|Kate Abbott and Mark Zimmermann at the midpoint of their odyssey along the Potomac Heritage Trail, 19 January 2009. The trail follows the south bank of the Potomac River between Theodore Roosevelt Island and the American Legion Bridge of the Capital Beltway (I-495).|
"The Ride of the Valkyries" by Richard Wagner plays on the classical radio station as I drive to this morning's long trail run. In Norse mythology a valkyrie is a warrior-maiden who picks up fallen heroes from the battlefield and carries them to Valhalla, the chief god Odin's hall. When I arrive at the trailhead friend Kate Abbott awaits, her hair in nordic braids. She wears gauntlets on her hands and a helm-like cap on her head. Her mother's family name is Wagner. With my long gray beard I look like Odin. (I haven't given up an eye for wisdom, but I am quite nearsighted on one side—does that count?) A few months ago Kate picked me up when I stumbled and broke an arm on the Appalachian Trail.
Is Kate a valkyrie, sent here to rescue me again? There are too many coincidences for comfort! I begin to worry when, only 4.5 minutes into our 6-hour trek, I step on what I think is a quartzite vein in a boulder. It's actually a patch of ice. I slip, fall, and land hard on my left hip. Ouch! But fortunately, in spite of all those portents of certain doom, today's run with Kate goes splendidly. I pick myself up and find no major harm done. (Over the next few days I develop a huge purple bruise on the impact site; it looks rather like a map of Australia. No photos, please!)
We set off at 7:45am from the PHT's official endpoint, mile 10.0 by the Park Service sign just outside the Capital Beltway. After a steep descent we pass under the American Legion Bridge. I show Kate where I made my mark, a pair of bloody handprints on the pillars during the Potomac Heritage 50k race of 2007. Nothing visible remains, but Kate speculates that the hemoglobin might still be detectable with the correct tests.
Moments later, overconfident, I slip on the icy boulder—after which we tread cautiously. Both of us soon experience adrenaline moments crossing a series of icy tributary streams: Dead Run, Turkey Run, Pimmit Run, Donaldson Run, Windy Run, Spout Run. Frozen waterfalls decorate the cliffs. Light snow flurries whisper down, then vanish. The surface of the Potomac is mostly solid, with occasional gaps where the flow is swiftest. Pastels color the day: gray-green shades of lichens, faded orange-brown leaves, dusty blue-white sheen of ice.
Today is a Monday holiday, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. It's also the day before President Barack Obama's inauguration just across the river in Washington DC. Security is high and rising. Police-escort sirens wail on the GW Memorial Parkway that runs parallel to the trail as limousines of VIPs are escorted downtown. Helicopters swoop low over the water, practicing for tomorrow. Hosts of volunteers are at work along the riverbank, picking up trash as part of the President-elect's call for a national day of service. Kate and I greet them as we run past.
Steep hills, plus rocks and roots, render much of the trail unrunnable. So Kate and I speed-hike along, jogging on less-severe intervals and discussing life, yoga, family, mindfulness, and countless other topics. I restrain myself and only yak ~70% of the time today instead of my usual 90%+ blathering ratio. We muse about how people who can't run—which will of course include us, some day—must feel when they hear someone talking about this sort of experience. Envy? Boredom? Vicarious enjoyment? The choice of attitude is the listener's; our job is to remain modest and grateful for what we can do. As we chat with the trash-cleanup people we meet, when they ask how far we've gone today I try not to feel pride.
Meanwhile our progress downstream continues apace—i.e., slowly. During the drive to the start at 7am I divert to Chain Bridge, which we reach at mile 6. I park the car and create a mini "Aid Station" by concealing a big blue plastic bag full of goodies in an eroded hole a few feet downhill from the trail. There's a gallon jug of water in there, plus energy gels, crackers, pretzels, a banana, cookies, etc. It's a welcome sight when we arrive after about 1:40 on the trail and refuel. I conceal it again and we press onward.
After Chain Bridge the PHT crawls over what I lovingly call "The Cliffs of Insanity", a rugged traverse where the Park Service has thoughtfully attached iron railings to the sheer rock. Kate and I cling to the holds and survive, though as usual I find it a bit stressful. We cross a succession of tiny bridges over small ravines, including some single-person ones made of only two boards. Another bridge is situated nervously close to the edge of a steep drop-off high above the Potomac. In Fort Marcy Park there's a funny wooden pseudo-bridge over Pimmit Run, covered with dirt and designed to let heavy machinery get to the other side of the creek. A permit nailed to a post says that workers are installing "rip rap" to control stream erosion.
Onward and downward, and after almost 3 hours Kate and I arrive at civilization or what passes for it: the parking lot at Theodore Roosevelt Island. We pause and I persuade passing tourists to take a photo of us with my cellphone as we lean against the trailhead sign. Then back we go, running a bit more now where the terrain is gentler. Dog-walkers are out and about now as the day progresses, and we greet a succession of increasingly bouncy canines. The path up to the Cliffs of Insanity is occupied by a young clean-up person trying to remove some tangled fishing-line litter from the rails. Kate helps him avoid the hook.
My angst level spikes at mile 14, roughly 4:20 into the journey, when I've drunk all my water and we arrive back at Chain Bridge. Our "Aid Station" is gone! Apparently zealous volunteers spotted it in its hidey-hole, misidentified it as litter, and disposed of it. This is rather worrisome since the next chance to get clean water would require us to take a side trip up to Turkey Run Park, and that's an hour ahead.
"Let me check those trash cans!" I tell Kate, and climb the little path to the parking lot. The first bin I try is of no help, but—Joy!—the second one disgorges my big blue bag, with water jug and munchies intact inside. Kate and I fill our bottles, restock our pouches, nibble, and then return the remnants to the garbage can. Whew!
The rest of our journey is more relaxed now. We observe the contrast between grassy meadows and trees overgrown with invasive non-native plants. Kate points out a big hole in the trail that we didn't see, and fortunately didn't fall into, during our outbound trek. Each of us experiences a bout of mild dizziness, cause unknown, perhaps dehydration and fatigue. We take Succeed! electrolyte capsules and the vertigo fades. Small white pellets decorate the ground as we near our starting point. Apparently a local sleet storm passed through but never made it downriver. After 6 hours and 7 minutes we're back at our cars and I stop my watch. A few final photos, and we each head for home. Valkyrie services not required today—thank goodness!