Friday, August 29, 2014

Signal Knob

It's been a long time since I wrote in this blog!

Over the past few years my athletic interests shifted towards trail running. It is nice to get away from crowds and traffic, fun to be outdoors, a great workout due to challenging terrain, less monotonous due to that same challenging terrain (roots, rocks, streams, hills, etc.), and I like the sense of exploring.

Last weekend, my trail running friend Mike planned a trip out to the Massanuttens, the north part near Front Royal. The area is referred to as "Elizabeth Furnace" or "Signal Knob" and quite a few events use those trails. Elizabeth Furnace is one such event (named for a blast furnace that operated in the 19th century) but there are several others. After hearing so much about the Massanuttens and its various events, and those trails, I was excited to check them out myself!

We drove down with another friend of his (Gretchen), and met another at the parking lot (Kate), so we were a group of four getting ready to run a 10-11 mi loop along the Massanutten orange-blazed trail.

Heading out of the parking lot we started a long climb towards "Signal Knob". It was rocky and fun, and overall we were holding a pace somewhere in between hiking and running. Come to think of it, there is substantial overlap between trail running and hiking. ;)
This shows the typical rockiness of the trail. I can run but slowly and carefully, and in any case on a trail I wind up power-walking a hill anyway. These were too steep and too long to run the entire way up!
Mike is a fast hiker and went up ahead to take a pic of Kate and me as we came along the trail a few moments later. Here I am wearing my Annapolis Half hat from the inaugural 2011 event, which has some red vents on the side. I think it makes me look like I have horns. Anyway, I was determined to run this section of the trail and didn't see Mike taking pics until I got closer to him. Kate is behind me partly hidden by a tree.
Later he took a great pic of me and Kate descending a trail towards the end of our ~11 mi loop. I like how you can see the leaves changing colors at the top of the trees.

Back at the Signal Knob parking lot, we took a few moments to eat and drink, before loading up and driving over to Elizabeth Furnace which is very close. The goal there was to run/hike a trail named "Shermans Gap" which links two longer trails together. It's mostly a climb right up the side of a mountain, with switchbacks.

Mike thought Shermans Gap was about 5 mi round trip, so we figured we'd hit the top at 2.5 mi. At that point in the run/hike, 2.5 in, we knew we weren't near the top at all - no view of the sky through the trees, and the trail visible in front of us continued on.  We were barely into the steep section, so all of us groaned a little bit... but nobody wanted to stop. All of us were ultra trail runners, we had plenty of water and food, and going an extra mile or so was no big deal. We'll just be able to tease Mike in the future about that "5 mi route" that actually turned out to be 7. To be fair, it was off his memory and he hadn't hiked it in a few years.

Shermans Gap was steep, and is part of a few 100 mi races: Massanutten 100, and Old Dominion. The mind-boggling thing is on the Old Dominion course, it comes towards the end of the race, mi 80 or so. Basically runners enter the aid station at Elizabeth Furnace late in the run, already tired, knowing they are facing a huge climb in the dark. So a percentage of the runners that drop the event do it right there. Anyway, our run turned into a hike and the relentless climb stretched ever upwards. We got slower, stopped to talk to some hikers who were lost (they were a few miles away from the site they were trying to get to, along a different trail), and resumed grinding up the mountain.

I got a burst of energy and decided to get to the top, or at least a place that was close enough - there wasn't really a scenic overlook at the top of this particular climb, so when the trail leveled off onto the ridge is about where the top is. I thought the others had enough and didn't want to resume climbing after talking to the hikers. I figured we were close to the top because we could see the sky through the treetops.
I reached a tree marked as the intersection of three trails: orange - Massanutten; blue - Tuscarora; pink - Shermans Gap. And I decided that was the top for me, took a few pics, then headed back down.

 Mike, Gretchen, and Kate were about 100 yards from the top and when I told them close it was, Gretchen and Kate also determined to "summit". Mike was fine so we took a break while waiting for the ladies to return.

After they came back, we started the descent to Elizabeth Furnace. Once in the parking lot, we loaded up and drove into Front Royal, VA for some Mexican food - we were all starved. And it was delicious, or we were hungry after burning off 2000 calories or so, haha.

 The two hikes combined were 17.4 mi in 5:46 moving time. We averaged around a 20 min/mi pace, which is more of a fast hike than a real running pace. Good times! I'm looking forward to returning and exploring more of the trails on the Massanuttens.

Our loop from the Signal Knob parking lot and trailhead:

Our out-and-back from Elizabeth Furnace parking lot:

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