Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Section Running the Horse-Shoe Trail

I think running the Horse-Shoe Trail has been one of the highlights of the last half-a-year of running for me. The Horse-Shoe Trail is a 140-mile-long trail that winds through southeastern Pennsylvania, stretching from the Revolutionary War battleground at Valley Forge on its east end to a western terminus at the Appalachian Trail on a ridgeline a thousand feet above DeHart reservoir in the wilds east of Harrisburg.

A section-by-section, six-part run of the trail was the inspired concept of TrailDawg Angus Repper and his buddy (and Mileage Game arch-rival) Dave Krausse. Angus and Dave did every section, and covered every foot, of the trail between late September, 2007 and late February, 2008. And, besides running it, Angus was kind (and organized) enough to coordinate the logistics of getting everyone and their cars where they needed to be for each outing (explaining why I heard someone say "Now we had a chance to meet this young man, and boy that's just a straight shooter with upper management written all over him.") I was able to join them, and a rotating, fun cast of characters from local running groups (mostly TrailDawgs), for five of the six legs.

The H-ST is a real gem, as far as I am concerned. It provides an amazing variety of trail types and terrain only a short distance from the major metropolitan area of Philadelphia. It sneaks through suburbs, traverses long unbroken stretches of woodlands, winds through farms, cuts across small towns, and rolls up and down hills, large and small. It runs along rocky single-track trails, logging roads, a few streets, and even the rare stretch of highway.

The section runs ranged in length from 20 to 30 miles. These made for great weekend distance workouts. Angus and Dave would do them for their slow-and-easy weekend long run and be the first to finish. I would do them for my hard weekend long run and finish 30 or even 60 minutes later!

Here are some of my recollections from the various legs...

Leg 2: French Creek Rocks! (10/14/07)

Leg 2 is basically the French Creek portion of the Horse-Shoe Trail. We ran 28 miles or so on this beautiful fall day. We started in Warwick County park, getting in the gate just after opening as the park ranger was putting up the flag. The ranger was so friendly and chatty that we had a hard time getting away and onto the trail. The first mile took us through some areas of residences and small farms, and then the fun began -- 4 miles of rocky single-track trail through hilly woodlands... then a mile or so of road running gave us a little variety... then back to the rocks as we entered Hopewell Furnace National Historical Park and French Creek State Park.

Hopewell Furnace is an interesting place. Iron ores (hematite and magnetite) were mined in the area beginning in the late 1700s. The park preserves the remains of the big furnaces that turned the ore into iron for, among other uses, the American Revolutionary War armies. What really caught our eye, though, was the "Hobbit House" - a weird, pointy-topped log house that looked like it could be a portal to Middle Earth, but was actually just a log structure for making charcoal.

French Creek trails are a hell of a lot of fun -- assuming you like rocks. Of course, I like rocks -- I am a geologist. The trail does a wide, (appropriately) horse-shoe-shaped, eight-mile loop through the park, running up and down one rocky hill after another. We were passed (not always that quickly) a lot of mountain bikers, and even saw one bite the rocks (ouch!). Dave hid a welcome stash of rice crispie treats and gatorade by Hopewell Lake, so we were able to refuel a couple of hours into the run. After leaving French Creek, the trails were much less traveled, and pretty much devoid of mountain bikers, mostly running through state game lands, power-line rights-of-way, and lumber lands, with a few stretches of road.

Our return cars were parked about a mile from where the trail crosses Maple Grove Road. The group I was with (the tail end, of course) missed the fact that we were near our cars and continued along the trail uphill for another 1/2 mile until we realized our error -- bonus miles at no extra charge! This run was a great way to spend 7 hours of a pretty fall weekend.

Leg 3: Black Blazes (12/09/07)

This is another nice leg. We have the usual assortment of fast people (led by Angus and Dave) and slow people (me). It is a cold morning, very damp, with ice coating trails, roads, and bridges that haven't had much exposure to the sun. As usual, we kind of hang together in one group at the beginning of the run. Another uphill start through the woods (very nice) and then a couple miles of trail through the woods.

We pick up the first of many stretches of road for the day, this a nice rustic gravel drive with lots of ice patches (careful where we run!). Angus and Dave disappear into the distance, Cole with them. I am taking a more mellow pace, Brother Phil running at about the same speed, Margie hanging with us most of the time, too. As we approach Adamstown, we are on a hillside above US Highway 322. Looking west toward town, we can see the speedy Angus-Dave-Cole trio as small figures on a road traversing the opposite hillside, seemingly a mile ahead of us as the highway traffic roars through the valley in between.

After running under the highway and through the congestion of the interchange, we finally head off road again and up another climb into the woods. This is a nice stretch, with almost 3 miles of trail and a couple of hills that rise 400 feet above the surrounding valleys. After some zigging and zagging between road and trails, we arrive at Dutch Cousin campground and the highlight of every Horse-Shoe Trail run - food! Cole is waiting there for us, understandably tired from trying to keep up with Angus and Dave, and a bit chilled from hanging around until we arrived.

Navigation soon gets interesting. Just past the campground, an unhappy landowner has apparently decided he doesn't like the trail (boo, hiss!). He has posted no trespassing signs and painted black over the trail's yellow blazes (more boos and hisses). Holy cats, what do we do, where do we go? Backtrack to road? After a millisecond of thinking, the decision is easy: trespass! So, off we go through the woods, following the black tar blazes. (Please don't tell anyone)

We pick up yellow blazes after a mile or so and end up back on roads at the town of Denver, where we pound pavement for almost 3 miles. Ugh. Margie and Cole move a little faster than me and Phil, as we relax and enjoy the miles. Back into mostly woodsy trails for maybe three more miles, then another stretch of that blasted pavement, maybe 2 miles worth. Finally, the finishing stretch, rocky downhill trail through the woods, gives me a chance to let gravity do my work for me. We meet Cole, who has let Margie run ahead. I blast the downhill parts when I can, bounding from rock to rock, feeling like a downhill skier in a Warren Miller movie, knowing the end of the trail is just ahead. We hits the cars, cold but happy after a good day. I've gotten in 23 enjoyable miles (well, enjoyable except for the hard boring road stretches) in a relaxed 5:25.

Leg 4: Governor Dick (01/12/08)

It is officially called "Clarence Schock Memorial Park at Governor Dick" -- but it's so much more fun just to call it "Governor Dick," especially for men who still act like boys (do we ever really grow up?).

Governor Dick Park was the end point for the hilly and scenic fourth leg of the Horse-Shoe Trail Run. Perched on a 1,150-ft hilltop in the park is a 66-ft-high monolithic (and rather ugly) cement observation tower that provides a fantastic 360-degree view of the surrounding wooded hills and farm-studded valleys.

But I have gotten ahead of myself. We had to run 20 miles to get there. And these were some of the best miles of the Horse-Shoe Trail.

After dropping a return car across the road from Governor Dick, we headed back to our start at Middle Creek Reservoir near Kleinfeltersvilleburgtown. We had a nice sized group this day -- I think eight. This trailhead makes for a great start to what we expected would be a 24 mile day -- a 400-ft climb right out of the gate. And, starts like this tell something about a runner. Angus and Dave prove their hardcore bonafides by waiting until the end of the climb to realize they need a map left back at the car -- so run back down to the start, do the hill again, and quickly catch back up with us. Bonus miles at no extra charge!

Big hills and great views are the rule for the day. The hills aren't really that bad because we are traversing the top of a ridge for most of the run. In our first descent off the ridge, about 3 miles in, Laurie twists her ankle on a particularly nasty stretch or rocks, so she ends the run there and Scott accompanies her back to the start. We're down to six.

Another casualty of the rocks -- Dave's shoes. Blown-out sidewalls. Dave and I both wear Brooks Cascadia 2 trail shoes -- great shoes in many ways -- but we have the same problem with them: the uppers. The fabric is junk. Any running on rocky terrain will quickly abrade the uppers around the flex point at the ball of the foot. Dave just got a giant rip in the side of his (hello, sand and gravel! for the rest of the day). I have nice size holes in mine, growing larger by the mile. Mini shoe review: Don't buy Cascadia 2s, unless it is just to have shoes that look really cool while drinking beer in town on Saturday night (post-script -- the uppers on the new Cascadia 3 are much more sturdy). OK, enough candy-a** shoe talk. Back to the trail.

The trail is great fun in this area. Down to valleys at 400 or 500 ft elevation, up to ridges at 1000 ft, some above 1100 ft. Nice single track trail through the woods, across one paved road, takes us to the one of the best natural vantage point on the entire trail, Eagle Rock. Eagle Rock is a nice rock outcropping at the top of a ridge -- I like rocks, in case I have not mentioned that -- and provides a superb view to the north. I think we could see all the way to Lebanon (that's Lebanon, PA, not Lebanon, Middle East). We descend again, cross US Highway 322, have a welcome stop for refreshments stashed by Dave, and then climb again. The trail goes up and up. Angus and Dave go up very quickly and are soon out of sight. The others also eventually disappear in the distance, leaving me alone, dragging my big ole 215-pound-frame steadily uphill. OK, here is a paved road, the trail follows it so the climb ought to ease, right? Wrong -- it continues to go up and up and up. I pass an old guy hunting about 10 feet away from his car. He gives me a really strange look, probably wondering why someone is huffing and puffing, "jogging" up this hill in the middle of nowhere (as I am wondering why he doesn't figure that a short walk into the woods may yield more deer). The road, and climb, bring us to a series of radio (microwave, cell phone, etc) transmission towers that look out over the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which is only a mile to the south.

I catch up with Margie as she is signing us into a trail register at the junction where the trail leaves the road and again becomes woodland single-track. There are TrailDawg entries now in maybe half of the trail registers on the H-ST. We head downhill and pop out into the open along a utility right-of-way. Normally, a cleared power line or pipeline path is a downer after being in the woods. However, this one was fun! It rolls, up and down, giving us a chance to bounce across plenty of rocks and splash through mud puddles -- kind of like a little roller coaster ride. After a couple miles of the roller coaster, the trail ducks back into the woods and gets nasty-rocky for more than a mile, and then our only significant stretch of civilization, a mile of road.

A quick hop across Rte 72 brings us to another stash of goodies (mmm, Gatorade AM) and the back side of Governor Dick. OK, our second aid stash, that would mean maybe six, eight more miles? And, up hill we go, gradually, at first, along the old highway grade, then some rolling single track through the woods. And then, the long climb. I made up my mind I would run it all -- I figure I need a hill workout and had walked too many of the other hills that day. It went on. And on. And on. And finally, we were at the tower. The uphill run was a good workout for the end of the run. Figuring the others had been waiting a long time for us, and we still had a couple of miles to go, we continue past the tower and down another hill until we're met by Greg and Paul coming back up the trail to the tower. As it turns out, we're only a couple hundred yards from the parking lot! Trail guide users beware, it is wrong on mileage, short by at least 2 miles.

So, while Angus and Dave are out running a few more miles (20 isn't enough for these guys, at least when they had planned 22 or 23), we take advantage of the chance to climb the tower. Now, this isn't your normal observation tower with a nice stairway. Getting to the top means climbing a series of cold steel ladders inside the tower's thick, concrete, graffiti-scrawled exoskeleton. But it's worth the climb -- the five-county view is truly magnificent (and the viewpoint feels pretty safe because of the presence of a steel cage at the top to keep climbers from using the tower to practice rappelling). And so concluded the fourth, and perhaps my favorite, leg of the Horse-Shoe Trail section runs -- a 20 mile, 4:45 mile workout for me.

Leg 5: Buffet in a Box (01/27/08)

I guess we should expect lots of sweet goodies to eat when in Hershey, America's Chocolate City. Every leg of the Horse-Shoe Trail section runs has featured a fine selection of trail food stashed at key locations by Angus or Dave. Our friends Deb and Anne from the Harrisburg-Hershey area Crispies decided to join us for this run and offered, as the locals, to drop the aid stashes. But "aid stash" or "refreshments" doesn't quite describe the food and drink feasts they provided -- these were more appropriately called a "buffet in a box."

What the heck is wrong with me when a run becomes all about food? Sheesh. Next thing you know I'll be talking about shoes (oh wait, I already did). OK, so I guess I should talk about the running...

We knew from the map that Leg 5 would involve a lot of road running, some of it on busy US highways. I was not looking forward to all of the pavement. But, surprisingly, this was a really nice route, much of it following very pleasant country roads through pretty farm country.

We had a big crowd for this run. Our planned route was about 25 miles, starting at Governor Dick and ending at US Route 22, east of Skyline View (which is east of Harrisburg). Dave and Angus would, of course, lead the run. Four Lancaster-area runners (Jim/Jasz from MileageGame and a trio from Team Fun) joined us at the start to do a short (less than 20 mile) out-and-back -- and Jasz very kindly offered to take our bags of dry clothes to the finish! Deb and Anne were going to do the whole enchilada with us. The Dawg contingent was large -- Greg, Gerard, Margie, Brigitte, Scott, and Laurie (and a friend of hers from Virginia). Hunt planned to drive to the finish and run from there to meet us, and run back with us.

The morning was cold a crisp, with a thin crunchy coating of ice and snow. The fast guys (as usual, Angus and Dave, this time with Greg) went out pretty quickly and were soon out of sight. I hung back with the Team Fun group and had a chance to chat some with Christian. The first part (7-1/2 miles or so) of this run was very nice and easy, the beginning part downhill across fire roads on state lands and then trails and dirt roads through gently rolling wooded countryside. Toward the end of that stretch, the trail follows dirt roads that are essentially long driveways through new, countrified housing developments -- the markings are not current enough to indicate, in all cases, which routes are the trail and which are side spurs to houses. As we approached one of the more densely built developments, Anne (who had been ahead of me) was waiting on the trail for Deb. As it turned out, Deb and Scott took a wrong turn, went off trail on a driveway, and I had passed them without knowing. After a flurry of cell phone contact attempts (cell phones on the trail? feigned shock), they were back with us, just in time for... Buffet Number One.

A brief gastronomic digression... you know how things taste extra good when you are really hungry? After getting up at 4 am, driving over an hour to the trailhead, and running almost eight miles on a cold damp morning, it is easy to work up a hunger. And, Deb's Buffet in a Box was a sinful treat for a pack of hungry runners. Fresh fruit, sandwiches, junk food, energy blocks, gatorade, it was all there -- I halfway expected her to pull out an espresso machine. A group of six of us congregated around the buffet, munching away, feeling sorry for the out-and-back runners who had turned around just short of this treat.

After slacking for a bit too long at the food, we were back on the road -- and that meant, literally for the most part, road. We trotted along for eight miles through pretty farms and countryside on the east side of Hershey, and then zigged and zagged for a few more miles through town streets, around the golf course (including a brief detour on the back nine where we lost trail markings), and past some warehouses and old quarries. After a nasty little climb out of town, we arrived at the Hershey Cemetery where, besides the grave of Milton Hershey, was Buffet-in-a-Box Number Two, courtesy of Anne. We stood behind Hunt's car (who finished his run and met us there), sheltered from the biting cold wind, enjoying chocolate milk, Hershey's Kisses, pretzels, gatorade, and the abundance of other treats in her food boxes. A mile more of road running brought us to a nice stretch of rolling trail in the woodlands above Swatara Creek. When the trail comes out of the woodlands, there is a quite nice panoramic view of the valley and fields to the north before the trail drops down to cross the creek.

The run finished with a short stretch of field and woods along the west bank, and then about four miles of road running. Wanting to finish strong, and feeling like I had been a slacker hanging at the back of the pack all day long, I decided to run the last couple of miles hard and -- once I heard the traffic for Route 22 -- did the last mile about as fast as I could. A nice finish to an enjoyable day, 25.3 miles in 5:20.

Hunt was waiting for us with a van at the highway junction to take us to our finish cars parked at - where else, considering the food theme for the day? -- a pizza restaurant. The fast guys (Angus, Dave, and Greg) were already there and had ordered pizza for us -- totally cool. Jasz was there with our dry clothes - awesome! It should be noted, though, that the HS-T miles for the day were not enough for the fast trio, so they ran the couple of miles west on US 22 to the pizza place! So, make that totally cool and hardcore.

I think I gained five pounds on that run.

Leg 6: The End of the Line (2/24/08)

February 24 was just perfect for a winter run, spectacular really. The sky was crystal clear, a brilliant cloudless blue. Everything was covered with snow, less than in inch in the sun, a few inches on the north slopes and in the shade. Temperatures were nice, warming from 20s early to 40ish through day, and no wind to speak of.

Angus, Greg and I drove up from Avondale, dropped some food and drink about 10 miles along the route, and headed for the start near Route 22 east of Harrisburg, where we would meet Dave and Laurie (Brother Phil. Ethnarch of Fair Hill, drove to the finish and ran in to meet us en route). Dave found a great place to park, right in front of a house proudly flying our nations colors, where we were soon greeted by a smoking lady in her bathrobe yelling at her yapping dachshunds (one of which was blind and flailing wildly around on the ice-crusted snow).

After maybe five or so miles of mostly roads at the start, we were on a great mix of trails on PA state game lands -- a lot of very rocky single track, some ATV roads, a section of pipeline right-of-way, a flat-and smooth old railroad grade. The snow made for challenging running in places -- sometimes soft, like running in sand -- in other places, crunchy with a thin crust on top we constantly were breaking through. Mud in places, plenty of rocks in others, but the good fortune of snow covering many of the rockiest parts. The hills made it even more challenging -- three long, steep, and strenuous climbs in the last half of the run being the most fun, but fantastic views from the top as the payoffs. All told, with a few extra side excursions, I got in about 23.5 miles in 6:15 of running.

The fast guys -- Angus, Dave, Greg -- went on ahead after the first hour. Laurie and I brought up the back of the pack at a more leisurely pace, enjoying the great running weather and spectacular scenery. The fast guys were far enough ahead that they were already gone when we reached our food stash at around the 9 mile point. Gatorade and pretzels were just what the doctor ordered, though. After climbing one mountain and descending into a remote valley interrupted only by lumber roads, we heard howling that sounded more TrailDawg than real dog -- and sure enough, there was Phil, who had run in from the finish to meet us.

After navigating the last climbs and descent down the Appalachian Trail, we piled into Phil's car for the ride back to the start. And "piled in" is an apt description for this hilarious scene, six runners (the five sweaty males all smelling disgustingly bad -- poor Laurie!) stuffed into a Hyundai with seating for five. Greg demonstrated career potential as a contortionist, twisting himself into a space between the front seats, behind the stick-shift, and extending somewhat into the back compartment. Even more notable was that Phil drove 2-1/2 hours north to shepherd his running mates over the biggest climb, drive them back to their cars, and then drive 2-1/2 hours back home. That kind of friendship makes days like this one really memorable.