Comedy on the high trail tends toward the low. On the Appalachian Trail two ladies and a gentleman jogging south encounter me stumbling north. "Didn't I see you at the HAT Run a couple of years ago?" the man inquires. "Yep," I reply, "I have the hat with me — but my head got too hot, so I've stuffed it somewhere you shouldn't stare at." I glance down at my shorts. One of the women looks, raises her eyebrows, and laughs. "I'm impressed!" she says. I blush. A couple of hours later, the weather still warm, our paths cross again on the return trip. As I pass she smiles and says, "I see you're still wearing your hat!"
At 4:15am Comrade Caren Jew (aka "C-C") phones to report heavy rain in her neighborhood. "Should we go?" I stick my head out the front door and feel nothing. "Looks pretty nice here!" I reply, and so we rendezvous at 0500 in downtown Bethesda, near mile 3.5 of the Capital Crescent Trail, and proceed southward with LED flashlight and headlamp. Our pace is ~12:30 min/mi through the darkness; I demand walk breaks every half-mile. The temperature is perfect, near 50°F. After the first mile I get hot and take off hat, gloves, and outer windshirt; Caren is smart enough to have left her jacket in the car. Water drips from the trees when breezes blow, but only a few extremely light sprinkles occur during our journey. We see a rabbit on the CCT peering at us, eyes retroflecting bright before it scuttles away. Dawn begins as we pass Fletcher's Boathouse. Caren spies a large deer watching us from the C&O Canal towpath a few feet above our trail.
Thompson's Boat Center is not yet officially open when we arrive at ~7am, but the cheerful attendant lets us in. He marvels at the distance Caren and I are going today and kindly offers us bottles of water. Increasing numbers of runners meet us as we proceed north along Rock Creek, and our measured splits between "P-P" markers confirm that we're still maintaining a pace of ~12:30, though our walk breaks grow in frequency as we both begin to get a bit tired. The National Zoo path is open, a boon which both Caren and I appreciate since it lets us avoid the scary tunnel with its narrow sidewalk. It gives us some extra mileage too! We tank up again at the zoo water fountain and trek upstream. Caren recognizes friends from the MCRRC Experienced Marathoner program on Beach Drive, including director Mike Broderick and Michelle Price leading separate training groups.
My shirt begins to show a red badge of abrasion (cf. ManaBurn) but fortunately it fits in with the autumn color scheme of the design. I apply more vaseline and all's well again. Our pace slows slightly to ~13 min/mi as we climb to the DC line and reenter Maryland. Restrooms at Candy Cane City are locked, so we visit the Meadowbrook Stables, chat with the horses, and continue across East-West Highway on RCT. Then we branch up residential streets to the Grubb Road path near mile 1.3 of the CCT. Both of us are definitely feeling fatigue now, but when we see the marker for the last mile Caren proposes that we blitz it out. We manage a final 11:23 split, our fastest mile of the day. It's almost 10am now, for total of 4 hours 44 minutes on foot. Within seconds of our finish the long-delayed deluge begins.
Want to try a 40% scale-model of the JFK 50 Miler course? Today's a holiday, so after dropping Daughter off at the UM campus I park near Adelphi Manor Recreation Center's cricket pitch and gird my loins for what I vaguely estimate to be "a couple of hours", maybe 10-15 miles. A bit over four and a half hours later I'm back at the car. From milepost 4.5 of the Northwest Branch Trail I trot upstream 2.5 miles at an 11-12 min/mi pace, to where the pavement ends and "true trail" begins. For the next ~7 miles my speed slows to more like 14-15 min/mi, as I imagine I'm on the Appalachian Trail segment of the JFK and try to avoid twisting an ankle or slipping on the rocks. Heavy machinery pushes dirt and muck about, improving the trail where it nears Kemp Mill Road. Engine noise masks the sounds of my approach and I startle a worker carrying a big axe on his shoulder; thankfully nothing bad happens. I navigate through Wheaton Regional Park, where I'm sorely disappointed when soda machines at the ballfields say "Sold Out" and reject my wrinkled dollar bill. I console myself with water and an energy gel, the only one I'm carrying today. I take off one shoe and empty out some pebbles. The other foot is soggy from an unwise placement in a muddy puddle.
Then it's via sidewalks to Sligo Creek Trail, downstream ~9.5 miles to the confluence with Northwest Branch in Hyattsville. At Sligo Dennis Avenue Park I refill my bottle and meet Aaron, a young fellow in training for his first marathon, New York next month. We chat as we jog and I'm shocked to see us cover a measured mile in 10:06. Strangely enough, shortly thereafter my legs become quite tired. (Wonder why?) I increase my walk:jog ratio to 1:2 and fall behind Aaron, but catch up after a road crossing. This is his longest-ever run, a 20 miler, so I offer my usual unsolicited advice and encouragement to a mara-novice. We part ways at the last water fountain, Sligo Creek North Neighborhood Park, as Aaron heads for home and I continue southeast. I divert at the East-West Highway crossing to visit a Rite-Aid Pharmacy, where I'm crestfallen to discover that the $1 I carry is insufficient to purchase anything to drink — bummer! My final mile on SCT is a few seconds sub-12, at a walk:jog of 1:1 now. Then it's only 2.2 miles upstream on Northwest Branch Trail to close the loop, holding a steady 12-ish pace.
Towards the end of my journey a pod of junior-high-aged kids shout "Hey Santa!" at me — not threateningly, but certainly without the respect that Father Christmas deserves. (Watch out, dudes, or you may find coal in your stockings!) When I get home I discover a coat of fine-grained sand on my toes, inside both socks, along with a small blood blister on the side of one foot.
Must replace camera batteries; must find MCRRC race bib #333; must fill water bottle; must replenish candy supply; must fetch in newspapers; etc., etc. So I set off at 6:40am, ten minutes later than planned, and have to hustle the ~2 miles to Candy Cane City where I meet Caren Jew and Ken Swab for a warm-up before the MCRRC 5k. We jog south along Beach Drive to Military Road and back for ~7 miles at ~12 pace. The bright orange traffic cones marking the race are set up and I feel frisky enough to blitz the last mile back to the starting line in 10:32. Then all three of us get chilled waiting for the event to begin. Various comrades chat with us about recent and planned races as I take photos. Friend Ruth (who did the HAT 50k with me in March) appears; she's in town to get her cats ready for the trip to England, as well as to work and to run.
The race begins promptly at 9am, and we start at the back of the pack as usual. Ruth Martin sprints ahead as Ken and I cover the first mile in 10:06 with Caren close behind us. Near the turnaround my attempt to snap a picture of Ruth fails, so I accelerate and catch up with her, foolishly planning to get a bit ahead and do more photography. Ken startles me by appearing at my shoulder, so to open a gap I speed onward and am astounded to see 9:02 on my watch at mile 2. (Hmmm ... maybe I should warm up more often before racing? I've never tried it before, and it seems to be working!) I pass several runners including a little kid, perhaps the same one who soared past Ken and me at Lake Needwood last month. Mile 3 is an 8:25 and the final 5k fraction is 1:02 for an unplanned total time of about 28:35 (plus some seconds from our late start). I station myself near the end of the course and photograph Ken and Ruth and Caren as they blast in. Then it's drink, eat, take more snapshots, and jog home with plenty of walk breaks on the way. I resist the temptation to hitch a ride, barely.
Comrade Ken and I are on South Mountain, getting a taste of the JFK 50 Miler course. Enthusiastic MCRRC ultrarunner Cathy Blessing (who six months ago persuaded me to attempt the JFK) has organized a series of practice runs. KS & ^z arrive at the Weverton Cliffs portal to the Appalachian Trail  at 7am, before anyone else. We figure we're the slowest, and Ken needs to get home by noon, so we set off immediately, climbing ~500 feet to the ridgeline during the first half-hour via a series of ~15 switchbacks. This segment of the AT is rocky in the extreme, and it's hard to imagine running down it — though the fast JFK runners clearly do it, and at least some survive. We follow the white blazes and after a mile or two divert to admire the Edward B. Garvey Memorial Shelter , a magnificent structure. I photograph it from various angles and we chat with the campers there who are just rising. Trail humor ensues, as the upstairs occupant of the building warns, "Don't climb up unless you want to see a fat naked guy!" I reply, "Stay away from the window please!" and then add, "By the way, this camera can take pictures through wood." His reply, not suitable for family audiences, caused the rest of us to shout, "Too much information!"
Ken and I return to the AT and continue north, meeting a variety of hikers and runners en route. My fantasy is to buy a soda at Gathland State Park, but after 1 hour 45 minutes of Ken's aggressive speed-hiking we're half a mile short of the goal and I'm feeling exhausted. I take a GPS waypoint at our turnaround point , which coincidentally is the same hilltop that I reached from the north on 10 Sep 2006 during my prior AT run. The return journey features several incidents of ankle-rolling, toe-stubbing, and near-tripping for each of us — but fortunately nothing disabling. After 3:34 on the trail we emerge from the knee-jarring switchbacks and are back to the car. I get Ken home with 15 minutes to spare.
I really plan to do ten repeats --- really! (Well, maybe eight.) But a little more than halfway through my speedwork at the UM soccer stadium track, about 8:30pm, a couple of official-looking guys tell me that they have to close the track. "Can I just finish this lap?" "OK" So my tally is only six * 800m with two minutes of recovery walking between --- times 4:12 + 4:04 + 4:03 + 4:01 + 4:07 + 4:02 --- no cardiac arrest, but some bright glowing blobs in my visual field during the middle segment.
Lost? No problem! We were just following our own path. Caren Jew and I take a suboptimal turn during the drive out to Gambrill State Park and enjoy an unanticipated visit to the little town of Myersville. Likewise at various points along the Catoctin Trail we experience novel scenery as we lose the blue blazes and wander the hillsides, or pursue a yellow-marked alternative route. An extra mile or so? No problem!
At about 3:20pm on a sunny-cool Saturday afternoon we leave the parking lot  and walk/jog on the rocky, hilly path. After four easy stream crossings and about an hour and a quarter the sun is getting low so, although we have a flashlight, we take a rest stop and then turn back from the top of a ridge about 3.5 snaky miles northward . It's a good training session for the JFK. During the return trip Caren spies a small herd of deer descending the hillside behind us. When we discover that we're almost half a mile off-course and near the main road, we resist the temptation to take the easy way to the car, and instead backtrack until we find the junction where we went astray. The GPS loses lock occasionally in the valleys and under the trees but the trackfile indicates at least 8.3 miles journeyed, so I prefer that to the 7.2 mile trip "odometer" which clearly has short-changed us.
At 7:15am Christina and I are both behind schedule as we meet at the rec center for a ramble along Sligo Creek Trail. We jog and walk, north to University Blvd., then south a roughly equal distance while chatting about speedwork and cameras and injuries. An approaching runner drives a small three-point buck toward us; otherwise the only wildlife we notice are squirrels. Chris has a disposable camera from the Army 10 Miler with a few photos left to burn, so as the sun rises she takes shots of bridges and a fallen tree. We do a measured half-mile in 5:18 together, and on the final segment of the trail I blast a solo half in 3:42.