Shenandoah Blackrock Gap Loop
My run this past Sunday was great. Well, perhaps my running was less than stellar, but the company, mountains, and weather cooperated to make it a memorable occasion nonetheless. My involvement in the run started on Thursday when I sent my friend, Mike Mason, an email to see if he wanted to do 20 or 30 miles close to town on Saturday. While he declined the offer, he proposed an even better one – 42 miles in Shenandoah Nat’l Park on Sunday morning. After deciding that I could fit the run into my busy work schedule, I agreed to give Mike some company.
Sunday morning started off early, really frickin’ early, like get out of bed at 3:30 a.m. early. Despite my aversion to seeing 3:30 from the morning side of the day, I had no problem getting ready and hopping in the car for the 20 minute drive to Mike’s. I arrive right on time at 4:30. At two and a half hours, the drive was a long one for a run in the mountains, but with some chatter the ride was over before we knew it. We pulled into the parking lot right on time – 7 a.m. I say “on time” because we were meeting, Andy Anderson of Charlottesville. Prior to this run, neither Mike nor I had met Andy. He had contacted the VHTRC and somehow that had turned into him meeting Mike for a run. It turns out that Andy is not only a nice young man, he is also much better than his times to date would suggest (although his times are already quite respectable).
After gearing up we head out on the trail just as the first rays of sunlight hit the top of the mountain peaks to our west after barely eeking their way over the lower ridge to our right. As we set out the weather was great, as it would be all day. It was cool enough that glove, pants, and a long sleeve shirt were in order, but not so cold as to be unpleasant. The sky was bluebird. Not far along the trail I noticed a gleaming moon was still hovering over the western ridge.
The scheduled run was for two laps of a lollipop loop – one counterclockwise, then one clockwise. The first couple miles of trail went back and forth over a stream with the occasional pitch up the embankment to keep things interesting. As we were running upstream the gradual uphill prevented me from really settling into a groove. Three or four miles in we took a sharp left and headed up a 1,000’ climb up to Blackrock Gap on Skyline Drive. Mike kept us running up the whole climb. After crossing Skyline Drive we headed to the right to start the loop portion of the lollipop. The next two miles would be uphill with a ton of blowdowns. Now these weren’t the type of blowdowns that you can crawl over, instead there must have been forty places where the tops of relatively young growth blocked the trail. Eventually, I started running through them – my now exposed legs paid the price in blood. (Idiot!) About a mile from Skyline, we came to a beautiful, rocky overlook on top of Blackrock Mountain. I pulled out my camera to take a picture of the rock face and then a mountain/valley shot, but the cold had socked my camera battery – no pictures! After a small dip we climb up to the higher summit of Trayfoot Mountain. On the two long climbs up Blackrock and Trayfoot Mike was running well. I tried to run along but often found my heart rate pushing 170, 175, or even 180 bpm. Not wanting to strain before my training season begins I interspersed some walking breaks knowing that Mike would wait at any turns or summits.
After cresting, Trayfoot it was down, down, down into the valley for miles. The footing was great almost all day; however, here, deep leaves covered the rockiest section of trail for the day. Time to be careful and not let our conversations keep us from paying attention. Rule #1 of trail running – pay attention. Rule #2 of trail running – if you are thinking about Rule #2 you are not paying attention. Pay attention! I almost bit it at one point when getting carried away about one of the many topics we discussed that day – races past and future, the Montrail team (Mike, who ran for the team in ’06, was gracious in filling in many yet unknown details about the team), ladies, the mountains, friends, careers, etc. More down, down, down into Lefthand Hollow. Then a very gradual climb up along Paine Run and a slightly steeper pitch up back up to Blackrock Gap. During this stretch we talked about how trail shoes should either be good enough looking that you’d want to wear them on the street or so ridiculous that they are cool.
From Blackrock Gap we headed back down the steeper section. Despite the fact that the next four miles along the stream were technically a net descent, the small rises and my fatigue prevented me from feeling comfortable. I considered cutting the run in half by stopping when we got back to the cars. I didn’t.
After refueling and saying goodbye to Andy, Mike and I headed back out. Not long into our outbound trek, I realized that I was working way too hard. My heart rate was staying far too high and was always 10-15 bpm above Mike’s. Mike is peaking for the HURT 100 in a month, I have seven months before Vermont. About 3 miles in I tell Mike that I’m turning around at the five mile mark. He tries to talk me out of my decision to no avail. At the five mile point, I decide to accompany Mike up to the gap at Skyline Drive. We parted and after a snack and a chat with two horse riders I headed for home. For the first time that day I ran with my heart rate under control and felt a 100% better. My legs weren’t heavy and I really enjoyed the 6 miles back to the cars.
As much as I enjoyed my day in mountains with Mike, I was not ready that run. The combination of distance, hills, and Mike’s superior condition were too much for me even if any two f the three might have been ok. I made the correct decision to turn back after 27 miles and cruise in easy for a total of 33 miles. While the run was only five miles longer than my longest run this season, it was two hours longer and my first big mountain run. I had a great cardio workout, tested my muscles (moderately sore for two days afterwards), and enjoyed a beautiful mid-December day in the mountains with good people. Hopefully, we’ll head back to the same hills in a few months and I can keep Mike company for the full 42 miles. Until, I will continue to get in shape. Regardless, as we figured out before the day even began, a long run in the mountains is the best way to waste a day away…. oh, I forgot, we both quickly realized it is the second best way to spend the day.