Today’s run is brought to you by underground running. Running on off-beat trails. Being self-sufficient, yet social. If you have ever sat in a car looking up at some green hillside, covered in trees, tangles of wild grape and bushes, and wondered, “What’s up there?”, this type of running is for you. The common perception of Pittsburgh is that it is very hilly. While that is not wrong, it is more that water has cut its way through the geologically historic plateau. As if Pittsburgh were a giant cake and the rivers and streams have cut slices out. For more info check out this publication about Pittsburgh’s geologic history from Pennsylvania’s Department of Natural Resources (DCNR). There’s been some man-made renovations as well. I’m talking about the slag from steel factories which was piled into mountains along Pittsburgh’s waterways. But I digress. Suffice it to say, the slopes of the hillsides are very steep, while the tops of the hills are nearly flat.
Trails are all over these hillsides, imperceptible to most casual observers. Some are really deer paths, but many are carved out by the busy beavers of the outdoor community, mountain bikers. Relics of human endeavors are scattered on the hillsides; stairs, pipes, and random foundations in the least likely places. These trails have gradually been discovered by trail runners and, where two or more runners gather, a race breaks out.
These runs were part of the Mother Fricker, a FatAss event – no entry fees, no medals, no support. You’re on your own fat ass to make sure you can do it and have what you need. This sounds harsh, but in reality, the runners look after each other and serious problems are rare. The entire Mother Fricker was twenty miles distributed among four loops; an eight miler, a six miler, a four miler and a two miler. The course is roughly marked out with white flour. That whole-wheat stuff doesn’t stand out too well in the woods.
As per my SOP, I got there just as the runners were heading out on the first, eight mile loop. I stashed my recovery backpack and set off. In about a mile, I caught up with some of the walkers. We crossed a beautiful little bridge high over Nine Mile Run. Instead of directly up the normal hill, we turned right and ascend the switchbacks below Summerset. In “Lost in your Hazel Highs“, I described running through Summerset. On this run, we were on the slope below that nice Summerset brick wall pictured in the blog post. Coming down again, the route took us back across Nine Mile Run again and jumped into the slag heaps. Back and forth, the winding trails ascended and then went high above the Monongahela. Across the river, the Waterfront shops were so close, you could almost see the tags on shoppers’ purchases. OK, that was an exaggeration, maybe with a telescope. Rugged roller-coaster trails took a toll on the legs. Up and down, up and down, around small waterfalls, across narrow steep paths we ran. I was feeling strong and ran hard, trying to flow over the boulders and hillocks. Periodically, a shout of “Bikers!” would cascade and echo along the trails. We all scrambled for viable spots off trail as groups of mountain bikers rolled through.
Eventually we got to “Mountain of the Moon”, the nearly barren slag heap tops. The trails changed from mud to hardened gravel, very rough. My shoes were loose and bits of gravel quickly found their way inside. Some people stopped, enjoyed the view and explored the area. Others, like me, kept running along the undulating trail perched atop the slag. Coming off the moonscape, we crossed back over Commercial Avenue and returned to the start. The course was a little short of the advertised 8, so I jogged around Lower Frick to make it up.
The format of the Mother Fricker called for the six mile loop to start at 10am. Finishing the 8 miles relatively quickly gave me time to recover and remove the gravel and debris from my shoes. More people showed up, wise souls skipping the first loop. The six mile loop started with a bang and went up Iron Gate Trail. Iron Gate Trail climbs a large hill whose summit overlooks the Parkway East. After cresting, we dropped past Blue Slide Park, the sledding slope and onto Bradema Trail. Bradema is a fun trail, but at the end I lost track of the white flour and ended up at the start. Usually being the first one back is good, but this time, it meant I just lost my way. With 11 miles in, blisters on my toes and gravel in my shoes, I called it a day.
This was the longest trail run I had done in awhile. Wow! I forgot how tough trails are. Eleven miles on the trail felt as hard as twenty on the road. But it was good practice. I have a trail race coming up. I probably won’t be blogging about it here, since its not in Pittsburgh, but its a tough 25k race with ultra-steep hills and water crossings. I bailed after eleven miles, but many people did the entire 20 miles. Very impressive. Later, after reaching out to the non-running world for a bit, I found myself sipping beers and chatting with other trail runners, hearing stories of lost ways and past runs, and hatching plans for future exploits.