Being fast is fun! Being fast on short runs is a good way to get prize money and trophies that the kids can use as props while playing, but it’s not particularly endearing when you’re as bad at appetite control as I am. I’ve always eaten like a horse, but running managed to temper my weight to something reasonable; keeping active is a way to justify that consumption, because otherwise it would just be gratuitous excess that would soon manifest in the traditional American look.
I didn’t start out with a plan, it just sort of arrived. I was looking back at my old notes on training, thinking about what I’d done well and what felt good, and I cobbled together something that I hoped would combine the best of all worlds.
After extensive reading, exceptional research, and a multitude of professional opinions -- also known as Google searches, this here transcript of how I got good before, and a quality motivational speech by myself to myself -- I decided to plan anew. This time would be like the ultra training schedule (which included lots of gooey trails in winter) merged with the speed training (which included sprints and hills).
I would call it Massive Motive Maintenance, or M3 for short, as I’m sure that can’t be confused with any other M3 in the world. Cycling declined, running boomed exponentially, and I endeavored to be a better-trained athlete. Two bonuses: I would spend less time working out -- something my wife would approve of -- but improve my overall fitness for a wide range of activities. (The training plan is shown below.)
And yes, I’d just gone through 2 training plans in a 4-month stretch, and I was embarking on a third. Hey, 8 a year isn’t bad, is it?
This particular run up the White Oak Trail, ostensibly continuing around the back of Hawksbill Peak, up the peak, and down the Cedar Run Trail, hit the apparent midpoint about 5 miles in, and the result was nearly disaster.
Sure, it was enjoyable clambering up White Oak's stretches of large rocks, taking in the scenery at the top of the gorge, then delighting in the last half hour of cool morning air on the lazy but consistent ascent of the Horse Trail/fire road (depends which map you use; the trail itself is clearly posted as "Horse Trail", but Google Maps shows the Horse Trail terminating at Cedar Run at its north end, while Open Street Maps shows this section as a fire road that terminates at Cedar Run at its south end) up to Skyline Drive.
As I hooked around the back of Hawksbill a little over an hour into the run, I considered the time and possible routes to the finish. A straight climb up the hill followed by a bombing drop down the other side and along the creek seemed like another hour at best, only the first part of the 5-mile return trip uphill. But I had spent almost 2 hours in the car getting to the trailhead, and since the day hadn't yet found its damp, sagging towel of heat to drape over western Virginia, a 2-hour run didn't seem worthy of that drive.
Instead, I would stretch this out a bit. I stuck on the Appalachian Trail and dove south, hoping to catch the Google version of the Horse Trail back from its crossing at Fisher's Gap, then making the 800-foot drop with Cedar Run as a closer. I followed signs to the gap, and after a few brief stops to send reassuring texts to my wife, I found myself back at Skyline Drive in maybe half an hour.
This, I thought, put me a little over an hour from the finish line, which would push my day's effort somewhere between 2.5 and 3 hours, depending on conditions on the Cedar Run Trail.
That sounded a little more reasonable, but I once again started thinking about the drive home and cleaning up the house and all the other things that wouldn't be running in the Shenandoahs once I had finished up. As there were no more "reasonable" extensions to make on this trip and I was down to about 5 oz of water, though, return was the only option.
This seems an opportune time to offer a useful side note about maps, specifically the variety of 2D maps and their associated terrain maps. When one views a "terrain map", one relies on a consistent rendering of trail path relative to the local geographical contours. Often this is translated by the map software into an altitude tag for each point on the trail, or at least a good number of them. Depending on your particular application's properties, these tags can be compiled real-time -- slightly slow but not unduly so -- or compiled afterwards in a post-processing step. Alas, with Google, this is not done at all.
Advice: Aim for real-time updates for maximum safety.
Not having had this minty advice beforehand, I was suddenly faced with a problem: the direct route I had originally mapped on Open Street Maps (the one up Hawksbill and down Cedar Run) was, in fact, basically up one side and down the other, as indicated on the terrain map generated once I'd put the path into the software. The new path I was on -- constructed by placing a half dozen approximate points on the OSM version where the Googs said the trail went -- was never included in the terrain map, as I either forgot to regenerate it or the software just used what was nearby, which would have been the road that runs along the ridgeline.
Also not included was the actual distance along the trail, since my half dozen points were not at all representative of a meandering path through the forest. This "rough estimate" was entirely too smooth: about 2 miles short and way more sedate than the actual trail's character.
A little more than 2 miles along the Horse Trail and I was definitely feeling a new burn in my quads, as the trail slashed across striations in the hillside, or bent downhill for 50-100 feet before following the fold back up to a "convenient" crossing. This happened a half dozen times or more, each time burning the legs a little bit more.
But still, I was outside, on a trail, clambering over trees and around puddles and through overgrowth (must not be many horses on their eponymous trail). That more than made up for the pain, especially since the descent to the car would be so bombingly swift once it arrived. I even spotted a bobcat padding its way along a fallen log before it unhurriedly ducked back into the forest when I made a little too much noise. It was all quite beautiful and serene, a spectacular diversion from the typical Saturday.
It was around a mile before the Horse Trail hits Cedar Run that I ran out of water. Almost immediately, the air felt a lot warmer. Within a half mile my pace was decidedly lower, and I started wondering how high the temperature would climb before I would reach the car (which, of course, would be by 9 a.m., right?) There were still -- by my reckoning -- more than 4 miles left in this run, and even at a solid 8-minute pace for the final downhill, the temperature had climbed enough that 30+ minutes sounded pretty taxing.
(Another side note: Never convince yourself there are 4 miles left in a run when there are actually 5, especially when it's getting hot.)
But there was no alternative, and surely I could tick off that time without incident and just rehydrate at the car.
An eternity later -- or maybe a dozen minutes -- I reached the trail convergence, noted the updated downhill distance (hey, 3.9 miles! annoyingly longer than expected.) and headed down the grassy path back to the car. At least, it was grassy for about 100 yards, then changed into a technically challenging and rocky path with exposed roots and a persistently inconsistent splatter of rocks ranging from golf ball-sized (uncommon) to Nintendo-sized (far too common) to haphazard stacks of 2-foot boulders (about every 20 meters). These various-sized chunks were strewn about with enough space between that they formed a nearly perfect ankle-breaking course, where the best place for your next footfall wasn't apparent until you were finishing off the previous step. There was no efficient way down this course, just a lot of stop-and-start to avoid damaging the lower extremities.
My pace plummeted from about 10-minute miles to slower than 15-minute miles, the Horse Trail's jog/run now more properly described as a slow trot (at the best of times) or perhaps a well-intentioned up-tempo walk (sadly often). My throat was parched, and though I was still sweating, I vaguely understood that I was gazing longingly at each pool along the creek. Various insects flitted about in the rapidly increasing heat and humidity, finding the sunlit boulderway that made up the trail particularly appealing.
Uphill hikers increased in number and frequency as 9 a.m. came and went, and while I tried gamely to seem totally fine with my hydro-deficient situation, I was really counting down the time until the parking lot. Every half mile or so I'd pull out my phone to check the time and verify how far I'd gone (this is highly unusual behavior for me, as the phone is generally reserved for emergency route-finding or sending those reassuring texts). I was almost always disappointed at just how much green was left between the little blue map arrow and the little blue "P" at the base of the hill.
Each 10-yard stretch I would pick a target, and when the occasional dirt section with just a few rocky juts or webs of tripping roots appeared, I would find new speed, hopeful that the debris field was safely above, then resigned once again to the slow slog through the next Field of Talocrural Doom.
About a mile from the end of the Cedar Run trail I topped a rise, sat on a rock, pulled out the phone (approaching 9:30!), and assessed how I was feeling. If one word is your game, it was "poorly"; for the more verbose, "like shit". I hustled down the ensuing switchbacks and veered off the trail to drink like an antelope from a clear pool eddied below a waterfall. At first, I knelt, hands planted next to the water, and dunked my face in for full gulps. A sly cramp started in my calf, and before it could get the better of me, I splayed my body against the rock, sucked up a few more mouthfuls of water. I clumsily rose and felt relief so complete I could swear it actually radiated through me. It felt like a caricature of refreshment pulled from a bad sports drink ad, but it was *my* refreshment, damn it, and it felt real.
I merged back onto the trail. The water completely changed my outlook.
Now instead of a scorching death march down an ankle-eating rockfall, I saw the rest of the Cedar Run Trail for what it was: a slightly warm, challenging and slow jog down an ankle-eating rockfall. The rocks -- my god, the rocks! -- they were still killing my pace, too close together to get between, too far apart to feel like a roadway; too large to ignore and either too small to give a good platform or so large you would have to jump off them -- and land on more just-too-large rocks below.
I had no desire to break myself coming down this hill.
Did I mention how frustrating the rocks were on this trail? Yes? Fine, I'll stop talking about them, because regardless of how many there were, I no longer dreaded them, just dealt with them as they came and carried on with the adventure.
The last mile of Cedar Run ticked off quickly (though still more slowly than I would have liked thanks to...well, I promised not to), and the final stretch toward the parking lot turned into a genuine run. Excitement built at each step. A dozen ounces of water had completely rejuvenated me, and when my feet hit the blacktop, I strode happily to the car, polished off most of a growler of still-icy water, and relished the thought of returning home to an ice bath, a hot shower, fresh clothes, and a substantial nap.
Mundanity rarely looks so enticing.
Next up: Your Future Hasn't Been Written Yet
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.