The plan called for a 30-35 mile run on the AT yesterday with Aaron Ligon and Dave Pryor. However, last minute issues kept Aaron from driving up from Charlotte, and as a result, Dave and I decided to meet at Bent Creek and put the miles in there.
I arrived at Hard Times Trailhead few minutes early. Right after I pulled in, another car pulled in, parked, and left the tunes blaring. I sat back and relaxed and took advantage of the early morning "free concert" while I waited for Dave. After a few minutes, I started chatting with the runner, a very nice gentleman named Wally. I was wearing my Flying Pig shirt, and we talked about what a great race the Pig is. Soon enough, Dave pulls in the lot, gets out of his car, and is like, "Hey, Wally, how's it going?" (I should not be surprised, as runners seem to be a close knit group, but I have to admit, it still seems so cool when things like this happen).
It turns out Wally is just looking to run for 2 hours, and he's up for following us. After discussing a few possible routes, I liked the idea of running the Shut In Ridge Race course, as I have never been on the course, and this is a race that Leopold is very interested in completing in the next year or two.
This ended up being exactly the experience I needed to put me in the right head space to attempt the Foothills Trail. The plan- run 2 15-mile loops which capture 15 of the 18 miles of the Shut In course. I've heard Shut In is a Beast, but that the real challenge is the last 2 miles, and today we were not running those last 2 miles, we were taking a side trail to connect back to Hard Times.
Here's how it unfolded:
Loop 1: 3 hrs. 20 minutes (13 min. mile average pace)
We set off up Hard Times Road, which sets the tone right away. It's a pretty good ascent, and it lasts for 2-3 miles. At the top, I realized we had averaged 11:20 pace, which is slow for these guys, but too fast for me. At the peak of the hill, you get on the Shut In Trail and begin a vicious climb. I could tell there would have been a great view if the trees were not so hugely overgrown.
Eventually, you come to a portion that is really pleasant. It's like you're in a bowl, and you're running on a ridge all along the inside. There a nice rhodo tunnel, and there's just a very peaceful feeling.
I was happy to find I had gotten my food and hydration right. I went back to Accelerade, and had zero problems- except perhaps needing a little more water than I had, and not finding it on the trail.
We eventually got back to the trail head, and although it had been a good run, I was feeling like my legs didn't really have much more. Dave was having issues with his plantar fascia, and I completely backed up his decision to stop at one loop. It was decision time for me: end with a shorter, faster run and call it a day, or continue?
As much as I wanted to call it a day, I knew I needed something more. It wasn't enough to be physically tired. To face the 24th, I needed to know I could be mentally tough when it counted. That I could push through the physical pain, the mental pain, and beyond if need be. I set a goal for the second loop- slow down, power hike anything too steep to run, but run every runnable part of the trail.
Loop 2: 4 hrs. 25 minutes (17 min. mile average pace
It seemed "perfect" to have to start on the 2 mile climb. I thought,"This is what I am going to feel like climbing out of Laurel Valley- if I'm extremely lucky." I made myself slow down and not stop until I reached the Shut In trail at the top. I hiked the first climb on the Shut In trail, and made myself run as soon as it leveled off. The next section, that was previously so enjoyable, was no longer enjoyable. I was hurting. I wanted to walk so badly. It was disheartening to feel like that on a nice pleasant fairly flat section.
Disheartening soon became something akin to despair. I hung out in this horrible emotional place for a little longer, until I had to find a way to change it. Change it or stop- those were the only two choices. There's a moment, where it is just that clear. You know you simply cannot continue to take the pain, and the only answer is to find a way to transcend it. As I've discovered before, more often than not what it takes for me to do this is to focus on the beauty of the experience, to connect to the trail, to nature, to the powerful forces inside and outside. That experience somehow seems bigger than the pain in my body. Although I still feel the pain, I find I can cope.
I came down Side Hill, realizing I was finishing up. I felt dehydrated, and unsure if I was going to hold it together on the long downhill. I got it in my head that I was going to lay down in the creek when I was done. That's all I thought about- how rewarding the cold, cold water would feel. It felt like it was a million miles away. The last two miles literally lasted forever.
Light at the end of the tunnel time- I could hear the water. Then, I could see it. Not surprisingly, it was at this point that I knew if I had to keep going, if there were no water, only more miles, I could do it. I would do it. That's when I knew I had gotten what I came here for.
Time to taper for the Foothills Trail Run.