Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tims Ford Deer Trail 6-Mile Run

We rolled into Winchester on Saturday to compete in our third race of the 2014-2015 Tennessee State Parks Running Tour. The rain which had pushed through during the overnight and morning hours was gone, and we were left with cool and cloudy conditions for the event. We checked in at the lodge upon our arrival to grab our bibs and use the facilities. The park's maintenance men had been beckoned because there were pools of water on the restroom floors, not enough heat in the lodge, and too much heat in the restrooms. As a fellow maintenance guy, I felt their pain. I was glad to be lacing up my running shoes instead of buckling my tool belt.

The crowd gathers in the moments leading up to the start
The race began with us heading down and to the right. I started on the left side of the road, but worked my way over to the right-hand side before turning right on a road which took us around and behind the lodge. Working my way past other runners, the road soon gave way to a paved pedestrian trail. I was a little slower here than I wanted to be, but I couldn't find a good opportunity to eclipse the runner in front of me. Fortunately, we were back on the road in short order, and I was able to pass him up and establish my pace before turning onto another pedestrian trail 0.6 mile into the race.
On the road, before turning onto the pedestrian trail
We would take the pedestrian trail to the turn-around point three miles away and retrace our steps to the start/finish line. The race was largely uneventful for me along the pedestrian trail. As I neared the three-mile mark, I decided to count the runners as they passed by me, now headed in the opposite direction toward the finish line. After concluding I was in the top 40, I made it my goal to stay there for the remaining three miles. This was a hilly and winding trail, and, as I began to feel its effects on the return trip, I contemplated the tenuousness of my position.
My daughter on the same stretch of road
Not long after reaching the five-mile mark, I could hear the commotion at the finish line. That was music to my ears. How I wished I was there now. Instead, I was fighting to maintain 38th place. A runner had overtaken my position earlier, before I passed him back as he paused at the water station. But he was now in front of me again and running good. Coming down a switchback, I took a quick glance around at the trail behind me and saw no one. My position seemed secure. Shortly after turning onto the road again for the final 0.6 mile of the race, I observed a young female runner doubled over in a coughing fit at the top of the hill. Passing on her side, a weird and inexplicable mix of sympathy and envy overtook me. I felt bad for her and yet coveted her non-running status. And similar to how yawns are oftentimes passed around among people in close proximity to one another, I felt as if I, too, could have become sick had I stuck around.
Turning onto the road for the final 0.6 mile
I was now in 37th place and noticed I was quickly gaining on two others. They were downhill from me, and I knew I had only a small window of opportunity before the road leveled and began to climb again. I pushed it downhill, afraid that perhaps I was going too hard, and eclipsed the two runners. I kept pushing, trying to put as much distance between them and me before the road turned uphill for the final time. Ascending the hill, I could not outrun the sound of feet behind me. I was running out of gas, but I didn't want to give up the position for which I'd fought so hard. Ahead of me was the fellow who had passed me twice earlier in the race. He seemed to still be moving along fine, though I had shortened the gap by a considerable distance. I couldn't believe my eyes when he suddenly stopped running with the finish line in sight. I remembered having done the exact same thing last year at the Over the River 8-mile race. I lost a position over that, but I was so exhausted, I didn't care. I imagined this was how this man was feeling now. As I passed him by, I continued running hard up the hill, determined to stay at least a step ahead of the runner behind me.
Gun time was 50:00; official chip time was 49:52
I did maintain the 34th overall position to the finish and crossed the line at just under fifty minutes, one second ahead of the runner behind me. Being 34th out of 115 finishers sounds respectable, but I was way in the back of the pack, 7th out of 8 finishers, in the men's 40-44 category (incidentally, the man nipping at my heels down the finish placed 2nd in the 30-39 year-old division). I had run hard and never let up, while giving it all I could at the finish, so I felt good about that. And my time of 49:52 was 4:19 quicker than last year, another cause for celebration. My daughter would pull in about eight minutes later and take 3rd place in her division, just as she had last year. Upon her finish, we headed into the lodge for complimentary Taco Bell burritos prior to the awards ceremony. It felt great to sit down and reflect on our day at Tims Ford. This was, as we've come to expect, another successful and well-orchestrated state parks run!
Faster than last year by 1:32
After the race, food awaits in the lodge behind us

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Grinders Switch Turkey Trot

We were on the square in Centerville, Tennessee, Thanksgiving morning to participate in the Grinders Switch Turkey Trot. My oldest daughter and I were running the 10k course, and my wife and youngest daughter were walking the 5k. With the temperature hovering just above freezing under cloudy skies, we were off and running just past 8 a.m. The course immediately took us downhill and to the left toward Highway 50. I took advantage of gravity through here to pass as many runners as I could. At this point I was in 4th place in the men's division, the same position in which I would finish, as I never came near any other runners after turning onto Highway 50.

What goes up must come down, and, after turning off Highway 50, it was payback time. The road through here seemed to go up as far as the eye could see. It would disappear around a turn and go up again. I remember one hill seemed exceptionally steep, but I was determined to keep running. Once I finally plateaued around a bend, I could see the road became steeper still. Feeling like I was about to die and with nobody else in sight, I slowed to a walk. By the time I had nearly crested the hill, I could see there was one runner behind me, so I sucked it up and started running again.

I ran the remainder of the course, which featured steep downhill sections and a long, gradual uphill back to the finish line on the square. I was pleasantly surprised with my time of 48:50, which gave me a pace of 7:52/mile, meaning I had finally broken the elusive 8-minute mile barrier. My wife and daughter, who had walked the 5k course, crossed the finish line fifteen seconds ahead of me, while  my oldest daughter pulled in about thirteen minutes later. Though this was a tough course at times, we enjoyed ourselves, as this was the first race in which we were all able to participate. We compared notes on the drive home and looked forward to eating turkey, thankful for another year of good health.

My oldest makes her way to the finish line

Youngest strolling along the 5k course
After the race

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bigfoot Scramble and Day Hike: A Standing Stone Twofer

We were at Standing Stone State Park yesterday for our second stop on the Tennessee Running Tour. The Bigfoot Scramble 5-miler is a fun event, one which I had been looking forward to since crossing the finish line near the Overton Lodge last year. The weather for this year's race being more agreeable than last year, I was glad to have a short-sleeve shirt to change into before getting started. We were off to the races a couple of minutes past 11:00 a.m., and I quickly found myself running from side-to-side to find an opening I could penetrate. As I broke through lines, I tried to remain conscious of the energy I was expending to advance my position. I didn't want to give back any of these early gains later in the race, a tactical error which I have been guilty of on several previous occasions.

By the second half of the first mile, I was running in the open and trying to find my pace. The next mile would be a gradual ascent, and I fully anticipated being passed by some of those behind me who thrived on hills. Maybe it was just because I was already so far back in the pack, but nobody passed me on this hill; in fact, nobody passed me for the remainder of the run, which may be unprecedented. Coming back down the hill from the turnaround at 1.5 miles, I sought out each of my daughters to offer up some encouragement. I still felt good, and I was running hard (by my standards) as I passed the halfway point.

Before I made it to the end of the third mile, the leader came barreling down the road in the opposite direction, roughly a half-mile from the finish line. He would finish, incredibly, with a time of 26:55. I remained strong, now heading uphill again, to the second and final turnaround. My breathing was under control as I ran pain-free to begin the fifth and final mile. I must have been focused on the task at hand because, though I waved to my oldest daughter as she was pushing uphill to the turnaround, I never even saw my youngest. Nearing the finish line, I was met with some disappointment as the clock came into view. Though I beat my time from last year by 2:11, I was thinking I had run faster than I did. With a chip time of 41:18, I was far down the list, the 9th finisher out of 12 in the men's 40-44 year-old bracket.

Coming in for the finish
Whenever my daughters crossed the line, we could eat. There was no telling how far back my youngest was, so I backtracked to see if I could hurry her along. When I came upon her, she had nearly a mile to go. I was proud of her as she ran all the way back, though the pace was agonizingly glacial. Once we were finally back at the lodge, we helped ourselves to the complimentary post-race spaghetti. Our bellies full, we were now prepared to make the transformation from runners to hikers.
Refueling after the run
The Lake Trail is 4.7 miles long and encircles Kelly Lake. Because the trail passes right by the lodge, we decided to just pick up the trail here, rather than driving to the trailhead parking. We hiked clockwise a short distance on Beach Road, the same road which we had just ran, before the trail veered left into the woods.
Kelly Lake, as seen from Beach Road
Switchbacks quickly led us up into the hills high above the lake. With many of the leaves off the trees, we could see down into the hollows and over onto adjacent hills. The lake remained in sight for much of our hike, as well (duh, it is called Lake Trail). Saturday was the first day of rifle season here in Tennessee, and the hills were alive with the sound of gunfire. There were so many rounds going off at one point, I was afraid the Viet Cong were shooting back. The firing soon subsided, and, after dropping down to share with Beach Road a second time, the trail turned north in the direction of the Fisk House on Standing Stone Park Highway.
Leafless trees provide hikers with a good lay of the land
Wikipedia states that Moses Fisk was an early idealistic pioneer in the area who built the house in front of which we were now standing in the early 1800s. The house, which is badly deteriorating, proved to be a useful rendezvous point for us later in the day when my wife was forced to turn back after knee pain prevented her from descending a steep slope to the dam. While my older daughter headed back with her mom, the younger one and I stayed the course, as we were now about halfway through the loop.
Fisk House
Steep grade to the dam below
Below the Kelly Lake Dam
After checking out the dam, we continued on to pick up the trail on the other side. The only problem was that I picked up the wrong trail. Thinking more about how my wife would make it back to the Fisk House before we could make it back to our vehicle parked at the group lodge, I failed to check my map and inadvertently stepped onto the Tea Room Spur Trail. As we approached the top of the hill and observed the rental cabins, I sensed I had made a mistake. Now with map properly in hand, I pinpointed our location, and we strolled down East Cabin Drive to access the Cabin Spur Trail. This trail gently descended the slope to reunite us with the Lake Trail. A sign at the bottom informed us we were 2.5 miles from the Overton Lodge.
View from the Cabin Spur Trail
On the Lake Trail
We crossed a bridge along the Lake Trail and came to a junction with the Cooper Mountain Trail. This is an 8-mile loop trail, beginning and ending in the park, which I had totally forgotten existed. I filed this away in my memory to hike another day. At this moment, we were on a mission to retrieve the other two members of our party before sundown. Now on the east side of the lake, the trail became quite easy, and we made good time. There is one section along the trail here worth noting where the drop is precipitous, so take extra care. We enjoyed the sunshine and the pretty views of the lake as we winded along the water's edge before closing the loop at the group lodge. The race event now long over, ours was the only vehicle remaining at the site.
Looking south from the east side of Kelly Lake
Kelly Lake
I drove us back to the Fisk House, where the other half of our party waited. Passing this way on the trail earlier, I had noticed an overlook high above but saw no path leading to it. The map showed access to the overlook was by car only. With the access road just up from the Fisk House, we pulled in shortly before sunset to have a final look at the park. Our day of running and hiking complete, I told the girls we were like the drivers who sometimes compete in both NASCAR and IndyCar races in the same day. I believe at that point they, too, felt like those drivers must at the end of the day.    
View from overlook





Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Radnor Lake State Natural Area

This was a hiking homecoming of sorts for me. I cut my teeth on the trails at Radnor Lake years ago, and these remained the only trails I knew for quite a while. Today, after years of separation, I came back. And, much like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Radnor Lake welcomed me back with open arms.

View from the Lake Trail
I set foot on the Spillway Trail at 9:30 a.m., prepared to hike just over 6.5 miles on a beautifully brisk morning. The weather report said it would be a bit breezy with afternoon highs staying under the freezing mark. Given the forecast - downright cold for Tennessee - and the fact that it was Tuesday, today would be the perfect time to visit Radnor, as this is an incredibly popular park. Radnor Lake is all about hiking; little else happens here. So if the parking lot is busy, you know the trails will be, too. With only five or six other cars in the parking lot, I was confident today would be a good day.
Ganier Ridge Trail
I saw my first rafter of turkeys near the junction of the Ganier Ridge Trail and the Access Trail. And, no, I did not know a group of turkeys was called a "rafter," until I sat down to write this. The turkeys were not much bothered by my presence, as long as I didn't get too close. With little more than a week until Thanksgiving, perhaps they should be slightly more suspicious of approaching humans.

The temperature was down in the mid-20s, and the wind was indeed kicking up at times, but I was still working up a sweat climbing the hills. I had passed only one person on the trail, but footprints in the dusting of snow on the terraced steps of the South Cove Trail revealed the presence of others. At Radnor, you may never truly be alone, but visitors are generally well-mannered and respectful, allowing for a decent sense of solitude even in the middle of a large metropolitan area.
Dusting of snow on the South Cove Trail
I observed another rafter of turkeys on the South Cove Trail, before joining with the South Lake Trail to begin my hike back. With most of the leaves off the trees, the lake on my left remained within view all along the South Lake Trail; the hike through here was simply beautiful.
View from the South Lake Trail
Across Otter Creek Road, I paused before rejoining the Lake Trail for a two-peanut butter sandwich lunch. No picnicking is allowed in the park, but I figured eating was acceptable. Though I had been warm enough as I traversed the trails, my fingers were now feeling cold as I worked through my second sandwich. With only about 1.5 miles remaining to hike, I quickly finished up, slipped my fingers back in my gloves, and started moving forward again.
Only a few minutes later, I saw my third and largest rafter of turkeys for the day. I paused here to observe their behavior for a good five or ten minutes. I was so close that I felt as if I was standing in front of a turkey exhibit. I finally left the turkeys behind and promptly walked right beside a herd of deer! Again, I felt as if I was viewing these creatures in a zoo-like setting. After spending another five or ten minutes at this exhibit, I was ready to press on. The trail was growing short.
Wildlife on display at Radnor Lake
Radnor Lake is a genuine hiking paradise in the middle of the busy city. The park is clean and well-maintained, peaceful (no boats are allowed), and conveniently located. Back at the parking lot, I wondered why I had stayed away from this place for so long. Believe me, not as much time will pass between visits again. This prodigal son has learned his lesson.
Radnor Lake, as seen from the dam


Monday, November 17, 2014

Hiking Edgar Evins State Park

Though I've had my eye on this park for over a year now, it was only this past Saturday when I finally executed my plan and explored approximately ten miles of hiking trails at Edgar Evins. The Millennium and Merritt Ridge Trails combine to create an eight-mile loop, and this is what we were prepared to hike. But knowing there were no facilities at the trailhead, our first stop would have to be the visitor's center. Having researched nothing about the park other than its eight-mile trail, I was pleasantly surprised to find both an observation tower and a two-mile loop trail here. The two-mile trail would have to wait for now, but a quick stride up the stairs of the tower to the observation deck overhead provided a nice warm-up, as well as an unobstructed view of Center Hill Dam.

Observation Tower at Visitor's Center
View from Observation Deck
From the visitor's center, we made the short drive to the Millennium and Merritt Ridge trailhead. We signed in at the kiosk and were on the trail by 9:50 a.m. The trail leads downhill to brush by Wolf Creek before it forks, creating the first of two loops. We stayed left at all trail junctions, though we could have just as easily stayed right. I chose to go left, as that would mean our return trip on the Millennium Trail would be shorter by a half-mile. The round-trip total is the same in either direction, of course, but I felt we would appreciate the short-cut on the way out more than on the hike in.
Wolf Creek
At 1.5 miles, we came to the junction with the Merritt Ridge Trail. On some maps, this section of the Merritt Ridge is listed as the Connector Trail. This trail stretches across the valley floor for just a short while before climbing the steep hillside all the way to the ridgeline via a series of switchbacks.
Down in the hollow, before the switchbacks
Switchbacks lead up to the ridge
Though our pace slowed somewhat while navigating the switchbacks, by approximately the two-mile mark we were at the top and making good time again cruising the ridgeline. A half-mile or so later, Center Hill Reservoir came into sight. The reservoir can be seen for much of the way along the Merritt Ridge Loop, though keep in mind we were hiking in mid-November, after many of the leaves had already fallen to the ground.
First glimpse of Center Hill Reservoir from the ridge
The trail itself is fairly narrow, which I like. The downside is that narrow trails can quickly become overgrown in warmer months, and this is how I imagine the Merritt Ridge Trail is in the summer, as trail maintenance appears to be lacking. Large trees blocking the trail in several places over an extended period of time have forced hikers to create diversions around the obstacles. I also observed many trees with trail blazes on the ground, compounding the problem of what are sometimes rather lengthy gaps between trail markers. In some locations the scarcity of blazes, combined with an abundance of leaves covering the trail, made the accurate determination of exactly where the trail was heading a real challenge. I would frequently turn my head, looking for blazes behind me marking the trail in the opposite direction, in order to verify I was still on the trail. But please don't let this discourage you from hiking this exceptional trail, as I mention this all for informational purposes only. The hike is an enjoyable one; it just demands hikers take extra care in spotting the white blazes.
Back on the ridge, we hiked to a flat rock shelf offering a glimpse down into the valley where the trail would take us next. A rock wall obviously built by human hands was to our right. A pamphlet we picked up at the visitor's center describes this feature as "a mysterious wall of massive stacked stones," and indicates that park historians are "not sure who put these stones there or what their significance was." We paused here to eat our cereal bars and bat around some outlandish theories behind the origin of the stone wall. I decided it was time to move on at the first mention of the possibility of alien spacecraft having been involved.
Mysterious stone wall
Adhering to our pre-hike plan, we veered left at the Merritt Ridge loop junction and stayed within close proximity of the reservoir for better than a mile. With Saturday's high reaching only into the 40s, boating activity on Center Hill Lake was at a minimum. This further improved the trail ambiance, and is another reason I recommend visiting this park in cooler weather.
Center Hill Reservoir was serene on this cool day
Wildlife is in abundance at Edgar Evins, and I was lucky enough to observe an owl flying overhead. Shortly thereafter we hiked up a short, steep slope to pass through a small patch of yucca on the plateau. Stopping for lunch on some rocks near where we thought the trail was beginning its loop back, we noticed some people beneath us bank fishing but had yet to actually see anyone on the trail.
We'd see more stone walls and remnants of old homesteads on our return trip. There were more steep ascents and descents to come. Though this was hard on my wife and her bad knee, she reports it wasn't quite as difficult as the eight-mile trail at Mousetail Landing. We greeted our first hiker on the backside of the Merrit Ridge loop and would see only three other people and one dog before making it back to our car five hours after setting out on our journey. If you are injury-free, the Millennium and Merritt Ridge trails can be hiked in a much shorter period of time.
One of several stone walls observed near the trail
Having accomplished what we'd set out to do, my wife was done. Because we needed to stop at the visitor's center on the way out anyway, we agreed I would tour the two-mile Highland Rim Nature Trail we'd spotted on the way in, while my wife rested in the car. This trail took me deep down into a hollow and near the reservoir's edge in the direction of the dam. Because the trail never leaves the woods, the best view of the dam is from the observation tower at the visitor's center. Pulling away from the water, the trail utilizes numerous switchbacks as it steadily climbs the hill back to the visitor's center. I completed this loop in a mere 35 minutes and congratulated my wife for making the wise decision to sit out this short but somewhat vigorous trail. We had a good time on the trails at Edgar Evins and regret having waited so long to explore this public space on the Eastern Highland Rim. God willing, we shall return.
On the Highland Rim Nature Trail

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Backpacking Report: Big Creek Gulf Trail

Our third backpacking trip of the fall had us back in Savage Gulf. We had planned to do a leisurely overnighter at Long Hunter State Park, but the Cub Scouts beat us to the punch. On the weekends, because the park office is closed, there is no way to know if the campsites are full unless you have the park ranger's cell phone number, which of course I didn't. We decided to chance it and drive out to Long Hunter. When we pulled up to the park office and saw Cub Scouts running all over the place, I knew we were in trouble. I called the ranger's number listed on the information kiosk outside the office, and he informed me that both campsites were taken. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don't gamble. Scouts 1, KTF Blog 0.

We had a decision to make fast. Already mid-morning and more than an hour away from another overnight trail, my wife was calling the Stone Door Ranger Station from home while we sped down Hobson Pike towards I-24. The word came back that they had two sites open at Alum Gap and four at the Sawmill camp. That was good enough for me. Savage Gulf, here we come!

Pulling into the Stone Door overnight parking area, I noticed there were two trucks with trailers attached. The lady at the ranger station had told my wife they, too, had a scout group at Alum Gap, but that they seemed well-managed. We filled out our permit at the station, ate our lunch out of the back of the truck, and hit the Laurel Trail for a quick 2.9-mile hike to camp.

We strolled into the camp shortly after 2:30 p.m. only to discover all the sites were occupied. Because you are not required to post your permit at your site, there is no way of knowing which campers are unauthorized and simply squatting. Another group of backpackers who had pulled into camp minutes behind us were also searching for a site. We eventually got together and decided we would just walk over to the other side of the campground and share the large group camp. Sometime after 4:00 p.m. the ranger came around for his evening visit. After checking on all the campers, he told us the Boy Scouts were responsible for the mishap. They were supposed to occupy the group camp, and he had told them this much when they registered. Instead, they took up three sites in the main campground. So much for being a well-managed group. Scouts 2, KTF Blog 0.

Ten of us shared the group camp Saturday night. My daughter and I ate our noodles while the others had soup to go along with their dehydrated entrees. Most of us retired to our sleeping bags around 9:00 p.m. You can probably guess who didn't: the Boy Scouts from across the way. They were hootin' and hollerin' like it was New Year's Eve. At some point they quieted down, and I slept on and off as best as I could on the hard ground.

My daughter and I were up early and headed for Greeter Trail before breakfast. We would hike 9.0 miles on this day: 5.7 with our packs and 3.3 without. The three miles up and down Greeter Trail was the perfect start to a great day at Savage Gulf. The recent rains had the waterfalls flowing fairly impressively, a nice contrast to some of the trickles I witnessed the last time I passed through here.

Boardtree Falls
Lower Greeter Falls
Upper Greeter Falls
Back at camp, we were relieved to see the scouts heading back via the Big Creek Rim Trail. The group sharing the site with us headed out a few minutes before we did along this same rim trail. We followed the Big Creek Gulf Trail and its steep descent into the gulf. The creek was moving swiftly and so were we, as we had yet to run into anybody else on the trail. We were near the creek when it appeared as if there was some kind of a trail leading to it. There were no markings, but we walked down to the creek anyway. When we noticed the creek terminated abruptly, we realized we were standing at the sinks of Big Creek, the point where the water begins to flow underground. Adjacent to the sinks, was a wet-weather waterfall. The unmarked trail, the sinks, and the waterfall are all mentioned in the book I have on hiking in the South Cumberland, but I hadn't consulted it before our hike, as I thought we'd be hiking at Long Hunter. A stroke of good fortune, for sure. Our day was only getting better!
The sinks of Big Creek
Wet-weather fall adjacent to the sinks
We hadn't gone much further down the main trail when we came to the junction with the 0.4-mile spur to Ranger Falls. My daughter was getting hungry so we decided the falls would be a good spot to enjoy a snack. She ate her chicken salad with crackers, and I took the opportunity to strip off a layer of clothing and bask in the sunshine. The most vigorous section of the trail was quickly approaching.
Ranger Falls
The climb out of the gulf up to the Stone Door is not for the faint of heart. I've done this several times with a backpack, and it just does not get any easier. When you see the wooden staircase leading to the Stone Door, you know you're nearly home free. Climb the rock stairs leading up through the Stone Door, and it's a 1-mile cakewalk back to the parking lot. But don't be in too much of a hurry to get back; be sure to check out the magnificent views of the gulf from one or more of the overlooks.
About halfway up the Stone Door
View from one of the overlooks at Stone Door

We off-loaded our packs at the vehicle, grabbed our lunch, and claimed the nearest picnic table in the sun. Only one more hike to go: the 0.3-mile Laurel Falls Loop. Beginning and ending at the Ranger Station, this proved to be a nice cool-down trail with a splendid view of Laurel Falls.
By the end of our trip, we were glad to have been shut out of Long Hunter. And those problems at camp the night before? They were but a distant memory. That's the magic of Savage Gulf; there's simply nothing else like it in Tennessee.
Laurel Falls