Trail Report: Tough Day on the Pinhoti

It has been a tough few weeks around here. But there have been happy moments as well. Our son turned seven. My wife and I celebrated 17 years of marriage. We are now at around a month before the Bel Monte Endurance Races. I had planned for and registered for the 50k race. As you may know, I’ve been battling knee issues, IT band issues, and other challenges while training. The brutally cold winter hasn’t helped me stay on track either. 

The Pinhoti Trail as it picks up at the Snake Creek Trailhead.
The Pinhoti Trail as it picks up at the Snake Creek Trailhead.

After a tough training run this weekend, I’ve decided to drop down to the 25k race at Bel Monte. It seems like a good idea to be safe, injury-free, and accomplish something. At the same time, I’d hate to make more work for the volunteers or cause another racer injury or duress trying to help me.

I hope that if the race goes well, it will be a springboard for a summer of strong training and a trail marathon in the early fall with maybe a 50k in the late fall.

At any rate, Saturday was a painful and humbling run on a beautiful trail with some wonderful weather. I was down in Dalton, GA where my in-laws live and had the chance to spend some time on the famed Pinhoti Trail. The Pinhoti is a trail that runs from Alabama into northwest Georgia and nearly connects to the Appalachian Trail. It’s not a complete wilderness trail as it cuts through some smaller towns including Dalton.

Blasted trees near Mill Creek Mountain.
Blasted trees near Mill Creek Mountain.

The section I tackled starts at a parking area and trailhead called Snake Creek Gap. Over the course of over 15 miles, the trail crests four peaks starting with Mill Creek Mountain, moving to Middle Mountain, then Hurricane Mountain, and finishing on the top of Dug Mountain. The whole section gives you about 2,500 feet of elevation gain. There are some decent views of the surrounding ridges and near Dug Mountain a few expansive views of Dalton.

Amazing views from the crest of Dug Mountain.
Amazing views from the crest of Dug Mountain.

It’s an extremely rocky trail with several challenging vertical sections that seem to eschew switchbacks in favor of stair-stepping large boulders. At one point, I was actually cursing the rocks. I was actually pointing and cursing rocks that seemed to jump up and snag my feet. It was one of the most mentally challenging runs I’ve had in recent memory. I just wanted to get off the mountain as fast as possible.

The trail is popular with bikers who must be highly skilled or else carry their bikes across some sections because it’s often just a pile of rocks. While the trail does provide its share of challenges, the trail is accessible enough for most hikers and is close to the surrounding communities making it a strong option for outdoors folks in north Georgia.

https://www.strava.com/activities/487471258/embed/f449a28d69870822e0fd18eb2a2b432878685c47

The rocky trail ultimately led me to the decision mentioned above as my ankles and feet just aren’t going to be ready for 50k of this. I hope that the next time we are visiting family, I can give the trail another shot and try to improve on a really tough day out.

What I Think About When I Think About Nothing

When I first started running, I listened to music, podcasts, whatever. It was hard for me to run a mile without stopping or walking. I needed something to distract me from the pain, the labored breathing, and the embarrassment of being a fat person running. The music was a way to wall off the world while also not having to deal with the thoughts in my head. I could be in a limbo that was not of the world and not of my own psyche. It was an oblivion that I’ve dangerously flirted with for the bulk of my days. 

It was quite messy out at Pandapas Pond today.
It was quite messy out at Pandapas Pond today.

As I gained confidence and fitness, I came to feel more comfortable being out there in the world. I got more comfortable with my own thoughts. I learned to process them. I learned to leave them on the trail. I’d run by them like landmarks that represented some lost time and place; a history with which I no longer needed to wrestle. Catharsis then came in the form of the rhythm of my feet and my breathing. Those sounds beat out a pattern that made sense of my petites folies.

So, now I run with no headphones and since I almost always run alone, I have moments where my mind feels completely blank. Every so often, I song lyric or phrase gets stuck in there and becomes a mantra. One of these recurring mantras is “relentless forward progress” which I picked up from Bryon Powell’s book of the same name.

Today, I had two wonderful mantras chasing me around Pandapas Pond for 20 miles. Since this was going to be my longest run ever and I’ve been way behind on my training, I decided to alternate running a mile and then walking a mile. In my head, this became “run to the odds, walk to the evens” meaning I ran the first, third, fifth, etc. mile and walked the even numbered miles. 

The second mantra was the title of the song “A Man is a Pent-up Thing” by my second favorite band of all-time, Five Eight. The song itself is genius because it never resolves. There’s no crescendo and it’s simply minute after minute of tension with the chorus reminding us that “a man is a pent-up thing.” Today, that line repeated in my head and it felt like this energy and drive to be better was waiting to explode out of me. The pain and fatigue gets turned into the fuel to keep turning the legs over. Keep the feet flapping down the street. Release that pent-up power and do something with it.

If you could be in my head while I’m running, you’d likely think I was boring because there’s only ever four or five thoughts cycling through it. But then, that’s part of why I do it. I’m running to find that place of crystalline thought that allows my subconscious to process all the nonsense it builds up over time. There’s lots of research about how music increases your athletic performance but that pales in importance to what I discover about myself when I let my brain stew a bit.

I know everyone does their own thing out on a run, but try running without music for a week or two and see what you discover about how your head works.

The Trail Beckons

I went three weeks between runs since my last post about the Huckleberry Jam. My family and I spent over a week at Disney. It was amazing to spend time away from phones, TVs, the Internet, and just laugh and play together. After that, I got the dreaded “travel cold” and I continued to struggle with knee pain.

The Snake Root trail at Pandapas Pond. To my mind, one of the prettiest trails at Pandapas
The Snake Root trail at Pandapas Pond. To my mind, one of the prettiest trails at Pandapas

After being assured by my doctor that my knee is structurally sound, he told me that he thinks my sense of instability is stemming from really tight IT bands. Oddly, I don’t have the pain or cramps that can sometimes come with IT Band Syndrome. My issues arise with this knee instability I’ve been fighting.

So, I got serious about using my foam roller multiple times a day. It’s exceedingly uncomfortable, but it does seem to help immediately. I also made a commitment to routinely do the Myrtl routine to build hip girdle strength. After a few days of that, I was finally able to go back out for a serious run on Sunday.

https://www.strava.com/activities/462344674/embed/609599c602eed3c469e83e99164fe30cdd308da4

The weather here in Blacksburg was pretty cold but beautifully sunny. I ventured out to my local favorite trail at Pandapas Pond and knocked out 6.5 miles. Making sure to wear a patellar strap and icing my knee down afterwards, my knee this morning feels pretty good. I’m on track for another 6 miles tomorrow and we’ll see how things hold up.

What I’ve learned over the last few weeks is that time away from work, home, and even running can be rejuvenating and invaluable. Nothing will replace the smile my son and wife gave me as we swam with manatees in Florida. I’ve also learned that being a healthy and consistent runner is often about things that aren’t running. That’s advice I wish I’d heard or at least heeded when I started on this adventure.

Race Report: Huckleberry Jam 7.4 Miler

On Saturday, I ran the Huckleberry Jam 7.4 mile race which is part of Runabout Sports‘s Carilion Clinic Race Series. The race follows the full length of the Huckleberry Trail which is a Rails-to-Trails conversion connecting Blacksburg to Christiansburg.

https://www.strava.com/activities/448980143/embed/9e8faf8607f8b753726382b454894c60939484cc

The race was small but, as always with this series, well run and fun. The races in this series are friendly events and it seems most folks are locals and know each other so there’s a collegial, casual atmosphere. The weather was perfect with 55 degree temps at the race start.

The course has quite a few hills and long portions of steady climbing which is typical of anywhere one might try to run in Blacksburg. Especially at the end of the race in Christiansburg, there’s a lot of up and down with some steep, if short, climbs to finish out the race. It’s not grueling but it’s not easy either. Quite a nice challenge to work through. The finisher’s medal is a really cool railroad spike engraved with the race name and such. A unique medal that stands out amongst the ribbons and such that other races hand out.

My plan was to use the race as the beginning of a 20 mile training run. When I got to the end of the race, my wife and son were there cheering me on. It really made the the previous hour or so worth it. I probably wouldn’t have turned around and come back if it hadn’t been for their encouragement. My time was 79 minutes and 58 seconds. Not exactly blistering but it’s a deal faster than I would typically tackle the start of a long training run.

I turned around and ran back to the start line which gave me 15 miles instead of the 20 I had planned. Between the heat that came on as the day went on and some race pacing I hadn’t intended, it didn’t seem smart to push things and end up with an injury to my fragile knee. When I got back to Runabout, they were beginning handing out my awards and someone was calling out my name. Apparently, the race organizer wanted to give me a high-five for doubling up the race. That was a very kind acknowledgement for a back-of-the-pack runner like me.

On Sunday, I did about 5 miles with the bulk of it on the old high school track. It helps to keep things loose after a long run and it’s good training for running on tired legs which I’ll need to do more of in the future.

It was great weather for running this weekend and I was happy to be out there.

Ultra Marathons Will Not Make You Dumb

This post from the Smithsonian summarizes some research from the Trans-Europe Footrace on the physical effects of ultra marathons. The click-grabbing headline tells us that ultra marathons will shrink our brains. But, actually reading the article shows this to be grandstanding at best.

Mountain runners play with their watches while starting a race.
Mountain runners play with their watches while starting a race.

According to the article, these researchers studied 44 runners in the 64 day/2,788 mile race performing MRIs and other tests on them before, during, and after the race about every 900 kilometers. These scans and blood/urine tests were used to judge changes over time for these runners.

While noting that cartilage broke down over the course of the first 2500km of the race, the researchers discovered that it began to regenerate even while the runners were still pounding across Europe. Previously, it was believed that cartilage would only regenerate at rest when the load was removed.

Then, there’s the big headline that some of the runners showed signs of brain shrinkage over the course of the race. The researcher don’t know why this happened but malnourishment, dehydration, lack of stimulation, or actual remapping of brain function are posited as possible causes. Basically, nobody knows and the sample size is so small and research so sparse that we aren’t likely to ever really know.

So, now we’ll be reading jokes and breathless blog posts about ultra marathons making us dumb. Let me be clear, ultra marathons are not going to make anyone dumb.

When we realize that this race is really much more than an ultra marathon and represents one of the more extreme running events currently happening, it stands to reason that these changes almost certainly don’t apply to your shorter 50k or 50 mile race. Even this research showed that all the changes were reversed within six months. So, like the sore muscle or the tweaked ligament, these changes go away with rest.

It’s great that this sport is starting to have some research focus on it to help make it safer and potentially more approachable for more people. Thus far, the sport’s icons and most of the business around the sport is focused on the highest achievers. Where 5k runs have generated large mass appeal, it would be great to have some percentage of that attention on ultra running.

For me, the benefits of lessened anxiety, mitigated depression, weight control, and personal time will easily outweigh any temporary drawbacks of brain changes. I imagine if I were to drink a beer the brain damage is probably similar to finishing the Trans-Europe Footrace. I’m highly unlikely to do either of those two things.

Injuries and Setbacks

As some of you might know, I am training for the Bel Monte 50k in March 2016. This training period has not been an easy one with knee and back problems cropping up on a fairly regular basis. Through treatment, stretching, and specific exercises, the back problems have largely been eliminated.

The typical effect of Runner's Knee or Chondromalacia.
The typical effect of Runner’s Knee or Chondromalacia.

However, on Thursday last week, my knee problems came back. It’s the typical “runner’s knee.” My left knee was injured pretty seriously while playing football in high school. Since then, I’ve had issues with it off and on. A training plan that sees me running up to 50 miles a week is bound to exacerbate those problems.

This has been a setback in training as I missed a couple of long runs while resting my knee and waiting to let the doctor take a look. I still have nearly three months before the race but it’s tough when I get knocked off track like this. I have to remind myself that I am attempting this race to finish. I want to find my limit. If that limit is that I didn’t do every training run, then maybe that’s OK.

The doctor told me this morning that my left kneecap was grinding against its groove and was improperly aligned. The pain in the back of my knee is from muscle spasms that occur when the knee is injured and is trying to protect itself. He then adjusted the kneecap in an effort to get it aligned correctly. He gave me a clean bill of health to continue training.

So, physically, it would seem that I’m on the mend and the doctor gave me tools to prevent and treat this issue if it comes back. That’s all good news. The real challenge becomes the mental side of having an injury. The problem is that I no longer trust my body to do what I ask of it.

I imagine this is quite common among athletes and I hear it cited often with athletes who have knee injuries. Gaining back the confidence to do the same things we did before our knee was injured is a 100% mental game. Even a coach or a doctor can’t convince us that our knee is as good as it was before. Some part of our brains is always wondering,  “If I push myself a little faster or a little farther, am I going to feel that twinge again?”

I don’t have a solution to this problem. My approach is to be consistent and on target with my training plan. I plan to be attentive and diligent in doing the exercises I’ve been given to avoid re-injury. Past that, I know there will be lingering doubts and I know I probably won’t push myself as I was before. Maybe time is what heals us physically and psychically.

This is when having a good training partner would likely come in handy. Someone who could provide motivation to show up for training runs and not let things slide. Someone who would encourage me not to cut a run short. I’ve been a solitary runner since I started this journey a few years ago. Maybe it’s time to change that.

Running the Greenbelt in Owensboro, KY

This weekend, as part of Thanksgiving festivities, I found myself running in Owensboro, KY where my in-laws live. Besides the fabulous food (try Moonlite BBQ and Old Hickory BBQ for amazing smoked mutton) and our wonderful family, Owensboro is home to the great Adkisson Greenbelt paved trail system that continues to grow. I was happily surprised at the resources and thinking that’s gone into this running/biking path system so far.

A view of the Greenbelt path on the south side of Owensboro, KY.
A view of the Greenbelt path on the south side of Owensboro, KY.

The Greenbelt path will eventually encircle the entire city and make crossroads through the town itself. I did my Thanksgiving Day run on a portion of the trail that starts at a sports park and then winds its way to border the local airport with a minimum of road crossings which are well-marked and safe. The path itself is about 10 feet wide and paved with mile markings every tenth of a mile. For most of the trail, there is signage about the flora that borders the trail.

On Saturday, I went back to the Greenbelt for a longer run in a steady rain. This time, I went past the airport and found myself on the newer part of the trail that cuts through some starkly beautiful fields. Despite the rain, or maybe because of it, there was a profound peace that settled over me as I moved through the halfway point of my run. The path is nice and flat so it was easy to keep cruising through my longest run so far.

https://www.strava.com/activities/440994643/embed/cc88f2c77a908661c3ff73de2b27f1952189bd1c

Turning back to town, the trail becomes more of just a sidewalk and it seems like the city has commitments to improve all the paths and signage as the Greenbelt moves back into the city. I made the mistake of reading the map and assuming all the colored bits were Greenbelt but some of them are bike paths including some roads marked with sharrows. These aren’t exactly great for running but it worked out given that there wasn’t much traffic and there was decent light in the middle of the day.

Owensboro is a city that is very committed to sports facilities and the Adkisson Greenbelt park trail is a great addition to those facilities. Check out the map below and if you find yourself in Owensboro, put some miles in on the Greenbelt.