Writer's Report -- Thistles, Poison Oak, River Crossings, Rotting Rail Road Tracks -- and Zombies?

On Memorial Day at 8am, I met up with two running trail buddies (Lura, a marathoner, and Lori, an ultramarathoner) for the adventure of a lifetime.

The goal: to run from Cloverdale to Hopland on 15 miles of abandoned rail road track once used for logging. Why? To conduct research for Undead Ultra, my forthcoming novel

In the midst of a zombie outbreak, Kate and her running buddy, Frederico, have one goal: to find Kate's son, Carter. The only problem? Carter is over two hundred miles away and the freeways are clogged with car wrecks and zombies. When their hatchback is totaled several miles into their journey, Kate and Frederico set out on foot for the race of their lives.

The course selected for this adventure is part of the course traveled by the characters in my novel. What better way to imbue my novel with realistic details than to experience them myself? I dubbed my adventure gals the Zombie Recon Team (ZRT for short).

The day started off cool and overcast -- perfect running weather. Thirty seconds into the adventure, we knew we were in for a challenge. The rail road tracks were completely overgrown with weeds, many of them taller than me. (At five-foot-three inches, that makes for some pretty short weeds!) In some parts, the tracks were so overgrown that we were forced to find a way around them -- often skirting even larger outcroppings of poison oak.

The rail road tracks themselves presented their own obstacles: abandoned and left to their own devises over the years, the wood had rotted out in many places, leaving dangerous holes that could twist a runner's ankle. The earth had settled and shifted, lifting some of the wooden ties several inches off the ground, and sinking others completely under the soil. Can we say trip hazards? In some places, whole sections of earth had collapsed and slid away, leaving metal rail dangling in mid-air and three runners crashing through head-high foliage in search of a way around.

Three miles in, we hit an obstacle. The tracks ran into a tunnel. The first problem? The tunnel had, at some point in time, caught on fire and been partially buried in a avalanche. The second problem? A rather large mountain sat in front of us.

We scaled the debris left behind by the avalanche. At the very top was a three-foot opening that led into the burned-out tunnel. We pulled out headlamps and picked our way down a hill of slippery gravel. Our headlamps provided little relief to the sun-bereft interior; they were little more than over-sized fireflies in that intense darkness. Charred rail road ties stood up on end, pointing up like giant spears. The metal of the tracks had been warped and horribly twisted, left to rust under piles of rubble. We picked our way through this dark landscape -- only to discover the far end had completely collapsed. There was no way through.

We crawled back out into the daylight and tackled our next task: finding a way back to the rail road tracks -- which were on the other side of the rather large mountain.

We tried scaling the mountain, but quickly discovered the near-vertical slopes to be covered by loose, slippery debris. Not wanting anyone to get injured, we opted to try and find a way around. We tried climbing over some huge boulders, but found nothing but sheer drop off on the other side. Next, we tread through open forest and waded through thick, vine-covered undergrowth. Eventually, we came to the shore of the Russian River. The waters were a clear, dark green. That's when my friend Lori said, "I think we may end up in there." I laughed, thinking she meant that we might go for a dip later in the day when it got hot.

Thirty minutes later, the meaning of her statement became clear: there was no safe foot path around the mountain on dry ground. The only thing left for us to do was go into the water.

Lori cheerfully volunteered to be the ZRT's "dip stick," bravely venturing forth to test the depth of the river. In full running regalia -- shoes, socks, pants, and hydration packs -- we waded out into the water. With cell phones held up above our heads, we found ourselves chest-high in the chilly river currents.

Three times we crossed the Russian River, always searching for the next chunk of passable land. I began to fear we'd never find our way back to the rail road tracks. I saw the freeway a few miles in the distance, so I figured if things got out of hand, we could always make our way to the highway and hitchhike. Hey, who wouldn't want to pick up three sweaty, sopping wet women in running clothes?

Luckily, it was Lori who finally spotted the elusive rail road tracks "over there!" Over there turned out to be on the other side of a canyon. We waded back into the Russian River one final time and crossed to the far side. From there, we scrambled on all fours up a steep, slippery slope choked with poison oak.

And there at last is was: the busted, long-forgotten rail road track. I swear the clouds opened up and heavenly light shone down on the rotted tracks. There may have even been a moment of celestial music in the distance.

After that, we were off and away -- three runners jogging down the tracks. We ran through fox tails and thistles, which sliced our skin and pierced our clothing. There were frequent stops to "de-sticker" our shoes and socks, which took the brunt of the "sticker attack." Dozens of fox tails wormed their way through my pants and left abrasions on my skin.

At one point, a wild mama pig and her babies raced across the tracks in front of us. Wary of wild pigs, known to be eerily smart and overly protective of their young, we armed ourselves with rocks. We gave wide berth to the animals, who kindly let us pass unmolested.

We passed through three more tunnels, all of them quiet and dark, the entrances decorated with beautiful graffiti art. I learned that running in a black tunnel is very different from running outside in the dark morning. There is no ambient light in a tunnel to aid a runner. All we had were our puny headlamps, which were nearly swallowed whole in the darkness. This was technical trail running -- or perhaps rail running? -- at it's finest. I loved every minute of it.

Finally, we stumbled upon the ideal zombie weapon: rail road spikes. Many of them had come loose over the years and lay discarded on the tracks. Others easily came loose with a gentle tug. My characters, it seemed, would be well armed in their zombie apocalypse.

As a writer, I could not have asked for a more textured setting. I can't wait to weave the details of this adventure into the lives of my characters. I have no doubt it will breath unique life in my novel.