10 tough miles.

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.


saturday mornings.

My wife does not do mornings.  Period.  Or, I should say, given the choice, Lindsay would not do mornings.  During the week she is usually out of luck.  I let her sleep in as long as possible, normally rousing her just after 8:00 AM to relieve me of the wake-up shift so I can head to work.

On weekends, I do my best to pay her back with a few extra hours in bed.  So long as the weather cooperates, this usually presents a nice opportunity for me to load Lily and Piper into our stroller and get in a morning run.

Today, the weather more than cooperated.  Temperatures were in the high-50's/low 60's and the few clouds in the deep blue sky were devoid of any menace.  Both kids were bright-eyed and eager to bump along the Lancaster Junction Recreation Trail, the converted rail line trail nestled a few miles from our Manheim home.

We had more company than I'm used to with several bicyclists, walkers, dogwalkers and joggers out enjoying the preview of Fall in this the last official weekend of Summer.  The trail is broad enough that passing was no problem even with the sprawling width of our double stroller.  I offered friendly "morning's" to everyone that we passed and Lily pressed me for why I was talking to strangers.  Once I convinced her that she could talk to strangers as long as Daddy was with her and said it was "ok", she beat me to each "hello" and Piper added enthusiastic waves and laughter.

When we reached the Colebrook Road crossing, I asked Lily if she wanted to turn around or keep going.  Her answer would decide whether we logged 3.1 or 5 miles.  After addressing her standard "why?", I was rewarded with the green light of "I want to keep going".

To the delight of my two escorts, cows, goats and birds, birds, birds greeted us from just off the trail as we traversed the next mile.  When I turned the stroller around at the final gate that marked the end of the out-and-back path, I was met with protests.  I stopped to explain that there wasn't any more trail to be had and grinned proudly at their disappointment.  I too wished that there was more ground to cover.  Lily settled back in to her seat and agreed to returning to the van so long as I agreed to make the stroller go "fast".

I did my best and was pleased to hear my increased pace validated by the giggling of little girls.  After again crossing Colebrook Road, we saw some runners up ahead who had apparently taken an early turnaround as we hadn't seen them on the way out and they were already pointed back towards the trailhead.  Lily urged me to "catch them, Daddy", encouragement I didn't need but fully appreciated as it justified my stubborn need to track down runners from behind (when able).  This was silly, of course, as I was chasing people who weren't given fair warning that they were being chased and, in all likelihood, people who had absolutely no interest in racing in the first place.  Still, Lily loved the game and laughed endlessly, prompting Pipe to clap her hands and cackle in support of her big sister.  Since my legs held up and the unsuspecting were successfully passed, I enjoyed the game too.

This was my second time running in the Brooks Mach  11 spikeless cross-country flats that I'd found at a preposterously low sale price a few weeks ago.  A Runblogger http://www.runblogger.com/ review of the Mach 12 had led me to the close-out deal on its precursor.  The shoe review keenly pointed out that many of the minimalist trail shoes now flooding the market at $100+ are little more than cleverly marketed reproductions of traditional cross-country spikes that sell for half that price.  Lacking the pedigree of a formal running education, I naively had no idea that such a thing existed in the first place.  Long story short, after wearing the shoes for two fairly short runs during my support of the Susquehanna Super Hike last weekend, I had them back on my feet today and am finding that they are quickly becoming favorites.  I haven't yet decided if I will wear them at the Blue's Cruise 50K two weeks from now, but I plan to wear them several more times before then (including at the Conestoga Trail Run) and see if my confidence in them increases.

We crossed the imaginary tape awaiting us as we returned to the parking lot and retrieved our respective water bottles from the diaper bag.  After a short drive home and a Man Man sing along, Lily retired to her room for rest time, Piper agreed to a nap and I showered before settling down in front of the keyboard to celebrate another Saturday morning together. 



Having risen early, fed and bathed the kids and gussied myself up as best I could, I headed to the garage to retrieve the van.  My eyes were drawn towards the upstairs neighbor's front bumper.  I'm sure I've seen it hundreds of times before but I'd never really taken notice.

I'd attended the viewing for my grandmother, Grace Elizabeth Heffelfinger, the night before and would be bringing the rest of the family to Christman's Funeral Home in Lebanon, Pennsylvania for her final memorial service.  I'd been to a terrifying number of funerals there as a child, a fact confirmed by elder relatives the night prior.  My arrival on earth in the mid 70's put me in a position to witness the deliberate, single-file departure from this world of an earlier generation of Millers, Sonnens, Houtzes, Lutzes and Van Arts.  My grandfather and Grace's husband, Kenneth, jumped the line and joined the parade early, succumbing to a heart attack at just 50 years of age.

Though it had, thankfully, been years since I'd last walked through Christman's doors, it was startlingly familiar and there was a temptation to believe that it had remained untouched waiting for another of my dear relatives to require its services.  Today would be different, however, as it would be the first time that I passed through those doors as a parent.

Grandma's pale blue dress looked beautiful and I tried to concentrate on it instead of her lifeless form as I stepped up to say goodbye with Lily in the crook of my left arm.  Bravely and stoically, Lil whispered the "bye-bye" that I'd prompted and added an "I love you, Grandma" that caused me to momentarily need to support our combined weight against the casket.  I drew a deep breath and offered a "goodbye" of my own.

I was initially disappointed at the small gathering assembled only to realize that so many of the potential attendees had already had their lives celebrated in this very room.

We chose seats just behind my mother, stepfather, aunt, uncle and great aunt. Lindsay had settled in with Piper but quickly realized that she wasn't going to cooperate in maintaining the appropriate respectful quiet. At just 17 months old, she wouldn't have it held against her. Lily, a big girl at 3, did sit through the entire service and, though confused, she seemed to understand that it was important to keep a low profile.  I watched her out of the corner of my eye in case she should need any reassurance or explanation, but those signs never came.  Before I knew it, the minister had concluded with an "amen" and we were filing from the room.

Along with uncles and cousins, I helped to lift the casket into the hearse before returning to the van to join the slow procession to the cemetery.  Lily peppered me with questions about being buried and made it clear that when she was old she didn't want to be trapped in a dark box.  Lindsay and I agreed to honor that wish and appeased her with promises that "getting old" was a long way off.

After helping to retrieve the casket from the hearse and position it above the burial vault, I stood to one side and listened to the minister again offer practiced words of consolation and farewell.  I glanced downwards and pondered the awkwardness of my tie and dress shoes against the grass of the graveyard.

Formalities completed, we were dismissed with an invitation to a reception at my grandmother's nearby church.  Piper raced about the cemetery, reveling in the attention of doting relatives, some familiar and others newly introduced.  Lily had further questions.  Peering down into the vault, she wondered aloud if the "hole is big enough" and I assured her that it was just right.  I'm not certain she truly believed me, but she offered no further protest and skipped away to join her sister.

A canopy had been erected to protect the burial's attendees in case of pending rain and hid the stone just behind it that marked the final resting place of the bodies of my great-great grandfather and grandmother, Harry and Mary (I'd only ever heard her referred to as Memmy) Sonnen.  As a small child, I lived right next door to the grandmother we were burying today.  Her husband had been born an illegitimate child and was raised by his grandparents who then, in their final years, came to live with him and his bride.  I, in turn, had the rare privilege of spending many hours on the knee of my loving great-great grandfather.  The memories have grown fuzzy, but the feelings of warmth and safety remain unwavering and it was a joy to look down at his gravestone and have those feelings wash over me.

I'd heard many stories over the last few days and been walked out the branches of the family tree to learn new names and firm up exactly where other names appeared on the tree.  I learned of prodigal daughters, distant cousins and the deaths of children who never saw adulthood.  I gasped audibly at the site of a third carving on the side of my great-great grandparents' stone that indicated the loss of a son, Leon, at just 22 months of age.  It was the first I'd seen that name in the family line and it was a jolt. 

I wanted to see the girls and was relieved to find them back on the other side of the canopy, clutching pink roses and smiling for pictures while seated on the velvet-covered chairs in front of the casket.

The reception was held at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Stouchsburg, Pennsylvania, a church that has stood, in one form or another, since 1743.  Harry and Memmy Sonnen had once lived in the rectory and maintained the church grounds.  My mother spent a good portion of her childhood living there as well and my uncle and Grace's youngest child, Chris, still helped maintain the church.

The dining hall in the rear of the church played host to shared recollections, tears and laughter.  Hand-made mementos, including some of the many quilts constructed by my grandmother joined photos, high school diplomas, birth announcements and countless other artifacts of a long life that touched many others.

For nearly 20 years, poor health and an ever-diminishing ability to hear had robbed my grandmother of the full participation to which she'd once been accustomed.   There were too many get-togethers and family functions at which grandma seemed to dwell just to one side of the goings-on, unable to hear the conversations or rise from her chair to play with her grandchildren. 

On this day, however, she was restored and held up as the matriarch, friend and sister that she'd remained all along.

In looking at the photos, wandering among the gravestones of long-departed relatives and reconnecting with those still living, I was reminded how much is actually passed along from one life to another.  I am too uneducated and too short on intellect to fully grasp or convey all that I mean.  We know that we "come from" our parents but I think we, or at least I, fail to marvel in that miracle.  Evidence lived in these photos.  The very nose on my face perched there upon the face of another.  My long, narrow fingers lay clasped on the lap of an unnamed man posing generations ago for a black-and-white photograph.  Indirectly, I'd passed through and from Grace and she into Lily and Piper along with all of those who came before.

I am humbled and honored, sad and filled with joy.  I am happy that Grace can enjoy, at last, rest that she has long deserved.

Goodbye, with love, gratitude and admiration.



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.



I made a return trip to Loyalsock State Forest this past weekend and hope it won't be long until I go back again.  The stated reason for the getaway was it being Labor Day weekend, but I really didn't need a specific excuse.

Because of Lindsay having to work on Sunday and Monday (what must this woman have done in her past life?), Lily and Piper were my only companions on the trip.  Three hour drives with a 3-year old and a 1-year old in tow are adventures unto themselves, but on this day both girls were riding the contented high of heading to "pop-pop's".

Using my stepfather's cabin as homebase, I looked forward to venturing back to the swimming hole two friends had introduced me to just a few weeks prior and getting in one or two good long solitary runs.  Two venerable Pennsylvania trails, the Old Loggers Path and the Loyalsock Trail, stood somberly nearby but a step in just about any direction delivered forested adventure that is hard to come by back home.  I decided to wait until I got the lay of the land before deciding on a route.

We arrived midday on Saturday and overcast skies brought on by hurricane so-and-so found many of my weekend companions wanting to enjoy the quiet (and dry) sanctity of the cabin.  My stepbrother seems to possess a nervous energy similiar to my own and together we clambered in his truck and began roaming the meandering roads that once supported logging and mining operations but now mostly await curious weekend warriors.  Adam has been traipsing these roads for as long as he can remember and jumped at the chance to chauffer me back to my desired swimming hole and introduced me to an even more dramatic pool several hundred yards upstream.

We spent another couple of hours leaping in and out of the vehicle exploring the endless natural beauty that lurked around every corner.  Over the course of the day, I realized that any of these unpaved, lightly traveled roads would provide sufficient challenge and a lovely backdrop for the a run the next morning.  I could save the actual trails for backpacking trips with friends later in the season (with any luck).

Back at the cabin, we all spent the rest of the evening eating, laughing and soaking in the blessing of not HAVING to do anything.  Once the sun crept behind the ridgeline, Piper couldn't tell her new bed from her old bed and blissfully slumbered.  I thought Lily might giggle her cheeks into a permanent crease but she eventually surrendered to exhaustion and fell asleep up in the loft, proudly accepted as one of the big girls.  I finally retired to my hammock, breathed in the autumnal air and hoped the bears that had visited the cabin the night before saw no reason to give me close inspection.

I adore nights spent in the open air beneath the stars.  The temperatures were ideal, having dipped into the lower 40's but no further.  A quick check revealed that I had not been eaten by bears, but was instead refreshed and ready for the day ahead.  After a bite of breakfast and having grabbed my gear, I fired up the car and headed to my selected starting point.

Here's the map I worked up of the route, though I have to own up to it slightly exaggerating the mileage.  I misjudged where my car was parked when I first charted this and so the tame beginning and ending are overstated by .2 miles, respectively.

The road slowly but steadily climbed up and out of the tiny streamside town of Ralston and followed Yellow Dog Run, the deceivingly powerful source of the aforementioned swimming holes.  The utter lack of humidity was glorious and though I failed to confirm the temperature, I doubt it warmed up to 70 degrees at any point during the run.  Perfect.

With the Blues Cruise 50K coming up in early October, I'm trying to sneak in sustained runs (2 hours or more) as frequently as possible. That said, I'm feeling that time is starting to slip away and I've been making a concerted effort to include hillwork whenever possible.  The road I'd picked included a healthy 2-mile climb with a corresponding quad-testing downhill to follow.

Probably more important than the track itself, I wanted to use the run to further improve my ability to stay hydrated and refuel during the effort.  I consumed an energy gel about 15 minutes prior to starting and held to my plan to take another at each 45 minute interval.  I remembered (for once) to drink roughly every 20 minutes and each time that I took another gel.  This focus resulted in cooperation from my normally cranky stomach and I finished the run feeling strong and pleased with the effort.  I didn't push too hard at any point in the run, concentrating instead on maintaining a steady pace throughout and returning back to the car in under 2 hours.  I'd checked my pace periodically along the way and was pretty psyched to actually feel as though I was finding some of the discipline that I so frequently lack.  It's about time.

One of the other elements I included in the day's run was the use of trekking poles.  I've been reading a lot lately about the use of poles and am intrigued by the concept.  The climbs at the Laurel Highlands Ultra earlier in the season definitely took it out of me and I would love to employ anything that'll help me tackle long uphills with something left in the tank at the end.  The creative minds and all-around good guys at Exped, USA were kind enough to let me borrow a pair of their lightweight 4-section aluminum poles that weigh next to nothing, collapse down ridiculously small and do so easily while still delivering strength and durability.

To be honest, I just couldn't find the rhythm that I'd hoped for with the poles but despite the overall elevation profile, I also failed to find a hill that I couldn't run start to finish without the poles.  I have a sneaky suspicion that I would've been thrilled to have them if it were June instead of August and I was back in the Laurel Highlands.  And, even though I didn't fully dig in with the poles, I did find an unexpected payoff in carrying them.  When not in use, the collapsed poles were carried as counterweights which resulted in my arms remaining at a lower than normal height, saving some of the fatigue I often bring on by foolishly holding my arms high like the sprinter I am not.  For any runner, hiker or backpacker looking for lightweight, high-quality poles, I strongly encourage giving Exped a look.  Here's a link to the poles (check out all of the other cool Exped gear while you're there!):

Sadly, news of the failing health of my grandmother did cast some shadow on the weekend and found many of us heading home early.  The run alone would've made the trip worthwile, but, thankfully, the weekend didn't need the run to be one worth remembering.  My girls had the (yet another?) time of their young lives and we got to spend time with family old and new, a luxury that seemed especially valuable in light of the word from home.  

Lil and Pipe were so wiped out from cavorting with their cousins and grandparents that they barely uttered a word on the ride home.