Back in March this training run was put on the calendar as a great final "push" before tapering for Massanutten. The last couple of months I have been running in the afternoons but wanted to dedicate a full day to this run so I decided to take a Friday off - hence the "hooky run". A running buddy of mine had to bail out at the last minute so I went up knowing that I would be running most of the day solo. I run alone in many races so this was no big deal.
I had been corresponding with Adam Hill who lives in the area I was running and puts on several tough organized training runs throughout the year. Basically I told Adam what I wanted to do in terms of distance, elevation gain and time on my feet and he "designed" an appropriate route for me. I have emailed with him several times over the last year but had never actually met him before. So, off I went to the Kitsuma trail head (about 1:45 from Charlotte) on Friday morning to meet up with Adam and his friend Paul. They both would run some of the early portions of the run with me. We met up around 7:00 AM and after discussing the map/route a bit, we were off. The planned route went on the Kitsuma Trail over Kitsuma peak and down to the picnic area. It then followed asphalt for about 3 miles past Andrews Geyser and up across the train tracks to the Heartbreak Ridge trail (name much deserved). Heartbreak Ridge spilled onto the Toll Road that you take out of Montreat up towards Mt. Mitchell. At that point, you could go right and head towards to Blue Ridge Parkway ("BRP") on the way to the Mitchell summit or go left and head down the Toll Road into Ridgecrest or Montreat and back to Kitsuma. If I followed the route I could get between 30 and 40 miles in. I hoped to get at least 5,500 feet of climb and about 7 to 8 hours on my feet. I planned to take a fairly easy pace hopefully simulating the late stages of a 100 mile race.
The Kitsuma trail is a great stretch of trail that very quickly climbs up over the Kitsuma peak and then blasts its way down into the valley. We ran along and Adam pointed out several wildflowers. We all remarked how "early" they seemed to be out this year. Adam and Paul are much faster runners than I am and I explained that I was purposefully taking it slow and they were fine with that. We had a great time talking and just enjoying the trail. About 3 miles in, Adam had to bid us farewell and after thanking him for all of his help, Paul and I continued on. In the event of any difficulty, Adam gave me his cell phone number (remember this for later). Paul and I made our way to the picnic area where I used the restroom and we headed up the asphalt road. Although it was road, this section was very peaceful as several folks said hello to us and we did not come upon a single car inn the 3 mile jaunt. Paul pointed out a cabin he and his family have rented during trout fishing trips. The cabin had a pretty cool history as it was built by a "train baron" who placed it such that he could see the trains traversing the mountains and ridge lines around him. Before long, we made our way up the steep trail and got on Heartbreak Ridge.
We climbed several (I think eight or nine) switchbacks up the trail taking notice of many fallen trees. We both remarked how it would be an amazing sight to see and hear such large trees come crashing down. I could tell I was holding Paul back so I eventually advised him to go on and enjoy his run as I was going to be taking it easy for a good while. With that, he was off but I would see him again. I absolutely loved the Heartbreak Ridge section as the trail was challenging and the views were absolutely spectacular. There were many occasions where I was unable to pass up stopping and taking in the unadulterated beauty around me. I placed a call to my buddy who was at the office to "rub it in" a bit but kept on moving. I felt great and was eating about 2 gels and 3 shot blocks every hour. I had plenty of water but knew it would be a little tight getting to the first water source. I noticed lots of dogwoods and mountain laurel along the trail and it was gorgeous! I was careful to follow the yellow blazes and took note of the landmarks Adam advised me of in his excellent directions. Before long, I arrived at the Toll Road and noticed the campers and bear cabin on my right as I intersected with the road. I decided to turn right and do an out and back up to the BRP but would not go to the Mitchell summit. I figured I would have an opportunity to "add on" mileage if I wanted to down lower on the Toll Road (boy was I right). I was amazed how peaceful it was as the silence was broken by the occasional car as I approached the BRP. I made my way back down the Toll Road and before long was right back at the Heartbreak Ridge intersection. I reviewed the map once more and then headed on my way.
For those that have not run on the Toll Road, it is a very rocky and technical stretch of "road". Actually, it is very MMT-esque in certain spots (especially higher up). It is all runnable but you really have to watch your footing in several stretches. Fortunately, it was fairly dry so the rocks were not slick. I can imagine how difficult it would be during the Mitchell Challenge in February when it is coated in ice. Eventually I came to a fork - on the left, a white gate and on the right the road appeared to circle around. I took the left and went around the gate. Now the real "fun" would begin as I was about to get 6 or 7 bonus miles and about 2,200 feet of bonus elevation gain. Not to mention a nice lesson in rationing water...
This section was very steep and mostly downhill. It was great technical running and I was having a lot of fun. The trail was totally exposed but offered incredible panoramic views to the east and south. I continued my way down but did find it curious that some of the landmarks weren't showing up. I rationalized that I unknowingly missed them since I had not run this section before. After about an hour or so, the trail leveled out and presented me with another fork. To the left it went steeply up through private land while to the right, the trail went down into the woods (although I did see old ribbons on the trail). Straight ahead was a rolling "double track" section. I went straight but after about a mile, the trail ended at a waterfall. I was certain Adam would have mentioned a waterfall so I headed back to the fork and took the "right" fork and followed the old ribbons. Eventually the trail turned into a deer path and soon I was in knee deep leaves when the trail just stopped. Uh oh! I called Adam and left a message and then called Mason at work since I knew he has run this route several times before. Mason's immediate reply was: "I have always wondered where the trail behind that white gate went"... My mistake was all the way back at the white gate on the Toll Road. Ugggh! I passed the gate about an hour ago and had about 5 ounces of water left...
I got right to work and climbed and climbed and climbed and then, climbed some more. The sun was beating down on the exposed trail and I noticed a dark cloud forming. Fortunately, the cloud didn't materialize but my cell phone did start acting weird. I couldn't get the screen to work and it would only answer on speakerphone. Oh well, onward and upward - literally. I admit I was a little scared due to the water situation. I have never been "off course" or gotten lost before so I suppose I was due. I started thinking of contingencies but soon I saw the white gate. Wow, I made pretty good time on the arduous climb back up. Might as well have been the pearly gates to heaven because I was psyched to see it. Now I know where I was and this gave me some unexpected rejuvenation. Another call to Mason and I learned that water was not far away. Adam returned my call and made sure I was back on track. I told him that given the bonus miles, I might bail out at Montreat but would decide later. Soon I was at "Earl's Cabin" and filled up my bottle, hydration pack and doused my head in the cold clear mountain water. It felt great.
I started running and really cranking out a good pace. I looked at my watch and it said I had already been 29 miles and climbed 7,300 feet! Wow! Soon I saw the green bear cabin and decided to call Adam and get directions on how to bail early. At Sourwallow Gap I headed into Montreat and met Adam and Paul. My watch showed a final distance of about 33 miles and I had been going for about 7 hours. I still had tons of energy but it was smart to cut it short.
Adam and Paul had all kinds of snacks for me including a Clif bar, cookies, trail mix, sports drink and even a beer. I devoured the Clif bar, cookies and most of the trail mix. I also drank most of the sports drink but passed on the brew. I had only met these guys this morning but they treated me like a lifelong friend. We talked about my run some and then headed to Paul's house so he could take me to get my car. He offered me more food and a shower if I wanted to clean up. I decide to just go to the car and head home but was very appreciative of his hospitality. Before Adam left he told me I had a "gift" at my car. When Paul and I arrived, Adam had left me a really cool pint glass on my hood. What a great gesture. After thanking Paul, I made my way back to Charlotte.
This was a fantastic training run and an incredible set of trails I got to run on (even the bonus section which I have dubbed the "Bedrock Spur"). I got a huge boost of confidence going into MMT with this run (and the Crowders Run the weekend before). I got another rugged run in the Streaks (they worked great), got to test out some more race day gear and discovered some wonderful trails to train on. I even got a "finisher's award" - the pint glass :-) Most importantly though, I made two new good friends in Adam and Paul. These guys are two of the most genuine and "real" people I have met who just love being out in the woods pushing the limits. After all, isn't that what the "it" in trail running is all about? Running with friends in the woods and enjoying the nature around us.
Now I am officially tapering for Massanutten and feel really great going into the race. Stay tuned for a few more posts about my preparation and of course a race preview in a couple of weeks. Peace to all.