We got a little worried as we got a little closer to the mountains on our drive up from Atlanta, though. It suddenly struck us (or, really, Mickey since I tend not to think about these things when not prompted) that the light rain we had in Atlanta was likely going to be ice and snow in the higher elevations around Spring Mountain (the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail). As we rolled up the Forest Service road on the way to the Springer Mountain parking lot, our suspicions were confirmed. There was a significant amount of snow on the ground at the higher elevations. Luckily, there didn't seem to be a lot of ice and the road was surprisingly flat once we hit the elevation where accumulation was significant. Basically 3,000 feet seemed to be the snow line for this trip. Most of our run was above that line.
I was a little nervous getting started. The parking lot (above) was far from the highest elevation of our planned run, but the snow wasn't deep. It was cold enough that it wasn't a slick surface and it wasn't deep enough that our shoes sank into the drifts. At this point, it actually made a pretty good running surface. We decided to go out, take it easy, and see if the rest of the trip was the same.
To reinforce the idea that it was a good idea to have postponed our trip, the truck in this picture is actually encased in ice. The trees were also encased in ice, with made them twinkle like glass. It was one of the most beautiful runs I've ever had. The ice encasing the trees at the higher elevations made for an interesting soundtrack. Whenever trees that still had their leaves on were near the trail, it sounded like clanky wind chimes when you pushed through the branches.
Our first section of trail was to run up to the peak of Springer Mountain. We managed that pretty well. The few patches of ice were obvious. Basically, if you saw brown ground, you stopped running and carefully crossed until you were on white again. The snow did get deeper near the top, but it was never problematic. It was kind of like running on the beach on that section of sand that hasn't quite dried out yet. I don't think we'd have been able to go any faster had the trail had no snow at all.
The Springer peak was a little off of our planned loop, so after a few minutes of taking in the view (and returning to feeling cold instead of slightly sweaty) we headed part of the way back down before taking a fork that took us off the Appalachian Trail and onto the Benton MacKaye. This section was my favorite section of the whole trip. The snow remained good running, it was a downhill moderate enough that running quickly was easy and the scenery was just gorgeous. After about 2 miles of this, we hit the forest service road that would take us from the Benton MacKaye back to another section of the Appalachian Trail to finish out 14-mile loop. Running down the dirt road was less interesting than the trail, but it was still a gorgeous day and I was feeling great. We stopped around mile 4 to eat lunch before moving on with the run.
Then, things turned for the worst. I started feeling a slight burning tightness on the outside of my left knee that was worse when I was going downhill. Around mile 6 I had to stop running and walk because of the pain. After a short rest, I tried to run again to see if we should turn back or just keep going. For a while I was able to run a bit, rest (it didn't hurt at all when I walked to start with), and run some more so we ended up going on. It wasn't until we were past the halfway point that I realized that I wasn't going to be able to run anymore at all. Unfortunately, I still had miles left to go through fairly rugged terrain before we got back to the truck. Initially, I was able to walk normally and pain-free on the flat ground and uphills. The knee only bothered me on the downhills. Apparently, the force of the foot strike was the trigger for whatever was going on. That didn't last, though. By the last 4 miles, I was forced to hobble the rest of the way out. The tightness and pain wouldn't let up regardless of the condition of the trail.
Despite this, I was surprisingly happy with the outing. I never got that depressed sense of failure that I did at the Jacksonville Marathon as my race fell apart, probably because it's easier to accept an injury than it is just not having what it takes to do what you want to do. Also, having a companion to talk to as we progressed helped, although I feel a little badly for Mickey who was slowed considerably by my physical imperfection. (This isn't the first time I've gone out on a hike/run with him and ended up being a problem by the end.) He's a good sport though.
As for the knee, it's getting better, although I'm still limping three days later. I'm hoping it's just a strain/overuse thing and I can get over it with a little time off from running. I'm hoping I'll be able to switch over to the bike when the pain stops so I can get back on track with my training and weight loss goals for this year.