Tunnel Hill x2: Last day of Winter, First day of Spring, and Meditation on Pain

Our mission was simple: an out-and-back on the Tunnel Hill State Trail, which runs from Harrisburg, Illinois to the Cache River State Natural Area Wetlands center. The trail is a 47.5 miles long rail-to-trail, converted from the old Cairo and Vincennes Railroads. When we lived near the trail a decade ago, we’d run the stretches around Vienna, Illinois frequently, and a couple years ago we both ran the eponymous 100 mile race held on the trail. We figured it was time to say we’d seen the whole trail (the race only uses about 25 miles of it), and we needed to test a few of our fastpacking systems. When the last day of winter/first day of spring weekend also coincided with favorable (ish) weather, we headed south.

The start was a few miles before, but this looked more official

Day 1 – Last Day of Winter

We were on the trail at 6, the late start was our attempt to avoid some miles in the cold. For it was cold: 22ish. The first 20 miles were quick, marked by a single stop to shed some layers. The Tunnel Hill trail starts flat and nearly urban, and for the first 15 miles we were basically travelling from one small town to the next. When it finally hits the single hilly ridge, the towns become more and more infrequent. 

The biggest trestle of them all, and there were a whole bunch

By the time we reached Vienna at 34 miles, the day had warmed into the upper 40s. We stopped briefly to rearrange our bags and fill water bottles from the park spigot. This was a luxury, as the water faucets at trailheads along the way were shut off, and the streams were mostly well away from the trail (remember, it was originally a railroad bed).

From Vienna to the Wetlands Center is my favorite part of the trail, as it frequently winds through picturesque cypress swamps, a landscape that I think almost nobody associates with Illinois. We scouted potential bivy spots as we journeyed southward, starting from “maybe we’ll make it back here” to “we’d sure better make it farther than this.” Our plan was to ignore mileage and just move for 15 hours, then stop at the next likely place.

Cypress trees and the sunset

We made it to the turnaround with a little light left in the sky, and the moon and Venus brilliantly overhead. Up until this point, we were having Type 1 fun for sure, but as night fell we started discussing the plan for stopping. We managed to keep moving past all the contingency spots, and by the time we were back to our favorite one, we were ready. We had our shelter set up in moments, and crawled in ready for some oblivion. We’d travelled 57 miles.

Camp somewhere on the trail. (HMG flat tarp & MSR mesh house)

Day 2 – First Day of Spring

I awoke at 4am to a bloodcurdling shriek seemingly a few yards from our tent. Seconds later there was a single HOOO from almost directly above us, so I figured the noisy owl had found herself some breakfast. One of the absolutely best things about the cypress swamps in this area are the owls. So many owls. Moments after we’d packed up and started to move again, we had a 3 minute hooting conversation with a big barred owl that was watching us from just off the trail.

Once underway, we shook off the stiffness and began to move more quickly. Around the 70th mile or so, we stopped to adjust clothing and do some foot care. We’d both developed blisters, which is unusual for either of us. I suspect this had to do with the flatness of the surface which meant footstrikes with zero variation. Foot soreness was to become a major part of the last portion of our outing.

Sometime after passing through the tunnel for which the trail is named, I made a dumb mistake. On the way out, we’d picked the best looking stream to filter water from before the descent back to farmlands and towns. I missed the stream on the way back, and when I realized it, we had less than a liter between us. The day had also warmed into the upper 60s as predicted. The situation wasn’t dire, as we were passing near houses etc. but it was annoying.

With a sky full of darkening clouds, gusty winds at our backs, and no water, we began the last 20 miles.

Meditation on Pain

Reflecting on last year’s Scout Mountain 50, I wrote a report which had some things to say about impatience. Risking the dangers of talking to myself, I said: 

The problem with being impatient on an ultra is that there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, nothing to blunt the fact that you do indeed have to slowly suffer the hours and miles it will take to go over your own Scout Mountain. . . You’re getting exactly what you signed up for.

And since writing that, I’ve been acutely aware of the role impatience in ultraish undertakings. I’ve watched impatience begin to ruin the late stages of an endeavor many times, and maybe even headed a few of those off with some plain ol’ practicing being present. What I don’t think I’d had since Scout Mountain, though, was some time to experience impatience coupled with its favorite tool: pain. 

One thing I’ve noticed about pain in an ultra is that once it gets a foothold, it blossoms like a virulent weed. By the time we were at mile 85, 10 miles to go, the pain from my couple of blisters had joined forces with the general pain in my feet. It suddenly became excruciating to walk, and only slightly less painful to run. The outing had gone from Type 1 fun to T3, completely skipping T2, literally in 10 miles. The trail was now covered with sweet gum balls (the wind was howling) and each time I accidentally stepped on one, I wanted to scream in agony.

To pass the time, I decided to imagine how I would paint an image of the pain if I could paint. I came up with two depictions:

A: The sensing me (so my mind, mind/body etc, depending on how you roll) was like a doll that was impaled on an incredibly sharp cone of blue ice. The pain of being impaled was the entire world and could not be ignored, but it was singular. This meant that if the sensing me just beheld this all-encompassing cone of ice it was impaled on and remained absolutely motionless, there was nothing to compare it to. In a sense this made the pain cease to be pain. The pain was only recognizable as pain when my sensing turned to something not present (i.e. the image of sitting in the van at the end drinking a beer). 

B: The sensing me was like a doll that had been burned hollow by a blue flame like a sun below it. Like the other image, the pain of this flame was all encompassing and unavoidable, but also singular. In this case, thoughts of the not-present were like things that moved into the doll. Each time I had such a thought, the fire had something new to actually burn and the pain redoubled.

While on the run, I just mulled over these images, but reflecting on them now, I see the commonality. In both, motion (highlighted with italics) is the thing that brings the awareness of pain. Or maybe that metaphorical motion IS the pain. In both descriptions, the motion is the act of moving away from presentness, of turning to things desired (like beer and no more running). Pain arises from the avoidance of pain. Harkening back to Scout Mt musings, impatience is the word I was using to describe exactly this avoidance. Impatience is the source of pain. 

Awhile back, Allison and I were trying to come up with the ideal foods to eat on fastpacking adventures. We imagined our perfect food: 5+ kCals per gram, protein, carbs, simple sugars etc. We actually starting making a list of the ingredients. Peanuts, like maybe some chocolate pieces, maybe granola? We literally reinvented trail mix (which we now eat bunches of on our outings). In a sense, my pain analysis is like reinventing trail mix I realize. Buddhism has lots to say about attachment and desire (notice that both are words implying motion) as being the source of pain. So look for Buddha at the 85th mile of the Tunnel Hill? 

Finish

The rain never arrived, and the howling winds died down a few miles before we were done. One of the spigots at a park was miraculously active, and our water shortage was resolved. The afternoon was warm as we travelled through Harrisburg and finally arrived back at the van — just shy of 95 miles in a few minutes less than 35 hours, 7:45 of that was time at the bivy (which was long enough we might as well call it camp). 

Somewhere in the last miles Allison suggested pizza, and that sounded amazing. Then she suggested getting a hotel so we could rock epsom salt baths. That sounded even more amazing. While thinking about that plan might have caused some pain in those miles, the enactment of it was 100% sheer nirvana.

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