November 5, 2018
Alex met me at the strip mall parking lot along Route 234 in Montclair about noon. It’s a popular spot for jumping off to run Prince William Forest Park trails. Across the highway is the intersection with a fire road that, about half-mile southbound into the park, becomes Burma Road.
We trotted across 234 then onto Burma, set our watches, and Alex took off, as he always does. He’s got 11 finishes in the Hawaii Ultrarunning Team (HURT) 100-miler as well as multiple finishes in such races as the Fat Dog 120-miler in British Columbia, Cruel Jewel 100 in Georgia, Massanutten Mountain 100, an exotic ultra in northern Greece, and others. I like to say that’s because he’s 20 years younger than me.
The photo below shows Alex and another friend, Amir, who runs with us when he’s in town.
The first half-mile down Burma is level and easy. You can then cross a footbridge over Quantico Creek to pick up the North Valley Trail, which in five miles takes you around to a spur up to the park visitor’s center. Or stay on Burma, which climbs gently for a little less than a mile to an intersection with a paved road, Scenic Drive, the main route through the park.
Today we stay on Burma and continue south on Taylor Farm Road, still an easy trail with a few rolls to it. Alex by now is a dot. I’m starting to feel loose. I don’t have those fast-twitch quads, so I take a while to get up steam. But I’m working on my stride, figuring out whether to extend to move a little faster, or pace myself to have some moxie for the return.
In a little less than a mile on Taylor Farm we turn west onto Old Black Top Road, the crossbar of a T-shaped course that would give us a modest seven miles. These are no
mountain trails, but I know my conditioning is shot. The road trip Sandy and I took (earlier posts), interrupted by doctor’s meetings and biopsies, meant almost no running for close to eight weeks.
Old Black Top, still a fire road, is a nice piece of trail, especially today. A mild breeze sweeps yellow and red oak and maple leaves onto the soft surface as I move at my codger’s pace. I feel a little thickness in my chest, the penalty for being out of shape. Or it could have something to do with whatever I’ve got growing in there.
Still, I feel great. For those who do it, moving smoothly along a woodland trail is an exquisite, spiritual pleasure. Most of my trail running is solitary, either because I usually go when others can’t get away or, in organized events, I fall behind the field. I like it that way. The silence of the woods, broken only by footfalls, is the reward.
Sandy gets nervous when I’m out by myself, worried about me falling, getting lost, or attacked by a bear. On solitary runs on rugged Massanutten trails, just south of Front Royal, I’ve heard my cellphone buzzing as she futilely sends messages where no cell signal reaches. But the forest is a chapel, the trail the center aisle, the solitude transcendent. Some of those treks have taken me six hours plus three hours’ drive time. I guess I’m done with all that.
Old Black Top takes you around a couple of bends and up gentle climbs. The “T” course gives you the up-tempo cardio that in theory reinforces the strength-building of long mountain slogs in the Shenandoahs, the Massanuttens, or on the Appalachian Trail, that serious trail runners need. In theory. Still, the fire-road trails demand more energy than running neighborhood streets. And today I feel the extra drain on my stamina, what stamina I’ve got left, even at the slower pace.
I recall feeling the same back in the spring, when I resumed running after laying off for six weeks to recover from three days in the hospital in late February. I landed there after finishing a long mountain trail event, down with rhabdomyolysis or “rhabdo,” caused by muscle waste inflaming the kidneys. But I bounced back quickly and hustled to get ready for the Cruel Jewel 100-miler, a tough run in northeastern Georgia in May. I got 80 miles at CJ and felt good about it.
Today I can tell I haven’t bounced back. I ease off my pace, shorten my stride, work on breathing. I recall how good it felt when back in June, only four months ago, I finished a 50-mile night race on these same trails and was ready to go again within days.
The westbound cross of the “T” is a mile out and back, so I meet Alex streaking past after he makes his turn, we yell encouragement. I steam on, make one more turn and see the concrete marker for the Oak Ridge Trail. Passing the marker, you’re as good as finished with the “out” part of Old Black Top.
I make the turn, feeling good. On the return the trail dips slightly and I lengthen my stride, feeling a breeze as I pick up the pace. It’s a fast mile back to the intersection and I push hard past it, then head east toward the Turkey Run campground. I feel the chest thing still nagging. There’s Alex again, heading back now, half-mile ahead of me. We high-five and he’s gone, and—I admit it—I slow down. We’re not racing, after all.
In a way, we are, or I am. I need this slog. I’m moving well, the woods is flowing by, the trail a hazy vision through brilliant fall colors. The not-so-secret truth about these things: keep moving, never stop. A sudden spasm of pain rises from my stomach. I slug some water, then slug more. I wheeze a bit and let up. I’m back on the downside of Burma Road, heading for the bridge. From there, two more turns and a gentle climb to the gate at 234.
When I ran tough trails three or four times each week I flew over these fire roads. Things are different now. Highly unlikely I’ll be attempting Cruel Jewel’s Dragon Spine next May, as I hoped to just a couple of months ago. That’s tough on my ego. But it’s a dose of brute reality. After all, the joy of existence is in recognizing its nature, and its creation. That is, recognizing God’s defiant presence in our lives, whatever our lives mean to us, maybe in a sudden flash of understanding, maybe on a forest trail, somewhere, anywhere.
I see the 234 gate coming to me. Another small finish, another task completed. I settle into a slow, then a still-slower jog, savoring the physical rush, but then taking in the lesson hidden in the quiet of the woods: keep moving, never stop—persevere, face the pain and doubt, complete the mission, reach the trail’s end.