The spring passed with no more incidents, but my will to run distance on dirt trails was being slowly drained. Long runs had surely entertained, but with the trails seemingly less accessible - at least safely - I went back to the less appealing road routes.
As this shift began, I continued my forays into indoor soccer, kept on running near my office, and maintained a healthy dose of cycling (or an unhealthy dose, depending on the day). But I wasn’t racing, which bummed me out a bit. In 2010, I took inspiration from a local ultrarunner, Mike Wardian, and started pushing my daughter around in the stroller on morning runs. At 6 a.m. I’d drop her in and we’d go out for 10 miles, usually on the W&OD trail. I was in pretty good shape, but I wasn’t training for anything, wasn’t getting faster, just eating up road time.
It was 100% junk miles, which is fine if you're doing nothing with it.
I still longed for races but never pulled the trigger. There were races near my office, but I wasn’t about to head out there on a weekend to do a 10k; there were races near my home, but most of them were 5k (or thereabouts) and just didn’t fit into my schedule. I was attached to running early in the morning if possible, including with a headlamp if needed, but not so much to waiting until 9 a.m. on a summer Saturday. I often thought those races should be advertised with a slogan like “All the heat and humidity you can take, and more!” Virginia’s like that in July and August.
The one more important shift I made was riding my mountain bike more. Parking at the soccer arena meant a short ride, so I found myself getting a good workout by taking the hard way. A couple breweries opened up, and I would ride to them via unregistered roads that terminated in soon-to-be suburban-neighborhood dirt bowls. The area was expanding, but only slowly in the wake of the real estate bubble, leaving swathes of unfinished exurbs, the flattened fields now growing high weeds, many of them sporting ticks that needed to be cleaned off my shoes, socks, and legs at the office or before getting in the car.
When I did run near my office, I dashed down suburban neighborhood (paved) paths and crashed through the verges between adjacent cul de sacs, turning the stubs of clearly distinct subdivisions into a 6- or 7-mile network. Near home, I found some long running routes that enticed me to increase my speed, looping south through a local park, northeast across the highway, west along the W&OD, and back home. My clocked time on this 12-mile route (according to my phone) went from 1:30 to just under 1:20 after I did it for a whole spring; returning to it that fall, I didn’t quite hit the speeds of earlier in the year, but I was certainly able to mash through close to 14 kph.
My ultramarathon thoughts fused with the trail thoughts, and I began daydreaming about my options for 2012. I mapped out a marathon-distance loop that would use just 5 miles of roads, exploiting instead the various (mostly paved) trail systems between Falls Church and Alexandria; perhaps this would be the spring goal. I met some friends on the Appalachian Trail one early-fall day, renewing my aggressive trail running desires in spite of the heat with a dozen sweaty, dirty miles up and down unfamiliar territory. Unfortunately, the travel time to and from the trailhead was too long to justify on a regular basis. I took a trip into Arlington, picked up the the C&O Canal Trail, and hooked back home across the Chain Bridge in a 20-mile jaunt that left me exhausted but satisfied. I invented a route circumscribing Falls Church, a poke at the idea that I could “run around” the city.
None of this was leading up to a race, just personal enjoyment at the prospect of improving my fitness. And improving my fitness it was!
In early January 2012, everything was looking good. I was in great shape, biking as often as possible in spite of the snow and ice, and enjoying the winter. We hadn’t had a lot of snow, so I was still able to get outside pretty often. Our team was pretty good that season -- as we seemed to always be -- and when I picked up my brother-in-law to go to one of our games, we had a little laugh about his recent deer strike on the way home from one of these late-night contests.
I was in the goal (as always) and playing decently. It was shortly after halftime, and I made a save and saw the opportunity to dash, emerging from the net -- as was my way -- to make a run up the pitch. A dribble skittered away to the boards, my lack of ball control evident in these mid-field touches. I headed after it, trying to outpace a chasing offensive player and send the ball up to someone more competent.
His shoulder tagged mine, normal contact for a mildly competitive league, nothing strange or violent or unexpected. I mean, except for the snap, which was both. And it was audible to everyone nearby.
My knee buckled immediately. I fell to the ground in agony. The offensive player stopped and stood over me, apologizing profusely. The referee issued a yellow card, apparently thinking I had been checked into the boards.
I sat, thinking, wondering, not knowing what had happened, what crazy internal damage this little nudge had wrought. Teammates carted me off the field, and I watched the rest of the game, hitched a ride home, and spent a week recovering even the slightest of movement. My GP checked it out, but told me to see a specialist when the swelling went away.
My wife was 8 months pregnant
I rehabbed my knee as best I could, gaining back significant mobility thanks to sheer strength of will. And strength of hamstring and calf and all the other supporting players down there. In general, my fitness was good enough to mask this kind of injury, and I was able to ride my bike in the basement for 30-45 minutes before any pain set in, at which point walking up the stairs meant holding onto the handrail, because I was guaranteed a twitchy moment or two where the knee would go all wibbly wobbly.
But my concern was ameliorated by the excitement over the pending birth of a child.
In mid-February, a local running club held an 8k at one of the many high schools in the area. The previous night, my wife and I had gone to the hospital, and just after midnight our second daughter was born. I slept in my wife’s room, and at 8 a.m. was ready to advertize the new life to the world -- which meant getting the heck out of the hospital.
I called my brother-in-law and a friend from the neighborhood and told them to meet me at the parking lot for the race, and to be sure to take our oldest daughter with them. They humored me.
The problem wasn’t so much the idea, it was the timing: the temperature had dipped into the single digits, and the wind was blowing hard. It was a crystal clear winter day, the kind that requires several layers in the sunshine and several more in the shade.
We met up, and I signed myself and my daughter - for the first time requiring the qualifier "oldest" - up for the 3k, while my friend went for the 8k. Since the courses started along the same 1.5 kilometers, he agreed to take that stretch easy and help motivate the youngun', who was, understandably, not too impressed with the prospect of freezing in a parking lot on her way to a meaningless race.
The starting gun went off, and before my friend and I could get moving, she sprinted 50 yards to the end of the building. Then she stopped, turned, and held up her arms.
“It’s too cold!” she cried.
I bundled her tighter, checked her skin was covered, and my friend and I carried her through the start of the course; at my midway point (1.5km), I tossed her on my shoulders and jogged back to the start line, my knee pain forgotten.
Pace, of course, had never been the primary concern, and in the final 100 meters we were caught by the frontrunners in the 8k race. I decided to show them that we were contenders, running with them over most of the distance. Near the finish line, I set my little one down and coaxed her across, then went inside and waited for the friend to return.
My daughter and I had finished 1-2 in the 3k, as I was the only person stupid enough to enter and she was the only person unfortunate enough to have a parent enter her.
My friend returned after what seemed an eternity. I put my eldest into the car, packed an extra blanket around her, and took her to the hospital to meet her new sister.
Next up: Surgical steel
Mash out. Spin on.
It turns out that being a parent is, indeed, a total lifestyle change. My oldest daughter was up in the middle of the night and had a penchant for early rising (or rather has - omg it's been more than 9 years WILL YOU PLEASE JUST SLEEP IN‽) In her case, that was usually 5:30 to start with and 6 as she got a little older.
My wife is not so inclined.
In that first year, I started looking into ultrarunning -- long distance running, usually on trails, that is both self-destructive and, if ultrarunners are to be believed, massively satisfying.
Locally, we have a trail club called the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. This club should really add “ultra” in there somewhere, because members almost exclusively talk about runs of 50km to 100+ miles, usually on the Appalachian Trail (or its connectors). I find that only a few thoughts ever enter my mind while reading their mailing list:
(1) Who are these people that have time to drive out to the AT and run for the whole day? (Turns out many of them live close to the trail, are retired, or both.)
(2) Why aren’t there any trail runs/races that are short around here? (Turns out there are, they’re just few and far between and washed out on the list by the general chatter about the next running of The Ring, possibly in reverse.)
(3) Aren’t there any trails within 15 miles of DC that get used by this club? (Turns out not many. Which is not to say the trails don't exist. But we'll get to that.)
I started obsessing over getting in my runs when I could. At first, this manifested as getting up with my daughter, then depositing her with my wife at 6:30 so I could go to the office ridiculously early and take a morning jog out there.
It was here that I discovered the joys of Selden Island, a pocket of Maryland that lies at the end of the aforementioned dirt road that I shouldn’t have been running on. Indeed, I definitely wasn’t supposed to be on the island, which is now a sod farm but has served a variety of purposes over the years. In order to access it, one must either jump a fence or clamber down the hill to the edge of the Potomac and scramble back up onto the bridge. It’s quite fun, and I never got hassled out there; I even saw another runner every once in a while and several times passed both pickups and flatbed trucks that were involved in either the farming or removal. Let this be a lesson to you, golf course owners: don't hassle people who aren't causing harm.
Side note of historical interest: This island is technically in Maryland because it lies north of what is regarded as the permanent south edge of the Potomac River. This was part of the original 1632 charter of Maryland which, for reasons unknown, just kinda shafted Virginia. As a result, it's possible to access parts of Maryland by land only from Virginia.
Anyway, back to present day. Or rather a few years ago day. I explored all there was to explore by my office. Most of my runs were on well-trodden paths: Selden Island; parking at the soccer fields or by the golf course and running to/from my office; running down the Potomac path; or just wandering around the greater Loudon County area through all those undevelopedments. Foot travel out there was largely uninspired, and as summer gained prominence, my runs because more audacious simply because I would end them battered and near heat exhaustion.
In August, I started looking around my own neighborhood for better options. One that jumped out: the Cross-County Trail (CCT), which cuts a strange path across Fairfax County and is virtually unknown to (no joke) a vast majority of residents. Even those living nearby obviously aren't fully aware of it (especially at 5:30 a.m.) My preferred access was via Americana Park, just south of Little River Turnpike, where construction was going on to build an underpass that connected the then-dirt CCT tracing south to Accotink Park with the then-dirt CCT heading west to Pickett Rd about 5 miles away. I could park at the Little League field and go for miles.
My daughter was still very young, and I needed these breaks. As August crept into September, it will doubtless shock the vastly uninformed reader to know that morning light waned. I found myself strapping on the headlamp to run the trail. At first, this was fine: by 5:30 a.m. the sun was just peeking over the horizon. And then it wasn’t. Soon it was getting light by 6. And then by 6:30. At which point I was simply endangering myself.
The runs would go either direction: to the south was a mile or so of pavement, a decent stretch of broad dirt, and a lot of trails for longer runs; to the north, the park quickly gave way to a string of local or regional parks but no side paths, bringing a runner by baseball diamonds and forests and across the backs of residences. There were so few people on these trails that it was not uncommon for me to scare or be scared by a fellow user, usually someone out walking their dog before daybreak.
Sometime in late September, we had a rain storm that shook my faith in the CCT. The rain hit late one day and came down through the next, then tapered off in the evening. I was itching for a run but decided to give it a day so the water could drain off. When I decided to hit the trail, the dampness of fall still clung to the air.
I parked in my usual spot and took off north toward the Little River Turnpike underpass. Even this small amount of shade turned the already-dark pre-dawn hours to inky well of blackness. And in that well lay a vicious monster waiting for just the right moment to attack. As I crossed into the construction zone that morning, I found myself face-to-face with the horrible beast: a puddle as wide as the trail and invisible to my yet-unadjusted eyes.
There are a few things to keep in mind before we proceed with this story. The first is that I don’t like wearing anything other than shorts when I run, so my legs, of course, were bare. The second is that, it being quite early and not long after the aforementioned rainstorm, the temperature was probably about 50F. The third is that even though we know what it feels like to “get wet”, it turns out our bodies are pretty terrible at actually detecting the moment we enter water if we’re not expecting it.
So I - unaware of the lurking danger - entered the puddle. And was several steps in before I realized what was happening, at which point the water was up to my ankles. Very quickly, my toes were soaked, and since I had inertia going away from my car (and could now see that the path was, in fact, dry ahead) I continued thusly until such time as I had freed myself from this aquatic monstrosity. Whereupon I realized that my feet were particularly cold. And that a huge ass puddle separated me from my motorized steed.
I stared back into the sambucus night. Here I was, a quarter mile into what should be a 10-mile run, stopped in my tracks by a water hazard. I stomped my feet and crossed the puddle once more, emerging sponge-like in the parking lot.
When I reached the car, I stripped off the wet clothes and changed into whatever happened to be in the car, sat with the engine running for 10 minutes or so, then gave up and went home. I probably went for a short run when I got there, but the exuberant mood that carried me to the trail had been muted at the very least.
The next morning, not wanting to give in to the whims of nature, I decided to give it another go, this time the other direction. It was earlier this time, maybe 4:45, and I hoped the trails had drained a little since my adventure.
The path from the parking lot to Accotink Park (at least the lot where I parked) follows a stream through the woods, crossing over no more than a half mile south of the lot, then heads along multiple parallel paths down a set of power lines onto a single-track segment, under I-495, then into the woods surrounding Lake Accotink. The power line section always had muddy ground, but it seemed reasonable to expect that one or more of those parallel paths would be “mostly dry” at any given time, offering enough alternatives that I could get at least 2-3 miles in without being soaked.
The trek into the power line section was fine, and except for a few swampy regions that took some side-step maneuvering, I stayed mostly dry getting to the single-track. The single-track was a little more difficult, but with the help of my headlamp, I managed to dodge around the remaining puddles. A quarter mile before the 495 underpass, though, I was confronted with the fear of every early morning runner. Or at least every early morning runner who can’t see more than 10 feet beyond his face and is in the woods. The distinct sounds of a large animal -- rustling trees and snorty breath -- wafted through the forest to my right. Not my far-off right, but the seemingly-close right, the kind of “to my right” that makes you feel like someone’s trying to take your wallet.
My heart raced, my pace quickened, and I dashed down the trail somewhat carelessly. And just like that, I heard a sound that made me even more wary: voices. Yes, what I’d heard wasn’t an animal, but (likely) a person sleeping in the woods, disturbed by my early-morning exercise. But since it was still dark and I had no idea what kind of person hung out in the woods at Lake Accotink at 5 a.m., I continued quickly to the 495 overpass.
Where the river absolutely flooded out the trail.
This time, I was prepared, slowing to a walk before entering the darkness. I pointed the headlamp down and spotted the water, then traced the illumination along its 30-foot extent. There was no way.
I turned around, took a deep breath, and sprinted back the way I came. Again, I heard the hushed tones of conversation in the woods, this time more distinct. Fortunately, an exit drops trail users off at a road perpendicular to Little River Turnpike, and I happily escaped onto this path and stuck to the sidewalks (and the really awkward cloverleaf crossing) to get back to the car.
My experience running that lake at absurd hours was done. The trail no longer seemed inviting, it felt like the place just as likely to kill me with hypothermia or assault me for money. There was no joy in those prospects.
I turned instead to running the trail in daylight only. The CCT would be there, but I wasn’t going to trust it quite as much as I had trusted the FLT.
New strategy! Instead of driving to the CCT - and as my long runs lengthened - I decided to run small sections of it after actually running to it. It turns out the trail is about 4 miles from home, which made each of those runs 8 miles minimum; heading a mile or two down the trail on any given venture turned it into 10-12 miles on the legs. That worked out great going into autumn, but soon winter overtook us all and I had to shift back to shorter routes. For all its possible benefits, northern Virginia offers few in a normal winter. Recurring snowfalls are poorly plowed, leaving piled snow and ice patches everywhere; traffic starts getting bad around 6:30 a.m., so reasonable running needs to start before then -- i.e. pre-dawn -- and the few drivers on the roads are inattentive enough to make it all feel a little dangerous.
I increasingly was running on the way to work, stopping the car and cutting across the golf course or taking trips south of my office on the reasonably large -- but also then-underutilized -- roads of Ashburn. When December rolled around, I was in a groove, so much so that when the first real snow fell there I had no problems putting in 5-8 miles a day.
That January changed things, though. Late in the month, DC experienced a storm of proportions it rarely sees, about 18 inches dropping over the course of 3 days. That left the area paralyzed, and it left the roads essentially unusable, a thick layer of ice forming as locals tried (ill-advisedly) to navigate unplowed residential grids. The first week in February, the problem was compounded by a grand dumping that left about 24 more inches on the ground. We were now in whatever the hell is called where it’s cold and snowy instead of hot and fiery. I shoveled until my arms hurt, shoveled more, chipped ice off the street, and began running to the grocery store to keep us from driving anywhere. But the absurdity of the situation dropped my mileage back to 3-5 per day, all too often at 8+ minutes per mile as I tried desperately not to hurt myself. I believe the word is “frustrating”, but at any given moment it could be anything from “unpleasant” to “terrifying”.
Spring came back, snow melted, and I tried to get it back, tried very very hard to return to the golden era of 10 miles a day without significant effort. To start, I decided that rather than let the CCT swallow me during darkness, I would run to the “far end” of my normal route (actually only partway down the trail, at the east end of Fairfax by the intersection of 29 and 50) and come back towards my house. I did this a few times before Daylight Saving Time exsanguinated itself all over my happy setup.
It was maybe 5:45 a.m. the week after we cocked up our clocks, and, having felt a little precarious on Route 29 the previous week, I decided to start out on 29, then cut down to Route 50 and compare the two options. Traffic was relatively light, but it was so dark that I was more than a little scared of being plowed over by a 45-mph driver ignoring what I felt were obvious reflections from my vest, shoes, and arm warmers. I used the sidewalks whenever possible, but they frequently petered out, victims of the anti-pedestrian fervor that seems to accompany much of the road-building in NoVA.
In one particularly bad spot, the sidewalk veered slightly away from the road, then terminated 50 yards later in the middle of a patch of trees. I backtracked, started once again on the roadway with the intention of crossing to the “safer” side, and almost immediately heard a car coming up behind -- one that didn’t seem to see me. I stepped off the road into the gravel, but looking back I could see that the car wasn’t giving way: at current speeds, I would be crushed in about a second.
I stepped down into the ditch as the car, never veering from its kill-all-comers occupation of the right lane, ripped past. I gawked at this inattentive driver. And in an event I shouldn’t consider unexpected, my resultant inattentiveness caused even more problems. The ditch did not support me: my foot tore away a large chunk of muddy dirt, and as I watched the car go by, I was suddenly falling, dropping into blackness that I wasn’t even looking at. I went into the ditch with the kind of gracelessness that a bear might manage while crunching through a forest thicket. I was lucky to escape with scrapes on my arms and a mildly sprained ankle.
Now 4 miles from home, though, the safest way back was off the highways, which meant picking up the CCT and taking one of the cutoff roads back to my neighborhood. I limped my way to the trail, and once the pain had turned to a dull ache, my pace quickened. I finished about 10 miles that day, and when I hobbled in the door, a week of recovery awaited.
Next up: On The Importance of Knees
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.