2014 Wrap Up

A number of the runners and cyclists I follow online have been posting their totals for the year: total miles run or ridden, total RACE miles, total trail versus road miles … I think it will surprise no one who has followed this randomly (and all-too-rarely) updated blog that I am not doing that. 2014 was a great year, and there were lots of great runs and rides, and the miles just don’t tell the stories, like wearing two different sportswatches on my ride from New Hope to Brooklyn, and having both of them die as we crossed the Hudson River on a ferry, so the last few miles went unaccounted. (And even having the miles doesn’t tell the story of the most catastrophic flat I have ever witnessed, followed up by the friendliest cop, who also turned out to be a cyclist, and who enlisted the aid of a local bike shop even though they weren’t really open at the time. The map doesn’t tell the story of what it’s like to scoot across the Hackensack and Passaic rivers on route 1/9, with a big group of cyclists and a car protecting us from behind with its flashers on. See, those are the kind of stories I’m supposed to be telling here, because all Strava does is record mileage.)

I did get in a lot more miles on the bike this year, though not as many as I’d hoped. (I ended the year somewhere shy of 2,000 miles, when I had originally set myself a 3,000-mile goal for the season). Many of my friends and fellow club members are still out there, riding in this cold weather; I stopped riding pretty much the minute the temperatures stayed below 60 degrees. (The added wind chill of riding is not kind to anyone dealing with symptoms of Reynaud’s.) I love seeing their updates — which I see often, as the Ride Coordinator for our club. One of the awards we give out every year at our Winter Banquet is the “Knights of the Cast Iron Crotch”, recognizing everyone who rides over 5,000 miles for the calendar year. The number of people in the club who blow that number out of the water is really astounding.

Here are some of the rides that really stood out for me this year, not necessarily in chronological order:

  • “St. Peter, Don’tcha Call Me!” This is an annual ride led by a few different people (for different pace groups) from my cycling club. We ride from Collegeville, PA, to the bakery in St. Peter’s Village, where we hang out on their pretty deck overlooking French Creek, sample some incredibly tasty baked goods, and then head back to Collegeville. It’s a loop ride, not an out-and-back, so we get to explore some different roads on the way home, and return to Collegeville via Limerick, with a short stop at an awesome, super friendly coffee shop called Java’s Brewin’. The owners sponsor a local cycling team, and are always happy to see us and refill our water bottles. Not only are they a friendly crew, they make amazing green smoothies! Highlights of this year’s ride, for me: helping lead a portion of the ride, hanging out while the group stopped to fix flats (twice), getting complimented on my strength, just generally having an absolute blast with a great group of people.
  • Peter Odell Memorial Ride: this annual ride from New Hope, PA, to Brooklyn, NY, is hosted by the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia and is always an amazing experience.
  • MS City to Shore Ride: This was my first-ever complete road century (100 miles) and I returned to it this year a much stronger rider AND with an amazing, kickass new bike! This year, instead of riding by myself the whole time, I had a good friend (who is an amazingly strong rider) stick with me for the entire ride, and that made it even more fun. We really set a good pace and worked well together.
  • Riding from Philadelphia to Ocean City, NJ.
  • Every Monday night: riding with my club from the start location in Wayne, PA, and hitting some beautiful country roads and challenging hills with a great group of people!
  • Every Thursday night: riding with my club from the Collegeville start location. Late in the season, I set out with the faster pace group and had an exhilarating, beautiful ride.
  • Keeping up (barely!) with the crew out of Phoenixville.

With the return of cool weather, I’m getting a little more running in — though, again, not as much as I should! And I haven’t had many trail runs so far; just a couple times back over Mt. Joy and some flat runs along the Betzwood River Trail. Tomorrow — New Year’s Day — I’ll be starting off 2015 with a trail run in Ridley Creek State Park with a bunch of great people, so hopefully that will set the tone for the year!

Some memorable runs in 2014:

  • Tyler Arboretum 10k: I ran this with friends again this year, and it remains one of my favorite places to run. Well-organized event, excellent trail system, just all-around fun– even when I have a less-than-great day of running.
  • Marsh Creek Raptor Run: I ran this one with a great group of friends, and it was a blast! Neat trail system out there, really pretty area, and a finish picture that involved a giant hill of manure. What could be better?raptorrunfinishphoto
  • Running Mt. Joy in Valley Forge Park, both on my own and with friends.
  • Coach Pete’s farewell run with the Misery Loves Company crew, which took us around the perimeter of Valley Forge park, introducing me to areas of the park I’ve never explored. What a great run that was!coachpetefarewellrun

Another big change in 2014: I became certified as a personal trainer and started working at a gym not far from my home. In addition to training others, I’m also working with an amazing kettlebell trainer. I fell in love with kettlebells during my personal training internship, and decided I wanted to train for StrongFirst Level 1 certification. I’m fortunate enough to have a Master Strongfirst instructor in my area, and spent several months working with him. I’m now in a phase where I’m working mostly on my own, and will be touching bases with him once per month to make sure I’m making the right kind of progress. My goal is to take the certification in Boston in August. I’ve also completed the Functional Movement Systems certification, and am working with some great clients on fixing broken movement patterns before we work on any loaded movements.

As my focus changes, this blog may change as well. One of my goals for the beginning of 2015 is to really review how I’m using social media, this blog, and other outlets, and how I can best utilize them to support my invigorating (and sometimes scary) new career. If anyone reading this wants to share advice or ideas, hit me up in the comments!

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.

Revisiting an old friend: The Rush Hour Run

As mentioned in an earlier post, I haven’t been running much since cycling season started; when I do run, I’ve been trying to run trails as much as possible. However, that isn’t how I got started. My first runs were all on the treadmill at the gym (using the Couch25k program on my iPod). Eventually, I joined a half- and full-marathon training group, and that’s when I started running on pavement. Most of our long runs used trails like the Perkiomen Trail (which has both gravel and paved sections), the Schuylkill River Trail and the paved loop at Valley Forge National Historic Park. All of my first races were on pavement: from my first 5k (hosted by the Pottstown YMCA) to the ten-mile Broad Street Run to my first half-marathon in Philadelphia, I either ran on paved paths or on the road.

My second 5k was the Rush Hour Run, which is hosted every year by SEI to benefit local charities. The race is an out-and-back on the Perkiomen Trail, which is right behind the SEI campus. The first time I ran this race, the draw for me was that it was local, it was a familiar path, and many of the folks I’d gotten to know through the training group would be there. As I found out that first year, the real draw is the post-race party, which features beer, cocktails and all manner of tasty treats from local restaurants and caterers.

I’ve done the race every year since then, and this year was no exception. Even though my running frequency is way down since cycling season began — and even though I had been knocked down with a pretty nasty cold and was still struggling with breathing difficulty and a cough the day of the race — I’d be lying if I said I went into it with no expectations. Sure, I told myself I’d do run/walk intervals based on “whenever I cough”. I told myself I’d go easy. I told myself (and my friends, and my boyfriend) that I wouldn’t overdo it. I told myself.

But there was something lingering in the back of my head, something I tried not to acknowledge: the way I’d felt the last time I’d gone running, the week before I got sick. The way the first mile flew by and how I’d forced myself to slow down for the second mile. Forced myself to take walk breaks because that’s what I do. I’ve been using run/walk intervals of varying measures since 2010. It’s part of my mindset. But even as I took walk breaks that day, I just felt fast. As I neared the end point of my run, I glanced down at my watch and realized that I was almost at a 5k distance … and my time was under 30 minutes. Have I mentioned that I’m not a fast runner? I’m not even a little bit fast. My fastest official 5k was a smidge over 31 minutes.

So, at this year’s Rush Hour Run, of course I told myself I’d take it easy. Of course, I told myself I’d listen to my lungs and my body and walk as soon as the exertion brought on the horrible, wracking cough again. I placed myself way at the back of the pack on purpose, intending to stick myself behind someone running at an easy pace and let them set my pace for me.

 

The race starts out down a slight grade, exiting the rear of SEI’s campus and down the short stretch of Upper Indian Head Road to turn right onto the Perkiomen Trail. From there, the trail is mostly flat — there’s a short, steep incline where the trail rises above the Perkiomen Creek to meet the parking lot at New Mill Road, then a gentle decline after the soccer fields. There’s a water station at the turn-around, and then you return to SEI, with the finish line on the trail before Upper Indian Head Road (so there’s no charging uphill to the finish).

I started out nice and easy on the descent to the trail, and it felt too easy. My lungs seemed to open up almost as soon as I started moving, and my breathing felt easier and easier — better than it had all week! After we turned onto the trail, I tried to ease my pace back a little and take it easy, but found it frustrating and soon began to pass people. At one point, I looked for my long-legged, fleet-footed boyfriend, who had been running right at my side, and discovered he was 30 feet or so behind me. I knew he would have no problem catching me if he wanted to, so I kept moving up. I’d pass a gaggle of people, then settle in behind someone to pace myself — but I’d soon find myself running too close to their heels, and would peel off to the left edge of the pavement to pass. Before too long, the lead runners were on their way back, flying down the left side of the pavement, and I started using the grassy verge to the right of the pavement to pass.

I took a walk break at the water station and walked the turn-around while drinking a cup of water, then got myself going again. My boyfriend had caught up to me again, and commented that we were “doing really good”, and I just had to grin. Good? I was breathing! I was running! It was AWESOME!

About a quarter-mile before the finish, it was my boyfriend’s turn to leave me behind. He kicked into high gear — I don’t seem to have that extra gear when it comes to running — and crossed the finish line well ahead of me. The digital readout at the finish line said 29:4something as I crossed, and I knew my chip time would be less, since I had been way at the back of the pack when the gun went off. My official chip time was 29:19, and my boyfriend’s was 29:01.

One of the reasons I come back to this race year after year, aside from how they spoil us after the run, is because it’s become a good touchstone for me. This is the only race I’ve done every single year, from my first year running, and I’ve never missed it. I’ve shaved at least a little time off every year, so it’s become a marker of my progress. And, now that I’m not training for distance, my results in the shorter races are improving more dramatically. Don’t get me wrong — I am still firmly in the middle of the field at best when it comes to my age group. But placing isn’t a thing that has ever mattered to me — the only person I really want to beat is myself, and I am happy with my consistent improvement at this annual race.

Catching Up

I got knocked down by a pretty nasty cold in the middle of last week, one that started in my sinuses, moved into my chest and still has me coughing gross stuff out of my lungs, getting short of breath quickly, and just generally feeling tired. But even worse than feeling poorly and basically sleeping around the clock is the fact that I’ve been missing all of my favorite rides, runs and workouts! The only positive thing is the fact that Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black was released on Netflix, so I was able to spend some of my waking/drooling hours streaming episodes. Therefore, instead of writing about what I’m up to right now (which would read something like, “to my eyeballs in used tissues”), I’m going to write about the weekend BEFORE the crud attacked. After all, that weekend was pretty fantastic.

I got to do two things I love (run with friends, ride my bike), both of which led to a third thing I like: adventure! I even made the news—which, at the time, kind of horrified me, but I got over that. In fact, after writing the first draft of this post, I had to split it into two: one for the last Saturday of May, and one for the first Sunday of June. There was just too much good stuff to be contained in one trim little post (as if my posts are ever “trim”—ha!).

First up: Saturday, May 31. I joined the Misery Loves Company crew for a run at Valley Forge National Historic Park. I am incredibly fortunate to live nearby, and I never get tired of running there—whether it’s the tried-and-true “loop” (a five-mile paved multi-use path) or whether I get to explore and discover new-to-me trails, I simply love it there. We try to make it over at least once a week.

Saturday’s run was the official “farewell” run for our group’s leader, Pete. Some of us call him “Coach Pete”, some call him “Sensei”, some of us call him “Damnit, Pete!” when he rabbits up a hill that mysteriously appeared on a supposedly-flat run and cheerfully calls out, “That’s not a hill! It’s just an inclined flat!” But you can never hold it against him—he’s also the guy who effortlessly circles back and hangs with the slowest runner (often me), checking in and chatting with pretty much everyone who joins the group for any given run. He’s the one who dispenses good running tips, trail directions, praise and bad jokes with the same easy-going, self-deprecating humor. Pete and his family are moving out of state, and our crew is definitely going to miss his encouragement, inspiration, superior trail-finding abilities, easy-going manner and coaching advice. (I might not miss his nettle-finding abilities, though!)

To send him off, we met at the parking lot at Knox’s Headquarters on route 252 and set out to run, roughly, the perimeter of the park. We ran along Valley Creek, then turned to follow the edge of a rolling meadow where model plane enthusiasts were flying their crafts, crossed route 252, circled around to climb the hillside past the ranger station (where we took a break to brush ticks off our legs — ACK!), bombed down the hill to the lower parking lot to refill bottles and bump into friends who were out running with the local Galloway Group, then crossed route 23 and dodged massive construction vehicles to hop onto “Fisherman’s trail”, a lovely, flowy bit of single-track along the Schuylkill River. We re-emerged behind Washington’s Headquarters, crossed back over route 23 and headed up toward our namesake, Mt. Misery, where the Horseshoe Trail comes through the park. Here, the pack split: some ran up over Misery, and some headed downhill, to the wide, pretty trail that follows Valley Creek back to Yellow Springs Road near its juncture with 252. I was in the latter group, for a couple reasons: this was the longest run I’ve done in over a year (depending on whose measurements you went by, we ran somewhere between 8 and 9 miles; most of my long runs have been in the 5-6 mile range, which barely counts as leg-stretching for many in this group), and I’d rolled my ankle (again) when the trail along the Schuylkill got rockier and more challenging. After that, the easier, flatter trail along Valley Creek sounded lovely.

Happily, my ankle didn’t bother me for long at all. I ended the run feeling energized and excited, instead of tired and over-done, and I had a great time with friends—I don’t think you can ask for better! MLC is definitely going to feel the loss of Coach Pete—but it’s a really great group of people with a great deal of varied trail and ultra experience, and we have more fun and challenging runs ahead of us.

Post-run group picture

Post-run group picture

Next post: Adventure Sunday!

Race Report: Tyler 10k

My trail running group occasionally runs in Ridley Creek State Park, which butts up against Tyler Arboretum — a few of the trails cross onto the arboretum property, and at least a couple of us have signed up for memberships at the arboretum (I felt bad for trespassing the first time I followed the group through a deer gate into the arboretum property, so I signed up for an annual membership afterward. Plus, it’s a beautiful place with many good programs, so supporting it makes me happy).

Each year, the arboretum hosts a 10k trail race, which is capped at 400 runners and sells out every year. I ran it last year for the first time, and hadn’t done much in the way of trail running (mostly flat, local dirt or gravel trails) prior to the race– that’s a big part of what led me to increasing my time on the trails this past year. I had so much fun at the race that I wanted to come back again and do better.

Race Overview:

The trails in Tyler are really lovely — wide, well-maintained, minimal rocks and roots to worry about (somehow, when I run next door in Ridley Creek State Park, roots and loose rocks seem to magically multiply where-ever I’m about to put a foot down. Does fencing out deer work on rocks, too?) It’s hilly enough to be challenging, but not painfully steep. There are two spots where the trail crosses a stream — and the race course loops back on itself, so you get four total stream crossings. One spot has rocks across the stream, so you can keep your feet dry if you want to balance your way across, or you can just splash through above the rocks. The other stream crossing didn’t have any handy rocks, but it was narrower and pretty shallow — maybe 6″ deep. (I got both feet wet, while my long-legged boyfriend was able to leap it in a single bound.)

Even with the rain leading up to the race this year, there were very few muddy spots on the trail. The trail surface was nice and firm in most areas, with just a couple low spots that actually had good ol’ squelchy, slippery mud.

Of all the hills on the course, the meanest one is at the finish. Not because it’s the steepest, but because you have to bypass the nice, flat area where the start line was set up, then run down a slight hill, cross a bridge over the stream and then run up a wide, grassy slope to finish next to the barn. Last year, this hill was a surprise — I hadn’t been looking around enough to notice that the finish line was not in the same place as the start line, and I sped up too early. This year, I was ready for it.

The general atmosphere of the race is really nice — from the volunteers at check-in to the folks directing you out on course, everyone is positive and encouraging. The folks at the water stations were great, as were the volunteers directing people at intersections and encouraging runners at each of the water crossings (I even saw one guy lending a balancing hand to a runner carefully picking her way across). Since the course does loop back on itself, you eventually reach a point where you’re seeing the head of the pack coming back, and all the runners cheer for each other, too. I got a “Good job, runner!” comment from someone who was somewhere in the top 10 runners, which was cool. (The overall winner finished the course in just over 36 minutes. My mind was BLOWN when I heard that. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be that fast!)

 

My personal race experience:

The forecast for the day included sun and a high temperature of 60 degrees. The morning temperature was expected to be around 48 degrees, climbing pretty quickly to the mid-50’s. I planned my outfit accordingly: lightweight running capris (I kind of hate shorts, and never wear them), and a light-weight, long-sleeve shirt. When I woke up that morning, I was freezing — I just felt really cold from the moment I woke up, and it felt colder than mid-40’s to me when I first stepped outside. My boyfriend also reminded me that, when we got to the park last year for this race, we discovered it was quite a bit colder there. Another running friend confirmed it was “usually” 10 degrees cooler in the park. I second-guessed my clothing choices, and swapped in my Brooks insulated running tights, and a long-sleeve base layer with a light t-shirt over it. I also threw on a lightweight pair of gloves and a headband to cover my ears. Mistake #1 complete! I was relatively comfortable walking around before the race started, and that should have been a blinking neon warning sign that I was wearing the wrong clothing. In hindsight, while it was too late to change pants before the race started, I could have gone back to my car and gotten rid of the long-sleeve base layer — that would have helped. As it was, I kept all that clothing on and ended up over-heating and not feeling well for most of the race. (I did end up taking off the gloves and headband about a mile into the race, and rolled up the sleeves of my base layer, but I stopped short of stripping off clothing so that I could remove the base layer and just have the t-shirt on.)

I was pretty frustrated over that newbie-style mistake — how many seasons do I have to make the same clothing mistakes before I learn to trust the temperature/weather guidelines instead of my instincts — but that wasn’t the only newbie mistake I made on Saturday. The other one? Not retying my shoes.

No, I’m not joking. At one point, just after the race started, I thought that my left shoe was a tiny bit loose, and maybe I should re-tie the laces. But we were in the thick of the crowd, and I didn’t want to end up all the way at the back of the crowd before we hit the natural bottleneck of the first stream crossing, so I kept going. Were there better places along the way, after the crowd was more spread out on the trail, where I could have stepped off to the side to redo those laces? Yes, there were. Did I do that? No, I did not. By the time the crowd thinned, I was moving along at a good, comfortable pace, focused on running the trail, and completely forgot about my shoe. I twisted my left ankle three or four different times in the first four miles, and I remember glancing at my Garmin to check the distance, seeing 4.19 miles and thinking, “I am going to be walking the last 2.01 miles. THIS SUCKS.” At this point, my boyfriend had dropped back to run with me, and I had to turn my face away from him — I was struggling not to cry. My ankle hurt every time I put my foot down, I was feeling a little nauseous from being overheated, and I was angry with myself for not doing better.

And that’s when I remembered that I had thought, early on, about retying my shoe. I stepped off the trail right then and did it, figuring at least the bit of extra support might help mitigate the pain of my ankle, even if I still had to walk the rest of the way. I was surprised at just what a big difference it made, and was able to pick up the pace again and continue run/walk intervals the remainder of the distance. (To the rhythm of, “IF ONLY YOU HAD DONE THAT TO BEGIN WITH, YOU IDIOT” in the back of my mind.)

With my ankle feeling a little better, and my boyfriend running with me, my spirits picked up considerably. I crossed the finish line to the cheers of a friend who had finished ahead of me, then stayed there to cheer for two other friends (and everyone else who came up the hill to the finish line). Finishing a race at a run instead of a walk is pretty much all it takes to put me back into a good mood, no matter how rough the race itself was, and I can look at any difficulty I had or mistakes I made from a better mindset and move on to the next challenge.

Now that I’ve run the race twice, next year might be my turn to volunteer. Not because I don’t want to run it again, but because I know how hard it can be to find volunteers for an event — and it doesn’t matter how many people register if you can’t wrangle enough volunteers to support them!

Just another day learning the trails

As an admitted temperature wimp, I have been struggling to convince myself to get out there and just run. I’ve been doing most of my running around my neighborhood, where I have to do two meandering loops to get in 3 miles — and, frankly, it’s boring, which doesn’t help when I’m feeling unmotivated. Add a fresh dusting of snow over some of the ice and old snow along the edges of the local roads, and I really don’t feel like just getting in the quick, local run.

That said, yesterday was a day to run. While the temperature was just barely over 20 degrees, the sun was out, the sky was bright blue, and there was no breeze. I knew that, once I got out there and got moving, the sun would feel great.

Needing a change of scenery — but not feeling brave enough to tackle any challenging trails alone, since most of them would be covered in snow — I hopped in my car and headed to a nearby trailhead for the Perkiomen Trail. It doesn’t sound like much of a change from my local route — a flat, paved rail trail — but it was exactly the change of scenery I needed, and it ended up being an excellent trail workout!

We’ve had snow a couple of times, with some warmer temps (40 and up) between snows; plus, we had another dusting of snow — not quite an inch — overnight.  The trail hasn’t been cleared between snows, so the snow has been trampled, partially thawed, re-frozen, then added to by new snow, and seen a lot of additional traffic — cross-country skiers, hikers, runners, folks out walking their dogs, and even someone on a fatbike, judging by the tracks I saw. Add the new snow, and it made for an uneven, but somewhat forgiving, surface — a great way to practice some skills I’m going to need for some of the rocky, uneven trails I want to be running, without also dealing with hills and other terrain at the same time.

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I found that, just as on some of the more challenging terrain that MLC has taken me, the uneven snowpack forced me to focus on two particular aspects of my form:

  1. Foot strike — I needed to keep my center of gravity balanced over the ball of my foot and my toes. Every time I took a “normal” (heel-striking) stride, the hard, rough surface of ice and compacted snow would deflect my foot aside and I’d roll my ankle. But if I focused on staying on my toes, and picking my feet up as quickly as possible, barely letting my heel touch at all, I got all the cushioning benefits of the snowpack and protected my ankles.
  2. Stride length — in order to get my feet up quickly, and keep my center of gravity stable, I had to significantly shorten my strides. Every time my stride lengthened, it meant I was putting a foot down well ahead of my center of gravity, and there went my ankle again.

My overall pace was pretty slow yesterday, but my heart rate was up in a good range and I was generating enough body heat that the cold stopped bothering me pretty quickly. I took two walk breaks in my 3.8 miles, both during the second half of the run, when I was starting to have trouble staying up on my toes. As soon as I felt myself coming down on my heels, getting sloppy with my strides, I would walk for about 30 seconds and stretch my legs, and then I’d be good to go again.

In addition to getting a much better trail workout than I expected, I also got the benefit of almost an hour of sunshine (I had to walk back out for some pictures!) and some truly beautiful scenery along the mostly-frozen Perkiomen Creek.

01-29-2014-1 01-29-2014-2

Winter Running

I started running in 2010, using a treadmill at the gym and following a Couch-to-5k program on my phone. I participated in my first outdoor races in April and early May of that year, then embarked on a more formal (and outdoor!) training program in mid-May. I still did some of my training runs on the treadmill that year — but at the minimum, my long runs were all outdoors. Every weekend, I would meet my training group and run on one of the local rail trails, either the Perkiomen Trail or the Schuylkill River Trail. The closest I came to actual trail running at that time was when I would traverse the gravel portions of the Perkiomen Trail.

I ran my first half-marathon that November and, as the days grew shorter and colder, I assumed I’d be spending my winter trying to maintain a treadmill-based running program. Running outdoors in winter? In the dark? Worst of all, in the cold? No way, no how! I couldn’t do that!

And yet, members of my training group were planning to keep running together during the off-season, and were planning to run outdoors. The group had been a huge part of my motivation, and I didn’t want to miss out on group runs. Before I knew it, I was shopping for extra layers and meeting people for runs when it was 40 degrees … 30 degrees … 16 degrees outside. And then … it snowed. Well, that’s it, I thought; no more running outdoors. Once again, I was proven wrong. Fellow runners pointed me to Yak Trax, and waxed poetic about the beauty of running in the snow. I was suspicious, but let’s face it: I was hooked on running AND hooked on my great running group, and I didn’t want to be left out! I bought my Yak Trax. I showed up for the run.

Friends, it was amazing. The trail looked like some cross-country skiers had gone down it, and parts of it had obviously seen snowmobile traffic (which created a really nice, smooth snowpack) and we pretty much had the morning to ourselves. There was a lovely hush around us, and running on the packed snow felt wonderful — like I could go all day! Of course, there were a few rough spots, where prior snow and ice had compacted under foot traffic, and the new snow was concealing that very rough surface below. I remember twisting my ankle several times that morning, but still completing a total of six miles and being amazed at the fact that I could still walk — when I was younger (and less fit), a twisted ankle would have meant the end of my day’s fun.

As introductions to winter running go, 2010 was about as gentle and kind as it could be. This year, however, I’ve challenged myself to avoid the flat, paved trails in favor of more challenging terrain — and winter makes those trails even more difficult. A little over a week ago, we received some snow — and last Friday, I ventured out onto one of our easy local trails, a flat dirt and gravel path that runs between the river and the paved Schuylkill River Trail. There are some side trails off this smaller trail that I often see mountain-bikers using, and which I got to explore with Pete from Misery Loves Company a few weeks prior. I thought this would be a great introduction to winter trail running — I could start out on the flat trail, explore some of the side trails and, if the going was too hard, reconnect to the flat trail.

The flat trail had seen a lot of foot traffic since the first bit of snow, and there was a hard, rough layer of compacted snow and ice — almost like running on cobblestones with lots of deep gaps. I was really glad to have my Yak Trax! Many of the side trails were invisible under the snow, but I did find a couple spurs that I remembered running with Pete. These were a mix of snow to break through, or slippery spots where mountain bikers had already compacted the snow. The wind that day was the real killer, and that’s what eventually drove me back to the flat trail — I was less exposed there, and the wind didn’t seem as bad.

Today, I met up with Pete and some other MLC runners again. This time, we were heading for a more challenging course: trails in Evansburg State Park. I’ve never run there before, and was really looking forward to exploring some new scenery. Pete originally rated today’s run a “4” on his 1-10 scale of difficulty. (Pete also has a tendency to tell us a run is mostly flat, with only one hill, then tell us all those other hills we ran were just “slight rises”.) When we gathered in the parking lot, he asked us if we wanted the good news or the bad news first — the good news was that there wasn’t a lot of mud; the bad news was that there was a lot more ice and snow than he expected. When I left my house, the temperature was in the upper 40’s and climbing quickly into the 50’s; I wore capris instead of full-length tights, and left my Yak Trax at home, expecting muddy trails. Somehow, Evansburg decided to keep its chill; when we met, it was still in the 30’s there! I was not a well-prepared runner.

We slipped and slid our way onto the trail. I tried to run to the edges of the trail as much as possible; I had better traction when I was breaking through the snow than I did on the compressed, icy trail. We managed a few creek crossings without incident, and broke through some thinner ice on muckier portions of the trail to our discomfort — my left foot got well and truly soaked early in the run, and my right foot matched it by the end. We all got mud-splattered at one point or another, and I’m pretty sure we all took our turn at flailing for balance as we slid over particularly well-frozen portions of trail. Steeper portions were particularly challenging, and there were a few spots where I could feel myself sliding perilously toward the edge of the trail (and therefore toward the creek), but we all made it through without anyone taking a dunk.

It’s a whole different ballgame, this sort of winter running. As I type this up, hours later, my legs are sore in a way that I only experienced in my longest runs when I was running on flat, paved surfaces. I can’t help but think that this is a good thing — I’m waking up muscles that have grown accustomed to pretty mindless, straight-forward running, and challenging them (and my brain!) to an entirely new method. I hope that, between my strength training program at home and repeated trail excursions, I will be able to build myself up to the increasing challenges of the trails.

(At the end of today’s run, Pete allowed that the icy conditions bumped his rating up from a 4 to a 5.)