The Call of the Trail

I am missing the trails somewhat, since I have been doing some of my runs as commutes, either to work or to run major errands twice a week.  Although I can run on grass for many of those miles, the routes I have traveled have not been in the woods, have been right next to the noisy roads, and are largely devoid of wildlife.  Each time that I look forward to my next trail run, however, I remember an experience I had a few weeks ago while doing a fast pace on a flat section of dirt trail.  It has me looking forward to the next amazing encounter with whatever nature sends my way.

A few weeks ago I was running a flat section of trail next to a creek when a Red-tailed Hawk came my way.  So what?  This hawk was using the trail.  It was flying directly toward me down a straight, one hundred meter long stretch of limbless flight path. Approximately fifteen feet from me the hawk veered sharply away, shot through a mass of limbs and tree trunks, then landed about ten feet off the bank of the creek twenty feet from the trail.  In hindsight it reminds me of those incredible photographs of owls in flight, either head-on or from the side, looking like a mask, a bullet, or an aircraft wing.  I only wish I had looked up sooner so that I could have taken it all in.  I would have loved seeing where the hawk began its flight.  What a view of such a magnificent bird–head on, like you would see when a falconer has you standing next to him/her as the raptor swoops in to land!

Now when I head to the trails I keep hoping for a similar experience.  I figure that the only birds I’ll see head-on like that will be small, non-raptors, or maybe a Cooper’s Hawk, but you never know.  Maybe the deer will prance around me again soon, like they have before, a new generation curious about the strange human who bounds through the grass and says “hey deer” in quiet, soothing tones when they stop and stare.  Trails are calling.

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Runs With Medoc

Some races are just plain fun. I had a road trip to Medoc Trail Races last weekend, where the trails are excellent, the race directors have a great sense of humor, and a legend roams the woods. I’m not sure what makes a particular race better than others, but I’m pretty sure the trails have a lot to do with it. That, and the fact that it was a road trip. And the fact that everybody seems to have a great time. Then there’s the camping.

I got away from work for the weekend on what, originally, was to be a week long vacation in which I could visit relatives and relax–not necessarily at the same time. I could not manage the extra time off, so I kept my racing commitment. It might seem odd that I would like a short weekend with a long road trip, but it was nice to get away from everything at home and to have no way of going to work even if I wanted to. Since I didn’t want to work, I drove, listened to music, thought about changes I’d like to make, and thought about the race.

Medoc (mee-doc) Mountain State Park always has awesome weather! Okay, small sample and all that, but for five years straight the weather for the races has been superb. I arrived just before sunset, having driven for ten hours or so. I was just a little too late for the pasta dinner at the park shelter, but I was prepared, since I knew I would be cutting it close. I ate some of my food, pitched my tent, caught a glimpse of the starry night, then joined the ever-growing circle of Medocers around the fire at one of the group campsites. Someone was playing guitar a few meters from the circle of people, providing nice background music for our conversations. The only thing missing was the marshmallows. Next year!

My morning race preparations went pretty well, although I could have used another fifteen minutes warmup, which I found out a half mile into the race. Additionally, my achilles tendon did not loosen up for another mile (I had been having slight trouble with it lately), but my pace was just right through mile two. Before I entered the woods at about a mile and a quarter, I re-passed some other runners so that I would not be slowed on the downhill and slight descent toward mile two. That would keep me on pace for a sub-seventy-two for the 10-miler, depending on how I handled the uphills leading to mile three and at the start of mile four. Maybe it was the hills, maybe it was the ten hours on my rump in the car the day before, maybe it was the cold I was keeping at bay that I have now, but I did not maintain my pace for the race. I came close, but I ran too comfortably up the hills in the last two miles to make up for lost time. By comfortably, I mean that I did not push myself enough. I ran slower in the last three miles than I did for the first seven. I should have been in agony in the last half mile, but I was mostly just hungry for the red beans and rice that awaited me once I finished the race!

As for the trails, I wish I could run them every day. Most of them are double-wide single track, if that makes sense. Half the mileage is relatively flat, and a bunch of it is pretty dang hilly. One of these days I’ll love steep climbs again, but for now I thrive on downhills and technical terrain. Medoc is mixed with regard to its technical difficulty. Some of the course is rocky and there are lots of exposed roots. There are short, steep climbs and descents, but much of the course is fairly benign, with soft dirt, then soft turf to finish the race. To me, it’s just the right mix of terrain for an awesome, fun run in the woods. I hope to be back next year, fitter than ever. I’ll be racing for the food at the finish.

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Harvest Time

Race days beat work days any day.  I ran a five mile trail race the other day–same race as last year, a trail/gravel road/grass race at Shaker Village near Harrodsburg, Kentucky (see my post “Medoc or Bust:  Ramblings of a Would Be Trail Runner”).  This time I had some bubbly guts that had persisted for a few days, but my pre-race ‘procedures’ went well, even though the warmup was a little rushed.  I’m more fit than I was last year.  I did not taper for the race.  In fact, I had run twice on Thursday evening for a total of about thirteen and a half miles, which is a lot of miles for me.  On Friday I walked about six and a half miles, which is also a lot, so I was concerned that I would feel dull for the race.  I did not quite run the pace that I expected to run, but it was fun.

One of the fun things about the race was the fact that another runner and I were battling the whole time, each taking the lead, always just ahead or behind the other.  I lost track of my actual pace that way, but since I was on pace in the first two miles, I focused on racing him, another masters guy, and keeping my eye on one more person I knew was in my age group (I’ll call him…Rick).  I wanted to win one of those coffee mugs, so I did not want to take any chances that the fifty somethings would slip away from me.

The whole race, I made sure I stayed close enough to pass Rick while I figured out if this other guy was going to finally pass me and pull away, or if I would pull away from him. Early on, I had zoomed past a slew of runners on a downhill, then he had pulled up beside me and passed on an uphill.  That sort of ebb and flow continued for a time, but I was in front on a flat section of gravel leading to a small rise and 300 meter incline just before a steep 200 meter climb.  I think he expected to pass me there, but I did not let him.  On the next downhill I pulled away just a bit, but after a flat section he started making another move heading into a mildly rocky trail climb.  I kept the pace up enough to stay ahead, and decided that I would be able to beat him in the race.

I began to focus more on Rick, and on closing the gap between us, which was probably 100 meters.  I knew that if I started incrementally increasing pace I could catch up to him, keep the pressure on my unknown challenger, and be in a good position for the 0.7 mile hill climb at mile four.  By the time I got to mile four I was right behind Rick at a water station, where he partook and I passed.  My challenger guy passed him, too, right on my heels expecting to pass me on the big long uphill.  Approximately one third of the way up, challenger guy made his move.  Almost.  Just as he shifted to the right to pass I sped up ever so slightly.  So there he was on the outside of a slight bend, one meter behind me, wondering if he wanted to speed up even more.  He did not.  He faded a few meters and fell in line behind me, waiting for me to falter or himself to catch his breath.  Neither thing happened.

Ahead of me were some younger masters guys who had been pretty far ahead earlier in the race.  I tried to reel them in, but with a couple of hundred meters to go I was still thirty meters back, and we were all increasing pace after the big climb.  I got closer but they both sprinted against each other, and I was too far back to make up the deficit.  Regarding the challenger guy, he was somewhere behind me, but I could not hear him, and Rick had faded farther.

Last year’s Harvest Five Mile race was run at the same pace I ran Medoc Ten Miler three weeks later.  I hope that I can do the same this year at Medoc, which would be quite an improvement.  I expect to have some real competition at the masters level, so challenger guy, et al., have helped me prepare for a fun race in the woods.

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That Other Fall*

I tend to start feeling better every year after my birthday, despite the reminder of my journey back to dust. The changes in the weather are not the only factors, since I was born in August and it is often blazing hot past September. Many things about Fall are among the best things in life, and high on my list might surprise most people…more leaves on the forest floor. Of course, that includes leaves on the dirt trails. It’s as if the trails are being replenished with mulch, replacing lost dirt and covering small rocks.

Okay, so the leaves might not stay for long on the trails themselves, but one of the essential features of a forest is a leaf littered floor, so a leaf littered trail and trail fringe makes me feel more like I’m running through the woods than if the trail is well defined. Running through woods without trails is either against the rules or dangerous, damages the undergrowth, or makes people wonder what I’m running from. Deer seem to think something is chasing me. I’m resigned to staying on the trails, mostly, but I like the sound of leaves underfoot: crunchy when dry, sloppy when wet. I enjoy the added challenge of being less sure of my footing and foot strike. I like the extra cushioning. I like the infusion of colors onto the path in front of me. Give me tree roots, fallen limbs, rocks, and dirt, then scatter leaves over all. I’ll be lost in another world, renewed as if in another time.

*Reference to Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird”

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Tired of Anything But the Woods

I am starting to realize just how physically taxing my work can be, how it might take several days to recover from work days in order to run well.  I do home improvements, and with rare exceptions, I do the work myself.  I do all trades, frame to finish, so sometimes I spend much of my work days kneeling, stooping, squatting, and transitioning from those positions to standing.  Other times, I am climbing or standing on ladder rungs, crawling in an attic or crawlspace, or lifting and carrying things.  Although that sort of work can be physically demanding, it is not the sort of physical activity that makes one fit for running.

Most of the races for which I plan ahead are races that I intend to taper for.  For my most recent race, I had intended to have at least two days off work prior to the race.  That did not happen.  Even though the work I did on Thursday before the Saturday race was not grueling, I spent a lot of time kneeling and rising from a kneeling position.  Prior to Thursday I had trouble doing several workouts because I was tired from work.  I guess I need to quit complaining since I enjoy the runs.  I could manage my work better so that I can do certain workouts and races well rested.  Or I could go back to tutoring or some other job/career change.  Hmmm, that sounds good.  I’m getting tired of my clients anyway.  Tired of work, tired from work, tired of clients.  I draw my energy from good food and being in the woods.  Maybe I should add a career change to my plans.

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A Certain Relief

With racing, there tends to be a certain relief in having finished, having gotten past any anxiety about running and wondering who else will be in the race.  I knew that I would not be ready to run well with such a short training period in which I had not started long, steep hill training.  I’m referring to the Continental Divide Trail Race, which doubles as the USATF 10k Trail National Championship, including age groups.  On May 7, when I began regular running, I had sketched out a compressed periodization schedule in which I would start significant hill training only a few weeks before the August 25 race.  Because of logistical and physical reasons, I did not do those hill workouts…and I paid the price.

If I were a person easily embarrassed, I would be embarrassed.  I could say that I was fourth in the nation in my age group, but that fact is less consolation than the consolation prize for fourth place (there isn’t one).  Most people in my age group were at home on the couch or out tearing up some workout or other race.  Funny thing is that all my competition performed about as I expected, but I did nothing of the sort, even though I knew those steep climbs would kill me.  I can remember thinking that if I didn’t think I could run under 53 minutes, I would not make the trip.  Surprise…I ran over 62 minutes–yep, embarrassing.

On the bright side, most of that course is awesome!  The course starts on top of a knob-like ridge that seems like it could only be accessed by Jack’s beanstalk.  I’m pretty sure I walked up the beanstalk…twice.  But I was supposed to run up those hills.  Hence, the crappy race.  Gotta train on steep hills; gotta eat well during the six hour drive down there; gotta follow your race strategy.  Don’t get passed by a train of strong climbers right before a big downhill and more than a mile of single track.  Don’t give up on running steep ascents.  Have some fortitude.  I could go on.

There is a certain level of fitness that allows a person to run the whole course, assuming the person has trained on steep hills somewhat, and that allows a person to recover while running a decent pace.  I believe that level is something like 40, maybe 39 minutes for a 10k on easy roads or a track.  My time trial a few weeks ago was 44 minutes on moderate to easy trails.  Anyway, if you walk a mile of a 10k, your finish time will show it.  And I had thought that running a bit slower on easier sections would allow me to run better up the hills, but I ran slower on easier sections because the hills took the air out of my lungs and injected my muscles with lactic acid!

Back to the bright side, I ran the single track trails on the side of the mountain extremely well.  I was in my element, recalling my younger years on trails in the Red River Gorge and elsewhere.  Except for being stuck behind slower runners (who beat me in the race) during the second huge descent and undulating terrain leading to the beanstalk climb before mile three, I had a blast.  My downhills were excellent, and I was able to recover while running solid paces.  Mile number five descent and undulating single track were amazing, because I was all alone.  I could neither see nor hear any other runners until I caught a couple of them at the last huge climb.  I even hustled up the “Rock Climb”, passing another runner there.

So, there might be hope for me yet, a sprint-oriented ultimate (disc) player who loves running in the woods, ready to give the trail 10k another shot next year.  I’m hopeful that it will either be on the same course (so I can redeem myself), or at Beech Mountain, where maybe more of the course will be single track.  I enjoyed the grassy, cross country style portions of the course, too, but there is nothing like running in the forest on the side of a mountain.

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Runs With Deer

The other day I ran with a deer, again.  This particular deer had been spooked by something and preferred to run the same trail I was traveling.  She might have been spooked by me as I was winding my way through a circuitous trail.  At first I thought I was in for a thrashing by an enraged deer whose nap was spoiled.  Here was a huge splash of reddish brown coming right at me.  My adrenaline spiked while I processed the encounter.  I realized that she was content to follow along for a bit in order to have an easy shortcut to some other place.  I continued to run.  She was catching up to me.  Perhaps she knew me by now.  After fifty meters or so she found one of her own trails and leaped over some brush to travel that route.

After that encounter I felt something that I can only describe as a Zen-like experience.  I don’t know much about Zen, but I did read the motorcycle maintenance version.  Running along, I thought about what nature means to me, and how wilderness–or some semblance thereof–has a profound effect on me that I struggle to understand and describe.

Nature has a way of calling to me, as if the woods have words and every sound asks to be understood.  I feel nature’s pull like gravity, as if wilderness itself flows downstream or breezes through me, an animated force ready to appear in whatever form I find beautiful.  Nature is the cooper’s hawk ten feet away, not startled that I passed so close, but not willing to stay put.  Wildness gives each creature strange power to remain aloof and untamed, yet all the more amazing.  Something about a flower operates behind the scene, not revealing thoughts within a different timescale.  Even the most mundane scatterings on the forest floor have their hidden community, and their secret spirit.

I’m not a spiritual person–not religious, not superstitious.  For me, there is time, energy, and infinite space, or an ultimate edge.  The power of Metaphor moves me to a sense of control of what I cannot express.  Whatever makes things work in the world we model in terms of other things.  So I find Nature in all things, in all interactions, in all thoughts.  However, I feel connected to everything else not in society, not in social settings, not in relationships.  Civilization is no cathedral, notwithstanding its places of worship.  My revery is about the music of nature, its lyrical rhythms and poignant replies.  My pew is the forest floor where a dirt path carries me through, or the stream bed where current flows.  Paddling a stream or hiking a trail connects me to wild places in ways that I cannot fully understand.  Bounding through the woods feels like freedom and connection that I crave.  It reminds me of my childhood.  It reminds me that nature will run its course.

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