The Darkness of a Full Moon, Running Toward Constellations, Reaching the W&OD Bike Trail, and Sprinting up Heartbreak Hill

Running time: 19 minutes. I’ve finally reached the bike trail. This is a major milestone.

Lungs: A bit of wheezing. Legs: Knees feel good, hips good, ankles untwisted. All remarkably unremarkable. Let’s hope this holds up.

Out of the house at 5:15 a.m. It’s dark. The new moon is completely not there, so only the stars illuminate the overhead sky.

However early it may seem, it’s not early enough for some people: the Washington Post is already sitting at the end of the driveway, wrapped in a plastic bag to keep the newspaper from getting wet from the dew and frost on the ground. Someday I’ll beat that newspaper delivery guy to his rounds. How early will that have to be?

Our neighborhood has large trees and no overhead wires: power and telephone lines are buried. The neighborhood was designed over 30 years ago with a minimum of street lights. This area was all part of a dairy farm way out in the northern Virginia country, back in the day. I guess the designers felt the need to preserve the feel of the starry country sky, so street lights were left off the drawing boards.

This is great, except for the few early morning runners who need to see the street’s quirky surface. Utility access holes, manholes, and potholes in the asphalt surface make for a bad running surface. Four years ago I had the misfortune of stepping across the edge of a rather deep access hole and twisting my left ankle so badly it kept me off running for a month or so. The colors on that ankle went from green to blue to yellow to blue again. The pain was so intense I had ankle-twisting nightmares for years.

I don’t know what direction I’m running, but it’s toward Orion. The belt of Orion is clearly in front. I’m guessing this means I’m heading east, in the direction of the rising sun.

The major constellations are easy to make out: the Big Dipper and Orion are over there, Gemini, the Pleiades. They’re all easy to see on a crisp, cloudless, moonless night.

There’s a nine minute run through the neighborhood, and then –- finally! – a short run through a small park and then I reach the bike trail. This is very exciting. The Washington and Old Dominion bicycle trail runs from the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains to Ronald Reagan international airport across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., a distance of over seventy miles. In many places the bicycle trail runs parallel a bridle trail for horses. The dirt path of the bridle trail makes for a wonderfully soft running surface for distance runners.

Marathon runners love the W&OD bike trail’s dirt horse trail surface because dirt running is much easier on the knees and ankles than hard pavement. When I trained for an earlier marathon five years ago, all running prior to getting on the W&OD was mere prelude. The real running began on the bike trail.

I’m glad to see my old friend the bike trail, glad and relieved. I spent many happy hours along this trail a few years ago.

These next few days will be hard: halfway through the run I’ll get to only spend a few minutes on the bike trail before having to return home again. Once times get above 40 minutes, that’s when I’ll be spending more time on the bike trail than on getting to it. This will happen about three or four weeks from now – mid March.

Today, as soon as my feet have touched the W&OD's asphalt top, I have to turn back and walk through the park and thence back home. The dirt path of the park is rock hard because the muddy surface is frozen solid. The bicycle ruts and the deep grooves of erosion make for such a nasty ankle-twisting surface I am forced to walk this two hundred yards back to the street.

The park is at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, a steep incline that is an unwelcome sight after a long run. It’s about 3/4 of a mile from my home. The forced walk leaves me frustrated that I can’t run, but at least I’m somewhat rested and ready to charge the hill. It’s a good sprint up.