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.

Seeing More

“How’s your marathon training going?” asked nobody.

“It’s good, thank you.”

The mileage totals haven’t been difficult so far. I’m doing around twenty a week now, with a ride or two fewer than I was before. I’m doubling up when I can, but the riding has definitely diminished because on Sundays the long run makes a long ride less appealing. This weekend it’s 11 miles, and will ramp up from there to 20 in a few weeks.

Cardio-wise, I’m fine, as I suspected. But my body still needs to adapt to running, and I can never predict how I’ll feel. Yesterday, my legs were heavy and three miles at 9:00/mile was an awful slog; today, seven-plus at 7:45 pace was pretty easy, expect for a weird cramp thing above between my left lung and shoulder that sprung up for a few miles and then vanished. It’s a mystery, why I feel the way I do. Where the pain and discomfort show up. On the bike, those things are predictable. On runs, I have no idea what will hurt or when. And my bladder/gastrointestinal issues are so variable that sometimes I can’t go a mile without a bathroom stop, while other times I can run five without stopping at all. Food, distance, time of day, heat, protein, iron: I’m sure they all play a role, but it’s impossible to puzzle out how they all fit together. Correlation, causation, blah blah blah.

I enjoy the ease of running. I don’t have to set out a kit the night before or fill water bottles or pump up tires. I can just wake up and go. And an hour of running burns more calories than an hour of biking (generally). Sure, when running you can’t travel as far as you can on a bike, and as a result you see less of the world, in one sense. But I’ve been exploring places on foot that I can’t on the bike, nooks and crannies of the city, sidewalks and dead ends and paths in the woods. So while seeing less, I also see more.