Saturday, September 10, 2011

SNP Adventure Run!

Joe and me coming into Beagle Gap, Day Three
I have always wanted to try a multi-day run in the mountains. The idea of running with a goal destination each day in a beautiful place, with yummy food and good friends to celebrate with each night, and no real time goal except to finish, seemed like a great way to celebrate ten years of ultrarunning and to put those lessons learned to good use! So, inspired by the Tough Dirt Chicks and by stories from the VHTRC archives of multi day adventures in Shenandoah National Park (SNP), I asked my husband for crewing and parenting support (a critical ingredient), and when that was all set, I invited friends to join me for a 2011 Labor Day weekend trek from the northern boundary of the SNP in Front Royal to the southern boundary at Rockfish Gap, a total of 111 miles of trail.
Shenandoah National Park
As I researched the logistics of this adventure, I learned that there have been variations on the SNP multi day theme over the years. There is a crew that organizes an annual "leapfrog" run, with a U-Haul truck, aid, and alternating runners and drivers. One year, as a birthday celebration, another group ran from the finish line of Masochist in Montebello, hopped on the AT near the Priest and headed north to the SNP for a 4-day trek to Front Royal. More recently, Kevin Smith ran south to north with his wife and family crewing and camping along the way. Our group, comprised of Joe Clapper, Michelle Harmon, Marlin Yoder, Ragan Petrie and I, kept it simple: we would enjoy crew help from friends and family, utilize SNP water sources and wayside food stops, and bunk down at Skyland Lodge and Loft Mountain Campground. Through multiple Facebook threads we hammered out the logistics, set the day's mileages, reserved the rooms and campsites, and eagerly anticipated our long weekend of fun!

Ragan, Michelle, Joe, Marlin and me at Dickey Ridge trailhead
Day One: Saturday, September 3rd~ Dickey Ridge trailhead, Front Royal, VA 
Weather: partly cloudy, humid, highs in mid-80s 
Mileage: 41 miles (Dickey Ridge trail to Compton Gap, 10 miles; Appalachian Trail (AT) from Compton Gap to Skyland Lodge, 31 miles)

A successful ultra runner must learn to be flexible, and we learned the importance of this concept before we ever stepped on the trail on Saturday. It turned out that Michelle would not be running because of a nagging foot injury, and Ragan could only join us for one day. Tweaking the plans, it was decided that Michelle would crew for us while Joe and I went the distance. Ragan and Marlin would run on Saturday, and Marlin would crew on Sunday. My husband (aka The Saint) would drive me up to the start at 4:00am on Saturday and pick me up at the finish on Monday. VHTRC friends Kirstin and Tom Corris would join us Sunday for running companionship and crew help as well.

Michelle Harmon, crew extraordinaire
  After bidding farewell to The Saint, we cruised along the Dickey Ridge trail towards the AT. It was humid and sticky in the hollows and we didn't feel a breeze except on the ridges. Joe told me later that he knew we were in for a long day when he started sweating about five minutes down the trail, and knowing we were going for three days straight, it was important to take the pace very easy. We reached our first aid station at Compton Gap totally drenched with sweat but moving well at about 4-5 miles per hour.
At Compton Gap, comparing "AT miles" to "Skyline Drive Miles"

The next section to Elkwallow Wayside, mile 25, was brutal. Humid, hot, no breeze, and slippery rocks made for some serious suffering, and when we got to the Wayside at 1:30, I was craving ice and a popsicle. Fortunately, you can get everything at SNP waysides---burgers cooked to order, blackberry milkshakes, beer---whatever you need, they have. We fueled up at the car and headed towards Thornton Gap, mile 31, and the biggest climb of the day to Mary's Rock.
Joe suffering on the climb up to Mary's Rock

The trail between Elkwallow and Thornton Gap is lovely, undulating single track and a few short climbs. Ragan and Marlin ran ahead, while Joe and I stayed together. After meeting Michelle at Thornton Gap for the most delicious ice-cold Coke I have ever drank, we took fifty minutes to slog the 1.7 miles to Mary's Rock. However, it was worth the (partially obscured by fog) view, and once on the ridges we began to make good time to Skyland.

Joe atop Mary's Rock

 What drew me to the multi-day run was the chance to spend the entire day outside. I savored the notion of running from dawn to dusk to my room at the lodge,with a cold shower and a hot meal waiting! As we approached Stony Man at mile 41, daylight was waning, and the forest was filled with the sounds of the evening peepers and the Stony Man raven's call. It was heavenly. We arrived at Skyland at 7:12pm,  found Michelle and Marlin, and we were treated to the sight of a bear hanging out in a tree right next to the room. After showers, we had a delicious dinner at Skyland Lodge. I ordered crab fritters, sweet potato fries and French onion my appetizer. Then I ordered the wild salmon over angel hair pasta and a glass of wine. Joe called me an "eating machine" but that is what you have to be on multi-day runs. The food at the lodge was excellent, and we had a great time re-hashing the highlights of the day and planning the itinerary for the next one.
This bear hung out in the tree for hours at Skyland Lodge
Day Two: Sunday, September 4th~Skyland Lodge to Pinefield gap
Weather: partly cloudy, humid, highs in mid-80s 
Mileage: 35.5 miles on the AT

The next morning, Marlin drove ahead to Big Meadows while Joe and I were up and climbing Hawksbill, the highest point in the SNP, by 7:15. Once again the views were blocked by haze and clouds, but the air *felt* cooler and we were optimistic that we would have an easier day. Hmmm... but as we made our way to Big Meadows Wayside to meet up with Tom and Kirstin, it became clear that we were looking at another hot one.

Joe on top of Hawksbill with the sun rising behind Old Rag
We ordered a large breakfast at Big Meadows (egg sandwich on whole wheat toast and bacon for me), met up with Marlin, Kir and Tom, and headed down the trail toward South River Picnic area where we would meet Michelle. The sun started to shine and we started to sweat---a lot. The trail was lovely, smooth and often a net downhill, making for some easy running and lots of chatter.
Marlin, me, Kir and Joe at Big Meadows

After what seemed like forever, we finally hooked up with Michelle and the green Element aid station (and another ice cold Coke!) well after our predicted time of arrival. I was happy to stay with Michelle and have her pamper me, and was enjoying the non-race feeling of the urgent feelings of time limits or splits or cut-offs. However, I also knew we needed to make up some time to get off the trail by dark, so we couldn't hang out for long.
looking happy, feeling crappy

 Eight miles later, at Swift Run Gap, we met up with the crew and I proceeded to have a meltdown. I was feeling hot, discouraged, confused by the disparity between AT miles and Skyline miles, and was NOT interested in another slogfest up to the Loft Mountain campground (our Sunday lodging), about 12 miles and 4-5 hours away. I don't know who suggested it, but the idea of going for another 2+ hours and 8 miles, and then finding a hotel and Pizza Hut, quickly got me out of my Pity Party and I had a new attitude and energy. 

The view from Hightop towards Simmons Gap

"Let's get this thing done!" was all I could think about as we cruised up Hightop Mountain. Michelle met us at the next gap with  mileages clearly mapped out. She told me, "You only have two more miles" and I was stoked. All I can say is that I felt like a total wimp compared to Jen Davis. I have no idea how she managed to average 47 miles a day on the AT, when I couldn't even run 35 one day without losing it.

We finished Day Two coming into Pinefield Gap, where Michelle was waiting with clean clothes, recovery drinks (Ultragen for me, beer for Joe) and we took off for Pizza Hut, a shower, and a comfy bed just as the rain started to fall. Day Two had taken us 12 hours for 35.5 miles, and we were feeling it! 
Joe finishing of the pizza while I obsess over maps
Day Three: Monday, September 5th~ Pinefield Gap to Rockfish Gap
Weather: cloudy, cooler, light rain, highs in mid-70s 
Mileage: 34.5 miles on the AT

Day Three began with the threat of heavy rain and flash flooding, but in fact we had the most enjoyable weather of the weekend! It was cloudy and cool, and after stopping at McDonald's for sausage and egg biscuits, Joe and I were chomping at the bit ready to roll. I knew this section like the back of my hand, and knew that we would be treated to a lot of ridge running and gorgeous trail. We were able to average 4-5 mph the entire day, and spent the day chatting, wooping, and taking lots of photos. I loved the feeling that I was "running home!"

Joe and me at the start of Day Three

The view looking west from Blackrock
It was also amazing how good I felt with the cooler temperatures. My legs were not sore at all, and I had a ton of energy. Michelle was able to spend more time hanging out and less time driving, as we met her every 8-9 miles. The trail was runnable, rolling singletrack, and as we got closer to my house, the faster and easier I ran. I told Joe, a veteran of many multiday runs, that the 3-day was my new favorite way to run 100 miles. I couldn't believe how well my body responded after two days of big miles, humidity,  and high temperatures. I was very pleased with my nutrition and credited Michelle with every step!

The rain came and went in spurts, and we ran a ton. We passed my favorite SNP landmarks: Doyles River, Jones Falls, Blackrock, Rip Rap/Wildcat Ridge, Turk Branch, and Beagle Gap. I texted Rusty to give him an ETA and we hit it on the nose: 4:08 pm, about 9 hours after leaving Pinefield Gap. We arrived at the southern boundary of the SNP just as the rain really began to fall hard. Woop! Rusty took our photo and we scrambled to the car for the drive down the foggy mountain to celebrate at Blue Mountain Brewery!
Joe, Michelle and me at Rockfish Gap!

What an amazing three days! In the end, as disappointed as I was that Michelle couldn't join us, it became clear that her expert crewing, calming influence, sense of humor, and ultra experience was the key to our successful finish. Joe was an awesome running partner who kept me highly entertained throughout the weekend. I am so grateful to them both, as well as to Marlin, Kirstin, Tom, and Ragan for their help and companionship throughout the weekend.

As we enjoyed eating delicious veggie pizza and sampling the brews at Blue Mountain, I thought about of the most important lessons of the multi-day run: keep the group small (and within your trail pace), have a solid itinerary plan with a few back-ups just in case; don't underestimate the importance of a good crew, a comfortable bed, and a hearty dinner each night; and be sure to count your blessings that you have friends and family who want to help you succeed.

 SNP Three-Day Gear:

Inov-8 Roclite 268s (right out of the box!)
Inov-8 team tank (Louis Garneau)
Patagonia skirt
Patagonia shorts
Injinji socks
Headsweat/Nuun visor
Nathan Intensity hydration pack
Nathan handheld bottle

Fuel/Electrolytes for the 3 days:

2 Hammergel flasks ( 5 servings each)
5 Clif Bloks packages
10 bottles of Cafe Latte Perpetuem
5 bottles of Lemon Tea Nuun
10 S caps
3 Cokes
1 Egg sandwich with bacon
1 sausage and egg biscuit
1 Popsicle
lots of Fritos
3 bottles of Cappuccino Ultragen recovery drink
plus huge amounts of appetizers, pasta, and pizza each night post -run

Photos by Michelle Harmon on Flickr here.