Sunday, December 21, 2014

Returning to the Forest

Looking West from the top of Copperhead Fire Tower
It's where it all began.  On one Wednesday afternoon in the Fall 6 years ago, Keegan Rathkamp, team captain on the cross country team, introduced me to the trails at the Shawnee State Forest.  In my running log from 9/10/2008, I wrote:
Sweet run today. Keegan and I went out to the forest to get a long run in on trails. It was my first time out there and I loved it. I want to run those trails everyday now. It is so peaceful!
This day was one of the most influential days of my life and the introduction from Keegan to the trails at the Shawnee State Forest easily affects who I am today.  From my sophomore year in college to now, I have visited and revisited this forest dozens and dozens of times for a multitude of reasons - adventure, training, solitude, with friends...  Even now living over 2 hours away from the Shawnee Forest, I make it a point to return as often as possible for re-connection with the land and trails that I grew to know and love so well.

The forest started out as an escape from the city.  The standard 8-mile loop around Portsmouth was getting old.  My back hurt a lot, the streets were littered with trash, people harassed us, sounds and cars everywhere.  The weekly (and sometimes more) drive of just 15 minutes to the Shawnee State Forest was our escape.  Wednesday Trail Tradition.  Running on the trails took the pressure away.  School and even training was an afterthought for the 2-3 hours in the forest.  It was normally a small group of guys, three or four of us at a time.  Miles were slow, the trails are rugged and steep, narrow, often overgrown.  But it was our escape from the city.

The forest became my training grounds.  During the last two years of college, the forest didn't take on a new meaning, but a bigger meaning.  It was still the escape I searched for in the year prior, but now it was where I trained, and it was my thing.  My personal bests improved rapidly my junior year in the 8k and on the track later in the spring.  I spent the summer before my senior year working at the golf course adjacent from the forest, and the 2-3 trail runs per week became 6-7 trail runs per week.  Now after 2 years of consistent training on trails, I saw even larger improvements in cross country races during my last season.

The forest is the source of exploration.  Although I went to the forest to run, I was attracted to the mystery of what was hidden beyond the next bend in the trail.  There was over 63,000 acres of forest, and over 200 miles of singletrack trails, doubletrack trails, bridle trails, and forest roads to discover.  Over the course of three years I drove every car accessible road there was and tried to run as many different routes as I could find.  The forest became a place to connect with the land and trails were a portal for this discovery.  I felt like a part-owner of the land, because I invested time and energy into being with it, engulfed in getting to know it.  Still today, I feel like the Shawnee State Forest is mine.

The forest created a wilderness philosophy.  This single moment of introduction to trail running and the Shawnee Forest is what drove me to go to graduate school and earn a masters in Outdoor Recreation and Education.  Issues such as logging and recreation management was experienced in large part because I ran through it.  I had a daily front-row seat to the devastation of logging taking place in the forest.  A perspective that normally only the workers would see from high on the bulldozer seat.  I remember many evenings, after the smoke cleared from the workday, I could run through the clear-cut areas, feeling the dirt, and feeling the hurt.  I was especially devastated two summers after I graduated from college on a weekend visit to the forest after discovering someone made the management decision to bulldoze the popular 40 mile singletrack backpack trail.  The trail is now slowly healing, but it will never return to how it was.  So the forest became a place that I formed thoughts and ideas.  A desire to protect.

The forest is where I became an ultra trail runner.  Trail running at the forest for the first time impacted my life in many ways but it led to a desire to start ultramarathon running.  It was a natural progression into ultra trail running.  I first fell in love with the trails.  I wanted to see more and more trails and the only logical and most efficient way for me to discover more trails was to run more miles on trails.  So it was fitting that I discovered ultra running as I began to research information online about trails.  That is how I found and started ultra running.  Before I ever ran an official ultra marathon event, I ran a 40 mile trail run with two of my best friends at the Shawnee Forest.  I then started entering ultras immediately after my college cross country competition.
Keegan (right) and I on a 40 mile trail run - overlooking logging affects.
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This past weekend I met with a group of 11 guys for a trail run at the Shawnee State Forest.  We ran 20 miles and enjoyed a peaceful winter dusting of snow along the trail.  Trips like these revitalize me and I am always overwhelmed with memories and inspiration by being in the forest again.  It had only been about 3 months since I was last at the forest, but I always feel like it has been too long.  Although my trips aren't as frequent as they were in college, I still feel a connection with the land and trails.  There was a 1 mile section from last Saturday's run where I had run ahead of the group a little and was locked into the sweet rhythm of the trail.  I felt the "flow."  It was like I had ran this trail everyday for the last month, and knew every rock and root and dip.  In some way, I think my subconscious did remember this section of trail to every degree.

The Shawnee State Forest will continue to impact my life.  It has left a permanent mark on my personality and I am grateful for knowing it.

Happy Trails

WMO

    
Looking at the start of a special Bridle Trail #5 in spring.

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