How I've dreamed of a complete race. Just one solid start to finish effort that didn't leave me questioning or second guessing myself at the end of the day.
I think I may have had one or two over the years, but I was a much younger man the last time it happened. Even my better results were usually accompanied by some missteps or sections of the race that could have gone differently and ended with a lower time.
So, I'm 37 now and no longer in possession of the speed and lack of wear-and-tear I had at 20. I'm only gonna go so fast. Which leaves me needing to be disciplined and smart. Neither is my strong suit.
All the better, then, to have things come together at a race that references the "not smart" in its very name, Pretzel City Sports's third annual Ghouls & Fools 10K.
A Ron Horn original, this little gem of a race starts after the sun sets and winds its way up and around Mt. Penn, asking runners to weave around trees, duck under branches, clamber over logs and endure endless rocks and roots with just your flashlight or headlamp beam to guide the way.
I ran this race for the first time in 2010, placing 39th out of well over 400 finishers with a time of 52:44. I was pretty pleased with that result, especially with the hesitancy I felt during the first mile or two as I questioned every footfall on the leaf strewn, rocky course. I'd also managed to start further back in the pack than I had intended, always a potential obstacle at the well attended (and for good reason) Pretzel City events.
I almost missed this year's race entirely as I had somehow managed to convince myself that it was scheduled for the 29th of October, a day I would be in a little cabin north and east of Williamsport enjoying a weekend away with family. Thankfully, I emerged from the fog on Friday morning to realize that the race was actually happening on Saturday, October 22nd.
Jefferson was there in body and spirit, but was leaning on a trekking pole that confirmed his ankle hadn't recovered from not one but two nasty falls on a predawn run the weekend before. I was glad to see him even if he'd only shown up to claim his prepaid race tee. Steve (50:22!) and Cassie (who earned a 3rd place finish in her age group!) were there, as was Jason though I didn't actually see him until later in the evening. Shasta, as promised, showed up to try her first night run and ended up running it like it was routine. There were plenty of other familiar faces too, but many of my closer running friends were out of town, the only bummer of the night.
The weather was perfect...just cool enough to run in long sleeves and a hat without wishing you could ditch them 10 minutes after you started.
After listening to Ron's pre-race threats, I succeeded in wedging in right behind the speedsters at the front of the pack and waited for the gun. I stayed inside on the first crowded turn out of the parking lot and consciously moved quickly during the first few hundred yards to ensure that I was free of the fray when we hit the initial section of singletrack.
I was really psyched to vanish into the woods with no more than 15-20 bobbing headlamps out in front of me. The pace was speedy during the first mile as the track tumbled mostly downhill ahead of the climbing to be done later in the course.
It was during the downhill stretch, as I tried to get a peek at how fast we were going, that I discovered I'd left my GPS in the car. I immediately decided that it didn't matter and never gave it another thought.
At some point within the first two miles, the small pack that I was in fell apart at a spot where a few runners started off course and the others began to follow. I emerged from that confusion at the front of the group and dug into the uphill section that immediately followed. Some minutes later I realized that I was running alone and had been for a time as the trail continued to climb and snake here and there in the darkness.
I spent the next few miles mostly alone and shot right past the aid stations, not feeling the need for anything over the short distance and in the cool conditions. I was eventually caught by a couple of other runners but stayed in the same headspace, just cranking out the miles and relishing the way my brain stayed out of the way of my body doing its thing.
I began to wonder if I should consider ONLY running at night as I really think I was running more purely with the lack of visibility because in order to hold pace I had to pretty much turn things over to my legs and hope that they were making the right decisions. Every now and then I would hit a rock or root oddly and understand that I was a single misstep away from a disaster, but, thankfully, that misstep never happened.
I was almost disappointed to see the old familiar guard rail that marks the start of Ron's beloved one-last-kick-in-the-ass finishing climb. A scramble over that last rocky ridge deposited me on the grass just ahead of the finish. Jefferson threw me some kind words as I passed him and glanced up at the clock. Crossing the line at 45:39, I'd shaved a full 7 minutes off of last year.
I felt great and loved that the race had felt less like a race and more like the best of runs, free of any expectations and, instead, just a total escape with the sound and noise of real life turned all the way down.
Turned out my time was good enough to land me in 9th place and 2nd in my age group. And the best part of all that was having Ron proclaim my beard the "best beard in the race" when he handed me this ghoulish medal:
I usually don't mingle with clowns, but I'm making an exception for this guy.