Monday, July 14, 2014

A Dream of Turtles in Sand

The map lied.  It looked like the Rock Garden to Sand Gap Trail loop at Natural Bridge State Park was 8 miles and change.  I was looking for an 8 mile run.  The map lied.

I was familiar with the trail.  It’s long enough, and I’ve hiked it few enough times, that I didn’t have a solid concept of how long it was myself, so I was relying on OutrageGIS Mapping’s RRG map distances.  Now, I’m not calling Mr. Boyd Shearer out on this, I’m just sayin’…

I had no intention of making the climb up from the Sky Lift parking lot to the Rock Garden Trail at a run.  I walked at the standard Chainring hiking pace—which is a good clip—until I reached the contouring RGT and tried to get up to a good trail running pace.  My second mile felt good but was a bit slow.  I absolutely love the Rock Garden Trail and my energy levels were up as I plodded along under the cliffs and across the sky lift swath.

As I approached Natural Bridge I saw a coiled up copperhead under a root when I was about a meter away.  I managed to leap over as it darted back into the trail space I had just vacated.  That experience had me on high alert for the rest of my remote run.

I chose to do the Low Gap Trail to Rock Garden to the Sand Gap Trail which loops back to the Sky Lift parking lot.  It comes out to no more than about 8.1 to 8.5 via the map I have.  When I was finished I had tracked 9.7 miles. 

The up side is that I ran 9.7 trail miles in an almost “off the couch” condition and felt darn good doing it.  I managed an overall 11:07 average pace.  My fastest mile (mile 6-7) was 9:44.

Enough about me; let’s talk about the trails.  Rock Garden lives up to its name.  The cliffs along the trail are stunning with varied formations and colorations.  It dumps you out at Natural Bridge with its cliché grandeur.  Fat Man’s Misery and its companion stone steps cut into the cliffside provide a weakness that affords you the ridgetop.

Morning sun from the top of Natural Bridge

From the top of Natural Bridge its only a few short steps to the Sheltowee Trace which runs along with the Sand Gap Trail from there.  I opened it up hoping to start pushing down my pace.  The views were magnificent.  I’ve taken my home landscape for granted for so long.  The morning sun painted the ridges and hollers in brilliant green trimmed in golden magnificence.  I could see faraway rock formations—old friends—that I haven’t visited in eons. 

The Sand Gap Trail alone is 7.1 miles.  There’s little significant elevation gain and loss from the arch all the way around to where the descent into Lower Hood Branch begins.  It isn’t very technical, and again, the views are indescribably beautiful at times.  It’s a long piece around the bulk of this loop though.  You’re in the high country divide between Middle Fork and South Fork.  You’re removed from well-known human development.  There’s little human traffic in the area. 

I’m not lonely in places like Sand Gap.  It was a nice meditative run.  I didn’t feel much the pull of gravity or the lurking hollowness that comes to my legs when I try and move them a lot.  I’d left the car with only my clothes, my phone, and my car key.  I had fueled up on the drive to the trailhead from home, and I had drank a single water bottle of water before taking off down (actually up) the trail.  I wanted to see how I could manage with no backup fuel or liquid.

I have this theory that I can do endurance efforts by starting out fully fueled, move for a certain period of time before intensely fueling and watering.  Then in the middle of the effort fuel and hydrate regularly and often leading up to the final push to the finish where I stop taking anything in and focus on speed and crossing the finish.

Lately on the bike I’ve been experimenting with this.  I did it at Preservation.  Why I think this is a better strategy for me is because I find at a certain point in a long hard day my system starts to reject the notion of taking on fuel.  On one ride (2013 Preservation Pedal) I fought the urge to puke for the last 30 miles.  I rode in full bonk-mode unable to stomach much of anything.  Thankfully I had just enough in me to keep me going, but my main problem was the middle of the route where I forgot to eat and drink and was too focused on hanging on to the Locomozer. 

The strategy is dependent on the course layout.  I pretty much did the same thing during this year’s Mohican.  I didn’t fuel much at all on the really tough singletrack at the beginning, but when I reached the paved roads and horse trails I ate like my life depended on it.  But after the third aid station I “coasted” in on the calories I had consumed in those middle miles.

On shorter rides/runs it seems like I should be able to coast on what I’ve got in the tank to start off with.  So the day before I ran Sand Gap I ate enough Chipotle to choke a stout horse, including a scoop of guacamole, and had dinner late that night.  I had my meager PowerBar chews breakfast on the way to run, and that all carried me for nearly ten miles.
Forgoing the hydration pack for an 8 (10!) mile run is liberating and efficient. 

I couldn’t have gotten away with that on July 12th if I hadn’t started out at 6:00am, but I did pull it off by being fully hydrated and leaving the bottle in the car.  Ages ago I used to hike as far with NO water almost all the time.  I’d return to my car with parched cotton in my throat and have to drive 10 miles out of the Gorge back to Slade to get an Ale-8 and then water back home.

As long as I don’t start out dry in the beginning I should be able to get through a two hour run without the burden of carrying a water bottle or wearing a hydration pack.

Sand Gap is long.  I don’t know if I could do it regularly enough to become intimately familiar with it.  It would be heartbreaking to get out there and decide I didn’t want to run so far but have absolutely no way to cut the run short.  It’s committing.   There’s no SAG mama coming for you along the outer boundary of Natural Bridge State Park.

Finally I began the descent into first Lower Hood Branch and then Upper Hood Branch.  Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.  I knew it wouldn’t just be a three mile downhill, but it ended up being a bit harder than I expected.  There are quite a few blowdowns.  I could go on a rant how I think the state should put a little more effort into coordinating some volunteers to maintain the trails.  I’m not going to.

With about a mile left to go I surprised three trail runners heading in the opposite direction.  I think they truly surprised.  It was about 8:00 am and I was coming off a nearly ten mile loop as they were heading in. 

Then I started hearing whispers of traffic on KY 11.  I knew I was nearly finished and I picked up the pace a little more.

I was only slightly shocked when I checked my mileage back at the car.  I’d been running for a few miles thinking I was getting close to or had exceeded 8 miles.  But I felt good.  I’d not pushed myself too far by adding more than a mile.

Along the way I had thought a lot about Matt Hoyes’ recent Sheltowee run.  I was cognizant of the fact that as I ran the Hardrock 100 was finishing up somewhere out in Colorado.  I looked ahead to the Rugged Red and the Cloudsplitter 100.  I began scheming how I could develop a grassroots ITT style race series including a race on a route I found myself referring to as the “Sand Turtle” even as I ran along it.

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