This song (there is no actual video footage) sums up completely how I felt out there on the AT today. I only wish I had been carrying my camera so that I could have recorded footage of what was easily not only the best run I had in months, but the most profound and important as well.
This morning I got up at the pre-crack of dawn to meet up with Christian to hit up the Appalachian Trail and get in some good dirt time. Christian is an Atlanta area ultrarunner who I got connected to many months ago through our mutual networks of running friends and who I failed to run with the last time I was in Atlanta (how I have no idea). During my last stint here, he had connected me with lots of people and places to run and I am infinitely grateful. I was excited to finally get the opportunity to get out with him and have a great run. We were suppose to head out yesterday to do the "Meat Grinder" but work obligations kept me city bound and thanks to the wonder (or not) of technology, Christian still was at the meetup spot at 5:45am when he finally received my cancellation text from the previous evening (sorry!!). He was kind enough to reschedule for this am and instead and hit up Kennesaw instead and hammer out a fast 20 miler (color me jealous!).
The morning alarm at 4:40 came all too early and I woke up feeling like I hadn't slept much. Um...because I hadn't. When planning my bedtime, I forgot about the time change and went to bed well after 11pm, which meant I slept from 11:30-3:40 (without the change). Thankfully my phone automatically changed and I was able to be on time. I grabbed a cup of coffee, banana and Chia seed food bar and headed out from Lauren's parents house to head to the meetup spot of highway 400. It was another 1hr plus drive up the trailhead and so I hopped into Christian's truck and we scooped up his friend Victor from their usual meeting spot. We still had plans to run "Meat Grinder" but Victor suggested we hit up Blood Mountain instead which was according to him, comparable climb/difficulty but far more beautiful. As this was my first time on the AT, I was down with both optimal difficulty and optimal beauty. We decided to do Blood Mountain which was about 9.5 from trailhead to the top, making for a great 19miles for the day. It was a apparently a day for random songs, references and movies since as soon as we decided on Blood Mountain, all I could think was the first line of this song:
We made it to the trailhead and set out. Victor (who also sparked another random reference in my head making me go "Hey Victor" everytime I thought his name in the vein of the movie Smoke Signals) explained the route and told me just to follow the white paint on the trees that denotated the AT. It was a chilly start and I was thankful that I had packed a pair of my bamboo Moeben sleeves to rock. They joked that I shouldn't worry about getting lost, just to run out to about 9.5 on the Suunto and then turn around. I objected and said I was sticking with them, so I wouldn't have to worry. Their response was, "yeah right this is about the only running we'll be doing with you" as we ran the first few 100 meters. I tried to get Christian to take the lead but that lasted about 200meters. I didn't want to just run off, but Christian put me in front and told me to set my own pace. I had no intention to hammer the run, especially with the promise of it being a grueling uphill grind. But within the first 1/2 mile, something magical happened. I came back into my own. This was my first trail run of any consequence (i.e. in terms of difficulty level, that is hills) since my injury and even after a good run at Hagg Lake, I still haven't really been "feeling it" much. It comes back in bit, flashes, pieces that are fleeting. "It" being that feeling of firing on all cylinders, feeling like you are highly trained machine that you are. When mind, body, spirit merge and you feel like there is nothing else in the world but you and the trail. Before I could even blink, I had floated uphill 5 miles and long abandoned the boys. I felt a moment of guilt since I never like to leave a very gracious and generous host, but I also knew that it was Christian's desire to be this way. We were all "getting ours", so it was all good. I had music float in and out of my brain, which was funny since this is the first run in a while where I did not listen to music at all.
I felt moved, I felt strong, I felt like I was flying or dancing. The uphills all felt runnable, my feet moving swiftly over the rooty trail. I passed many campsite of through hikers and soaked it all in. The sun started to peak out from behind the misty moisty clouds and illuminate the trail and amazing beauty of where I was running. I kept grinding, hitting each natural marker that Victor had said I would come to and confidently moved up the mountain. I ran past a campsite of a group of 7 hikers, one of which exclaimed, "wow, you go girl! You are flying. Do you run up the hills to? That is just amazing." I laughed, and said, "I certainly try, but I'll probably get around the corner and start walking" as I zoomed on through. But I didn't walk, I didn't need to. I hit the stone stair case and pushed up what I could tell (by mileage on my watch) was the final grind. I sipped my Nuun and felt the temperature drop as I climbed. I scrambled up and made it to the top where there is a shelter and an amazing outcrop of rocks that I am sure provide some of the most profound views from the AT. Unfortunately for me, it was fogged/clouded in and I couldn't do anything but stand there and try not to get flung off the rocks in the wind. I made it up to the top in 1:35 and was feeling awesome. I doddled a few minutes and then decided to indulge in my due reward which was the rocking downhill off Blood Mountain.
I flew down, carefully picking my way through the rocks, taking special care since I was rocking road shoes. About 3/4 mile down the trail, I ran into Christian who was looking strong and fresh and I about faced and ran back up to the top with him (bonus miles!) and had a good chat. It is always so amazing to me how genuine and generous the people I have met through ultrarunning (the majority at least), Christian and Victor were no exception. Christian and I made it back to the top and lamented that we didn't have a camera for the summit. What a spot! We turned around and headed back down. Within a few 100 meters, I did one of my more epic trips and stumbled about 25 yards downhill but managed to keep myself on my feet (thank goodness). We ran into Victor shortly thereafter and all headed back down. Christian told me I should take off and so I floated off down the trail, kicking into high gear in one of my fortes: technical downhill. Despite the tripping, I am a great downhiller.
I couldn't help smiling ear to ear and feeling my heart uplifted by the run. About 4.5 miles down, I realized how much uphill I had run on the way up. And I had run it! All of it! My confidence in myself as a trail ultrarunner resurrected in a way I haven't felt since Leona Divide or Tahoe Rim Trail. I was finally able to own that "my event" (my favorite, my talent, etc) is not just the road, not at all in fact, it is just as much the trail. Somewhere along the line, I bought into the idea that I should "just stick to the road" and despite having numerous trail victories of substance, still lacked confidence in my abilities therein. As I continued down the trail and back up and over the rolling ridges of the AT, for the first time I felt a bit of confidence in myself as a trail runner. It may seem strange to think that I haven't until now, I mean I have in glimmers, but I have in equal amounts wondered if I was just a flat and fast girl or that my trail victories ( &*cough* course records) were flukes. I admit it that last year, there was a part of me that was relieved when WS was canceled since I was at an all-time low of trail confidence at that point (how since I had a great Spring of trail victories, I am not sure. I think it is intertwined with my hypo-thyroid that was throwing off physical and mental chemistry). Subsequently, I decided to focus on the road a bit more since I was excelling there and because the 100k was an event in which I thrive. I have put off big trail races for the year and more and more bought into my own self doubt.
Until my feet hit the AT today. Back came the glimmers of confidence, full power came the reasons why I love the trail so much, and completely my body, mind and spirit converged in a way they rarely do in any other context. It was beautiful and profound. It was simple, but infinitely meaningful. With 1 mile to go, I hit a rocky outcrop that offered, the skies now clear, a breathe-taking view of the AT and the surrounding country as far as the eye could see (damnit where is my camera)I took a mental picture and zoomed back the way I came and sped back into the parking lot at the trailhead, averaging sub 10 min miles for a run that had about 4,500 feet of ascent. Christian came soon thereafter and Victor was along a bit after him. We hopped in the car and headed back to Victor and my cars, talking the whole way about restaurants and food (Victor lived in Seattle, so we chatted lots about the food scene there). Christian dropped me off at my car and I headed home still lost in my own little world. I felt supremely disconnected from the world going on around me. In my mind, I was still in the space I had found on the trail. In my heart, I was still floating and dancing along a thin dirt line heading northwards towards Maine. For this gift, I am eternally grateful.
Christian post run. A total rockstar who hammered out 40 miles this weekend. Thanks so much for everything Christian!