That was on April 28th. On May 10th, I was scheduled to begin my first big adventure run since the Grand Canyon. Two close friends and I had planned a four-day trip to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Earlier in the year, we knew we would all have some time off in mid-May, so we began brainstorming possible adventures. This one was one of the first ideas we came up with and also, conveniently, probably the cheapest and closest to home.
Skyline Drive is a relatively famous and extremely scenic road through Shenandoah National Park (SNP). It winds back and forth, up and down a chain of Appalachian Mountains for about 105 miles through SNP, point to point. The Appalachian Trail also spans the park in the north-south direction, essentially paralleling Skyline Drive, and crossing that road many times, tagging lots of summits and overlooks along the way. The weekend of May 10-13 was a lovely one weather-wise. Great temperatures, sunny, clear. Perfect for lots and lots of families and tourists to drive or bicycle Skyline, hike on the App Trail, and visit of the many picnic areas or campgrounds along the road/trail. Unfortunately, all of those people were only getting a small portion of what SNP has to offer. Sure, there are like 70-some overlooks along Skyline Drive, and you could spend a day driving it and stopping at every one of them, but there is so much more to it than those overlooks, especially for a group of close friends with an appreciation for the long run.
When I went to the Grand Canyon with Ted in March 2011, wanted to see as much of it as we could in the time that we had, hence the Rim-Rim-Rim run. Same thing in Shenandoah. Ben, Matt and I had four days to spend in SNP, and we wanted to make the most of it. We started in the south, at Rockfish Gap, and ran northward on the Appalachian Trail to a predetermined stopping point each day, eating like kings at camp each night, until we reached Front Royal, VA.
I won't go into too much detail about each day, mostly because I can't (it was several weeks ago now), but it was an incredible and appropriately challenging experience. There are a few highlights/mentionables:
1. Bears. None of us had ever seen a bear in the wild before, and we saw several on this trip. The first two encounters were while driving at dusk on Skyline Drive. The black bears like to hang out by/on the road for some reason. One of these encounters was with Mama Bear with Smaller Bear and Little Baby Cub Bear. Adorable and awesome. The most memorable of these encounters, though, was of the rather large black bear we encountered upon rounding a bend in the trail on Day 3. It was really cool to be standing maybe 25 yards from that thing, staring at it wondering what we were supposed to do as it glared back at us. Luckily, the bear could tell by the muscular definition in our muddy legs and our salt-encrusted clothes that we were seasoned Men of the Trail, and that this was in fact our territory. Rendering us proper honors, he reluctantly stepped aside and watched as we strode past.
2. Food. Ben's wife, Erin, supplied us very generously with fuel to sustain our minds and bodies throughout this trip. Dinner was the only real meal every day, but Erin made sure it counted for us. I'm talking like a bucket of mac'n'cheese, a pile of spaghetti, hot dogs, pasta salad, burgers, and the biggest, juiciest, most succulent steaks I've ever had the luxury of eating with my hands.
3. Brown Gap. One of the overlooks along the trail/Skyline Drive is called Brown Gap. It was the source of many jokes over the course of the adventure.
4. Day Two. The three of us were very tired after Day 1. It was about 22 miles, but also included an early wake-up in the morning and the few hours of driving to get to Rockfish Gap from Annapolis. We started running at about 12:30 and took 4 or 5 hours. The way we had planned the trip, Day 1 and Day 4 would be the 'shorter' mileage days, making up for it on Day 2 and Day 3. The thing is, we were basing our mileages off of the mile markers on Skyline Drive, since we could never find any mileage information for the App Trail. We operated under the assumption that the Trail and the road were about the same distance. It turns out we may have been wrong - or, at the very least, the section we ran on Day 2 was significantly longer on the trail than on the road. In the morning before beginning the run on Day 2, we stashed two sandwich stops at places where the trail meets the road. It was 32 miles on the road, so we stashed one sandwich break at about 10 miles, and one at about 20. Once in a while, the trail markers along the AT would have distances marked on them to certain campgrounds or gaps. When we got to our second sandwich break on Day 2, we thought we were about 2/3 done with the day. We were about 4 hours 30 minutes into the run, and feeling pretty beat. We saw a trail post that seemed to indicate we had several more miles left than we thought, but (I, at least) kind of tried not to believe it. We had been running for about 4:30 at that point, and we would continue to run for about 4 more hours. It turned out we were more like halfway through at our second sandwich break. We finished running that day at 8:00pm, just as it was getting dark. By the time we got back to the campground, it was Quiet Hours and we still had dinner to prepare. It was a long, terrible, fantastic day.
5. The trail. Those 105-110 miles of the Appalachian Trail are some of, if not the nicest trail miles I've ever run. It might be hard to beat the Grand Canyon trails, but they are two very different trails. Difficult climbs, long descents, some steep, some gradual, some rocky, some smooth. Loads of spectacular views - it's awesome being rewarded after a long hard climb by stepping out on to a rock and looking down, seeing the road you just came from winding some 1000 feet below. I hope the pictures below can do the trail a little bit of justice at least.
6. Injuries. After Triple Crown, I didn't run a single step until Day 1 of this trip. For some reason, though, my shin wasn't really healing or starting to feel better like it had after taking a week or two off at times earlier this year. I couldn't abandon this trip though, so I had to at least start it and then help out in a crewing capacity if need be. However, on Day 1 when we started running - I was delighted. My legs and my shin felt great! I tried not to get too excited, but I felt amazing. After an hour and a half of running, though, the soreness started to crop up in my shin again. By the two hour mark, it was hurting and I was limping. I figured I would abandon the run after Day 1 and just crew for Matt and Ben for the remainder. In camp that night, my shin was really sore. We were all beat, though, from a long day of traveling and running, and a week of inconveniently timed sleep deprivation. But tomorrow was to be the longest day of running. I wrapped my shin tight with a compression band and went to sleep. When I woke up on the morning of Day 2, it was hurting and I was still limping around camp. But I got my running clothes on and decided to give it a shot. If my leg was feeling fine and it was one of the other two that was injured, it would have been a bit of a mental blow to me to lose one of them for the long haul on Day 2. I didn't want to leave them to it alone, making it even harder maybe than it already would be. We started running, and it hurt, but after a while I realized that at least it wasn't really getting worse.
Long story short, I limped for all but maybe 7 of 8 of those 105-110 miles in the four days we were out there. My right leg was extremely tired. Since it was my left leg that was injured, my limp was forcing my right leg to do probably 60 or 70% of the work. Suddenly, though not surprisingly, only a few miles into the last day's run, I got an excruciating pain in my right knee. It was almost completely debilitating, and the worst pain I've ever felt from running. I found, though, that if I spent 5 or 10 minutes hobbling with it in a terrible and what must have been awkward-looking limp, it would loosen up very gradually and eventually allow me to return to my 'normal' stride and pace. I thought it was at bay by the time we stopped for our next water break, but then I tried to run again and the same terrible pain was back. So I did the same thing to allow it to loosen up. This pattern continued for the rest of the day, until we reached Front Royal at the end of the trail.
So that's that. After the second day, the main thing that made me return to the trail each of the following two days was the value of this experience. It was too good to quit. I knew I was doing damage, but I thought it was worth the time off that would necessarily follow. I had been training all year for the North Face 50 Mile on June 2nd, but that was already in jeopardy as it was.
Each day of this run was different. They lasted 4-5 hours, 8-9 hours, 7-8 hours, and 5-6 hours respectively. I don't have more detailed information - that's just from recollection. Oh yes, also of note: I wore the exact same shorts and shirt for Days 1, 2, and 4. I wore the same shoes and socks for Days 1 and 2, and the same shoes and socks for Days 3 and 4. Gross? Maybe. But I know which shoes, socks, and shorts I like the best for running now. And the salt on that shirt was just epic. Here are a bunch of pictures - hopefully they make you want to run on the App Trail!
|Matt, me, Ben - the starting line|
|Ben showcasing some of the beautiful greens, soft dirt, and steep hills|
|Bent down real quick to snap this shot - kinda proud of it :)|
|Matty lookin' good|
|Summit of Blackrock Mountain on Day 1..or Day 2?|
|Best shot of a bear I got - unfortunately Day 3 was the only day I didn't run with my camera, and that was the day we encountered the bear during our run.|
|Start of Day 2. Notice my repeat wardrobe.|
|Day 1, I believe.|