less restless.

“All things look good from far away and it is man's eternally persistent childlike faith in the reality of that illusion that has made him the triumphant restless being he is.”

-Rockwell Kent

In a technologically advanced world, tantalizing images of exotic places blip onto our computer monitor, television screen and our very consciousness with startling frequency.  It's a blessed exposure and one that, coupled with the transportation available to us in this modern age, enables us to get up from our seats and if motivated actually visit the "reality of that illusion". The message, like it or not, is also a persistent promise of greener grass and can all too easily erode the appreciation of the soil beneath our feet and the landscape within view.

I am certainly not immune.  Not hardly.

All the more reason to turn from those presentations now and then to view our actual surroundings, perhaps even revisit the sown seeds from which we sprang, the under-appreciated environs that fostered us and the ancestors that came before, the predecessors who breathed the very life into us and nurtured us in childhood and beyond, both while living and long since gone. 

My mother and stepfather recently purchased a cabin and several acres of land in Juniata County, Pennsylvania less than 10 crow-flown miles from the original homestead of my grandmother's family, once treasured parcels that slipped from the Van Arts when the burden of physical upkeep and taxes outweighed the resolve to keep the last remaining plat of a vestigial retreat from the outside world.

Having made the pilgrimage there a few months ago, I can attest that the old farmhouse and a few stubbornly standing outbuildings still huddle in the shadow of Shade Mountain.  That afternoon the ghost of my father in boyhood flitted about the premises with other apparitions whose living names I couldn't place but who were adorned with physical features easily recognized as family heirlooms.

In time they dashed off into the neighboring woods in search of critters, footpaths and escape.  I wanted desperately to follow after them but posted signs warned against my trespass and confirmed that this was now very much the place of others.

But the whispers of those ghosts are audible if not wholly coherent throughout the valley below, whirling over each hilltop and straying deeply into each of the many forested hollows.  Just this weekend, I chased after them, muffled as they were by the crunching of fallen leaves and the arias sung by the flowing west branch of the Mahantango Creek.

I chased too the very real giggles and worry-free chattering of my very real daughters and wished to be nowhere else in the world but there with one foot in the past and one foot firmly, happily planted in the present.

For those fleeting moments, at least, the fading hue of the Pennsylvania grass was more than green enough for me.


my kingdom for a trail.

Before this exhausted train of thought clatters another section of rail farther down the track, let me say that Race Director Mike Casper does a masterful job with the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile Relay and Ultramarathon.

The course could not have been marked more clearly and overall race support was fantastic

It is my understanding that there were some changes made to the course this year and I have not run the race before, so I can’t offer any comparisons or contrasts, but I can attest to the fact that the now single loop snakes through a lovely forested swath of Pennsylvania and does so at a jaw-droppingly beautiful time of year, coinciding nicely with peak foliage season.  It well lives up to its “for the hill of it” slogan with more than a mile of total vertical gain spread out over 4 or 5 significant climbs.

Aid stations were plentiful and well-stocked with fluids, fuel and folks.  Good folks.

The official race website was/is chock full of information, including some of the most detailed (and on point) section descriptions I've seen.  E-mails sent in the days just prior to the race keenly pointed out just those items of greatest significance ahead of packet pick-up while providing quick (and functioning) links to any and all other info a runner might want or need before toeing the line.

There is a lot, a whole lot, to love about the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK, but, as life works, we aren’t all smitten by the same pretty face.  In fact, we all seem to have differing and even changing opinions of what constitutes “pretty” and in my current state, I feel like I’m waking up lying next to someone who looked a lot more attractive the night before.

To be less crass, step away from the “morning after” meme and return to my earlier theme, it might be more appropriate to say that I feel like I've been run over by that train from the first paragraph.

I'd signed up for Tussey back in summer after realizing that I was without a qualifying race for the 2014 running of Western States and also without a 100-miler on the calendar to make up for that absence.  I knew little about the race other than that it wasn't far from my Lancaster County home, it was known to be "fast" (I'd need to go sub-11 hours to qualify for WS) and that fact had much to do with it being "all roads" which I took to mean mostly roads.


The race became almost an afterthought once I decided to run the Oil Creek 100 for the second straight year and in the process sneak into the Western States lottery simply by finishing within the 32-hour cutoff time.  It had taken me 28 hours to finish Oil Creek in 2012 but all went well enough and, if anything, I was feeling more fit this year so I returned to Titusville with little concern about the outcome.


And so, after a DNF at Oil Creek, Tussey had again become my one shot at a Squaw Valley starting line come June and the bad back that had led to my short day two weeks earlier had some serious misgivings about the course being "all roads".  Thank goodness that couldn't possibly be true.


Race morning broke briskly with temperatures in the mid-40's with a steady breeze that made it feel much colder.  As the start line at the Tussey Mountain ski resort is literally right next to the parking area, most runners stuck close to their cars until right before race start.  I did, at least, and because of that failed to take part in the usual pre-race mingling that I so enjoy.  I did manage to cross paths with Carli Moua just before the gun went off and we spent the first few hundred yards of the race catching up, each sharing the reasons why we expected to find the day challenging.

After a very brief downhill start, the course gave its first taste of what was to come with a hard right-hand turn off of the pavement onto an incline up a hard-packed fire road.  That climb kept going for nearly 3 miles and included almost 900 feet of up.  It was runnable for sure, but that early in a 50-mile race it left me wondering if actually running it was a good idea, not that that stopped me from doing it.

At some point early in the climb, the sun rose and I was glad to have eschewed a headlamp at the start.  With the light of day, the beauty of the autumnal forest came into focus and with wind no longer a factor, the temperature was absolutely ideal for a day of movement.  Within those first 3 miles we reached the intersection of the Mid-State Trail and I couldn't help but notice that we ignored it and stuck to the fire road.

With the first ascent completed, we reached the first aid station/transition zone (remember, relay comes before ultramarathon in the race name) and not feeling taxed, hungry or thirsty, I rolled right past and headlong into the 7 mile descent that came next.  As advertised, the pace was swift even though that term is relative for those of us in the middle-to-the-back of the pack.  I glanced at my Suunto right around the first hour mark and discovered that I was moving along at sub 9-minute mile pace.  I nearly panicked but a quick check on my breathing, my heart rate and the state of my legs confirmed that I hadn't gotten too carried away.

We'd passed up another trail, the Wildcat Gap Trail, but I was certain that sooner or later we'd get off of the road and then the pace would settle into something closer to what I was used to.


We did leave the fire road behind but, unfortunately, it was for more pavement as we neared and then turned into the parking lot at Whipple Dam State Park.  About a mile before that turn, my back fired off a warning shot that made me wonder what the day would bring.  Though I wouldn't normally do so that early in a race, I asked for Ibuprofen at the aid station, determined to be proactive rather than letting things escalate like I had at Oil Creek.

Pills gulped, apprehensively, I pounded back off onto the pavement.

The fourth leg had another short, steep climb and I did my first walking of the day to try to appease my back and do a systems check.  Other than the back, everything seemed to be holding together and my pace had backed off only slightly with the half marathon mark being reached right at 2 hours.

It really was a lovely morning running within the tunnel of yellows, oranges and reds that clung fleetingly to the trees.  The few breaks in the trees to our left or right showed sweeping views of the valleys below, also cloaked in fall colors.

We descended the road down into the Alan Seeger Natural Area where pines intermixed with the deciduous trees and added some depth and shadows to the landscape.  We were twenty miles into the day and I was really looking forward to getting onto some singletrack and running beneath the forest canopy instead of just to one side of it.  My legs and back couldn't have cared less about the scenery but they were definitely campaigning for a change underfoot.

No dice.

Leaving the transition zone at Alan Seeger, we hung a right onto yet another road and began the longest up of the day.  I'd made up my mind the day before that I would purposely powerhike this section but that pre-planning wouldn't have been necessary.  My legs appreciated the change of pace but my back was unhappy.

Luckily, I fell into stride with Donald Halke II, a name and individual I "knew" through Facebook but had never had the pleasure of actually meeting.  Don has led, continues to lead, an amazing life and has overcome much since suffering a heart attack a few years ago.  I was grateful for his company, his wonderful storytelling and the treasure trove of life experiences that inform the stories he has to tell.  None of that eliminated the pain that I was feeling but it was a really nice distraction and helped 4 miles and 1,300 feet of climbing pass by without feeling as interminably long as I'm sure it would have without Don there.  He pulled away before the crest but had towed me most of the way whether he realized it or not.

Soon thereafter, the halfway point of the race came and went and the wheels we're hanging on, if barely.  Alluring trails seemed to shoot off in every direction, taunting with whispers of their magical contours, varying terrain and cool creek crossings.

But the road went on and on and we runners with it.  Traffic on the road had increased, as the waves of relay team starts that had kicked off an hour after the ultra began had caught up with all but the front running 50-milers which meant that corresponding waves of crew vehicles were migrating from transition zone to transition zone on the same car width-and-a-half fire roads with the runners.  While this never outright hindered progress, it did leave you looking over your shoulder for much of the day and begrudgingly stepping from your preferred lines to make way for automobiles.  Not surprisingly, this became far more bothersome as fatigue increased and pain settled in.  To be fair, that nuisance was somewhat offset by the enthusiasm and moral support that came from the relay runners and support crews.  Each "great job, ultra" that was uttered, and there were many, made me feel guilty for my inner grumbling at the congestion that the relay created.  Still, it took its toll.

I'd knocked back another couple of Ibuprofen when my back and right IT band appeared to be losing steam in unison.  I was hurting and was really surprised to glance at my wrist and learn that a sub-6 hour 50K was in the books.

I knew full well the leaders were either finished or nearing the finish, but, never mistaking me for them, I was pleased to know that the sub-11 hour finish that I'd come seeking was still well within reach, especially with the steepest and longest ascents completed.

We passed up the Mid-State Trail yet again and fire roads gave way to pavement once more.  We weren't going to be getting on any trails.  Tussey really was all roads and I was going to need to get over it and get on with the rest of the race.

To hearken for just a moment back to my opening statements, the race website couldn't have been ANY clearer in mapping out the course section by section and only the blind or the very dense could have had access to that information and still wandered out on the course expecting trails.  I've got pretty good vision, but, man, can I be dense.

We remained on paved roads until the aid station at mile 40 where I was thrilled to see the familiar and welcome face of Marie Garmat.  She'd had success at Oil Creek where I had not and she seemed surprised to see me back at it just two weeks later.  By that point in the race, I too was wondering what in the hell I was doing there, but Marie's encouragement coupled with the comprehension that there were only 10 miles to go shooed me back onto the course with relatively high spirits.  She also hooked me up with a hug and what I hoped would be my final dose of Ibuprofen.

Mercifully, the pavement soon thereafter changed back to fire road, definitely the lesser of two evils that late in the day.  I had certainly given away some time in the middle hours of the day but was still maintaining a roughly 10 hour overall pace.  There were minutes in the bank if I needed them, but I was growing concerned that every last one of them would be spent.

My "run" up the final 3.3 mile climb before the ending descent was slow but steady.  I'm a pretty solid powerhiker and usually do a good job of remaining relatively upright while doing so but lifting my head made my back scream so I just stared at the ground two-and-a-half feet in front of me and trudged, trudged, trudged.  Halfway up I became fixated on the Coke I knew was waiting at the aid station situated at mile 46.  That thought drew me like a tractor beam up over the last steep incline and along the short down slope to the transition zone.

I lifted my hand and smiled weakly at the encouraging claps and cheers being served up to every runner entering the aid station.  My eyes locked with those of the kind woman at the table pouring drinks as I tried to telepathically let her know what I was coming to get.  She grinned and asked me "what I was having" but my eyes had already swept over the table and relayed the bad news.

"You don't have any Coke", I stated more than asked and she looked pained at the proclamation.

"No, I'm sorry, we ran out some time ago," she confirmed.  "But I've made note for next year that we should have more," she offered warmly.

I slumped noticeably.  I noticed.  So did she.

After a brief pause and recognizing the absurdity of my petty distress, I apologized, grabbed a cupful of water and got back to hiking.

There were only 4.2 miles left to the finish and nearly every step was downhill.  With no concern for roots, rocks or uneven ground, this should have been an ideal finish to the race but I was in no shape to take advantage.  I shuffled along for minutes at a time at something nearly resembling a run, but mostly I walked.

All day long, small "camps" and cabins had perched just off the road or nestled farther back in among the trees.  These rustic shelters romantically reminded me of past backpacking and camping trips.  Throughout the morning and afternoon I'd daydreamed in passing about returning with the family to these retreats on less busy days to watch the leaves turn and listen to the birds and squirrels at play.

Whether because I was simply done in or because the Chester County Camp looked to be the place for me, I paused to snap a photograph and nearly retired to the front porch.  I couldn't have been more than 3.5 miles from the start/finish line and Route 322 was just another mile beyond there.  I had my phone with me but couldn't get a signal.  I contemplated typing out a text message to Lindsay, letting her know where I was and telling her to pack the car and bring the kids.  I could leave the message unsent, flag down the next runner who passed and have her or him hit "send" once a cell signal was reached.

It seemed like a reasonable plan, except it would have meant that I had run 47 miles of road and left without my qualifier.  I turned from the structure and continued on my way.

A few hundred yards later, there was an even more picturesque cabin on the other side of the road.  This one.  Maybe this one was the one.

As I shook off that ridiculous temptation a second time, something triggered a final "second" wind and I began moving forward a bit more quickly.  I hurt, for sure, but the end was so close and, frankly, being done for the day was highly motivating.  I wouldn't be sending for the family but I was ready to get back to them.

I passed a few people who'd passed me in the last few miles and felt almost silly to be moving by them at the pace that I was mustering, as though I'd been playing possum (don't get me started on possums) all along.  Of course, if I had been, I wouldn't have waited until 10 hours into the race to break character.

The final descent deposited me back on the short section of road that had led from the start to begin the day and a minute later I'd crossed the line and finished in 10:09:33.

Thank you Hokas...the only thing that didn't hurt after Tussey was my feet and lower legs.

No, it wasn't pretty and I don't believe I'll be back to run the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK a second time, at least not a full 50-mile go 'round.  I'm not getting any faster and am not about to put in the road miles or speedwork necessary to do much improving on that type of course.  Though it was easily my fastest 50-mile time ever, it reaffirmed how fast I am NOT and left me staggered for days afterwards when usually I'm back to near normal two days later.

I had accomplished what I set out to do and that was as close as I was going to get to being king for the day (unless that finish materializes into a drawn ping pong ball come Western States lottery day).

And there were those glimpses of siren song singletrack winding off into the woods.

My kingdom for a trail...once I can walk again.


sunny side of the possum.

That Henry Miller had a way with words, didn't he?

Like these, for instance:

"If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored.  One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things."

We ultra runners, even us not-so-good ones, are always busy coming and a'going and as much as I enjoy (and I do) taking part in that physical aspect of what we do, I find that Mr. Miller's concept of eternal anchoring may play at least as key a role in my love of our "sport".  It touches on that point of connectivity that keeps me showing up for races, even after seemingly miserable failures, in ways that the allure of another t-shirt, medal or buckle have not and will not.

It's all about people, People (at least for this people person), and maybe the "sunny" side of the mountain is just the one on which you happen to be presently situated, whether in content solitude or in good company.

Take a looped course like the one at the Oil Creek 100, consisting of three 50K loops and a 7.7-mile finishing 'go round.  Fill the trails and the aid stations with a myriad of personalities, each one possessing a unique and interesting story (or two, or five, or more!) to share, and then throw in heat, humidity and physical discomfort that eventually leaves you far more interested in being told stories (preferably while in a prone or, at the very least, seated position) than staggering any further to the tune of your own ragged breathing and semi-quiet whimpering.

Well, let's just say that not continuing on stops looking like THE worst idea in the world.

Mostly because it isn't.

You'll likely be told otherwise by some grizzled trail veteran or a motivationally-minded bystander.  Your own inner demons, have you any (you do, trust me), will also vehemently argue otherwise, but sometimes they'll be wrong.

You may not be making the RIGHT decision, but that doesn't mean you're making the WORST decision.

As a quick aside, some well meaning person (not a demon...not hardly) this past weekend kindheartedly let me know that "only God can judge you."  For whomever finds those words reassuring, it is with apologies that I say that I find that statement preposterously erroneous.  Leaping right past any arguments about deities and higher beings, I will confidently state that ANYONE can judge you and, quite likely, most people are doing just that.  The good news is that only you can judge whether or not being judged by others (including your god or just some ornery possum) matters to you.  More importantly, with respect to your finishing or not finishing a race, NOBODY can sentence you respective to whatever judgment he or she makes.

If the judgment of others really truly does matter to you, respond accordingly.  

If it doesn't, shrug it off.

I do.  I do solemnly shrug.

On Saturday my inner demons, apparently, were either off elsewhere or not feeling up to a counter argument with my aching back.  Fifty miles into the Oil Creek 100, after roughly ten miles (and the too-too many minutes required to cover those ten miles) of initial here-and-gone-again back spasms that ended up morphing into the here-and-not-going-away-again variety, I handed over the keys and hitched a ride back to the start/finish area to break the news to Jefferson (my one-man crew) and all the other friends assembled there.

Folks, as usual (yes, I have more than my fair share of DNF experience), were kind and encouraging.  I make a point to never turn down kindness, but I really didn't need any encouragement.

All I was craving at that point was laughter and those stories that I knew were there, RIGHT THERE, waiting to be told and others, for that matter, still waiting to be written (to be fair, I was also craving, oddly, Mountain Dew Code Red, but that is a strange tale for another day).

I'd arrived and there would be no more departing.

I listened and I laughed, shared some stories of my own and was listened to and laughed with (at?) in return.  Between the running that I DID do, the new relationships that were forged and the existing friendships that were revisited and fortified, I had been gifted another wonderful day in the world, still firmly anchored to what I perceived to be the sunny side of the mountain.

Buckle or no buckle.

I know the ultra rhetoric well enough to know that I was supposed to spend some time berating myself, combing back over every detail to determine what went wrong and resolving how to prevent it next time.  That's all well and good and perhaps cathartic for many, but, I've never been big on doing what's expected and definitely not when my heart isn't in it.  Feels like play acting to me and life is theater enough without conjuring.

I'm good.

Upstairs, between my two hard-of-hearing ears, I'm good and have decided to skip past the beating myself up (or pretending to) and jump right back into enjoying my day, tomorrow and the day after (today not tomorrow, people, remember?).  Didn't really require a decision actually.  It just happened.

One's destination is just the way we look at things, right, Henry?

Photo courtesy of Jefferson Stoltzfus
And while we're busy quoting other (real!) writers and shrugging off passed judgment, here are some words from Jacques Prevert that might well have blurted right outta my very own noggin, though less articulately:

"I am what I am
I'm made that way
When I want to laugh
Yes, I erupt with laughter...

What more do you want
What do want from me?"

I'll be back again next year, Titusville, erupting in laughter.

Count on it.


trying to make it all last.

So, everything's packed.

I've got "...a long sleeved shirt
with horses on the front
and some gum and a lighter and a knife
and a new deck of cards (with girls on the back)."

Or wait, no, those are Tom Waits lyrics (Shore Leave).

Anyway, I believe I'm all packed for Titusville, home of the Oil Creek 100 Trail Runs.  One of those three races is the 100 miler and that's the one at which I'll be toiling away most of Saturday (beginning at 5 AM, ET) and the first portion of Sunday in pursuit, of all things, a belt buckle, a purty one, but still....

How that remains the 100-mile award of choice, I'm uncertain, but so it is and off a chasin' it, I will go, knowing full well that it'll never be asked to hold up a single pair of pants so long as we three (me, the buckle and my pants) shall live.

Last year's successful effort was shockingly calamity-free (though slow) which likely means all hell will break loose this weekend.

Hell breaking loose makes for better blog fodder anyway, right (though god in possum form is pretty good stuff)?  And better blues songs:

"Baby, I'm so far away from home
and I miss my baby so
I can't make it by myself...."

And that's why, while my baby (all my babies) will be at home, cheering from afar, Jefferson'll be there to help me get back to Titusville and, eventually, Mount Joy Road and Sporting Hill.

If you'd like to cheer along too or you just get tired of watching the proverbial (or actual) paint dry, peek in a time or two at the webcast.

Here's the link:

Bear in mind that it will likely be running hours behind if working at all.  That's no swipe at quite capable race director Tom Jennings or the exceptional volunteers at Oil Creek, but just a fact of life in "real time" ultra webcasts as the aid stations are remote, electrical outlets are sparse and satellite feeds are spotty.

Besides, everyone's plenty distracted with other things.  You know, like Bib #132 (me) will be quite busy"pacing myself, trying to make it all last".

For the record, and to my wife's chagrin, I am packing my long-sleeved shirt with horses on the front.  Oh, they're ducks.

Same difference.

Giddap, giddyup, GIT THEE UP!  Quack, quack, quack.


i shall not NOT be moved.

"The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity... and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself."

- William Blake

Let me never be so without imagination that I am not moved by the beauty of the forest or by the solemn significance of any single tree, the dancing song of its wavering leaves, the storytelling texture of its bark.

Humans may be able to shut down parks and limit public access, but, thankfully, their vanity, budgeting and politicking can't "close" nature.