Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bells Bend Park

We took advantage of a break in the cold weather and paid a visit to Bells Bend Park, situated on Nashville's west side. A large park with several miles of trails and old farm roads suitable for hiking, an outing at Bells Bend is the perfect prescription for taming the wintertime blues. Here, we walked under wide-open skies, not a canopy of trees, and fully enjoyed all the unfiltered sunshine nature could muster up this time of year.


Bells Bend Park on the prettiest day in February
 
For more than three hours we hiked the easy trails and roads, cutting through and around the fields, even following the contour of the Cumberland River for a time. With no maps available at the trailhead, we were on our own. Our strategy was to turn right at every intersection, figuring eventually we'd make it back to where we started. Of course we did, but not after hiking nearly every section of every trail, both marked and unmarked. I hadn't thought about simply snapping a picture of the trailhead kiosk map with my phone while we were there. But it didn't matter; we had nowhere else to go and were in no hurry to get there.
 
The Cumberland River
 
Bells Bend offers a hiking experience unlike any other I've experienced in Middle Tennessee. The open spaces and relatively flat terrain give the park a distinctive Midwestern feel. Had the wind been blowing twenty or thirty miles per hour, I might have thought I was stomping across a Kansas prairie. But on this day my hat stayed firmly in place on top of my head, so I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
 
Bells Bend sports a Midwestern flair
 
We came across a few other people in the park, as well as a raccoon, an armadillo, a cardinal, and a number of bluebirds. Back at the house, I also uncovered a tick which had hitched a ride on my leg. There is still snow and ice on the ground in places and I'm getting ticks! I reckon it will be another bad year for insects around here.
 
My estimation is we walked somewhere between 6-7 miles. The trails here are wide and in good shape. While there is some standing water in places, this can't be avoided right now due to the weather we've been experiencing. We discussed during our hike how the trails at Bells Bend would be good for running, too. You could just take our word for it, but we encourage you to check this unique park out for yourself and see if you agree.
 
Bluebird near the park property line
 

Wide, well-maintained trails are the rule here
 
Pond at Bells Bend Park

          
 
     

  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Race on the Trace, 5-miler

Pin Oak Lodge, left, played host to race participants
 
Flying solo for Valentine's Day, I said bye to the wife and kids and buzzed down to Natchez Trace State Park for my fifth and final stop on the 2014-15 Tennessee State Parks Running Tour. The weather was just right for running, with a temperature of nearly fifty degrees under partly sunny skies. I had done absolutely no running in two weeks and was preparing myself mentally for the pain I fully expected would greet me somewhere in mile three.
 
Ordinarily, I study the online course descriptions beforehand for all state park runs. And this race was no exception, so I thought. The first two miles, an easy out-and-back, were just as I had anticipated. The terrain was mostly level, and, as I crossed the start line now in the opposite direction, I was feeling good about my run. Just a few minutes later and right on schedule, however, a nagging pain developed on the outside of my left knee. I focused on my breathing instead, hoping the pain wouldn't worsen.
 
Around this same time, I managed to catch up with a couple of guys running nearly neck and neck. We were three-wide on the left-hand side of the road, as I continued looking on the horizon for the race leaders, who I thought should be barreling back towards us any minute now. I was also looking for the three-mile mark which, I thought about later, was probably on the opposite side of the road. With no sign of the leaders or the mile marker, I began to doubt my ability to finish the race running. Then there was the moment of clarity when I looked at my watch, realizing I had to be in the fourth mile. Not until this point did I understand we were running a loop, not another out-and-back, and quickly gave myself an F for preparation.
 
There was a certain amount of relief on my part when I figured this out, but I was tiring fast. The long, gradually sloping hills on the second half of the course were taking a toll on me. I had finally pulled away from the two fellas I'd caught, and I didn't want to relinquish my hard-earned gains. But the hills, it seemed, just kept coming, and, as I ascended yet another, I slowed to a brisk walk for perhaps a minute. I could hear feet approaching from behind as I eyed mile marker number four and knew I'd better pick up the pace if I wanted to hold my position.
 
Running again, I struggled with the remaining uphill sections but was able to keep it going to the finish line in front of Pin Oak Lodge. My official time of 42:51 was good enough to place dead last in the 40-49 year-old men's bracket, eleventh out of eleven finishers. This is the sentence where I would normally put a positive spin on my performance, but when you're eleven out of eleven, what's the point? Instead, I took a baseball bat to the water cooler in the tunnel before heading to the showers and taking a cab back to the hotel.
 
One of the two individuals I'd passed somewhere along the road where mile three blurred into mile four congratulated me afterward inside the lodge. Truthfully, I could only assume this was who was shaking my hand because I really couldn't have picked this runner out of a lineup, as I was fighting to simply remain upright at that stage of the race. And if he was who I thought he was, this same individual also offered up words of encouragement to a young girl we passed as he and I ran side by side for the better part of a mile. I was impressed. Short of stopping, I knew there was no way I could possibly utter anything other than a grunt or a groan.
 
This is just one example of the typically well-mannered behavior I've experienced at the state park runs. Far and away, the best aspect of these events are the people. As much as I dislike running, the atmosphere at these events is always upbeat and motivating. The season is over for me now, but I have a feeling I'll be back in the fall to do it all over again. And maybe next year at Natchez Trace I'll take it up a notch and grab that tenth position.
 
Fishing may have been a better alternative to my finishing 11 of 11
               

Sunday, February 1, 2015

5-Mile Johnsonville Charge

Participants gather post-race to enjoy the famous beef stew
 
Yesterday I was in New Johnsonville on a typically chilly January day for my fourth stop on this year's state parks running tour. Because I had done no running since the middle of December, I had no performance-related expectations for this event. Running the length of the course without walking would be enough to make me happy, I told myself.
 
The perfect course for someone like me who hadn't run recently, it is a basically flat out-and-back five-miler on paved, gravel, and compacted dirt terrain. Musket fire from a man dressed as a Civil War-era soldier set the clock in motion, and 134 or more of us commenced to beat a path to the turnaround point 2.5 miles away.
 
I felt good early on, but what runner doesn't? Entering the second mile I focused on breathing technique more than anything else, as I hoped to ward off, as much as I possibly could, the development of a side stitch. Along with the increasing concern for calf pain as the race progressed, I believed the onset of one or both of these hindrances during the race was quite likely, the presence of either having the full potential to quickly transform me from runner to walker.
 
I turned down the water, as I always do, at the turnaround point. The fellow ahead of me stopped for a drink, and I never saw him again. I'm slow enough to begin with and don't need anything slowing me down further, so I shun the refreshments. Early into the return trip, I was still feeling pretty good. Now don't get me wrong, I was indeed tired and secretly wanted to quit running, but I was pain-free and passing about as many people as were eclipsing me.
 
Entering the last mile-and-a-half or so, the much-anticipated calf pain finally came calling. But the flat course of Johnsonville was my saving grace, reducing the pain to mere nuisance-grade. The side stitches never did materialize, and, as I crossed the finish line 42:27 after the opening musket blast, I felt both contentment and regret. Yes, I was satisfied with my performance, considering I hadn't actually been running in the weeks leading up to the race, but I also regretted having not properly trained, wondering what my time could have been had I only been more disciplined.
 
As runners continued to trickle across the finish line, a gathering crowd was enjoying the delicious beef stew and chili prepared by the Friends of Johnsonville State Historic Park. Much to my delight, a park ranger had gotten a fire going, and I eagerly joined those already huddled around the fire after a quick sampling of the Friends' stew. I waited until the presentation of awards was complete before determining my calf and now knee pain was too great to take a post-race hike along some of the park's wooded trails. Instead, I headed to my vehicle and thus concluded another fantastic outing in one of Tennessee's great state parks.                      

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