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