Getting Back on Track and Into the Woods

The cold of February finally arrived a couple of weeks back here in Pennsylvania. We had extremely cold nights with neighbors talking of frozen pipes, not to mention fingers and toes. As luck would have it, the start of the severe weather coincided with my “base training” preparation for the upcoming trail running season. Since a 100k in October, I’ve been laying low. I’ve spent the past three months pretty much hiding from winter, doing a little gym work and playing with the kiddo.

I don’t think I ran more than 6 miles on any given outing this winter. Which is why I need the “base training”to begin with! I left my watch at home and ran by feel and to satisfaction. On these winter runs, I simply took in the bare, no frills forest. With the absence of leaves, I noticed hidden things like twiggy, overgrown spur trails that, in the lush of summer, I wouldn’t normally. I stumbled upon minor architectural stone structures that dot the landscape of Wissahickon Valley Park and reminded me of the area’s industrial past and that nature will, in time, reclaim all that we make, love, and worship.

Last week, with the the snow growing increasingly heavy one late afternoon, I tightened my laces at the side of Forbidden Drive in Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley for my first base training run. The Valley Green Inn, the colonial jewel of the Park, still had its Christmas lights up and, of course, the old building looked cozy nestled in the Valley surrounded by snow. A whisper of smoke rose from its chimney.

Fresh fallen snow formed this cozy snow tunnel.

Fresh fallen snow formed this cozy snow tunnel along a trail.

My runs were simple affairs. Some 3-4 milers during the weekdays and 6 and 7 milers on the past two Saturdays. I avoided serious climbs and took my time in the cold. On daytime weekend runs I was treated to some spectacular blue skies in contrast to the newly fallen snow on the ground and trees.

Despite the cold, striking blue skies during a Saturday run teased me with thoughts of spring.

Despite the cold, striking blue skies during a Saturday run teased me with thoughts of spring.

Philadelphia's only covered bridge is found in the Wissahickon

Philadelphia’s only covered bridge is found in the Wissahickon.

The condition along Forbidden Drive (so-called because it is off limits to car traffic) itself varied. The winter weather had turned it into a rutty, icy and muddy course. I thought about how much the Park will change over the next eight months. How the Drive and surrounding trails will become drier, the trees fuller, and the sun brighter. Starting my training in early February and ending it in October will take me through all the seasons, affording me the pleasure of varied weather and landscapes and the challenge of running in each season.

Forbidden Drive at dusk.

Forbidden Drive at dusk.

In these initial runs, my focus was to be mindful of my posture and breath. I wasn’t necessarily interested in distance, pace or effort. Steadying my gaze, lowering my arms, trying relax and train my legs to assume an efficient swing. I thought about last year’s training and the natural changes I’d like to encourage in my running form. Mostly, I’d like to run a little “taller”, take deeper, measured breaths, and maintain a brisk cadence. I’ll continue with these goals over the next few months.

Creek crossing are even more tricky when you add snow and ice

Creek crossing are even more tricky when you add snow and ice.

My evening runs in the Wissahickon are largely solitary events. Although I always run alone, other runners and park users keep me company. The afternoons are still dark this time of year and the cold keeps folks in the their homes after work. In a way, this is good for me in the beginning weeks as I sort out the tone of my running this year. And with these first steps, a year I’m certainly looking forward to.

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