I was wide awake at 9:30 last night. Generally that is the time my eyelids begin to close involuntarily. I was still buzzing from my evening workout: my third shot at "the two hour loop" this season. I drove out to Skulls Gap and parked at the trailhead for Old 84 and Jerry's Creek Trail. The loop follows some of the "backside" of the Iron Mountain 50-mile Trail Run course, except the route passes by the Rowland Falls trail and ascends Jerry's Creek Trail instead. My watch recorded the elevation change over time -- shown below.
The Iron Mountain 50-mile Trail Run (IMTR) crosses White Top Road at mile 16 and again at mile 36. The 20 intervening miles snake through Jefferson National Forest across some of the best racing and training terrain I have run. Forest service road 84, also called Hurricane Road, climbs precipitously heading east. After a mile "Old 84" splits off and rewards runners with prime double track -- carving playfully along a contour significantly lower than the Iron Mountain ridgeline. Roughly paralleling Hurricane Road is FS 643, running mostly along the northern base of the mountain. There are four good options for creating routes that connect these two dirt/gravel forest roads. Jerry's Creek trail is the western-most option, and that is how I closed the end of the two-hour loop. Rowland Falls is the next option, and the one used on the return trip for IMTR. The next is Barton Gap, which is the outbound crossover for both IMTR and The 2-hour loop. Finally, Hurricane road can be followed east down the mountain to Hurricane Campground, and SR 650.
This area is bound to catch on with the growing popularity of trail running. For the time being, however, I enjoyed running all-out on a picture perfect Spring evening with no one around. I managed to rouse a couple of grouses and at least one lumbering bear, but otherwise I focused completely on the task at hand: getting back under 2-hours for this mountainous trail loop. I don't have an accurate measure for the length of the course, but I estimate it at 17-18 miles with 2500 feet of climb. I began to run it as a tempo workout in 2006 when I was preparing for The Mountain Masochist 50+ mile Trail Run (MMTR). I struggled to lower my time below 2 hours, and decided that when I could, I'd be fit enough to break 7 hours on the MMTR course. Based on my performances that year, it was a good calculation.
This season began from scratch, following a long layoff with achilles issues and then hernia surgery. My buildup has been a bit unorthodox in that I haven't included a long base phase. Instead I started right away doing fartlek-style runs in which I'd insert 5 minute "pick-ups" into my otherwise very slow runs. I also started right in on long and low intensity hike/runs on technical terrain. From there I extended the pickups into tempo runs -- and those have culminated in my three efforts at the two-hour loop. The day before each of these efforts was a long (23 mile?) hike/run around the high country beginning and ending at Elk Garden. Though still remote, Grayson Highlands gets considerably more hikers than Iron Mountain and it has been fun to see thru-hikers en-route to Maine.
My running fortunes have turned for the better. I have so far avoided re-injury. I've kept my mind as clear of expectation and open to possibility as I can manage. I've remained centered on my Slam for the Summer and Fall, and meanwhile enjoyed my capacity to run fast again. I surprised myself with a 1:55 last night on the two-hour loop. After a 2:08 on my first attempt, followed by a tough 2:03 on my second, I figured it would be hard to manage anything much under 2:00. Not to say it was easy -- you know you're working hard when its no longer worth the effort to wipe the spit and snot off your blue-tinged face. Still, when I hit the watch and doubled-over at the top of Jerry's Creek Trail, the realization crept through my brain along with the oxygen: "I'm back!"