Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Running Yourself Rugged

I love to run Whittleton Trail in the rain.  Don’t ask me why.  I don’t know why.  There’s just something about running that particular trail in a good steady downpour that appeals to a primitive place in my brain.  It doesn’t matter why.  It just makes me happy.  I’ll shuffle to a stop next to my car, splattered in mud, clung to by wet leaves, shoes oozing water and mud…and wearing a big stupid grin somewhere under all the muck.

Along Whittleton Trail

I discovered my love for trail running in the late 1990s when I lived in Slade.  My beater car kept me from zipping 15 miles to Stanton to run at the track; and why would I want to?  The city park was okay then (fantastic these days), but I had access to the entire Red River Gorge trail system. 

Being in my early twenties I was young enough scoff at the notion that there was risk associated with running the trails alone.  I’d been hiking them alone for a few years by then and was comfortable heading out on long jaunts with only my thoughts for company.  Since then I’ve run hundreds of miles with only one twisted ankle.  It was enough to make me more aware of notifying my loved ones of where I’d be running and trying to go with a partner whenever I could, but even after all these years I still feel the pull of an empty trail and will take off regardless of whether or not I can get someone else to go with me.

Oops!  But it got better.

My first real trail running experience was magical.  The first time I visited Courthouse Rock I was near the end of Auxier Ridge and getting a little antsy to see the big rock formation so I picked up the pace a little.  As I jogged easily along in my hiking boots I noticed some kind of bird of prey gliding along parallel to the ridge and my path.  I paced it, running faster to try and keep up with the majestic bird as the ridge itself narrowed around me.  I remember having the distinct feeling that the ridge was going to come to an abrupt end and I wouldn’t be able to fly on along with the bird.  And I was right.  I stood at the overlook for Courthouse, chest heaving with shortened breaths as the raptor continued on over the valley below.

In later years the Auxier Ridge to Auxier Branch to Tunnel Ridge Road loop has been my go-to trail running destination.  Only recently have I been comfortable running four miles, and at just over four the loop is tough considering you descend from the top of Auxier Ridge into Auxier Branch and then climb steeply out of the drainage back to Tunnel Ridge.  I confess I do end up walking a lot on the climb out.  Someday I’ll be able to run the entire loop without stopping. 

If you know me, you know I don’t look like an Olympic marathon runner.  I’m not skinny.  I am not a gazelle.  I’m more like an old nag horse.  Oh, I can run.  It’s just ain’t pretty.  To enjoy running you don’t have to be fast.  You don’t have to be in peak physical shape.  You just have to condition yourself to run. 

I love mountain biking, but you can’t mountain bike on the trails in the Red River Gorge.  This past fall, as I was trying to get in shape for my first half marathon—the Iron Horse in Midway—I started at the suspension bridge on the Sheltowee Trace Trail below Chimney Top and ran north on the Sheltowee.  As I ran along the tricky section of trail west of Cloudsplitter I began to experience the same kind of sensory input I get from mountain biking.  It took a little finesse to surmount some short rocky and rooty sections of trail.  And as I ran on along the Sheltowee toward the Bison Way Trail—which connects back over to the main paved road in the Gorge—I started to see running on the trails as a fair substitute for mountain biking.  That sparked new interest in me for my home trails. 

The day I ran that part of the Sheltowee Trace an unofficial run was going on just a little later in the day along the same section of trail.  It was the inaugural SheltoweeChallenge 50k and half marathon.  The Sheltowee Challenge was put on as a fund-raiser for the Sheltowee TraceAssociation which is a non-profit group dedicated to maintaining and improving the 307 mile trail across its entire length through the Daniel Boone National Forest.  I opted not to do the run because by the time I heard about it I didn’t have time to train for a 50k trail run.  “K” is kilometers.  What that means in American is 31 miles.

I only ran eight miles the day of the Sheltowee Challenge, but I vowed that in 2014 I would get in shape and do the full 50 kilometer run.  A few weeks later I participated in the Iron Horse and finished in two hours and fourteen minutes.  It wasn’t earth-shattering, but I was happy considering it was my first-ever long run.

The Sheltowee Trace in winter

Not too long after that I heard about The Rugged Red.  Joe Bowen told me about plans to put on a trail half marathon in the Red River Gorge.  I said “count me in.”  How could I not participate in the first official half marathon on the trails of the Gorge?  I’ve got a few months to get ready.  The Rugged Red will be run on September 6th, 2014. 

Running in the rain keeps me cool.  My engine burns pretty hot. I get overheated easily.  The other thing about running in the rain is going out knowing I’m going to get soaked to the bone and not caring.  On a rainy trail you stomp along, splitting puddles with the same joy you felt as a kid stomping in them.  It’s a way to reclaim lost moments of childhood, playing in the dirt and mud, running for the fun of it, tromping through the woods, and loving each moment of movement as if it were a lifetime unto itself.  

Maybe I do know why I love to run Whittleton Trail in the rain.  All I know for sure is that as long as I can keep picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down I’ll be a trail runner.

Somewhere down the trail


 

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