Monday, July 11, 2011

Sharing the Path

The sunlight began to seep over Henry Hill. The cannons, long since dormant, stood watch across the ridge. Rohan and I pulled off our warmups and stripped down to our “summer running weather” attire: split shorts. A few other runners eyed us while we went through our routine. A pack of hikers tightened water bottle tops and extended their hiking polls. I snickered to myself.

“What’s the plan?” Rohan asked, while we stretched on the back of his car.
“Two loops and change to give us about 11 miles.”

He nodded, swinging his leg back and forth.

“Just remember: what the trail takes away, it eventually gives back.”

His head tilted toward me with a curious smile.

I’ve been running Manassas Battlefield for close to four years and it continues to be number one on my running trail list, not only for the scenery and the history, but also for the challenge.

It is indeed a trail for all seasons, both beautiful and brutal. From the yellow leaves that set the hillside on fire in the autumn, and the eerily resplendent snap of the air in the winter, to the muddy springs that leave splatters of mud up the side of your legs and back, and the balmy summers when the trail comes alive and sings to you.

No matter the carnage, I always return to the car with that sweet feeling of empty exhaustion that lets me know I’m stronger for having made (and completed) the effort.

So it was with particular relish that I got to share this path with Rohan for the first time. We clicked our watches and started down the path of the First Manassas Trail. The air still retained some of the evening’s crispness and I felt the goosebumps rise on my torso.

“I haven’t felt this kind of cool on a run since I can’t remember when,” I said while we trotted down the soft path.
“This could be one of those special days.”

We carved our way through the woods, spooking deer and avoiding stray turtles. We passed the early miles by catching up on life, including how we’ve been handling our 400 mile challenge. Before I knew it, we were half way through the first loop.

The trail rises sharp and steep from Stone Bridge. The conversation ceased here, replaced instead by our ragged breathing. We earned a brief meandering reprieve to let our heart rates settle back down before the trail dumped us back into the woods for a rolling ascent toward the open battlefield.

One of my favorite things about having a running partner is the obligation. During our one mile rise and fall and rise again, I felt the heat drag on me all at once. I sucked down some water and plugged on, wondering how I would tell my friend that I needed to walk or that he should go on without me. I let him pull me along unknowingly, wanting to at least get to the end of the first loop so he’d know his way before I turned him loose on his own.

We emerged from the woods and the battlefield sprawled and swelled before us. The sun crept above the tree line and steamed the early cool air so that the perspiration clung heavy to us. The Visitors Center loomed high atop the opposite end, the final mile of our trail. We shot down the declivity.  Each time I arrive here, I want to spread my arms wide as if to take in the entirety of it all.  "This is why we run!" Rohan shouted as the pace dropped.  Our sweat-soaked shorts swished faster with each footfall.

The last climb is a steep, punishing hill that minces your stride, forcing you to pluck away at the grass path. We picked our way to the top where a lone tree stands guard over the crest. Our stride returned to normal…and so did my head.

I took one more sip of water and found my rhythm.

We passed the second loop mostly in silence with the exception of our shoes crunching the trail and the demons we tried to quiet in our heads.

“You like it?” I asked as we stretched out under the shade.
“Oh, yeah. I might hurt tomorrow.”

When the sweat had mostly dried, we pulled our dry clothes back on and drove back toward home to fill that satisfying emptiness with a big breakfast.

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