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Over the mountain and through the woods

black and white animal on gray trunk during daytime

I recently came across a trail running group. I’ve attended two runs with this group, the first was comfortably moderate; the second was not so. We were tackling 3 mountains, known as the Peaks of Otter. We did over 4,000 feet of climbing on this run and 15 miles. When I previewed the route on Strava, I figured it was more of a hike than a run. FALSE. There was an inordinate amount of running, to be in this group you need to be hardcore and possibly part billy goat. The first peak, Sharp Top, is so named because there’s a group of boulders that make it look pointy. Funnily enough the next mountain over, named Flat Top, is actually higher than Sharp Top.

Sign says: Sharp Top, famous observation point, was once thought to be VA’s highest peak. From it came the Virginia stone in the Washington Monument which is inscribed: ‘From Otter’s Summit, Virginia’s loftiest peak, to crown a monument to Virginia’s noblest son.’ There’s even a shelter at the top which I believe is open for camping.

From there we went to Harkening Hill, which, as you’ll note, is deemed a Hill. Seemed pretty steep to me. We saw this cool rock (below) and I had to take a picture. Doesn’t it look like God set that boulder right there? I mean, how else could it possibly balance so perfectly? Tell me there’s a Creator without telling me there’s a Creator.

The final mountain of our escapade was Flat Top. This is the point where I was ready to be done. Alas, there was 5 miles to the end and 2.5 of those were darn near straight up. The climb up was really steep, and more of a rock scramble than a run, or even a hike. The views were, of course, worth it.

We then descended. I went to a very dark place during this descent. It was only 2 miles to the base, but this side of the mountain was in total shadow, incredibly windy, and just steep enough you couldn’t run but had to pick your way down. I was so cold, my hands were numb, and I couldn’t move fast to get my heart rate high enough to warm up. Pretty miserable and a bummer way to end the trip because that last impression is what sticks out most in your mind.

During the ride home I discussed the day with my friend; we agreed group runs are challenging as there are frequent stops to regroup and check directions. Standing in a circle chatting on a peak makes for very sudden drops in body temperature and heart rate. My friend is wise and won’t stand still. He gets to the top with the group, then doubles back to the stragglers and runs them up. He prefers to go back and forth than stand still. This gets him 2-3 miles more than the rest of us and a better workout/HR curve. My brain knows that’s the wiser choice, but in the middle of an activity, it’s hard to choose the work.

Choosing the work is one of my mental chants during training. When I went through Officer Candidate School (OCS) with the Marine Corps, we frequently had to carry a platoon member’s pack for them. If someone had to go to medical in the morning and rejoin the platoon in the afternoon, their pack needed to be where we were. Nobody ever volunteered for the task so we drew straws for it, these things weighed close to 50 pounds after all. For whatever reason, I usually lost and would end up with 2 packs, trailing behind as we marched miles across base. Of course, if you drop off, or show weakness, you get yelled at by the Sergeant Instructors (SI) and have to do extra work. During one such episode I muttered, “I always get stuck with the extra pack. This is so rigged.”

Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to me, there was an SI standing behind me, who heard. These instructors specialize in fear and terror, so when I saw her face move suddenly close to mine I knew my eyelids were about to get radiated off my face by the force of her yell. Surprisingly, she did not yell. She said (quietly), “always choose the extra pack. Trust me.” We weren’t allowed to ask questions, so I restarted my heart and continued walking. Henceforth, I always volunteered for the extra pack, I didn’t know if it made me look ambitious to the instructors, or maybe they would cut me slack later on for being agreeable, but I figured something made it worth her whispering that to me.

At the end of the session, there were 10 females left in our platoon, dropped down from the 42 that started. That same SI came up to me, “do you know what you 10 all have in common? You chose the extra pack. So you were stronger, so you overcame, where others did not.”

man wearing black hoodie carries black and gray backpacker near trees during foggy weather
Photo by Lalu Fatoni on Pexels.com. This is about how big the packs were, one on the front, one on the back, you could barely see. It was miserable. But as I learned, worth it.

Next time I do a run like this, I’ll remember that, and choose the work to go back and forth. Despite the weather it was very fun, challenging, suffering, and satisfying. I think it’s good to suffer occasionally, especially willingly. It gives your brain access to areas that you don’t normally reach, so that when you are suffering UNwillingly, you can remember the times before, go there in your mind, and overcome.

A quick note about gear. I bought my first pair of trail shoes recently and love them. The brand is Altra, the model is Lone Peak. The interesting thing: they’re a zero drop shoe, that means from heel to toe, they are level. If you look at a normal running shoe, there is a ton of cushioning in the heel, which is necessary for the repeated heel strike and impact on asphalt or concrete. These trail shoes promote less of a heel strike and give you a better feel for the trail. I also really loved the wider toe box. I always get blisters on my toes from crowding, and found the extra space let me spread out my toes for a better grip and less friction. (Photos courtesy of REI.com)

My next race is February 24, in Greenville, SC. This is a half marathon running race. I’m looking forward to setting a new speed record for myself. I’m also running it with a dear friend who lives down in that area. We are already planning our post-race meal and treats!

(I do want to clarify that while I graduated OCS, I never accepted my commission, and as such I’m not a Marine, so I cannot claim that honor.)

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