Work + Play = An Appalachian Trail run report

Anyone who has run with me in 2012 likely knows that I am working on a co-authored book project. It’s a hiking guide to the southern Appalachians that takes readers on guided hikes to better understand the forest ecology and natural history of the mountains. This exciting project brings me joy, and the research requires hiking! And, I had grant money to spend before the end of June, so I was able to cover some lodging and gas money for a recent family/research trip to the VA mountains where I was able to work on several hikes. Sweet!

After a great morning hike with my 3 boys at Grayson Highlands State Park, they decided to return to our rental house to watch the England-Italy soccer game. I still had some energy and wanted to get in a run. Could I multitask and combine trail running with research? Maybe. Earlier attempts to do so ranged from ill-advised to ridiculous. After all, you can’t really look up to see the trees if you are trying not to bust your butt on their roots. But, I’m an eternal optimist–maybe this time it would be different.

I had a 6.5 mi out-and-back hike to cover on the Appalachian Trail near Whitetop Mountain, and it was 3 pm. I decided to go for it. I pictured myself on the cover of Trail Runner magazine–running, gazelle-like, on the beautiful ridge-line of the AT. I was going to be a Class A Trail-Running Bad-A$$ Research Scientist. Awesome.

Trail runner geeks out as forest ecologist.

Or so I thought, until I actually got ready. I laced up my obnoxiously loud trail shoes and deconstructed my fuel belt. Took out one water bottle and slid carrying cases on the belt for a map, my rather large camera, my GPS, a few shot blocks, and my cell phone. I didn’t have a pouch large enough for my waterproof yellow field notebook, so I tucked it into my belt in the front. Add this to the fact that I traded my boots, earth-tone pants and t-shirt for my extremely pink Running of the Bulls shirt (good visibility should I get lost!) and I looked like…well, I…I looked like…OK, fine. I looked like a doofus.

I drove to the trail-head at Elk Gardens, headed out south-bound, and felt like I was trying to run with a heavy inner tube around my waist and hips. Things joggled around, but it wasn’t terrible. The notebook slid around until I adjusted it. The real problem was that I was attempting to run, and I was gaining elevation pretty quickly. I was gasping in 10 minutes flat and decided to pause and take some notes and photos. Then, I started running again at a slower pace.

The trail wound through beautiful northern hardwood forest (for more details, check out the book when it is published in 2014!), but it was rocky beneath. Rocky and root-y. I caught a rock under my toe and barely avoided crashing to the ground. I wondered idly how much impact the camera case could take. I was wheezing again, so I stopped and took some pictures for my friend Joanna, to show her just how un-runnable this section of the AT is. Ugh, what was I thinking?!

Un-runnable stretch of the AT–note lovely northern hardwood forest. And it’s a lot steeper than it looks in the photo.

I ran past a back-country campsite and saw a gnarled yellow birch leaning forward like a running Ent. I wondered if it could out-run me. Ents are really slow. Blasted trail.

Ah, but then the trail broke out of the woods, and I found myself on the open slope below the summit of Whitetop Mountain. The trail turned into a grassy bald–a sure ’nuff grassy bald, scientists believe, with tiny, flowering, and rare Sibbaldiopsis tridentata as evidence that it has been open since the last Little Ice Age. [Sorry, slipped into forest ecologist mode. Please excuse the tangent.] The trail became smooth dirt around waving grasses and scattered wildflowers. I grew light on my feet and flew along the slope, following the fence posts with white rectangle AT blazes out to Buzzard’s Rock.

The equipment didn’t even seem that heavy or dorky anymore. It was pure joy running under the open sky. My inner gazelle returned.

Reaching my destination, I stopped to catch my breath, take in the views, GPS the destination, and drink some water. Instantly, my entire body beaded up, then dripped sweat. Two hikers paused their conversation and looked at me quizzically. They were wearing worn boots and wide-brimmed hats that exuded Earth-friendly coolness. One of them, a thru-hiker from Knoxville TN, had a dog named Maya who immediately came over and licked the salty sweat running down my legs. I felt sticky, gross, and less gazelle-like by the minute.

“Are you running on this trail?” “Um, yes, but I usually hike–and I do have real boots. And a pack. I’m not very fast. I’m just, ummm, multi-tasking.” We talked for a few minutes. The other hiker offered the thru-hiker cold gatorade and Nabs. All I had were some sticky margarita-flavored shot blocks. I resolved to carry extra cookies the next day on my AT hike in case I saw the guy again.

I can outrun you on the downhill, Ent!

I made a few more notes, took some photos, then started back toward my car. This time, I was losing elevation and the going was much easier. And WAY more fun. I stuck my tongue out at the Ent as I entered the woods, flew down the now-runnable rocky descents, and stopped just a few times to make notes. Rock and roll! I loved it.

I learned that it is possible to combine trail running with field work. But don’t look for me on the cover of Trail Runner magazine anytime soon.

***

FOOTNOTE: Stephen and I saw the thru-hiker the next day farther north on the AT, and I blurted out “see, I do have a pack and boots.” We talked awhile while we ate the cookies I’d brought. He’s planning to go back to school, get a PhD, and become a professor. “Because it must be awesome to have your summers off.”

I beamed. “Actually, I’m working.”

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