22 January 2014

Top Ten Reasons I miss Ultra Running

I recently completed my longest "long run" in quite a while on the Virginia Creeper Trail. I purposely picked the Creeper as I was bumping my mileage up way beyond what is normally recommended & wanted to make it as easy as a ~17 mile run could be - i.e. not a technical trail & no hills. I have been hiking some big miles as day hikes & even with a backpack, but my running has not been as consistent as I would have liked. I had charged my MP3 player as I figured I would need it to get me thru the last few miles, but in my excitement to get on the trail I left it in the Element, of course. So I ended up with quite a bit of time to ponder all sorts of things....
One of my favorite trestles - confluence of Holston Rivers

Could not have asked for better weather though! Started out a little cool, but sunshine the whole way!

As I was "wogging" along (I say I run but to most people it would appear I am moving too slowly, so I call it a cross between walking & jogging) I started thinking about how much running has been a part of my life. I ran my first marathon in 1998 and soon after I ran my first ultra marathon in 2000. For my non-running friends, an ultra is any distance longer than a marathon, but "typical" distances are 50K, 50 milers, 100K & 100 milers. I was instantly addicted & eventually found myself running at least one a month. 

Until my 1st knee surgery in 2005. Followed by my 2nd in 2008. And my most recent in 2012. All dealing with meniscus issues. Don't get me wrong, I was able to get some good runs in between - even my PR of 81 miles in a 24 hour race. Although I have never been fast, I do have endurance & can "wog" a long, long time. Perhaps I am just an impatient hiker? But I digress yet again....

Along the Creeper I eventually came up on the contractor working on the replacement  bridge that was destroyed in the tornadoes of 2011. Being the geeky engineer I am, I had to stop & watch for a while.

And this is what got me to thinking about how when I would run I would sort through problems in my mind. Many times I would run at lunch & think about some design issue I needed to resolve. Many times I would have a solution by the time I was done. And thus the idea for my list was born...

So, without any further ado, here is my list of the top ten reasons I miss ultra running:

10. Creativity. The ability to clear my mind & come up with "out the box" solutions was never better.

9. Toenails. Do you realize how much time I saved painting my toenails when I had less than 10? Plus I never had to decide on a  color as I had to use dark purple or black.

8. Gels.Okay, I am lying on this one. I don't know who decided the best vehicle for nutrition while running should have a consistency somewhere between frosting & toothpaste, but I guess it works. Besides, it was always fun trying to figure out which flavor was the least repulsive after 5 hours.

7. Food. Being able to eat whatever I wanted & still remain relatively slim.

6. Beer. Being able to drink whatever I wanted & still remain relatively slim. 

 I like beer. Hell, I will run for beer
 ( --//--> ON-ON!) 

but I loved being able to drink good beer without thinking about calories.

5. Zen. Running was the only way to still my monkey mind - it was a type of meditation for me. Whenever the cadence of footsteps & my breathing would become my mantra & I could just zen out.......wow.

4. Freedom. Usually only when running downhill, but sometimes I could catch that feeling like when you ran as a kid. Not going anywhere specific, but just running because you could.....again, wow!

3. Getting Lost. Not just in the putting your head down & following someone the wrong way, but tied to #5 (Zen out) when you get so lost in your thoughts that you realize you don't even know where you are on the trail anymore. It's just indescribable.  

2. Places. I have been some really cool places in the name of a race - from sea level at Tybee Island to 13,000 ft Mosquito Pass in Leadville, CO to the infamous Foothills Trail for Laurel Valley. And still so many places to see.

And the number 1 reason?

1. People! So many great folks I have met over the years....From the Runners from Hell (Some runners are tough. Some runners are insane. Some are both.) to my fellow Team SLUGs (Start slowly, ease off) to the great folks at Mangum Track Club (MTC). These are the people who have seen me suffer & pulled me along & inspired me. And damn, but I sure do miss 'em!

So part of this post is to keep pushing me to get back to the runner I once was. To get back to that feeling I once had & took for granted. 

I am so grateful for what I have & what I can do, and I hope to continue this momentum.

Run on, my friends.....

11 January 2014

Flyin' by the seat of our pants...

Have I mentioned that I am not good at details sometimes? It's a little funny - in my "normal" life I am the usual somewhat anal, always OCD Engineer type. But the weekends? Well, sometimes it's kinda fun to not plan anything & see what happens. Sometimes you just end up chasing your tail trying to find a trail to hike, but other times it all falls together, in some sort of fashion. This weekend was one of those times.

It was forecast to rain all weekend, so I was not overly enthused to be planning a backpack trip, but I brought my backpack as well as my day pack with me as I went to Cleveland, TN for a friend's retirement lunch. After all, you never know. And surprisingly enough, the forecast was revised Friday nite showing clear & sunny by 3 PM! So....where to go? In my quest to be a 900 miler (i.e. hike all 900 miles of trails in the Smokies) I am always looking for new trails. After a quick check of the GSMNP backcountry reservation site, we decided to get another piece of the trail up to Gregory Bald. More specifically, the Gregory Bald Trail to campsite #13.

Looking across Cades Cove towards our destination!
Knowing Parsons Branch Rd would be closed for winter, we figured we would have a few miles of a road walk to get to the trailhead, but, as usual, we did not count on the deer jams in the Cove. At the late hour of 2:30 PM we finally arrived at the Ranger Station at the far end of Cades Cove, only to find the road gate closed! I guess I should not have been surprised - the Little River was as high as I had ever seen it - but I didn't realize the road to Gregory Ridge Trail would be closed due to rain. 

Brian walks alongside a raging Parsons Branch
After a quick check at the Ranger Station, we find this will only add another 2.2 miles to our 3.5 mile road walk. It's 2:30 PM & sunset is at 5:30 PM (as our helpful Ranger reminds us!)...so....why does the scene from Blues Brothers pop into my mind? 

It's 5.7 miles to the trailhead, we got a full MSR Dromedary of water, half a pack of ShotBloks, it's almost dark... and we're wearing sunglasses.  Hit it.

This part of the road walk was not bad - we actually made good time. It was a bit of a boost when we made it to the 2nd gate in under 40 minutes with full packs. Now on to the road walk we were expecting...

This part of the road was a little bit harder for me. It was disheartening to hike up a huge hill only to lose all the elevation gain by hiking downhill again.  But I did have a little fun when we came across a grader parked alongside the road. 

I call it "Taming the wild grader". 

Eventually we came to a low water crossing that required changing to water shoes. Even though it was quite warm at this point, no way could I imagine crossing water over a foot deep. I love my Keen boots, but had no desire to hike another 4 miles uphill with them being wet.   Soon after we came to the trailhead & I started on new miles!

Again, I was surprised at the amount of water on the trails. Even small crossings were running pretty well. But the trail itself was very nice - long gradual grades & very well drained for the majority of the way. We had to watch the sunset while hiking, but did make it to #13 with enough light to gather firewood & set up the tent. 

It got a little colder than I expected overnite. Remember my lack of planning problem? I left my down jacket & mittens at home, but it wasn't too bad. Only trouble was the excessive rain made it very hard to get a fire going. We were able to get a small one, but it mostly smoldered & did not kick off too much heat. Funny thing was we had a group come in even after us - a father, mother, daughter team that showed up around 9 PM. They were all also engineers - 2 electrical & 1 chemical. Poor Brian - surrounded by Engineers!

Next morning it was even colder as it had snowed some during the night. But the hoarfrost was awesome. 

At this point it was only a half mile up to Gregory Bald.....And when I say up, it was all up. But the clear views at the top....well, I only wish my camera could capture them:

From this point it was all downhill again, which tends to hurt my knees more than going up. We were treated to some great views of Cades Cove going down & it gradually warmed up enough to shed many layers. The water was still rather high for the crossing at campsite #12. High enough that I did not want to chance crossing on the downed trees with my backpack. Not sure when this bridge washed out but it appears there are no immediate plans to replace it. The water at the next trail bridge was still within a few inches of the log stringer - I am guessing it was overtopped the day before.

At this point we arrived back at Gregory Ridge trailhead. Another couple of miles of road walk & we were back at my trusty Element. 

I love it when a last minute trip comes together!

08 January 2014

Finding a Pile of Rocks - Part 2!

I had been planning a birthday hike with my buddy Harold for quite a while but since neither of us are very good at details, we were still figuring it out the night before. Since Brian & I had not previously found Courthouse Rock & Harold had not been there as well, I suggested we continue the search.

This time I was a little more prepared & had downloaded a few descriptions of the off trails.It seems we had been on the right trail after Joe Quilliam's home site, but the trail takes a hard right "at a pile of rocks". Turns out the "pile" really only consists of 2 long rocks, more like a step, but someone had thoughtfully chalked a "C" & an arrow on it. Don't know how we missed it the first time? The trail is not very well defined, but Courthouse Rock is unmistakable. Roughly 45 feet high, it stands on edge like a domino.

I was not fearless enough to climb to the top, but I did wander around to the front to find the carving I had heard of. Supposedly a fellow named Arthur who lived in this county during the 1790 census carved the date 1807. 

I think this was the carving, but it's hard to tell since it appears some asshole felt the need to carve his name over the historical date. It's hard to tell, but it looks alot newer than the date. People suck sometimes.

But on to better thoughts! Right next to Courthouse Rocks is another large rock named the Judge. This was a little easier to clamber up on so we took a short break & celebrated Harold's birthday in true GOB (Good Ole Boy) style with a candle in a Moon Pie. My gift to him was I did not sing "Happy Birthday" as I have no musical ability at all. In retrospect I should have also brought along an RC Cola....maybe next year!

Happy Birthday Harold!
After the celebration we set off for Quilliam Cave, which is really more of a rock shelter. Again, Brian & I had been on the right track but instead of following the creek up we had attempted to climb straight up the side of the mountain! The trail along the creek was still not very well defined, but climbing up (!) will eventually run into the rock bluffs.  The 1945 park book called it the Rock House, although it is not mentioned after that. I have to say it was even more impressive than Alum Bluf, especially with the ice:

Looking into the Rock House

Looking out towards the waterfall

After another short break we headed back down. Beyond Joe Quilliam's home site we again crossed the creek & looped around his sons' old home sites. With the clearer weather we were able to identify rock structures that may have been parts of walls or gates. I also spotted a few cool discarded items:

All in all, a great day in the woods. So glad I was able to experience this beautiful area!