Running Stories: I Have Discovered Trail Running

It’s winter here in Illinois, and although mostly mild this go around, we’ve had a little bit of snow added to our area and it’s just enough to cover the trail and make it icy after people start packing it down. This forces me off of my usual running route and onto the local side roads where there is better running traction and little traffic, but not as much scenery.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad I have the option to still run outside when the ice-covered trails make them difficult to run on. I have my favorite route too, it’s hilly and has enough variety that it’s a much better option than running inside on the treadmill. But after a few runs on this route, I started thinking about branching out from it and try some off-the-beaten-path trails. I am still signed up to do a “last runner standing” style trail ultramarathon and getting some practice and familiarity with running on trails would be a good idea for me.

One of these trails is located in the Van Horne Woods portion of the Hickory Creek Preserve located off of Route 30 in Frankfort, IL. The path starts just as you enter the preserve. There used to be a sign there where the unpaved portion of the trail began that said it was for use by the “Environmental Learning Center ONLY,” but that sign is now gone, and when I Googled it it said that it was permanently closed. A Facebook page for the site says it was closed in 2017. Seeing that the trail is still pretty heavily used, on Wednesday I decided to explore the icy path for the first time.

Trail running, where have you been all my life?! I loved it! Although the trail was a mix of snow, ice, and a few clear portions, my trail running shoes handled them fairly easily. I slowed down where it was necessary, but otherwise it was runnable. There is a fairly steep ravine that had some great views and lots of twisty paths through the wooded area.

On Thursday, I decided to do it again, this time running it in reverse. Another awesome run, but there was a lot of rough running going on. I still had pretty good traction, but it wasn’t the best. Occasionally the tread of my shoes would nick my ankles and that is no fun. On Friday I stopped at the local hardware store and picked up some 1/2 inch sheet metal screws and screwed them into the bottom of my shoe. This is an old trick used by runners, but one I have never tried.

Saturday morning I woke up to a new coating of about an inch of snow and I was super excited to get out there and run through the woods again. The traction I now had with my modified shoes was unbelievable. I ran like there wasn’t any packed down icy snow at all. It was a game-changer. Even my pace picked up for the run from the previous days. This time I decided to explore some more of the off-trail segments and found myself following a set of fat bike tire tracks in the freshly fallen snow. I followed those tracks for almost three miles until I ran into those two bikers on the trail. I realized that these were the same two guys that always post pictures of their rides on the local biking Facebook page that I belong to. I got to get a fat bike someday. It looks like fun.

I ran until I realized that eight miles had passed and that I had three more to get to home, and without any water or gels to fuel me along, I decided to save some exploring for Sunday. I came home and told my wife that this was one of the best runs I have ever had.

A little bit of a warm-up occurred on Saturday afternoon, melting what had fallen that morning. But I woke up again to light snow on Sunday and decided that this was going to be another amazing run. This time, however, I drove to the forest preserve so not to waste energy running three miles to get there and have to save enough energy for the three miles to run back home. I’m glad I did, this run was an awesome repeat of Saturday, only more so! I explored further east along Hickory Creek until I got turned around and lost my bearings. I found the creek and knew what side I was supposed to be on, but I truly believed that I had crossed it somehow. It wasn’t until later when I reviewed the gps map that I realized how turned around I was. I ended up backtracking until I saw some familiar things that I thankfully took the time to study for just this reason. I had also drawn some arrows in the snow to make sure I knew where I should turn at a few of the adjoining trail spots.

I was getting a little tired and a little worried that I was overdoing it, so I decided to head back and save some more of the unexplored areas for another time.

In all, I ran 53.5 miles this week, which is very high for me, and all because this little off-the-beaten-path rekindled a passion for running that I hadn’t realized was missing. I certainly felt like a kid again. I will definitely be running more natural surface trails in the future.

Orienteering Fun

My coworkers had been talking about this show called “The Worlds Toughest Race” on Amazon Prime Video and asked if I had watched it.  I hadn’t, but I asked if they were talking about the Eco Challenge, and sure enough that was it!

I was familiar with the Eco Challenge having watched a series or documentary on it probably ten years ago.  Apparently it lives on and somehow escaped my attention.  That’s probably because I watch two cable channels and nothing else.  But they were adamant that I should watch it and so I checked it out.  I probably shouldn’t have because now I have a new hobby.

The Eco Challenge requires a lot of skills to get through it, but as I watched and studied it I realized that orienteering is most likely the greatest of the skills to have.  So I looked into orienteering and found that a local forest preserve district had some dedicated orienteering courses to try.  All I needed to do was to recruit the wife to join me and try it out.

The course we checked out is in a forest preserve called Waterfall Glen.  The f.p. website had a lot of great information on orienteering and maps to their four dedicated courses.  If you are local to the Chicago suburbs, you can check out their website and course maps here:  Click here and scroll down to Orienteering Course

I did convice Kari to join me without much arm twisting or begging and we talked about preparing ourselves for this mini adventure.

Kari:  “Do you think I need to wear pants?”  Me:  Nah.

Kari:  “Should we bring water?”  Me:  Nah.

Kari:  “Do you want any sunscreen or bug spray?”  Me:  Nah.

Well, we probably should have worn pants and water would have been a really, really good idea.  We did end up bringing the sunscreen and bug spray and did apply it, but it probably wasn’t really necessary.  It was a really nice day so we got by okay.

I have never been to Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve but as soon as we neared the entrance I realized that it might be the most popular forest preserve in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago.  It was packed.  People were walking, running, biking, hiking and just generally hanging around on the trails.  Fortunately for us we weren’t on the main trail for long as our orienteering took us onto much less traveled paths.

IMG_9915

We decided that we would try the long beginner course (Long Beginner Course Map) first instead of the shorter beginner course mainly because we didn’t know how to find the start of the shorter beginner course.  That’s pretty funny considering map reading skills are necessary for this little adventure.  Fortunately the longer beginner course started right at the exact spot we were at.  We settled on nicknames – I would be both Lewis & Clark and Kari would be Sacagawea.  I thought that was pretty clever until I realized that Sacagawea was actually the one showing the experienced explorers where to go.  As fate would have it, Kari was a perfect Sacagawea.

We easily found the first “control” marker and I patted myself on my back for not getting us lost.  The second control marker was located down the path a little bit, but I looked at the map and tried to convice Kari that it would be quicker if we took this side dirt path through the woods.  Fortunately she was game and off we went.  

UL3sQLfsRUOTSJ9MibFDIQ
Let’s just try that shady path instead of the completely safe path. Okay, sure!

 

Tr35dyQdRrCysjTk3iDKrg
Found one! Here’s what the markers look like.  You were supposed to write down the letters on the map for some reason.  I guess its so you can prove that you found it.  Photos work too in this day and age.

 

We made it through alive!  And the rest of the control markers were fairly easy to find, with the exception of two of them that had fallen down and were laying on the ground.  One of the markers was hidden in the trees somewhat and we had to double back a little bit when we realized we had missed it.  But we found them all and it really wasn’t too challenging.  It took us about an hour to navigate our way through the map and upon finishing we decided to take a crack at the other beginner course, mainly because we had time and also to the fact that our map reading skills had improved dramatically, thanks to Sacagawea – I mean, Kari.  

I foolishly thought the beginner course (Beginner Course Map) would be easier since it wasn’t as long as the other one.  Wrong.  For a beginner course, this one was much tougher, mainly due to the terrain – lots of indistinct trail with fallen trees and other stuff to confuse the heck out of us, and some open grassy areas which really tore up our bare legs.  Should have worn pants.  

The first four markers weren’t tough to locate, but the fifth one had us a little worried.  The trail wasn’t very clear and we had to double back and take different routes until we were finally able to locate it.  For minute there I thought I might have to resort to cannabilism, but fortunately for Kari we found it and continued on.  

As we continued on the trail to the next control marker we would occasionally pass some people heading the other way, usually asking if we had found the waterfall.  We didn’t find a waterfall, but we did find this hill that would have been a nice waterfall if the area wasn’t experiencing drought conditions.

B5teB9RWSYWZ4z0p+nkaAg

We made it back to the parking lot with our legs a little scratched up from the brush, our lower legs covered in trail dust, and kind of thirsty.  But our first shot at orienteering was a success and lots of fun!  I can’t wait to go back and try the intermediate and advanced courses.  I’m just going to make sure that I wear pants, bring water and maybe add some trail shoes to make it a little more easy to navigate.