On Sunday I completed my first planned trail run. I have spent my entire life as an avid backpacker / hiker, but this was my first effort at running on the trail. This is a very important aspect of my training. The whole Ultra I am training for is on a trail similar to the one I ran this weekend. I ran a loop that took me to the top of Signal Knob, located just outside of Front Royal Virginia, in the George Washington National Forest. This mountain was used by civil war troops as a lookout and a place to signal from, hence the name. The trail climbs hard from the trail head and I covered over 2680 vertical feet of gain and loss on this run. The trail was approximately 11 miles in length and extremely rocky at times. I had to walk up most of the first four miles due to the rocks and grade. My biggest concern was spraining an ankle, because I have a half marathon to run this weekend. I wore my normal street running shoes and they worked well, but the trail was dry. I like to listen to music during my normal runs, but for this run I left the headphones in the car. As mentioned above I love being outside and I wanted to take it all in. At no point during the run did I miss my music.
The first part of the run left my moral low and put doubts in my mind. I made it to the first peak of the trail in just under 1:15, a very fast time for hiking, but I had to walk almost the entire way to the top. Where I live and train there are no hills or trails that match this type of terrain. This is a major concern of mine that must be addressed. I was not prepared for the beating that my legs would take. The climb left them tired and fatigued, not a good state to be in prior to running down steep rugged terrain. It did feel great to finally be on top of this mountain I have driven by so many times.
The downhill left me feeling like the best trail runner on the mountain. My moral peaked as I piloted my body down the hills and through the valley. This is where I will make up time I thought to myself. Running down the trail felt like reckless abandon. The kinetic energy that was flowing through my body was unmeasurable. This is why I choose to participate in this crazy sport. Now that I have a taste of it I must have more. Then I hit another long steep climb. This was not just an elevation roller coaster. My moral was inversely proportionate to the elevation profile. This climb was the low point of the run. At one point I slowed to a stop to rest and catch my breath. At the time I did not realize it, but looking back, as I climbed I was just loading up my potential energy for the fun downhill to come. I powered over the top and off I went running down the mountain. I passed two men backpacking up the hill and there jaws dropped as I came running past them. "Keep it up man", the one man commented. My moral shot back up and off I went.
I reached the trail head in 2:40 and was happy with my effort. I averaged around a 14 minute mile pace. As I drove off the mountain my lower legs hurt and my quads were shot. I realized that I must spend some time in the weight room strengthening my legs to take the downhill beating they will endure. I also realized that the run / walk strategy may be the best way for me to complete an ultra on the trail.
This run taught me a lot about myself. I learned that I can do this and I can succeed. The human body is capable of amazing feats, as long as the mind stays motivated and keeps all doubts out. I now know that I can do it.