tuscaroaring 20's.

I woke up in the pitch black of early (long-before-bright) morning and wondered why.  My alarm hadn't gone off and there didn't appear to be any other sound or movement to explain my rousing.

Recognizing an alertness that made it unlikely I'd be able to fill the next hour with anything resembling sleep, I thought instead of the many friends running big loops around Antelope Island out in the middle of the Great Salt Lake and the numerous other pals soon to be lining up for the HAT 50k in Maryland.  I silently wished all of them well, sad to not be at the Buffalo Run (one of my favorite events) and happy not to be headed back to HAT (with apologies, not one of my favorites).

Frankly, I didn't have any business visualizing myself at the start of an ultra, not with a winter of too little running just finally getting around to wrapping up.  Don't get me wrong, I have logged a lot of miles over the last few months, but those could definitely be better defined as hiking than as running.

That said, I did have "race" plans for the day, at least on the surface.

Seasoned ultrarunner Don Halke would be directing the Tuscarora Trails Ultra 50K, a "fat ass" event (for the uninitiated, this just means that there weren't any race fees and, in this case, the aid station food was actually donated by those of us who were also running) being held in western Perry County, PA and I was very much looking forward to seeing all of his hard work come to fruition in a part of the state with which I was unfamiliar but excited to be introduced.  The weather report called for rain early but hinted at spring-like temperatures in the afternoon, certainly sounding like the right day to see some friendly faces, make some new connections and broaden my exposure to Pennsylvania trails.

I tiptoed around the house hoping not to rouse Sugar Pie who had finally fallen asleep a few hours earlier, nursing a grudge after watching me pack a bag and then not taking her out for a moonlit run.

Slipping guiltily from the house and steering the car as quietly as possible out of the driveway, I crossed fingers that the sun would begin to peek over the eastern horizon in time to illuminate the new-to-me topography waiting beyond the west shore of the Susquehanna River.  As Cumberland County handed me off to Perry County just before I reached Sherman's Dale, that wish came true.

The landscape consisted of forested ravines, runoff-fed creeks, rolling hillsides and farmland opportunistically tilled wherever the land was level enough to merit the effort.  There were aging Appalachian ridge lines in all directions and I wondered which one (or two) would play host to the race.  A glance at the map informed me that that destination was probably not yet in view.

Just a few minutes ahead of the advertised 8:00 AM start time, I turned the car into the parking lot of the Big Spring State Park picnic area assured by the collection of vehicles sporting oval numeric-bearing bumper stickers that it was the right place.

With little time to spare, I laced up my shoes and hustled over toward a pavilion and saw Don uttering final instructions from his bed of a pick-up truck perch.  He was briefing those gathered there of changes to the course and some turns that required special attention (I'm guessing), information that likely would have been helpful had I not been busy saying hellos to Cassie, Rik, Zach, Stacey and three exquisite cattle dogs and also exchanging first-time greetings with Jennifer and Todd who were quick to warmly introduce themselves.

Moments later, we were on the move, picking our footfalls over the rock strewn Iron Horse Trail.

Rik, Zach and I played how-have-you-been?, chattering on and on about all the on-trail standards, the weather, dogs and vasectomies (I think that's what that was about).  I honestly don't recall many specifics from those first few miles, except an overall feeling of contentment, sharing miles with good people, soaking up the beauty of the Tuscarora State Forest, and basking in the warmth of the return of the prodigal sun.

Whatever pace we were moving at certainly seemed sustainable and, if anything, on the conservative side, but it was early and all three of us had reasons why were short on base mileage and not in a position to push our hardest.  I can't speak for the two of them, but that thought never even entered my mind or tempted my legs.

It wouldn't have mattered much anyway because soon after passing through Fowler's Hollow we encountered a steep, rocky grade that would have throttled any attempt at running.

After a minute or two of trepidation at a crossroads where we saw a runner vanish down one trail while the one behind us confidently chose another, we determined that the "high" road was the proper route and we began the long, slow grind to the top of the ridge.

Even this exposed slog was enjoyable with the good company, the views of the valley below and the sunlight that reminded us that the predicted rain never had materialized.

An unnamed recovering clear-cut at the top of the north side of the ridge granted a sweeping multi-directional vista that had me wishing for a panoramic camera.

It was downhill from there and our legs started churning again.  At the bottom of the descent, we returned to the aid station that we had passed through just 3 miles into the day and it was there that Zach and I said goodbyes to Rik and Stacey who had been waiting there for our arrival.  The two of them are patiently rehabilitating injuries and, as much as I hated to see Rik go, I was glad that he was being intelligent (a notably rare quality amongst ultrarunners) and putting himself in good position to better tackle goal races later in the year.  It goes without saying (which you only ever say just before NOT going without saying), that I look forward to spending more trail time with them soon.

By the time Zach and I got around to leaving the aid station, we had been joined by Cassie and Elena (I hope I got that right and apologize if I haven't) and we headed off toward the road crossing on our way up Conococheague Mountain.

And I do mean "up".

The old fire road we followed seemed to go on forever and the grade and the terrain underfoot were reminiscent of the many grinding uphills at my beloved TransRockies.  As with those climbs, the ascent promised to top out eventually and bring with it the relief of ridgetop running. at least for a couple of miles.

My continuing conversation with Zach and the want to not stop moving forward until the top kept me plugging away but I was fully gassed at the summit and knew I needed some calories.  Cassie and Elena, who had been right on our heels the entire climb, topped out moments later and the four of us caught our breath and regrouped.  A few other folks arrived while we waited and soon everyone moved off down the trail while I finished peeling off one of the now unneccessary layers of clothing I'd been wearing and getting my pack back in place.  I peeked ahead at the smooth double-track ahead and made up my mind to pick up my feet and fall back in with the pack.

At that same instant, a cramp rolled across the inside of my left thigh and confirmed that I was even further behind on calories and hydration that I had suspected.  Continuing to sip at the water I was carrying, I decided to just go easy for a little while and then see if I could push a little to catch up.

It was a disappointing stretch of the course to not be able to run but, being that it was also a really beautiful setting for hiking, it was impossible to NOT enjoy myself.  Several minutes later, my cramping had quieted down enough for me to begin moving along again at faster-than-a-walk pace and the next aid station soon came into view, manned by a single individual, a spirited gentleman who wouldn't let me talk him out of talking me into eating a peanut butter sandwich.  My stomach wasn't terribly interested, but it was advice well taken and I thanked him (and thank him again) before going on my way just as another runner arrived and drew the full attention of my good Samaritan.

A little further along I came upon a fork in the road that seemed to merit flagging or some sort of indication as to which direction I should turn.  Nothing.  I honestly couldn't remember the last time that I'd seen a trail marker, but the route had been so obvious up until that point that this didn't seem all that odd.

As I pondered the predicament, a curious sign caught my attention.

I have no idea who put that up and what greater story lies behind the sign's existence but it was another of those curious intersections of wilderness and civilization that intrigues me so.

Not that it did anything to solve the riddle of where I was supposed to go next.

I tried to reach back into my memory and reform the words that Don had served up a few hours before into some sort of answer but it was useless.

Or was it?

I did vaguely recall something about a turns sheet and that recollection led to another.  That very turns sheet was neatly folded and tucked into the pocket on the harness of my pack.  Too bad that wouldn't be of any use in a situation like this. 


Unfolding the sheet, I quickly had my answer and turned on my heels to head back the way I had just come.

Retracing "about .6 miles too far", I returned all the way to the aid station, stepping over the giant "NO" that I'd apparently ignored on the way out the first time.  Lifting my head this time, I couldn't help but notice the obvious turn off for the Shope Trail.  Turns out the peanut-butter sandwich-peddling volunteer, having noticed after a few seconds that I was going the wrong way, had called out for me to stop, but those shouts had been ushered away by the warm winds blowing across the top of the ridge.

At least the unexpected out-and-back gave me a chance to let him know that the sandwich had done the trick and the pep that had been restored to my legs allowed me to barrel down the steep slope in a way that wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't missed the turn in the first place.

I passed by a few runners before reaching Bryner Road and I headed off down that semi-maintained road on what I knew was a hopeless chase to catch up with Zach and Cassie.

Within a few hundred yards I came upon Jennifer and Todd and decided (correctly) that their's was ideal company for the next few miles.  We spent that time getting to know each other and played "small world" with shared stories of our interactions with Kelly Agnew (way to butt in on yet another story, Kelly).

At some point, I decided that I needed to take advantage of the life my legs still seemed to have in them and I offered a "see you in a little while" and pushed out ahead.  I crossed an unpaved road, picked up the trail on the other side and began switchbacking up the short, steep ridge ahead.  Up near the top, I heard a "STOP!" and, after my experience back on Conococheague, I froze in place.  Looking back down the slope, I saw a runner or two heading down the road that I had crossed over and wondered if I was again off course.  I waited for another response or an indication of whether it was I should be stopping or if it was someone else being called back to the trail I had taken.  Unsure, I worked my way back down the switchbacks to the road and got there just in time to discover that I had been on the right track in the first place.

Back up the hill we went, by then joined by Bryan and his two female companions (whose names I lamely forgot to ask) whom I had passed on the descent of Shope Trail.  I learned that he was fairly new to long distance running but would be tackling his first 50 miler, the Bull Run Run, later this spring (he'll do great).  I was enjoying our conversation but needing to keep moving while I still felt strong, I left him behind as he waited for the rest of his trio.  Thankfully, I hadn't gotten too far ahead, giving him the chance to yell out notice that I had strayed off course yet again, having chosen some other direction over the obvious straight-ahead path that was the correct way.

Whether for reasons physical or psychological, it was about this point that my second peanut-butter fueled wind died down and fatigue set in.  I had already surpassed my longest run of the year by a couple of miles, was uncertain of how much extra mileage I had already added or might add before reaching the finish, and didn't feel inclined to let my great day in the woods spiral down into a suffer-to-the-end death march.

Arriving for the third time to the aid station at the intersection of the Iron Horse Trail, I decided to take the less-than-3 mile bail out to an early finish.  Navigating the rocks on that return leg corroborated my theory that the short-on-actual-running training of the prior months had left my legs a bit weak on sustained speed.  Rather than try to vainly blow holes in that theory, I stuck to hiking the rest of the way, taking in the beautiful scenery all around me rather than having to stare at the ground two feet in front of me.  I hit the finish line at an abbreviated 23.7 miles, smiling and feeling good, especially after a system-shocking dip in the creek.

I hadn't put in 50 kilometers but I'm not sure I expected to in the first place.  I'd had a roaring good time covering my 20-and-change miles.  As promised, Don had served up one of his "running adventures" and I wasn't inclined to ask for my money back.  In fact, weighed on a dollars-per-mile scale, the Tuscarora Trails Ultra 50k can hold its own against any race out there.

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