Monday, May 28, 2012

Mountain Running and Karma at Crowders

A great Memorial Day view atop Crowders Mountain.

It's Memorial Day, and I decided to spend the day at Crowders Mountain State Park for some mountain trail running with one of my running buddies, Sam.  Since I am training for a 50-miler in a month (oh yeah, by the way, I'm running a 50-miler in a month...), this mountain run was the second day of a back-to-back long run weekend, as well as a good opportunity to put some foot time in on rugged trails.  I did not want to spend my next trail race on my chin like I did at Long Cane earlier this month. 

My focus race, the OSS/CIA 50M Night Run, will have about 5,000 feet of elevation gain over the 50 mile duration--a solid 3 out of 5 in ultra running terrain difficulty rating.  Today's run was just over 14 miles, but Sam and climbed a total of 2,540 feet across that distance.  Therefore, mile-for-mile, we got some good solid, more-than-appropriate elevation practice today, and after a tough road run the day before at that.  But as with most trail runs, and any adventure worth mentioning, the real rewards lay in the journey, not the destination.

Sam picked me up at my house while our respective wives and dogs were still asleep, and we cruised down the interstate to Crowders.  Although the park opens at 8am on paper, the gates were wide open for us at 7:20.  Sam warned me that we would be running the entire 2-mile ascent to the summit of Crowders Mountain.  Mind you, the average grade of incline for this section is near 10%, with stretches near the top approaching 20% or greater.  However, Sam's pride was an excellent driver.  Having run this route with our mutual ultra running friend Jeremy (veteran of a score of ultras, including the fabled Beast series in Virginia), he wanted to be able to boast to him that he ran the whole ascent without walk-breaks. 

We settled in to a responsible pace.  Whenever I run prolonged climbs, I repeat the word "patience" in my head.  Sam and I didn't talk much for want of saving breath for the climb.  After a mile, we were feeling pretty good.  Another quarter mile later, as the slope just kept increasing, we were not feeling well at all.  The dull ache of lactate build-up turned into a burn.  After half a dozen switchbacks of staring up steeper slopes, our pride gave way to self-preservation.  We admitted defeat and walked most of the way left to the top of Crowders Mountain.  The view was worth the climb, albeit still shrouded by low clouds.  The views would improve as the day went on.

Next came the stairs--333 stairs to be exact.  To come down from the mountain on the other side, we had to negotiate a few hundred feet of variably spaced stairs built into the slope.  This is harder than it sounds when your legs are already fatigued.  The stairs gave way to a steeply descending gravel road, and after a few hundred meters, we detoured onto the rocky single track of Crowders Trail.  The trail was nice and technical.  Unlike many mountain trails, there were not any switchbacks to speak of; the rocky trail led straight down the mountain.  After 10 minutes, were were still descending.  When the trail finally did flatten out, I was feeling a little zapped mentally from having to pay so much attention to my footing. 

Just before the 5 mile mark, Sam and I came to a trail intersection and took a right onto the Pinnacle Trail.  This trail moved pretty quickly for a mile or two, but then it took a progressively steep route of switchbacks up the face of the day's second mountain, King's Pinnacle.  We traversed a section of rock outcroppings that was so rugged, we had to walk around cobble to boulder-sized obstacles.  The climb began in earnest after that.  We ran what we could until the trail was what we both agreed was totally unrunnable.  Even for a hike, it was a tough slog, but again, we were rewarded with magnificent views.
Sam at the end of the trail just before summiting the Pinnacle.
The sun came out to give us a great view of the surrounding country.
Now, all we had to do was make our way back.  Running down the Pinnacle trail was fun to say the least.  Gravity did most of the work while we concentrated on our footing and on slowing ourselves on slim tree trunks and branches.  In no time, we reached a trail crossing near the bottom of the slope.  To the left was the way from whence we came, full of pace-killing rock outcroppings.  To the right was a welcoming, totally runnable trail.  As far as we could surmise, this trail would lead us to the Visitor Center, where we would replenish water and pick up the Crowders Trail from the other end.  Best laid plans...

The new trail did indeed loop around to the Visitor Center...we just looped the wrong way.  We resorted to looking at Sam's paper map, which had all but disintegrated in his SpiBelt from the saturating sweat of the humid day.  We doubled back, picked up the road through the park, and followed it to the Visitor Center like a couple of urban explorers.  After making a pit stop and filling water, we were off again, and we picked up the Crowders Trail in no time...going the right way even.

We settled in to what I thought was the most comfortable rhythm of the day, keeping sub-9 minute pace on technical footing and rolling hills.  After 20 minutes of running in the zone, Sam stopped abruptly behind me.  I paused and looked back, and he had the deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes.  "You OK?" I asked.  He shook his head, reaching behind him.  I thought he had tweaked a muscle in his back or leg.  No.  He had lost his keys.  Hopefully, they were at the Visitor Center, but they could just as easily be on the 2 miles of trail between here and there, in which case we likely would never see them again.  Luckily, I had my phone in my hydration vest, and Sam called his wife.  She would drive to the state park and meet us as we were finishing our run.

There was nothing else to do but head back to where we started.  We settled into a nice groove again, but when we hit the gravel road leading to the stairs, we walked.  We ran a few short stretches, but the incline was steep enough that we would have to be fools (well, even more fools than we already were) not to walk it.  The stairs came next.  I didn't hesitate.  I settled into a climb and counted them as they went.  Not that the stairs were fun, but they seemed to go by without seeming interminably long.  Sam and I took another breather at the top of Crowders.  We snapped some more photos of the awesome view as well.
Behind me was a vertical cliff side leading a few hundred feet straight down.
Sam and I discussed our plan for the last 2 miles, which were bound to be the most punishing.  Overall, after having run 32 miles since the previous morning, my legs were feeling pretty good.  But we both had to be careful.  2 miles of screaming downhill could shred our quads in no time.  We agreed that we would cruise as best we could, not fighting momentum, but we would not push the pace.  I did my best to keep my feet turning over so as not to rock my body with bounding strides.  It helped to lean into the climbs as I often do during my hill training, but I found myself outrunning my cardio if I leaned too far into them.  Sam kept a steady pace at my side.  A mile into the descent, I almost ran myself out of control, but I barely gained my composure before rounding the next switchback.  Sam would later tell me of the disaster he thought I was about to have.  The entire descent took less than 15 minutes.  As soon as Sam and I reached the parking area and stopped running, the humid, stagnant air immediately caught up to us.  I longed for the Clif Bar that I had packed as a post run snack, but it was in the locked car.  Crap. 

Sam's wife Steph came to our rescue with a spare key for Sam's car, and we nourished ourselves, rehydrated, and changed into some dry clothes.  Hoping for the unlikely, Sam drove to the Visitor Center to see if he had left his key at the facility.  We searched the grounds where we had repacked our gear and did not find them.  But, upon checking with the ranger at the front office, Sam was more than relieved to find that someone had turned in his keys.  The ranger conveyed how lucky Sam was as well.  I credit good karma.  Despite the distress of having lost the keys, finding them at the end of the day's run kind of felt like icing on a cake. 

Today's gear:

Shoes: Montrail Mountain Masochist.  For runs this rugged, I use a traditional trail running shoe.  Compared to every other shoe I have, the Masochist is a tank, and long miles of technical footing warrant a stable platform with plenty of protection over the toes, under the foot, and on the sidewalls.  This is the bread and butter of the Montrail line.

Hydration: Nathan Minimist hydration backpack and Nathan Quickdraw 22oz handheld bottle.  I had water in the pack and HEED in the bottle.  This most likely will be my combo for the OSS/CIA 50.

Nutrition: GU and Clif Bar gels.  Clif Bar as a post-run snack.

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