I’m planning to run my first ultramarathon in July, and I’ve been doing a poor job of resting a sore knee after running the Melbourne Music Marathon in Florida nearly two months ago. Running has been making my knee sore, but doing nothing feels just as bad. What I really need is something in between. So I recently started logging walking miles to bridge the gap between now and when my knee is back to 100%, with a hope of making a graceful transition back into running.
I have been congested with a cold all week, and sometimes there’s nothing better than fighting a cold with hand-to-hand combat rather than laying in bed all day under a blanket of diseased kleenex. So with some spare hours on Saturday, I decided to visit Moreau Lake State Park and retrace the path of the annual trail 15k running race, only this time in the winter.
My hope was to mix a little bit of running with the walking. My walking pace on the streets is a solid 3 miles per hour, so I had it in my head that maybe I could finish the course in 3-4 hours. “Heck”, I foolishly thought to myself, “if I get done in 3 hours then maybe I’ll do two laps”. In retrospect I’m ashamed of myself for entertaining any such thoughts. What was I thinking? Let’s just say one lap was satisfactory.
I woke up early and drove in and parked, and walked nearly a mile to the starting line on the beach. The gun went off (not really), and I jogged a bit alongside the lake and along the entrance road for the flat southward first half-mile. Upon reaching the trailhead, my feet were noticeably cold in my very thin shoes and thin wool Darn Tough socks. I sat down and wrapped my feet in three layers: warmish below-the-ankle wool socks, plastic bags, then my shoes. My footsteps followed snowshoe tracks along a trail that doubled back north. The next spot I knew to look for is the Staircase of Death where a steep rocky incline forms a long wall protecting the wilderness within. I missed my turnoff, and hiked an extra half-mile along the Turkey Path before checking the map and doubling back.
I was keeping my folded up map stuffed in my glove. At one point I couldn’t find the map even after searching all my pockets and everywhere. The last place I saw it was at the bottom of the Staircase of Death. I don’t know what it is about the staircase, but it has an amazing talent for getting a person to do it multiple times. So I climbed back down and searched around, but couldn’t find it and continued on my way. I knew it had to be somewhere. I decided the check inside my gloves one last time, since that’s where I was keeping it. Lo-and behold, there it was, stuck to the back of my hand. Somehow after keeping it there for long enough, I became completely desensitized to it to the point that it felt like it wasn’t there.
After the staircase of death, there are no longer any tracks in the snow to follow. It’s amazing how lonely it is to follow a trail with no tracks. Not to mention difficult. From this point on, I am powering through heavy shin-deep snow with every footstep. The going is slow. It is all I can do to look at the next intersection on the map and ask myself, “can I make it there?” and as long as the answer is “yes” I keep going.
Suddenly I see a very large doe run off into the woods. After a moment of weighing the pros (none) and cons (lots), I run off after it. The enormous tracks are easy to distinguish from other stray tracks, but after a while I give up this completely unnecessary detour and return back to the trail. Of course as I work my way back down the trail I cross paths with my old path – the deer was leading me the right way, and if I had paid enough attention I could have just kept going instead of going back and forth along nearly the same track.
Let me tell you something about Moreau Lake State Park (not that you’re still reading this). The trails are really tough to follow. There are trail markers on nearly every tree, so a lack of marking is not the problem. The problem is twofold. First, the trails are not well-travelled, so in the autumn under leaves or in the winter under snow, the trail cannot be discerned from the rest of the woods. Second, the trail never ever goes in a straight line. It often makes hairpin turns, so you never have a safe guess as to which direction the next marker is going to be. You’re forced to rotate your head 360 degrees like an owl at every marker to find the next marker, then walk around a bit to get different perspectives, and once it’s found, walk there and repeat the process.
So far the trail has been broken up into sections. The trail map labels each intersection. The next section, from intersection 4 to 9 is the longest on the map. It will be an arduous endeavor. In my current state of dilly-dallying I could foresee prolonging this leg of the journey indefinitely, so I promise myself to tromp non-stop until I see it through. I have been noticing that the three liters of water I brought with me is feeling awfully light, I’m going to need water soon. I’m using water pills. It takes 30-40 minutes for them to properly prepare drinking water, which means I won’t have anything to drink for that long. The trick is to recognize that the water is running low before you run out, and to pound what’s left to make up for not drinking for a while. I come to the best spot I’ve seen to fill up on water (which isn’t saying much – it’s little more than a trickle). I make the commitment to fill up while I have the chance. I drink what I have, and fill up. It’s a painful process that involves a lot of standing still, and dunking cold hands and feet in icy water. By the time I’m back on the trail again I am wet and very cold all over, but at least I’m fully stocked on water.
This is my second trip on this course, and both times it is an absolutely crushing feeling to have not yet reached the halfway point at section 13. It feels like I’ve been at it forever. When I finally reach the halfway point, a full 3.5 hours have passed since starting. I had hoped to be done by now. I’m seriously considering exiting through the back way and… I dunno, hitchhiking back. Or building a fire and phoning a friend to come pick me up. I’m grossly underdressed, my feet are soaked and freezing, and I have another 3 hours to go. Holy snowballs.
Can I make it to the next intersection? “Yes.” I keep going. This section along the Western Ridge trail provides a beautiful view of the Hudson River, although it looks like a lake. Which can be confusing because it’s clearly not Moreau Lake, but if you don’t realize the Hudson River is hiding here it’s easy to get all kinds of turned around. Or to start thinking, maybe I’m back at the lake! Woohoo I’m done! But of course, that is totally impossible.
The sky is overcast, the wind is howling from the west. Brrr. My feet have been getting steadily colder for the last 3 hours and I’m starting to wonder if I’m gonna lose my left foot to frostbite. I’ve been walking through 8 inches of snow with the skin of my ankles directly exposed to ice the entire time, these socks are way too short. I remember that I have hand warmers and spare socks in my pack, so I stop and pull off my left shoe and sock and rub some warmth into the foot to try and bring it back to life. It feels amazingly comfortable as soon as I remove the soaking wet sock. I loosen my shoelace to make room for some extra stuff and repack the shoe with my foot, a fresh sock that actually covers my ankle, and a hand warmer on top of my toes, followed by a plastic bag.
I’m feeling good after a long break. The sun is starting to show through the clouds a little. I continue along the trail one intersection at a time. My map happens to be folded into four distinct quadrants, each quadrant showing a quarter of my trip. Intersection 17 marks my entry into quadrant four, the final quarter. The *easy* quarter, being that it’s mostly flat or downhill. Not to mention that the trails become straighter and more pronounced. When I see the number 17 on a tree, the words “hallay freakin’ lluyah” barf out of my mouth. I might be near death right now, but I made it this far and nothing’s going to stop me now.
The sun is beaming, the wind has died down, it has turned into a beautiful day. As I hike and sometimes trot along, I experience vivid recollections from running the trail a year before. I’m reliving moments when someone passed me or I passed them, and the words that were traded. Difficult to navigate intersections are now familiar and I cruise through without hesitation. Eventually I reach trails that are heavily travelled with foot traffic. I have reached civilization! At this point I have the option to take a shortcut home, but why not complete the really easy part now that I’m almost through?
I say “how’s it going?” to a couple on horseback. A girl makes a face and says, “not good at all, we’re having some slippage problems”. I feel a spark of pride knowing how far I’ve come in conditions that even the horses are struggling in.
I make the final approach around the lake, and to the finish line. I am totally psyched. I give myself a cheer, and begin the mile walk back to the car. Children are running around for an Easter celebration of some kind. As I walk the path alongside the lake, I see plastic Easter eggs poorly hidden everywhere. My body is craving sugar like you wouldn’t believe. I’m in hard-core survival mode and surrounded by candy. I have the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, arguing over whether I should steal candy from children. I am soooooo tempted. One egg in particular calls out to me and I have to make the decision once-and-for-all whether to nab it or not. Just as I decide to do the right thing and leave it where it stands, a woman comes over the hill with a big basket in her hand. She would have caught me red handed. I hail her and say, “what’s in the eggs?” “Just candy” she says, “want some?” “That would be AWEsome”. She gives me a Hershey’s kiss, and I am the happiest person alive.
Soon I’m on walking along the road on the final stretch. Smoke billows out of a nearby chimney. As I get closer, I see the sign out front: It’s a warming hut! Never in my life would I have imagined being so angry at a warming hut. “Where were you three hours ago when I really needed you?” The warming hut purposely waited until I was happily only mildly cold and uncomfortable and *this* *close* to my car to taunt me with it’s warm fire. The luxuries contained within: hot cocoa and a drying fire, at this moment, seemed to me unimaginably over-the-top. Like wandering, starving for days and coming across a cotton candy machine.
I passed it by, and hopped in my car nearly seven hours after getting out of it. I drive home, grateful for legs that work well enough to pull me through such an epic local adventure. I can’t wait to return.