First, a brief timeline:
June 2009 – Brent and I come across a map of a 42-mile loop along the Black Forest Trail in north central Pennsylvania. We think, “hey, this might make for a fun adventure sometime.”
November 22, 2009 – Brent and Ali and I begin making plans to run the Black Forest Trail. The map estimates 3-4 days to complete the loop; we contemplate making a day of it just before New Years.
November 24, 2009 – Brent goes out for a trail run after dark. A mile from home, he turns his ankle on a leaf-covered rock. He thinks it might be broken.
November 25, 2009 – Good news. It’s not broken. Bad news. It’s a pretty nasty sprain. Brent holds out hope that he’ll still be able to conquer the BFT.
December 6, 2009 – Brent attempts his first post-sprain run. He makes it three houses down the street.
December 10, 2009 – Brent decides that the BFT is not in the cards this month.
And that was that until December 25, when we headed out for a short run around his parents’ house. Our 3-mile road run, for Brent to test out his bum ankle, quickly turned into a 7-mile romp on the trails, and when we got back for Christmas dinner, we were both itching for more.
We knew that the BFT wouldn’t be possible, so we began to think about alternatives, and quickly settled on the Wissahickon Trail Loop, just under a mile from our front door. The Wissahickon Valley Park, nestled in the northwestern corner of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, was once the site of the Battle of Germantown, and now offers dozens of miles of trails, from rambling flat terrain to sharp technical climbs and descents.
Though there isn’t an actual loop, the trails connect to form a convenient 16-mile circuit that takes you along either side of the 5.33-mile gravel towpath and the 1.5-mile asphalt extension that connects Forbidden Drive to Main Street in Manayunk. On any given weekend, you’ll find dozens of mountain bikers out to tackle these long technical stretches. I’ve always been too intimidated by the terrain to attempt the entire circuit, but Brent and other members of the GOALS gang have ridden it with some regularity.
One of the park’s less technical stretches – I borrowed all these pictures from the internet…
Taking advantage of the crisp sunny day, Brent and I filled our packs with water and food and headed out around 8:00 this morning, with grand ambitions to tackle the entire leaf-covered, rock-strewn, ice-patched thing. Adding on the 3/4 miles of roads and trails from our front door to the first access point, we estimated a 17-18 mile adventure, and I optimistically predicted a four-hour finish. For reference, Brent estimates that it takes him and the GOALS guys about 2 hours and 45 minutes on mountain bikes. But I didn’t know that until we were halfway through.
We left our house and set off at a comfortable pace through the woods, settling in and winding our way up and down the technical trails. We paused briefly around mile 3, to touch the Indian – something Brent claims is a time-honored GOALS tradition (Jon? Bruce? Can you confirm?) – and then continued on along the high trail toward the northern edge of the park.
We hit the end of the Orange Trail about 5.5 miles in, and instead of following the loop and running a half mile back on the tow path before ascending onto the Yellow Trail on the opposite side of the creek, we detoured into Andorra, a small network of trails that take you above the creek before dumping you back on Forbidden Drive, right at the loop trail junction.
And so we continued for the rest of the morning, walking the long ascents and icy stretches, running much of the rest. I ate half a peanut butter sandwich about an hour and a half in, and the other half around hour three – probably not quite enough fuel, but it held me okay. We passed several dog walkers, a handful of bikers and runners, and half a dozen white tailed deer on the upper meadow trail. But for much of the morning, it was just me and Brent, ambling along, sometimes chatting, sometimes lost in thought, sometimes just enjoying the view.
The past three nights I’ve had terrible dreams about my dissertation, and I struggled at various points to get out of my own head, but even so, it was a glorious morning. Overall, I felt strong throughout, and though I’m having a hard time imagining an additional 30+ miles, I’m growing increasingly optimistic about the prospects of finishing the ultra in March.
Generally when I run, I stop my garmin each time I pause for a bathroom break, or a drink, or a quick stretch. I figure it gives me the most accurate reading of my pace. But today, I just clipped the watch onto my pack and let it go. I noted the mileage but had no sense of how fast we were moving, and was pleasantly surprised when we finished to see that we’d covered 17.6 miles in 3 hours and 59 minutes, including a slow walk around the block at the end. No blistering speed, but a comfortable, steady, sustainable pace – exactly what we were hoping for, and just under my 4 hour projection.
So, we tackled the loop. After two years of intimidation, I finally made it all the way around, albeit on foot, rather than on bike. Next up, I’m taking to the pedals.