Conquer the Cove Marathon (May 29, 2022)

We found out the day before the race that we wouldn’t be allowed to swim in the lake this year. I was more than a little disappointed. Jumping in the lake after crossing the finish line is one of the reasons this is my all-time favorite race.

Luckily there are other reasons as well. I love love love the course. The mountain laurels are always blooming, the elevation is challenging (I love hills!) and the trails are mostly not too technical. Although this year there was a lot more mud and many more river crossings than usual. It was the first year I remember having to get my feet wet. They also always have the best post-race food!

The Blue Ridge Double Marathon was my big spring race. It was the race I had focused on and trained specifically for. I knew I wanted to run Conquer the Cove. I always want to run Conquer the Cove, but it wasn’t my “A” race. Which meant I didn’t have a time goal and I didn’t put any pressure on myself. My plan was just to see what I could do. I did want to take advantage of all the training I’d done for Blue Ridge and planned to start out a little less conservatively than I usually do, though.

The course begins with about a mile and a quarter of pavement and then abruptly starts climbing as soon as you hit singletrack. I’m a strong climber and always get stuck behind people walking much slower than I want to be going on this stretch.

My plan worked well. I was surprised that the group I was following kept running almost all the way to the top of the first climb.

And then it was time for the first big descent.

Conquer the Cove marathon elevation profile

I’d been working on my downhill running since the Blue Ridge Double and was concentrating on “flowing like water” instead of “bouncing like a ping-pong ball.” Still, a handful of people came barreling past me. And a lady who stayed close on my heels for a while told me that I looked like a ninja. I took that to mean I was doing a fair amount of flailing about.

The lady who told me I looked like a ninja running down the hill stayed close behind me for the next few miles. I think it was one of her first trail races, if not her very first. She kept saying she felt like a forest sprite or fairy and seemed delighted when we splashed through our first river crossing. She reminded me of myself on one of my best days. I enjoyed her company but worried I was pushing the pace a little too much on these roller-coaster miles. We chatted for a while and I found out she had recently moved to Richmond from Washington state and that her husband (boyfriend?) had thru-hiked the PCT and CDT and was getting ready to start the AT. She was reluctant to pass but eventually did. We then played leapfrog until the aid station at mile 8 where I left before her and didn’t see her again until after the race.

My legs were pretty tired by the time I made it to that aid station and I worried that maybe I had been going too fast. Mile 8 was early in the race for tired legs! Uncharacteristically, I decided to just go with it and see what happened. After all, my plan had been to see what I could do. Now I would just see what I could do with tired legs.

A few miles of more forgiving terrain later and I was surprised to find that I was feeling really strong again. This was fun!

It was starting to get really hot, though. When I hit the last aid station before the second big climb, I filled my hydration bladder and asked for a cold washcloth. I was ecstatic when a volunteer handed me one. It felt so good to wipe the salt from my face! I held onto it for the climb.

Near the top, I caught up to a guy who told me we should be able to finish in under 5 hours. That didn’t seem right to me, but it did motivate me to keep powering on.

I passed the next aid station without even stopping.

This last big descent is called the gauntlet and I hate it. My quads were tired, but I did my best to “flow like water.” I caught up to another guy and stayed behind him for a while. He didn’t offer to let me pass. I thought about staying behind him, but then remembered what the other guy had said about finishing under 5 hours. I knew it would be really close if it was possible at all. And why shouldn’t I run faster, if I felt like I could? I asked to get around him the next time there was room. He let me, asking, “Still feeling good, huh?” I told him I was really close to beating my own course record, which was true. The fastest I had finished this race was 5:13 back in 2017.

After the descent, there are a couple of miles of gradual climbing, which at this point in the race feels like torture. I was no longer feeling good. The heat and miles were getting to me and running was a struggle, but I kept pushing. I wanted to beat my PR.

By the time I hit the last aid station I was seriously craving a cup of Skratch. I was disappointed when I got there and remembered it was water only. Meagan (turkeyrunnerhttp://turkeyrunner.com) was volunteering though and it’s always nice to see a familiar face. Especially at that point in the race!

I had a sip of cold water and pushed on.

I crossed the finish line in 4:56:43. A course PR and sub 5!! And almost a full hour faster than I’d finished last year.

Gina had me wait at the finish line because she thought I might have won first place masters. I did not. I missed it by two minutes.

I did win a cowbell for placing first in my age group, though.

My feeling of accomplishment was slightly diminished when I later checked the results and realized there were only two people in my age group (and there would have been three, but the female winner was 45, which took her out of the age group category).

I still ran a great race, though! I thought the days of beating my PRs were behind me.

I placed 7th out of 23 women and 31st out of 77 overall.

Plus I got to run my favorite race and there’s talk of us being allowed to swim in the lake again next year.

Blue Ridge Double Marathon (April 16, 2022)

The Blue Ridge Double Marathon has intrigued me for years.

I registered for it in 2018, but wasn’t able to train much that winter and ended up dropping down to the marathon. I registered again in 2020, but Covid happened and it was canceled. I deferred my entry to 2021. The race was held in 2021, but I still didn’t feel ready to attend such a large event in person, so I deferred again to 2022.

This time I finally made it to the start.

The logistics for the double are weird. You are essentially running two separate marathons and you need to make sure you finish the first one in time to start the second one at 7:35 sharp. You have the option of starting the first marathon at either 1:00 a.m. or 2:30 a.m. They recommend the 1:00 start for runners who plan to finish in about 6 hours and the 2:30 start for runners who plan to finish in less than 5 hours. I figured I would be somewhere in between. I had run the marathon three times before with finishing times of 4:15, 4:40, and 4:53. I was anticipating 5:00 to 5:30 would feel like an easy, sustainable pace for the first lap. I’m in much better shape than I was the last time I ran the marathon, so I was actually thinking a 5 hour pace would feel pretty easy. I definitely didn’t want to be stressed out about not finishing in time to make it to the start of the second marathon though, so I signed up to start at 1. It’s a good thing that I did. I wouldn’t have made it back in time if I had started at 2:30.

One o’clock in the morning is an odd time to start a race. I decided to treat it like a normal morning start and wake up two hours beforehand for coffee and cereal, and to (hopefully) use the bathroom. From reading other race reports, that’s not the way most people did it. Some stayed up all night, others slept for a few hours, but didn’t wake up early for coffee and breakfast.

I got into bed at 7 p.m., probably fell asleep around 8 and our alarms went off at 11. I didn’t feel as horrible as I thought I would. Our Airbnb was on the top floor of an old three-story house less than a half-mile from Elmwood park (where the race start/finish was). It had a cool little window nook that overlooked the city, which was a great place to sit and drink my coffee.

Starting in the wee-est hour of the morning meant there was no line for the port-a-johns and they were sparkly clean. I’m pretty sure I was the first one to use mine. I know I was the first to use the toilet paper.

Getting ready for marathon #1

The first lap is self-supported (meaning you have to carry all the food and water you will need.) There were a few people along the course checking bib numbers to make sure everyone completed the entire course, but there wasn’t anyone giving directions and the roads weren’t closed. Even though we were told it was completely self-supported, they ended up having a few places where we could fill up on water and grab a banana. I was carrying two liters of watered-down Nuun, two Clif bars, 1 Clif nut butter bar, a Health Warrier chia bar, and a Lara Bar.

I had downloaded the RunGo app that was supposed to give us turn-by-turn directions along the course. I’ve run the first 15 miles of the course many times over the years as training runs and know it well, but 2018 was the last time I’d run the entire course and I had zero confidence I would know where to go. I had looked at the map, but the course is confusing and I hadn’t come close to memorizing it. I was actually pretty worried that I would get lost.

I met up with George (and Marie) who I had spoken with briefly about the race via social media but had never met in person. It was their first time doing the double, too.

First lap:

It was a humid but comfortable 58 degrees as we headed out for our first marathon. During training runs, and every time I’ve run the Blue Ridge Marathon, I have run almost all of the way up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but this time I started taking walking breaks much earlier. I wanted to be very conservative for this first marathon.

George and Marie were running nearby and we kept passing each other. Generally, I would pass them on the inclines and they would pass me back on the downhills.

It was so nice and peaceful up past Mill Mountain. I had been really excited about being up on the Parkway and seeing the stars. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the mountains at night to see the stars. But it was cloudy, so that was not to be. There was a bright orange glow in the clouds from the nearly-full moon, though. And the cloud cover was high enough that the view of the city was pretty spectacular.

View from the top of Roanoke Mountain

I was fully enjoying the sound of the wind in the trees, the heady smell of flowering trees, and how good it felt to finally be doing this thing that I’ve been thinking about doing for years.

I was having trouble with my RunGo app, though. I thought that I had started it at the beginning but apparently, I had not. I eventually got it turned on and calibrated, but it kept telling me I had gone off course. I knew I was not off course. I was with a bunch of other runners on the part of the course that I knew well. When it didn’t tell me to turn left to go up to Mill Mountain, I pulled out my phone and realized that the app had turned off. Maybe from being jostled in my pack? Maybe it had given up on me because it thought I’d been off-course the entire time? I turned it back on. From that point on, it told me my pace every mile but never once told me when to turn. I had to rely on the course markings, which were smallish arrows painted on the road.

This stressed me out because I was heading into, the second half of the course which was the part I wasn’t sure about. There were a couple of places where I wasn’t sure where to go, but I always guessed right. For the most part, the course was pretty easy to follow as long as you paid attention. It also helped that I had run the marathon three times before and had a general idea of where I should go.

I had also really been looking forward to running by the Mill Mountain star all lit up, but it was turned off when I went by. The volunteer who was up there said she’d been disappointed when she realized it wasn’t on, too. I later learned that the lights shut off at 11 p.m. every night.

Brian found me a few miles before the finish line.

I could usually see at least another runner or two, but there were a few miles where I was completely on my own. I kept my pace slow and energy-wise I felt great the whole time. About 4 miles from the finish line, the inside of my left knee started hurting, though. The pain wasn’t terrible. I could still run, but it worried me.

About two miles from the finish line, I drank the last of my Nuun.

I didn’t feel too bad when I crossed the finish line. I was worried about my knee, but I’d kept my pace easy enough that another marathon seemed reasonable granted my knee cooperated.

Between the marathons

I had just over an hour from the time I finished the first marathon until the start of the second one. Brian was at the finish line with my bag of clothing and snacks. First, I gave him my watch to charge. Then I used a port-a-john. I had to wait in a (very short) line this time! I was a little surprised by how many people were already there for the other races an hour before the start. I decided to walk over to the conference rooms the race had reserved for the doublers.

I did a complete change of clothes: shirt, shorts, bra, socks, and shoes. I had worn my older shoes for the first marathon and saved my newer ones for the second one, thinking the extra cushioning would probably be good. I ate a banana, an orange, and part of a bagel with hazelnut butter. I also had some hot coffee, which tasted amazing. I wanted to drink so much more but knew I probably shouldn’t. Brian filled my hydration pack halfway with water and added two Nuun tablets. I had filled it up completely for the first one but figured there would be a lot of water stops for this one, so I shouldn’t need as much. I would have fared much better if I had gone ahead and filled it all the way up again, though. And I probably should have been drinking Skratch or Nuun instead of coffee.

About 15 minutes before the start of Marathon #2, Brian and I left the hotel. It felt like the temperature had dropped significantly and the wind was frigid. I decided we could go back and wait a little longer inside the hotel.

Marathon #2

I was giddy waiting for the second marathon to start. Full of nervous and excited energy. I was also freezing. It was so cold!

Starting out on the second marathon felt like doing something new and a little terrifying; like riding a roller coaster for the first time, or jumping into icy water from a really high rock.

My knee still hurt, but other than that I was feeling really good. I made it to the top of Roanoke mountain faster than I had the first time. The knee pain actually went away for a while near the end of the first climb but came back on the way down. It bothered me for the rest of the run, but never got any worse.

There were a lot of spectators along the course this time and my double marathon bib earned me extra attention. I heard lots of “Double, Double!” and “Wow! You go, doubler!” and my favorite, “You are a true badass!” I have to admit it felt good.

I was not feeling as great on this lap, though.

The temperature rose quickly and I soon realized I hadn’t been drinking enough. When I finished the Nuun in my pack, I had to rely on the aid stations and by that point, a small cup of water every couple of miles just wasn’t enough. My stomach felt a little queasy and I tried to choke down some pretzels and pickles, but wasn’t having much luck. I couldn’t even think about eating anything sweet, which is why I was also sticking to water. After the first 10 miles, I wasn’t really able to get many calories in at all and the sun had come out and was beating down on me. I finally decided to try some Skratch and was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t taste too sweet after all. I wished I had tried it earlier, but I had been afraid the sweetness would make me sick.

I usually can eat whatever I want during races and rarely have stomach trouble. It only happens in the heat.

I had really hoped to run negative splits. Besides just finishing, that was the only goal I had. If I had stayed on top of my hydration, I know I could have done it.

But I did not. I finished the first marathon in 5:26 and the second one in 5:35. I slowed down less than most people did, but there were some who managed negative splits.

I was so excited when I found out that I placed second in the female master’s category. The awards are running figures made out of recycled railroad spikes. I’ve always thought they were so awesome and never imagined that I’d ever actually have a chance of winning one!

Such a cool award! They’re welded by local high school students.

I loved this race and even with the stomach troubles and hurt knee, I was ready to register for next year before I even had a chance to shower.

Although honestly, that’s how I feel after just about every race. I think I just love running.

Running in 2021

1226.43 miles

Only two races:

Conquer the Cove Marathon (May 30, 2021)
This is still my favorite race. I really hate that finish-line photo of me, though.

Eastern Divide 50k (June 19, 2021)
I’ve been wanting to run this race for years and was thrilled we were finally able to. Brian and I ran together the entire way. Although, saying we “ran” is generous. I was having knee pain and had to walk a lot of the downhills. He crashed pretty hard towards the end and didn’t want to run any of the inclines. Together, we made quite the team. We met some great people though and had a lot of fun.

Or, I had fun anyway. I doubt Brian would say it was fun.

Memorable runs that weren’t races:

Sunrise run on the Blue Ridge Parkway


The snowy run at Monticello when we met the diligent skunk.

He was so busy doing whatever he was doing that he never acknowledged us.

Spring magic at Monticello

Easter Sunday run at Ragged mountain and that dark chocolate-dipped carrot cake.

The Riprap/Wildcat run when the Rhododendrons were in bloom.

The run with my sister that was a comedy of navigational errors and nearly twice the miles it was supposed to be but included a glorious swim and created some wonderful (in hindsight) memories.

The run at Monticello when I met my white pigeon friend and he lead the way for a while.

All of my state park wild swimming runs.

The run with my cousin Jess on the Cape Cod Canal.

I didn’t get a picture of the run, but this is us swimming a couple of days later.

Jarmans in the Fall

Thanksgiving morning Jarmansing with the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners.

Wild Swimming at Twin Lakes State Park

Like Smith Mountain Lake State Park, this one was about an hour and a half drive from Charlottesville.

I was in a better mindset though and the drive didn’t bother me as much. It was actually really pretty with all the fall colors. But warm, it was not. I was very comfortable in the car with the heat on, sipping my hot apple cider tea.

The weather forecast said it was going to be mostly cloudy with a high in the mid-sixties, so I was pleasantly surprised that the sun was out for most of my drive.

It was cloudy by the time I got to the park, though.

The swimming area is on Goodwin Lake, so that is where I parked. I used the restrooms (which were spotless and smelled as though they had just been cleaned) and then went down to the beach.

The lake looked so pretty with the colorful trees lining the bank on the other side.

I headed out on the Goodwin Lake Trail, which encircles the lake. There were some cute little bridges and a lot of fall color.

Just about a mile later, I was back where I started. I crossed the road and headed out on the Between the Lakes Trail to Otter’s Path Trail, which makes its way around Prince Edward Lake. This trail was a little more technical and hilly, but much less so than the trails at Smith Mountain Lake State Park. A layer of fallen leaves was covering the trail though, and ever since I sprained my ankle twice within a couple of months, leaf-covered trails make me really nervous. I just took it slow.

I did the short jaunt down to the lake on Beaver Point Trail and continued on Otter’s Path, finishing my run with about 5 miles. I did not see another human on any of the trails.

Back at the beach, there was a family with several children. None of them seemed to be having a good time.

I tried to tune out the crying and fighting and scolding as I slowly made my way into the water. The lake bottom was sandy, but had a film of darker brown sediment on top that floated up and muddied the water as I walked. In front of me was a smooth reflection of trees and sky disturbed only by the ripples I made as I moved forward. The water was cold, so I took my time. The initial plunge was definitely brisk, but it didn’t take long to get used to. I swam around for a while enjoying the water and tranquility (the noisy family had left).

As soon as I got out of the water, the sun peaked out from behind the clouds, so I had to get back in. I couldn’t miss out on those few precious rays of sunshine!

This was the last state park on my list, so my challenge is complete! I had fun exploring some new-to-me state parks and doing some wild swimming. I hope to do a lot more wild swimming when it gets warm again. Some people do it all year, even breaking the ice to get in for a dip. I won’t be doing that.

*I had originally thought that Pocahontas State park had lake swimming, but there is a pool there and swimming in the lakes is not allowed.

Wild Swimming at Smith Mountain Lake State Park

I should have started this challenge with the parks that are the furthest away. Doing the closest ones first was a mistake. As the days get colder, it’s getting harder to motivate myself to get out there and the long drive times aren’t helping.

Smith Mountain State Park is about a two hour drive from Charlottesville. The weather forecast for Sunday called for clouds with partial clearing later in the day and temperatures in the mid seventies. Not ideal, but I’m not sure how many more warmish days we’ll have this year. I decided to just do it. I drove for about an hour in a light rain. When I stopped for gas near Lynchburg, the wind had picked up and I felt cold in my running shorts and jacket.

The weather matched my mood, though. Or my mood matched the weather. I’m reading a book that is really dark (good, but dark), the stray cat that I’ve been feeding had missed two of her feedings so I was worried about her and my anxiety in general has been pretty high lately. The creepy Halloween decorations in the hazy gloom (an entire zombie family by the side of the road gave me a genuine scare for a split second) didn’t help matters. Nor did the murder mystery podcast I was listening to. I had a familiar wired, jittery sensation in my chest (anxiety), my stomach hurt and I had a feeling of impending doom. For no real reason. I wasn’t so sure it was the best day for one of my state park adventures but regardless, I was on my way.

All of the other Virginia State Park websites with lake swimming say that there are no lifeguards on duty, but swimming is still available. The Smith Mountain Lake website doesn’t say that. It just says that the beach and concessions are closed. So I had called to check and was told that the gate and bathrooms are closed, but swimming is allowed granted I’m willing to hike in.

I parked at the picnic/playground lot just before the gate to the beach and headed out on the Striper Cove trail. I soon found myself wishing I had put bugspray on my legs. The trail was narrow and overgrown with tall grass. It was pretty, but there were definitely going to be some stops for tick checking. Other than the grassy areas, the trail was mostly wooded and more rocky, rooty and hilly than I was expecting. My knee has been bothering me again and I was hoping for a flatter run. It only hurt on the steepest inclines though.

There were a few views of the lake and many mushrooms.

Ticks!
Lemon meringue pie?

After the Striper Cove trail, I did the Turtle Island trail, and what a delight that was! It’s short, but takes you out on a peninsula, over a little footbridge to a tiny island. The sun came out for a few seconds while I was on the island (I ran around it twice) and it felt kind of magical. I couldn’t help but think how much fun it would have been to have access to that when I was a kid. I spent most of my time playing in the woods and building forts. How fun would it have been to have your own private kid-sized island to play on?

From there, I made my way along the Opossum Trot trail and then back along the Tobacco Run, Beaver Den, Buck Run, Turkey Foot and Walton Creek trails.

The views of the lake from near the Discovery Center were pretty spectacular. I thought I ran a portion of the Lakeview trail, but looking at the map now, I’m pretty sure I missed it entirely. I need to go back, because I bet it’s quite nice even though it’s really short.

The coves along the Buck Run and Walton Creek trails were pretty cool. They’d be fun to explore in a kayak or SUP.

I was really tired by the time I made it back to my car. I grabbed my towel and jogged down to the beach, which I was ecstatic to find I had all to myself. It was the most impressive swimming area of all of the state parks I’ve visited so far. There is so much room to swim!

Wild swimming is about swimming for pleasure, and that’s what these swims are for me. It feels so good to submerge yourself in a cool lake! I marveled at the fact that I could comfortably swim in October and thought it was bloody fantastic that I was the only one who seemed to be in on the secret. It was probably a good ten minutes before I started to feel chilly.

The loop I did was just shy of ten miles and there were several trails I skipped. I definitely want to go back and hit them all.

Maybe I’ll try a November swim?

I called Brian before I left and he told me that Pippy (the “stray” cat who I more accurately should call our cat at this point) had finally returned.

On the drive home I realized that all of my physical anxiety symptoms had disappeared. Everything seemed a lot less gloomy even though the weather hadn’t changed at all. In fact, it was raining again.

Wild Swimming at Douthat State Park

It takes about an hour and a half to get to Douthat State Park from Charlottesville.

Brian came with me, which is pretty amazing because he doesn’t like running and thinks lake water is disgusting.

It’s really hard for me to fathom. 

We had been to the park twice before for the Odyssey Trail Running Rampage.

I ran the half marathon in 2018 and we both did the marathon in 2019. After each race, I had really wished I could jump in the lake but I hadn’t thought to look at a map ahead of time to figure out where the beach was. Now that I know how close I was and how easy it would have been I’m really regretting my laziness.

Brian ran 50 miles last weekend, so he didn’t want to do more than five miles. (another reason I was shocked he was going with me. I mapped out a route that started at the beach (or what I thought should be the beach, it was really hard to tell on the trail map) and included the Tobacco House Ridge Trail, which I really wanted to do because there was supposed to be a nice overlook of the lake from that trail.

There are 40 miles of trail in the park, so it wasn’t easy to decide which to do.

It’s not a coincidence that I didn’t do any of my wild swimming between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Hordes of people kind of ruin nature for me.

I was worried the park would be really crowded on such a beautiful October day, but it wasn’t. There were some people fishing and hiking, but the trails further from the lake were nice and quiet.

From the lake, we took the YCC trail out to the park road and then ran on the road to the Beard’s Gap Hollow trail to Locust Gap Trail to the Blue Suck Falls Trail to the Tobacco House Ridge Trail and then retraced our steps on the road and YCC Trail. This was a slightly modified version of my original plan because we turned early at one point. It worked out fine, though. It was just a bit more climbing than we anticipated. 

Screenshot 2021-10-03 12.54.17 PM

original_b70b5365-5601-43cd-b177-9566452f4764_IMG_20211002_120108458_HDR

IMG_20211002_130714868_HDRThe trails were well marked and well maintained. I loved the Locust Gap Trail, which was nice and smooth along the ridge. The Tobacco House Ridge trail was nice, too (after the short but very steep first tenth of a mile or so). The view I had been so excited about was not as amazing as I had hoped. It’s probably better in the winter. 

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The Blue Suck Falls Trail was rocky and steep and I did not like running down it. You run up it in the Odyssey race and I much prefer that. The rest of the trails were really nice, though.

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When we got back to the lake I was happy to see that it was still empty. The water felt cold at first, but really nice once I was in. I stayed in for a while and could have stayed in longer, but I knew Brian was eager to get going.

I didn’t take a selfie after my swim because Brian said he got a picture of me in the water.

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This is his picture.
Can you find me?

Wild Swimming at Holliday Lake State Park

I realized on the drive there that I had forgotten to bring cash. Luckily the park office was open and I was able to pay with my credit card. This was a huge relief because the park is in the middle of nowhere. I was looking at a half-hour drive EACH WAY if I had to backtrack to a town for cash.

Each state park I visit is even better than the last!

This one was beautiful, immaculate and quiet. I love quiet.

I got a late start because I wanted to give the day time to warm up for the swim. I had even considered waiting until afternoon. What I hadn’t considered was the fact that I am not at all acclimated to running in the heat. Waiting until later would have been a huge mistake. I struggled enough as it was.

A big part of that was probably the fact that I didn’t carry any water. The trail I was planning to run (Lakeshore) was only 6.5 miles. I run 6 miles all the time without water. But I generally do it around sunrise. It’s a little different by ten in the morning. I also had a little trouble following the trail and the run ended up being a little over 7 miles (another reason I really should have been carrying water!)

Lesson learned. I will carry water when I explore new trails from now on.

The trail is fairly well marked, but you have to pay attention. At one point I came out at a road crossing and the trail didn’t continue on the other side. I went down the road a little in each direction looking for the trail and didn’t see anything. Eventually I decided to go back the way I’d come to make sure I hadn’t missed a turn and soon discovered that I had.

When I got to the dam, there was a sign that said “Danger. Authorized Personnel only beyond this point.” I backtracked again (this wasn’t so bad because it was actually one of my favorite sections.) I ran about a quarter mile before I saw one of the blue blazes that I was supposed to be following. I hadn’t missed a turn, so I ran back to the dam. I then realized that the sign was referring to the area under the dam, not the dam itself.

There was very little mud and only two small creek crossings that required getting my feet wet.
Wildflowers everywhere!
My first lady’s slipper sightings of the year. I saw two.
The section of trail that I got to run four times. There were so many wild azaleas along the shore.

The deepest of the two creek crossings (deeper than it looks in the picture). It came late in the run and I was so hot by that point that I was happy to see it. I stopped and rinsed the sweat from my eyes and splashed some water on my neck.

The last couple of miles were tough. I actually stopped to walk a few times. 

Back at my car, I downed an entire (icy!) thermos of Nuun before heading to the beach. It was quite possibly the best beverage I’ve ever had.

The water felt colder than my previous two swims, but I think that’s just because I was so hot!

 

Wild swimming at Bear Creek Lake State Park

This one was also just about an hour’s drive from Charlottesville. It felt more like it was in the middle of nowhere though. Some of the roads I took to get there weren’t even paved.

It was quieter than Lake Anna State park, which I really liked.

I ran the Channel Cat Loop Trail, then took the Lakeside Trail over to the Lost Bar Loop Trail and then back again for a little over 6 miles.

The trails were well marked and great for running. I passed a few hikers and a runner on the Lakeside Trail but had the two loop trails all to myself.

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While I was running by the lake, saw a kayaker in the water and realized there were two people swimming along behind it. That made me feel happy and also a little less crazy for wanting to swim on a not exactly hot day in April.

The sun was occasionally peaking out from behind the clouds and the air temperature was 68. I had some salt stinging my eyes by the time I finished my run, but was far from overheated.

The water felt chilly when I got in, but not bad at all, even with a good wind blowing across the lake. The wind made the water a little choppy, which was kind of fun to swim through. I stayed in a lot longer than I did at Lake Anna, breast-stroking back and forth between the buoys.

The coolness of the air and water and the lack of other swimmers made this swim feel a little more “wild.” I do realize that swimming within buoys at State Park beaches is probably the most tame form of wild swimming there is, but wild swimming just sounds cool, so I’m going with it.

It was so quiet I got to enjoy the soft rippling sound of the waves I make when I’m swimming. I love that sound. I also love the smell of lake water (and ocean and river water.)

In addition to all the trails I explored, the park also provides access to the Cumberland Multi-Use Trail (14 miles) and the Willis River Trail (16 miles) so there are plenty of options for longer runs.

I would definitely go back.

Two down, four to go.

Wild swimming at Lake Anna State Park

The drive time from Charlottesville was just about an hour. I was a little surprised that there wasn’t anyone at the entrance booth, but it was a Tuesday afternoon in early April, so I guess it makes sense. I stopped and put my money in one of the provided envelopes and tore off the parking tag for my rear view mirror. The weekday fee is $7. I had a ten dollar bill and four ones. I just stuck the ten dollar bill in there and figured I was fine giving the state park an extra $3. The park office was open so I could have stopped and got change if I really wanted to.

I parked at the beach parking area. There were about a dozen other cars there, but it was a big lot so it still looked pretty empty. I was really disappointed to see that the beach was actually closed, though. The website had said it was open, but it was roped off and a bulldozer was spreading out piles of fresh sand.

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There were people wading and splashing about in the water on either side of the roped-off section, but the website said swimming was only allowed at the main beach. I decided to go for my run and hope that they finished with the bulldozing by the time I was done, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen.

I started out on the Fisherman’s trail, which is a short trail along the water that connects the swimming area to a fishing and picnic area. From there, I got on the Ware Creek Trail, which was by far my favorite trail of the day. There’s a nice section down by the water and then a more wooded section. It felt secluded and peaceful and I didn’t pass a single person. There are several exercise stations along the path.

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I headed back by the beach to the Railroad Ford trail and took mental notes of places I could possibly swim along the way. I passed a few groups and couples, but it was still far from crowded. I was getting hot and thirsty and starting to wonder if I’d made the hour drive and paid $10 just to run on some trails. The Railroad Ford trail connects to the Glenora trail and I had planned to take it, but there was a sign that said “Registered campers only beyond this point.” I didn’t really think that meant only campers could use the trail, but I was also really thirsty (it was almost 80 degrees and there weren’t any leaves on the trees yet, which meant I had been running for 40 minutes with the sun beating down on me) so I decided to head back to the water fountain I’d seen at the beach.IMG_20210406_142625231_HDR

I was happy to find the water fountain in working order and took a nice long, refreshing drink. Instead of heading out on the questionable Glenora trail, I decided to just do another loop of the Railroad trail, knowing that there were a few places along the way I could swim if I decided to. The park website had said that swimming was prohibited anywhere other than at the official beach, though. And I do generally try to follow the rules. So I ended up just running around the loop and back to the beach. 

I saw a couple of rangers talking to some of the people who had been swimming in the area right next to the beach and went over to see what they had to say. I figured they were telling them they weren’t allowed to swim there, but that wasn’t the case. The beach was indeed closed, but when I asked if they were telling people they weren’t allowed to swim outside of it, they said no, that it was a public lake and people could swim wherever they wanted to. I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear that.

I found a fairly secluded spot along the Fisherman’s trail and had myself a nice little swim. The water was clear near the shore, but quickly turned murky. I didn’t wade too far out before I dove in. The water was cold, but not bad at all. The swimming holes here in the mountains are colder in the middle of summer than this water felt the first week in April. Since I was alone, I didn’t swim very far out, but I did swim around a little bit. 

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I didn’t do quite as much swimming as I would have if the big sandy beach with the buoys around it had been open, but my private little swim was really nice, too.

There is no way I would go to Lake Anna State Park on a busy weekend in the summer, but I would love to go back on a weekday before the beach officially opens and explore the rest of the trails and spend a little more time swimming.

One park down. Five to go.

Wild Swimming State Park Challenge

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I just finished reading Waterlog by Roger Deakin. The book is his account of “swimming through the British Isles.” I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has inspired me to do a swimming challenge of my own. My plan is to visit every Virginia State Park with a natural body of water for some wild swimming. I’ll probably do some running, too. My goal is to hit the six parks that are within a two hour’s drive before the end of the year:

  • Bear Creek Lake State Park (Cumberland, Va)
  • Holliday Lake State Park (Appomattix, Va)
  • Pocahontas State Park (Chesterfield, Va)
  • Twin Lakes State Park (Green Bay, Va)
  • Lake Anna State Park (Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va)
  • Douthat State Park (Millboro, Va)

Wild swimming isn’t new to me. I grew up swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers, bays and the ocean. After cross country meets in high school, if there was a body of water anywhere nearby, I always jumped in. Occasionally some off my teammates would join me. Ever since, swimming after a run has been one of my favorite things in the world.

I can’t wait to get started!

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Snake hole after a long run.
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My cousin Jess and I after the Zooma Cape Cod half marathon.

 

From Waterlog:

This was a more leisurely swim; the black water, exposed to the sun, was less cold than the river. My breaststroking sent a bow-wave wobbling the reeds along the banks, and the eels shifting in the mud. From the water, I could see Burrow Hill rising steeply to a single tree at its summit. A tiny figure was sitting on a swing under one of its branches, silhoutted against the blue.
In the afterburn of the swim, I raced to the top of the dramatic hill, where the man on the swing, who owned a pair of white goats grazing nearby, politely offered me a turn. The view from the swing is one of the finest in England, across the Levels for miles in every direction until the fields and rivers disappear in mist. Being airborne, and already high from a cold dip, it was like floating above the world as you sometimes do in dreams.

Swoon.

That is a man after my own heart.