Ride and Run, Appalachian Trail Style

My training plan called for a 12-mile run this weekend, the longest yet. There are lots of places to run around Harrisburg because, after all, you can pretty much run anywhere. But most of the city isn’t all that interesting to run through. The Capital Area Greenbelt is a great option, but I’ve circumnavigated it what feels like a thousand times at this point. I wanted to run somewhere new, preferably on one of the many trails within a not-too-far radius of the city. One of those is the Appalachian Trail, which snakes from Michaux State Forest to the southwest, through the Cumberland Valley to Blue Mountain, then along the ridge towards Maine. While thru-hiking doesn’t really appeal to me (I’d rather spend six months biking around the country than walking through a forest), the trail offers great opportunities for hikes and runs of any length. So I decided to do my run on the section near Boiling Springs, about 15 miles away. The guilt of driving such a bikeable distance and the desire for something I could reasonably call an adventure outweighed my hesitance to ride 30 miles and run 12 in the same workout.

I lathered on sunscreen, filled two water bottles, and headed out, trying to go nice and easy to save energy for the real exercise. It was a gorgeous morning, slightly cool but warming quickly. This time of year everything is growing and green and the farmland looks like it could feed entire armies. Perfect rows of corn, six or eight feet tall, cover scalloped hills. Acres of soybeans form a dense carpet, surrounding big houses set back from the road with pickup trucks in the driveways and swings under shade trees. Roadside vegetable stands are unmanned, with prices listed and a locked box for honest people to put their money in. The sky was blue, brushed clean like fine china, and the sun was hot. Five miles in I was already glad I rode, and that feeling only intensified as I passed through Mechanicsburg and out into the country.

At the Lisburn Road parking lot I stumbled a few paces into the woods to stash my bike, worrying about ticks the entire time. I took off my longer, more socially acceptable shorts and stripped down to my very short, only-acceptable-while-running shorts. I drank one bottle of water and saved the other for afterwards when I would surely be parched. Then I started running.

Forest, farmland, rocks, some mud, more forest, animals rustling. Only trail running provides such a buffet of sights and sounds and smells. The miles passed quickly, even without a podcast playing in my earbuds. I plan to do the marathon without the aide of audio distraction, so I need to ween myself off of that now. I remembered how much more I enjoy running on trails than streets, and how much more it hurts my knees. I think the constant focus trail running requires–obstacles, elevation changes, uneven surfaces–makes the miles add up easier. Sidewalks don’t require as much mental bandwith, and an empty mind stretches the length of seconds and minutes.

At Boiling Springs, a tidy little trail town with an algae-spotted lake, I lost the trail, and ended up on road for a bit, but it was a road in rural Cumberland County on Sunday morning, so it was basically a sidewalk. I think I saw two cars in three miles. A woman stood in her front yard training a dog. “Leave it!” she snapped as I ran past, offering me a small wave.

I turned around, caught the trail again in Boiling Springs, and retraced my steps. I was amazed at how easily I reeled off the miles. Seven. Nine. Eleven. I passed a thru-hiker for a second time and he looked peaceful, filled with the serenity that four months alone in the woods apparently brings. Then I was done.

Final stats: 12 miles, 8:23 per mile, 142 average heart rate (all tracked by my new Garmin Vivoactive HR watch, which is amazing so far).

The ride home actually wasn’t tough at all. Maybe because it was such a beautiful day, in a beautiful part of the world. Or maybe I’m a better runner than I think, and 12 miles isn’t really that much for my legs to handle.

All in all (how’s that for a grade-school concluding phrase?) I’m glad I made the trip to run somewhere new–seeing unseen things is always worth it. Whenever I put my feet on untouched ground I never regret it.

Thunder, Gravel, Questions

“This is so stupid. Why do I do this? What was I thinking?”

I half-gasped, half-yelled these things (and other, more unprintable things) into the forest, slogging up the shoulder of a ridge on a gravel road beneath a bruised afternoon sky threatening rain. No more gears, no end in sight. Seventy-something miles already in my legs, over seven thousand feet of climbing. A loaded seat pack hanging like an anchor off my saddle, empty water bottles clinging to the frame.

I haven’t gone on a true bikepacking trip since last November when I rode out to Michaux State Forest the week before we somehow elected Trump and spent a lonely, somewhat scary night in the woods. I figured my first experience, the surprisingly overwhelming physical/mental/emotional wallop it packed, wasn’t unique. I figured future trips (in the summer, not near-winter) would be a lot easier. Less stressful, more fun. I’d be more confident, not intimidated by the prospect of sleeping alone in the forest. The daylight would be longer, the air warmer.

This weekend I found out that I was both right and wrong.

I put in time off for Friday and mapped a 130-mile loop out to Tuscarora State Forest. Mostly pavement to get there, gravel roads in the forest. Eleven thousand feet of climbing. I packed the night before, feeling that rush of excitement that comes before embarking. Tent and sleeping bad in the seat pack, spares and tools and a bag of dates in the frame bag, a loaf of banana blueberry bread and some polenta cakes in the handlebar bag. The heat made a sleeping bag unnecessarily, and the likelihood of rain made the tent a more sensible option than my bivvy.  On Friday morning I woke up, lingered around the house, ate a big pancake breakfast. Then I lugged the bike down the stairs and out the door.

Almost immediately, the feeling of excitement morphed into something else. A kind of low-grade anxiety mixed with joy. Last time, it was mostly joy–the anxiety didn’t hit until darkness crept in. Maybe it was the heavy sky, or the knowledge of so much climbing ahead of me, or the desire to have someone to do these trips with. Maybe it was just the tedious act of getting out of the city to the actual ride.

From an airplane this part of Pennsylvania looks like a wrinkled sheet, the land bunching itself into ridges. They are snakes,  rippling varicose veins. My route took me towards them and I climbed them one by one, trying to spin in my granny gear, breathing heavy. Miller’s Gap, Rambo Hill, Route 74 out of Ickesburg. They grew increasingly high, increasingly steep. Between them was farmland, rows of GMO corn scalloped into the land, big houses set back with long driveways and big SUVs. The miles ticked past in silence. I stopped a couple times to eat handfuls of sticky dates, once to refill my water bottles. The sky looked like rain but the clouds held back whatever moisture was in them.

You ride differently when you know you aren’t coming home that day. You can’t think about finishing, about halfway points and the other gimmicks that keep you going. You just put your head down and pedal and periodically check the odometer to see miles slowly piling up. A few times the thought of turning back crossed my mind, ending the night with a shower and warm bed. I didn’t seriously consider them, but I was leery of their presence. What did it mean that they arose?

I started bonking a few miles into the state forest, on a spongy gravel/sand mix that made progress slow and frustrating. The mosquitoes followed me when I slowed down. My legs were tired. The road seemed to keep winding uphill. On my Garmin it looked like New Germantown, the small village on the other side of the ridge that  I thought might be a good stopping point, wasn’t too far away. I walked the bike for a while and the dot didn’t get any closer. I weighed the speed vs. comfort dilemma and climbed back on and kept riding. I just wanted to set up camp, eat dinner, lay down, relax in the comfort of the tent. But I didn’t know how long the gravel section would last and I didn’t want to have to confront that unknown in the morning. I hate procrastination; it makes me more anxious rather than less.

More gravel, more hills. My terrible brakes made the descents a white-knuckle experience. Each corner offered the hope of pavement, then dashed it. So on the biggest climb of the day, crawling up some unknown ridge with New Germantown still an invisible oasis somewhere below, I was forced to confront all the questions that had been lurking.

Why do I do this? Sure, these adventures are fun to look back on, but why don’t I thoroughly, completely enjoy them while they are happening? Why does gravel always sound like so much fun, and then sucks once you’re riding it?

I don’t really have a good answer. Why does anyone do anything?

I want to have an adventurous life. I want to push myself outside the comfort of warm beds and electronics, at least sometimes, if only to renew my appreciation for those things. I want to spend time in nature and gain confidence and be empowered. I want to know I am capable. I want to look back on a life spent breathing hard and racing nightfall.

Still, I can’t help but think that other people have more fun than I do on their bikepacking adventures. Or maybe Instagram and The Radavist just make it seem that way. Maybe I just need some friends to go with, and that would change everything.

After another bone-rattling descent I made it to New Germantown, where I camped on the edge of a cornfield. Darkness rolled in, followed by a massive thunderstorm. It rained hard for two hours and the underside of the tent was soaking wet but the seams held. I spoke to Autumn on the phone and she talked me down from my loneliness.

The valley was shrouded in fog the next morning. I woke up, feeling better at having made it through the storm alright. Stuffed the wet tent into my bag, ate breakfast, pedaled away from the sleepy winter-worn clapboard homes lining Main Street. I rode past farms tucked up on the hillsides, cows clustered by fencelines, my neon rain jacket flapping in the wind behind me. Later I was home, returned to the spread gingers of the suburbs and then the clench of the city. The whole trip was 24 hours, more or less. Only a day outdoors, a day away from routines and comfort. Really not much. Hardly anything compared to other adventures.

But I’ve grown a little from it, and I’m a little more confident now, and the memory already has a place in my mind. And I know I’ll do it again even if sometimes I can’t make out the reasons.


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Tower Road Adventure

Yesterday the missus and I did a bike/hike up Tower Road to where it connects with the Darlington Trail, which runs along a ridgetop through state game land. My prior experience with Tower Road came last summer, when Strava failed to tell me it was less a road and more of a wide dirt path with rocks the size of baby’s heads connected to a hillside of loose gravel at 15% grade. Long story short, I spent an unknown amount of time hiking in road shoes and cursing loudly into the empty, unsympathetic woods as darkness fell.

This time I was more prepared–the plan was to bike up as far as the road was passable, then get off and walk to the trailhead, then go for a hike, then take the long way home with a stop at the Garlic Poet, a restaurant we’ve wanted to try. We approached Tower road from the southeast side. The road was better than I remembered, switching from asphalt to gravel about halfway up. The whole thing is rideable with decent gravel tires, as evidenced by the Strava segment. Autumn was tired and her bike has disappointingly narrow 25mm tires, so we walked most of the way, stupidly pushing our bikes instead of locking them at the bottom.

Looking back we saw the shape of another cyclist working its way up. Slooooowly, like a bug inching its way up a wall. Near the top the shape revealed itself to be an older dude on a hardtail.

“It’s better on the other side,” he said. I translated that to something like Why are you wimps walking your bikes?

“Yeah, we’re just going up to hike,” I stammered. I meant something like I promise, I would be riding, but I’m with my girlfriend. Some things you can’t say out loud.

We left our bikes at the fenced-in radio tower and went in search of the trailhead. The road turned into the boulder-strewn dirt path I had so unfondly remembered. “Decent gravel tires” won’t cut it on this–you’d need something pretty wide and knobby. I might try with cross tires soon, but even with those, I’ll have to take this side slowly. WTB Riddlers or something similar would be better, though a mountain bike would be ideal.

It was peaceful in the forest. The old dude passed us again–somehow he’d gotten behind–but we saw nobody else. There wasn’t much of a view, on account of the tree cover. The mosquitoes were biting and there were big puddles from the thunderstorms we’ve had all week. We walked for thirty, forty-five minutes before we hit the intersection with the Darlington Trail. It was further than we thought. We stepped onto it, walked maybe 50 yards, and looked at each other.

“Want to turn around?”

Once again, I realized that it’s about getting there. That’s the fun part. The journey is itself the destination.

Back to the bikes, back down the gravel road. Walking downhill is hard on the knees; doing it with a 25-pound bike pulling you towards the Earth’s core is harder. Lesson learned.

Autumn was a trooper, and made it another ten miles through suburban sprawl and rolling cornfields to our restaurant destination. The vegan entree options were present but lacking a little in the calorie department; chalk it up as a step in the right direction for south central Pennsylvania. Tired and not really nourished, we rode home under an early evening sky the color of battleships. Somehow the greens are sharper on cloudy days, the forests more lush and magical-looking. Through New Cumberland on Bridge Street, then Lemoyne, then home along the greenbelt. We were fast asleep by the time the rain started falling.

Change of Plans

Turns out you can’t fly with oversized baggage into Bogota in December. One of those fine-print things buried on the airline’s website that you don’t bother to read unless you stumble upon it by accident. So, my bike–and the nice (pricey) case I just bought–isn’t coming with me on my biking trip. Another part of Delta’s website I didn’t explore enough before booking non-refundable tickets and hotel rooms was the part that said bikes cost $150 each way. Oof.

Yeah, I feel pretty stupid. I don’t generally make rash or under-researched decisions; usually I hesitate too long before making up my mind. In this case, a bit more Googling would have been good. But, riding a wave of enthusiasm and adventure lust, I committed. So it’s too late to change the basic fact that I’ll be in Bogota for a week, ostensibly to ride a bike. I’ll have to make new plans.

Obviously I’ll have to rent a bike, which will at least eliminate the hassle of bringing one to the airport. But how to bring a rental bike on a bus to the base of Alto de Letras with no carrying case? That climb is the main reason I want to ride in Colombia to begin with. Coming so close and not riding it, even though the mountains around Bogota will surely be stunning and difficult, would be disappointing to say the least.

After lamenting this possibility for a day, I got an idea. Not sure why it didn’t strike me sooner. Forget the damn bus. I could ride to Mariquita, stay the night, ride up the climb and back down, stay the night, ride back to Bogota. The idea is to spend most of my days there in the saddle, so why not ride somewhere I need to go instead of doing loops around the city?

With some trepidation, I went into Strava to create a new route. Bogota, green dot. Mariquita, black dot. Calculating route. How far would it be? Too far and my plan/trip reclamation project would be dashed.

110 miles. Boom. And “only” 8,000 feet of climbing to boot, 4,000 if I take what seems to be a back road (I’m currently awaiting confirmation of its safety).

This could be doable after all.