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Ultrarunners in Peril: This Year’s Model

A pair of seasoned ultrarunners suffer through a harrowing unplanned overnight adventure in the Southern California wilderness.

Written by: John Mendelsohn

On the morning of Sunday, September 20, the 34-year-old southern California ultrarunner Gina Natera-Armenta got up at five, made herself a peanut butter sandwich, and thought briefly of all the things she’d decided not to bother to take with her — her Garmin GPS watch, her cell phone, food for an emergency — because she hadn’t been sleeping well and was impatient for the exhilaration of a run. She grabbed a couple of water bottles — plenty, she thought, for an eight-mile outing — and drove up to San Juan Capistrano, from which she would carpool with her brother-in-law and fellow ultrarunner Fidel Diaz, 53, to the Cleveland National Forest. She’d raced up to 100 miles over grueling mountain trails before, so the couple of hours she had in mind for the day sounded like a piece of cake.

She pretty nearly didn’t survive.

Craving novelty, the two runners eschewed the Los Piños and San Juan, which they’d already traversed, and headed instead up the most demanding of the forest’s three trails, the Hot Springs. In the early going, Diaz, whom some local runners revere as a patient mentor, was well ahead of her, but then the heat made him nauseated, he began vomiting, and Armenta overtook him. She’d seen him run in worse shape than he appeared to be in, though, and kept going, confident he’d catch up.

He did, and was ahead of her when the time came to ascend a rugged hill, through whose brush they discovered they would have to crawl, out of one another’s sight, shouting periodically to get an idea of their respective locations. At around 4:30, though, she realized it had been a long time since she’d heard him, and that she was on her own.

Not wanting to retrace her steps over the tortuous trail, she kept climbing, in the process dropping one of her water bottles into a ravine into which she didn’t dare try to descend. As her strength ebbed in the triple-digit heat, she found herself near a dry waterfall, surrounded by steep slopes teeming with cruel, dry brush, and hid from the vengeful sun beneath a rock.

And hid, and hid, and hid.

Her husband Armando was accustomed to her being incommunicado for long stretches while running, but by Monday evening, he was alarmed to have received no word from her, as Diaz’s wife was alarmed to have heard nothing from Diaz. The authorities began searching for the two runners, as too did a couple dozen of their fellow runners. Some shuddered to recall 2008’s Original Mountain Marathon in the UK, one of Europe’s most grueling endurance events, during which some 1700 runners were stranded by floods in the mountains of Cumbria while high winds precluded the use of RAF helicopters to find them. No one died, but 13 suffered severe hypothermia. Was ultrarunners finding themselves in mortal jeopardy now going to be an annual occurrence?

Having finished the water she’d brought with her two hours before being separated from Diaz on Sunday, Armenta became increasingly dehydrated, which, given that she has only one functioning kidney, put her in even greater jeopardy. She got diarrhea. She began to menstruate, and soiled her running shorts. In her confusion, she took them off, and a wind blew them away.

On late Tuesday afternoon, while rescue workers were discovering her and Diaz’s car, Armenta drifted in and out of unconsciousness. She thought — or was it dreamed? — of everything from the ridiculous (moments from favorite television programs) to the sublime (her love for her family).

On Wednesday morning at 8:30, the rescuers found Diaz, very much nearer to where he’d started than anyone expected. Almost from the moment of his re-appearance, local runners began expressing their skepticism. One marveled at Diaz’s having managed to traverse only five miles in the three days he was lost.  Another wondered why, when he finally turned up, he didn’t seem dehydrated — his first words to rescuers weren’t to do with his thirst, but about Armenta’s well being. Some even dared to speculate that he’d done her dirt.

Armenta by this time had reconciled herself to not leaving Cleveland National Forest alive. She’d seen her prospective rescuers’ helicopters, but at a great distance; rescuers had apparently assumed she couldn’t possibly be where she actually was, because who would have run into impenetrable brush? Traversing some of the most brutal terrain in southern California, Hot Spring trail was demanding enough for one in good shape even to walk, let alone run. The only question now was whether Armenta would be able either to slip into merciful unconscious, or to spare herself further agony by leaping from one of the precipices near her.

Finally, at 1:30, the most infernal time of the day, she was saved. Hearing a helicopter above her, she was at first too weak to move, but somehow summoned the wherewithal to crawl out from under the rock that blocked the relentless sun and to wave. At the hospital to which she was rushed, the attending physician estimated her dehydration level as very close to fatal. In less time than she’d been lost, though, she was in sufficiently good shape to give an interview to Good Morning America from which the viewer could infer that she hadn’t had many profound insights. Asked what her body needed to do to get back to 100 percent, she answered, “Just recover.”

If there are going to be a memoir about her misadventure, its publishers were clearly going to have to hire some pretty creative ghostwriters.