Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Conquering the Mountain

Old Rag looming above.
“There it is,” Ebo said. We craned our heads from behind the windshield to bring Old Rag’s craggy summit into full view. “Crazy to think we’re going to be up there soon.”

“Twice,” I added. He sniffed. “Yeah.”

There are few runs that have made me nervous in the past, but for some reason, running Old Rag left me a little squirrelly. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the most strenuous and difficult hikes in the Shenandoah. To reach the summit and escape down the fire road leaves one with a great sense of accomplishment for the day. The feeling that you really earned that bacon double cheeseburger and chocolate shake from the roadside shack. Your quads certainly won’t let you forget it tomorrow (and the next day). But to do it twice in one day? It sounded like suicide.

So, it was with a cooler packed with coconut water, chocolate milk, and some trepidation that my friend Ebo and his parcour friend Aaron and I set off on the half mile walk to the Old Rag trailhead. We made final preparations, a tightening of the backpack strap here, a retying of the laces there, one last trip to the porta-potty. We groaned about our fitness level, laying out the excuses should we not perform up to snuff.

My watch beeped, and we set off into the woods.

A gray blanket of clouds had pulled over the mountain and trapped the humidity under the canopy of trees. We started sweating immediately. Aaron set a brisk pace on the trail that begins to climb with each step. In the beginning, it’s all good moods and jokes. We pontificated on the merits of chipotle burritos, the limits of the body, and other noble pursuits like handstands (you get into these things with parcour enthusiasts). As the mountain began to rise under us, the conversation kept the pace light and brisk while we began picking off other hikers. Ebo was the first to utter aloud the challenge we were all thinking: wouldn’t it be great if we could pass these people on our second loop before they’d even finished their first?

The conversation quickly died and the work began.

The trail begins alternating switchbacks for the first two miles. From mile 2-3, it’s a combination of scrambling over boulders and ducking and pulling oneself under, over and through narrow passages. You might call it the natural environment of the parcour-man. I watched as my nimble friends crawled, bounced, and jumped from rock to rock with ease. I did my best to stay with them and not twist an ankle or go careening off the side of the mountain. Aaron plowed ahead and was waiting for Ebo and I at the summit.

My chest rose and fell softly. I hadn’t caught my breath since we’d started. We took a moment to take in the gentle swells of mountains around us before tapping the summit sign that read: Old Rag Parking Lot – 4.5 mi.
On top looking down for the finish.

The plan: run down the trail, connect with the fire road and finish our first loop at a gallop. Following Aaron we plunged into the trail hopping roots, dodging rocks, and essentially doing everything in our power not to fall or pull a hamstring. We picked our way through the trail like this for 1.5mi until hitting the fire road. I cinched my backpack tighter, took one last sip for courage and felt the fluidity in my stride return. The trail widened, the terrain turned to packed gravel, and I relished being in the runner’s natural environment. I stole a quick look at my watch and saw the pace tick down 7:30, 7:00, 6:45 as the trail dipped farther and father downhill. I made notes of landmarks to remember for the way back, the sound of the creek, a campsite, a metal bridge. It all went by in a blur and I wished like hell I’d done this kind of downhill training in preparation for Boston.

When I reached the trailhead, soaking wet in the afternoon humidity, I tossed up a little fist pump and waited for my friends to return.

We took a moment to collect ourselves. We conquered loop one in 1hr54mins. The goal now clearly to finish in under four hours emerged.

Aaron took off ahead of Ebo and me. We didn’t want to hold the speedy hiker back. We passed the time mostly in silence, only the sound of our shoes scraping the trail. A deer spooked as we trudged by it eliciting only a minor reaction from either of us as the fatigue set in. We caught a group of chatty hikers beginning the scramble. Ebo managed to slip in that this was our second lap of the mountain, which left them in chatty disbelief.

At the summit, the effect had worn off. There was little fanfare since we’d been here already...and couldn't wait to get back down. Neither of us even stepped through the clearing to see the view.

We descended together praying for the fork in the fire road to hurry up and get there. My quads cried for relief and quivered whenever I stopped to dodge debris. Finally, with 2.5mi to go, I broke away from Ebo and let my stride open up. This time, the watch read: 6:30, 6:00, 5:45, 5:30. A smile cracked my face and I flew through the trail checking off my landmarks. I caught Aaron with about a quarter mile to go. “Eight minutes to 4 hours!” I yelled by him. His pace quickened.

I flew through a pack of hikers noting that I’d seen them on lap 1. It struck me that we had created some odd race that only the three of us had entered. 

I crossed the line and tossed my backpack aside. I could have wrung it out. Aaron crossed next followed by Ebo, all under the four hour mark. We kept moving to keep our legs from stiffening, though each man sported some sort of limp or hitch in their step on the walk back to the car.

The enthusiasm that left us in the middle had now found us once again at the end. We talked of our bad-assery, Ebo finding Beast Mode, and “no-shirt-o’clock.”

The mountain now only appeared in my rearview mirror. It wasn’t the mountain, though, that brought the silence back, it was the pile of French fries that had buried our chicken sandwiches.

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