Monday, April 6, 2015

Running towards the Mountains at Cedar Ridge Preserve

I've mentioned Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve in Dallas so much throughout my various race reports, on how the trails there were crucial in helping me get ready for all my toughest Ultra Trail races that I’ve faced, even Hundred Milers over Mountainous trails, that I hadn’t considered writing a separate blog posting about my preferred training grounds until a friend who works there asked me too.  Seeing how I’ll be spending even more time on the trails at Cedar Ridge in the coming months while training for the hardest race of my life in September at the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run, it may be helpful for other runners reading this if I elaborate on how I use the trails at Cedar Ridge for training, and why I love the trails here so much, that I hardly even consider running anywhere else in Dallas.  Packed within Cedar Ridge’s five and half mile main loop of diverse and beautiful nature trails, you’ll find some of the most technical (rocks and roots) trails and quad-busting steep climbs in all of Dallas, as well as truly enjoyable flatter sections of twists and turns and gnarly downhills, where if one throws caution out the window, the dangerous and exhilarating sensation of flying through the trees and dancing over rocks and roots can be an incredible experience that seems to never get old, no matter how many times I’ve ran here.

I've always thought this profile looks like a Running Man...

I discovered Cedar Ridge in 2012 when Endurance BuzzAdventures held their inaugural trail racing event there, the Cedar Ridge 36K, now re-formatted into a timed night-time series called the Fossil Valley Endurance Run; up until that point I mainly ran on roads or on trails that were made for Mtn Biking that makes up the majority of what you’ll find in North Texas, they’re mostly flat trails with long and gradual climbs suitable for biking, Cedar Ridge, on the other hand, was made strictly for hiking (no more having to worry about suicide bikers on downhills!) and it showed in the quad destroying climbs I encountered for the first time.  For just a 36K race, it took me 5 and half hours to finish; I was so beat up afterwards that I would not dare come back to Cedar Ridge for nearly a year.  It was only my first year of running trails and Ultras, and my focus at the time was on flatter trails to build up distance and speed, but I never forgot about my beat down there, and vowed to come back when I started to chase more difficult Ultras.

Climbs like these...
...and fast rocky and rooty downhills is not advisable for novice trail runners.

The next year was a messy and unfocused one for me, I finished my first 100 Miler at Rocky Raccoon, got terribly injured afterwards for a couple months, then ran over half a dozen Ultras in the Texas Hill Country area (plus a few more in other parts of the State), and spending the moments in between either recovering or injured from those races.  After just basically signing for any new Ultra that was coming up in a few weeks, and believing it would be enough to carry me through my upcoming toughest challenge yet, I was smacked hard back to reality and earned a painful and inglorious DNF at the Cactus Rose 100 Mile, later in the year.  That DNF was a turning point for me, it laid bare all my weaknesses such as poor climbing legs that couldn’t handle the steep climbs of Cactus Rose, and lackluster and unregimented training methods that frequently left me injured and undertrained leading into the race; if I wanted to get serious about chasing all the Mountain Hundreds I’ve been dreaming about, I needed to put up or shut up, afterwards my full attention was turned back towards Cedar Ridge to help get me there.

I did eventually venture back into Cedar Ridge earlier in that year, though never trained seriously while there for reasons listed above, but with my sights set on redemption at a Mountain Hundred, the Bryce Canyon 100 Mile in June of next year, I was ready to move into Cedar Ridge over the weekends to train…I also had no where else to go during those months.  The late fall and winter months in Texas are miserable and often wet, while every other trail in Dallas closes with so much as a drop of rain from the sky, Cedar Ridge come rain, sleet, or snow, is reliably open.  I understand and fully respect the need to close down the trails when it rains, especially with the hard-packed dirt trails we have down here, and sometimes wish Cedar Ridge did the same, as deep ruts people leave behind on muddy trails can become dangerous ankle breakers to run on when they dry, but I was surely thankful I had somewhere to go during those dreary months to train.  When it rains and the trails are wet, I avoid most of Cedar Ridge, and train almost exclusively on a nearly half mile stretch of incline with about 135ft of vertical gain, on their Escarpment trail.  The Escarpment is made up of mainly gravel and loose rocks, and thus doesn’t get as horribly muddy and slippery as the rest of the trails there, and is a great way to train your legs to run up and down long and gradual inclines.  A friend, who did repeats there to prepare for Western States 100, refers to it as the “Horrible Half”, and after months of running almost exclusively on this one incline over the weekends, I can see why…  I was relieved for the dryer months of spring the next year, because I was finally able to spend all my time on this one steep hill at Cedar Ridge that I crucially depended on to help me take on the Mountains.

I let out a little sigh reaching the bottom of the Escarpment each time...

Hill repeats is the unglamorous side of training for Ultras, if someone told me early on, that in order to get ready for those Mountain Hundreds, I would have to climb the same handful of hills, up and down, over and over again, for dozens upon dozens of repeats, all alone, week in and week out, ad nauseam for months on end, because the majority of North Texas trails are flat as pancakes, I may have chosen a different hobby…but I can grow quite obsessive when fixated on an idea, and grew to love the hills at Cedar Ridge, which never seems to get any easier, even after climbing them a thousand times already (probably more…).  One of the biggest hills at Cedar Ridge, and what I refer to as the “Mountain of Dallas”, is the Fossil Valley Hill (on the Fossil Valley trail section) at around 125ft in vertical in just .1 to .2 miles; with 3 routes up and down this hill that I alternated through, all of varying steep gradients, it became my default hill to strengthen my power-hiking muscles while I was trying to rack up as much vertical feet of gain/loss as possible to prepare for Bryce Canyon 100 Mile last year, sometimes doing nearly two dozen repeats and gaining up to 4K ft of climbing in one day.  Yes, it can become monotonous, but if you embrace the monotony, it becomes almost meditative as the miles and time pass by.  When I got really bored, I threw on a Podcast or Audiobook, with the predictability of climbing just one hill over and over again, you don’t have to focus as hard on the trail.  In a favorite article that I read over at, it waxes poetic over finding “That One Hill” that perfectly suits your every need for training purposes, in order to get you to where you’re determined to go, and Fossil Valley Hill was the big mound of dirt and rock that I lived and died on for the first half of 2014.

"For these hills are the places that make us fit, keep us honest, and give us just that little glimpse, in the midst of our very regular lives, of all that is extraordinary about running in the mountains."

Repeats at Fossil Valley Hill, at just a mere 125ft high or so, allowed me to conquer Mountains, over 19K ft worth of them at Bryce Canyon 100 Mile.  I’m not suggesting that this is the only hill in all of Cedar Ridge, or North Texas for that matter, to help you train for Mountain races, but it has the rugged surfaces and steep gradients needed for the Mountains; the parking lot is also just a short mile away for refills from your car, so it was convenient for me to train there, but as I’ve had more time to explore Cedar Ridge, and all it’s side trails and shortcuts, I’ve been able to map out new and less monotonous training routes.  One in particular that I’m quite fond of, is a route that I’ve dubbed the Cedar Ridge Twin Towers, because it combines two of Cedar Ridge’s biggest hills in one 2 mile long figure 8 loop (with one bonus mid-range hill in between).  I start by heading down the Escarpment incline, then when the trail forks, turn left to head towards the big Red Oak Hill climb, afterwards take a shortcut to Fossil Valley trail, at the base of the hill, I prefer taking a right for the steeper climbs, then head down Trout Lilly trail and back towards Escarpment to repeat; when all said and done, this 2 Mile loop packs in nearly 400ft of elevation gain/loss, all on the toughest trails Cedar Ridge has to offer, and mostly under the shade, which is important in the sweltering spring and summer months of Texas. 

Prepare yourself for some serious climbing when you see this sign.

Top of Fossil Valley Hill
The climb up Red Oak Hill...
The view from up top of the Observation tower at Red Oak Hill

Fun times running the Twin Towers...

While I mainly utilize Cedar Ridge for training and quad-busting Power-Hiking repeats, there are days where I’m not in Mountain training mode, and just want to head out for a pleasant run, or with friends, the main five and half mile loop (start at Possumhaw trail, and just keep taking the left turn) at Cedar Ridge is a great way to tour all there is to offer here; there are many other challenging mid-range hills and scenic stretches throughout the trails that I didn't cover (Possumhaw and Cedar Break trail, especially), and running the whole loop is still a very tough workout with around 700ft of elevation gain/loss in total.  I would also have to emphasize that this trail is part of a Nature Preserve and serves as a habitat for many wild animals and birds, and what I love to do most is head out there as earliest as possible on the weekends (opens at 6:30am) in order to beat the crowd of hikers and families on daytrips, as well as the heat; there I can usually count on a blissful hour or two of hardly seeing another human being on the trail, while I’m being completely immersed in nature and serenaded to a chorus of songs from wild birds.  North Texas is an endless sprawl of cities, suburbs, pavement, and ugly strip malls, our options to get away from it all is depressingly limited if you’re not willing to drive an hour or two to head out to a nature park for the weekend; thankfully Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve is an oasis of beautiful and challenging wilderness in the South Dallas/Cedar Hill area, and for Trail Runners, especially, a place to train for and dream about running on the Mountains.

Random photos showcasing some of the beauty of Cedar Ridge below: