A Meandering Runner

Yes, I do still run! I know most of my posts have been about my adventures on the bike, but I still try to run at least once or twice a week, usually with friends. I frequently run on Friday mornings with a friend who does 10 miles — I meet her for the second half of the run and do 5. She runs on a nearby paved trail (which used to be a rail line) and does two out-and-back segments from the parking lot so that it’s easier for others to meet up and run with her. We have a great time, and there are often at least a couple other friends who join us, which makes it great social time as well as a good run — I can’t tell you how many times that early morning run has led to conversations that had me thinking and pondering for the next few days! I really enjoy it, and hate it when I have to miss it … or, like today, when I sleep through my alarm and miss it.

As soon as I realized there was no way I could make the second half of her run today — I woke up at 6:58, according to my phone, and needed to be at the meeting spot by 7am — I knew that I still wanted to run. Some days, being a more social athlete means that I groan and drag my feet and postpone running alone; today was not one of those days. I couldn’t wait to get out there! But the only question was: where out there?

We are incredibly lucky when it comes to running options. While running in my neighborhood tends to be a little boring (to me), it’s still an option — even at rush hour, it’s safe to run here. There’s only one road that gets heavier traffic at peak hours, and even that tends to be sporadic, not a steady stream of heavy traffic. As long as you remain alert, cross carefully, and keep an eye out for people backing out of their driveways, the roads through my neighborhood are totally safe. However, I have even better running options within a short drive. If I’m willing to drive about 10 minutes, I have access to the Schuylkill River Trail, the Chester Valley Trail, or my favorite place to run: Valley Forge National Park.

My original plan was to drive out to the Schuylkill River Trail. Then, I started driving and decided I would park at Valley Forge and walk over the pedestrian walkway along route 422 to access the trail. Then, I decided I might as well just run at Valley Forge. Then, I decided I didn’t want to run the usual 5-mile paved loop around the park, so I circled through the park and over to route 252, where there is parking for Knox’s Headquarters and the trails behind it. Next thing I knew, without really consciously deciding anything, I was passing the parking lot for Knox’s, heading through the covered bridge and onto Yellow Springs Road, where I re-discovered that the tiny parking lot for Mt. Misery is closed off. There’s construction going on along Yellow Springs Road — they’ve built a new parking lot for trail access, and it looks like they’re almost done the paved walkway that runs from the parking lot to the trails for Mt. Misery and Valley Creek.

(I’m pretty excited about this, because we used to just walk or run down the road to get to the trail, and the road is pretty narrow, without much of a shoulder. Having a protected pedestrian walkway to get people to and from these popular, very pretty trails will be a nice improvement.)

I parked in the new trailhead lot, headed down the open section of walkway and ran down a short stretch of the road to head onto the trail alongside Valley Creek. It’s gorgeous back there, and the trail stays right alongside the creek for about a mile before turning away from the creek and climbing to intersect with the Horseshoe Trail, which takes you onto Mt. Misery. I bypassed that option and continued the other way, following my trail out to route 23 near Washington’s Headquarters. Here, you have a couple options: cross over route 23 to Washington’s Headquarters, and choose a couple trail options from there, or cross over route 252 and turn right onto the trail for Mt. Joy. I chose the latter option.

I’ve never run Mt. Joy before, and I am now kicking myself for not doing it before. It was absolutely, thrillingly beautiful — the kind of beauty that both distracts and uplifts me. The trail is well-maintained and not technical; there were only a couple sections where it was particularly rocky. It’s definitely steep, and I alternated between running and walking as I climbed. The forest here is gorgeous, and for most of my run, it was just me and the breeze through the trees. I startled a couple deer, one of which had a pair of late-season fawns following along behind her; I saw squirrels and birds; I passed a couple walking a dog, but otherwise saw no other people on the trail. As I started down the far side of the hill, heading back toward Knox’s Headquarters, the breeze sent leaves falling gently around me, which really made it feel like Fall is already here! (The cool temperatures helped, too.)

I ended up finishing up at just under 4 miles, which is about what I had wanted to do today. I’m so glad I meandered my way around before deciding where to run. Sure, it would have been pretty along the Schuylkill River Trail, too — it was a gorgeous morning, and the tree-lined SRT is great for a flat out-and-back run — but I got to enjoy the beauty of running alongside a pretty creek, and then conquering a good hill in a beautiful forest setting. I don’t think it gets much better than that.


Gettin’ Squirrelly

Tonight, I met up with members of one of my cycling clubs for a great ride. I’ve been riding out of the same location on Thursday nights since last summer, and I’ve really been enjoying it — the only difference this week is that I was riding out with a slightly-faster group than usual. It was suggested to me recently that I bump up to the next-faster pace group, rather than continuing to ride off the front of the group I’ve been with since last summer.

(I try to moderate my pace and stick with/behind the ride leader; sometimes I’m better at it than other times. And it makes sense for me to move up, both to challenge myself personally, and to stop creating headaches for the ride leader of my regular group. Sometimes, when one rider goes off the front, they pull other riders with them, and it’s easy for the leader to lose track of who is where. And if you’re riding off the front, it’s easy to miss turns because you can’t hear the leader. We are often riding without cue sheets — ie, printed directions — on Thursday nights, and the ride leaders know the area like the back of their hands.)

So tonight I rolled out with the faster group, and we had a great time. Was it easy? Nope. Was I off the back? A little bit, especially by the end. But I don’t consider myself “dropped” unless I lose sight of the group, and I was never that drastically far back.

What we had was a great ride on an August evening of incredibly un-August-like weather. I think our high temperature for the day was somewhere in the high 70’s; I was home most of the day today, and had the doors and windows open for the fresh air. It was wonderful. We had a low chance of rain (the weather app for my town said 8% chance of precipitation; for the area of the bike ride, it bumped up to 10%), so I didn’t worry too much about that.

About 8 minutes into our ride, that little chance of rain became 100% cold downpour. It was blinding and made the fun, winding, rolling hills that we start out on a little less fun. Descending on tight curves on wet roads is a little nerve-wracking when you aren’t used to those conditions!

Our ride leader announced we were hitting a local hill known as “Squirrel Hill”, and we all groaned. Seriously?! In this weather? (This is where I admit that I had never climbed Squirrel Hill before, but I’d always heard about it from other riders, and it sounded like it was a hard climb). All I knew is that I’d been counseled by others to get into my granny gear before I even turn onto the road — and man, am I glad I listened. It’s a sharp, almost blind right turn, and you really can’t build up any kind of speed before turning. The beginning of the hill is the steepest portion, and it’s definitely a challenge. But it gradually gets less steep — and overall, the climb wasn’t nearly as long as I’d been led to expect. I think I did pretty well on it, and I felt good afterward. Even better, we’d left the rain behind — the roads were still wet, but at least we didn’t have cold, driving rain in our faces as we climbed.We continued to zig and zag our way through the countryside; sometimes briefly dashing through more gentle rain showers. At one point, we made our way along the edge of the some of the camping grounds for the Philadelphia Folk Fest (which is, of course, not all that close to Philadelphia — unless you’re from Pittsburgh, in which case, I guess it’s pretty darn close to Philadelphia, comparatively). One of the things I love about cycling: seeing completely different roads in areas I’m already familiar with. Growing up and learning to drive in the area, I just knew which roads to avoid so I could stay away from the Folk Fest traffic — but I have never been to the Folk Fest itself. Now I kind of wish I was going this year!

The sun came out, making the roads steam. For a brief moment, the sun was out and it was still raining, and the meadows on either side of the road had mist and sun drifting across them, and it was magical. We came down a hill and across a bridge over a branch of the Perkiomen Creek, and the sun reflecting off the water on the road dazzled my eyes with gold. It was enough to make me forget that my toes were cold and my wet chamois felt uncomfortably bulky and diaper-like.

I think my most memorable rides all have some combination of exhilaration and discomfort — whether it’s my muscles trying to convince me they can’t climb anymore, or the heat and humidity of a more typical Pennsylvania summer laying on my back like a blanket as I chug along, or the new and odd sensation of a completely-soaked cycling kit feeling like it’s crawling up my body — these are always offset by things like the joy of the ride itself, or the fun of riding with friends, or the adrenaline rush of screaming descents, the pride of reaching new heights (literally and figuratively) or topping prior efforts. Or even just the simple experience of seeing the countryside from a different point of a view, and at a different pace — a pace that, even when I’m pushing myself, still lets me marvel at the beauty around me.

The moment when you’re certain you can’t go anymore, you’ll die if this hill doesn’t end — so you just keep pedaling

I don’t do epic rides.

I don’t have legs of steel.

I don’t have a stomach of anger.

I like to do fun rides, with people I enjoy. Sometimes, I hammer. Sometimes, I descend well and manage to keep my hands off the brakes. Sometimes, I chat along with other riders and am sociable. Sometimes, I get dropped like a rock on climbs — though I think those instances are fewer and further between than they were a year ago; than they were in April or May, even.

I like to see new places, or just find new ways around familiar places.

I like to learn from my rides: because I still have a lot to learn about cycling, and about myself as a cyclist.

I like to challenge myself, and I try not to get hung up on the fact that what I consider “challenging” is too easy for many of my cycling friends, and too hard for some of my friends. I seem to exist in this perpetual ‘between’ phase: on the verge of dropping one pace group, but not fast or strong enough to keep up with the next-fastest group.

On Sunday, I rode the middle distance on the Lake Nockamixon Century. I almost signed up for the full century and hoo boy, was I glad I stuck to the 67-mile route. The turnout was relatively light, so I spent a lot of time alone on pretty, lightly-traveled roads around Lake Nockamixon. I learned something important about myself during the first third of the ride: if left to my own devices, I dawdle. I look around. I daydream. I soft pedal, taking it all in. I don’t push myself.

(I also learned [again] that I’m not smart or attentive enough to use a sportswatch that doesn’t have an auto-pause feature; I lost almost four miles from the record of my ride, including a challenging climb, simply because I paused the watch and forgot to tell it to resume.)

At some point near the first rest stop, a couple of guys caught up to and passed me. Suddenly, I had something to chase: I had a carrot. I decided that I was going to keep those guys in sight for as long as I could after the rest stop. I had to push to do that; sometimes, I caught up to them — and then they would drop me on the next climb. I’d catch them after cresting, and then they’d drop me again. Catch and release, catch and release, catch and release. Until we spent a few miles on the wide shoulder of the relatively-flat route 563, and I found my hammers. One of the guys rolled into the rest stop shortly after me and said, “You set a nice pace out there,” and my day was made.

Last night, I decided to try out a club ride I haven’t done before. From the description listed on our club’s Meetup page, it didn’t seem to have too much climbing; in fact, looking at my history on Strava, it had less total climbing than my typical Monday night ride. But, oh, the climbing we did! It seemed like it was all concentrated in a few steep, long hills. Between the hills, the group sped down a mix of deserted country roads, farm lanes, park drives and even a partially-gravel (or just really poorly maintained) lane. To keep up with their pace, I had to work harder on the flats than I do with my other rides, and take better advantage of downhills.

In case this hasn’t come across well so far: I am not the strongest climber. I got schooled. I suffered. On one hill, my legs were screaming and I was so very, very tempted to put a foot down, tempted to walk the last part of the hill, but damnit, no one else was and you better believe I wasn’t going to be be the only one who couldn’t crest this [allthebadwords] hill. And my legs are still screaming and I’m panting for breath but, hey, I just realized that I don’t feel like my heart is going to explode out of my chest, I don’t feel my heartbeat reverberating all the way through my head, so maybe my legs are just being a pair of little crybabies and I should ignore them.

But: holy shit, I want to be done climbing this hill.

But: the only way to be done climbing is to finish the climb. So my legs curse me and I tell myself the hill just leveled out a little bit, so I can spin a little faster in this-here-granny-gear and I can recover a tiny bit, I tell myself that whether there’s a discernible change in the grade or not, and I mentally flog myself to the top of the hill.

And at the end of the ride, I have an endorphin high and a grin so wide it’s practically unhinged.

I learned I need to step out of my comfort zone at least once in a while, and ride with people who challenge me, on roads I don’t know.

Onward and upward.