Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Covering Ground

View of the Lakes of the Clouds hut, White Mountains.
Photo by Mike Keene.

I am an impatient hiker. I have heard other trail runners describe themselves similarly. Running trails synthesizes life-giving activities for me--the activity and high of running with being outside and taking in beautiful places. Admittedly, toward the end of a 20 -30 mile run, the aesthetics can be a bit lacking--pain and suffering can trump a Patagonian sunset, I would guess. In those cases, the mind's eye is where the landscape lives. And post-long run, on Wye Island, eating and unlacing running shoes among the geese, dwells in the sublime.

You read inspiring accounts of hikers and backpackers covering 15 miles in a day, which is considered cooking in many circles. Running trails, those miles cruise by in 3 hours, and then you've got the rest of the day to spend with family, friends, or getting up to speed on the impending March Madness this time of year. I've often thought at Tuckahoe, how much I enjoy being able to see so much of the park without having to be there all day to do it.

All this is a factor as we consider and map out routes for a summer fast-packing excursion to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The trek looks to be four days and three nights, staying each night in one of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC)'s great huts. This allows us to carry packs with just water, easy-to-pack and eat food for the days (the huts provide dinner, lodging, beds, and breakfast), minimal clothes--windshirt, rain gear, etc.--and not have to sweat hauling tents, sleeping bags, stoves, etc. Light and fast is the name of the game.

Mountain miles are not the same as Eastern Shore miles. This will be my first trip to the Whites, though Mike Keene knows the terrain and trails well. Having just read David Horton's experience in the slow-going White Mountains in his record-setting thru-AT run in A Quest for Adventure, I know we've got to be realistic in what we can accomplish in a day. Hut reservations depend on it! But the point will also be to push the pace, acclimate to the terrain, and work on tired legs, knowing that the JFK will creep up on us in the fall.

It is a blast to think about it all. Anyone with thoughts, experience, suggestions as to White Mountain routes, speak (comment) now or read what we come up with.

In other news, I had a great phone interview with Don Marvel last evening--a true ultra-running legend, who is under our noses in Easton. In high school, where Don taught for many years, we knew him as the insane teacher who would run from Easton to Salisbury, roughly 50 miles along Route 50. I have seen Don from the back and near turn-arounds in 5 and 10K races in the area for a few years. It wasn't until talking with him last evening--in the light of having ultra-marathon aspirations of my own--that I got a sense for the truly remarkable accomplishments he has logged on his legs. Stay tuned--Don's story is going to be a topic all its own.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Return to Tuckahoe

Mike Keene running to the sun on the Tuckahoe Valley Trail.

I have not been shot at trail running at Tuckahoe State Park. I have, however, had to cut a route short to avoid been driven by scent hounds. And being shot at wouldn't necessarily dissuade me from going back--Tuckahoe is the promise land for trail running on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It's a rolling network of singletrack, horse trails, creek crossings, and as many hills as you will find in the land of flat farm and forest acreage.

Yesterday (2/24), Mike Keene and I made our first return there since running the Holiday Lake 50K++. We carved out a 10-mile route that included the Tuckahoe Valley Trail, Creekside Cliff, and Pee Wees Trail, with a minimal road stretch to get back to the lake and the truck. It was roughly 30 degrees, with winds from 10-20 mph, giving us a functional temperature of 20 degrees. We left Easton at 6:00am, and took in the bulk of the sunrise on the trail. No wildlife encounters--though I have come across everything from fox, deer, a startled and disgruntled raccoon, and one morning, what had to be the fastest land turkey on Delmarva.

Our return to the trails also represented a first for me: hauling a digital camera along for the run to get some pictures. This was all-in-all a successful endeavor, though new batteries will be on the pre-run checklist next time.

Tuckahoe has been our main training grounds for Holiday Lake and will be as well for the JFK 50-miler in November. It is also, simply put, the best place to run on the Eastern Shore (I am willing to modify that statement if someone can point me to somewhere comparable). I first discovered the park about 14 years ago as a mountain biking destination, then forgot about it until a couple years ago when the trail running hobo jumped the thru-train to the soul. Since then, I have mapped out routes from 4 to 20 miles, either solo, or dragging dog, friend, or family out there whenever possible.

If you are inspired to take a trip out there, I recommend parking by the lake, and building your route off the 4.5-mile (from point-to-point) Tuckahoe Valley Trail, which connects to most all the other trails. Creekside Cliff (1.25 miles), Little Florida (1.75 miles), and Pee Wees Trail (1.6 miles) are all exceptional. Adkins Arboretum is located next to the park, and some of the Tuckahoe Valley Trail has shared stretches with the Arboretum.

Tuckahoe is a managed hunting area, which seems an interesting concept for a system of trails widely used by horse riders, mountain bikers, dog walkers, and runners, but checking hunting seasons for the Shore makes it fairly easy to avoid noisy, heart-racing run-ins. And if you are just jones-ing, and willing to take your chances with hunter run-ins (as I have done) the cautionary bright-colored apparel (neon orange preferred) can serve as your yellow brick road.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Holiday Lake 50K++

Two miles to go at the Holiday Lake 50K++, photo by Andrew Wilds Photography.

“The Reason I Run” (quoting another HL runner)
By Michael Valliant

I know I am having a good run when there is ice in my beard. We aren’t a mile into the Holiday Lake 50K++ trail race in Appomattox, Virginia, when I smile, noting that that indicator is in place. This same semi-masochistic enjoyment is likely a part of what got me to sign up for my first ultra-marathon.

Starting at 6:30am on February 10, the temperature is 14 degrees, and the outlook is dark. There are more than 250 runners signed up and we all corral ourselves through the starting gate and push up a paved hill, following the guidance of those runners who are wielding flashlights.

Turning off onto winding single-track, the line of runners snakes through the woods with mild road-blocking at turns, quick descents and climbs. The first aesthetic epiphany comes on a turn out of the woods and across a longish foot bridge over the lake, with a nice drop of rushing water crashing beneath us before climbing wooden stairs and winding back through the woods.

This stretch is right along Holiday Lake, which now has fog lifting off the frozen surface. It’s a good idea not to spend too much time taking in the view, as a couple stretches will drop you 15-20 feet into the drink from a rocky misstep.

After more singletrack and some forest road, we check in at the first aid station, where I opt not to grab anything since my water bottle still has its share of Gatorade and I am a few gels on the rich side and feel on stride with pace and nutrition/hydration. We turn hard left and I let my legs go down a good stretch of downhill gravel road. It feels great to fall down it, until I think about the fact that—with the course being a loop around the lake, and then retracing the same loop backwards—I am going to see this hill again from the bottom, when I am much less inclined to have good legs.

On the descent, I see and start to catch my training partner who, as I am, is from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where you will find more people with the last name “Hill,” than you will ever see elevation above sea level. We are from the land of flat farmland, plentiful rivers, creeks, and the Chesapeake Bay, where only Tuckahoe State Park will give trail runners any rolling terrain.

Coming up a rolling incline, we emerge from a stretch of woods into an open pine area, headed north, northwest, with the sunrise coming up over the east. Melissa, a fellow Maryland trail runner, with whom I had fallen in stride, says to a group of us, “This is why I run!” She has spoken for the bunch of us.

We later catch up with my fellow Eastern Shoreman, Mike Keene, and a new aquaintence, Todd from Pittsburgh, who, like Melissa, has a number of ultras, including 50-milers under their belts. Perspectives from all the runners I meet over the weekend are hugely helpful.

Everything is plodding along a-pace as we check into aid station # 3, at the 9-mile mark, which I hit at 90 minutes, spot-on. I am pleased, as this is my pie-and-chips-in-the-sky pace for the race.

A small bridge and a log, each a hair downstream from stream crossings enable the packs I was running with to keep mostly dry feet on the first loop (I would lack the energy or wherewithal to care on the way back and just trounced through the crossings the second time through).

After aid station #4, we fall into a single-file line through the woods, five runners deep, and hit a cadence that feels like boot camp. I point this similarity out, and Melissa from Maryland deftly points out (with a laugh) that there is nobody standing over us or barking at us to make us do this! Looking back, perhaps race director David Horton has cameras and loud speakers in the trees to bark at slack runners.

It’s at this time when the frontrunners of the race begin to pass us on their return loop. They are flying and inspiring and receive cheers from all of us.

Between aid station #4 and the turnaround, we start to hear an odd, but beautiful song from the lake as the ice cracks and melts. That sound, along with the sunrise, has taken residence in my being. Of course, I did posit later that it could have been the croak of the giant playground frog on the lake, which would have been memorable for different reasons.

We begin to pass an increasing number of runners in this last stretch; all are gracious, encouraging, and fast on their return. The grind is just starting to get to me as we reach the half-way turn-around point. We check in at about the 2:55 range, which I am happy with, but get the feeling I will not maintain. I ditch the Outdoor Research jacket I started the race in, which was perfect, but has become too warm, change to a lighter baselayer and zip up a Patagonia Houdini, which works well for the return loop. I fill my water bottle and grab some pretzels and M&Ms.

Gear is about the only thing that goes well for me on loop two. Before I reach the second incarnation of aid station #4, intense cramps set in on both of my quads and into my calves. This has happened to me before on my longest runs, but I was hoping they wouldn’t hit today until mile 25 or so, not mile 18. I walk through the cramps and run until they return.

About this time, my stomach turns sour and protests the thought of any more gels. It begrudgingly agrees to pretzels and a few M&Ms at aid stations as I encounter them. So I’ve got recurring muscle cramps and a stomach on strike against nutrition and hydration. Other than that, things are great!

I fall into and out of several great people on the trail—fellow sufferers in many cases, working through issues, beating down their own demons. I feel like crap, but I am enjoying the effort and the people, and the spirit of both. I never consider stopping, though I am not moving fast by any standard.

The last cut-off point comes and goes, and the enthusiastic volunteer informs me I am 45 minutes to the good, which is encouraging news. My favorite crutch to lean on for the loop home are the bright orange course markers—I pick one a good space ahead and make a goal to run to it before succumbing to a quad-cramped stumble. I can understand how easy a “Best Blood” award can be had; letting go on a downhill when my legs aren’t working well could easily bill me as a human slinky.

The aid station volunteers are both a source of nourishment and encouragement. They welcome us, grab and fill water bottles, and broadcast the ever-decreasing number of miles to the end. After checking through the last aid station at 6:05 hours in, calf cramps are an issue, and the final 3.5 miles of singletrack are tough, but fun.

Emerging from the woods, I hit the pavement, which Horton has been gracious enough to give to us as a downhill to finish. On my way to the finish, I pass some of the folks who gave me support and conversation, as they are heading to their cars, and each throws out knowing congratulations. I pass through the finish line at 6:48:00, managing some time before the 7:30 cutoff. I have just finished my first ultra-marathon.

Trails are my preferred terrain and a source of soulful sustenance. Having said that, by necessity and background, I have run more roads and competed in more road races. My road times in distances from 10K to 20 miles range between 8 and 9-minute miles. I have some work to do to acclimate to hill country. I have to dial in my nutrition—eat and drink more—and figure out how to ward off leg cramps. During the second half of Holiday Lake, I was most looking forward to the race being done. The days after the race, I look forward to more time on the trail; to figuring out how to run a better race; and to my next ultra marathon goal: 50 miles at the JFK 50 in November.