Dr. Dave Hryvniak and I departed Charlottesville shortly after 6:00am Sunday and drove south west for The Priest and Three Ridges wilderness areas. An hour later we arrived at an Appalachian Trail (AT) trailhead off Route 56, betwixt said wilderness areas and between two rather large mountain peaks. On the north side of 56 is Three Ridges. On the south side, The Priest. Both aptly named after their respective 'wilderness' designations. Or vice versa. We exited the car, readying ourselves for the morning mission: 22+ miles of gnarly single track and 7,500 feet of vertical. The temperature outside felt cool. The sun shined brightly, though it wasn’t even quarter past 7:00. The sounds of rushing water from the Tye River paralleling the north side of 56 crashed noisily over rocks. North on to the AT and into the Three Ridge wilderness area we ran.
I led the first ascent. We barely made it up the first mile of switchbacks on the AT before my legs reminded me of yesterday’s folly. 20+ miles at dawn with 5 x up tempo repeat climbs up the full length of Carter’s Mountain gravel road near my home. Inwardly, I attempted to reconcile this quagmire. “Today is the day I am supposed to run The Priest and Three Ridges with Dave Hryvniak. The Montalto Challenge hill climb, record-holding-champion, here-to-train-for-Mount-Washington-next-month, Dave Hryvniak. What was I thinking?” I made up excuses. Dave was patient. My pace wasn’t entirely pedestrian but I sensed early on his legs were firing and he was all about the business of giving Three Ridges a bit of hell. We crossed the Mau-Har trail intersection, staying on the AT, and descended to a creek. We smelled the pleasant smoke of a hiker’s breakfast fire wafting from a nearby camp shelter. Shortly after the AT took a hard right and the official climb up Three Ridges began. Dave passed by at my left. Moments later he was out of sight.
On the drive down earlier that morning Dave mentioned a recent blog post I wrote about Central Virginia area mountain trail routes that I believe are FKT-worthy; The Priest and Three Ridges certainly being one of them. He asked if and when I thought of going for the FKT. I simply replied that I felt indifferent about it- at least for the foreseeable future- but that I considered the FKT, or an attempt at such, sweet as pie. Dave was intrigued. I could tell he was man enough, and fit enough, to give it a go if he chose to. Would he?
I huffed, puffed and sweated my way up Three Ridges. Dave was gone off the front, so I didn’t bother stopping at rock outcroppings to soak in the views of flatter, Central Virginia to the east, or The Priest summit to the south. The AT along this section was in immaculate condition. It was apparent some gracious individual(s) had only recently travelled the area with hand tools, cutting back branches, shrubs and low lying plants from the trail. Just before crossing the final switchbacks leading to the summit I scrambled the most technical section of the ascent. Hands on rocks. Hands on knees. Whatever it took. Finally, the summit post was in view. Dave stood nearby, hands on his hips, searching for views through the flora. Waiting for me. I tagged the summit post without breaking stride, and hooked left, following the AT. 1:11:51 read my time split. Dave arrived three or four minutes earlier, he said. My time, then? Semi-pedestrian, after all, I measured in thought.
As we rounded the summit I took the wheel and set my downhill legs on cruise control over the rocks. Anyone who comes to play hard at The Priest and Three Ridges had best be comfortable running hard downhill over technical terrain. Dave climbed like a beast up Three Ridges. We hadn’t yet calibrated our minds on going for an overall fast time that morning but I sensed he might be up for it and I wanted to do my part and help him- and help him I could by keeping him honest running downhill. So I picked up the pace just a bit. We didn’t stop at view points. We did however admire and laugh in amazement as we breezed through a few steep, technical sections, sided and overhung by various species of mountain laurels in full bloom. Everywhere there was green, and white, and red, and purple. It was intensely beautiful; like passing through a tunnel of flowers in some places.
I continued setting the pace downhill. Dave trailed within eyesight. I figured if we cruised at a decent pace back to 56 Dave could unleash the hounds on the climb up The Priest and go for an FKT. We reached a short climb before the Mau-Har intersection and, again, Dave passed by. I caught back up just as we reached the actual intersection and hooked left on to the Mau-Har. A few backpackers at the trail intersection camp shelter asked what route we were running and I yelled back “Three Ridges loop, then The Priest.” Seconds later we were out of ear shot.
The Mau-Har trail is mostly downhill before a final rise when reuniting with the AT. Unfortunately, one can only travel but so fast along the Mau-Har due to its saw tooth pattern of up, over and down rocky features and around sharp cutting, zig-zagging turns. There are also a few sections where one must pay close attention because it is easy to turn off the trail at a few spur points that lead to a stream, which crashes down the mountain in parallel. At one such location I stopped to wait for Dave- I didn’t want him to go off trail at one of the spurs. Eventually we bottomed out on the Mau-Har and began the climb back up to near where the trail re-connects with the AT. A few switchbacks later and Dave was, again, gone from sight. I reached the top, then ran down to where the Mau-Har re-connects with the AT, hooked right and floored it. From where the Mau-Har re-connects to the AT, all the way back down to 56, I ran the hardest I would run all day. My goal was to catch Dave and assist him with getting back on the trail after refilling bottles at the car. A half mile or so before 56 I caught back up and passed him, yelling back that I would get the car open so he could transition quickly if he wanted.
I arrived back to the car in 2:20:38, popped open the doors and began refilling my two handhelds. Dave arrived seconds later and did the same. My legs felt really strong and nimble running downhill and slowly but surely I felt more warmed up on the climbs. Plus, I barely drank over one bottle of water the whole way thus far. And it didn't appear to matter much because I felt sharp. Still, I was not keen on potentially being overcome with thirst on the climb up The Priest so I chugged an entire bottle of water, swallowed two s-caps, grabbed a few Clif Blocks, locked up the car and was back on the trail in 2:22:47. Dave lagged behind for another moment. Half a mile up the trail Dave motored by. “Go get it” I told him. I stopped to leak, and soon after he was gone. At that point I was content to simply enjoy the climb, happily knowing that- in a small, strange sort of way- I might have helped Dave achieve something special and unique: an FKT at The Priest and Three Ridges. Bitchin.
“WTF!” I thought as I neared a trail turn a third of the way up the climb and saw Dave standing in the middle of the trail, with his left foot propped on a rock, stretching his hamstring. “I’m done,” he said. Something about a hip issue he didn’t want to aggravate this close to Mount Washington. “Go ahead, I’ll see you back at the car,” he told me. So I did; I went ahead. I continued up The Priest. From then on, I never sped up, I even power hiked quite a bit along sections I could have actually run but, still, I climbed with purpose. At the first major outcropping and view point, facing east, I ditched one of my bottles behind a tree so I could travel lighter. Fortunately, thirst was not an issue for me on this day.
The Priest is one of those strangely attractive mountains where the higher one climbs, the steeper the grade becomes, and the more narrow the trail becomes, the fewer the switchbacks and the sharper and more prevalent the rocks. I ran less and hiked more. I leaned into the mountain. My hands pushed off my knees. Movement was slower the closer I came to the summit. Only, where was the summit? Oh yes, The Priest is like that, too. The summit is an elusive little bugger. “It’s there!” 10 minutes later… “No wait, it’s there!...” And so on. Finally, I reached the summit and the grassy meadow with a fire ring to my right. It took me 55 minutes to reach the summit from 56 at the bottom. I didn’t stop there. I had heard there was a trail marker signaling an intersection and camp shelter somewhere down the other side and this marker, I figured, I would tag before returning back to 56 to make official this- apparent and unexpected- FKT attempt with a true turnaround destination.
Down the other side and over the rocks I travelled. The shelter sign, buried in a base of rocks in the middle of the AT, I tagged at 3:24 and immediately turned around and re-summited The Priest. 6 minutes, 38 seconds and .68 miles from tagging the shelter sign, I was back on the grassy meadow summit, staring again at the fire ring to my left. Time to let her rip.
I ran down The Priest’s north face, over and through the AT rocks and around her switchbacks. I ran with confidence, agility, and speed, but I did not push it past the level of feeling out of my comfort zone or out of control. More than anything, I was excited how well my quads were holding up at this stage in WS training and on this run, this day. They felt amazing. It didn’t matter if I still had four more Priests to run down, I knew my quads could do the job and still feel strong. I’ve never run down hills the way I am running them these days, and this gives me confidence.
The really steep, really technical upper sections soon gave way to a smoother, gradual grade. The stream crossings came and went, as well as a few more switchbacks and straight away down hills and, eventually, the AT trailhead board came into view. Finally, my feet landed onto the gravel parking lot at 56 and I stopped my watch at 4:00:13. I was done. I didn’t want to be done. It was fun running strong down The Priest. But the trail ended, there were cold drinks in the car and it was time to call it a day.
As I mentioned in the recent FKT post, I heard 3:56 on this loop was run once and considered stout. Only the runner, Jonathan Basham, to my knowledge, ran to the summit meadow of The Priest and did not add the additional 1.36 miles down and back up from the shelter sign. Had I left off that bit I would have finished somewhere closer to 3:48. Not bad considering where I am in WS training and that I really never expected to actually go for an FKT until about mile 15 or 16, after Dave decided to call it a day. Sub 3:50 on the same route I ran- which I am certain I could run- I now would consider stout. And sub 3:45, really strong. Or I’m in really good form at the moment and my outlook is skewed. Either way, who cares, it's all just fun and games.
Here is a link to the evidence of all of my babbling: GPS details.
Here is a link to the evidence of all of my babbling: GPS details.
And here is me after finishing back at the trailhead off 56.