The biggest national publicity the Appalachian Trail has had in recent years was when the bad-boy governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, lied to his wife and the media (what? A politician lied?) about his dalliance with his girlfriend, covering up his sneaking out by saying he'd been hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
Well, if governors ever do actually try carrying their weight on that trail, let's just hope the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, doesn't try it. Christie, as you may know, is the governor who was recently flown to his son's high-school baseball game in a helicopter, at taxpayer's expense, and after landing got into a car to be driven the last 100 yards to the field. Oh, America, how roly-poly we have become. John F. Kennedy, who lamented our unfitness in a landmark essay titled "The Soft American," must be rolling in his grave.
But I digress.
For me, the Appalachian Trail (or the "A.T.", as we call it) has a very different meaning than it does for all the late-night comedians and commentators who riffed on the South Carolina lie. The A.T. is not only the longest and one of the most beautiful hiking trails in America; it is also one of the greatest places in the country to go for a long run.
A segment of the A.T. also happens to be the most challenging segment of America's largest and oldest ultramarathon, the JFK 50-mile. Entries for this year's JFK (which takes place November 19) opened on July 1. The race could well be filled by the end of this week. And if you are one of those who get in and can look forward to that run five months from now, it's time to begin thinking about a subject that will loom quite large on that day--running on rocks.
I remember doing a practice run on the A.T. section of that storied course around 36 years ago, in preparation for my first JFK. The course follows the A.T. from around the 3-mile point at the South Mountain trailhead to around 16 miles at the foot of Weverton Cliffs, where the trail drops precipitously to the Potomac River. Most of the trail is very nice for running, but a few sections are wickedly rocky. Somewhere around the 14-mile point, on that day so long ago, my left toe caught a rock and I did a hard face-plant. I got up slowly, stunned and bleeding, and told myself, "I sure better remember this spot when I run the race!"
And remember it I did. Over the years, remembered it again and again, because along that stretch I kept falling again and again. Couldn't I learn? By now I've run the JFK 15 times, I think, and I've done face-plants either approaching the Weverton Cliffs descent or on the boulder-strewn descent itself, at least six of those times. The falls are uncannily similar: I'm focusing hard, trying to watch where I put my feet, but also trying to move fast. The problem is that it's November, and this is deciduous forest where most of the leaves are now on the ground. The leaf cover is thick enough to cover a lot of the rocks, and while I'm usually pretty adept at trail running, I also have an unconscious, long-ingrained habit of running over logs and rocks the way a sprinter runs over hurdles--clearing as closely as possible for maximum speed. Evidently, sooner or later, I come to a spot where the optical center of my brain registers an approaching leaf-covered bump and subconsciously estimates that this bump is, let's say, a 2-inch leaf-cover over a 7-inch-high rock. The brain sends the leg an instruction to lift the bottom of the shoe 8 inches so as to brush through the top of the leaves while leaving an inch of clearance over the rock--only it turns out to be actually a 1-inch leaf cover over an 8-inch rock. That still might be OK, except that I've been running for over two and a quarter hours now, over some fairly rough terrain, and my legs are a little tired, and while the leg whose turn it is thinks it is lifting 8 inches, it's only reaching seven and three-fourths.
The other thing I should mention is that this section must be where the ancient Short Hill-South Mountain Fault once caused one mother of a rumble, wreaking rockular havoc with the earth. Since then, the Appalachian Mountains have lain stunned, watching silently for any overzealous humans they might ambush and maketh to lie down with them in mutual contemplation of what it means to grow ever older. Compared with the Rockies or Himalayas, the Appalachians are very, very old. So, for the past eight or nine hundred million years, more or less, this rugged ridge has been shrinking and compacting. The rocks have become solidly embedded. There are no loose rocks on the A.T. If you kick a loose rock on the Pacific Crest Trail in California, you might start a landslide. If you kick one on the Appalachian Trail, it isn't going anywhere. My toe caught that one-fourth inch of miscalculated rock, which may have been a rogue outcrop of Mesoproterozoic granite or may have been something a few hundred million years younger, but I really didn't have time to ask. With the my left foot brought to an absolute halt, the rest of me flew forward and down.
Six times this has happened over the years, and five of those times the response built into my wiring has been the same: My arms, elbows, and knees fly forward to break the fall and protect the face. The next runner behind me stops and asks, "Are you OK?" I reply, "I'm OK." I don't really know if I am, but can't bear the thought of being out of the race. I get up, blood streaming down my legs and arms, and continue running--very slowly--down the trail,.
The sixth time was last year. I was a year older (69) and maybe a tad weaker. This time, my knees, elbows, and hands all flew forward as usual, but my head hit the ground nonetheless. Crack--forehead on a rock. "Are you OK?" said a runner. "I'm OK," I said. There were 36 miles to go, and I needed to get back in the race. That's me, about a mile later, in the photo above.
This old-dogs-don't-learn experience of mine raises a question that a lot of JFK entrants (those who have run this before, as well as newbies) may be asking now:
How do you run this course?
Well, from an old guy who seems to be getting more confused as the years go by, here's a not-so-simple answer. The best strategy for running the JFK is to follow all of the following three rules, and I don't mean to be facetious.
1. Run the A.T. section fairly slowly and cautiously, so you get to Weverton without undue bleeding and can then run fast and carefree the rest of the way.
2. Go for broke, run the A.T. as fast as you can, feet flying high to clear the rocks, because if you do this and get away with it, you'll reach the easy part of the course (C&O Canal Towpath) with a big lead on your competition and will be able to basically coast the rest of the way.
3. Most of all, go into this race having practiced running over rocks as often as possible all summer, and having coached your brain to please add another half-inch to the clearance instructions it sends to the legs. Then, on race day, don't run with a conscious strategy at all--run to be a happy part of that wild and beautiful course all the way, at whatever speeds your trained instincts tell you. Don't force it, don't fear it. The Appalachian Trail is home. So is the Potomac River towpath that follows; and so is the wending country road that will take you over the final miles.
Next post: Final selection of "The 10 Most Iconic Running Events in America," to be posted in about a week.