Shenandoah National Park (SNP), founded in the mid-1930s, runs just over 100 miles from north to south. Beginning in Front Royal, Virginia to the north and ending at Afton, Virginia in the south, SNP forms a lush wild-land border between the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the rolling hills of the Piedmont region to the east. Home to over 1,000 black bears, more than 200 species of birds, and other abundant wildlife, SNP feels quite remote even though it lies within a day’s drive of over 30 million people. In contrast to many of the large, majestic parks of the American West which were established to preserve still-wild places, Shenandoah National Park was created to enable lands which had been heavily used and, in some cases, abused for centuries to regenerate back into wild lands.
Called by some the “great recycled wilderness” and a “living museum of rebirth and renewal,” SNP stands as an important symbol of human vision. While there are countless examples of human decisions that have damaged and even destroyed wild lands, there are a few in which the hopeful ethos of preservation and conservation have won the day. Shenandoah National Park is one of those few.
And so it is for this reason that I have chosen Shenandoah National Park as the place for me to celebrate my 50th birthday while raising awareness for the seminal importance of our public lands. Beginning at Chester Gap at 7 a.m. on Saturday, September 23 and finishing some time after 11 a.m. at McCormick Gap on Sunday, September 24, I intend to run 101 miles across this extraordinary wild land. [Author’s Note: I turn 50 on Monday, September 25.] While most of the 1.4 million annual visitors to SNP access the park in vehicles via the spectacular 105-mile Skyline Drive, some visitors enjoy the park through exploring the 511 miles of hiking trails that traverse the park in all directions. Across meadows, through creeks, along ridgelines, and under waterfalls, SNP’s trails are truly idyllic. The crown jewel of that trail system is the 101 continuous miles of the iconic Appalachian Trail that transects the park.
Maintained by the oldest trail club in the country, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), founded in 1927, the SNP section, or simply ‘The Park,’ as it’s called by locals, is a truly special 101-mile swath of trail. Rolling relentlessly between 2,000 and 4,000 feet altitude, ‘The Park’ has 23,000 feet of vertical gain and a trail surface that will keep even the most hardy thru-hiker honest. It’s a piece of trail that grinds and winds its way across country as old as the rocks it cuts into, and every bit as battle scarred. In short, it’s a perfect place for this grizzled old runner to get a bit more grizzled.
On my 101-mile birthday run, I’ll be supported and crewed by my family. My oldest son Carson will only be there in spirit as he’s in college in Colorado now and for some reason the allure of 30 hours in SNP couldn’t lure him away from Durango whitewater. But my wife Shelly and sons Logan and Tully will be along for the ride as they have for every one of my other 100-mile runs. The only difference is, this time I’ll be doing it alone. My long-time sponsor Patagonia, for whom I’ve run now for 12 years, is providing wonderful support as this is a cause that hits close to their hearts. And my good friends at Drymax and Altra will also provide my feet with all they need to cover the ‘beast coast gnar’ that awaits me.
To be clear, this is not an FKT attempt or even anything remotely close to it. Rather, this is intended to be a simple trek. A run allowing me to celebrate my 50th birthday on my terms and with my people.
In the end, it is my hope to savor a day and a half of running across a public wild land that I have grown to love. A wild land that has allowed me to do what I love with very little noise or interference. A place where I can simply be and let be.
I wish everyone in the world could be as fortunate as me. Fortunate enough to have the health and well-being to run across beautiful places that can be truly transformative. Fortunate enough to be surrounded by love and joy and hope every single day. Fortunate enough to let what you do, what you love, and what you live be the essence of who you are. Damn, I am one lucky guy! See you on the other side.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Basic City Beer Company in Waynesboro, Virginia. Located just west of the Blue Ridge, Basic City features a delicious selection of tasty beers brewed in small batches and only available locally. Their City of Dreams Vienna Lager is a new take on a classic variety. At once woody and earthy, this beer is smooth and complex and well worth it after a long day on the Appalachian Trail.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you have any words of wisdom or luck for AJW as he embarks on this solo adventure to celebrate his birthday and public lands?
- Have you taken the skills you’ve learned through training for and racing ultramarathons into non-racing adventures like this one? Leave a comment to share yours.