Saturday, August 28, 2010

Poetry, ultra-running, and another mountain run

Some of my favorite literature is the poetry written by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, and Shelley. For me, one of the most fascinating things about these poets is that many of them knew each other. They moved in the same circles, visited the same places, and wrote about those places, and yet, each of them had a different perspective. Mont Blanc, a mountain in the French Alps, is one of the places that appears in almost all of their writings, and it takes on different meanings in the different works. (It even appears in the novel "Frankenstein", as the doctor trails his monster across glaciers in the Alps.) And this weekend, the mountain took on even more meaning for about 2,000 people who gathered to run the 100-mile North Face Trail du Mont Blanc.

The librarian part of me was excited about following this race to gain my own experience of the mountain (however far removed from it that I am). The runner part of me wanted to follow it for awe and inspiration at the amazing feat so many participants would achive by completing the race. So I was really psyched up at work yesterday when my lunch break coincided with the start of the race. Only about 2 hours after it started, however, it was cancelled due to poor weather conditions.

If I was disappointed at the cancellation, I can only imagine what the runners felt. To have trained, traveled, and already invested so much mental and physical energy into the race and have it called off in the middle must have been immensely frustrating. I decided that as a nod to their efforts, I'd run up my own mountain this weekend, so this afternoon I took another trip to Mount Tammany.

I had run 6 miles yesterday afternoon, so I was a little tired, but I took it easy and rested a few times on the way up. It was warmer than last week, and I really noticed it when the trees began to thin out and I came into the full sun.

Although I did a lot of hiking today, when I did run, I felt more confident in my ability to navigate around rocks and roots than I did last week. In fact, I felt more stable running than I did walking. It's as if the lightness and quickness of the steps got me past the point where I would trip or stumble before it had time to happen.

I brought my camera this week, so when I reached the summit, I asked one of the people already there to take a picture of me. Here it is - me after running up a mountain:

I stayed around for a few minutes to enjoy the view. A lot of other hikers were gathering there, including some of the canine type. Here's one that I almost didn't notice because he was curled up in a little puppy nest between the rocks. He was so cute, but the poor thing looked hot and exhausted.

When I started back, I felt really refreshed, and was able to run over the rocky trail that I could barely walk over on the way up. Here's a picture of the top of the ridge before the trail leads down the mountain. It's amazing how, with enough energy and focus, you can pick your way over and around the rocks. I definitely was careful about it, though. I didn't want to trip and hit my head.

The way down was fun. I took the opportunity on some of the flatter stretches to really pick up the speed, and it felt great. I noticed that my quads did not hurt like they did last week, so I suspect that I'm already benefitting a lot from the workout. After making my way down the mountain, I climbed out into the middle of Dunnfield Creek. It rained a lot in the past week, so there was more water in the falls than last week's trickle, but you can see that it wasn't much. It was still a very pleasant spot, and I felt even more energized when I continued back to my car.

So I have now completed two runs up the mountain, and I am sure that it has made a trail runner out of me. I'm thinking of visiting a different park and running some hilly, single-track bike trails as a safer alternative to the mountain for now, although I hope to reach many more summits over the course of my running career.

"Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: -- the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death."

From "Mont Blanc: Lines written in the vale of Chamouni "
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1816

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Running on top of the world

At an elevation of only 1,527 feet above sea level, it's hardly the top of the world, but it sure felt like it was when I reached the summit of Mt. Tammany yesterday. And I think it's made a trail runner out of me.

I had planned an early 8-mile run on the road for yesterday morning, but when the alarm went off at 6:30, my head was pounding with want of more sleep, and I turned the alarm off and buried my head in my pillow. When I did get up, it was about 8, and my head felt like it would begin pounding again if I moved around too much, so I decided to postpone the run until the next day.

The only hitch was that the weather was beautiful. It was sunny and about 61 degrees with no humidity - which has been almost unheard of this summer. I had to do something outside. I thought about taking the Trek for another spin down the trail, but then I thought about hiking. I hadn't done that for a while. It seemed like a perfect way to spend the beautiful day.

I checked with one of my running buddies to see if she'd like to come along for a hike, but she was busy, so I planned to go myself. I told my parents when and where I was going and even gave them a park map showing which trail I would take. I used my iFitness belt, which carried my cell phone, ID, keys, and food. And to be extra careful, I wore a whistle.

I got to the park and decided that I wasn't really in the mood to hike. I wanted to run. So I jogged through the parking lot and onto the Appalachian Trail. That section was heavily traveled with people, so I slowed down and walked when appropriate. At one point, though, I heard someone tell someone else to stop for me. It went something like "Anyone jogging the Appalachian Trail deserves the right of way." That part was actually not difficult to run on. The ground was rocky and the path was moving steadily uphill, but I didn't have trouble picking my way. Then I turned off the AT toward Mount Tammany.

Once I moved farther up the mountain, the rocks in the path became looser and more numerous. I started feeling the effects of not stretching or warming up, as my calves started to cramp up. I stopped running and hiked up the loose, rocky spots and began running again when my calves felt better. It was a thoroughly good workout. I stopped one or two times to drink from my water bottle and take a breather, but for the most part I was steadily running and hiking up the mountain. As I moved up through the forest and the trees thinned out a little, I noticed that the sky had clouded up a bit, and some humidity had crept into the air. Instead of being green and gold with sunlight, the forest was green and gray and had a calm, subdued atmosphere.

After one steep, exceptionally rocky slope, I came to a grassy space which I knew must be the top of the mountain ridge. The trees were sparse, and the ground was covered with scrubby vegetation. The path was still rocky, but grass grew up all around the rocks. I followed the trail blazes until I saw a break in the trees and went to take a look. It was a scenic overlook. I stepped up to it and got my first view of the height I had just climbed: miles and miles of valleys and hills sprawled out below. I snapped a few pictures with my phone (Maybe someday I'll get text-messaging and be able to actually post the pictures from my phone. For now they're stuck there.) and went back to the trail to follow it over to the summit.

I started running again here, albeit slowly - as I picked my way around rocks - and came to a brush-covered pile of boulders and the blazes marking the end of the trail. In between some of the larger rocks was a little pathway. I stepped through and came out, it felt, on top of the world.

There were the mountains of Pennsylvania rising in a peak directly in front and stretching on in a line. The Delaware River snaked through the gap below, looking like a little creek beneath the mountains. Leaning over, I could see the parking lot where I started far below.

A lot of other people were at the summit. One girl was wearing flip-flops, and I can only wonder how long it took her and her boyfriend to get up there. I took a picture for a family that had hiked up together, and in return, one of them took a picture of me with my phone. I keep looking at that picture and remembering how good it felt to run (and hike) up a mountain.

When I began to make my way back down, I was rested and really felt like running again. I ran over rocks that on the way up I had walked over and surprised myself with how much easier it was to run. There were definitely places that were un-runnable, but I took those slowly and carefully and had a blast running down the mountain the rest of the way. I really felt it in my quads by the time I had come to the end of the mountain trail. I felt so good, though, I thought that I'd run a little further up the AT before heading back to the car. I turned onto the AT, which headed uphill. I was tired and took it slowly on that incline, but I didn't get far before I realized that I had a party to go to that night, and if I didn't get home soon, I wouldn't have time to get ready and eat dinner. I also didn't want to fall asleep the minute I got the the party. So I turned around and ran back toward the parking lot.

This was one of those amazing runs. The kind that comes around every once in a while that reminds you of why you love running. It made me feel good in every possible way. And it made me want to run trails much, much more often.

I know that I'll be following the Tour du Mont Blanc next weekend -- awed by the mountain peaks that the runners in that race will be ascending. And I am almost definitely going to run a trail half-marathon in November.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Not sure what to do

I went for a really great bike ride yesterday. I mean really great. The weather, for once, was perfect, and I felt amazing and so happy and didn't want to stop riding. I probably would have ridden through a couple of towns if there was enough daylight.

If every day were like that, I'd have many more miles behind me. Unfortunately, my mileage dropped off severely this summer once the hot weather kicked in, and when I do run, I feel slow, out of shape, and basically like a hopeless case, even though I probably have it in me to be faster and stronger. Long runs always feel too slow -- sometimes so slow that it's nothing more than a shuffle. I've tried to kick up the intensity by doing some hill and interval training, but it's not consistent. None of my running is consistent, unless you count that it's consistently slow.

I feel like I must be doing something wrong. For example, one day I went out for a 7.5 miler. I felt exhausted from the beginning. I dragged myself through it at snail speed, and by mile 6.5 had blisters on my feet and stopped to walk. I figured that I'd try and give it one more shot, at a faster pace, and started running again, probably about twice as fast as before. And you know what? It felt great. I kept up the pace for the rest of the run and actually flew by other runners on the trail. How could I have such a great finish after 6.5 miles of not being able to go faster than a shuffle? Why can't I go at least moderately fast for the entire distance? I must be doing something wrong.

And I just don't know what to do with my training. The weather in general has been so hot that even if I have the motivation to push myself, I can't always physically do it. I had hopes of running some speedy 5Ks in September, but I'm afraid that I'm not getting the training in to make that possible, so I should probably re-evaluate those goals.

Maybe the nice weather will stick around long enough to get some runs as enjoyable as yesterday's bike ride to boost my motivation, and with any luck, the fall will bring some nice training runs and fun and successful races.

I think that I'll begin writing in this blog again to help keep track of how things are going. I've been getting into the habit of writing in my journal again, and I think I can split my writing between the two now.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Another Christmas in August

Last Thursday I ran the Christmas in August 5k for the 3rd time. Last year, this was my race. I had just set a PR a week and a half before at the Frankford Foundation 5K, and then smashed that by over a minute at Christmas in August. This year I was not quite as amazing, but I have to admit that my time was not as shabby as it could have been. I ended up only one second behind the Frankford Foundation 5k time, making it one of my best race times, even though the weather was very hot and humid.

My dad came to cheer me on at this race. We were running a little behind schedule and got there to register with about 20 minutes before the race started. I had to laugh when they ran out of safety pins and handed me my number with duct tape to attach to my shirt. (I had contemplated bringing my own pins, but I thought I wouldn't need them!) It wasn't a problem, and once I had my number on, I went to warm up. Instead of jogging through the parking lot, I took a trail in the woods. It led to some picnic tables and barbecues for campers at the state park, and continued to a boat launch at the edge of the lake.

I felt tired just from jogging. I had only gotten about 2 or 3 hours of sleep the night before (a combination of being kept awake by my Yorkshire Terrier who has a pathological fear of thunderstorms, and then being awoken at 4:45 a.m. by my little sister coming home after being out all night). I had made sure to have lots of caffeine (and then extra water to re-hydrate) throughout the day, but maybe it wasn't enough to combat the tiredness caused by the heat. I sat on one of the benches and stretched and enjoyed how quiet it was in that little corner of the park. The sun glinting off of the lake and filtering down through the trees was calming, and I liked having that little bit of "me" time to keep me from getting too anxious about the race.

The race started with the usual "Ho, Ho Ho, Ho Ho Ho!" and we were off. I kept toward the back and tried not to start out too fast, but I also tried not to lock into too slow of a pace. I found a light, quick cadence that I felt I could sustain and went with it.

The course was mainly flat, but the mild inclines felt hard thanks to the heat and humidity. When I got to a water stop, I couldn't decide what part of my body to splash the water on - my face, the top of my head, my back? I splashed a little down my front and then dumped the rest down my back and kept going. I made it to the turn-around at 12:54 minutes.

I tried to keep up my pace in the second half but couldn't. I watched as a number of people passed me and tried to hold on and not slow down more. A woman in a yellow tank passed me with about 1/2 mile to go, and I tried to keep her in reach. She was about 75 meters in front of me when I started my kick, and I actually almost caught her. I ended up only 1 second behind her. Here we are coming in to the finish (I'm the one trying to look like a ninja with the black sweat band and sunglasses):

My final time was 26:29. I obviously slowed down a lot in the second half, which is something that I really need to work on. Overall, though, I'm happy with how I ran. I know that I don't run well in the heat, and I still managed to reach one of my best times.

Now, if I can beat the heat, I'm going to try and commit to a schedule. In about 6 weeks is a 5K at my former high school, and the week after that is a 5K in the town where I work. I would really like to be speedy for both of those races, and I'm thinking about setting a new PR at the second one, but I know that I have to put in a lot more effort than I have been lately.