Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


After the long uphill drive from the Jamesville Reservoir I pass through the little cluster of buildings known as Pompey (if you live in the area, by the way, you know that's pronounced "POMP-ee"). I cross Route 20 and start down the other side of Pompey Hill, toward Fabius. The land sweeps down and away ahead of me and I can see for perhaps five or six miles across farm fields and woodlots, and into the first of the big wooded hills, and I am reminded again just how little is out here. "Not what most people outside of New York picture when you mention New York," I thought (not for the first time - and as a non-native New Yorker, I know this is true).

Today though, underneath my usual inner dialog, there is something else lurking in my mind - something deeper, wordless and primitive... fear. I feel it strongly as I drive down the hill from Pompey.

It had begun in the last few days of the week as I'd committed myself to this outing. It had been quite a while since I last did it on my own. I know so many local runners now that if I insisted on having company I could probably find someone. Lu had something going on though, and I had not tried to recruit someone else. That fear that I could feel even then told me that I needed to do this on my own. I cannot allow myself to fear the wooded hills south of Pompey.

I had felt the fear as I had dressed for the outing. It manifested as a greater concern for what I would wear and what I would carry. Would I be warm enough? Would I be too warm? Did I have everything I should have in case something went wrong? I had no idea how my recently-troublesome left knee was going to hold up on the trails. What if I become crippled out in the middle of nowhere? Is my phone fully charged? Do I really need gloves? Should I throw this warmer hat in the pack just in case I need it? Are these socks too thick or will the extra insulation and cushioning be a good thing? When I am in good practice, these answers come naturally. Today they came nervously.

I had decided not to shave. That way if I met anyone ill-willed out there the scruff would make me look like a tougher customer than I am - a little more intimidating.

As I descended into the bottom land and the vistas were lost to view, I silently said a short prayer: "Lord, watch over me and keep me safe through this day's activity." He's done it many times before, and I trust him to do it again now - and if it turns out his plan is different this time? Well, I'm eager to meet him on the other side.

The prayer helped some, but I felt the fear again as I made final preparations at the trail head. Again, I nervously thought through the steps. What should be left in the car? What did I need to be sure and bring with me? Did I really have the car key secured in my pack? Check again. I looked up at the ridge looming some eight hundred feet above me, knowing that getting up there would only be the beginning of my isolation, and I wondered (not for the first time), "Should I really do this?"

"You need to do this," came the answer in my inner conversation. "You should be more afraid of being afraid to do this." Hand firmly touching the key through the material of my pack, I pushed the locked car door closed, turned, and walked across the road toward the trail.

Google Earth visualization of my route, looking north from
a point of view high above Morgan Hill.
The first climb is very steep and relentless. Hiking it is a great way to stretch everything out in preparation for the work to come. In no time I am breathing hard as I turn my legs over with purpose. My body is immediately put on notice that I will be demanding things of it this day, and I feel it respond pretty well. I am relentless too. Within two or three minutes I'm perhaps a couple of hundred feet above where I parked the car and, as it is in eastern U.S. forests even before the trees are fully leaved, I am already swallowed up, closed in by the trees, the underbrush, and the closeness of the terrain, my world shrunken to a circle with a radius measured in yards.

Topping the first climb, I have an easy trot down a gentle slope to the creek bed just above Tinker's Falls. I begin to jog, re-acclimating to the rhythms of trail running, the attention to the trail and to my footing, feeling out the shortened stride that I think will protect my knee. By the time I reach the creek side I am already feeling more comfortable. This is all familiar to me.

The creek is running full. A day-and-a-half of rain and thunderstorms had just passed, and the land was shedding the excess. The trail would be muddy in spots, and the stream crossings would be more challenging than usual. I waste time crossing here, figuring out how to keep my feet dry. It's silly, I know. I should just wade. There will be no keeping my feet dry today anyway, the winter chill is off the streams, my socks are thick and warm and they wick well, and even if I soak my feet, in no more than few hundred yards past the creek they will feel warm and mostly dry and I will think no more of having gotten them wet. Here though, I am only five or ten minutes from the car, and civilization still clings to me. I spot a solid, dry rock on the other side of a narrow part of the flow. I drop a few rocks on my side to make a launching-off point, then I leap for it, landing smartly (and with dry feet) on the far side, feeling pleased with myself.

Here the climb begins in earnest. Though swallowed as I am I can no longer see its top, the bulk of the ridge still looms above me. Up, up I climb, the sounds of the stream and the falls fading slowly away until all is silence but for my footfalls and my breath. It is very still this morning. Few of the birds even, it seems, are stirring yet. I know though, that I am not alone. They are here - and not just the birds, but deer, raccoons, coyotes, possibly even a black bear, countless smaller creatures: squirrels, chipmunks, mice, shrews, perhaps the occasional mink or even a fisher. I know there have been eyes on me ever since I entered their world. As I stand on the ridge top, looking back across the valley where I left the car, appreciating the stillness that is so rare up here where the ridge generally catches any breeze, I feel the eyes and I look around, wondering where they are. I know I will see some of them before my day is over.

"Get used to me," I think, "Today I am part of your world," and I head off, trotting easily southward along the ridge, following the trail. I look down the steep drop to my right and wonder to myself (not for the first time) whether that is a Barkley pitch. I promise myself (not for the first time) that I will compare contours and find out, and that I will come down here someday and just practice getting up and down there as quickly as I can. I've made myself quite a few promises that I haven't kept. I'm very glad that I've kept a few, and I hope one day I will keep this one, but we will see.

An old blow-down (fallen away from the camera) covered in moss and fungus.
Its uprooting disturbed its twin (foreground) enough that trail maintainers
apparently thought it best to cut it down.
When I haven't been out in a while, I am always curious to see what has happened in 'my' woods since I was last there. In places it looks like there has been some serious wind damage - maybe even during those recent storms. It wasn't enough to finish bringing down the big tree that let loose a year or two ago that now looms over perhaps twenty yards of the trail, propped up by a neighbor. I hate that one. Someday it's coming on down and if anyone is on that twenty yards of trail when it happens that will not be good for them. It would take some bushwhacking around other blow-downs to avoid that section though, so I always take my chances and kick through on the trail as fast as I can.

I start down the back side of the ridge, the even taller ridge called Morgan Hill now in view across the next valley spread out in front of me, where Shackham Brook flows far below on the other side of Shackham Road. I worried more for the sake of my knee about the steep downhills on the trail than I did the uphills, and descending into Shackham would be the first real test of that. Again I feel my way cautiously, maintaining my short stride with high turnover, feeling how to distribute the impact forces so as to protect the knee without unduly stressing something else, all while keeping the descent controlled. It worked. In a short while I was down the steepest section, running easy along a stretch that tracked a long, sloping bench on the hillside. I stopped to shoot a photo of the first trillium in bloom that I had yet seen this year. Then I moved on, running smoothly, naturally, comfortable.

I landed on the road and briefly looked at my watch - the watch that wasn't there. I usually wear a GPS watch and keep track of my time to certain landmarks, but today I had opted to leave it at home. I have dozens of recordings of this track from previous runs. I know to within half a mile how long it would read: thirteen miles if I skip the Fellows Hill loop, sixteen-and-a-half if I don't. I know the elevation gain to within a hundred and fifty feet: 2500 feet if I skip the Fellows Hill loop, 3200 feet if I don't.

Today is just about rediscovering the trail and enjoying time on my feet. It's about testing my body and seeing what a few bad months of training have left me. I don't care about the time. It is now, and here is where I am supposed to be now. How about that? - I am right on time.

Across the road, I descend to Shackham Brook, where the trail crosses on a fairly substantial bridge. I cannot help myself. Lu told me once that when she crosses a bridge like this she sings "Pomp and Circumstance" to herself. As I hop down on the other side I realize that "Pomp and Circumstance" will now be playing on a loop in my mind for the rest of the run. I don't really mind. The soundtrack for my life has always been the last song I heard or thought about. Today it will be "Pomp and Circumstance." I make another stream crossing with dry feet (over a small tributary rushing into the brook here).

The trail follows the brook downstream for some way, rolling up and down over the low spurs that come down to the water's edge before it turns up toward the ridge top, winding up the valley of another, larger tributary (unnamed as far as I know). That one is flowing strongly too, and the small waterfall it tumbles over a few hundred yards uphill from the turn is spectacular, and uncharacteristically visible through the trees from a long way downstream. The long work of climbing Morgan Hill begins here.

It's perhaps half a mile, all uphill, from here to the lean-to. I am still hiking strongly and I am soon there. I see that no one is encamped here this morning as I pass by and follow the trail down to the stream. Here it crosses right before turning uphill again for one of the steepest parts of the climb, and here, finally, I am forced to shed that little piece of civilized mental baggage I've been toting along. There is no crossing with dry feet without doing something quite a bit stupider than getting my feet wet so, finally, I just suck it up and wade across. The water is cold, but not shocking and (as anticipated) by the time I climb up out of the hollow and onto the short flat stretch just above, my feet feel warm again and most of the water has squished back out of my shoes and away from my skin - and I am a big step better adapted to my world away from my world.

A long climb, including another stream crossing and several long stretches of soppy, muddy trail, still remains up to Morgan Hill Road. Along the way I get to enjoy one of the best vistas of the route, visible only when there are no leaves on the trees. Far back across the valley behind me (to the west of me and now somewhat to my left) I see the ridge top I came down. It tracks north for a visible distance of perhaps three miles. To my right, I can see parts of the flank of Morgan Hill (the ridge I am now on) far ahead in that direction. I will be going about three miles that way, following the ridge line on the seasonal, dirt-and-shale road that runs along the top of it. In between the two ridges, splitting the valley to the north in two, stands Fellows Hill. When I pick up the next trail section way up the road there I'll be working southwesterly along the right foot of Fellows Hill, rounding it to its south, and then working back northwesterly to the left of it. Then, if I am still feeling good and ambitious, I can decide whether to take the side loop that summits the hill before I climb back up that long ridge to the west and return to the Tinker's Falls area and my car.

First though, I have to get up that road. You would think that being on a road would make you feel more comfortable. Roads equal civilization, no? Somehow that doesn't work for me on roads like this. If the surface is dirt and shale, and the distance to anywhere either direction is measured in miles, then you are in the middle of nowhere. The shortest route to the car at the point I join the road is back the way I came - about four miles - and as I head northward on the road that distance will get longer - up to about six miles - before it begins getting shorter again. I am as far from my own support on that road as I ever am, and I always think about that as I trot my way north, alone.

Today one pickup truck comes by, traveling south. The driver and I wave at each other and I wonder what he thinks about a guy out here running by himself in the middle of nowhere. "The traffic today is murder," I think to myself with a smile.

The road turns downgrade for the last mile or so and, again, I run easy and strong. I feel good. I make the turn onto Parker's Road and trot the last quarter-mile downhill to the trail crossing. Turning left onto the trail, I am now headed back toward where I parked the car - but now from the other direction on the trail. The generally north-south Onondaga Trail takes a long westward meander in this area, and Morgan Hill Road cuts more or less directly north-south across the open side of it to the east, forming a roughly thirteen-mile loop that has become my trail training ground of choice.

Quite frankly, from here it just becomes an embarrassment of riches. I could write on and on about the trail's many qualities and the many thoughts they invoke in me along the way. The best two miles of trail running on the loop are in front of me, then Shackham Pond, beautifully set into the forest. I stop there, briefly, to rest and eat a little something. As I sit on a rock alongside Shackham Road, a man comes down the hill on the trail on the other side. He's wearing running tights, like me. He looks a bit older perhaps, and carries a bit more of a gut. We talk briefly about how muddy the trails are today, but he seems in a hurry. "I guess I'd better do some more," he says, then turns and starts jogging up the road. I wish I had more of a chance to get his story. Someone his age out here pounding these trails dressed as he was is probably somebody in the local ultrarunning community whose name I would recognize. Maybe another time.

Another hill climb follows for me, up that hill the other runner just came down, then another descent (very muddy) to another stream impossible to cross without wading - and then the long gentle uphill stretch to Spruce Pond. Again, the trail is just gorgeous, but I have (sadly) stopped noticing all of the nuances. Rich people don't think the same way about spending money as everybody else, and I have become trail-rich.

When I left the rock by the roadside my legs had felt a little stiff and reluctant. The thought crossed my mind then that maybe I would forego the Fellows Hill loop and content myself with the shorter outing. After all, my purpose today was to challenge myself gently, to see how my body would respond. Still, back there I had told myself that by the time I got to Spruce Pond my legs would have loosened up and the energy from the food I had eaten would have revived me, and I would feel differently about it - and I was right. Without hesitation, I turn from the blue-blazed trail onto the orange-blazed trail and start across the dam, greeting a few fishermen who are working the pond. In short order I am climbing up the west side of the hill, right where I had seen some six miles back along my route, from the flank of Morgan Hill.

I stop and sit for a few minutes at the survey marker at the top of the hill while I use my phone to post a brief message to the ultra list, sharing in a small way my enjoyment at being here. Then I re-stow the phone and start down an even-longer descent into the valley of yet another stream. At the road crossing near the bottom, an older couple who had just parked by the trail head ask me if Spruce Pond is around here. "Yes, maybe about a mile further up the road there will be a right fork that will take you down to the parking area for the pond. It's nice there and well worth going."

"The road looks a little sketchy," the woman says.

"I think it's okay," I reply. "I've never been all the way up the road there. I'm always on the trail, but people get up in there in normal cars." They thank me, get back into their SUV and head on up the road past me as I am turning off onto the next downhill section of the trail - my trail. "I am always on the trail."

I feel really good as I bottom out near the rushing stream, in view of more small waterfalls, and then begin the long climb back up the valley toward the back side of Spruce Pond. I set the geese to honking as I work my way around to rejoin the blue-blazed trail. I feel strong as I start up the absolute steepest climb of my route, and I feel better climbing it than I had the last several times I have done it. Another long descent through the perennially muddiest section of the trail, then I wade across Tinker's Falls creek - far upstream of the falls here - and then climb the final hill to the top of the final ridge, once again overlooking Labrador Hollow, directly above Labrador Pond. There is a hang glider launching point here that affords a spectacular view, and I always run the loop counter-clockwise so that I save this as my reward near the end. I sit and admire it for a few minutes until the now-stiff, chill wind encourages me to move on down the trail.

In short order I am confidently cruising the last section of single-track before landing on the access trail just above the falls - where my very first climb had temporarily topped out. In another minute I have bombed down the final, steep section back to my starting point, and I turn up the road to take the short tourist trail to the base of the falls to cool down and ease my muscles before beginning the drive home. The falls have as much water going over as I have ever seen. There are quite a few people, and I wonder what they think of me, standing there muddy from the knees down.

I add today's Tinker's Falls to my collection of Tinker's Falls photos, drain the last of my water, and turn to walk back down to the car. It has been a very good day.

What was this story about again? Oh yes... fear. I realize now that I left that somewhere out there. I think it was about the time I waded that first stream. I did it all. I did something not many people my age can do, or would ever choose to do. I began the day nature-deprived and along the way, moving over the earth with as much grace as this fifty-something guy can manage, I became rich. I reconnected with something elemental about who I am. I had been strong and confident, self-assured and at home in this alternative world - the real world. Those qualities, though, atrophy with disuse. In my time away from this world, civilization closes in on me, its deceptive comforts in reality a psychological straight jacket that makes me weak, and timid, and docile - and that, I remind myself again, is what I really need to fear.

I don't mean to over-romanticize these notions. Our ancestors worked long and hard to create the civilized world in which I spend most of my time, and they did that because living in the woods like an animal is brutally hard. I am not under the illusion that a morning out there makes me any less an addict of creature comforts than the next person. There is, however, something in the soul, something in the racial memory, something in the design of my body that tells me that to be less than capable of this is to be less than what I was made to be, and it is that intention that I reconnect with when I swallow my fear and climb that ridge.

The sound of the engine turning over is jarring. The radio comes on. Moving with a power that is not my own as I press the accelerator and turn toward home seems wrong. For now, in this moment, this metal box is not my world.

No comments:

Post a Comment