On Taking the Long Way Around


Gordon Cherr


My quest to run the Shut In Trail Race on November 3 reached warp speed on October 3 when I was accepted into the field limited to 150 runners. There were in excess of 600 applications. The field is limited because of the nature of the trail and the fact that most everyone running requires the assistance of a handler for fluids and even clothes. In addition, parking at certain overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which parallels the race course, is quite limited. The Forest Service and Parkway Police are not very helpful all things considered.

I received my acceptance papers which included warnings about what I was to undertake:

“First of all, if you have run this race before, you might recall
what it is like, know what you are getting yourself into, and
disregard the following if you wish. If, however, time has eroded your
memories, or if you are a “first-timer”, I hope that you are truly
aware of the nature of this course. It is almost 18 miles, mostly single-
track, which is run, walked and even crawled. The uphill portions
total more than 5000 feet with a net gain from start to finish of
almost 3000 feet. There are long, steep climbs, some with log steps
and switchbacks. There are also several equally steep downhill
sections (about 2000 feet worth) where a fall could easily result in
an injury. The footing is rough and leaf-covered at this time of the year,
with roots, stumps, uneven terrain and several very rocky sections, so

Have you ever noticed how runners everywhere engage in the habit of giving special names to their favorite running routes and trails? Just a word to your running mates and they know exactly where and what you are talking about. In Tallahassee it might be the Red Bug Trail or Phipps Park or the Cadillac Trail. It is no different in Asheville and the names of our Shut In training routes just roll off the tongue: Sleepy Gap, Ferrin Knob (a lot of uphill walking on that one), Craggy Gardens, Craven Gap, Chestnut Cove, Upper and Lower Sidehill, Cherry Laurel, Explorer and Ingles Field (a very tough run!), Pinetree, South Ridge (55 minutes continuously uphill from the start) and Corvair. Serious training for Shut In is simple and straight forward…you run the course in sections to become familiar with it. Otherwise you forsake speed or interval training and opt, instead, for these long rocky, hilly trails. You run in groups for your own safety because someone needs to know where you are if you are injured. These trails are beautiful but desolate, and deceptively so. If you are in great hurry out here, a trip and fall is inevitable. This is an old lesson in life, long forgotten, now recently relearned.

On Saturday, October 6, I traveled to Oneida, Tennessee, to run the Big South Fork Trail Run. This is considered a good tune up for Shut In, almost as far, sufficiently hilly but less so; it is a good indicator of how your training is really progressing. Shut In is 17.8 miles. Big South Fork, run on rocky trails in the Tennessee mountains around and along a splendid gorge area, is equally far (17.5 miles), equally lonely, and at least one full hour shorter than Shut In. It was here that my plans for Shut In and I crashed together on the mountain trails.

Simply stated, at around mile 14 (there are no mile markers out here), the occupational trail running hazard of tripping and falling occurred again, this time with sufficient force to tear open an incipient hernia which I had been ignoring (successfully) since 1987. It cannot be ignored any longer and surgery is to follow shortly, along with the inevitable layoff that vexes all runners no end.

I am pleased to report that I did still finish the race despite running the last 3 miles or so with one hand out and one hand in my shorts to sort of “hold myself together”. There were two ladder climbs in the last few miles that required both hands on the ladder (hence, none in my shorts), and the term “agony” still is fresh in my mind. But there were worse injuries in this race. One runner fell and suffered a mild concussion, and one of my running friends who accompanied me to this race (and who has glaucoma), fell and cut his forearm down to the bone. However, all three of us finished and in a race like this, as in life, the point is to finish.

In races like Shut In and Big South Fork it is wise to ratchet back your expectations and concentrate on reaching the end, standing on your feet. Be concerned about your time and place some other day. Race your fast times on the roads, running the trails requires another kind of savvy and perhaps maturity to successfully reach the finish line. I believe that trail running much more approximates real life. Ultimately there are few short-term gains to be had in racing except injury and setback. Instead take the long view. You will go further, better. And when you fail occasionally, as we all must do, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start putting one foot down in front of the other again, even though it hurts. I got there eventually and so will you.

Heck, we all learned this before. Sometimes it is good to be reminded. And Shut In will wait for me another day. Just like me, Mount Pisgah isn’t going anywhere fast, either.