Monday, September 28, 2009

California Trail Runner Lost...and Found!

A California trail runner was lost in the mountains for more than 3 days. She was recently found and rescued and is now recovering in a California hospital. Many lessons can be learned from this incident about trail running safety.

Ultrarunner tells Register she was prepared to die
Woman lost for days in forest was severely dehydrated when found
The Orange County Register

CLEVELAND NATIONAL FOREST – After three days in the rugged Cleveland National Forest, veteran ultrarunner Maria “Gina” Natera-Armenta said she was prepared to die after becoming separated from her running partner and becoming stuck in a steep, rocky area with no way out – and no food or water in temperatures that soared past 100.

In an exclusive interview with The Orange County Register in her hospital room Wednesday afternoon, Natera-Armenta detailed her ordeal, which began around 7 a.m. Sunday morning during a routine mountain run with her brother-in-law, and ended when she was spotted from the air by searchers Wednesday afternoon.

Her sometime running partner, Fidel Diaz, 53, was found early Wednesday morning, wandering around the Lazy W Ranch looking for her – shaken and dazed, but coherent and not suffering any serious injuries.

But it wasn’t until hours later that Natera-Armenta showed up – after a helicopter spotted her in a remote, rocky section by a waterfall, where steep slopes prevented her from climbing out.

More than a dozen of her trail-running friends had joined search-and-rescue teams scouring the mountains for her – never giving up hope they would find a runner known for her tenacious, never-die spirit.

The sound of a sheriff’s helicopter hovering above her about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday compelled the desperately weak Natera-Armenta out from under some large boulders she had been using to shield herself from the heat and the sun.

Severely dehydrated, she had her last sip of water at 2 p.m. Sunday – and her last bit of food, a piece of peanut-butter sandwich, at 4 p.m. that day.

Natera-Armenta, 36, waved her arms as the blades of the chopper roared.

“The sound was right on top of me,” she recalled, sipping iced water from a straw in her bed at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo as electrolytes were pumped into her veins. Her skin was darkened and her cheeks were hollow.

“I thought, ‘Where did that come from? They can see me. There’s no way.’”

Natera-Armenta’s kidneys were failing. Her blood was becoming too concentrated, rushing to her brain and away from her skin and muscles – reducing her to a feeble state.

She had suffered severe diarrhea for at least two days, and while stranded had started her menstrual cycle – further depleting her weakening body.

Doctors at Mission Hospital said the endurance athlete, who has been a serious trail runner for about three years, wouldn’t have survived another day in the forest without food or water.

When rescued, her dehydration level was 10 percent to 15 percent, said her physician, Dr. Mike Ritter.

Fifteen percent is considered fatal.

Other than scratches and abrasions that mostly were on her legs, she suffered no other injuries and is expected to fully recover.

“I thought I was going to die, but I was prepared,” Natera-Armenta said.

She had already started to say her goodbyes, she told a Register reporter.

“I said goodbye to everybody,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘I hope I don’t make them too sad.’”

When her husband, Armando Armenta, walked into her hospital room, he kissed her on the forehead.

“I love you,” he told her.

“What happened?” she asked.

“You tell me. What did you do for three days in the mountains?”

It started off as a routine run, she explained – in the Lazy W Ranch off Ortega Highway where single-track trails snake up unforgiving ridges. Natera-Armenta has raced distances up to 100 miles in remote, punishing mountain trails.

She had eaten a snack at 5 a.m. at her Oceanside home before driving up to San Juan Capistrano to car-pool into the trailhead with Diaz.

Not having slept well in recent days, and not feeling her best, Natera-Armenta said she had planned to run for only about two hours – 10 or so miles, at her typical pace.

She carried with her two hand-held bottles of water – a total of more than 40 ounces – and about 30 ounces on her back in a hydration pack.

Soon into the run, she and Diaz got separated, she said.

He had started off running fast and got well ahead of her, but soon he started vomiting, and she eventually passed him.

Diaz and Natera-Armenta, although very familiar with the two main trails in the area, the Los PiƱos and San Juan trails, was heading up the rugged and steep Hot Springs trail.

She said she had never been on that trail. It is unclear how familiar Diaz is with it. He was not immediately available for an interview. Also unclear is why Diaz was not able to summon help earlier. He told authorities he had gotten lost after the two separated at around 4 p.m. Sunday.

At one point, Natera-Armenta said she lost a water bottle as she climbed up a steep section. The bottle fell down a ravine and she thought it would be unsafe to try to retrieve it.

She kept climbing – not wanting to retrace her steps because the trail, she said, was a “mess.”

Eventually, she found herself near a dry waterfall, surrounded by steep slopes teeming with thick, dry brush.

“I got myself in trouble,” she said.

She was too weak to climb out, she said. She found shade under rocks and trees.

Not having much of a choice, she decided to stay put – and pray she’d be found.

“I knew I couldn’t get back the same way,” she said. “I just knew I had to stay strong.”

Night came. She struggled to sleep. She fell in and out of dreams.

The next day came, and then the next.

Natera-Armenta said she had three different spots where she would rest under the shade of rocks.

She concentrated on conserving her energy.

“I asked myself, ‘Am I going to die today, or try to save as much energy as possible?’”

Day 4 came – Wednesday

Still alone.

Natera-Armento said she mostly thought of her husband a lot – and inconsequential things like favorite TV shows.

About two dozen of her running friends joined search-and-rescue teams at daybreak Wednesday to look for her.

Although her husband had reported her missing Monday night, the car she and Diaz had used was not found until late Tuesday afternoon.

At some point while stuck in the mountains, Natera-Armenta took off her soiled blue running shorts.

Strong winds blew them away, silently sending them down a slope.

She was too weak to retrieve them.

When rescuers found her, Natera-Armenta was wearing only her running shirt, shoes and socks.

She said that by Wednesday – hours before she was found -- she had given up hope of surviving.

She had toyed, for a moment, with the thought of jumping off a boulder to her death – not believing she could survive another night.

But she hung tough.

The sound of chopper blades slicing through the hot air brought her to her feet.

She waved at her rescuers.

Soon, she was recovering in the hospital – her fingernails thick with dirt, but her smile intact.

During her bedside interview, Natera-Armenta was animated at times, but felt dizzy and weak at other times.

She repeatedly said “I’m sorry” to visiting relatives, and even managed to crack a few jokes.

“I just feel like I’m always a troublemaker,” she said to a sister, Alma, of Garden Grove.

“Oh my God. My sister, my little sister,” Alma said after hugging her. “You have a nice tan.”

“I’m so stinky,” Natera-Armenta said. “I feel so bad.”

“Don’t worry,” Alma told her. “You’ll get pretty again.”

When a nurse asked Natera-Armenta what she wanted to eat, she said, “coconut water.”

The hospital, the nurse politely told her, didn’t have that.

When a nurse brought Natera-Armenta a plate of food, her husband lifted a fork to her mouth and gave his wife the first food she had had in 72 hours.

A forkful of salmon.

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