Andrew, the boys and I camped in Pisgah National Forest for a rainy long weekend. I picked Flat Laurel Gap at Mt. Pisgah because of its elevation (5000 ft.) and proximity to some beautiful areas of western North Carolina. I’d never camped there before, though I’ve taken classes to the bog in the middle of the campground. We’ll definitely go back!
We lucked out on Saturday with the weather. I’d wanted to take the boys to the Shining Rock Wilderness, so we trekked the strenuous Art Loeb Trail above 6000 ft. to Ivestor Gap. After bushwacking (and feasting on wild blueberries) on Grassy Cove Top, we retraced our steps to find the trail, hiking to within sight of Shining Rock from Flower Gap, then turning back on the Ivestor Gap Trail for a challenging 8 mile loop. It was a glorious day, and they loved it as much as I hoped they would.
I’d had several recommendations for an out-and-back run on the wide and relatively easy Ivestor Gap Trail, but after trying to construct an elaborate route to meet Andrew and the boys at Graveyard Fields, I decided to simplify things and have Andrew drop me off at the NC Arboretum to run point-to-point on the Shut-In Trail. I’ve been intrigued by Shut-In for some time. It originated in the late 1800s as a path George Vanderbilt took from his Biltmore mansion up to his hunting lodge on Mt. Pisgah. In addition, there’s a wicked race there each November that I’d love to do sometime.
I knew it would be tough, even without running the full 16.3 miles. The trail gains a net 3200 ft. I figured 14.7 mi was as much as I could do—matching the distance I’d done in Charleston the weekend before but adding hills and terrain. My coach enabler best pal, Andrew, dropped me off at the Arboretum and we made plans to rendezvous at the 151 junction in three hours.
The run was as difficult as it was wonderful, and took me through some beautiful and varied stretches of forest. There were many not-runnable steep stretches, but also sections with a reasonable climb, including a few downhill breaks and flats that gave me the sinking feeling that I was going to pay for them later. [Which I did.]
I took my mind off the burning in my lungs during climbs by inventing a Tolkeinian forest classification. Either the oxygen was too limited or the connection was too tenuous, because I didn’t get very far.
Shut-In has few views, though it does pop out on the Parkway now and then, usually at overlooks. Since it was either steady rain or mist, I didn’t miss much, though the elevation markers that I only glanced at from the car now took on new significance. However, fog makes the colors in the forest more vibrant anyway, and the wildflowers I saw were a good distraction.
For some reason, I was reluctant to pull out my map, even as I ran by several Parkway checkpoints. I didn’t look because I was afraid of how far behind I’d be. Finally, at 2 hrs. 45 min., I looked to see where I was. Sure enough, I was even farther behind than I’d thought. I’d never make the 3 hour meeting point.
That’s when I realized that I should have had a back-up plan—at 3 hours, I should go to the closest Parkway overlook and wait for Andrew to find me if I wasn’t at the meeting point. As luck would have it, we were able to text, so after I emerged from the woods again, I asked Andrew to come south and pick me up at Big Ridge Overlook, at 12.3 mi. He and the boys showed up with a towel, Fritos, a sandwich and a chocolate bar. Best. Pit. Crew. Ever.
Lessons from Shut-In:
Gear: Water in my 70 oz. Nathan pack, 2 Justine’s nut butter packages (peanut butter/honey and maple/almond butter, delicious but sticky), a Luna bar, a Cliff bar that I didn’t eat, and a package of Fritos. Should have brought Nuun. I had a map (no compass—the trail follows the Parkway, so getting lost would be quite a feat), phone, small first aid kit, camera, and a page from my NC hiking guide with trail distances. I carried a long-sleeved shirt and a wool pullover in a plastic grocery bag, stuffed into the shock cords on the outside of my pack. I wore shorts, a t-shirt, a hat, and my Brooks Trail Adrenalines.
Train for distance, but account for time. When will I learn this? I can’t get my head around time-training for long runs, though I know many people like it. My mistake, though, is that I chose a distance but miscalculated my time. A 12 min. pace seemed generous, covering snack time, photos, and navigation. I might have been close had I not gained ~2000 ft. in elevation. Instead, I was closer to a 15 min. pace. Moreover, I knew I was behind and ran hard whenever I could. Fine for a race, dumb for a training run.
Plan smarter. I knew I couldn’t run the whole distance, so I should have had Andrew drop me off higher up, on the Parkway, so I could have run 14+ back to the campground. That way he and the boys would not have had to meet me, and I wouldn’t have worried that I was behind schedule.
Angles count. Shut-In was great training for my trail 50K, with long stretches of climbing. I can run, seemingly forever, on a gentle climb. But the tipping point comes eventually, where the steepness becomes not runnable, which turns suddenly into barely walkable without gasping for breath. I need to work on running steeper angles while breathing easy. Hill repeats!
Walk when you need to. Another great lesson to remember. Sometimes I pushed myself to run steep sections to the point of breathlessness. Then the trail would level out, but I was so out of breath by that point that I couldn’t run.
Mental focus matters. Shut-In was my second birthday trail run for Suzie (last year it was in Acadia). This year it was hard, and I felt it. Toward the end, I was so discouraged by the climbing that I had to stop, and I took a few pictures to re-group. I had a hard time pulling out of the downward spiral. Food did not seem to help. And then there were beautiful stretches where the running was easy and fast and I whooped aloud for the joy of flying, and of having known my amazing friend. Such is the strange nature of grief.
["Bedshaped," by Keane, has been playing in my head]
My favorite class to teach at the NC Botanical Garden is Dendrology: Trees of NC. It is known as one of the hardest class in the Native Plant Studies Certificate Program, yet I never have trouble filling the elective class, and I’ve never had a student fail.
I teach the course the same way I learned dendrology at NC State. Each week Richard Braham took us out in the woods and taught us 12-15 new species of trees. We were responsible for the scientific name, common name, family name, and the answer to a random natural history question. Dr. Braham quizzed us on 10 trees each week. Spelling had to be perfect, and quizzes were cumulative—any tree we’d seen thus far was fair game.
I love teaching dendro because I remember how hard it was, and I like finding ways to make the trees easier to learn. My mini-course is 4 classes, so I only cover about 50 trees. But it’s still hard to remember them all. The growing sense of accomplishment that accompanies each student’s mastery is incredibly rewarding to witness.
My students know that I have some favorite trees. American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is one of them. I love the smooth, gray bark, the singular bright green of new leaves, and the quiet winter woods where they stand out with their tan leaves. In the North Carolina Piedmont, I look for beeches on north-facing bluffs, which stay cooler and moister in the hot summers. In the mountains, Elk Knob (Hike #26 in our book) has forests that are 100% beech.
In the fall and winter, beech is easily recognized by the dry, tan leaves that remain on its branches. I noticed that they disappear somewhat suddenly in spring, displaced by the new green leaves shooting out of the long buds. I decided to take a daily photograph to document the leafing-out of one of my favorite trees and help me observe the coming of spring.
This sequence was taken between April 9th and May 1st, 2014, in Raleigh, NC.
Now things really get exciting. Daily photos from April 23-29th.
Eight leaves packed into each one of those small buds. It’s amazing what you can see when you look!
About a month ago, my friends Joanna and Ken joined me on a day trip to Linville Gorge. I had taken the day off, but was there because of my forest ecologist’s insatiable curiosity about the outcome of the Table Rock fire. I had also promised NC State a blog post about the November fire. So technically, I was doing research.
[I have the best job in the world!]
Joanna and Ken are both running buddies, and we packed and dressed for running. I didn’t promise much running, because this was Linville Gorge. But we were ready either way.
Linville Gorge is a wild place. It covers nearly 12,000 acres, with sides so steep that loggers couldn’t reach the timber. It remains one of the very last tracts of old-growth forests in the East. In my book, I talk about the human need for wilderness, a place that demands our respect and recognition that we are but a tiny part of a bigger world.
Therefore, in addition to my usual hydration pack and assorted snacks (new favorite: wasabi soy almonds! Salt + a wallop!), I also packed a small first aid kit, a topo map, and a compass. As a federal wilderness, Linville Gorge has no signs or trail blazes. Cell service is non-existent. You better know the trails or know how to read a map, or better yet, both. I knew some of the trails and knew the route I wanted to take—we’d just have to see if we could connect them together.
First, we hiked to the Table Rock summit, easily the most popular trail in the Gorge. I wasn’t surprised that the fire damage was patchy, but it was even spottier than I expected. Here and there we could see swaths where the fire burned hot, but there were large patches of completely intact forest and many places where the shrubs had burned but the trees had escaped unscathed.
It was Monday, so we had the summit to ourselves. I ran along the broad ridgeline, looking for the federally endangered mountain golden heather (I didn’t find any). The summit was unburned and the views up the Gorge were spectacular.
Far below us, we could see the glint of sunlight on water, the formidable Linville River, which created the vast gorge. That’s where we were going. It’s nearly a 2000 ft. descent from the summit to the river, not counting all the ups and downs in between.
We descended past the junction for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, then I stopped at another small trail that turned north. “This should be the Little Table Rock Trail,” I said, hoping it was.
We descended steeply, falling down the side of the mountain. The trail was rated “very primitive” and “most difficult” and the footpath faded in places. This area was burned more thoroughly than the trail up to Table Rock. Most of the rhododendrons and azaleas were blackened, though green shoots were already sprouting at their bases. I found big patches of Indian cucumber root, dug one up, and fed it to my friends for the full wilderness experience.
With the fire, there were more downed trees than usual, obscuring the trail in places. We emerged at large, flat camping area, which had a network of smaller trails leading away plus one main trail. I pulled out the topo map as we ate lunch, and figured we must have reached the intersection of Little Table Rock and Spence Ridge Trails. I decided the main trail heading to the right must be the upper part of Spence Ridge that led to the road, so we needed to find the continuation of Spence Ridge that led to the river.
If you look at Joanna’s Garmin track, our path looked a bit like a spider—going out on something that looked promising, then back to the campsite as we realized it wasn’t. Sometimes the path was distinct, only to end at a cliff or an impenetrable thicket. After an hour, we decided to take the main trail out to the road and drop our plans to go to the river. I was disappointed but out of ideas. Not five minutes after we turned right, we reached the obvious intersection with Spence Ridge (unmarked, of course). Huzzah! We turned left and ran the moderate slope down to the Linville River.
The river was quiet, but the enormous tumbled boulders and sizable bridge that had vanished hinted that this serene waterway can turn into a raging torrent with a single afternoon thunderstorm. We stretched out on the rocks, took off our shoes and soaked our feet in the cool river.
It was well after noon, so we reluctantly laced up and began the hike out. We ran when the grades weren’t too steep. When we reached the road, we turned right and ran about a mile before jumping on the (marked!) white-blazed Mountains-to-Sea Trail to head back to Table Rock. I wasn’t entirely sure how far it was, so I was relieved to see the sign that said we were just two miles from the car.
Our initial climb through open forest abruptly became slick, rooty, and incredibly steep. Joanna disappeared ahead while Ken and I slogged upslope, pausing at intervals to catch our breaths. At one point, we passed an old logging deck campsite, which was the first place I ever camped in my life, in college, many years ago. If the trail we took from there to Table Rock—now the MST—is the one we used to haze newbies, by hiking close to midnight without headlamps, it’s a miracle I survived to return.
We finally re-joined the Table Rock Trail and took the more established trail back to the car, arriving around 4:00 pm. We walked around the picnic area where the fire started, then hit the bumpy dirt road down the mountain.
I love wilderness and the bare essentials it leaves you with, but technology has its advantages—we were able to locate the Olde Hickory Taproom, for burgers and beers before heading east. Ken even ordered the Table Rock Pale Ale, while Joanna and I opted for the Daniel Boone IPA (yum!).
At one point during the day, Ken asked if there was anything like Linville Gorge. I thought for a minute, then shook my head. No. Not on the East Coast. I have many favorite wild places in the southern Appalachians, but none are like Linville Gorge. Somehow we’d climbed one of the highest peaks and descended to the river and yet, only scratched the surface of this wild and beautiful place.
Work took me west for a forestry research meeting, and I was excited to see a new landscape. I was happy to discover a greenway trail along the lake, the North Idaho Discovery Trail, but still wanted to check into the possibility of nearby dirt. I found and messaged the Trail Maniacs, and received an immediate recommendation for Tubbs Hill, a small peninsula with trails that was adjacent to my hotel.
I am not a fancy hotel kind of person, but even I had to admit that my room on the 15th floor with a balcony and fireplace was super-sweet. And I could see Tubbs Hill right out the huge picture window! I took a trail map from the concierge and waited for an opportunity. I ended up doing two short runs there at the end of two different days, a perfect way to decompress after moderating two solid days of forestry research talks.
Tubbs Hill has a 2 mile trail that goes around the periphery, as well as a few secondary trails. I was stunned to see 20+ species of wildflowers, most of which I’d never seen, but were familiar due to their Eastern kin. While I was there and on the forestry field tour, I learned several new species of conifers that grow in mixed stands in the area known as the “Inland Empire.”
The trail, while short, has lots of wonderful diversity—rocky sections along the lake, cool, shady sections through tall conifers, open sunny areas with wildflowers. Although the map showed only 2 main trails, there is actually a whole network of trails that criss-crosses over the steep, rocky hill.
Exploring a small peninsular park like Tubbs Hill was fun, because you can take whatever trail comes across your path and get a bit lost, without getting REALLY lost. And if you’ve been on a tight agenda for a few days, a little wandering is exactly what you need.
Readers might recall that Joanna and I ran 50 miles last December in our self-supported quest to complete the Falls Lake section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. We ran 3.5 miles on Friday, 32.1 miles on Saturday, and 14.4 miles on Sunday to finish 50 miles. Saturday’s weather was awful, and looking back, I can’t believe we finished that run with Jon in the dark after hours of pouring rain.
We had taken our time and felt pretty good. But we were worn out by Sunday afternoon. I was exhausted. Even so, all day Monday, I waited for my phone to ring. It didn’t. Joanna said she was going to relax by taking in a double feature, and that’s exactly what she did. And I was secretly relieved, but I also felt a tiny bit of a letdown.
Why? Because, you see, the Falls Lake section of the MST is actually 60 miles. We had run a long way, and we had run exactly what we planned, but we had not run the whole section. With different races on our calendars, discussion of “unfinished business” lingered the rest of winter and through the spring.
After some back-and-forth calendar checking, we eventually settled on Mother’s Day as the day to run the last ~10-mile stretch of the MST, from Red Mill Rd. to Penny’s Bend. That prevented most of our friends from joining, but it worked for us and for our friend Suzette, and we found ourselves at the usual Starbucks early before caravanning to Durham to run a shuttle.
It was supposed to be hot, so we decided to wear our 2013 MST Challenge shirts. Matching is funny, especially if you know either of us.
This section starts along Ellerbe Creek and was quite pretty. We saw some nice wildflowers and a lot of poison ivy. By mid-summer, this section of trail will be seriously overgrown with poison ivy. We all scrubbed as soon as we got home and didn’t get any.
There are quite a few open powerline easements along this stretch, and the character of Falls Lake is much different when we could see it, with shallow water and lazy coves. As we re-entered the woods along the lake, we startled a large, heavy bird with a broad brown tail that had been on the ground—all evidence pointed to it being a wild turkey.
In another easement, Joanna stopped short. “Snake.” Suzette and I peered around her shoulder. It was a black rat snake that was pretending to be a rattlesnake, vibrating its tail in the leaves to try to fool us into thinking it was a poisonous rattlesnake. We watched it for a few minutes, then it turned around 180 degrees and slunk off into the bushes, as if to say “I was planning to go this way anyway…I don’t want any trouble.”
Other discoveries included Atamasco lilies, a huge crayfish chimney, a trailside campsite, and finally coming out on Snow Hill Road to cross the Eno River at Penny’s Bend. Penny’s Bend hikers asked us if we’d seen the snake on the trail, and we explained that we’d hiked the MST, pointing over our shoulders to show them where we’d come out. This section is new and relatively unknown, so hopefully hikers will discover it soon.
We celebrated with lunch at Chow—burgers and beer, as per tradition—for completing all 60 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, from Falls Lake Dam to Penny’s Bend. But I hear the next section is progressing rapidly, and that soon we’ll be able to run from Penny’s Bend to Eno River State Park. Another adventure in the making—stay tuned!
“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” -David McCullough, Jr.
My journey to Roanoke started last summer, over a burger and pint with some Peeps, including my friends Amy and Matt. Matt was wearing a shirt that said “You run hills. I run mountains.” I knew that they went to Roanoke every year to run the half marathon. Matt said he was going to tackle the marathon in 2014, to celebrate his 40th birthday.
My friend Matt is a rational guy, and the course looked beautiful. When the race advertised free race entries for “official bloggers,” I sent in an entry and promptly forgot about it. So I was completely surprised to learn that I had been chosen. I looked up the other bloggers, who either were real bloggers or people who had won the race previously. I re-read my entry and was dismayed by how lame it was. Maybe I was chosen for “color.” Anyway, I was both baffled and honored to be chosen.
Races are more fun when you can coerce your friends into going. Soon a small cadre of Peeps had signed up, but I was still without a roommate. Every time I posted something about the race, my friend Lorraine would comment or “like” it. Three weeks before the race, I sent her a note to see if she wanted to go. Another new Peep, Juliet, took my friend Jean’s race bib, and the three of us set off for Roanoke together. I’d only spent a small amount of time with either of them, so I was both nervous and excited for the weekend.
Lorraine is super-duper-speedy, and Juliet is an ultra-runner who had just run the Umstead 50, so I figured I could learn a thing or two from these stellar athletes. We talked non-stop about the mountains, training, the mountains, food, and the mountains. How tough would these mountains be?
Joined Matt and Amy and their boys, and Doug and Sheree, for a fun Peeps dinner. I had a great veggie pasta and embarrassed myself when I told the boys that the desserts on the dessert tray were made of plastic. Amy picked up a cannoli to prove it, only to find out that it was real. OOPS! We grabbed stuff for breakfast at a grocery store and headed back to the hotel, joking about the Mill Mountain Star taunting us wayyyy up there.
Morning came early with a 5:15 am wake-up call. The race didn’t start until 7:35 so I was a little clueless about why we were up so early. But, I tried to take notes they ate breakfast, foam rolled, stretched, etc. while I drank too much coffee and surfed the web.
We headed downstairs, met up with the rest of the Peeps, and headed for the start. We wished Lorraine well and Matt, Doug, Ann and I headed to a spot mid-corral for the start. Ann and I took in the views as we headed out of town and immediately up the first mountain. We alternated walking and running, because it was already steep and I knew I’d need to manage my energy. Truthfully I was worried about my preparation, since I’d only done one 18-mi run and it was two weeks ago, when I should have been tapering. How long does the “base training” of a 40 mi ultramarathon last? Since Uwharrie was February 1st, I had a sinking feeling that the answer was “not that long.”
After 2.5 miles the half marathon course split off, so we posed for a photo, then I watched Ann turn and head up Mill Mountain to the star. I would be there much later, after the first ascent up Roanoke Mountain.
The course leveled out before climbing again, so I picked up the pace a little. Around mile 6 I saw Matt ahead of me and promised myself that I could take a walk break as soon as I caught up with Matt. That proved easier said than done since Matt was making good time. It seemed like ages before I finally caught up with him. We ran together for a bit and split up just below the summit of Roanoke Mountain, accompanied by the plaintive wail of bagpipes. Awesome!
I wasn’t worried about the steep climbs, because I knew that I’d be walking them, especially any that were a 10% grade or more. But I was concerned about the equally steep downhill stretches, given past problems with my IT band. Even so, my legs cheered as we crested the summit of Roanoke Mountain and we headed downhill. I tried to run conservatively and not trash my quads. I did that by keeping my speed in check and taking very short steps with a high turnover—picture a hamster in a wheel.
The course descended for at least a mile or two before reaching the saddle and heading up Mill Mountain. The climb was relentless, but I was thoroughly enjoying the views as well as the wildflowers that lined the road. Toward the top we started seeing signs for Moomosas, and sure enough, there were a couple of women serving them up alongside a cow statue. Unfortunately I couldn’t partake, but I waved as I went by.
The descent back into Roanoke was a couple of miles, but quite runnable. I enjoyed the break as the course descended, and even clocked an 8:17 split on my way down. I had expected the views from the top to be worth all the climbing, but was thrilled to discover that the whole course was incredibly beautiful. After running back into Roanoke, we ran on a greenway along the Roanoke River. I crossed over a bridge to see Amy cheering, while Ben and Will gave me a blast on their vuvuzelas.
The flat stretch ended, and we began climbing the last mountain, through a beautiful neighborhood called Peakwood. Many families were out on their lawns with signs and high-fives, cheering us on. The number of marathoners—about 700—was perfect to me; there were always people around, but there was plenty of space between runners. We had another long, beautiful descent into town and my hip started talking, though I worked hard to run tall and keep my stride short, rather than sinking into my hips as I tired.
Back in town, the course became rolling. The hills suddenly seemed like a lot of effort and I was glad to have fewer than 5 miles to go. Turning the very last corner, it was a fast descent to the finish. This time I stretched my legs and ran hard, finishing in 4:32. Amy, Ann, Jeff, and Ann’s family were there and it felt great hear my name!
I grabbed water and a slice of pizza and learned that Lorraine had placed 1st for women and second overall female, setting a new course record of 3:13! Our Peep half marathoners all had a good but challenging runs. I walked up the street to hang out with Amy and watch Matt finish, then grabbed a quick shower before meeting Lorraine and Juliet at the awards ceremony so Lorraine collect her loot. So awesome! We then stretched our legs by wandering fun the open air market for awhile before loading up and heading out. I LOVED Roanoke and hope to spend more time there on my next visit.
I’m afraid of many things. But I am not afraid of running mountains. Was it hard? Sure was—it was by far the hardest course I’ve run. It made Umstead’s Turkey Creek look like gently rolling, bucolic countryside. But by taking my time and enjoying the views, the race was achievable. Would I go back? Absolutely!
Here’s what I think: Sign up for a race because you want to do it. Marathons are hard. And life can have its ups and downs. Don’t miss out on the views because you think that you can only handle the flats.