Knowing I had to be on the road by 5:45 this morning to meet other Hellgate crazies at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 80.4, I crawled into bed about 8:30 last night with 1491, a slow-going but very interesting guesstimated history that would probably destroy most readers' (certainly my) paradigms about native Americans. I read a few pages before letting the book fall onto our heavy bedspread. I suppose I lacked confidence in my cellphone's alarms -- I had set number one for 5:15 and number two for 5:16 -- because I began squinting through my curled forefinger when the digits flicked 4:00, nodding on and off until 5:00 when I slid onto the floor to do my good morning crunches. I then pulled on the running gear I had carefully selected the night before, cancelled the alarms, drank my daily apple cider vinegar tea, and ate a piece of toast with grape juice. After brushing my teeth, I hugged and kissed Karen goodbye only to hear her laughing like a hyena. I suddenly realized the fur wasn't hers. Rosie (one of our two boxers) had claimed my spot as soon as I left. This required a re-kiss. I grabbed my readied bottle belt, which contained banana goo, a peanut butter sandwich, an orange vest, a tee shirt, and two water bottles.
I had included an extra ten minutes for contingencies, so thickly frosted car windows didn't bother me. 24 degrees did. I headed South and then skyward on Petites Gap Road. The drive affected me more than usual, probably because the darkness allowed my mind's eye to vividly picture the steep cliffs a couple yards to the right of my tires. With the Blue Ridge Parkway making me even more nervous than usual, I tried to admire the beginning sunrise and what looked like city lights 3,000 feet below. The reading on the car's thermometer surprised me, showing at least 12 degrees warmer than our house.
A cluster of cars waited at Floyd's Field (mile 80.4) when I arrived at 6:25. We waited 10 minutes for possible late-comers, consolidated into two cars, and headed back down to Big Hellgate Lane, the start of our run, a little over a mile from where Karen and Rosie rested. At 7:30 we headed into the forest. I'd guessed right. I knew the beginning of the course quite well, up to aid station two, except -- I suppose I should have anticipated this from the Mountain Masochist Trail Run -- the same race director's insistence on making the course as difficult as possible. For example, ignoring a convenient footbridge that crosses Elk Creek at the Belfast trailhead, David Horton takes his course directly across the creek less than a hundred yards West and then, instead of stepping up onto the nearby paved road, he first requires us to trek a few hundred yards across rocks sometimes hidden under fallen leaves. Not a big deal? Remember, Hellgate begins at 12:01 December 11th, so we'll be running this part of the course in the dark.
After Belfast (this trail leads to the Devil's Marbleyard), Petites Gap Road took us steeply up to the Parkway. Along the way, Horton longingly eyed the Glenwood Horse Trail to the South. "I'd love to take this course up that even steeper trail," he said, "but we aren't allowed to take a group this large into that wilderness area." I guess I'll "run" that another day.
Rather than bore you with the entire first third of the Hellgate course, let me simply mention that today's pack quickly divided into two groups -- under 30 and over 49 (perhaps this suggests that the 30-49 age group is uniformly sane) -- and we older guys, after crossing the Parkway and heading down the other side of the mountain, quite promptly made a wrong turn. Here's how we discovered our mistake. "Look there," says one, "two more tractors like the first two." "Ummm, those are the very same tractors," say I. "Damn," says runner number 3. "This means, instead of finishing 45 minutes behind the faster group," says the first one, "they'll be waiting an additional hour for us." Slow to understand the implications of that comment, I tap the top of my head, "Oh, are you saying our three cars are the only ones at the end?" "Exactly," says he, "someone should have planned that a little better."
"How thoughtful and considerate," says Virginia. "What did you do?"
We pulled out a map and hunted for a solution. I believe the older group ended up running a little farther, while the younger guys ran harder. We completed two thirds of the Horton course and then gradually found our way to mile marker 76 on the Parkway and finished with an easy 4.5 mile downhill to Floyd's Field. I forgot to ask how long they'd been waiting.
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