Monday, June 25, 2012

A Glimpse

“Don’t get happy,” the host of a podcast I listen to said recently. “Because when you get happy you get lazy and let your guard down.”  I’d liken it to a certain favorite scene of mine from the movie Pulp Fiction (skip to 1:10 for the quote).

While I glided along the trails of Burke Lake early last week, I repeated this mantra in my head over and over. There’s nothing particularly taxing about the Burke Lake path. It has hills, but not long and gradual or short and steep. Nor is it a particularly technical trail.

But for some reason, somewhere in those woods, something always saps my energy and I struggle to finish that 4.6 mile loop.

I can’t tell you why I keep going back. Perhaps it’s the challenge to make things right, to finally have a good run there. Or perhaps it’s because we runners are good at forgetting. Why else would you continue signing up for marathons to continue reliving those painful miles and the hobbling that comes after?

Last week, I went back because route fatigue started to seep in and I couldn’t take the thought of covering my nine mile loop again. And again. And again. Plus, a little pull on my IT band told me it might be time to trade the pavement for some forgiving trails.

So, I laced up on Monday after work and set out to not only tackle one lap…but two.

After a perfect spring weekend, the weather began to turn on Monday toward the Virginia June we know all too well here: hot, humid, steamy. A blanket of gray clouds pulled over the sky and trapped the warmish air that clung to my skin.

I started slow, telling myself it was all about getting the miles in, and time on my feet, and all those other good things to say when no speed work is involved.

The trails ringing Burke Lake are beautiful but deceiving. Gaps in the woods reveal the placid, tranquil waters...if you feel good enough to enjoy them. But just when you think you’ve nearly circled the lake, the trail winds you deeper into the woods or around another smaller cove you somehow missed or hoped wasn't there. I had spent the day mentally preparing myself for this and trucked on.

At about two miles, I remarked just how good I felt, which spurred the “Don’t get happy” mantra.

At 3.5 miles, I looked at the mile post in disbelief. “I’m here already?!” And proceeded to cover the last mile with a quicker stride. Had I stopped there, I could have chalked it up as, without a doubt, THE BEST BURKE LAKE RUN EVER! But I had another loop to cover. I turned around at the parking lot's stop sign to cover the trail in reverse.

I repeated the same things to myself. But I felt a zip in my legs that called back to those glorious late-September/October runs leading up to last year’s New York City Marathon. Those runs where I had remarkable control over my pace, when I could speed up or slow down on a whim and not think twice about it.

I stole glimpses of the lake stretching out and away from the trail, remembering the way the trees appear to be on fire in the fall. I straightened up and accelerated by other runners, tossing a wave as I zoomed by. “Looking good!” I heard over the music piped in through my headphones. I kicked it down again and shot the diagonals on the turns. When I had enough, I pulled back, “Don’t get happy.”

But with a mile to go, when it became clear that this was indeed one of “those” runs, I dropped the pace below tempo and powered up and over the final hills. When I came to the stop sign at the parking lot, I shut things down and took a long pull on my water, forgetting that I had even had it with me for most of the run.

I walked back to the car, the humidity catching up and settling onto my exposed skin. I could feel the sweat dripping off the back of my cap onto my calves.

I finished the day off with some strides and drills, letting those fall memories drift back in, letting myself enjoy a glimpse of what could be again…but knowing that there are still many months to go. This is no time to get happy, after all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sweating the Details

Do the opposite of this sign.

The sweat dripped off the brim of my backwards turned hat. I rummaged through the back of my car looking for the towel I knew I had removed over the weekend but hoped by some slight chance I misremembered. I had not.

For a moment, I pondered pulling on my dry shirt and just hopping into the car and driving home. But I heard, Katie Mackey’s voice in my head: Do the little things.

I exhaled -- the 9.5 miles still clinging to me -- and tried to find a comfortable way to lower myself onto the warm, gravelly pavement and go through my series of post-run drills.

I just learned about Mackey last week. She is one of three athletes who run for the Mammoth Track Club and make up the “Brooks Beast” video series on FloTrack. The series chronicles their buildup to this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials. Mackey talked about being in college and seeing Jenny Simpson following a race Simpson just won. Simpson trotted off after the victory, not to celebrate, but to do her cool down and drills. When asked for advice for an up and coming runner, Simpson told her, “Do the little things.” That includes incorporating stretches, strides, and drills after every run…even a victory.

For the last year or so, I’ve incorporated (and blogged about) these little things and had no idea the cumulative effect of these 5-10 minute post-run sessions. That is until others started to notice. My wife, for example, kindly gave me a massage the other night and she grabbed my hip and said, “What’s this?” referring to the knot of muscle.

“That’s my hip flexor, I guess,” I said.
 “I don’t have that, how’d you get it?”

I thought for a moment and realized that it had to be the clams, fire hydrants, and single leg lifts (or Jane Fondas as Greg McMillan calls them) that had accumulated on those tired legs after so many months and perhaps even years.

RunDanRun recently posted on my Facebook wall a fantastic article from this month’s "Running Times" called The Kenyan Summer. While it’s geared for high school runners base-building for the fall’s x-country season, many (if not all) of its principles apply to runners headed to base camp for fall marathons. What’s prevalent in the article is adding drills and strides to the conclusion of your workouts. I have to admit, the adrenaline pumped after reading this article and I proceeded to text back and forth with Dan for the rest of the afternoon about workouts and goals for the summer and beyond.

Five minutes after gritting through those exercises on the pavement, I stood up and laughed at the shadows of sweat that had soaked into the road. I pulled on my dry shirt and climbed into the car, knowing when I laced up again, I’d be stronger than the day before. And reminded to remember a towel next time. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Waiting for Night

In the last lingering moments of daylight on Saturday, my dad and I reclined our heads to the back of our camp chairs and stared up at the still light sky. The brightest stars had finally begun to poke through and the mountain seemed at last ready to slip into darkness. The time neared 10:00, and my dad said what we both thought, “I can’t believe it’s still light out this late.”

I struggled to hold my eyes open, but willed myself to stay awake at least until the light completely disappeared. My dog Mattie didn’t share the same enthusiasm and had already curled up in a tight ball next to the campfire.

The last time my dad and I sat around a campfire together, he was just a few years older than I currently am, I was in elementary school, and Ronald Reagan was president.

With Mrs. Onthebusrunning gone at a music festival for the weekend, my dad and I took the opportunity to pack up the car and head toward the mountains that you can see lining the horizon on clear days.

We awoke early on Saturday morning and drove the two-and-a-half hours to the southern section of the Shenandoah. Under that cloudless sky, we traced the bends and curves of Skyline drive before finally arriving at Loft Mountain.

After a 48.5 mile week on the roads, I happily traded my running shoes for hiking boots. We laced up and picked up the Appalachian Trail, which spawned the conversation topic of “through hiking” the entire AT. My wife and I often fantasize about taking six months of our lives to follow the white blazes that lead hikers from the Smoky Mountains in Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine.

About a mile into the trail, we turned off the AT and onto the Jones River Trail that marked our descent into the valley and put us on a path toward several waterfalls. It was here that it happened. That feeling of totally letting go of the everyday grind, when the quiet and solitude of the woods overtakes you and the rigors of your working life melt away. It’s here that plans to take on new adventures are born, adventures like hiking the AT for six months or climbing Kilimanjaro. It was also here that we received our first warning. A woman passed by us and cautioned, “Just so you know, there’s a bear up ahead.”

We looked at one another with raised eyebrows and anticipation. After ten minutes down the trail, we saw no bear.

The trail carried us down to the streambed and it also carried our conversation. We traded camping stories from my youth and his, and tried to piece together those memories from cub scout camping trips long gone, and his adventures hunting with my grandfather and sleeping on a beach with running buddies.

By the time we reached the AT once again, four hours and 6.5 miles had gone by. The sun blazed in earnest now and our backs soaked our shirts and backpacks as we covered the last two miles back to the car. We followed the ribbon of trail and received our second bear warning, though this one didn’t pan out either.

When we arrived back at the campsite, we remarked at how fast the hike had gone. There was nothing left to do but kick back at our site with a few beers. We never did see that bear, but we did continue to reminisce, and finally, the last trace of blue in the sky disappeared and left us with a dazzling display of stars.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Northface Endurance Challenge 13.1 Redux

I hadn’t put it together yet. Not after Friday’s tornado warnings, nor even the torrential downpour that nearly forced me to pull onto the shoulder of the road. And I can only describe Saturday’s weather as a bonus day: cloudless skies, low humidity, and temps in the low 70s. I connected the dots once I stepped off the bus at Algonkian Park for the North Face Endurance Challenge Half Marathon and my shoes squished into the soft ground.

You see, those 36 hours of gorgeous weather weren’t enough to dry up the Potomac Heritage Trail. And so, we leaped, skidded, and ran 13.1 miles through the mud.

I met up with my running partner Rohan before the race. While we stretched at chatted, he said, “This isn’t about winning, it’s about survival today.”

We assembled in the starting area, got a warm welcome from ultra man Dean Karnazes, and set off. Less than 200 meters into the race, we splashed through a long, thin puddle of muddy water. I could feel the muck kicking up onto the back of my hamstrings and the mud seeping in to the small hole at the top of my shoes. That set the tone.

We had about a mile of dry land from there to tamp the water from our shoes. A pack of six surged to the front, quickly separating ourselves from the pack. The 6:15 pace elicited no more than a whisper from our mouths. “Twelve more of those,” I said to Rohan, as everyone’s watches beeped one mile. I hoped the pace would feel that easy the entire way. Our group rode the golf cart path until it made a hard left onto a gravel trail, which would ultimately turn to single track.

We filed in behind one another and got our first true taste of what the course would be like.  A smooth path of soft trail wide enough for one wound through the woods like a ribbon. On either side of it lay thick piles of mud with sodden footprints from yesterday’s races. It made it near impossible to pass so we tucked in for the long haul. I gave the runner in front of me a little extra room so I could find the trail. Instead of watching up ahead, I had to lock in on his shoes and hope I could react fast enough to any puddles, rocks, or roots.

The pack sloshed through stream crossings and we made both good and bad decisions on course directions depending on the man in front of us. I fought to keep my footing while skating through slick patches of mud. The pace had begun to get to me and I tried to relax and find a smooth stride but the terrain made it difficult. We ducked under limbs and hurdled fallen trees that sent my heart rate up…

… but not like the climb at mile 4. I knew it was coming. I’d seen the course profile and still remembered it after tackling this course two years ago. The path suddenly pitches up and continues to climb. I went up on my toes and picked away at it all the while my heart burst from my chest. Chuffing to the top, I shot down the backside and hoped not to catch my foot. The second hill, we began hiking up but this is where the pack separated. Rohan bolted with two other guys. I hung back unable to hold the pace in the muck and tucked in with the fourth place runner.

I hung on him to the turnaround point. A funny thing happened around mile 5. We started chatting as though we were two runners strolling through the woods on a training run. We talked about the course, about training, about hiking. The plunge into the stream pulled us from the conversation, immediately followed by the high grass that raked our shins and thighs.

Rohan flew by coming the other direction with another runner hanging with him. We hit the turn around, a man sitting in a chair with a highlighter to mark our bib, and turned to cover the distance again.

The most challenging part of this race in my mind is the return. The out and back course sends the “back” runners into the “out” runners, creating two-way traffic on a one way trail.

Calls of, “Runner up!” went out…but sometimes it didn’t. So we brushed shoulders and elbows with the out runners. Sometimes that neat ribbon of trail wasn’t available and I took to the soft shoulders nearly turning my ankle or taking a tumble. I lost my buddy and watched two other runners catch up and eventually pass me. It left me in a familiar trail running position: alone.

Once the last of the out runners went by, I settled in to a smoother stride. I clawed my way back up the four mile marker hills and felt the energy leaving me. I retraced the last of the single track and took a quick glance over my shoulder to see four runners in pursuit. I made a decision here to dig in. If I could just make it to the gravel and golf cart path, I could tap into those road running roots.

And that’s exactly what happened. I found my stride again and watched the pace on my watch fall steadily to 7:00, to 6:45, and eventually finishing hard at 5:53. I kept my assailants at bay and came through, hands on my head and mud up both my legs.

Rohan found me and gave me a pat on the back. “Did you do it?” I asked him. He held up one finger. “Ha! Where’d you drop him?”
“With one mile to go.”

We found a bench and peeled the soggy shoes from our feet and drank in the sunshine and chatting with the other runners while we waited for our other friends to finish.

Something about a race in the woods that leaves you empty of energy yet full of life.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Run in the Woods

The trail up the mountain.
Last week, I lay in bed, or rather tossed and turned in bed. I tried to quiet my head and convince myself that I didn’t really have to get up and go to the bathroom again, but to no avail. I’d made the mistake of watching a documentary called “The Real Maine” just before committing (or trying) to sleep for the night. The 41 minute movie chronicles the summer of four collegiate and post-collegiate runners who decide to move up to a cabin in Maine for the summer and live and train Quentin Cassidy-style in a small cottage in the mountains.

I. Could. Not. Sleep. I wanted to chuck it all, call up some running buddies and steal away in the night to go train for the summer. And with Marine Corps base building then just a little more than a week away, it’s all I could think about.

I then compounded this fantasy over Memorial Day weekend when Mrs. Onthebusrunning and I headed up to the New Hampshire ski-town of Waterville Valley. This charming hamlet sits at the basin of a string of rolling, green mountains. When we arrived, a river of fog flowed up and over each of the peaks, increasing the hobbit, "shire" feeling of New Hampshire’s name.

But the next morning, not a cloud lingered in the sky. I laced up and met my cousin-in-law at the bike rental shop and we set off to go explore: me, turning my head from side-to-side to take in the scenery, and he pedaling along beside me.

The T Crossing
After an initial mile of road running, we spotted the “WVAIA Hiking Trails” sign, hooked a right and set off into the woods. The beauty of being in a ski town, I quickly found out, is that several of the trails double as snow shoe or cross country skiing trails in the winter, so they are well-groomed throughout the year, i.e. some peace of mind in the ankle sprain department.

A stream burbled over rocks to our right, clear enough to want to drink out of and potentially cold enough to wade into for an ice bath. The path rarely ran flat and we climbed and descended sharply.

We made it roughly 2K before coming to a T and a map laying out the trail network around us complete with distances and checkpoints along the way.  We devised a plan and a meet up point then went our separate ways.

I began a steady two mile climb up the mountain dodging bikers screaming down in the opposite direction. Though the route up was relentless, I kept a smile on my face the whole time, relishing the packed dirt trails and the charming river crossings.

The view from the road
When I reached the top, I ducked under the “trail closed” sign on the Cascade Trail and picked my way over the “intermediate” hiking trail that sent me splashing through puddles, skidding through mud, and rock hopping across trickling creeks.

I checked my progress at each sign post and emerged faster than I would have liked onto a paved road that twisted and turned back down the mountain and offered spectacular views of the White Mountains off in the distance.

We met up again at the bottom of the chair lift, each of us soaked and exhausted but wearing grins. We hit the main road and looped back around to our respective hotel rooms. I walked through the door fresh off the glimpse of what “The Real Maine” was like.

“How’d it go?” my wife asked.
“I could move here.” I said. 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...