Still a Runner

A Blog by Mary Lou Harris

Archive for Appalachian Trail

Hiking a 40-Mile Meditation

I’ve had a draft playing around in my head for a month or two, a sharing of my experience at the Hike Across Maryland (HAM). I’ve come to think of this experience as a walking meditation. This morning, a radio program gave me the impetus to move ahead and put those thoughts to keyboard.

Krista Tippett’s “On Being” was airing,  her topic being Running As Spiritual Practice.  A number of runners (including Olympian Billy Mills) share with her how running has taken them through dark times, lifted spirits, developed discipline and in many different ways become part of each runner’s spiritual practice.

I have felt many of those sentiments through my years of running. At the HAM, the closest I felt was the necessity to be mindful of every step I took as I ran and hiked the 40-mile distance on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in a single day.

The HAM is an incredible opportunity for hikers to test their endurance and pacing. From the 5 a.m. start at the Mason-Dixon line where Pennsylvania meets Maryland to the arrival crossing the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, we were supported by volunteers and checkpoints providing refreshments and documenting our passage. While this event is not a race, we were required to reach specific locations by specific times or be asked to drop and accept transport to the finish.

Rain was heavy the previous day, making our May 6th passage on the trail muddy and slick. Temperatures at the start in the high 50’s would have been perfect if not for the cool rain. A love of nature and tests of endurance still brought out over 100 participants.

Off-and-on again sheets of rain came down as we ran a portion of an early mile. As water ran down her face, my friend said “Isn’t this great? We get to be in the woods all day.” She was serious and set a tone of optimism for me.

I realized early on that 40 miles of hiking, with running spurts where I was sure of my footing, would require concentration. I decided if I was to make it through with minimal injury, it would need to be a meditative endeavor.

I cleared my mind of any extraneous mumbo-jumbo thoughts that usually find their way into my thinking. Every step was a mindful step. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of the rushing of the streams we crossed, the calf-deep mudholes, the occasional birdsong and the rustling of unseen critters in the woods. It’s not to say I wasn’t aware of the beautiful deep, deep green the rain was bringing out in an already lush area. And it’s also not to say that I didn’t listen to and acknowledge a number of fellow hikers talking through their love of the trail, concerns about and pride in their children, job and health challenges. Being on the trail is license to spew out to total strangers the things that really matter in life.

With any and all of that seeming to be on a separate track, my concentration was in each step of the trail, 40 miles of meditation. Even that concentration did not stop me from taking a face plant as we climbed  a rain-slick boulder. The bill of my cap and my glasses let me escape with nothing worse than a small goose egg on the forehead and a few scratches on the palms of my hands.

At our last major checkpoint, I turned over my headlamp and heavier raincoat to friends who volunteered support, exchanging that weight for a couple of quick chugs of Coke. Off then for the last few miles, still mindful in each step, my pace was quicker than the pace of my first few miles.

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Hello, West Virginia!

Although the towpath near the finish seemed unending, the stairs to the bridge a cruel trick and as we crossed to West Virginia the wild beauty of the rain-swollen Potomac breathtaking, I stayed mindful of each step on this wonderful earth.

 

There are no regrets I took up this challenge. Through this 40-mile hiking/jogging meditation, I treasured the company of good friends as well as strangers and the support of the organizers and personal hiking friends who made the day.

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Enjoy your weekend, dream of a new challenge and try taking a mindful approach. Gotta run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Put it in Writing – 2017 Race Plan

January is slipping away too quickly. It’s high time to take that 2017  roughed out race plan buzzing around in my head and put ink to paper. Here goes. 

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Trail system at Pincho Park where the Squirelly Twail is held. The photo is from a previous year when I was hanging out with the guys finalizing the route for the HARRC in the Park trail run.

FEBRUARY – Squirrelly Trail Twail Wun 1/2 Marathon – I register for this every year, but haven’t run it. Each year there is either a last minute conflict or the weather is brutal.  Maybe this year.

MARCH –Naked Bavarian 20-mile trail run. This will be a good opportunity to do some trail as one of my 20-miler marathon training runs, and to prepare for my May hike. I’m not sure how the name of the race came about. Since this is March in Pennsylvania, I doubt that I will actually see any naked Bavarians. If I do, don’t expect photos.

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Again, not the Naked Bavarian race, but a photo taken at a trail race on a similar course around Blue Marsh Lake

APRIL – Paris Marathon – my destination marathon for 2017. Say no more. The portion of the course on cobblestone may be tough, but I’m looking forward to the last few miles through the Bois de Boulogne. I’m working on my training plan and brushing up on fledgling French.

 

The Paris photos are from a rainy December visit to Paris several years ago. All are scenes along the marathon course and include the Seine and Notre Dame Cathedral.

MAY – Hike Across Maryland (HAM) This hike organized by the Mountain Club of Maryland has a 150 maximum registration and fills almost immediately. We will be hiking the Appalachian Trail from the Pennsylvania and Maryland state lines to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.The distance is approximately 40 miles. I’m expecting to do this with a combination of trail running, hiking and a lot of grit.

JUNE – Run for the Ages 10K Trail Chase – I spotted the race while adding HARRC races to the RRCA event list. It has an age graded start and runs through Nolde Forest. Oldest female runners start first. Will I be first at the start line and maybe the finish line?

JULY – likely a 5 or 10K on the 4th. We’ll see.

AUGUST – I’m not sure. Any suggestions for inspiration?

SEPTEMBER – This calls for something special to acknowledge my 70th year on this earth. Stay tuned.

OCTOBER – I’ll add in a 1/2 marathon or two. It’s not autumn without a 1/2 marathon.

NOVEMBER – Harrisburg Marathon – Whether I run the full marathon, participate on a relay team, volunteer or some combination of the above, this is a wonderful marathon that seems to have more energy and participation each year.

DECEMBER – This is the time to ease off and maybe add in a 5K for a very good cause.

So there is the plan, but subject to change. Suggestions are always welcome.

Now that I see it in writing, I’m more excited for the year ahead. Will you be running or hiking any of these upcoming adventures? 

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations Mother Earth on a Resilient 2016

In spite of everything we throw at her, Mother Earth finds a way to cope and thrive. Regardless of how disappointing we humans can be in our actions, getting outdoors never fails to regenerate hope. Here are a few examples that popped up before my eyes during 2016.

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January hikers on the Appalachian Trail (AT) enthralled with the view of morning mist over the farm fields below.

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A clear February sky over the iced Susquehanna River.

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A March day along the Capital Area Greenbelt with fresh buds on cherry trees.

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April brings the strains of jazz murmuring through the trees as the ensemble waits the arrival of the Capital 10-Miler runners along this wooded stretch of Greenbelt.

In June, the Rhinebeck Marathon included some miles on a heritage trail. On a smaller scale, the baby turtles began making their treks out of hiding along Wildwood Lake.

 

A July run down a country road brings into view a fisherman knee deep in waders. The stone building abutting the bubbling creek demonstrates its own resilience having stood strong for over a couple of centuries.

In August, nature brings us a spider web glistening in the morning sun. While the web may not be resilient, its creator is.  A run brought me to an ambling creek flowing by temporarily abandoned lawn chairs.

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A September view of the River Thames. Over the thousands of years it has flowed, the course has been altered by time and by humans.

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Not as old as the Thames, this grape vine growing at Hampton Court is more than 230 years old. Alas, I arrived too late in September to purchase jelly from its abundant crop.

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October took me to the banks of the Chicago River where it flows into Lake Michigan, a lake that was formed billions of years ago. It will outlast the concrete buildings and bridges surrounding it.

 

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A November breakfast at a café in the 540 million year old Laurentian Mountains was enjoyed on the warm side of this window.

What have I found to be resilient in December? That we have made it through a trying year with one day to go may be the best description of resilient. Mother Earth is still holding her own and so should we.

If you would like to see the perspective of other writers and photographers, take a look at these ideas on the meaning of resilient.

 

 

Looking for the Hay Moon

All of us folk who wander around in the outdoors seems to be particularly enticed by full moons this year.  In June, I was running a Summer Solstice Run under a Strawberry Moon. Last night, I had the option of joining my running club

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for a full moon run or joining my Meetup hiking group for their Trekkin’ Tuesday Workout Hike Full Moon Edition.

So, under this Hay Moon (aptly named as I see farmers putting up hay in fields along my  route to the trailhead) I opted for the workout hike, feeling a need to get back on the trail.

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Our day hiking group mingling with through hikers settling in at Scott Farm for the evening.

 

We hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail up Blue Mountain, then doing a turnaround before reaching the lookout. We then moved south along the Conodoguinet Creek to Scott Farm Trail Work Center.

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Boardwalk over the Conodoguinet Creek

We tried in vain to spot the Hay Moon on our return to the trailhead. Unfortunately, the moon was hidden by cloud cover.

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Homemade moonpies – what hiker could ask for more?

We didn’t have a view of the Hay Moon, but our trail leaders made up for it with homemade moon pies. It works for me.

 

The Appalachian Trail and Grandma Gatewood

Most of us don’t need motivation to get out on the trail, but if that is the case for you I have a film to recommend. This week, thanks to one of my local libraries, I had the opportunity to see a documentary film, “Trail Magic – the Grandma Gatewood Story.” Director Peter Huston was on hand for discussion.

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Credit alchetron.com

The tale of Emma Gatewood is intriguing; a woman raised in Appalachia who survived a 20-year marriage to a wife batterer while raising a large family. After raising her children, divorcing her husband and a chance reading of an old National Geographic article about the Appalachian Trail, she threw a few things in a bag and set off. Emma, known as Grandma Gatewood on the trail, became the first woman to through hike, making her way from Georgia to Maine.

That’s the overview of a woman who set out for a long walk and in doing so ultimately became a celebrity and then used that celebrity and knowledge to be a vital force for establishing trails in her home state of Ohio

Although the film is intriguing, I plan to pick up Ben Montgomery’s book “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” to learn more about this woman’s life.

I thought of her as I was on the AT for the first time since February. I joined a group for a fast-paced after-work hike up Blue Mountain. Her notoriety and eccentricities are a part of why that trail is there for you and me today, to through hike, go out for a trail run if we choose or simply put in a fast-paced after work hike.

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View from the AT Overlook on Blue Mountain

The film is being presented at a number of locations. Check the links on the Facebook page  for upcoming showings and discussion.

Would any of us complete a successful through-hike in a pair of Keds, know how to supplement food from the forest and have the gumption to knock on doors asking for a meal along the way? Not me. But I will take that after-work hike and the occasional trail run. Thanks, Emma.

 

 

 

Pining for the Trail

On these beautiful early Spring days, I’m longing to be leaving a trailhead and moving through soft dirt, rocks and roots. That I am longing for trail rather than running trail is due to my earlier decisions and time commitments. How was I to know that running a couple of trail 50K’s would spoil me for road training? I did sneak off for a couple of short hikes on the Appalachian Trail; wonderful but not the satisfaction of a distance trail run.

I committed this year as I prepare for Boston, barring sickness or family emergency, to complete every scheduled training session. How committed am I? Taking seriously the warning of our record-breaking January snowfall,

 

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City Island became the parking lot for snow removed from city streets

I shifted schedule and managed to run my long run the day before the mega-storm hit with full force, limiting runners to training in  yaktraks or snowshoes – and only after shoveling feet of snow from their doorways.

How committed? 1207301-An-image-of-a-bare-footed-women-running-with-some-thunder-and-lightning-in-the-background--Stock-PhotoLast week our  mid-week session of repeats was cancelled due to lightning flashing through the sky, I joined several other runners who sprinted to the nearby covered parking garage and completed the workout up and down the ramps.

Race director responsibilities for the Capital 10-Miler – a run for the arts – is the other wonderful commitment temporarily keeping me off the trails.  We are expecting some fantastic competitors and many runners who love the variety of this 10-mile course not to mention the camaraderie of returning runners. 

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Capital 10-miler course along the Susquehanna River. Photo credit: Bill Bonney Photography

 

While I love the excitement building to the race, It doesn’t allow much time to make my way out to the trails.

So, if you are anywhere near Central Pennsylvania, please join us for a great 10-mile race on Saturday, April 2nd. We have a number of runners coming in from neighboring states, so why not join them? If you do, please stop by to say hello to the race director.

Next up, I will see many of my readers in Boston, either running, volunteering or cheering along that historic course.

And after that, IMG_1938look for me running or hiking on the trails. I’m hooked.

Dipping my Toe into the Ultra World

Taking on a 50K trail race is something I have pondered over time, years of time actually since I am now solidly in the 65-69 AG. After canvassing opinions from experienced ultra running friends, I chose May as the month and the Dirty German Endurance Fest as the event.

The Dirty German has 25K, 50K and 50-Mile options through Pennypack Park in Philadelphia. It was billed as suitable for beginners yet offering enough challenge for more experienced trail runners. I found the description accurate. A more experienced trail runner could run this entire course. I chose to walk in some areas, staying conservative to ensure I could finish uninjured.

Entertainment at the Dirty German Endurance Fest

Entertainment at the Dirty German Endurance Fest

To test my trail legs, a couple of friends were kind enough to do a 21-mile run/hike with me on the Appalachian Trail prior to the race. With 2/3 of that 50K trail distance completed and still feeling strong, I was ready for the 50K.

Race morning dawned with high humidity and temperatures climbing early. Within the first mile, I could see shirts ahead of me already sweat-soaked. My ponytail provided a personal air conditioning system, sprinkling cool drops of water down my back.

The shade from huge trees and the bubbling of the creek offered physical and mental barriers to help ignore the mugginess of the day. The paths were soft underfoot with the expected rocks and tree roots mixed in here and there.

The toughest areas to run were 2 miles of paved bike path as well as a short section of rough dried earth that looked like leftovers of a tractor track, jarring enough that I walked the grass section beside that hard earth.

The course includes two creek crossings. I made it across the rocks, barely getting a toe wet. Making way through a flat single track switchback section I could hear the accordion and the start/finish activity. Beginning the second loop, it felt like luxury to run on those soft trail surfaces and listen to the creek bubble. There were enough other runners out there  to feel comfortable but also enough personal space to listen and watch nature unimpeded as my feet took me on this beautiful second loop tour.

The Dirty German was my first experience with a different type of aid station. For road marathons, I keep my food intake to a few energy beans and maybe a bite of an energy bar in the last few miles. Adding 6 miles on trail required more substantial intake.

At each aid station, a volunteer quickly filled my hand-carry nearly-empty water bottle. I reached for a chunk of potato, dipped it in salt and chased it with a glass of Coke. Fortunately, my stomach didn’t rebel & I was good to the next aid station.

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Post race with running friend and 1st 50K Women Masters, Becky.

My loose goal was to complete the 50K course in 8 hours. As it turned out, my finish time was 7:05:58. I saw my friends Becky and Jeremy  (you can read about Jeremy’s ultra running exploits on his blog The Road to Trails). Becky had finished much earlier, placing 1st in the women’s masters category for the 50K and garnering a wonderful award – a cuckoo clock – for her efforts.

I took a short walk to Pennypack Creek where other runners and families with children were wading in the cool water. I washed the top layer of dust and sweat off legs and arms, did a quick change into a dry shirt, and made my way to the barbecue area for a sausage and German potato salad. We took a moment to thank Race Director Stephan Weiss for a great event and were on our way home.

Post-race, I was surprised that with the exception of some minor stiffness, my body was none the worse for wear. The softness of the trails and the changes of pace and stride seemed easier than the pounding on asphalt and cement road running hands out. That may account for some of the longevity of trail runners who have been at this for years and continue to run trails far into their senior years. A New York Times article titled Why Older Runners are Ultrarunners reached the conclusion that older runners are no more likely to be injured during trail running that younger runners.

Granted, they were not referring to women in their 60’s who decide for the first time to take up ultras (example #1 behind this keyboard). No, most of the runners in the cited study are men who have had decades of experience running distance on trail.

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Long sleeve tech shirt and finisher hat.

After a first positive experience, I will be incorporating more distance trail runs and trail hiking. I’m not abandoning the roads, but they will be sharing my running time with the trails.