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An Appalachian vacation by trail and error

The vacation wasn't going as planned.

The vacation wasn't going as planned.

On Sunday, I drove to Asheville, N.C. and booked myself into a nice resort. The goal, aside from relaxing after finishing my next book, was to run a trail every day. Then instead of taking highways the entire way back home, I'd navigate the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile ribbon of road on top of the southern Appalachians between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Shenandoah, from start to finish.

I'd drive the first 87 miles from Cherokee, N.C. to Asheville on Wednesday, stop back at my hotel for the night, then drive the rest of the way to mile marker 0 on Thursday, after which I'd stop again and drive back to New Jersey on Friday to give me plenty of time to recover and be ready to run the Wild Half in Wildwood on Sunday.

But my first trail run went poorly. I ran a short course on the Hardtimes Connector of the Bent Creek Trails, which is described as "easy" by Hike Western North Carolina, but its elevation is higher than the usual 20 feet about sea level at which I usually run. I huffed and puffed and sweated and started and stopped the whole way. An octogenarian on a mountain bike sailed up the trail and yelled "good luck!" as she passed by.

The next day, before I could even hit the woods, I got stuck on a steep hill in downtown Asheville, in the rain, and could not immediately figure out how to get my car, a 2002 Jeep Wrangler TJ with a manual transmission that I've had less than a year, to move forward instead of roll back into the Subaru behind me.

I put on my flashers, remembered that such maneuvers required the emergency brake, and got up the hill, then slunk back to my hotel room and told myself that maybe driving the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, known for its curves and undulations, was ambitious, and to forget the trails for the time being. Maybe I should just chill out for a few hours, read a book, and call it an early night.

Twenty pages into the book, I looked at the hills outside my window, said "[expletive] it," and ran up a mountain.

I turned to running in that moment because it's something that has taught me that, in order to conquer fears, I need to ram into them head on. I was terrified before running my first 5k in 2006, and then just did it. Same with my first 10 miler, my first marathon, my fifth marathon. Each time, I went into the race worried that I'd go out too fast, not find a bathroom in time and poop my pants, get hit by a car that managed to break through a road barrier, or be the victim of some sort of confluence of odd events that would lead me to being called a "jogger" on the news - or all four.

But even in races that haven't gone well, those fears remained unfounded, and I still made it to the finish line in one piece.

So ...

Unsure that I really knew how to drive a car with a manual transmission? Get on the Blue Ridge Parkway and wind up and down a mountain range.

Think I can't hack trail running at altitude?

Scale Mt. Pisgah on a 1.5-mile route up that gains 762 feet of elevation in that distance to reach an altitude of 5,721 feet (441 feet higher than Denver).

Over rocky parts on the trail, I walked, and when my lungs strained to bursting, I stopped to take an extra breath or two. But I made it, in one piece.

When I reached the summit, I met two 20-something men there taking pictures. We chatted a bit about where we were from, where we were later going on our trips, and the ascent.

"Did you really run up here?" one asked.

"When it wasn't too rocky, yeah," I said.

"And you're going to run back down?" asked the other.

"Sure," I said. The look on his face when I said that screamed "dubious," but no matter. I wished them luck when they headed down before me.

When I passed them half way down the mountain, arms and braid and legs flying, he yelled: "You weren't kidding! Good luck, lady!"

"Thanks!" I yelled back.

When I got back to Asheville, I still ran with the Asheville Track Club, and then the next morning drove to Cherokee, N.C. to start my trek up the Blue Ridge Parkway. I stopped to run up Waterrock Knob,- a 0.5 mile route to a 6,292-foot summit that's the highest point in the Plott Balsam Ridge (and 1,012 feet higher than Denver).

I did it without a hitch, in my run or my drive. After scaling one mountain the day before, scaling another had become something to do as a break from driving one of the prettiest routes in the country. Soon after, I stopped my Jeep at the highest point on the drive of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic overlook, and asked a motorcyclist to take a picture, then cruised back down the mountain range.

When I left for vacation, I'd been wavering about running the Wild Half. I'm not really in half marathon shape, and a race in mid-May in full sun didn't lead me to believe I'd have a great race day. But after this? Piece of cake.

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