Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The consequences of experience

I don't have any of my own photos of Michael Popov, only a few from the day I met him, during my first ultramarathon, the Rodeo Beach 50K in December 2010. 
One week ago, a man who is well-known in the Northern California trail-running community died from complications of heat stroke in Death Valley. Like many do in this social media age, I learned of his death through vaguely worded Facebook posts and wondered what could have possibly happened. Michael Popov was an experienced endurance athlete, a formidably built Russian with a long resume of adventure racing and self-supported fastpacking treks. When initial reports said he ran out of water during a recreational, six-mile traverse between two parallel roads, I thought "that doesn't sound right." Today, Outside Magazine published a more detailed account of what happened during a "routine run" in one of the most extreme environments in North America. The story is enough to bring pause to anyone who considers themselves an adventure athlete — the experience we take for granted, and the decisions we make every day.

Although I didn't know Michael well, his death resonated deeply. He and I were about the same age, and shared many of the same passions. He was co-director for Pacific Coast Trail Runs before that venture closed its doors earlier this summer, so my memories of him are from chats after 50K trail races. Our conversations usually centered around endurance bikepacking, and he told me he wanted to ride the Colorado Trail Race in 2013. The last time I saw Michael was at the Diablo Marathon in June. He handed me a coaster for winning the race and teased me about showing up in Banff the following week for the Tour Divide. "Who knows?" I replied. "Maybe I will. What's your next big adventure?" He just shrugged and broke into a disarming smile. "Maybe see you at Tour Divide?" he joked. From others' accounts of Michael, this seemed to be a big part of his personality — lightheartedness, but with an underlying focus and intensity.

Michael's last run was a spur-of-the-moment decision to travel cross-country between West Side and Badwater roads in Death Valley. He estimated the distance would be about ten kilometers, and likely thought the run across flat terrain would take about an hour. His partner was set to pick him up on the other side of the traverse. He packed four bottles of water, and only a cell phone as an emergency measure. It was approximately 2 p.m. and the temperature was 123 degrees. Two and a half hours later, passersby found him lying on the side of the road. He was conscious but delusional and combative. After emergency crews were summoned, he lost consciousness, and died during resuscitation efforts. The doctor who performed the autopsy speculated that Michael likely encountered subsurface moisture beneath a thin crust layer, which can make footing extremely difficult. If he had to find a way around it, his route would have been significantly lengthened. His water bottles were empty when he was found.

Those of us who don't know Michael well can only wonder what he was thinking when he decided to embark on his run, as well as what went through his mind when he realized he was in much deeper than he anticipated. Michael, who has completed the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon, probably had good reason to believe that his relatively light kit was more than enough for conditions he had dealt with before. His experience rightfully gave him confidence, and still a stark misjudgment occurred. It's a sobering lesson for anyone drawn to these extreme environments, where the margin for error is so thin.

On Monday, our friend Daniel came to visit from Colorado and we went for a run on Black Mountain. He told me he had been reading my book "Ghost Trails" and was curious about the incident during the 2008 Iditarod race when I dropped my bike in an open stream in the Dalzell Gorge at 20 below, and soaked my leg as I retrieved it. What he didn't understand, he said, is why I didn't get frostbite when that happened, but did in a similar incident the following year.

"Well, it's interesting," I replied. "I realize now how many poor decisions I made after I went through the ice on Flathorn Lake in 2009. But at the time, that incident in the Dalzell Gorge was still fresh in my mind. The year before, I completely soaked my boot in temperatures far below zero, and proceeded to push my bike to Rohn over the next eight hours with no consequences. So you see, there was that precedent that made me think I'd be okay."

Only the second time around, I wasn't as lucky. I was still lucky that I was able to walk away with moderate frostbite and not something much worse, but still, I sometimes wonder — what was so different about conditions in 2009 that my foot froze in eight hours? Was it because it was a few degrees colder? Was it because of wind? Was it because I both pedaled and pushed my bike, where in 2008 I walked the entire way? What will I do if I encounter similar conditions again? I love the frozen Alaska tundra more than any other landscape I've experienced, and I'm not going to stay away. Instead, I want to be prepared. I want to be alert. I want to make good decisions.

Still, I recognize that I can gather all the experience and knowledge possible, and still make a disastrous mistake in a relatively routine situation. It's even more likely to happen if experience gives my mind precedent to believe that a particular situation is okay. But of course, situations can change stunningly fast. And when conditions shift outside one's experience, even small miscalculations can turn deadly. Michael's final run has been a sobering reminder of that reality.