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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Elk Garden Trail - Grayson Highlands

Along the route on Mt. Rogers
Wow!! What a great run...

I had not seen a step of running since Chattooga- which is pretty normal for me the week after a "big race" but this time it was different. Following my first DNF I just got away from running and did other things. I painted the house (started), cleaned up the yard, and simply spent time with my family.  And it was great- I didn't even think much about running. If I did it was, "I wonder if I will ever run again?"

That question was answered with a boisterous "HELL YES" on Monday morning with the Iron Mountain Trail Runners on the Elk Garden Trail in Grayson Highlands. To celebrate our nation's independence Beth organized this group trail run on an amazing trail- simply beautiful. The Elk Garden Trail and the subsequent loop course we ran was the perfect setting to fall in love with running all over again. Combined with the great company of the IMTR folks (and a couple of guests like me) the scene was perfect for a leisurely morning of steps and smiles.

From Elk Garden Trail
We all drove into Whitetop and dragged our eager (but sleepy) legs from our conveyance about 7am with the idea to complete a 12 mile loop and maybe add on in a spot or two along the way. We took a quick group photo and off we went up the grassy bald along the Appalachian Trail northbound. Soon enough we were under the canopy of hardwoods and moving steadily in single file. Folks began cheerfully chirping away with stories of past running adventures and we were all getting to know each other a bit better- or maybe they were testing us newbies??

Mt. Rogers Trail
After a short time we came to a cross roads and stopped to be sure of where the trail was suppose to be headed. Some cracks were made concerning where the "double blazed" trail along the AT was... and then we were off again getting into some heavily mossed areas which was ripe with fresh fungus and spongy footing! The smells were amazing along the trail and many times someone said, "it smells sooo good." In fact, you'd think there was a bakery out there!

JJ's Bakery
Halfway? through!! Group Photo #2
No bakery but for what we carried with us... and around an hour in, we stopped at another junction for the "JJ special", lentils and cous cous with curry! Wowzer- tasty, easy on the stomach and a must to make at home before the next long run! we each had a bite, chatted with a hiker (our first of many this day) and began our ascent to Mt. Rogers.

We joined a "well-used" horse trail and slopped our way upward in the some wonderfully shitty conditions.. literally. Such a wide trail but for the sake of sanitation we were single file as we moved up up up!! The grade never got too severe really, just gentle elevation gain over time. It was such a quiet and still morning and we continued to chatter about all things running and non-running with interspersed silence.

After some time we came out of the woods and into the grasslands surrounding the Mt Rogers summit area. We opted to take the shaded route upward rather than the exposed horse trail and then met up with the other half of our group where we took the opportunity to snap a second group photo! Serendipity!

Entering the Spring Corral
Last Call for... water
We spoke with a few more hikers and then off to the spring we headed to fill up our emptying bottles. this brought a bit of a detour and allowed us views toward North Carolina in the distance. The sunshine was warm, not hot, the air was still but had a stir of cool breeze and then we spotted our first pony of the day... he stared at us in the spring's corral and probably cussed us for getting dirt stirred in his spring. Well, we're just visiting.

After JJ brought us expertly through the woods to rejoin the trail we had the choice of climbing to the summit about a mile up, or heading back to the cars... no choice here and UP we went to run out of the open views and into the densest trees of the day!

Mt. Rogers Summit
For those in love with expansive summit views, Mt. Rogers in NOT for you. For all that work along the way you had better have enjoyed the views along the journey up here because the highest point in Virginia gives you a view of... well, trees. A thick evergreen forest to be exact and, to me, a great lesson in savoring the journey.
Wild Ponies!!!
We headed back down and tried to keep pace with Beth's quick feet as she darted like a cat down the rocky trail. From here on we had a cruising ride to enjoy on the way back to the parking lot some 4 miles away.

During this stretch we came upon this field and if you look closely you will spot 6 or 7 ponies eating a snack to the left of the big boulder. We watched them for a few minutes hoping to delay the inevitable... the end of our trail time for the day.

Our fun was not all over, we still had some technical rocky sections of rolling and downhill terrain to explore before completing our loop and rejoining with the initial portion of trail we had began on 4 hours earlier. Not to fear though- the trail is always changing and the perspective of AT southbound is always much different than northbound, true of any trail. We took the opportunity to let the legs go a bit, to enjoy the fatigue of the hours and soak in our playtime for the day before going back to our "real" lives.

From strangers and handshakes in the morning, to great friends and hugs by lunch- now, that is trail running!

Happy Running! 


  1. A really great group of folks! I sure wish I had been there! Sounds like my kind of running and a great chance for you to re-light your flame!

  2. Sean, It was great to be able to finally meet you in person. We have such a wonderful group of trail runners in our area and I am glad you are now a part of our group.

    Frank, It is your kind of running with an ever changing scenery to keep you excited and the flame a burning.

  3. AWESOME!! excellent post and so glad you finally made it over to run with the IMTR's-- only very sad I was gone to the beach :o( hopefully we'll get to share the trail sometime soon!!
    take care!!


  4. Great run. You had me laughing at "wonderfully shitty conditions."

  5. Hey man, this is Josh C. I had my first DNF in May, no bueno. Nice to hear about the bounce back. I've been inspired to write about my running experiences, check it out sometime and I will try to get better at commenting!

  6. sounds like a great way to celebrate independence

  7. Great to meet you Sean and share the trail. I truly had a great time on the 4th slogging our way to the top of Virginia then flying back down to Elk Garden.

  8. Great to finally get to run in the Iron Mts with you, Sean. Do come back soon. We'll try to have a campout run in the fall up there or something.

    Put about a cup and a half of red lentils in 4 and a litte more cups of water on the stove to a medium boil. Take a big skillet, preferably iron and heat it on the stove with about a 1/8-1/4 cup of olive oil on medium high. Put in, as it heats, a tablespoon or more each of whole black mustard seed and cumin seed. While that is heating chop fine a small onion and maybe a clove or two of garlic. When the seeds start to pop, stir in the onions. Chop fine and put in a green chili pepper. Take some fresh ginger root and grate it directly into the pan, 2-3 tablespoons at least. The lentils don't take too long and should be almost soft by the time onions are done. If need be, set them aside until the lentils are ready. Pour the lentils and leftover liquid into the skillet. Stir it all up, add salt to taste, at least a tablespoon of turmeric, cayenne pepper to the desired level of hot -I used the chipolte smoked kind, and if you can get it, a pinch or two of asafoetida. Turn the heat way down or off. You'll have to experiment a little but, add a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of cous cous -enough to soak up the liquid. If it comes out too dry in 5-10 minutes just add a little water. None of the quantities are critical. I like it a little mushy with a meal, but on the trail a dough consistency I think is better.
    Happy trails, JJ


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