Incident Report: “Blood on the Trail” The Catskills Strike Back by Ben Nephew
This is going to be more of an incident report than a race report, as David Kilgore’s injury was the story of the day, and the craziest thing I have seen in 20 years of trail racing. I was expecting to run with Jan Wellford, who ended up not traveling down to race due to sickness. I had spotted David in the start area as someone who looked quite fit, but we had never met. My suspicions of speed were verified as soon as we got into the woods and David passed me and started cranking up Panther Mountain. I kept in contact for a while, but the pace felt too forced so early on this course, so I backed off and was running on my own by about 1.5 miles into the race.
I felt good, not great, as I made my way up Panther and over to Giant’s Ledge. Based on the fact that David was wearing Nike road flats and I had on saber toothed Orocs, I hypothesized that I might be able to claw back some time on the downhills from Panther and Giant’s Ledge. The risk with that is pushing too hard and falling or ruining the quads for the climbs to come. I tried to find a healthy balance of aggression and moderation, and enjoy some of the finest descents in the Catskills.
Another advantage I had was course familiarity, which certainly helped as I spotted David at around 7 miles. I think he was happy to have confirmation he had not missed a turn. We ran for a while through the first aid station, and then he again cranked up the pace and pulled away over the next 2 road flat friendly miles. He was a minute ahead by the time we started the grind up Slide. My plan was increase the effort up Slide, and I managed almost to run the entire climb, with the exception of a tough section of +20% grade. I was 8 minutes ahead of last year’s pace at the summit of Slide. I had flashbacks of running with Silas and Jan down the insane ledges, and was thankful I went with my more cushioned pair of Orocs. It is just one big, abusive drop after another, and the landings are not friendly. Despite being familiar with the trail, it still makes me laugh and appreciate that some crazy mountain folk cut this trail.
My legs were feeling good as I wound my way through the col between Slide and Cornell and started the last big climb on the course. About halfway up the climb, as I looked down while ducking under a tree, there was a pool of blood. Not a few drops, a pool. Without even thinking, I yelled out, “Are you OK?” David must have hit his head on a broken branch. I had not seen him for miles, so it didn’t make sense to say anything, but there was just so much blood. I continued up the trail, and there was stream of blood, not drops, lines of blood interspersed with splatter. I started running harder and soon found David with his hand on his head and his face covered in bright red blood. There was blood on his singlet and dripping all the way down his left leg.
I asked him if he was OK. He told me he felt alright, and asked me if the bleeding looked bad. Maybe I should have lied, but I don’t think I could have given what I was looking at. I’ve never seen so much blood. I told him it looked bad, assessed the overall situation, and repeating expletives ran through my mind like a freight train. I at least assured him that I had recently obtained CPR/first aid certification. The situation was that we had no phone, no medical supplies, were several miles away from medical help, it was cold and wet, and the math associated with his current rate of blood loss was not supportive of him getting out of the woods on his own two feet. We also didn’t know how severe the head injury was, beyond the bleeding.
However, David was clearly still coherent, so it seemed like it was mostly an injury to his scalp. I tried to look at the injury, but the blood just came streaming out every time he removed his hand, and his hair was completely soaked in blood. Considering the lack of options, my master plan was to get him down to the Woodland Valley ranger station as quickly as possible. We started hiking up Cornell and despite his hand on his head, the blood was still raining down onto the rocks. I started doing the math on the blood loss again, and it was time to try another option in this choose your own adventure. The only thing I had in my pack was my shell and an urban camo XC ski hat. I offered it to David as a feeble attempt to stop the bleeding, and he initially refused and said he could just use his mesh trucker hat. Maybe he wasn’t coherent…
We decided to combine forces and put the ski hat under the trucker hat, and pray the bleeding slowed down at least enough for him to see. I also suggested we slow down for a while for the sake of backing down cardiovascular output. Things got a bit chilly once we stopped running, and I was glad I still had my inov-8 hat. As we made our way onto technical sections past the summit of Cornell, I watched his feet carefully, as a loss of coordination here would be, well, not good. I had let him lead to make sure I wasn’t forcing the pace and so I could try to scavenge red blood cells, and he stopped at the top of the Cornell crack and assumed he had gone off trail. I confirmed that the trail went straight down, and led the way.
The bleeding had appeared to stop, and I can’t describe how relieved I was. When I had first seen his condition, I was seriously concerned that getting him out of the woods would involve the most epic fireman’s carry in history (and maybe some uncomfortable dragging). David certainly didn’t need to be carried and wasted no time on the climb up Wittenberg. I was a bit worried that he was riding a good trip of adrenaline and could eventually crash, but we needed to cover ground and could deal with that later. While all this was going on, we were maintaining constant conversation about our running histories.
Despite only being in NYC for a few months, David had already toured many of the local trail areas. The descent down Wittenberg was taken with appropriate caution. The looks on the faces of the volunteers at the 17 mile aid station were.....we should have had a camera. It was if the headless horseman was running down the trail. It took a while for them to actually trust us that he was OK. While the initial plan had been to bail down to Woodland Valley, we decided to run easy to the finish to the medics there. The conversation continued and the bloodletting did not return, but I did worry about a major head injury when he started to claim all sorts of FKT’s without documentation. Apparently, David is somewhat fast and will be able to provide documentation when he gets his phone out of the bag of rice.
The change in the gravity of the situation from the initial accident to the last few miles was as shocking as the injury itself. I think we were both anxious to have someone take a look at David’s head, but the solid pace he was holding was not requiring excessive effort at all. I’ve seen plenty of people with intact scalps trip more often. I appreciated all the hard work put into the new trail section over Cross Mountain last year, but the resulting runnable terrain was an especially welcome contrast to Wittenberg’s stairway to hell. Without looking at David’s face, you would just think we were out for a run.
As we ran down the final descent, we spotted the only humans we had seen since the 17 mile aid station. Despite calling out that David was OK three times as we approached, there was shock, awe, and gasping when we passed by. I yelled out something about that is what happened when he tried to pass me, which elicited a good laugh. In contrast to the concern at the 17 mile aid station, the volunteers at 25 miles wanted me to throw down and leave David in the dust. They might have thought it was mud from a header into a puddle, or figured things had gone full contact and I had drop kicked David in the face with the Orocs.
We ran into the finish together, and the ER doc and nurse at finish line quickly abducted David and went to work cleaning him up. It soon became clear that he had earned himself a trip to the ER, which resulted in 18 staples. I’m sure he was happy to keep his hair (which is overrated), but even if I did have hair, I’d shave it for the intimidation factor of the scar, which is the exact shape as the CatsTail course. To underscore the bleeding involved in the injury, several people that were more than an hour behind us noticed all the blood on the wet trail. I’m happy David made it off of Cornell, as a memorial cairn and prayer flags on the summit would be strange! Congratulations to all the runners who battled the Catskills and lived to tell the tale, and thanks to Charlie, Mike, and all the volunteers for the tremendous effort it takes to organize and supply such a demanding race. Another awesome Red Newt Racing event with my Mountain Peak Fitness teammates who raced strong all day.
As for lessons learned, well, trucker hats are cool, but are also dangerous and do not make effective bandages. In all seriousness, this is the second trucker hat – tree incident I have heard about in the last couple of months. Phones are not necessarily going to make things safer. There isn’t even cell coverage in the town of Phoenicia where the race is based. Fitness is a type of life insurance that can allow you to get out of the woods quickly even after losing a bucket of blood. While preparing for the worst case scenario every time you race is excessive, a jacket and hat can be useful on cold and/or bloody days. Imagining being unable to move on the most remote sections of a race course might be a good exercise. In hindsight, it would have been good to consider who was racing if David had been unable to move. I have no doubt that Ivan Milan, who was a little ways behind us, could have carried David out of the mountains with ease.
"Fitness is a type of life insurance
that can allow you to get out of the woods
quickly even after losing a bucket of blood."
One of the many reasons I still trail race and don’t just pursue FKT’s is that anyone in the race would have helped David as I did, even if the visual presentation had not been so dramatic. Runners are good people; kind, perceptive, strong, brave, supportive, and generous. They can identify pain and suffering in the absence of blood and are always willing to help. This does not always happen in other aspects of life. I’ve been running for so long that I started to take this for granted, but this entire year has been a reminder of how lucky I am to be part of such an incredible community, or perhaps society. In an article on ultrasociality I wrote earlier this year, I commented that the key to healthy social development at any level was the preservation of a strong family structure, and this pertains to the home, work, and play. As I began my drive to Westborough, I was fortunate to be traveling from one supportive family to another.