Pumas, Pigtails, and Pepperspray
This week has been a tough one. One of my patients died of terminal cancer. She was only in her mid-thirties and left a husband and four sons behind.
Although most of the cancers I manage (well-differentiated thyroid cancer) have an excellent prognosis, this young woman had metastatic adrenal cancer, which has a 5 year survival rate of less than 1%. I rarely have patients die from cancer. The fact that she was so young and a kind and genuine and good person, made it even harder.
Words cannot express the sorrow I feel for this family's loss.
Although I know that everything that could have possibly been done, had been done- I cannot help but wonder:
Why did this have to happen?!?!
Why do some people abuse their bodies and get away with it while others have horrible tragic things happen to them through no fault of their own? It is sad, unfair, and makes no sense, but then again too often life is sad and unfair and makes no sense.
Needing some time to think, clear my head and ponder the meaning of life and death- I decided to go for a long run.
Last weekend, Haliku came up for a visit. We ran 20 miles from home, over Peter Norbeck Highway to Keystone where Jeanne and Nathan came and got us. Then we had had an Arctic blast mid-week with temps down to -18 F. Now the following warm spell with temps in the 40s' F felt like a heat wave.
I hadn't run all week and was itching for a long run.
I decided to run over Norbeck Highway again and if I felt good, continue on from Keystone to home.
Only two miles from home, I spotted tracks in the snow. They were the tracks of a cougar!
Also known as mountain lions, pumas, panthers or their formal scientific name Felis concolor, there are estimated to be between 200 and 300 cougars in the Black Hills. Despite this, they are secretive animals and rarely observed. Many who have lived here their entire lives, have never seen one.
Nevertheless, many friends, neighbors and acquaintances have stories of mountain lions they've seen. I've lived here for over a year and despite being in the outdoors for may hours and miles, I have never seen a mountain lion or it's tracks. We did hear one screaming in our canyon around this time last year.
As a runner, mountain lions make me nervous. Most of the time lions ignore humans, but there are occasional runner taken by cougars every year. Even though I carry protection, if a cougar really wanted to get me, I know that I probably wouldn't know until it was too late.
Of course, the reality is that I am much more likely to be in a motor vehicle accident on my way to work or even be run over by an irate dog owner in their mini-van than I am to be attacked by a cougar.
Look closely at the tracks and note the lack of toenail imprints.
Felines rarely reveal their toenails in their footprints which helps to distinguish their tracks from canines such as dogs or coyotes.
Cougars are very territorial. Adult males will kill any juvenile males they find in their territory. All potential territories in western South Dakota are thought to be occupied. Because of this, mountain lions with DNA linking them to the Black Hills have been found as far away as Iowa and Illinois.
Amazing animals… they have been reported to travel 100 or more miles in a day.
Hopefully, some day I will be able to do that myself.
If not in 24 hours then at least 100 miles in 30 hours or any time before cut-off!
One of the reasons I enjoy ultra and trail running so much is that it allows me to experience nature up close and often on more intense terms than I would otherwise.
- If you want to run for speed, a PB or to qualify for Boston or any other road race: then stay on the roads.
- If you want to experience something and learn more about yourself: go run a trail ultramarathon.
Unfortunately, with the onset of winter, I'm forced to run on the roads until the trails open up just like everyone else.
It was turning out to be a beautiful sunny cloudless warm day.
I saw a red tail hawk flying overhead but it was too fast for me to get a photo.
After seeing the mountain lion tracks, I decided to take a picture of every other set of tracks I saw today.
Besides being much smaller than the mountain lion, note the toenail imprints in the fox track, confirming he (or she) is a member of the dog family and not a cat. I also saw a set of rabbit and mouse tracks but they were older and not as clear as these.
After an hour, I took in some Sport Jelly Beans….. with caffeine.
For some reason, after about 30 or 35 miles I just cannot stomach energy gels. Even before that, they make me want to gag. I have heard that if you take energy gels with more water that should not happen. When I tried that, however, it didn't seem to matter.
Sport Jelly Beans and Clif energy blocks do not seem to cause me the same stomach issues. I do not know why I can tolerate them and why I have such an aversion to energy gels.
What works for me may not work for others and vice versa. Since I've found a hydration and nutrition system that now seems to work, I've no reason to change it.
I run by this rock often and wonder about it each time. It is as tall as a two story house.
Native Americans believed that rocks had spirits just as did the plants and animals. Often unusual or unique rock formations were attributed with special powers or had stories behind them.
I wonder: was there any such story told about this rock?
Onward I ran, taking rest breaks as I walked up each hill. Short distance runners think walking is a sign of failure or weakness.
How foolish they are!
Ultrarunners look at walk breaks as being smart. Even the elite include occasional walk breaks as part of their race strategy. Every step forward is a step closer to the finish line. Walking uses slightly different muscles, allowing running muscles to get a break. Alternating running with walking enables even ordinary runners can go extraordinary distances.
It was around here I had good cell phone reception and called my Mom and Dad who live in Tennessee. Surprisingly, their high temperatures were actually lower than ours was today.
I tried to rub it in and again reminded them that the Black Hills are considered by many to be the "Banana Belt of the Midwest."
They pointed out the frigid sub-zero Arctic temps we had only a day ago.
I was forced to admit, "Well, OK, I guess it is a frozen banana!"
Last year there was no road maintenance and this road was closed.
For some reason, this year the gates are still open and the road is continuing to be plowed. I enjoyed the solace of running on a closed snow covered road last year. However, running on a plowed road this year is certainly easier than in the snow.
Even though the road was open, I only saw a total of 3 vehicles between here and the intersection towards Keystone; two from Iowa and one from Wisconsin.
I suppose they were trying to get away from the cold!
I felt a small ache in my stomach and thought: "I'd better eat something."
In the past, I have misread such a signal as my stomach being upset instead of being hungry. Now I understand my body better. Such self- understanding can come only with experience.
One nutritional supplement I consume while going long is Boost. One bottle is 240 calories and contains 41 gm carbohydrates along with 10 gm protein and 4 gm fat. More mixed nutritional intake during ultra-endurance activities including a small amount of protein and fat seems to be easier on the stomach than pure carbohydrate. For short distance events, 26.2 mile and 50-kilometers or less, carbohydrate alone is fine.
The Chocolate-flavored Boost is my favorite. When it is partially frozen into a slush, it actually isn't too bad. Unfortunately, today it wasn't partially frozen.
After a trudge up hill that seemed to last forever (3.1 miles to be exact), I finally made it to the top.
This section of Hwy 16A is called the Peter Norbeck Memorial Highway. It is known for its multiple switchbacks, tunnels, pigtail bridges and scenic views of Mt. Rushmore.
If any of you ever take a trip to see Mt. Rushmore, I highly recommend taking this side trip.
The split in the road above reminded me of the words from Robert Frost:
"Two road diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by… and that has made all the difference."
This phrase continues to be a metaphor for my trail running and to some extent, for the choices I have made in my life in general.
I took the the left fork, the one that says "Do Not Enter" primarily because last week Haliku and I took the other one.
I saw a large old Ponderosa pine growing up along a cliff face. Her bark was split by two previous lightning strikes.
The Ponderosa in the Black Hills and the rest of North America are being attacked by an infestation of mountain pine beetle.
I some areas, 90 – 100% of trees have been killed. There are many theories as to why this is happening: global warming combined with extended drought, wildfire suppression, too many thick stands of trees all the same age, part of the natural life cycle of pine forests of the west and/or all of the above.
Whatever the cause, it is sad to see so many trees dead and dying. What will happen to this weathered old tree, survivor of who knows how many years and at least two lightning strikes?
There is no way to know, just as there is no way for any of us to know what lies ahead for any of us. We're all mortal, starting the day we're born, whether we'd like to remember that or not.
An engineering marvel, and at the time, a feat thought to be impossible, the pigtail bridges are worth seeing.
Two of the tunnels were built so that Mt. Rushmore would be framed in the distance as you passes through them.
There are many views of Mt. Rushmore from the Peter Norbeck Highway.
As the sun approached the horizon, temperatures fell. It was time to change my hat to something warmer. My son no longer wears his Sponge Bob Square Pants hat, so I snagged it for my own use.
It matches perfectly with the bright yellow flourescent colors I usually wear when running in the winter.
I faced the hat backwards so passing drivers could see Sponge Bob smiling at them as they passed by.
Soon I was on the main road heading the couple of miles into Keystone. A couple of passing cars honked, waved and smiled.
I guess they were Sponge Bob fans too!
As I entered town, I looked for an open gas station or convenience store. Almost everything was closed for the season. I find it interesting how busy such towns can be during the tourist season and how dead they are in the off-season.
Finally, at the eastern edge of town, there was a small convenience/general store that was open.
The lady in the store said: "Nice day for a ride!"
She was curious when I told that I actually wasn't riding a bike but had just come almost 20 miles over Norbeck Highway on foot. Unlike many people, she didn't tell me I was crazy, even if she thought it.
I bought a few bottles of Gatorade to refill my Camelback. Gatorade is not my favorite sports beverage to consume while ultrarunning. It contains too much fructose which can cause GI upset in some individuals. But beggars cannot be choosers. I was happy to get what I could.
I also bought a turkey sandwich on white bread which tastes- oh so good- when I'm out running but which I would almost never eat when I'm not.
I accidentally spilled some of the contents of my Camelback on the floor. I apologized profusely and helped her clean it up. "After 20 miles in the cold I get kind of clumsy!" and I apologized again.
She was very kind and said "no problem, don't worry about it."
She was interested in starting to run again with her dog and wondered how she might best get back into it. I gave her some tips such as not doing too much too soon and trying alternating walking with running until she is sure she is able to run longer without injury.
It is advice that I should have followed myself when I started running again 7 years ago but which I did not. If I had, I might have avoided some of the overuse injuries I experienced back then. Unfortunately, sometimes the best way for us to learn something is to make the mistake ourselves.
It was nice and warm in that store and I enjoyed sharing running stories with her. However, if I was going to make it home tonight, I needed to get going. I had 14 more miles ahead of me, and most of it would be in the dark.
I thanked her and headed on.
I passed the place where Jeanne and Nathan picked up Haliku and I last week. Could I make it all the way home on my two feet?
I actually felt good and was pretty sure I could, even though I knew it would be a cold, lonely and dark night. I had my cell phone with me, just in case I needed Jeanne and Nathan to come rescue me, as they have in the past and am sure will do again in the future.
Just at the edge of town, a dog barked at me from the other side of the road. It was brown and looked like either a pitbull or a boxer cross. It started coming towards me. Another white and brown dog was in the road with that dog and barked and ran towards me too.
I was on the sidewalk. A SUV backed out of the driveway across the road and blocked me from seeing the brown dog. I could still hear him barking at me. I did not hear them reprimand or call off that dog but it remained on the other side of the vehicle.
However, the white and brown dog continued to approach barking and growling. A car pulled into the driveway right beside it. The driver opened their door, left the door open but they did not get out and said nothing.
Was it not their dog?
Or was it their dog and were they sitting in there, laughing at me, and waiting to see what would happen?
Owners sitting and watching me have to deal with their mean dog while they laughed has happened to me before, more than once. I couldn't tell. I was preoccupied with the dog and it was too dark to see anyway.
I shouted firmly back to the dog: "NO! Go home!!!" several times but he refused to back off.
The snow between the sidewalk and the road was two feet deep. It was much too deep for me to risk getting bogged down in if I had to take evasive action. I was right where the sidewalk met the driveway.
"Just a couple of steps and I'll be out in the street with a little more room to maneuver," I thought.
As I attempted to do this, however, the dog ran to the street side, cut me off, blocking my escape, and keeping me cornered on the the sidewalk. He was still growling and showing his teeth only a few feet from me.
"Wrong move, dog," I thought, "well if the owner or whomever is in that car is not going to do anything, then I guess it's up to me to get myself out of this."
I pulled my pepper spray out of its holster and unclipped the lock. One little quick squirt in his face and immediately he stopped barking. He ran off to the porch of the single wide trailer that was his home.
I started running again but was careful to keep my backside in view, just in case that pit/boxer or whatever kind of mix it was had also decided to come after me. If necessary, I would have no problem giving him some education in proper dog behavior too.
The next two miles went by quickly. It's amazing what a burst of adrenaline can do, even after twenty plus miles.
As I ran down Highway 40 towards home, a mini-van approached and slowed down. A woman yelled at me, "What did you spray my dog with!?!?!"
"Oh just some pepper spray, it'll wear off soon," I responded.
"Why you %^&^*&!, it got all over my kids, you #$^$ (&*!"
I jumped right back at her, "What the hell am I supposed to do, let your dog bite me! It's against the law to let your dog roam and terrorize the neighborhood!"
She started shouting profanities at me: "You're a $%^^*^&^%! you F&%^%^*!"
Then, the minivan door shoved open. A teenage kid with his shirt off started yelling obscenities at me. He made motions as if he was going to jump out of the minivan. He tried to look as if he was going to lunge towards me.
"Don't do it, kid, for your own good, just don't do it, " I thought to myself.
Another thought also came into my head, "You know, if you're trying to look tough kid, you should probably put your shirt back on." He was thin and scrawny. Had he and his mother not been threatening me with obscenities, the picture he made would've been funny. He probably would not have liked it much if I'd started laughing at him at that moment.
However, I must not have been very intimidating myself, considering I was in tights and wearing a Sponge Bob hat. Nonetheless, I would have defended myself if I had to, even after running twenty-two-and-a-half miles. Of course, I probably would not have had to get physical, one squirt of pepper spray would've changed his attititude too- just as it did for his dog.
Lucky for him, he stayed in the minivan.
The woman drove ahead, pulled into another road and then turned to come back at me. As bad luck would have it, when they had caught me I had just run onto a bridge. I didn't have enough time to get off of it as they turned around and came back. The woman sped up as she came towards me. She moved her vehicle onto the shoulder on my side of the road.
Was she trying to run me over? Or just trying to scare me?
If she was trying to run me over, would I need to jump over the edge and off the bridge?
I might break a leg or hip and that water would be deep and cold, but it still would be better than getting run over.
Without any more hesitation or thought, instantly I lunged across the road to the other side. I was ready to jump off the bridge. To my relief, they stayed on their side of the road and yelled more obscenities as they passed me speeding up.
I thought long and hard about phoning this episode in to local law enforcement.
I'd done nothing wrong by pepper spraying the dog and was within my rights to defend myself. I was on public road/sidewalk. The owner was breaking the law by letting an aggressive dog run free.
Instead of doing the right thing and taking responsibility for the situation, this wonderful citizen and role model of a mother teaches her children how to act another way: do not take responsibility, blame others for the consequences of your own poor decisions (letting your aggressive dog run free) as well as how to interact with other people (run them down with your minivan and shout obscenities at them).
Incidentally, for other local runners who must deal with mean dogs, this morning I looked up the state statutes for South Dakota and found:
40-34-14. Vicious dog defined. (1) Any dog which, when unprovoked, in a vicious or terrorizing manner approaches in apparent attitude of attack, or bites, inflicts injury, assaults, or otherwise attacks a human being upon the streets, sidewalks, or any public grounds or places;
20-9-8. Right to use force in defense of persons or property. Any necessary force may be used to protect from wrongful injury the person or property of one's self, or of a wife, husband, child, parent, or other relative, or member of one's family, or of a ward, servant, master, or guest.
Several weeks ago, I was attacked by another dog who jumped on me with teeth bared. I had to knee him in self defense; there wasn't time for pepper spray. Even so, that owner also yelled obscenities and berated me. If these owners are so dang fighting mad about me pepper spraying or kneeing their aggressive dogs, what would they say/do if I did something a little more permanent? I would be within my rights of self defense from a vicious dog.
No thanks, pepper spray does exactly what I need it to do.
I cannot remember how many times I've been chased or attacked by dog or dogs. I refuse to run scared. Now, with a large canister of pepper spray, I don't have to be afraid. If the dog refuses to back down with words, then pepper spray is the next step. Pepper spray hurts, but the effects it has are temporary with no long term harm. As for the woman's kids, that's too bad they touched the dog and maybe gotten some on themselves. However, it all could've been avoided had the woman not allowed her aggressive dog to run free in the first place.
The problem is not dogs but the people who own them. The owners don't properly restrain or teach their dogs any manners. Too often, they sit back and laugh as their dog bullies you. When you are forced to defend yourself because you have no other choice- now they suddenly become fighting mad. In their eyes, it's always your fault, not theirs. Of course, in the eyes of the law, they would be liable for any damages incurred. The dog could potentially be euthanized. But as I said, it isn't the dog's fault, it's the owner's.
Pepper spray works and it works well. I've never had a dog threaten me a second time, although a few bark like crazy from their front porch as I jog by.
"Bark all you want dog- just don't you ever chase me down this road again!" I think.
Now if only I only I could find away to keep the dog owners from chasing me down the road cussing me out in their minivans!
In hindsight, I suspect the person sitting in the car saying nothing while the dog threatened me was probably her teenage son. He probably enjoyed seeing his dog stop me in my tracks. I did not get a good look at the driver of that car so there is no way to know. I wonder, did he tell his mom that part of the story? Even if he had, would it have mattered? What a tough scrawny young punk his mom is raising him to be.
Anyway, it took more than a few minutes for me to calm down after this and quite a while longer as I debated calling local law enforcement, just to let them know of the situation and perhaps issue a warning to the owner.
Of course, if I did call them what would I tell them? That she tried to run me over? But could I really sure that she tried to run me over? Was she instead only trying to scare me by driving fast right next to me? There was and is no way to know, unless I foolishly instead had chosen to face her down on my side of the road to see what would happen.
I'm glad that I'm smarter than that.
Darkness fell quickly, as it always seems to do in mid-winter. I ran along Highway 40 by the light of my headlamp. There was no moon and the stars shined bright. I felt very much alone. Only an occasional car passed. Most of the surrounding terrain was Forest Service land for at least 5 miles. There were few houses in sight.
In my mind, the episode was over. The dog had learned his lesson; the owners probably not- but it was over. However, the more I thought about it, I more I thought that I had better let someone know. What if that woman had called her boyfriend and he and some friends were coming to find me right now? There were no back or side roads for me to get off the main highway. I would be an easy target. They could leave me by the side of the road bruised and bleeding or even worse. No one would ever know what had happened.
I called and left an extended voice message documenting the entire incident on Jeanne's cell, just in case something happened to me and law enforcement needed to know where to begin looking.
The last twelve miles of my run were cold and dark. Deer occasionally ran off into the trees. One snorted nervously at me several times.
I saw a set of tracks that looked different from the others. I stopped to look at them more closely. I couldn't believe it!
I've lived here almost two years and have never seen a cougar track.
Now I see two different sets of tracks in the very same day!
Part of the explanation, I think, is that we had bitterly cold weather for a few days. Now with the warmer temperatures the lions are out and hunting.
"As long as they're not out hunting me!!" I thought.
Between my previous episode earlier and thinking about mountain lions now, my mind started playing tricks on me. Every motion in the trees I thought was a mountain lion, every pickup truck that approached from behind I worried would be the woman's boyfriend and his buddies.
It is interesting what happens to your mind after 30 or so miles, especially after dark. In longer runs, it only gets worse.
Soon I turned off onto the gravel. "Only 3.5 miles to go! I'm almost home!" I thought. I called Jeanne and told her to put the sweet potatoes in the oven and get the ribeye steaks out of the 'fridge. "We're eatin' red meat tonight!"
I was relieved to be off the asphalt and away from imaginary angry boyfriends hunting me down in their pickups.
Soon, I became apprehensive about imaginary lurking feline predators.
I looked skyward and saw the dark night sky filled with stars. We have very little light pollution here in western South Dakota. To my left, in the south, I saw Orion, the Hunter, my favorite of all constellations. Orion has been my running partner on countless early morning and late night winter runs. With him looking over me, I finally felt strong and safe.
Yes, one distance and fatigue-induced delusion replaced previous ones.
As I dug deep and found my last bit of energy to finish up the last few miles of my run, I saw a set of eyes reflecting in my headlamp. Suddenly, whatever it was dropped to it's belly in the middle of the road.
What was it?
I looked more closely and was greatly relieved to see a golden retriever lying in the middle of the road wagging her (or his) tail nervously.
"Puppy! You need to go home! You can't lie in the road where someone will run over you!" I said.
She (or he) ran off 50 yards but then came back and lie down again. It wagged its tail nervously on the other side of the road as I passed. "Oh puppy, you need to go home!"
Now this is the kind of canine interaction I don't mind!
Despite all of the numerous photos in the first half of this run, I have none for the latter half.
The reason is that most of that second half was run in the dark. Although there would have been beautiful scenic vistas to be photographed during the day, there is not much to see at night by the light of a head lamp.
The photo above I took in our driveway to give you an example of what the last 14 miles in the dark looked like.
As I went the last mile up our road to our home, tears began to fill my eyes and fall into the snow.
I had tears of sadness for the patient whom I had lost earlier this week. I had even more tears of sorrow for her family who must now go on without her. I still don't understand why unfair horrible things happen to some people. I expect I never will.
And then I also had tears of joy, humility and gratitude for my family, my friends, my health, my profession and for all the good things in my life, of which there are many.
Life is such a blessing. It is a gift, really it is. Most ultrarunners are spiritual and introspective people but you do not need to be an ultrarunner or to be religious to believe life is a gift.
We must always make sure our loved ones know how we feel about them. We must live every day to the fullest and as if it will be our last. We don't know when the gift of life will end and we will never get another chance.
As I walked up to the front door of our cabin, I shut off my headlamp. I looked at my GPS to see what it said.
34 miles. Wow. I was tired but not that tired.
Wanji inyanka waste. One good run.
Mitakuye oyasin. We are all related.