Ed. Note: You can find part 1 of this two part series here.
I woke up Saturday morning feeling a bit stiff and tired. The night had been a been colder than I expected, making for plenty of tossing and balling up throughout the darkness. I pulled myself out of the sleeping bag and threw on some layers before venturing out of the tent to make some coffee. With the kettle heating up over the pocket stove, I munched on a bagel and began to get things in order for another long run.
After a slow wake up period, more than a few cups of joe, and a little poking around the site, I finally stripped down to my running shorts and took off up the trail.
This was going to be my bigger run of the weekend. I left directly from the campsite along the AT where I would run south for 10 miles before turning around. From Lewis Mountain, that is about a 1.5 miles south of the Swift Run Gap entrance.
The run started out fast, with about a mile of downhill right out of the gate. I breezed past a few trail heads until I came across the Pocosin Cabin. Out of curiosity, I stopped for a minute to check out the cabin. Having recently been introduced to the cabins maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, I was eager to take a peak. Just about .2 miles off the trail sits a rustic cabin built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps with an amazing view. I took a mental note to check it out when I got home, and turned back up the side trail past a spring and back onto the AT. It wasn’t long after that the trail switched to a bit of climbing, and things got fun. The only real rock scramble of this section of trail sat about 2.5 miles from the campsite. After a bit of a scramble up to one of the best overlooks of the day, I continued on, this time downhill, for what seemed like several miles. At this point I was flying. My legs had warmed up, my body was filled with good nutrients, and I was loving the outdoors. About 6 miles into the run I passed a large picnic area, which seemed to a be a major place starting point for people on day hikes down to a set of waterfalls. This was really the only place I’d see anyone all day. On the way out I ran into a group of college aged kids just finishing up the trip down to the falls and on the way back I would run into a large group of about 20, mostly under the age of 10, panting and complaining about the hike being too long. Outside of this half mile stretch, the AT seemed nearly uninhabited other than myself and a few little animals.
About 9 miles south of Lewis Mountain I ran into the Swift Run Gap entrance. The trail spits you out right on Skyline to cross over a bridge before going back into the woods. In hindsight I should have just turned around there. My quite tranquil run was blown out by the loud noises of Skyline. Big over-sized SUVs, loud motorcycles, and diesel trucks working hard to climb the mountain. After I hit 10 miles I decided to retreat and turned right around.
The run home brought about several sets of emotions. I was feeling a big down after running back across the bridge. I’m not really sure why, but I think it had something to do with the realization I wasn’t alone after all. Of course I knew that, but it was so obvious with so many loud cars flying by. The worst part was that right when I was feeling low, the trail decided to go high. What seemed like several mile of climb from about 11-17 were pretty tough. Sure there was some downhill in there as well, but not nearly as much as the uphill. Being that it was an out and back, I knew this was coming, but it didn’t make it any more fun. I just kept chugging along, taking breaks from time to time to munch on a sweet potato round or enjoy an overlook, and gradually that spirit came back. By the time I reached the first big overlook I mentioned before (at about mile 18), I felt great. With just a few miles left before reaching camp I decided to take a bit of a longer break and soak it all in. It had been a great weekend of solo running and I wasn’t ready for it to end. I found a comfy rock, pulled out the last of my fuel, and took my time.
About 30 minutes into my rest, I started hearing some noises behind me. I turned around to see what it was, but couldn’t hear anything. It kept getting louder and louder, the rustling of leaves, crunching into the quite air. “A deer?” I asked myself out loud (literally, out loud…I was starting to go a bit crazy). “Oh man, I hope it isn’t a bear!” I decided to get up and poke my head around the rock to see what it was. Tiptoeing from boulder to boulder I closed in on the noise. I felt the familiar pounding of my heart, only this time it wasn’t from running up a big hill. I turned on the camera and grabbed my bag, just in case I had to take off running from a giant black bear. As I got closer, the noise got louder. But as I turned around the rock, I couldn’t see anything! Finally, I looked down and saw a bird, several birds. Maybe a dozen total. All picking away at who knows what. Turns out a bunch of birds, all jumping around, sounds a lot like a bear…or not.
In any case, I decided it was best to get on back to the campsite, so I took off down the climb and back up to the site. The last few miles flew by as my legs left rested and I was happy. I tacked on a little .5 mile climb (each way) along the Lewis Mountain trail just for one last overlook before stopping at the campsite.
Immediately after arriving the site I was starving. I took off my shoes, ripped open the cooler, and lit the stove. I had prepared a bunch of ingredients ahead of time for a quick and delicious Miso soup. About 10 minutes later I was relaxing in a camping chair slurping down the soup. Delicious and possibly one of the best post run meals I’ve ever had.
Finishing up the run around 4:30 gave me plenty of time to enjoy a quiet evening and reflect on the weekend. It had been a great one, with hours of solitude on the trail, and plenty of suffering to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.
As the sun started to set that evening I took the short trek back up the Lewis Mountain trail for one last view of the valley during sunset. I sat quietly, fiddling with tiny sticks and watching the lights from homes deep in the valley grow brighter. I thought about this journey to 50 miles, and why I would want to do that to myself. What I realized is that something you really love doing shouldn’t always be easy or fun. If it is always easy, you’ll never learn or grow from it. What I love about running isn’t always the act of running, but the life lessons learned from each mile. In fact, sometimes I really hate running, but every time I hit a low, I always come out. Every time I’m suffering and want to quit, I’m always about to break through. And every time I put my mind to it and fight my way through the pain, I do something I didn’t know I could do before. Now running isn’t always the perfect metaphor for life, but if I can approach life with this understanding that when things really suck and pain is all I feel, that I can get through that and become stronger by just dropping my head and fighting up the hill, well I think that is a great way to live. It makes those sweet times that much sweeter.
I stayed up late that night drinking beers, watching the fire, and enjoying the full moon. When I woke up Easter morning, with stiff legs and a dry mouth, I felt so satisfied. After a quick breakfast of coffee and fruit, I packed up my stuff and loaded the car. I was excited to return home, see Katie, and keep moving forward.