Monday, July 7, 2014

Old Rag FKT.. by the skin of my teeth!

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not that much of a planner.  But even if I was the opportunities for me to get out for a day to attempt an FKT on Old Rag Mountain were slim, so with my wife and son at the beach with her family and nothing to do until my 6pm track practice I figured today would be as good as any.  I woke up a little later than I would have liked to, ate some breakfast, threw my mountain bike, inflatable kayak, and slackline in the car, in case I had some free time after the run, tweeted about my attempt and took off for the mountain at around 9:30. The first thing I heard on the radio was that it was going to be mid 90’s and I cringed.  Heat has never been my friend.  Still I felt confident that the 39:50 ascent and 105:49 full loop that Neal Gorman had run in the fall of 2012 were well within my reach. 
The Ridge Trail on Old Rag.  A seriously fun run!

I had wanted to make this attempt for a while.  I had spent a remarkable amount of time on the mountain when I lived close by a few years ago before I knew that record times existed for runs like this, or that people even ran them, so I was well acquainted with the trail, and very sure of my ability and that, on a Monday the trail would be clear.  When I pulled into the Nethers parking lot however it was nearly full with at least 60 cars.  I stepped out of the car and began sweating immediately.  I renewed my yearly park pass, grabbed a couple water bottles and my GoPro and headed up the road to the trail head.  The climb to the trail head on the road was exposed and though I was running easy I was hot and having doubts.  I thought of calling it off. But then I remembered my twitter post. Freakin twitter. All 7 people that saw my post knew I was out here.  I was locked in now.  When I reached the top parking lot I veered right down a narrow path on the opposite side of the lot from the trail head.  At the bottom of the trail was an ice cold swimming hole and I planned to dip before I ran.  I stashed my bottles and camera in the woods by the swimming hole, downed a honey stinger gel, hopped in the water and then put my shoes on as quickly as possible so I could get a couple miles in before I dried off.  Back at the trail head I slipped a soaking wet buff around my neck, a soaking wet hat on my head, donned my sun glasses, started my Garmin, tagged the cement post that marked the trail head and started running. 
Trail head
Pre run selfie


 My legs didn’t feel amazing but the opening mile went a little quicker than anticipated in 9:41, traffic at this point was light, and although I was getting warm I felt easy so I maintained my effort.  I hit the first overlook at around 2 miles in 20:30. I knew from Neal's blog, which also provides some great info on the mountain and it's running history, that he had reached this point in 22:17.  It was then that things started to fall apart.  The trail left the woods and undulated over under, and through massive boulders that were already baking in the sun.  Normally my favorite part of the run, I immediately became miserable in the heat.  Traffic also picked up and although I didn’t have to slow down much, I knew that after passing ten or so people I had to be losing ground to Neal’s ghost runner behind me.  Previously, I had in the back of my mind, hoped to break an hour, that goal was off the table now and knowing I had small cushion I tried to enjoy the gnarly rock scramble and stay within my limits.  I felt tight and slow.  Years ago when I spent a lot of time on the mountain I knew every rock and step,I would FLY through this section.  Today I felt myself baby stepping.  Still I was climbing well and figured I would reach the summit around 37 minutes barring disaster.  Disaster struck in the squeeze, a narrow steep section between two rock walls.  It’s always wet and slippery and halfway up a large triangular shaped rock about 5 feet tall presents itself as an obstacle to climbers.  It’s often bottle necked with people and as I feared when I entered 5 guys with packs and basketball shorts from the 50’s were trying to squeeze themselves between the top half of the rock and the right hand wall.  The 3 at the back stepped aside to let me pass but for a painful minute I stood watching the other two straddle the rock and struggle, legs kicking and balls scraping, to the other side.  As soon as I could politely move I went straight over the top of the jutting rock and was back on my way.  The trail was immediately clogged with more people, and with respect to all hikers and runners, I passed with care and a thank you!  It wasn’t long until the trail opened up into a large level ridge of boulders.  With more maneuvering room I quickly made my way to the other side and soon was at the summit.  I veered right from the post that marked the top and made my way to the highest rock on the mountain.  I slapped the top with my palm not taking the time to pull my whole body up.  My watch read 38:26, an ascent record although I am relatively sure I have run it faster in the past. I shook out my legs and headed down. 
Negotiating the squeeze with  Leah, Josh and our dogs back in 2009

One of my best runs ever on the mountain back in 2010!

                The next few miles of descent flew by.  The trail down is technical but very runnable and knowing I had a cushion of 1:24 I relaxed and let gravity do the work.  I was halfway down, entering my last “danger zone” a narrow section of rocky trail formed into steps, that passes between two boulders when I saw the line of people.  I recalled seeing a white bus in the parking lot and knew this must be that group.  There was hardly room to pass so I walked until I made it to the front of the crowd.  I glanced at my watch and knew it would be close.  I forgot about running relaxed and bombed the remaining single track.  I reached the fire road at 52:39 only 29 seconds up on Neal.  From here he had averaged 5:14 pace.  This was well within my reach but as the mercury passed 90 I wanted nothing more than to stop. The air grew thicker and I started getting a little dizzy.  I backed off the pace and let my legs turn on the downhill.  When my watch beeped for the next mile at 5:15 I knew I had it in the bag.  I was uncomfortable but not pushing hard enough to risk a blow up.  I kept the cruise on through the next mile in 5:05.  As my watch clicked past 1:05 the trail leveled out and then rose up to the finish.  My legs felt like lead as I took the climb but I knew, although close that there was no losing the record now.  I tagged the cement marker for the second time and then stopped my watch.  105:17!  I felt more relieved than excited.  
Spent after my effort.

I immediately grabbed my stashed water bottles and headed to the swim hole.  The bottles had been meant for another loop of the ridge trail or maybe a run out to cedar falls where I could huck myself off the rocks into a clear water hole.  But I knew as I sat in the gloriously cool creek that my running was over for the day.  I wouldn’t even run back to the car.  Later I would head over to the Shenandoah River, pump up my kayak and float to some cliffs that I could reach without having to run there.  Then I would jump and float staying in the water and away from the heat for as long as I could. In Neal's blog he mentiones the chance of possibly running sub 1 hour which I think is within reach. I would love to come back on a cooler day maybe in the evening and maybe with a few other guys to push things out there and give it a shot!  Anyone in?
Swimming holes make everything better.

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