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.