Get in the Woods

I ran in the woods today.  Perhaps that’s not some grand statement, but for me, a mid-week, mid-day trail run is a bit of an accomplishment.

I’m good at excuses for not trail running.  It’s a hassle to plan and drive 10-15 minutes there and back when I can just run from my door.  For me, trail running is usually more strenuous than road running even if I take it slow, so running trails on an easy day doesn’t feel easy.  I can’t always get the mileage I want in since it’s so much slower. And while I like running with others especially on trails, I need to be flexible with my work and family schedule so I can’t always commit to a run with others during the day so I need to run alone on trails most of the time.  (Should I not run trails alone?)  Another valid excuse is that I’m a klutz and typically fall over roots and rocks that seem to hurl themselves at my ankles.  The only way to avoid this is to pay complete attention to the six feet of trail in front of me at all times.  That much focus gets exhausting, especially when I can just run on roads and zone out to music or a good podcast.  When I’m training for a road race, I seek out the most course-specific routes which means trails get nixed.

Those excuses are pretty weak sauce.  I’m not training for a race.  Training my brain to get good at focusing on what’s in front of me is the epitome of living in the moment.  Running in the woods alone is not only okay, but it’s a really good thing.  Mileage isn’t that important right now.  Taking on the challenge of trails will make me stronger.  The 10-minute drive is a stupid excuse and I’m lucky to live in such an amazing place where trails are so close.

And it’s hot.  Not desert hot, but sticky-humid hot.  The kind of hot where you can see waves of heat radiating from the black asphalt and your skin glistens with sweat as soon as you run 20 feet.  Add in the bright sunshine baking everything not under protection of a tree and the only respite for runners is the woods.

So I ran an 8-mile loop in Bent Creek today with 1200′ of elevation gain and loss (Strava says 1000′ and Garmin says 1200′ so I’ll take Garmin’s!).  It’s a loop I’ve done many times before when I was trail running weekly.  The hard part comes first and then mostly drops after you get to the view at Five Points.

Five Points, Bent Creek

Bent Creek is a popular spot for running and mountain biking so it’s rare to go 10 minutes without passing someone, even in the middle of the work week.  This is one of the reasons I feel safe running alone there.  If I hurt myself, I know someone will be along eventually.  I carry my phone as well, even though service can be spotty.  I know there are many women who are not comfortable being alone in the woods, but I’m not one of them.  I’m not willing to let fear get in the way of what I want to do in life, but I also take precautions.  (This is a great read from Oiselle’s site about running alone.)

I took my time today and stopped when I felt like it and flew down the gravel road at the end, just for fun.  It was still hot out, but not at all unbearable.  It was a nice change of pace to listen to birds and the rushing creeks instead of whatever’s in my earbuds.

I actually ran in the woods!

I forget sometimes how good nature is for the soul.  It is refreshing to just disappear for a little while and then emerge a little bit renewed.

I am committing now to trail running once a week for the summer.  Not only will it make me a better athlete, but it might even have the power to make me a better me.



Shining Rock/Big East Fork Loop

I’m not much of a trail runner. I used to aim to get in the woods once a week, but I think I’ve been on a trail run about once this year.  It’s not that I don’t like trail running.  It’s just that it’s a lot of work to plan and drive and go and not fall down and get out in all that nature.  I’m more of a minimalist when it comes to running.  I just like to go out my door and get it done.

Did I say fall down?  Yes, I fall down a lot trail running.  Almost every time.  I typically end up with a scraped knee and sliced up palms.  So now I wear gloves, no matter how hot it is.  Not full winter gloves, but the fingerless kind that weightlifters wear.  Even if I don’t happen to fall, I think of them as a good luck charm.  Kind of like bringing an umbrella to guarantee that it doesn’t rain.

When I saw Natalie post about getting a group to run the Big East Fork Loop, I really wanted to make it happen.  I’m officially not training for anything (nope, nothing) right now, so I don’t have to stick to a set schedule of mileage, pace, or intensity. I can just run.  Or in the case of this trail, hike, crawl, climb, sort of run, hop, and almost swim.  I had run this with her group last year and really loved it, so I said I was in.

Our fearless crew at the trailhead
Our fearless crew at the trailhead

The climb up to Shining Rock along the Old Butt (tee hee!) trail is so steep that you have to use your hands at points as it ascends about 2500′ in 3.5 miles.  Thankfully, I learned a while ago that trail runners walk uphills a lot to save energy for the rest of the run, so it was sort of like being on a big steep staircase for the first hour or so.  As we got higher, there we several lookout points to stop and take pictures and generally be cheesy.

Selfie of a selfie
Natalie’s selfie of Maura trying to take a picture of me.
It looks like
It looks like I’m caught checking my email in the middle of all that nature.  Just opening my camera, I promise!

The top of Shining Rock is marked by huge outcropping of white quartz rock.  Even though it was overcast, it was still so beautiful up there.

On Shining Rock
On Shining Rock

Most of the uphill ends at that point and the trail meets up with the Art Loeb trail.  The rhododendron tunnels open up to a wide, grassy field at the top of the ridge.

Mount Pisgah is out there somewhere!
Mount Pisgah is out there somewhere!

It was so nice to see the rhodos and mountain laurel blooming this late in the season.  At several points, pink blossoms covered our path.  Just beautiful.

The trail heads down to the river and crosses the Grassy Branch and the Big East Fork.  There is no escaping wet feet and it felt great to have a cool soak on a warm day.  I suppose no one loves running in soaking wet socks, but after squishing in them for a mile or two, I forgot about it.

I was really starting to feel tired on the descents after the river crossings and really out of the rhythm of trail running.  Mentally, you have to be very present while on the trail to make sure you are avoiding roots and rocks, brambles and branches.  At one point, Maura said, “I’ve forgotten how mentally tiring this can be!”  She’s absolutely right.  But it’s a good kind of tired.

The loop was somewhere around 13 miles and it took us around 4.5 hours with lots of stopping.  It ends with a short 100 yards of running on the road.  After all that rock and root hopping, my feet were treated to a little slice of sweet, smooth asphalt.  It’s almost silly how good it felt.

I’m not sure if I will be able to get back to weekly trail runs or not, but I will be making a point to go more often.  It’s nice to have a little more balance between trail and roads.

And you know what?  I didn’t fall down once!