Sipping my way out of slumber with a tall cup of coffee, I found myself driving down Route 272 yesterday morning for the Keystone Trail Association's 2nd annual Susquehanna Super Hike. This was the same road on which my father's vehicle was struck head-on by a semi, resulting in him suffering massive head trauma, spending several months in a coma and eventually passing away in July of 2001. At the same time that I was creeping closer to Holtwood, my grandmother was hooked to an IV and a boatload of monitors, none of which indicated any functional brain activity. I would learn over the next several hours that two more friends and fellow volunteers at the event would have their days rearranged by family members being rushed off to hospitals.
It didn't seem strange to ponder mortality on a day that many, many individuals would be undertaking an adventure that, once upon a time, they probably wouldn't have expected to attempt and one that would force them at times to question whether they had the ability, the willpower and the want to keep going. When you spend your time running long distances and burying your head in blogs written by accomplished athletes, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that 28.4 miles is a long, long way to go over the course of a single day. I'd guess that a good number of the folks signed up for the Super Hike hadn't come anywhere near covering that mileage on foot in a 48 hour period, much less within a 12 hour window.
The sun cast its glow over the river as I reached the mouth of the Norman Wood Bridge and wheeled towards York County. Having overestimated the time it would take to get from Manheim to Lock 12, the site of aid station 2 and the first place at which I needed to deliver tables, canopies, etc. and help with set-up, I was rewarded with solitary minutes to devote to a morning run. The woods were crisply quiet and I had them all to myself. As my body warmed to the effort so did my spirits and I began to fully realize how perfect the weather and conditions were for a day of hiking and running.
My place of work, Backcountry Edge, was proudly serving as the gold sponsor for the Super Hike and, though that meant I wasn't going to have a chance to cover the course myself, I'd be involved in the event from start to finish. When you take part in an event, it's all too easy to pack up and head home as soon as you're done and there are moments of comaradarie and ecstasy that you miss out on by doing so. Like it or not, I wasn't going to miss out on them today.
Our assemblage of volunteers began trickling in about a half hour after I'd switched out of my running shoes and damp clothes. Preparations began in earnest with the erection of our Kelty shadehouse (thanks, Tindall), the setting up of tables, the mixing of electrolytes and the placement of food, water and other essentials. Details were discussed regarding the logging of times and participants as they passed through the aid station. Our position at mile 15.2 was confirmed so we could safely assure passersby that they were more than halfway to the finish line.
Cones were distributed.
Positive reinforcements were applied.
Clipboards were manned.
Suddenly finding myself unneeded as our crack crew had things well in hand, I jumped into the van and headed to my next stop, the Pinnacle overlook and aid station #3. If you haven't been to the Pinnacle, stop reading and go there now. This perch high above the Susquehanna offers sweeping views of the river below, the rolling hills of York County on the far bank and, if you're lucky, bald eagles soaring overhead.
With an absolutely cloudless sunny sky and seemingly endless picnic tables near at hand, the volunteers at the Pinnacle turned down my supplies and shooed me away. I paused to breathe in the view before heading to Pequea Creek Campground and the light at the end of every participant's tunnel, the finishing chute.
I put the van in park, shut off the engine, grinned at the sight of the banner being hoisted in front of me by a number of volunteers and literally leaped at the opportunity to slither up the tree to help with securing it in place. Being that Backcountry Edge has been a web-only retailer throughout it's six year history, it was exciting to at last see the name living beyond the confines of its usual virtual walls.
In my peripheral vision, I noticed the requisite line-up of flyers for upcoming race events that never fails to pique my curiousity and get me psyched.
I put up another of the shadehouses (with a fresh set of helping hands) and a few more tables, hung banners touting some of the generous vendors (Kelty, Cascade Designs, Osprey, Ultimate Directions and Darn Tough) who'd helped us out with supplies and door prizes and made conversation with the warm and enthusiastic collection of individuals staffing this final stop on the Super Hike. The boundlessly energetic Becky Schreiber was running the show with a smile on her face and we talked about how to distribute the screen-printed Platypus bottles (much appreciated, Rick!) that we'd brought for every participant and the approach we wanted to take on awarding the other giveaways (thank you, Tom, Justin and Ben!).
It wasn't long before the lead runner, Jesse Johnson, came roaring across the line with an impressive 4:09:10 finish.
I joined in the congratulations before saying my momentary goodbyes and heading back to aid station two. I was anxious to see if things were still going smoothly and mingle with participants further back the trail. I love seeing the myriad of different ways that people experience events of this type. Goals and expectations differ, as well they should, and a grimace on one person's face can be just as positive and affirming as the smile on another.
I was particularly curious about good friends Matt and Heidi and hoped that I wouldn't return to find that they'd already passed through Lock 12.
They hadn't, but arrived soon after I'd returned with glorious and surprisingly fresh smiles on their faces. Shepherded by Shannon's ferocious trail-blazing, they were ahead of their expected pace and ONLY had the worst of the day's climbs left to tackle. They weren't unaware of that fact, as Heidi had tackled the remaining portion of the trail within the last month. Still, they were all smiles.
The next few hours passed fairly quickly, despite my antsiness about remaining at our fixed position. Pumping up participants with positive feedback and promises of food, drink and shade just ahead, I was finding it more and more difficult to not tag along.
It was great, however, to share in everyone's day and see the mixed emotions brought on by fatigue, injuries, thirst and simple effort. I found (have always found) the back of the packers the most compelling and their barely arriving by checkpoint cut-off times or, in some cases, just after can be equally heartwarming and heartwrenching. There is no way to physically pick someone up and transport him or her further along (at least not without disqualification) which urges you to find something, anything in a word or gesture that can compensate and muster in the individual the necessary motivation to move forward. The emotion is palpable and intoxicating and leaves me both inspired and exhausted.
The sweeps, volunteer hikers who bring up the rear and confirm that all participants have passed or bear the sad news that checkpoints have closed and lagging participants have reached the end of their day without reaching the end of the course, arrived. I helped to retrieve an older couple who weren't going to make it any further, openly admitted that our "Pennsylvania hills had kicked their Maryland butts" and both proudly and happily accepted the fact that they'd just covered nearly 15 gut-checking miles and could now catch a ride to the end to see their daughter cross the finish line. Two final participants, a mother and daughter, laughed as they were "busted" and ushered off the course, cheerily pointing out that they'd planned all along to cover just this first section (their car was parked in Lock 12's lot as evidence) and that knowing this had allowed them to pause and marvel at every flower and butterfly, stop to enjoy a relaxed lunch and, most importantly, share each other's company on a beatiful September morning. More inspiration.
With that, we were free to tear down and because aid station #2 had refused my offerings earlier in the day, the Backcountry Edge crew could skip right to Pequea to join in the celebration at the finish line. I checked my watch and realized that I still had time to lace on my shoes and run out onto the course to hopefully provide Matt, Heidi and Shannon with a late-in-the-day pick me up and, with their blessing, walk with them to the end. My friend and boss, Tim, decided to join me and we moved off briskly, hoping that our fresh legs wouldn't undue our messages of "your'e doing great" and "almost there" as we passed Super Hikers who'd already logged more than 25 miles over the course of 9 or more hours. It was a mix of positive and negative reactions as we passed by.
Shannon appeared up ahead first and, with apologies, informed me that she'd had to leave Heidi and Matt behind in holding to her intended pace and not slowing down to let an aggravated knee turn into something much worse. Another ten minutes of steady running brought me to a high point just being reached by my two friends. I told them that they were one climb and 2 miles shy of the finish line and crossed my fingers that this was welcome news. When they didn't throw up middle fingers or mutter and brush past me, I assumed that my presence wasn't completely unwelcome.
Together, Heidi, Matt, Tim and I plowed through the final miles, laughing and chattering away. I could tell they were fatigued but they were in good humor and still looking strong. The toast of her hometown, Heidi seemed to know everyone that we encountered over the last two miles through Pequea and she even managed to secure Matt a celebratory beer to down before turning the last corner to the finish line. Tim and I raced out ahead and off of the course to let Heidi and Matt soak in their deserved cheers and applause. I also wanted to make sure that I could snap a photo of them crossing the line together.
I sat with Matt while he refueled and we talked about the day. He was in great shape considering the effort but I didn't think he'd believe me if I kept telling him so. It seemed almost comical how proud I felt.
The remainder of the day was a bit of a blur as exhaustion finally set in, but there were more touching moments as people reached the end and fully grasped what they'd achieved. Spirits ran high and you could see and feel the connections forged by the shared accomplishment of having attempted and, in most cases, completed the course.
And now it is tomorrow.
Grace, my grandmother, is gone. The clouds have returned and much needed rain is falling. Lily and Piper awoke to colds that seemed to confirm a changing of the seasons. I'm at the coffee again turning over memories of childhood alongside those from yesterday.
There are a lot of long, long trails out there and we cover them in our varying ways, sometimes reaching the defined "end" and sometimes bowing out gracefully somewhere along the way.
I'm ready for whichever trail comes next.