…things really turned around this week.
Man, do I ever feel good. Normally, I wait until after Sunday’s long run is complete before writing a week’s training review, but Saturday’s long run was so awesome, both physically and spiritually, that I just can’t wait to express it.
The scene was Dawsonville, a very small, north Georgia town at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The route was the 8.4 mile approach trail that connects the Appalachian State Park to the southern terminus of the 2,144 mile Appalachian Trail. We would be running the trail out-and-back, for a total trail run of 17 miles.
During this phase of my Mountain Masochist 50-mile race training, it’s important that I train on the toughest hills I can find in the area. Not just “tough” by measures of steepness and distance, but “tough terrain” as well such as big, thick roots, loose rocks and single-track courses requiring concentrated footing. …and quite honestly, this is my favorite kind of running. I crave the meanest, nastiest, toughest trails I can find. I like to get my “man” on out there, and come back a little, or a lotta’, dirty and kicked around by the mountain. Nature has a way humbling a man when he feels he is strong.
A local speedster, and fellow ultrarunner, Greg, met me at the trail and we began the Appalachian trail approach in the pitch dark, led carefully by his headlamp as trail illumination. …it’s a little spooky in the mountains, in the dark and all alone.
The trail is tough. The hiking books rate it as “strenuous”, but I was sorta thinking that was just a way to let the average hiker know it wasn’t to be taken lightly and to prepare properly; but I am not scared to say that the strenuous rating is a fair rating whether a hiker, or speedy ultrarunner.
The initial 1.5 miles or so, consist of a very steep climb, with loose rocks and footing obstacles a’plenty – tough, but just what the doctor ordered.
The rest of the trail? …well, pretty much the same thing all morning. Steep climbs up, and steep descents that became quad-killers later into the run.
I know, I know, sounds tough, but, where’s the spirituality in all this?
As we ran along the approach trail, I learned a lot about Greg, and him a lot about me. I think that element of the sport is what draws a lot of athletes to ultrarunning — the camaraderie and time spent on the trails getting to know each other. Quite honestly, the trail was not as hard for him, as a seasoned and well-trained ultrarunner, as it was for me – but the fact that he let me set the pace and spent time educating me about my upcoming race, which he ran last year, was very powerful for me. It was one of those times where you recognize that someone is modifying their experience for the benefit of BOTH of your experiences, and those kind of example-lessons are important to absorb and remember …and to pass on to others.
But beyond the human connection, running difficult trails does something for my mind, heart and spirit. I never knew there were such spectacular mountain views that existed in Georgia. At times, we could see miles and miles of nothing but mountain tops, trees, and the occasional, lucky mountain home tucked away in the distant greenery.
I believe that I breath better in the mountains. I always feel like there is some sort of a presence, be it animal, spirit or whatever… It’s a sort of feeling of contentment and safety, while also spicing it up with some fear of the unknown.
It’s “an experience” and I like experiences.
After we covered the first 8.5 miles, we came to the official southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. A very famous, well known spot in the world of hiking, mountaineering and ultrarunning. This is where, if up to the challenge, one can begin the 2,144 mile trek along the AT all the way Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Many people attempt it – many quit along the way – but a very select few hang in there and cover the distance in an average of anywhere from three months to one year.
That famous, yet unusually simple spot, had a lot of energy all around it. There we stood, alone, two dirty runners, standing at about 3500 feet, clouds and moisture all around us, and that famous plaque. To think of the thousands of people that began their journey here, for whatever reason, with all their chaotic thoughts, feelings, fears, and expectations about what they were about to do, was a pretty heavy thought. You could almost hear and feel all those swirling emotions on that summit.
Then, I read a note posted on a tree, DUE THE RECENT PROBLEMS WITH BEARS, IT IS NOT ADVISED TO CAMP AT THE SOUTHERN TERMINUS.
Well, that stayed on my mind for the entire return trip, and everything I came across was surely a bear.
We never saw any bears.
The trip back was more descent than ascent and we ran those downhills at a fast clip. Since it was later in the morning at this point, we began to come across other hikers. It’s always funny to see their surprise when they see two dudes, running fast, down the mountain out of nowhere. The surprised look on theirs faces is always classic.
True to my trail running reputation, I enjoyed the opportunity to soak my aching feet and muscles in a freezing cold mountain creek. I love doing that and this time, it was necessary as I had completely run out of water and had to fill up in the creek as well. Whenever I recharge in the mountain springs and rivers, I seem to come alive. Once a water boy, always a water boy, I suppose.
We completed the run in a total time of 4 hours and 17 minutes, which was a little faster than what I was told we could expect. I felt very good about this since I have been beating myself up so much lately about being so slow.
The kicker was Greg’s question to me after the run.
He asked, “…so, what type of recovery do you do after runs like this?”
I had to laugh as I thought about my wife, looking at her watch, checking her cell phone, and tapping her foot at home.
“I don’t get that luxury”, I said. “When I get home, my wife is quick to warn me not to get too comfortable because we have Whole Foods, PetSmart, Target…”
After a second of recollection, I continued, “I guess my recovery is chores!”
We both laughed.
These are the types of training experiences that make this project, this seemingly crazy obsession, such a wonderful part of my life.