Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Trail as Timeless Teacher: A Weekend Long Run on the Middlesex Fells Skyline Trail.

I found this quote, not sure who should be given credit for having said it: "Time is the cruelest teacher; first she gives the test, then teaches the lesson.”

Following my long run adventure at the Middlesex Fells Reservation this weekend on the Skyline Trail, I feel that 'time' could be aptly replaced with 'the trail' in the above quotation.

First, the basics. So Breakheart Dan thought it would be a good idea to get a group together this past Saturday to preview the course that most of us would be running the following weekend at the Middlesex Fells Trail Races. The course, the Skyline Trail, a trail that offers just about every type of terrain one might encounter in New England. In addition to that challenge of this hilly and rocky trail, there are some magnificent vistas of Boston and the surrounding area:

The Skyline is basically an 8 mile circuit around the Middlesex Fells Reservation, and the plan was to run a couple of loops. Though I am being careful to not do too much, too quickly as far as building a base, I though three hours and 16 miles of trail running would be a great way to test the system and see what I have in the tank. After all, I have been able to do a couple long runs of upwards of two hours, and I really want to see if my body might be up for an attempt at 50k at the end of May. Though I knew three hours would be a challenge, I was prepared to basically use a run-walk strategy that I plan on using for my first ultra.

I came prepared with my newly acquired Nathan HPL 20 hydration pack, a VERY good purchase as I'd discover on my "second" loop, a couple CLIF bars, a couple Power Gels, and a package of CLIF shot bloks, which I completely forgot I had until after I finished the morning of carnage.

Stretched out and acquianted with the others in our group for the day, we headed on down the trail. The morning was pleasantly milder than expected with the bright blue sky of a clear March Morning. Cool enough for long sleeves and a couple layers when one standing still, but quickly seemed like too much after about 15 minutes of running. Though I don't want this to be a full on gear review, the HPL 20 was excellent for carrying gear and foodstuffs over the duration of the run, especially in varying conditions. There are numerous pockets for gels and gloves or whatever you might need to store. Additionally there is more storage in the pack, with one zippered pocket for additional gels, bars, supplies, etc. I also found I could store a couple of things in the compartment with the fluid bladder.

The first couple miles of the trail tell no tales - the first rocky ascent is the basic warning. As you climb you hear a whisper: "Dear trail runner, do you like rocks? You do? Well this is just a taste of what I offer over the next 8 miles!" I figured I'd have to make a decision somewhere over the course of the three hours to back off on my pace and let the group go, since all were more fit and ready than I am at this point. I didn't think I'd be deciding this over the first two miles!

The trail undulates and is laden with small rocks, and flat eroded boulders, making ascents and descents extra challenging. The whole time I had the guitar intro. and big pounding drums of AC/DC's "For Those About to Rock" in my head...

The group was gracious enough to wait up for me on a few occasions, but thankfully they forged ahead on the second half of the loop. Yes, probably not smart running by oneself on a new and treacherous trail, but I also felt bad that I was holding people up.

I am not sure if having the ability to train on these types of trails on a more regular basis would make me more capable on rocky, technical trails, but I also had other factors slowing me down. The shadows and lack of foliage on the tree were casting shadows on the trail, that, combined with the extremely bright sunshine, made me very tentative when running some of the more technical sections. My eyes were not doing well, and it was to the point where sunglasses would have slightly helped in the brighter areas, but would have not helped with the sections with the shadows. I never like to use my eye condition as a crutch, but it was extremely difficult to choose a seemingly safe line down the rocky descents or across the sections with numerous small rocks coming up out of the soil. At first it was disconcerting, but I resolved that it was all part of my challenge. It's not like I am going to decide to not do something because of my vision. I never want to be in that place. The light blindness also was a factor in some sections, as the white blazes on the trees were faded, and I was basically searching through the dead leaves for evidence of where the trail went when I couldn't find the next blaze. The best part was that I was never anxious when alone. I never felt lost, and I was at peace, just enjoying a beautiful Spring morning.

Breakheart Dan was kind enough to wait for me at certain tricky trail intersections and probably saved my bacon a number of times. As we ran the last 1/2 mile together I felt seemingly good for the first eight miles, and started thinking about lap two.

Here's Breakheart Dan dominating one of the technical downhills:

We refueled, ate some lovely baked goods provided by Trail Pixie, as well as other 'pot luck' foods provided by members of the group, and headed out.

As the first eight mile loop was almost a two hour affair for me, a told the gang I'd hang on for a half hour or so, and then head back the way I came, and would chill while they did their thing on the second loop. I was feeling good for the first mile and a half, and then I started falling apart. I was taking in fluid like crazy, I fell once, and just about the time I decided to turn and head back, my quads started cramping. The last half-hour was mostly a speed hike for me, and just after the 3 hour barrier, my hamstring started pinching where I had my IT Band compression strap around my leg. The IT also started to slightly bother me, but the cramps in my quads were far more painful.

I never once felt down in that last half hour, but I started rolling over the idea of 50k and whether that was going to happen if I was having issues at 3 hours. For the most part I was just really happy to be outside, muddy, covered in sweat, bloody, and just slightly broken. To some degree it sucks, and cramping quads are never fun, but it also can be relatively euphoric.

Here are the 16 milers coming back in:

This was certainly a run where I bit off more than I probably should have, but it was an experience that was valuable, challenging and cathartic in a way. The course is challenging, and next weekend I am going to really have to step it up. I think running the course will serve me well, but I definitely see the possibility of finishing dead last among the other eight mile runners. Which is fine, but I know the rocks and shadows will still be there next week. I am excited to get back out there, though. The Skyline is a beautiful trail, and for the sheer training and butt-kicking value, it is worth a lap or two.

The lessons learned this weekend were plentiful. One, I am starting to come out of my winter of injury induced hibernation, and as long as I don't spend too much time logging miles on the roads, I'll be okay. Two, often times the challenge is not about competing with others, but with testing one's limits. And three, the act of running over a technical trail and following blazes requires so much more of a runner. I already have learn this last lesson, but running a new trail always brings out the inner trail animal and survivalist. No water stops or porta-potties, no bands playing every mile. There are only the supplies one can carry, a sense of adventure, and a connection with the natural world. It wasn't like the last 25 miles of a 100 mile run, but that last 30 minutes, negotiating the terrian, mentally and physically ragged, I felt that primal and organic will to finish what I had started at all costs. It is the place that quashes all of those inner commentaries on the minor things of life. It feels like some sort of purification. It really is the essence of why I have taken to trail running.

In total, I think I covered close to 13 miles and was on my feet for about 3 1/2 hours. Statistically it was not a great run, but right now quads are definitely lecturing me on the value of climb and descent. Garmin says 3841 ft. accumulated ascent and 3828 accumulated descent, if that means anything. I am not convinced enough to send my application in for Pineland Farms, I am going to attempt another 3 hour and, hopefully, 4 hour run at ultra pace and work on hydration and caloric intake and then decide. Until then, Fells 8 miler next weekend, and then a couple of 10 miler trail races tentatively on the schedule.

Until next time, Happy Trails.


pathfinder said...


Sounds like you had a good training run and as always it gives you the oppourtunity to see where your fitness level is. I think this run helped you to see where your pace should be for a longer run.

The pineland trails are not as technical as the fells but the constant rolling hills will give your quads a workout.

It seems with over two months before pineland you only have to concentrate on some hill running and increase the time on your feet and you will be all set.

I did get to the fells this weekend and enjoyed it emensly...

Dan said...

Rob, A very good post and a fitting quote! Nice run, you did well on a killer trail. Great photos too! See you Saturday. Are you ready to rumble?

RunninRob said...

Yes Dan, Ready to Rumble for sure! I woke up this morning looking at my battle scars from Saturday and where I have those two long cuts on my knee there is a kick ass half-moon bruise. Could it get any better? :-)

Kevin, did you do the Skyline circuit? Sorry we missed you! Would have been fun to have you along for the roller coaster ride!

RunMommyRun said...

C'mon, admit it. The battle scars come with a certain amount of pride though... :) Maybe it's sick, but with each black toenail I get, I'm a little impressed with myself, LOL.

I love that you post pics of your fun to see. Glad no broken bones occurred and that you were in good company. Stay strong!

trailgrrl said...

It was so great to meet you this past weekend...and I am glad I found your is great.

I have to back up what runmommy said about the scars...I have come to LOVE the scars on my fact I was jealous of the blood and muck on your legs ; )

See you Saturday!

RunninRob said...

Thanks Trailgrrl,

I was great meeting you as well. I may have had the blood and muck, but it was amazing seeing how effortless you and Nipmuck Dave made running look over that terrain! You guys are going to rock at VT this year!