I Like Running in the Woods
I’ve had this race on the books for a long time – just about a year actually. Dan recommended this race to me. – I know. Shocker. He was planning to do the 40 miler as he has off and on (mostly on) for the last 10 years or so and I planned to run with him on the final lap.
“OK”, I said. I really enjoyed running the Rosaryville 50k and other trail runs so I thought this would be a great way to get out of town and see something new (which I’m also a fan of). So… yes. I’m IN.
I am not a “trail runner” – historically. Though I think I find it a lot more enjoyable than running on the street. Or the track. (Obviously I don’t like the track – look at my pace!). Except bugs – I don’t like running in bugs. Ticks and spiders specifically. So I don’t get out as much as I should.
I do love nature though. I love being in it. It makes me imagine a world where, instead of making meat out of plants we would just, you know, eat less meat. Or a world where instead of always trying to do more with less – we just do less and enjoy what is. Where what we expect out of the planet is more in line with what we actually need rather than… what we think we need.
I could really let my inner hippie out right now but I won’t – I mean I started to but then I deleted it. Right here – in this spot where these pixels are, I rambled on about living off the land, etc. – but maybe I’ll save it for “Not the Run”. Or I won’t – because like probably a lot of people I’m more hypocritical that I’d like to think I am.
Before the Run
You: Oh. It’s one of those posts. Where he just adds new heading willy nilly. Ignoring the arbitrary three part formula he usually uses.
Me: Damn right. This was a good time and it spanned the weekend so I want to share more of my experience than I usually do in case anyone is interested in doing the race themselves.
The race is set on Saturday in Douthat State Park, in Bath County, Virginia which is a four hour drive from Annapolis (without traffic) but before I roll straight into logistics and what not, let me back up and try to wrap some context around this…
This was a family affair. One of the things I really enjoy about Dan is his family – and his commitment to it, his wife Katie and her commitment to the family and Dan. They are often out of town, camping, exploring, racing, visiting…living. All of them. Two young boys, one dog and a puppy. That’s right – not “two dogs”. One dog and a puppy. It’s different. Not only that – Katie’s parents arrive at the park a day early, secure the campsite and then help with the kids and the dogs (plus their dog makes two and a puppy…)
OK – so back to logistics… With traffic it takes about 5 hours to get to the park from Annapolis give or take and since we were getting up early the next morning to run we didn’t want to be rolling into the park at night. So the move was to leave Annapolis around noon. The boys have school so waiting to put the whole gang in the van would put us dangerously close to missing the packet pickup window between 8pm and 9 pm.
Dan: Katie says we can leave before rush hour and she’ll follow with the boys after school – but we’ll need to take Highland.
Me: Silence. (Highland is the puppy.)
Dan: We can cover up the back seat. I know you love that car.
Me: Right…Well we can just take Mikey’s car! (I said as if I had just solved world hunger. Mikey just left for college and left their Ford Focus hatchback with me.)
Dan: Oh that’s better than taking your car.
Me: What? Is my car in the woods a little like putting on makeup before a run?
Dan: Kind of – also, there’s more room in the Ford.
I worked a half day from home and then met Dan at his place to pack up the car and hit the road. It’s just like commuting – but longer, and with a puppy. I half expected Highland to be up the entire trip. Bouncing from one window to the next. Back and forth. Back and forth. And he did that – a little bit. Every once in awhile he’d poke his nose up front – “Hey guys. What’s up. I’m Highland and I’m super cute. I’ll just be back here in case anyone wants to pet me.” But for the most part he just chilled out in the back seat.
Before I knew it we had made our way the four hours plus one stop for essentials and were pulling in to Douthat State Park. We pulled into the visitors center and Dan went in to get a parking permit for the car while I held on to Highland.
When people see you standing with a puppy they want to talk to you – about the puppy. Everybody wanted to know how old he is – I had no idea. “He’s my my buddy’s puppy – I don’t know” was my clumsy answer. He’s 6 months give or take. I know this now – because it’s the first thing I asked dan when he emerged from the visitors center.
Parking permit in hand, we made our way to the camp site.
My parents were active Girl Scout leaders so I camped what felt like a lot when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because I was much younger then but it felt a LOT more like roughing it than this. I can remember hiking for MILES (at least 100 miles, probably more) from the car to the camp site when I was a kid. It was probably 100 yards but you know how it is when you’re a kid. Everything is bigger and you feel so much smaller. I think that’s why kids are so amazed at and excited by everything.
Here, we just pulled right onto the camp site. Very convenient. Bathrooms? Why yes – a 50 yard walk to the bathrooms (and separate showers) complete with hot water and electricity free from the influence of the elements – which is my fancy way of saying that the walls and doors were floor to ceiling keeping out the weather and the bugs.
It wasn’t long before we had the tent up and the car unloaded. Katie’s parents were there so we set off for some dinner.
The Odyssey Trail Running Rampage includes a 40 miler, Marathon, 1/2 Marathon, 6 Miler. You can read all about it and Oddessey Adventure Racing here but here’s the excerpt from the web site that caught my eye…
“The loop will have a total elevation gain of 2700 feet over 13 miles, the majority of which will be gained in the first four miles.“
The first four miles?! Yikes – that’s a little bit of climbing! I ran the half with Dan (one loop) and he ran the 6 miler with Katie afterwards.
I’ve only got a couple of longer trail races under my belt but from what I’ve read and in my limited experience they tend to be small laid back affairs. This is not to say that they aren’t well organized or that we’re kind of on our own out there in the woods just that I guess everyone knows that they’re going to be out there for a long time so no one seems to be in a hurry. (That’s race irony in case you missed it.)
Safety and planning were evident during the race briefing. The race director was super nice and was sure to explain the course, course marking and some of the hazards – including a fallen tree on the way up the mountain. He also warned us that since the trail was dry that there were a lot of downhill sections where the ground was loose.
“You’ll want to be real careful on your third lap ‘cus you’re gonna cramp up when you try to go under that thing…” (the tree) He wasn’t kidding – I only did one lap but that tree was a pain in the ass the first time – I can only imagine trying to get by it after running 26 miles…
This run provided a variety of terrain and beautiful views. I tried to capture as much as I could but nothing is quite like being there especially in hurried moments with a cell phone camera. True to the description there was a LOT of climbing in the first few miles. We were eased into it with a fairly wide but rocky trail. There was a slight incline but the loose rocks really helped to set the tone of the race and remind me what level of focus would be required. The field separated pretty quickly with the faster folks out for time getting out ahead of folks who were there to admire the woods.
Then things got really steep really fast. If there were people still running – and I’m sure there were – they were ahead of me and Dan. I didn’t take a picture of it because – safety first – but this is the part of the trail where that tree had fallen.
The climb felt like it went on for forever. I tried to imagine doing all three laps and I quickly realized that I would need to train very differently than I would for a road race. I’d need more time on the trails and more time building strength. As I approach 50 the reality is that I have to work harder to maintain my muscle mass and strength. Not impossible but certainly a challenge. I mean – 40 miles to start. Then throw in this climb…
After the initial rocky section there were switchbacks to help us up. I started to catch a glimpse of the view through the trees.
The single track turned from a rocky mix to almost sandy at times. Dan had struck up a conversation with a couple folks in front of us who had run some of the same races he has in the past. I stared at the ground and tried to listen in so the time passed easily for me until finally we reached the high point. This wasn’t the scenic overlook at aid station 1 but I had to snap a picture.
After this the trail got VERY narrow and thank goodness the ground was firm otherwise I would have just slipped off the side of the mountain! We emerged from the tree cover and the vegetation changed as we ran along the ridge line. It looked very steep but Dan assured me that I wouldn’t fall *all* the way down – but I might roll my ankle so I should stay to the right. I did. I did not roll my ankle. (yay)
After some time we started a gentle descent and re entered the woods. People started passing us going the other direction as we approached the first aid station of the loop. We were about 4 miles in at this point. The station was at the end of a little out and back lined with a tall grass of sorts and the trees had thinned out again. After no time we came to the end of the the trail where there sat a small log cabin and a handful of volunteers with water and runners taking in the view. I took a few pictures of the runners that had been in front of us and they reciprocated and took a picture of Dan and I. Everyone was really nice.
There is no easy way up to this cabin but the volunteers had CARRIED water up so that we would have some hydration. Carried. Water. Up. A. Mountain. I’m not sure how many gallons of it but enough for all of us. It had to be a lot. I had a cup and thanked them for being there. After a minute or so of admiring the view we went yet again into the woods to begin the descent. This is the part of the trail we had been warned to be careful of the loose rocks. The rocks here were large enough to look solid but none of them were. Every step moved beneath my feet. My mind and my ankles were taking a beating – but it was FUN!
Coming down the mountain felt almost like dancing – no two steps being the same, falling at different times and in different ways created a complex never repeating rhythm. The variety and focus helped the time pass. I only wish I could have spent more time looking into the woods and not at Dans feet! The trail changed again from those large loose rocks to a smaller packed trail and we descended long easy switchbacks picking up the pace a bit. Nearing the bottom we came to these beautiful tunnels formed by rotodendrons.
The next several miles were pretty uneventful. The rotodendrons gave way to sparse woods and the fast descent was replaced with some nice rolling trail covered in a mix of sand and rock.
We left the trail and were delivered onto a fire road that took us right past the camp site! In another couple hundred yards we arrived at the second aid station – manned by a local boy scout troop – where we were greeted by Katie and one of the boys. This stop was NOT at the top of a mountain so they had the usual assortment of food. Potatoes, candy, cola, etc. I had some potatoes and cola – completely unnecessary for a half marathon – refilled my water bottle and we took off.
I hardly ever drink soda these days – but when you’re on the trail… it just tastes so good!
At this point we had about 4 miles and change to go. We ran for a really short time on the road and past the visitor center before turning back into the wilderness. I was just starting to think how nice it was to be on flat course and then, as if on cue, a shortish but VERY steep hill appeared. We walked a little. To avoid walking the whole time, we started picking landmarks to run to. I’m certain that if we were doing the 40 miler we would have walked more but we agreed that since we were doing the one loop we shouldn’t be as easy on ourselves.
After a couple miles we found ourselves on the road again running through campgrounds set up for folks with horses. I have never seen such a thing. Aid station number three was at the end of this campsite, manned by more boy scouts. I had some more cola and immediately regretted it. Maybe if I had put in a few more miles in between it would have been a better decision. Dan asked to pet one of the horses and they said sure!
And then into the woods we went – this time being careful not to step in any of the “road apples” left by those pretty horses.
The last few miles passed quickly. Well – in my head anyways. We followed the trail around a small lake and aside from me tripping on a foot bridge and almost falling into the water it was pretty uneventful. Before I knew it we were done. 13.4 miles in the books.
We didn’t stick around too long after we finished since we needed to get back to the camp site. Dan and Katie had an hour or so before the 6 miler would kick off and I… needed a shower before I hit the road.
Not the Run
I dropped Katie and Dan at the 6 miler and after the race started went back to the camp site to pack my things and get on the road back to Annapolis. As I was loading up I noticed people running past the camp site. It was the six milers! I did some quick math and realized if I waited a couple minutes I would catch Dan and Katie coming out of the woods – so I did.
Just a few weeks before this race I took a road trip in California with my kids and saw the Giant Redwoods and Half Dome and I told them that being there made me want to just take three months and do nothing but wander around in the wilderness.
I couldn’t help but wonder – Am I trying to escape from something or return to something?
Looking back on this race report and these pictures I think it’s neither. I think I’m just realizing how big the world is and how little I’ve seen of it. I want to see taller mountains and bigger canyons. Different cultures and ages of architecture. I know I probably won’t have time to spend truly learning any of it enough to do it justice but I think being exposed to it is important. I want to be in that state of wonder, of felling small in a big place – or a new place, to remind me to approach people with understanding. To be better. We’re all small in a big place but we have this tendency to forget that when we spend every day in the same place, doing the same things. We don’t grow living that way.
I’m lucky enough to have the first few couple of Maslow’s needs met, I have the time and energy to spare on being better. That’s how I want to spend it.
Next year I’m doing the 40 miler.