Monday, February 16, 2015

An Amazing LBL Race Track Run

Only a few strides after starting the run I tapped the V800 and came to a stop. Puzzled, I studied the trail behind me toward the trail head sign and then ahead of me toward the road crossing. The trail I stood on wound about and rose gently as it meandered along the edge of the large gravel lot where I'd parked. Looking beyond that lot and further across the road I could see the trail's namesake canal.

The scene around me was reminiscent of a typical winter visit to the Land Between the Lakes Canal Loop: Leafless trees swayed gently in the cold breeze while small ice crystals made a random ticking sound when they dropped into the dried brown leaves and stones on the forest floor. But something just wasn't right.

My focus returned to the trail at my feet again. It was not the trail I'd come to know and love. It was not the trail that I had kissed on several occasions. I knew that trail well. I knew where a thousand roots were on the eleven mile loop. I had anticipated and learned to avoid those nasty toe grabbing stones that deviously protruded only an inch or two from the dirt. I knew where they were even if they were cloaked with leaves as they almost always were.

Oh, sure, I'd still kicked a few roots and stones during my most recent visits, but that was after fatigue settled in or while I foolishly glanced at a squirrel or a sunrise behind a giant lake or the watch on my wrist. Such acts were a natural part of running the rugged LBL loop. I could even make the case that all of these features gave the trail its alluring and lovable character.

The trail at my feet was smooth and soft dirt. Pressing it gently with the ball of my shoe caused it to compress slightly. Upon lifting that shoe the dirt sprang back into place. It felt and behaved like a rubberized track surface. I had read that Steve Durbin and a crew of workers had completed some needed repairs on the loop. Surely, I thought, they had merely smoothed out the deep footprints and tire tracks in the boggy areas and repaired the dilapidated pallet bridges. I tapped the V800 again and strode away believing that I had never really paid a lot of attention to this first section of trail. Part of me wanted this "race track" feel to continue for all eleven miles. I smiled as that wishful thought crossed my mind.

Soon after crossing the road I readied myself for a tangle of exposed roots. There were none. Again, the trail consisted of a smooth dirt streak. I crossed under the Trace Road. The thin line of soft dirt continued. The small creek that had always been littered with an assortment of pointed rocks was easily navigated using several large flat stones.

And so it continued. The twisting and undulating path led me to my first time check at the shore of Lake Barkley in a personal best time. I thought about slowing down to conserve energy for the many hills of the last five miles. A glance at the V800 revealed that I was only at the bottom of zone two. That new track-like surface was making the run easy - and fast! I chuckled out loud as I thought about how other runners would react when they came to race a month later. I shook my head as I thought about how much work Steve and his crew had put into taming the rugged Canal Loop. It was like the CCC had come back to life for one last great deed.

I reached checkpoint two a full two minutes ahead of normal pace. Hell, I was cruising along at Scott Breeden pace. So this was what he felt like. I wondered how fast he would run the 50 on this track-like surface. I wondered if I should alert him to pack his fastest road racers. No. He would just get out-of-control fast and run into trees. I didn't need that on my conscience.

My mind raced through all sorts of thoughts as I stared at the scenery. The wind blown whitecaps on the lake were therapeutic. A flock of mallards fluttered and quacked as I passed them when the trail traced a huge inlet. The trailside cinder block structure made me hypothesize about bygone rural life. Finally, after many trips and stumbles during previous runs, my scatter brain could do its thing instead of laboring to focus on the obstacles along the trail. I was freed! And I had speed! What I had mistaken as character had actually been shackles and blinders.

Check point three, the Trace Road, came so quickly and so easily that my legs still felt like they were in the first mile. I barely had time to squeeze out a gel before I began winding my way along the pine needles to start the second half of the loop. Though I'd always loved this short section of trail, I felt gleefully and childishly adventurous flying through the sharp turns because my speed was causing me to come close to the trailside trees. "Crazy fast!" I thought. I laughed out loud. What a run!

The hills above Kentucky Lake awaited me. I was ready for them, though. My strength was still high because I hadn't been bounding over and around obstacles for six miles. Even though I had no logical reasoning to support it, I'd theorized that the hills would still be covered with high exposed roots and rocks. I'd expected the downhill bombing to be treacherous given all of the obstacles that were always hidden beneath thick collections of leaves.

Amazingly, the race track continued. I climbed and descended again and again with speed and confidence while staring down from the bluffs to the whitecaps breaking on the lake. I passed through my fourth checkpoint without even thinking about the split. I did look at the time when rounding the cell tower. "NO WAY!" I was cruising to a record run. And I was looking forward to the fast downhill finish.

While running on the outer bank of the sharp curve around the tower I heard a bell ring. The sound was powerful, but it was also faint, distant, or muffled. It rang again and then again. The sound grew louder with each ring. I realized that it was a large bell ringing in a bell tower. I'd never heard a bell at LBL before. Maybe there was one down at Lighthouse Landing. Maybe there was a church on the far side of Kentucky Lake.

Then a familiar guitar riff joined rhythm with the bell. They both grew louder and more intense. I could actually feel the music. Confusion ensued. I abruptly stopped beneath the cell tower as yet another guitar joined in. Frantically, I searched all around me. Ice crystals still fell into the leaves. The tower stood cold and motionless amidst the swaying trees. Moisture from my heavy breathing rose and quickly evaporated in the wind.

Then, slowly, blackness crept over the sky and the tower disappeared. Panic began to mount as I searched through the darkness while spinning and flailing my arms. Finally, my left hand came across something. I latched onto it and brought it to my face just as a voice screamed out "I'm rolling thunder - Power and rain - I'm coming on like a hurricane!" It was my phone. My weekend alarm was blaring AC/DC's Hells Bells.

When the disorientation subsided I found myself lying in bed. It was time to get dressed, grab the gear by the door, and drive through the darkness into western Kentucky for another sunrise run on the Canal Loop.

PS: Steve Durbin and others did a magnificent job on the trail. All along the loop runners (and cyclists) will find evidence of their labors. I am also happy to report that I ran my second fastest loop ever and that I did so without interacting with the trail's character. This runner is looking forward to more laps around that awesome race track. - ST

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Back When It All Began

Do you remember the first time you engaged in a lifelong passion? Luckily for me, I have an oddly enhanced memory that allows me to freely travel back in time. I don't like to live in the past, but I certainly do love recalling those sights, events, and people that have inspired me or otherwise directed my life.

Perhaps that is why I jumped out of bed at 5 a.m. this morning and excitedly threw on multiple layers of clothes to stave off the arctic breeze that greeted me under a large, bright moon. A six mile, forty minute, morning run awaited me. Sciatica be damned: A few quick spins on the foamy thingies and I was out the door with excess giddy in my stride.

You see, thirty six years ago I woke up on Monday January 8th to learn that school had been cancelled due to several inches of new snow. The temperature, just like today's, was about zero degrees fahrenheit. When I awoke that morning, though, I was not a runner. Sure, I had run a bit in middle school, but I had not yet learned to love running.  My football coach was at least partly to thank for my running life. Only two months prior, in November of '78, he had watched me run 7:56 for 1.5 miles during gym class and then promptly suggested that I take up track and cross country. CROSS COUNTRY?!  I didn't even know what that was. It sounded weird and intriguing. Track, though, I had experience with and the track season was due to start in February. (Notice, now, how I move away from the fact that my football coach excitedly suggested that I go away.)

I decided to go for a run soon after learning of that snow day. I'm not sure why that run took place. Perhaps it was because I had planned to start training for track after school that day. Or maybe it was because I was already suffering from the mental condition that makes me do dumb (adventurous) things. Or, most likely, I went out for my first run in several inches of snow with the mercury contracted at zero degrees because I was just a typical ignorant fifteen year old boy who had no guidance and who rarely thought things through.

At 5'8" and weighing 128 pounds I was a sinewy, hyperactive, and poorly nourished paper delivery boy turned grocery clerk who was oblivious to the fact that there were proper ways to dress for such activities. Keep in mind that this was the pretechnological days of 1979.

I started by pulling my favorite pair of tube socks all the way up over my calves. Those red stripes were groovy. That's right, groovy. I said it out loud and gently touched them as I stood up: "These red stripes are groovy!"

Next came the blue polyester gym shorts. They weren't the super short shorts of the era, but they left a lot of thigh uncovered. They, too, were absolutely GROOVY!

I pulled on a long sleeve cotton shirt next. It was, for some bewildering reason, my favorite shirt. White and larger than my torso ever has been, it nearly reached the bottom of those shorts. I rolled the left sleeve back to reveal my Seiko watch. Already a number freak, I needed to keep an eye on the time.

Finally, I laced up the Converse All Stars. What else?! Mine were navy blue. When combined with those red and white socks my outfit (I thought) was profoundly patriotic. Did I mention that my long blonde hair was feathered and parted in the middle? True, there was a time when I had a full head of hair!

Flash forward to this morning. Similar temperature, but no snow. I encased myself head to toe in multiple layers of high tech breathable and wind repelling fabric before lacing up some light and cushy Hoka Clifton shoes. I also had the presence of mind to pull on a sock cap and gloves - two items that I never even thought about wearing in 1979. Now back to the rest of the story.

It only took a few strides in that snow for me to realize that my feet were going to get cold. I'd suffered from and dealt with painfully cold feet when delivering papers, though, so I knew a remedy. I went back into the kitchen and removed my shoes. Then I moved a loaf of Bunny bread and a package of hamburger buns from their respective plastic bags to a large trash bag. The bread bag went onto the left foot and the bun bag onto the right foot. The ensemble was complete when I put those groovy shoes back on over the plastic bags. My winter defense was in place!

Out the door I strode. Smiling. I wasn't sure where I was going, but I had read somewhere that I needed to run for 30-40 minutes. I ran along county roads in narrow tire tracks left by the few vehicles that had ventured out. It wasn't long before I pulled those long sleeves over my hands and clasped the cuffs in my fists.

I ran to my high school and completed a lap around the hilltop campus. I remember scooping up snow in mid-stride and launching a snowball at the stop sign in front of the main entrance. Over the next several years I smacked that sign with a loud thud every time I ran under it. I also remember thinking that I was the only kid who made it to school that day. My real reason for going up the hill was to see if anyone was sledding in the Practice Bowl. The bowl was quiet and peaceful, but I knew that it would soon be filled with screaming daredevils who would repeatedly fly down the hill only to crash into someone or something. That was why we were given snow days!

The hill also offers a great view of our city and the Ohio River oxbow it sits next to. Little movement  was visible within the muted white and gray scene. I ran back out of town. I took a right at the Five Way to avert going straight back home before I filled the forty minute prescribed run time. That led me over a small hill to another intersection a mile later. A quick glance at the Seiko revealed that I would get my forty minutes of running if I ran a loop around the neighborhood after climbing over the steep hill on Red Bank road. Groovy!

There were problems, though. Huge barriers bore signs stating that the road was closed. And since the road had not seen traffic, there were no tracks in the deep snow. I ran around the barriers and high stepped through the snow after I had been running into a cold wind (-15 wind chill) for a few miles. Going any other way home would add two more miles onto the run, so that was out of the question.

I soon found out why the road was closed. A bridge over a creek had been removed. The creek bed was about ten feet wide and fifteen feet lower than the road. It wasn't until I'd made my way down the steep rock covered embankment that I realized I could not get a running start that would allow me to jump over the creek. No problem, I thought. The extreme cold had surely frozen any water present. I leapt onto the snow covered ice without hesitation.

A loud SNAP echoed in the ditch when my right foot broke through the ice. This foot was encased in the hamburger bag. The short hamburger bag only extended a little higher than my ankle. The cold moving water beneath that ice was, unfortunately, deeper than the bag was tall. The hamburger bag instantly filled with water. My already cold foot may as well have been engulfed in flames as an intense burning sensation swept through it.

With the next stride my left foot found its way to the creek bed. Luckily, I had tucked the bread bag into the top of the sock (are you picturing this?!) and that kept it above the water line. Two more steps through the ice and I was climbing the other bank. My right foot ached with every step as I climbed over the steep hill separating me from warmth. All of my right toes burned even worse during the warming process, which took place while I ate breakfast in the afterglow of that first run. My next run was planned well before the adrenaline rush wore off. It took me years to realize that the lure of the open road and the freedom of self-propelled travel had become important to me that morning.

And that, folks, is how I became addicted to running. You will never hear me complain about running in the cold. I find cold weather running to be nostalgic.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014 Numbers and Pictures

Its that time of year when many of us habitually reminisce and reflect. A recent stroll through my mind, my training log, my travel journals, and my photos made me keenly aware of the fact that I faced some tough challenges in 2014. I also reached an undeniable conclusion that I managed to do and see a lot. This country is dotted with countless impressionable sites and people. I consider myself blessed to have the wheels, energy, and curiosity required for endurance sports and adventure traveling.

It is also important to note that most of these adventures and races allowed me to interact with some incredible people. Those people supported, humored, taught, and inspired me more than I have or can express. Perhaps the best expression of kinship or friendship is time spent together, so I intend to continue to do more of that in the future.

If you know me at all then you know that I'm a data freak, a counter, and a number cruncher ( yep, you're rolling those eyes!). Here are some of the numbers from 2014:

17,330 miles on the ct200 (46.2 mpg!)
1324 cycling miles (lowest year of cycling, but I rode in 12 states)
754 miles of running (typical, but it took a 50 mile day to get there)
29 states visited (6 less than planned - see next entry)
1 deer collision
10 different National Parks visited (5 Smokies visits:)
25 breweries visited (9 new - to reach 152 total)
14 State Parks visited
2 new skin cancers (both BCC)
5 National Monuments visited
12 Doc visits (Ugh - insurance cost increased and coverage decreased)
19 mountain summits (below ave)
8 races (lowest since the herniated discs in '99)

Because I carry and use cameras almost every day, I had to glean from a massive inventory before settling on a collection of my favorite sights and memories from 2014. They are in no particular order, except that I added the recent AT hike onto the end. Sorry in advance: Some of the images contain me . . .

Enjoy - Inquire - Explore -Echo!

Yellowstone Great Basin
Hammerfest contrast
Front row seat at a Cabin Concert
Smiling because I had narrowly missed another fall on the LBL ice
Another glorious morning run - two days before the nerve acted up again
Asheville, NC is our brew capital
Riding all out makes me happy!
Crossing the canal to begin another run at LBL
Running the Bluff Trail - Lookout Mtn, TN/GA
 Moccasin Bend, TN from Point Park 
Running Cloudland Canyon, GA
We had just compared wounds earned on LBL ice
Spreading the HR gospel
Foreboding vision
Start line of my favorite 10K . . .
. . . and the finish line 4000 ft higher up
MST - Mountain to Sea Trail, NC
Sun-soaked fresh snow energized a 20-mile MST "hike"
On the MST near Asheville, NC
God smiled on me often -  Looking east from the Bighorn Mtns, WY
Running single track through Yellowstone . . .
. . . brings you face to face with nature  . . .
. . . over and . . .
. . . over . . .
. . . and over again
A grim aspect of Murphy's Law shows up . . .
. . . repeatedly
All trips involve planning, journaling, and sipping 
Approach to Angel's Landing - Zion NP, UT
"Hiking" the Narrows in Zion
All of those experiences for $80
Reward for finishing 60+ hrs of class in four days.
July 4th run - Mt. Elbert, CO
Picking up a traveling friend took me through KY hill country
Morning run around Cades Cove - Great Smoky Mtn NP
Tranquility takes me back year after year
The sprint began here - just after a bear cub tagged me
The sounds surrounding a forest stream are therapeutic
Running up Mt. LeConte, GSMNP . . .
. . . timed to experience sunset from the cliffs
Every sound was a bear; A hungry bear. 
Cycling Ridge Road Rocky Mountain NP, CO
The Flatirons overlook Boulder, CO
This guy kept following me through Wyoming
Mile 31 well before sunset
They would return at mile 67 at sunrise
This badass just whipped a 100 miler
And this wannabe is about to receive a whipping in a 50 miler
Not the first time he was getting dressed after the gun went off
See the table? He will turn my "trophy" into one!
Du Nats, St. Paul, MN - Andy was the bus driver
Cloud dance in Monument Valley, AZ
Camping with Idiots at 11K ft in the San Juan Mtns, CO
A wee jog 12K ft up on the Continental Divide - San Juan Mtns, CO
Nearing the tunnel at mile 40 of the Tunnel Hill 50 - cold left hand!
Colorful San Juan trail decor
See the orange shirt? I chased it or ran from it for hours
Yes, the award was a railroad spike
Super Moon rising - from the back yard 
More San Juan medicine
This part of Du Nats was a blast despite (or because of) that crosswind 
 Relief came only when I heard my placing
More running in Yellowstone
Very tasty meal while waiting on Old Faithful
Patience . . . 
. . . can yield great rewards!
Fog and sulfurous gas abound during a
sunrise(?) run in Yellowstone
Ha! What I did to get this shot was, well, crazy! 
Spur of the moment hike on Antelope Island, UT
Driving across Antelope Island
Kolob Canyons - Zion NP
Sunset in Kolob Canyons of Zion NP
Sunrise stroll in Zion Canyon, UT
Zion Canyon
Zion Canyon from Angel's Landing
North Fork Virgin River, Zion NP
Hiking The Narrows, Zion NP
Running into the sunset at Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
Start of a 29-mile jog into the Grand Canyon on the Kaibob Trail 
Sunny day two at the Grand Canyon North Rim
Lucked into star/planet gazing in Bryce and Grand Canyons!!
Colorado River passing through Navaho land north of the Grand Canyon
One of many rainbows that greeted me along the journey (WY)
Just another bike ride
Chose this route using Google Maps on my phone. SCORE!
I needed another VFuel to avert that bonk after the Supai Tunnel 
Deep in the Grand Canyon 
Breathless and speechless just before exiting the Grand Canyon 
A view from the top of Colorado
Storm building over the San Juan Mtns
VFuel ready for a 50-mile run 
Three days before he crushed Hardrock - a class act
Super Moon rises over Patoka Lake, IN during a beer cruise
Well, those Rappites were seeking a utopia
Watched four USI runners earn AA honors on a swampy Louisville course
Ended the year with a 72-mile AT hike across the spine of the Smokies
Rugged beauty
Mountain laurel
Its easy! Just follow the white blazes
Thunderhead Mountain
A place to sleep - with mice

Gideon helping me count the nickels for future travels
Hope to see you along the trail in 2015