging roads; a ranger on a trail bike in the forest; and two kayakers on the streams. “If he’d just stayed still, we would’ve found him,” Kirk said. “But he was a moving target, and that made it harder.” Thinking he smelled the end of the ordeal, DeMeritt ran the trails. As the gray light came up, he got the “dawn boost” that many ultrarunners experience after running through the night. “I’d hoped for sunlight,” he said, “so I could get an idea of my direction.” But the grim slate sky gave no clue. DeMeritt ran and ran. Several times, he heard the helicopter and knew a search was under way. “It sounded like it was one valley away,” he said. “It was encouraging and frustrating at the same time.” Back at race headquarters, the runners had gathered for the third day’s 20k run. Turner briefed them on the situation. He told them they could race if they wanted, or they could join the search. The runners voted to search, and except for a few who had early flights, were organized into search teams by the sheriff and the ranger. “Even the ones who had early flights wanted to help,” Turner said, “but I told them they should head on, as we were likely to be out there a long time. They did, but you could tell they would have rather stayed and helped out.” Forest Service search and rescue professionals led three of the four teams of about 13 runners each, and Turner led the fourth. The team leaders stayed on the trails, as the runners fanned out on either side. “It was really treacherous walking off-trail,” said Deb Johnson, Shawnee, Kan, who, with her spouse Stuart, ran the races, then searched. “We were on the steep side of a mountain, and there were gullies, overhangs and briars everywhere. “A lot of trees were down from an ice storm last year, so there were pits and rootballs to stumble around. “It was kind of eerie, searching through the drizzle, with the helicopter going back and forth overhead.” Aloft, at altitudes of 300-700 feet, Kirk and the two pilots got a hawk’s-eye view of the forest floor through the leafless trees. “We saw the searchers,” Kirk said. We saw deer, turkeys and a pack of wild hogs – three brown and two black. “Mike was wearing a red windbreaker and orange shorts. If he was there, we would’ve seen him.” As afternoon rolled in, the helicopter returned to search headquarters to refuel. Kirk was on empty, too. He’d eaten nothing but a bowl of oatmeal since early morning, and had gotten only an hour’s doze in about 36 hours. “Everyone was tired, depressed and scared,” he said. “What could’ve happened? Why couldn’t we find him? What’s our next plan? Expand the search? More volunteers? Another helicopter? “That’s when our radio operator announced that Mike had been found.”

h2. Lost and found

DeMeritt ran all morning. He hadn’t eaten, but was fueled by desperation. When he found an unmanned aid station with jugs of water and HEED, he knew he was on one of the courses. That afternoon, he encountered what he thought was a second unmanned aid-station, but according to Kirk, it was the same one. DeMeritt had possibly run the 20K course, coming within a mile of the start/finish, and ending up back at the unmanned aid station, which is roughly the midpoint of the 20K. But Green Mountain Road was nearby, and when DeMeritt saw a red pick up truck stopped on the road, he went for it. In the cab, an older gray-haired woman and a younger brown-haired girl, listened to DeMeritt’s tale in astonishment. There was a gray pick up truck behind them, with two men, and DeMeritt repeated his story. They offered the lost runner a ride to the nearby town of Allison, and he climbed in the back, happy to be off his feet, even if he was sandwiched between coolers and bags of trash. Just then, volunteer and Three Days 50-miler Jenny Foster, Little Rock, pulled up in her black FJ Cruiser. She was retrieving the 20K unmanned aid station jugs. Maneuvering by the red pickup truck, she learned of the “crazy” occupant in the back of the gray pickup truck. “That’s the guy we’ve been looking for, for two days,” she all but screamed. In short order, Jenny retrieved DeMeritt, called 911, put him in her SUV, and gave him what food she had – some sports drink and nuts. “He seemed in good spirits,” Jenny said, “but he was shredded from the briars.” Following instructions from the 911 operator, Jenny drove with her passenger to nearby Highway 14. Paramedics in an ambulance met them there, with an escort of squad cars from the Sheriffs’ Department. The ambulance paramedics checked the runner and pronounced him ok, if a little worse for wear. But the steam had gone out of DeMeritt, and he was near collapse. “I didn’t know until then how much I needed the ordeal to end,” he said. “Finally I could lay my burden down. It was sweet relief. Seeing Jenny was like seeing an angel.” DeMeritt rode back to race headquarters with the Sheriff, to whom he got to tell his story one more time. At race headquarters, where Kirk and other volunteers were packing up, there was no scolding or recrimination when the lost runner arrived. “I screwed up in a major way,” DeMeritt told Kirk. “You did,” Kirk agreed. “I’m just very happy you’re ok. That’s been my major concern.” DeMeritt plans to return for the 2011 edition of Three Days. “This time I’ll do it right,” he said. “And every chance I get, I’ll advocate that one cardinal rule. “When you’re off-course, back track!”

finish line

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