As many of you know, I’m skipping out on the marathon scene this year. I’m pretty pleased with that decision, as I’ve been able to bliss out on trails and nail a couple half-marathons in the meantime. I did my first long(ish) trail race just before I left the Pacific Northwest, and now I have a couple more on the docket.
First, the sure-to-be-grueling Maryland HEAT Race. Apparently HEAT stands for High Endurance Adventure Test, and that’s a pretty accurate description. Outside Baltimore in Patapsco State Park, the 25K race will be boiling hot. But the pictures from past years look lovely, and the course even squeaks in 3,000 feet of uphill running. Interested? The race is Aug. 9. I think you can still sign up here.
Next on the agenda: The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club Women’s Half Marathon (wow, that’s a mouthful). I’ve been wanting to get involved with the VHTRC for months, and I’m excited to be a part of this popular event. Out at Fountainhead Regional Park in Northern Virginia, the course features rolling hills on miles of singletrack. The Sept. 13 race is already almost filled up with early registrants (me!), but you can sign up for some of the last spots on Friday here.
I’m not sure my recent trip to West Virginia even qualifies for real estate on this blog, considering the getaway involved mostly eating, drinking and floating down a river while doing both of those things. BUT, there were rapids! And there was paddling! And there was walking … on the Appalachian Trail! So, I say it counts.
Just an easy 1.5-hour drive out of D.C., Harpers Ferry is one of my favorite spots for a quick escape from the city. It’s situated at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, which carve a deep gorge through Maryland Heights. The result is dramatic cliffs and long views. The added Civil War history of the town adds another layer of intrigue.
On our agenda:
S’more, sausages and veggie dogs.
Strolling with coffee on the Appalachian Trail (and feeling pretty lame compared to the thru-hikers).
And “whitewater” tubing on the Potomac. Most of this was pretty mild, except when we accidentally went off course, and I flipped out of my tube in some not-for-leisure-tubers rapids. Don’t worry; I survived. No pictures, but it looked something like this.
It’s time to hit the trails!
Since a few of my fearless friends have agreed to conquer this death race with me in August, it occurs to me that I should probably reacquaint myself with the dirt.
Enter Rock Creek Park.
D.C. people rave about Rock Creek Park and its network of trails and wilderness smack in the middle of the city. I’ve spent plenty of time on the paved bike path but shockingly little time on the singletrack. Until recently.
The ultra-cool Jamie Corey of Run the District was kind enough to show me around some of her favorite Rock Creek stomping grounds a few weeks ago. And I surprised myself the next week by actually remembering all the twists and turns Jamie navigated, plus several more miles in the upper reaches of the park.
The only downside to Rock Creek is that it’s across town from my place in Capitol Hill. So, one option closer to home: the National Arboretum.
The Arboretum in Northeast D.C. is surreal: It boasts endless open spaces, eerie repurposed Capitol columns and an overall sense of remoteness just along one of the city’s busiest corridors on New York Avenue.
It’s definitely not trail-running central, as most of the running routes there are on paved roads winding around various sections of non-native trees and mini-forests. But tucked into the forests are two trail-running gems. They are short but worthwhile: a set of trails that winds around azaleas and offers views of the Washington Monument and Capitol building, and a set of trails that offers a tour of Japanese plants and riverfront access.
Remember last year when we were doing burpees and push-ups on paddleboards? For our latest foray into the Potomac River, my pal Sarah and I opted for a more zen approach to standup paddleboarding: yoga.
If you’re looking for a strenuous practice, the SUP Yoga class at Key Bridge Boathouse may not be your scene. But if you’re looking for a new challenge with some truly special views, you don’t want to miss this class. While the yoga itself was fairly basic, the added effort of balancing on our boards and paddling to our class location by Roosevelt Island made it a worthwhile sweat session. And the scenery, of course, was breathtaking.
Well, I’m officially an East Coaster again, and, naturally, the first three weeks have been exhausting. I’m readjusting to working full time (yay, journalism!), rediscovering old haunts and reconnecting with favorite running routes/scoping out new ones.
First on my agenda upon returning to town was checking off a spot from my Take a Hike Washington D.C. book. Our first choice of Calvert Cliffs State Park in southern Maryland did not disappoint. Just an hour from Capitol Hill, the park includes about 13 miles of dirt trails, plus a gorgeous beachfront destination with cliffs rising over the Chesapeake Bay. The run was muggy and buggy but awesome nonetheless. Bonus points for the relatively traffic-free drive, a huge advantage over more popular D.C.-area getaways like the Eastern Shore and Blue Ridge mountains.
Back in the District, I’ve been hitting the streets. Among them:
Within a few days of arriving in Portland in August, I was crammed into a van of strangers to run through the night from Mount Hood to the Pacific Ocean. So it seemed fitting that my very last day in the Pacific Northwest involved an epic trail race through some of the very best scenery in the region.
On Sunday, I ran the Beacon Rock 25K, a tough race about an hour from Portland in the Columbia River Gorge. Though I’ve done plenty of training on trails over the past year, this was my longest trail race ever, on trails that were staggeringly steeper than any of my Forest Park stomping grounds.
Let’s just say, it wasn’t easy. But, man, was it worth it.
The 15.5-mile race included two major climbs with a total elevation gain of 3,700 feet. As you can see from the elevation chart (below), the ascent started almost immediately and was relentless for four miles. I stayed with the middle-of-the-pack runners, and we switched from running to hiking whenever the grade became unbearable.
After we finally crested the first peak, though, the downhill was magical. I refilled my half-liter handheld and ate some grapes at the aid station at mile 5.5 and continued on at a pretty fast clip, not realizing the trouble that awaited me.
By mile 8, I had run out of water and was beginning to get hungry. I had Honey Stingers with me but knew better than to choke them down without liquid. So I settled into the second climb with a fast hike and figured I’d be fine until we passed the aid station again at mile 10.
The ascent up Hamilton Mountain was gorgeous. I was thirsty and hungry but blissed out by the stunning views of the gorge and neighboring mountains peaking above low-lying clouds.
Around mile 10, the wheels started to come off. My legs were toast from the two climbs, and with no aid station in sight, I was becoming more dehydrated by the step. After the race, many runners raved about this second downhill portion, but at this point in the race, it was all I could do to walk forward. I started to wonder if my Garmin had miscalculated the mileage, or maybe if I had misunderstood the aid station locations. Before long, I also started to wonder if bears were going to jump out and eat me.
I asked a couple other runners if they knew whether the aid station was coming up, and one replied that she didn’t think there was one. Dispirited, I continued down the singletrack that emptied onto a fire road, where — like a desert mirage — a little tent appeared, covering a tabled filled with all the water, food and candy I could want. I refilled and guzzled my water, ate half a PB&J and chomped on gummy bears and an Oreo. I was alive again.
The final couple of miles were glorious: a gradual downhill to coast almost to the finish. The course squeezed in a quarter-mile uphill before the finish just to make sure we didn’t get too comfortable.
Mission accomplished. The course was uncomfortable — at times brutal — and absolutely worth it. Now I have my first long trail race under my belt, along with a few lessons:
1. Study the course description carefully. Had I done that, I would have realized that the second aid station was not until mile 12.
2. Carry more water. I had considered wearing my hydration backpack for the run but opted against it because it seemed a bit too bulky for 15 miles. It definitely is a bit bulky (I use it for run-commuting) but would have been a better option than a handheld for this race. I’ll continue using my handheld for road races with ample aid stations, but I’m in the market for a sleek hydration pack before my next long trail race.
Sidenote: The Beacon Rock race was organized by Rainshadow Running, a Washington state-based group that puts on destination races around the Pacific Northwest. For Beacon Rock, Rainshadow reserves a group camping area and invites all runners and their friends to come out for a weekend of camping, hiking, barbecuing and relaxing before the race. A friend and I camped the night before the race and had a great time. Definitely check out Rainshadow’s race list. They know how to put on a good show.