Arriving at Linville Gorge two days ago I was prepared to get in a rugged 2 1/2 hours of training. I laced up, felt the sun for the first time in a week and headed down and down and down into the gorge. The first descent was ongoing by the time I reach sight of the river I had dropped about 800 feet and would wind through another 300 feet in the next half mile before reaching some flatter trail sections parallel to the river's flow. The footing was tricky, and the trail constantly raced up vertically to reach rock outcroppings where camp sites had been made by many in the past.
After a few miles I could already feel some jelly on the quads. This being official long run number 4 I was a tad surprised by this feeling, after all I did have 2 hours to go before reaching the car, assuming all went as planned. The downhill was taking its toll, grinding my muscles to pulp. I continued on, lightly pouncing and bounding with the terrain.
At 50 minutes out I stopped for a drink and an energy gel. Below me, about 150 feet was the river and a crossing bridge which could take to me to Table Rock and the Mountains to Sea Trail. That would have to wait. After another few minutes the trail dropped again and finally reached the river's edge. I'd been crossing over many tributaries with beautiful waterfalls and mossy pools but this was the first time I had actually reached the river proper. Things were much gentler here. The trail widened as it made haste over the terrain. Many campsites were strewn about.
The trail darted back away from the water and up another short climb. This was interesting as the Mountain Laurel had grown into steps for about 20 feet up the embankment. I pushed on twisting through small trees and fallen giants. Sometimes leaping up and over, other time contorting to pass beneath. I finally reached a small stream below and long waterfall. I cooled in the pool for a few minutes. This was all I would see today. It was time to head back. Though it is so tempting to run on at this point... 75 minutes out, I really had to remind myself that today I had no choice but to take longer on the return. This initial portion of the trail was predominately downhill. I had lost about 2000 feet of elevation. While this feels easy on the physiology of the runner there is another consideration.
The runner will support up to 9 times his body weight while running one step downhill. I had been doing this for 75 minutes and 2000 feet. Now that would all need to be regained. I was happy to feel rather fresh but knew as well that I had lost a certain amount of efficiency in my legs to this point. My heart and lungs would be willing to do the work but would my quads cooperate? I was about to see. 'This is why I came here today', I thought... and started running.
I reached the bridge again. Another gel and some water, a minute at the bridge to soak in the scene... It meant adding some climbing back to the trail but at the time it was worth it. We cannot avoid the grittiness of work. We need to be immersed in the experiences of life, not simply come close, approximate them. I climbed back. '25 minutes down, 50 to go', I told myself. So far, so good I felt a little worn down but could tell the work I've been doing is paying off. Here I was at the bottom of a gorge 1:40 into this run and feeling a little tired. If I recall earlier runs I just marvel at the human body. I feel the ghosts of those dreadful 6 milers at the start of this cycle. The burning of the chest and stinging of the legs. The dead weights all over my body. The flab urging me back to the couch... 'now look around, look at the beauty of it all.' Thankful for the delusions of endorphins I methodically plodded onward, upward.
At this point I was feeling a little warm and decided to use my shirt as a head covering. When reaching the next stream I paused, dunked the shirt in the cold run off and fashioned myself a snug cold compress. I'd repeat this every mile or so, keeping the shirt cool. When I reached the final watering hole I was happy at the progress but also weary of the climb ahead. It was going to go UP and UP and UP and each step would bring me that much closer to the sun. At this point in the late afternoon the sun was getting tired at least.
My steps felt swift. 2 hours in, alright! I had to temper this excitement. My brain a little slushy, how much farther is it... really? I did not know. I think it took 11 minutes from here. Maybe it took 25? In any case it would take longer on the return to I just bit off a small stride at a time. Two feet here, six inches there; whatever the terrain would allow me given an agreed upon energy expenditure. How much was left in the bank?
I knew I had ten minutes of work left in me... I had done that much last run. I figured I can always go an additional 15-20 beyond my previous long run as well. I hoped that would get me to the car, to water and to food. Not to mention some dry clothes and a chair. I had quickly become TIRED!!! I reached my turn now... Babel Tower- this way. I knew what was left now. It was 11 minutes down to here. I had 20 minutes to go, probably. I paused to look at the gorge below. Above the foliage I could see a long way to all directions, except for the one I was headed in. There I saw a hill. The top was some 600 feet away. Go.
'One minute', I thought, 'run this minute.' Quickly I changed strategy. 'To that tree,' and ten feet later I would find another. My lungs were searing, my legs were beyond pain, in fact I did not really feel them except to know which rock my toe about to swing into. Twice on larger steps up I crashed into a heap. Each blow landing squarely on my shin in exactly the same spot. I laughed the first one off. The second was in slow motion, my brain thinking 'anything but this' and then 'flump' as the bare meat of the shin scraped against the leading edge of the rocky step. I did not laugh this time though I tried desperately. I was only relieved to run on ever so slowly. I was getting a fast food version of some of those stories from Hardrock and Western States. For the record I was not thinking anything grand, except 'get to the car'.
At 2:40 I was cooked. I could no longer think about running and I gave in. I walk it back to the car, saw the cell flashing and saw my wife had called to see if I was alive. I rung her to confirm my state and then sat down. The goal today was 2:30 of rugged running. I was given all I could handle and more. I broke. In some aspects this was a failure but in most it was full success. The terrain I encountered was much more demanding than anything the Chattooga will offer. The time I spent on my feet was more than planned and I learned to carry more water (To think I was not going to carry ANY). The only question we have to answer at the end of all of this is, 'Was it worth it?' If we say yes, then we know we lived with passion and that is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
(Then I went home and ate a half of a meatloaf)