the next day.

Whether you buy into the hype or not, Christmas seems to demand attention even before the Thanksgiving plates and utensils have made it to the drying rack.  From there the anticipation builds and builds (especially if you have children) until there's no possibility that the day can live up to its billing.

And just like that, even if it did prove a lovely occasion (and, thankfully, this year it did), it's gone again.

Falling as it did this year on a Saturday, the holiday was kind enough to deliver another day of rest before kicking us back to the curb that is the work week (unless you're my wife who headed immediately back to the "office").

Knowing that Lindsay would be leaving for her shift at the hospital in the early afternoon, I had set the alarm for just before 5:30 AM to make sure I got in my miles without disrupting her day.  I'd received a pair of New Balance MT101's from my sister the day before and had excused myself for an hour to put them immediately to the test.  They'd seemed, right out of the box, like familiar friends and I was eager to see how the felt on a return trip.

I met up with Jefferson just prior to 6:00 and we did our customary catching up while stretching, tying laces, donning headlamps, letting the GPS locate a satellite and such.  Between my wanting to get back in a timely fashion and Jeff's careful monitoring of a yet to be fully diagnosed leg issue, we decided to just do one small segment of the criss-crossing sections of trail that overlap with the Horseshoe Trail, Camp Mack and the surrounding state game lands.

In a little less than an hour, we'd put in just under 4.5 miles, including a couple of challenging climbs and some speedy downhills.  I'd been a bit tentative because of having switched to a more compact headlamp and immediately missing the brightness and sharpness of my usual light.  Otherwise, I felt great and was further convinced that I'd found a minimalist shoe that almost perfectly mirrored my foot.

I arrived home just as Lily emerged from her bedroom, rubbing the last of the sleep from her big blue eyes and affixing her customary rise-and-shine grin.  We agreed to spend the whole day in PJ's and I tucked her into the couch, turned on Thomas the Tank Engine and hurried off for a shower.

As I stepped out of the shower, I heard Piper Bea singing softly to herself from her bedroom.  She was surprisingly chipper for one who does not normally take kindly to the arrival of morning.  I changed her diaper and clued her in on the lounge-about plans.

Naptime arrived in what felt like mere minutes.  We'd read countless books, test-driven a bevy of new toys, hounded the dog and even played demolition derby with a pair of unsuspecting baby strollers.  I received no protests as I placed Pipe in her crib and ushered big sister Lily to her room for her "rest".  Lindsay was still sound asleep and, seeing no need to sabotage her slumber, I settled into the couch for a nap of my very own.  I do not remember the last time I dared such a luxury and it was exquisite.

I roused the girls and remembered (how could I forget?!?) the camera I'd been given the day before.  While I hardly qualify as a "photographer", I do enjoy taking pictures and had endured a painful stretch after dropping and breaking my camera back on Halloween.  My mother, who had originally gifted me that camera and witnessed first-hand its destruction, was kind enough to give me a model that was its specific update, sparing me my normal agonizing learning curve upon acquiring a new camera.

Piper, refusing to part with a new companion, was placed in her high chair.  Click.

Lily joined me in enjoying a bowl of soup.  Click.

Soup can be messy and tubby time wasn't far behind.  Another photo op.

A return to pajamas found us waving goodbye to Mom and hoping that impending weather wouldn't leave her stranded at work overnight.  After she was gone, we played and played.  We watched birds at the feeders, oohed at the falling snow and played some more.  The day, a rare specimen that saw little bickering between my two spirited daughters, passed swiftly.

After putting Piper down for the night and singing songs and reading a few last books to Lil, I discovered that Clouseau had also decided to turn in.

Which left me, still in my pajama bottoms and slippers, to decide what to do with the rest of my evening.  So here I sit, with my legs kicked up, a tall glass of ginger ale, a newly warmed slice of apple pie (Mom's recipe, my execution) researching the reported update to the aforementioned MT101 and hoping that New Balance doesn't undue perfection.

Even if they do, it's just a shoe.  And they can't take away this perfect day.


stepping stones.

With apprehension that I am summoning a jinx, I have decided to unfurl the map and plot a course that leads towards running my first 50-mile event in late 2011, the Stone Mill 50 Mile Run in Damascus, Maryland. 

I've daydreamed about tackling the distance for the last 2 years but admittedly the concept hasn't evolved beyond "some day" status.  Rather than push the idea out any further, I want to approach the preparation as though the event has already started and apply the same dogged tenacity to finishing as I would on any other race day.

While I hope to take part in any number of events over the next 11 months, there are 5 key test pieces that I've picked to gauge where I'm at as Saturday, November 19 draws nearer.

I'd initially thought that I'd spend the first couple of months of 2011 simply not allowing short days and cold weather to keep me from logging miles.  Luckily, an unexpected invite appeared on my Facebook profile alerting me to the return of the Buzzards Marathon, a 26.2 mile trail run in the Clark's Valley area of Dauphin County.

The heavy snows of 2010 kept the event from being held, but on March 6th, off-road marathoners will return to a challenging course that overlaps portions of the Horseshoe and Appalachian trails.  An elevation profile of more than 4000 feet of change should provide a good early test.

In April I plan to head to Clinton County to participate in the Hyner View Trail Challenge.

I used to camp and hike regularly in an area slightly northwest of Hyner and was disappointed a few years ago when I learned that the event had happened just a week prior to my visit.  I've wanted to return ever since but haven't managed to make it happen.  I sent my registration check a few weeks ago and am not going to miss out this time around.  At 16 miles, the Hyner Challenge is the shortest of the races on this list, but may just be the most daunting.  Before reaching the 4th mile, runners will have climbed over 1400 feet and will give it almost all back in the downhill mile that follows.  There are two more similar climbs and quad-thrashing downhills to be tackled before the finish line.  The total elevation gain exceeds 4300 feet.  I'm really, really looking forward to this one but must own up to some anxiety as I intend to push as hard as I can.

With any luck my quads will have recovered enough by June 11 to allow me to enter the Laurel Highlands Ultra 50K Race in southwestern Pennsylvania.

This will be the 6th annual running of the abbreviated alternative to the esteemed 77-mile race that occurs on the same day.  I hope to someday try the full course, but for this year I'm going to be satisfied to do the 50K.  Last June I ran the first 11.6 mile leg of the 50K relay and am itching to try the full 31.1 miles on my own.  I was fairly pleased with my time at the relay but sorely disappointed in the wicked cramping that resulted from the effort.  Unless unexpectedly mild weather breaks at the Hyner Challenge, this will likely be the first 2011 race that bring the additional obstacles of heat and humidity.

On July 25th I will turn 37 and would like to celebrate with a run of that same distance.  That would mean running 10 kilometers further than I've ever run before which should serve the dual purpose of measuring my progress towards 50 miles and convincing me that I'm not yet over the hill (entirely).  I haven't decided on where to go about doing this and am very much open to suggestions.  If anyone would like to accompany me, I would consider it one whale of a birthday present.

A couple of months ago, I wrote of the Keystone Trails Association's Susquehanna Super Hike and Ultra Trail Run held in south central Pennsylvania's York and Lancaster Counties.

My employer, Backcountry Edge, served as the gold sponsor and I was thrilled to be able to serve at one of the aid stations, secure and deliver door prizes and giveaways and provide moral support to all of the runners and hikers.  It was a fantastic day, but it left me wanting to actually enter the 28.4 mile race.  On September 10, 2011, I intend to do just that.

Once I've crossed the line at the Super Hike, I hope to concentrate on simply staying fit and healthy enough to attempt 50 miles on the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail and doing so without any reservations or excuses.


thank you card.

The following post is actually I note I'd typed up for a friend who suffered an IT band injury at mile 24 of his first 50-mile race (a distance I hope to attempt and finish next year), the Mountain Masochist Trail Run (MMTR) held in the wilds of Virginia.  Despite the injury and its providing him with an excuse (a REASON, I'd say) to not go on, he DID, walking the remaining 26+ miles to eventually finish under the cutoff time.

As I was composing this message of well wishes, I realized that what I had to say TO my friend also had quite a lot to say ABOUT my overall thoughts on long-distance trail running and the passion that it inspires in me.  Hopefully, he doesn't mind me sharing this with any and all who wish to read it.

How are you feeling a week removed from race day? I hope at least your mind is in the right place and you can already see the light at the end of recovery's tunnel.

I've gotta tell you, top 10 (and better) finishes are extremely impressive and always will be, but fighting through what you fought through last Saturday is seriously awe-inspiring. I do not know you well, but I'm not b.s.-ing when I say that your effort and your willingness to share the experience in all its details makes me proud to know you; proud OF you.

So much of the spell that ultra-running has cast on me was embodied in your day, most notably the overcoming of obstacles, refusing to say "this is too much" AND accepting and embracing the accomplishment in "just" finishing even when the time on the clock isn't what you'd intended. It's a perspective I struggle to keep in my everyday life but that on the trail seems the only acceptable one to those of us who subject ourselves to rough terrain, long courses and the many, many minutes required to cover that ground.

The personal challenge I've proposed is finding a way to carry it into the workplace, to bring it back home and remember that, cliche or not, winning really is NOT everything. Nearly everyday I fail to meet that challenge BUT I'm going to keep on working, continue striving to get there (and stay there).

Shared stories like yours from the MMTR are powerful and inspiring reminders. I, for one, greatly appreciate your running testimony as the gift that it is and thank you for it.

Be well, my friend.  Heal fast and fully. Those trails aren't going anywhere BUT they are anxiously waiting for your return.


standing in the shade of the family tree.

"...as I have at last grasped that the task of understanding where one came from and how one came from it are not as simple as I would have supposed it to be when I was younger."
- Larry McMurtry from Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Just past 9:00 on Friday, October 8th I, along with my mother, stepfather, aunt and grandmother, safety-belted Lily Harper and Piper Bea into the car seats perched high in the rented van waiting to escort us all to a lovely little cabin near Denmark, Maine.

Lindsay waved good-soldierly from the porch, bound to home by classes meant to push forward her career but that, at that moment, could only have felt like obstacles to a getaway with her husband and children. My heart ached at the idea of leaving her behind and swelled with pride and love for her determination to foresee the long-ranging benefits of her sacrifice.

Already an hour beyond their normal bedtimes, Lil and Pipe were both wide-eyed-awake with an expectancy that they couldn't possibly have understood but that would sustain them for most of an 11-hour traversal of seven states.

My stepfather and I swapped driving duties throughout the nighttime hours and the rising sun found us making quick work of the small sliver of New Hampshire that wedged itself between the northeast corner of Massachusetts and the welcoming arms of southeastern Maine.  Breakfast was sought, pinpointed and devoured.  After a brief visit to the stately Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth, we circumnavigated sprawling Sebago Lake and reached the quieter confines of the woods surrounding Hancock Pond.

The crisp air, dazzling fall foliage and straight-from-my-daydreams cabin on the lake beckoned for us to step out of the van and officially get our vacationing under way. The next 9 days were to be filled with stunning examples of natural beauty, robust shared laughter, first time adventures and the collective embrace of nothing NEEDING to be done.

And the days would be spent together, doing only those things that we WANTED to do.  We gazed out on an endless ocean and a lake that had a visible end but no shortage of loveliness.  We were serenaded, hauntingly, by the loons and scolded and bullied by the neighborhood kingfisher.  A visit to a county fair that toed the New Hampshire border brought close encounters with cows, goats, carousels, bouncy-castles, carved bears and hearty chowders in heartier bread bowls.  Lily and Piper had their first official train ride and donned life vests for their first time in a canoe.  We drove through and hiked within the White Mountains and scaled the steps of the iconic Pemaquid Point Lighthouse.  We cooked and ate meals together.  Climbed in and out of the van together.  We woke in unison each morning to see what new adventure lay in store and, on a few occasions, decided together that it was a great day to do absolutely nothing...together.

Even in solitary moments, I reflected mostly on the joy of watching my daughters build and store memories of time spent with their father, grandparents, great-aunt and great-grandmother.  Sitting on our cabin-side dock and gazing out on a misty, nearly mystical foggy sunrise, I knew that even if the girls couldn't later recall all of the details of this trip, they should at least be able to piece my rememberings with the feelings of warmth and love being bestowed on them from each doting family member.

I managed a few runs (perhaps even a separate post's-worth) but I didn't find myself craving them the way that I often do at home.  Mortgage payments, work deadlines, home maintenance and the like amplify my need to run and those nuisances were nowhere to be found in New England.  Despite my sometimes short attention span, my appreciation of solitude and my not normally serving as a member of a constant party of 7, I couldn't come up with a good reason to strike off on my own and didn't want to.

I spent the first 10 or 11 years of my life living in a house that stood right next door to the home of my grandmother, aunt and uncle.  In fact, in my youngest years and before my uncle married and brought his bride home to live with him, that residence also housed my grandfather and the ancestors who raised him when his birth mother proved unready for the responsibility, my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother.  In other words, I'd been privy to the inter-mingling of multiple generations, the protective comfort of the overhead branches of a tall and healthy family tree.

Looking back, I suppose I'd taken it for granted.  I too was certainly exposed to my fair share, perhaps more than my fair share, of doting.  That said, even though I wouldn't have known it then, mortgages were being paid (somehow), work AT work needed to be done and, at home, lawns begged to be mowed, leaking roofs cried out for new shingles and windows clamored for caulking.  Real life kept on making demands and casting long, dark shadows over the luxury, the treasure of having family all around.

But, for that one week in Maine, we'd escaped real life.  Unlike some of the vacations of my childhood, we didn't arrive at a less-than-advertised hotel, the van was more than up to its task and the weather didn't pummel us into a hasty and grumpy retreat.  The luxury, the treasure of having family all around refused to be banished to the shadows, was instead on full display.


abe pagoda.

I snuck in a final organized run in October and it was a fun one.  On the evening of October 21st, Pretzel City Sports, a/k/a Ron Horn (the madman), hosted its second annual Ghouls 'n Fools 6.2 Mile Trail Run on the ridge above Reading, Pennsylvania.

Kicking off at 7:00 PM, the run meandered its way through the woods, demanding the guiding power of either a headlamp or a flashlight.  The Pretzel City crew had been kind enough to hang reflective trail markers and/or glow sticks here or there, but navigation was still tricky. With the exception of a couple of road crossings, the route consisted of mostly technical single(or just slightly wider)track with a blanket of fallen leaves to mask the rocks, roots and downed logs.

Considering the odd demands of this race, I was surprised to find a parking lot busting at the seams with parked cars, cars looking for places to be parked and tons of runners, some in Halloween garb and others cloaked in their standard uniforms of streamlined running shorts and wicking tee-shirts.  I didn't know it at the time, but the night would end with almost 450 official finishers.  What I did know is that there were A LOT of people there to take part in the race.

Ron barked his signature ominous and hilarious pre-race instructions/threats before sending the throng shuffling off into a darkness broken only by the bobbing of headworn beams of light.

Photo courtesy of Derek Schultz
I also pulled off a signature move, placing myself foolishly too far back in the pack, resulting in a first mile that demanded the acrobatics of weaving through the crowd and maneuvering off and back onto the trail to get to where I should have been in the first place.  I am just smart enough to know that I have no business being anywhere near the front of a starting line pack while recognizing that I'm also unlikely to come in dead last.  My intelligence seems to poop out after that point and I end up placing myself firmly in the middle.  Someday (maybe) I will better learn where I belong.  On this night, 10 minutes of hard running were devoted solely to getting to where I should have been in the first place.  The upside to starting too far back instead of positioning yourself too far forward is that you get a psychological boost from passing runners instead of being passed.

Because of being in under the trees and as some of those trees were either evergreens or deciduous trees stubbornly clinging to the last of this season's leaves, I didn't enjoy the benefit of the night's full moon.  Instead, I relied on the light cast by my Black Diamond Sprinter headlamp (love it) and snuck some quick peeks into the beams thrown by those runners just ahead of me.

I'd put 4 miles and one water station behind me before getting my first glimpse of scenery outside of a narrow beam of artificial light.  Topping out on a high point and breaking out from under the trees, I was greeted by the sprawling lights of the city way down below and, high overhead, the towering red lights of Reading's iconic (though eternally peculiar) Pagoda perched on the edge of the ridge.  Passing beneath the out of place structure, I was further greeted by enthusiastic race supporters and the offer of my choice of beer or water (though conflicted, I went with the water).  A few strides later, the pagoda and its corresponding brightness vanished back into the darkness.

Thinking that all of the climbing was behind me (being unfamiliar with the course and unaided by sunlight, I have little idea of how much or how little elevation gain there was), I struggled a bit with an unexpected incline that presented itself soon thereafter.  It was the first time that night that my legs felt heavy.  After suffering a slowed pace for a couple of hundred yards, I sucked it up and got back to running hard.

Most of the remaining track was technical but manageable downhill before one last kicker that consisted of having to clamber over a guardrail before hitting a steep, rocky stretch that ultimately deposited me within sight of the finish line.

I passed the time clock at 52:44 and, as the start/finish was strategically located in the biergarten of the Reading Liederkranz (Did I mention that it's located on Spook Lane?  How Halloween-y.), I headed straight for the beer I'd passed up at the Pagoda water station.  Authentic German accordion music played by an authentic German (at least he looked the part) escorted me to a fine post-race thirst-quenching lager.

I'd ended up 39th out of 440 and, most importantly, I finished with a big smile on my face and two not-twisted ankles.


a humbling but beautiful day at blue marsh.

Today the 6th annual Blue's Cruise 50K was held at the Blue Mark Lake recreational area in Berks County, Pennsylvania.  This would be my second traversal of 31.1 miles and, like my first 50K, this was again an out-and-back course, requiring a run "out" of just over 15 miles, a turn around and a 15 mile run "back".

I took my camera but never bothered to take it from the car.  The weather was so beautiful that I just wanted to take it all in without pinning myself behind a lens.  Once the race began I wouldn't want to be saddled with a camera anyway and by the time I returned to the finish line I'd have little on my mind except hydration, sleep and painkillers.

I'm not going to give a full race report because, frankly, I'm too tired at the moment and don't want to wait to put up this post.  I do want to say how impressed I was with the race host, The Pagoda Pacers, a long-standing running group based in Reading, Pennsylvania.  I can't remember a start/finish line where everything felt so under control, so un-frantic.  The aid stations were numerous, enthusiastic and skillfully run.  If I weren't intent on getting to the end, I might have just started making random requests, as it seemed like each station had anything and everything a runner could think to ask for.  Least importantly but still impressive, the race swag was a high-quality zip-up Blue's Cruise 50K 2010 running jacket.

The course had been pounded by the tropical depression-induced storms that swept over the East Coast in the days prior but with weather breaking cool (50's/60's) and clear, the track wasn't nearly as sloppy as one might've expected.  I'd read and heard that the course was flat and there were certainly extended sections that were pretty featureless, but there were also numerous, if modest, elevation changes along the way with a pretty steep up and over climb starting around 10.5 miles that was even more challenging when you hit the other side of the slope coming back at 19.5 miles.

As for me, I was happy with the way I covered the first half of the course, especially considering that I hadn't logged nearly the quantity or quality of long runs that I should have for a race of this distance.  However, the combination of the poor training and an arch injury suffered fairly early in the race that bothered me more and more as the miles piled up turned my sub-9 minute mile pace into something far slower for most of the return trip.  Shortly after the turnaround I actually thought that a "Did Not Finish" was likely as the arch was really giving me trouble.  Thankfully, willpower and an eventual dulling (or psychological numbness) set in and found me running quicker miles over the last 3 miles than I'd managed through the 2nd third of the race.  Maybe I was just striving for the siren song of the finish line.

The final few hundred miles, after a couple of short late uphills, follow a downslope to the finish and I really enjoyed running that stretch knowing that I'd shook off some serious "call it a day" demons to get there.  I'd been running at a pace earlier that morning that had me daydreaming of a solid sub-5 hour time but by early afternoon I was thrilled at the prospect of getting in 15 minutes shy of 6 hours.

My calves (as evidenced in the photo below) and upper thighs were cramping but thankfully not in a crippling fashion.  Though I barely remember it, I apparently had a smile to offer as the finish line loomed.

Photo by Bill Reynolds
And I'm still smiling now as I sit on the couch with my legs kicked up, typing this bulletin and icing my arch.

if a beard runs in the woods.

After a fellow participant standing next to me at the start line of the Blue's Cruise 50K extended a warm handshake and complemented me on my beard, I took a look around and realized just how clean shaven an assembly it was.  Come to think of it, I think that's always the case.

I wonder which is more of an oddity, my being a runner at a beard competition or my being a beard-growing competitor at a running event?


fortune cookies and pre-race evidence.

Nice theory but, at least as far as tomorrow goes, don't expect me to be guiding any sleds.

Have I mentioned how much I love these shoes?  We'll see how they treat me over the course of 31.1 miles.  I'm not worried.

Darn Tough seamless-toe mesh socks (thanks for the hook-up, Justin) and Inov-8 debris gaiters.

Gloves? Really?  I'm playing the Boy Scout and these are the best running gloves I've seen (I can wear them in cool-to-cold weather without sweating and swearing in them).  That said, I bet they get carried to the car and stay there until I carry them back into the house tomorrow evening.  The hat and Garmin, however, are a must, especially if this undisciplined runner is going to have any chance of sticking to a pace.

Ultimate Direction bottles (thanks, Ben) and Roctane GU (godsend).

Nanas, sauce, granola and a protein bar that I hope will be palatable...Piper tried to eat it straight through the wrapper, so I'm taking that as a good sign.

That's more like it.


10 tough miles.

I was headed back to the southern end of Lancaster County for the second time in a month after not having been there in a long time.  A trail running event was again the siren call, but this time I was actually going to get to run.

For the past 17 years the Conestoga Trail Run, another creation from the blessedly mad running mind of Bill Smith, had asked participants to tackle what was billed as "arguably the toughest 10-mile race on the East Coast".  A few hours later, I'd be in a better position to weigh in on the argument.

"The footing is uneven at best, and can be dangerous.  A fall is probable.  An injury is possible.  Insect bites, sprained ankles, lacerations, broken bones are some of the possible hazards.  There will not be medical teams immediately on hand and our insurance will not cover your medical bills."

Those written words were being read and reread in my head as I drove southward.  Suddenly, a bright red blur burst into my peripheral vision.  A morning hot air balloon joyride was coming to an end and very nearly on the hood of my car.  I'd been warned to expect calamity but this was ridiculous.  I snapped a quick photo and hurried on my way.

Because of the point-to-point nature of the course and the relatively remote location of the section of the Conestoga Trail selected for the race, participants needed to make their way to Holtwood Park which would also host the finish line, pick up race packets and then board one of the four buses employed to shuttle racers to the starting line.  I arrived well ahead of the scheduled departure time, picked up my race bib and tried to make sense of when and how much I should be eating or drinking with the starting gun still being a couple of hours away from firing.

A familiar voice offered a "hey" and I was thrilled to reach out and shake the hand of Chris Fox, a former general practitioner who is now an ER doctor at Lancaster General Hospital.  I've never been fond of the doctor's office, but Chris had a special way of making visits feel like "visits" instead of appointments.  Lily had loved and trusted him immediately and we couldn't help but feel the same.  Lindsay and I were genuinely saddened when we'd learned of his intentions to lend LGH his skills but soon accepted that we needed to get over our selfishness, wish Dr. Fox the best and rest assured that we would be in good hands if we ever found ourselves in the ER.

I'd never forgotten that Chris is a runner and a triathlete and when I'd run into him in the small world that is Lancaster, we'd exchange short updates on what we'd been training for or how we were staying active.  We'd never actually crossed paths at an event, however, and today would be a treat.

We made easy conversation and Chris, having run the event before, gave me a first-hand account of what to expect.  Nothing he had to report made the course sound any less challenging.  I kept pounding water as we conversed and went through the standard paces of lacing up shoes, pinning on numbers and doing light stretching.  We talked for a time with Christopher McDougall, the celebrated author of Born to Run, and I got a special kick out of discovering that McDougall and I were sporting the same Brooks flats.

Chris and I clambered on to one of the waiting buses and continued to share hiking and running stories as we crept closer to the start line.  My bladder was beginning to sound warning calls and I hoped we'd reach our destination soon.  After what felt like an interminably long wait, the doors of the bus flung open and seemingly everyone from all four buses headed for the single available port-a-pot.  I heeded Chris's advice to jog a short distance away and seek the relative privacy of the woods.  Pre-race adrenaline and the after effects of having staved off the need to pee found me struggling to completely empty all of the coffee and water I'd consumed that morning.  Impatience won out and I settled for having at least relieved some of the pressure.

As we walked back towards the gathered throng, I was psyched to see Monica, Jesse and their adorable daughter Lillah.  Jesse had convincingly won the Susquehanna Super Hike just two weeks prior and broken the tape at almost the very spot that we were lining up to now run the Conestoga Trail in the opposite direction.  Jesse was nursing an injury and saving strength for the upcoming esteemed 25-mile Bald Eagle Mountain Megatransect scheduled to take place the following weekend.  Monica, however, was wearing her number and celebrating a return for a second go at what had been her first ever trail run the year before.  I also learned that she was feeling the ill effects of a bout of food poisoning.  My need to piss suddenly seemed like a minor concern in comparison.

Back at Holtwood Park, I'd noticed one of the other participants and felt certain that I recognized him.  As Chris and I attempted to move a little closer to the front of the pack ahead of the starting gun, I ended up situated just in front of this stranger and decided to risk making a fool of myself.

"I recognize that this is going to be a really weird question if your answer is anything but 'yes', but are you Peter Sarsgaard?"  A wide grin accompanied the "yes, I am" that came back as the response.  I offered a "well, welcome to Pennsylvania" to the well-respected and accomplished actor but refrained from any further pestering.  I noticed that he was with McDougall and remembered that Jake Gyllenhaal had been his companion at the Leadville 100-miler just a few weeks prior, fueling speculation at that time that casting had begun for the Born to Run movie.  Lindsay has subjected me to enough Access Hollywood and copies of People to educate me to the fact that Peter is married to Jake's equally famous sister, Maggie.  Maybe Maggie can play the Jenn Shelton character?

After a few last instructions and a practiced joke, Bill fired his trusty rifle and sent us all racing down the well-worn path.  That lasted all of 50 yards before the orange flags ushered us onto a spur trail that narrowed dramatically and began winding uphill.  I immediately realized that Chris and I should have been a bit more aggressive in creeping up in the pack.  The next few hundred yards demanded some selective leapfrogging past slower movers.  I'd finally gotten myself in a position to run freely when the trail seemed to present two separate options with runners ahead of me on both paths.  The path to the right went uphill and for some reason that seemed like the one to choose.  I only managed a few strides before passing someone who informed me that he was at the back of the pack and I was retracing steps.  I spun on my heels, saw traffic moving swiftly in the other direction and thought that making a wrong turn this early in the run was a bad omen.

Shortly thereafter, the singletrack deposited us back on the main road nearly where we'd started and onto one of the few (the only?) flat portions of the course.  Again, the reprieve was short-lived as we soon saw Smith pointing runners up a preposterously steep and wooded hill and encouraging new arrivals to take whatever route was available to cover the 40 yards necessary to get back to navigable trail.  In the interim, running was out of the question and scrambling was the only available option.  Leaf litter and loose rock added to the complications.  It was going to be a long day.

The next 2-3 miles were familiar and I was excited to be moving swiftly and passing numerous competitors along the way.  My legs and lungs felt great and I would have been right where I wanted to be if it weren't for one problem.  My bladder was screaming and slowly, steadily winning out over my determination to keep moving.  At a sharp turn in the trail, I ducked behind a large rock and got to work.  I usually "go" like a race horse and couldn't believe how slow a stream I was managing.  From my vantage point, I could see runners approaching from above before vanishing only to emerge a few moments later over my shoulder before disappearing entirely as they attacked the first significant quad-punishing descent.  It felt like I stood there for an eternity but I was determined to take whatever time was required to not have to stop again before reaching Holtwood.

At last I finished and dashed down the hill with resolve to make up the time I'd given away.  Relief washed over me and being able to focus entirely on the run was a blessing.  It took some hard work but after another mile I'd caught up with a group of 4 or 5 runners making their way up the next ascent.  Chris was at the front of the pack and was maintaining a strong and steady pace.

A bit of maneuvering put me on Chris's heels and for the next 3+ miles we alternated between running and scrambling, as the terrain allowed, and swapped memories of past adventures.  Despite the demands of the elevation gains and losses, I was lost in the running and the camaraderie.

At least I was before the arduous climb up from the lush beauty of Tucquan Glen to the high perch of the Pinnacle.  The cardio demands of this portion of the course diminished the conversation and the severity of the grade made any and all available handholds welcome.  I offered silent thanks to each sapling that quietly allowed me to haul my exhausted body against its weight.  I second-guessed my decision to not bring trekking poles.

"Your beard isn't even wet, Leon!" echoed down from above and I lifted my head to see Jesse smiling support that signalled our arrival at the Pinnacle.  I paused at the aid station to refill my handheld water bottle and noticed that Chris was charging full speed ahead.  It was the last I'd see him before the finish.  I downed a GU packet, washed it down with water and gathered my resolve to tackle the long, meandering climb back down towards the river and one of my favorite places in the county, Kelly's Run.

For the first time in the race, I was all alone and my mind began to wander.  I didn't even realize that I'd stumbled until my tailbone bounced painfully off of a sloped shelf of rock that had made fools of my feet.  I was up again almost instantly and shuddered at the full comprehension of how steeply the ridge dropped away beneath the rock.  I resolved to pay better attention while simultaneously recognizing that my legs weren't what they'd been just a few miles back the trail.

As I left the rocky climb behind me and rediscovered the relatively flat track of the rhododendron-clad ravine of Kelly's Run, I glanced at my wrist to confirm that I was still 2 miles from the finish.  Once again I lost my focus and, this time, suffered a contused shin that dropped me to the ground.

Though the ascent from Kelly's Run to Holtwood Park is sustained, the grade isn't as severe as much of what was presented earlier in the race.  By now, though, it barely mattered.  I was running, moving forward but not at the pace I would have liked.  I steeled my will against the temptation to look at my Garmin every 30 seconds to check mileage, relying instead on my vivid recollections of hiking this beautiful section of the trail..

Mr. Smith had one more surprise in store, however, asking runners to depart the trail just shy of Holtwood Park, head one final time downhill only to make up the distance again by returning to the top of the ridge.  I struggled through this final section, including a particularly unwelcome crawl beneath a downed tree, before finally breaking from the forest towards the beckoning glow of the finish line's time clock.

Two hours and twelve minutes seems like an unacceptably slow time, but other than the time devoted to my pitstop, I don't think I had much more to give.  Chris posted an impressive 2:05 and 14th place finish.  Monica had shaken off the food poisoning to place 2nd in her age group and was next off to the Mega with Jesse.  I landed at 36th place, a few places behind Sarsgaard who, it turns out, was running the first trail race of his life.

The toughest 10-mile race?  Hell if I know.  Tough?  Inarguable.  As is the fact that I've found myself a new favorite race.


saturday mornings.

My wife does not do mornings.  Period.  Or, I should say, given the choice, Lindsay would not do mornings.  During the week she is usually out of luck.  I let her sleep in as long as possible, normally rousing her just after 8:00 AM to relieve me of the wake-up shift so I can head to work.

On weekends, I do my best to pay her back with a few extra hours in bed.  So long as the weather cooperates, this usually presents a nice opportunity for me to load Lily and Piper into our stroller and get in a morning run.

Today, the weather more than cooperated.  Temperatures were in the high-50's/low 60's and the few clouds in the deep blue sky were devoid of any menace.  Both kids were bright-eyed and eager to bump along the Lancaster Junction Recreation Trail, the converted rail line trail nestled a few miles from our Manheim home.

We had more company than I'm used to with several bicyclists, walkers, dogwalkers and joggers out enjoying the preview of Fall in this the last official weekend of Summer.  The trail is broad enough that passing was no problem even with the sprawling width of our double stroller.  I offered friendly "morning's" to everyone that we passed and Lily pressed me for why I was talking to strangers.  Once I convinced her that she could talk to strangers as long as Daddy was with her and said it was "ok", she beat me to each "hello" and Piper added enthusiastic waves and laughter.

When we reached the Colebrook Road crossing, I asked Lily if she wanted to turn around or keep going.  Her answer would decide whether we logged 3.1 or 5 miles.  After addressing her standard "why?", I was rewarded with the green light of "I want to keep going".

To the delight of my two escorts, cows, goats and birds, birds, birds greeted us from just off the trail as we traversed the next mile.  When I turned the stroller around at the final gate that marked the end of the out-and-back path, I was met with protests.  I stopped to explain that there wasn't any more trail to be had and grinned proudly at their disappointment.  I too wished that there was more ground to cover.  Lily settled back in to her seat and agreed to returning to the van so long as I agreed to make the stroller go "fast".

I did my best and was pleased to hear my increased pace validated by the giggling of little girls.  After again crossing Colebrook Road, we saw some runners up ahead who had apparently taken an early turnaround as we hadn't seen them on the way out and they were already pointed back towards the trailhead.  Lily urged me to "catch them, Daddy", encouragement I didn't need but fully appreciated as it justified my stubborn need to track down runners from behind (when able).  This was silly, of course, as I was chasing people who weren't given fair warning that they were being chased and, in all likelihood, people who had absolutely no interest in racing in the first place.  Still, Lily loved the game and laughed endlessly, prompting Pipe to clap her hands and cackle in support of her big sister.  Since my legs held up and the unsuspecting were successfully passed, I enjoyed the game too.

This was my second time running in the Brooks Mach  11 spikeless cross-country flats that I'd found at a preposterously low sale price a few weeks ago.  A Runblogger http://www.runblogger.com/ review of the Mach 12 had led me to the close-out deal on its precursor.  The shoe review keenly pointed out that many of the minimalist trail shoes now flooding the market at $100+ are little more than cleverly marketed reproductions of traditional cross-country spikes that sell for half that price.  Lacking the pedigree of a formal running education, I naively had no idea that such a thing existed in the first place.  Long story short, after wearing the shoes for two fairly short runs during my support of the Susquehanna Super Hike last weekend, I had them back on my feet today and am finding that they are quickly becoming favorites.  I haven't yet decided if I will wear them at the Blue's Cruise 50K two weeks from now, but I plan to wear them several more times before then (including at the Conestoga Trail Run) and see if my confidence in them increases.

We crossed the imaginary tape awaiting us as we returned to the parking lot and retrieved our respective water bottles from the diaper bag.  After a short drive home and a Man Man sing along, Lily retired to her room for rest time, Piper agreed to a nap and I showered before settling down in front of the keyboard to celebrate another Saturday morning together. 



Having risen early, fed and bathed the kids and gussied myself up as best I could, I headed to the garage to retrieve the van.  My eyes were drawn towards the upstairs neighbor's front bumper.  I'm sure I've seen it hundreds of times before but I'd never really taken notice.

I'd attended the viewing for my grandmother, Grace Elizabeth Heffelfinger, the night before and would be bringing the rest of the family to Christman's Funeral Home in Lebanon, Pennsylvania for her final memorial service.  I'd been to a terrifying number of funerals there as a child, a fact confirmed by elder relatives the night prior.  My arrival on earth in the mid 70's put me in a position to witness the deliberate, single-file departure from this world of an earlier generation of Millers, Sonnens, Houtzes, Lutzes and Van Arts.  My grandfather and Grace's husband, Kenneth, jumped the line and joined the parade early, succumbing to a heart attack at just 50 years of age.

Though it had, thankfully, been years since I'd last walked through Christman's doors, it was startlingly familiar and there was a temptation to believe that it had remained untouched waiting for another of my dear relatives to require its services.  Today would be different, however, as it would be the first time that I passed through those doors as a parent.

Grandma's pale blue dress looked beautiful and I tried to concentrate on it instead of her lifeless form as I stepped up to say goodbye with Lily in the crook of my left arm.  Bravely and stoically, Lil whispered the "bye-bye" that I'd prompted and added an "I love you, Grandma" that caused me to momentarily need to support our combined weight against the casket.  I drew a deep breath and offered a "goodbye" of my own.

I was initially disappointed at the small gathering assembled only to realize that so many of the potential attendees had already had their lives celebrated in this very room.

We chose seats just behind my mother, stepfather, aunt, uncle and great aunt. Lindsay had settled in with Piper but quickly realized that she wasn't going to cooperate in maintaining the appropriate respectful quiet. At just 17 months old, she wouldn't have it held against her. Lily, a big girl at 3, did sit through the entire service and, though confused, she seemed to understand that it was important to keep a low profile.  I watched her out of the corner of my eye in case she should need any reassurance or explanation, but those signs never came.  Before I knew it, the minister had concluded with an "amen" and we were filing from the room.

Along with uncles and cousins, I helped to lift the casket into the hearse before returning to the van to join the slow procession to the cemetery.  Lily peppered me with questions about being buried and made it clear that when she was old she didn't want to be trapped in a dark box.  Lindsay and I agreed to honor that wish and appeased her with promises that "getting old" was a long way off.

After helping to retrieve the casket from the hearse and position it above the burial vault, I stood to one side and listened to the minister again offer practiced words of consolation and farewell.  I glanced downwards and pondered the awkwardness of my tie and dress shoes against the grass of the graveyard.

Formalities completed, we were dismissed with an invitation to a reception at my grandmother's nearby church.  Piper raced about the cemetery, reveling in the attention of doting relatives, some familiar and others newly introduced.  Lily had further questions.  Peering down into the vault, she wondered aloud if the "hole is big enough" and I assured her that it was just right.  I'm not certain she truly believed me, but she offered no further protest and skipped away to join her sister.

A canopy had been erected to protect the burial's attendees in case of pending rain and hid the stone just behind it that marked the final resting place of the bodies of my great-great grandfather and grandmother, Harry and Mary (I'd only ever heard her referred to as Memmy) Sonnen.  As a small child, I lived right next door to the grandmother we were burying today.  Her husband had been born an illegitimate child and was raised by his grandparents who then, in their final years, came to live with him and his bride.  I, in turn, had the rare privilege of spending many hours on the knee of my loving great-great grandfather.  The memories have grown fuzzy, but the feelings of warmth and safety remain unwavering and it was a joy to look down at his gravestone and have those feelings wash over me.

I'd heard many stories over the last few days and been walked out the branches of the family tree to learn new names and firm up exactly where other names appeared on the tree.  I learned of prodigal daughters, distant cousins and the deaths of children who never saw adulthood.  I gasped audibly at the site of a third carving on the side of my great-great grandparents' stone that indicated the loss of a son, Leon, at just 22 months of age.  It was the first I'd seen that name in the family line and it was a jolt. 

I wanted to see the girls and was relieved to find them back on the other side of the canopy, clutching pink roses and smiling for pictures while seated on the velvet-covered chairs in front of the casket.

The reception was held at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Stouchsburg, Pennsylvania, a church that has stood, in one form or another, since 1743.  Harry and Memmy Sonnen had once lived in the rectory and maintained the church grounds.  My mother spent a good portion of her childhood living there as well and my uncle and Grace's youngest child, Chris, still helped maintain the church.

The dining hall in the rear of the church played host to shared recollections, tears and laughter.  Hand-made mementos, including some of the many quilts constructed by my grandmother joined photos, high school diplomas, birth announcements and countless other artifacts of a long life that touched many others.

For nearly 20 years, poor health and an ever-diminishing ability to hear had robbed my grandmother of the full participation to which she'd once been accustomed.   There were too many get-togethers and family functions at which grandma seemed to dwell just to one side of the goings-on, unable to hear the conversations or rise from her chair to play with her grandchildren. 

On this day, however, she was restored and held up as the matriarch, friend and sister that she'd remained all along.

In looking at the photos, wandering among the gravestones of long-departed relatives and reconnecting with those still living, I was reminded how much is actually passed along from one life to another.  I am too uneducated and too short on intellect to fully grasp or convey all that I mean.  We know that we "come from" our parents but I think we, or at least I, fail to marvel in that miracle.  Evidence lived in these photos.  The very nose on my face perched there upon the face of another.  My long, narrow fingers lay clasped on the lap of an unnamed man posing generations ago for a black-and-white photograph.  Indirectly, I'd passed through and from Grace and she into Lily and Piper along with all of those who came before.

I am humbled and honored, sad and filled with joy.  I am happy that Grace can enjoy, at last, rest that she has long deserved.

Goodbye, with love, gratitude and admiration.