Moonlight Trail Run

Originally published in the January/February 1995 issue of “DC Road Runners Review & Schedule,” Washington DC

The invitation in the mail was for a 14-mile moonlight trail run. I had joined the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club because I wanted ultrarunning contacts in my new home, but so far I had not met any of the members. This would be a chance to do so.

Fourteen miles, no problem. I ran that distance almost every Sunday morning when I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. What really convinced me to spend my Friday evening on the trail was the thought of running in the light of a full February moon.

I missed the word “foolhardy” in the letter.

Joe’s Place (Pizza and Pasta) in Vienna, Virginia, was the assigned meeting spot. I walked in the door, hoping a group of runners would be easy to find. My first guess was correct. We introduced ourselves and I joined them while they finished eating their pizza. Pizza? I couldn’t imagine that as a food choice before a run.

An hour’s drive found us in the Blue Ridge Mountains. By 8:45 we were ready to head up the trail, seven men and me. Seven men who were familiar with the area, and me, who knew I was somewhere west of Washington DC.

Ignorance, though, was definitely bliss at this point. Had I known what lay ahead, I would not have been there. They told me the first four miles would be uphill. That didn’t sound too bad, because it meant we would be walking a lot and I could handle that. I said as long as I don’t get my feet wet, I’ll be okay.

The evening was beautiful, above 40 degrees, little wind, and the full moon shining on us as we started up Signal Knob. I didn’t have time to gaze at the scenery; I was concentrating on the path, trying to avoid stepping on rocks and trying to keep up with the others. At one point the narrow snow-covered trail ran along the very edge of a steep drop-off. I could hear the cold water roaring below, and was extra careful about my footing along that stretch.

I soon became concerned about my ability to keep pace with the group. I was tired, and not used to hills. I moved forward as fast as I comfortably could, appreciating the distraction of the men’s conversations. I thought about telling the guys behind me to go on ahead, to not let me slow them down, but I liked the secure feeling of being in the middle.

As we climbed higher, the trail was a long stretch of ice-crusted snow, with occasional tree trunks across the path. At 10:15 we reached the top, and paused a few moments to enjoy the view. We stood on flat rocks that poked out of the snow, and gazed at the lights across the valley and the distant mountains bathed in moonlight.

The night was too chilly to stand still for long. As we started down the other side, someone told me we had several easy miles before the trail got tough–before we reached Mud Hole gap.

If this was easy, I sure wasn’t looking forward to “tough.” My feet were no longer dry. We were sharing the trail with the runoff from the melting snow. Our choices were to run in the middle of the trail through inches of mud and water, or along the side and be continually slapped and snagged by the undergrowth.

Then we came to a stream. Oh, no. Surely we weren’t going into that cold rushing water? Fortunately, a fallen tree and several large rocks provided a bridge.

My relief was short-lived, because there was no tree trunk lying across the next stream. Yes, there was another one. I watched several of the guys splash through to the other side, knowing my turn was coming, and commented, “I don’t want to do that.”

Someone behind me said, “You have to.”

So I did. The water was probably a foot deep, and coming out of it felt like entering a freezer. After that icy cold sensation, I was surprised my feet and legs soon felt toasty warm as I ran. Then came another stream. And another. More cold water, more cold air, and then that sense of warmth.

Long after I’d lost count of the number of streams we waded through, I learned there was a total of seven and we had two more to go. By now my feet were numb, as were everyone else’s. My thoughts wandered to pneumonia and amputated toes. I told myself that toes couldn’t freeze when the atmospheric temperature was above freezing.

After crossing the seventh stream, we came to a road with car tracks on its even white surface. My pleasant anticipation of running on a read evaporated as we immediately turned down a muddy lane–and into Mud Hole Gap. We had finally reached the tough part.

The muddy trail we ran earlier was dry compared to this. The mud tried to suck my shoes off. I ran and walked along the edge of the trail, in the snow-covered mud. The undergrowth scratched my ankles and snagged my clothes. I fully expected my expensive running tights to be ruined by the time we finished. (They weren’t.) A tree branch brushed across my face and snatched the contact lens out of my left eye.

Considering I was already exhausted, as well as wet and scratched, the loss of my depth perception and clear vision was really demoralizing. I was the back of the pack by now, putting one foot in front of the other, and hoping I wouldn’t fall. I wanted to just trudge along, but that would force the others to wait for me, and look for me if I got lost.

They stopped more frequently now, whether they were tired or waiting for me to catch up, I didn’t know. Those pauses helped my morale, as did the fact that my eyes adjusted and I forgot I was missing a lens.

When asked, “Are you ever going to run with us again?” I answered, “I’ll never do this trail again!”

We came out of the woods and onto an unused road for the last four miles. It was mostly downhill and covered with tall dead weeds, as well as the ever-present muddy stretches. The course was relatively easy, the moon provided excellent light, and the slight breeze stirred infrequently. We were approaching the finish, and I enjoyed being a member of this tired group.

For the first time, I asked how far we still had to go. One mile. I hadn’t asked earlier because I knew I wouldn’t like the answer.

Soon we hit a paved road–such luxury! At one o’clock A.M. the parking lot appeared on our left. It was time for beer and breakfast.

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