frostbitten, twice shy.

"Go to Heaven for the climate,
Hell for the Company"

-Mark Twain


After my buddy Bobby Bodkin had to pull out of the Hellgate 100K at the last minute and having already made arrangements to be there to pace for him, I agreed to accompany pal Brian Dibeler for the last 20 miles of the notorious race.

Earlier in the year Brian had completed the Holiday Lake 50K, Terrapin Mountain 50K, Promise Land 50K and Mountain Masochist 50 Miler and had only Hellgate left to complete the grueling Beast Series (most years, runners would also need to complete the Grindstone 100 Miler, but it had been cancelled due to the government shutdown in October) put on by Clark Zealand of Eco-x Sports and the legendary Dr. David Horton.

Yes, Brian had just one last race left to run, but, in addition to being his first foray over 50-something miles, Hellgate promised punishment in the form of 13,500-ish feet of climbing, bonus miles (the course measures out at something like 66.6 miles), a disorienting 12:01 AM start time and, this year, an unpredictable but no-matter-what-not-going-to-be-pleasant weather report.

Courtesy of Keith Knipling and his 2007 race report (http://keith-knipling.com/?p=19)

But those worries were for another day (you know, like 30 hours in the future).  First we needed to figure out how we were going to get to packet pick-up, the pre-race dinner, and the starting line.  After discussing our original plans--his to hitch a ride down with friend and fellow Beast Series participant Scott Newcomer and mine to (as per usual) catch a flight on the seat of my threadbare pants--Brian and I agreed that I'd pick him up so we could ride down to south central Virginia together, perhaps even draw up a strategy of sorts during the 4+ hour drive.

Ultra Penguin appears courtesy of Lindsay Lutz
As I recall, little strategic planning occurred, but we did laugh a lot, filled each other in on many of the details that had led us each to our current standings in life, and agreed on the title of this blog post.  Spoiler alert: neither one of us ended up scathed enough by the weather to merit that title, but our minds were made up and it was too good to waste.

Before I type another word about the weekend, I should give a bit of history on Hellgate.  

The race was dreamed up by Dr. Horton, the holder of more ultra running feats than I care to try and list here (Google and gawk, I dare you).  Not only is he held in high esteem for his athletic accomplishments, but, as a longtime kinesiology professor at Liberty University, David has also served as mentor and motivator for countless students.  
As an RD, he also happens to possess a mischevious streak that borders on sadistic.  Hellgate, the race he introduced in 2003, is certainly not for the faint of heart nor is it designed for first-timers.  The race is capped at 140 entrants with Beast Series participants getting first crack and the remaining spots filled only with runners that Horton's race committee (the RC) deems worthy after receiving and reviewing the completed mailed (no electronic sign up for this race) applications.  To quote the race app, "The RC DOES NOT want runners competing that don’t have a realistic shot of completing Hellgate within the time limit."

On paper, the 18 hour time limit sounds extremely generous, but not when you consider the course, the sure-to-upset your Circadian rhythm start time, and the cold and conditions that mar December in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  With a couple consecutive years of mild weather, the race was due for a return to the nasty weather that built its reputation.

Dr. Horton seemed nearly gleeful at the prospect of snow, ice and frigid temperatures as he led the post-dinner/pre-race briefing in the quaint surroundings of Camp Bethel (which also proved a bizarre deja vu to the church camp at which my family resided during the second half of my childhood).

Hard to describe a Horton-led briefing, chock full of nervous energy, a course description too detailed to possibly digest without having been on the trails before, motivational isms, random asides and good-natured teasing.  I can tell you this, it sure felt like being among family.

It was captivating watching him hold court, as he slipped easily from "aw, shucks" irreverence to compassion and back again.  In response to an accusatory inquiry about who had measured a section of the course that had struck all prior Hellgate participants as far longer than advertised, Horton responded, "I've got a wheel right there in my truck!  Course I never used it."  Moments later after making a point to single out some folks who had traversed some hard personal roads since last year's race and ask for rounds of applause, the man who is currently side-lined due to wear-and-tear issues of his own looked around the room and said as though he were speaking directly to each of us "appreciate your ability to start" and added a poignant "I still dream about running sometimes."

As of late, actual racing hasn't struck me as very appealing, but after spending half an hour in that room, listening to Doc warning of what was to come and expressing his intense love of the course, the event and the people gathered there, I wanted to strap on a bib (and three layers of clothes) and attempt Hellgate myself.

When the meeting ended, it was still a few hours until race time so Brian had ample time to sort out his gear, decide on what to wear (at least at race start), and make sure that we were on the same page with Stephen Hinzman, a former (and future?) Hellgater who had been kind enough to offer to crew for Brian after someone had done the same for him at a prior race.  We thanked him for letting Brian be the recipient of his forward payment and felt relieved to find him bright-eyed and excited for the long night and day ahead.

At first it felt as though we had all the time in the world and we spent (wasted) many minutes accomplishing, well, not much of anything.  Ten-fifty, the appointed time for the convoy of vans and vehicles to leave for the starting line of the point-to-point course that would wind its way back to Camp Bethel, was suddenly just minutes away and we scrambled to assemble everything that needed to find its way into Stephen's SUV.

I spaced out a bit in the backseat and, frankly, didn't manage to make tails or heads (who says heads needs to come first?) of which direction we headed or what turns we took, but I did pick up on the fact that it took us a pretty long time to get where we were going and it was awfully cold wherever it was that we ended up.

Awfully cold and awfully dark.

Stephen's dashboard reported an external temperature just below freezing.  The start line rests at just over 750 feet and the high point on the course is well over 3,500 feet, so it seemed safe to assume that between the elevation changes, the many hours of remaining darkness and the impending precipitation, it was going to get a lot colder before the sun came up again and had any chance to cast a bit of warmth.

Heavily bundled runners, crew, friends and family gathered for Horton's signal and shuffled about to stay warm.  Stephen muttered something about trying to put his father's camera equipment to good use and headed a few hundred feet ahead of the start line to set up his tripod.  His photo of the runners heading off into the night is sure to have made the camera and his father proud and I love the image of Horton just to the right of center, surveying what he wrought.  If the color version of this photograph doesn't find its way into Horton's official race report in Ultrarunning, someone has some explaining to do.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Hinzman
I'm actually just barely visible in the trees just off of Dr. Horton's right shoulder, taking a photo that, in light of Stephen's, I will never show anyone...ever.  In fact, while I'm thinking of it, I'm going to delete it from my camera.  Done.  

Within a minute or two the bobbing headlamps disappeared from view and the small left-behind crowd dispersed back to the vehicles to head back to camp for some sleep or on to Petites Gap, the site of Aid Station 2.  Due to ice and snow that had fallen earlier in the week, the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed in several places, limiting crew access to Aid Stations 2, 5, 7, 8.  While runners would hit Petites Gap fairly quickly, as it was only 7.5 miles from the start, it would be an extremely important crew point as the mileage between there and Aid Station 5 was over 20 miles.  That distance, the several thousand feet of elevation change in that section, and the snow that was likely going to fall during the hours runners would be on that leg of the course, were going to demand that wise fueling and clothing decisions were made at Aid Station 2.

Stephen and I spent the miles and minutes that it took to get to Petites Gap introducing ourselves, finding out what we occupied ourselves with when we weren't driving around in the backwoods during the middle of the night, and discovering that we had a shared love of backpacking and the gear that goes with it.  I'd lost myself in our conversation before realizing that I was seeing vehicles and headlights way, way, way up above us and when Stephen pointed out that the runners would dump out onto the road we were traveling on their way up to Aid Station 2, I began to realize just how much climbing Hellgate entailed.  Runners would find Aid Station 1 waiting for them just 3.5 miles from the start but were then faced with a relentless 1,500 feet of grind over the next 4 miles.

As we parked the car, I noticed that the thermometer on the dash had jumped up unexpectedly to 45 degrees.  That seemed impossible, but Stephen rolled down his window, stuck out his arm and nodded in commiseration with the reading.  I felt empathetically ill at the thought of runners, clad in multiple layers to ward off the cold, sweating profusely on the trudge up to Petites.  The insulated shelter of that side of the ridge was surely an anomaly that threatened to leave Hellgaters soaked through and that much more vulnerable to what lay ahead.  I let out what I could swear was an audible "gulp" worthy of a cartoon scaredy-cat and wondered in what state Brian would emerge.

In comparison to races back in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey, I knew fairly few runners and could only speculate about relative abilities as the first few headlamps neared and passed us by as we waited.  As more and more people passed by on their way to the Aid Station, I grew concerned that Brian was having a rough go.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, when he arrived with a grin, his jacket tied around his waist to save him from overheating.  He was playing things conservatively, making good decisions, saving energy for the many miles still ahead, and avoiding rookie mistakes.  He ate a bit at the Aid Station while I refilled his hydration reservoir and then Stephen and I wished him well as he chugged back out into the night.

A few minutes later, I nestled into the passenger seat, determined to catch at least an hour or two of sleep to be as strong as I could be when I jumped in at mile 42.  With the exception of a couple of startling bumps in the night and the occasional rousing headlight beam, little interrupted my "nap" and I was shocked to find that day had broken when I came to and learned from Stephen that Brian had come and gone at Jennings Creek (AS 5/27.7 miles), looking strong and having survived a cold night of hard-falling, visibility-limiting snow.

With a few hours to kill, we drove into Buchanan for some breakfast as a lighter, finer mix of snow and sleet continued to fall.  The temperature rested firmly in the lower thirties and threatened to remain there all day long.  Grey skies offered little hope of clearing.

The king of burgers proved the easiest, quickest accessed option for food and, if nothing else, it was warm.  After a night sleeping in the seat of a car, any coffee is good coffee and that proved to be the case even at the BK.  Dean Johnson had settled for the same and we did some catching up and he let me know how Lori was doing thus far in her first attempt at a Hellgate finish.  It sounded like she'd had a long, cold night too but was ready to see how things would go with the arrival of daylight.

Before long, we were at Bearwallow Gap/Mile 42.2, anxiously waiting to see how Brian was holding up and seeing what the weather morphed into next.  I walked down the trail a few hundred yards just to get a sense of the footing and discovered deep beds of wet leaves and a smattering of ice and sleet at the surface.  Thankfully, the wind was down and there was a lovely stillness except for the soft tinkling of the freezing rain as it met the forest floor.

Back at the aid station, crew and family members, volunteers and expectant pacers sought shelter in their vehicles or alongside the stacked fires that volunteers tended throughout the day. I made note that depending on Brian's mental state, we might need to avoid their tractor beam lure throughout the day if we wanted to keep on moving.

Scott came rolling into the aid station looking fatigued but having put 42 miles behind him in very good time.  I asked how he was doing and he told me that it "had been a long season" and it was catching up with him.  Based on those words, I wondered how his day would end but should have remembered that I've heard him talk that way before only to grind out solid finishes.  Don't let the tired posture fool you, Scott would end up finishing just one spot outside of the top 30 with an impressive 14:52:34.

Making certain I was ready when Brian arrived, I climbed into Steve's vehicle and got changed.  I filled my hydration pack and walked it over to where the runner's drop bags rested.  I heard the crackle of a megaphone and was surprised to hear Dr. Horton ask all assembled, "Who's got the prettiest beard out here?" and then announce "Lutz" before anyone could answer.  I was surprised by the love and surveyed the scene to try and nod a grinning acknowledgement.  The very second that my eyes located the source of the shout out, Horton finished his thought "NOT!  Sucker."

THAT made more sense and I felt silly for having swelled with pride in the first place.  There was no time to linger on being burned by the doctor because just like that, Brian popped into view with a broad grin.

His spirits were high and he was moving really well.  He pounded some calories, including some of the handmade hamburgers being slung by the Bearwallow chef, made some minor wardrobe changes and off we went, but not before a proper send off from our crew chief, Steve.

The trail out of the aid station began climbing immediately.  There was the tiniest bit of ice and snow on the ground, but, all in all, the trail was in fantastic shape.  Even with the sloped grade, it was surprisingly runnable.  Brian was quick to agree and expressed relief after the nasty footing that had made up the course in the middle of the night.

As we shuffled along, we fell right back into the conversation we'd enjoyed on the drive from Pennsylvania and the up-and-down miles leading to Bobblets Gap began peeling away.  I let Brian set the pace that suited him and we alternated between solid power hiking and running.  We had passed one runner as soon as we'd come out of the aid station and we passed several more before catching up to and then accompanying three others into the next aid station.

The volunteers were set up beneath in an old railroad underpass which provided protection from precipitation but also meant that they were holed up in an unpleasant wind tunnel.  Brian wolfed down a burrito, I scarfed a few Pringles and we hurried back out onto the course without any additional company.

The old road that we were now following tracked downwards for the next couple of miles and we settled into a solid pace.  I don't know if either of us did a GPS check during that section, but we were cruising.  There were some deep gouges in the trail that demanded some quick reactions but that kept things interesting.  We didn't slow at all until I couldn't pass up the just-too-good Lost Trail Road sign.

Horton had warned at the briefing about missing a turn through this portion of the course and it was easy to imagine losing track and continuing on well past the turn off only to be faced with some serious back tracking to return to the course.  The markings were great, however, and there was no missing the huge red arrow that returned us back to singletrack.

The next few miles included two or three minor climbs each followed by short descents.  We continued reeling in other runners.  By now, Hellgaters had been on course for over 13 hours and with so much climbing early in the race and the volatile weather having changed over to a cold, steady rain, most had to be really feeling the effects of exhaustion and exposure.  If Brian was, it was not evident, and he just kept plugging away.  We came jogging into Aid Station 9 at Day Creek knowing we had just a handful of miles and one significant climb left to go before Brian was officially a beast.

Off we went.

For roughly 3 miles and over 1,000 feet of gain, we hiked in step with two other runners before catching and passing another and putting a slight gap between all three as we topped out at the intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It would be, literally, all down hill from there.  We made quick note of the fact that the elevation change had brought a sketchy layer of ice on the parkway and the jeep road we would be following on the other side, but Brian didn't hesitate, darting downhill as though he wanted to make quick work of the remaining miles.

We were really cruising and caught another handful of runners on the way down to Camp Bethel.  We were knocking off miles at 8.5 minute pace and I was impressed that Brian had so much leg left after all that Hellgate had dished out over the last 15+ hours.  His quads should have been fried, but he had run a really smart race and proved more than up to the task.  We were still talking, still laughing and while it was going to be nice to get out of the rain and dry off, I would have loved to have more ground to cover.

The running was almost over, however, and, as we rounded the bend into camp and the finish line clock came into view, it confirmed that Brian was going to be well under the 16+ hours he'd come in expecting to be out on the trails.  Initially, there wasn't anyone in sight, as, wisely, everyone was hiding inside out of the wet and cold.

As we approached the final few yards before the finish, Horton and Steve emerged from indoors and I scrambled for my camera.  The clock read 15:45:03 but I really wasn't paying attention, trying to take in the view of Brian collecting his congratulatory hug from Dr. Horton.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Hinzman
Our adventure was over.  

Well, sort of.

The one catch was that we were still looking at a drive of several hours back to southern Pennsylvania which happened to be under a winter weather advisory with the expectation of several inches of snow.  We snagged showers (thanks for the towel, Dean!), wolfed down some food, stared into space, said thank yous and goodbyes and climbed into the car.

Brian had made such masterful work of the race, I was without the normal calamity that accompanies my race recaps.  Surely, we were bound to roll the car, get stuck in a 45 car pile-up or nod off and wake up in a snowbank.

Not so.  No calamity.

What I did get to see was a wife and child beaming with adoration as their husband and father arrived home with a smile and a happy report on a goal obtained.  I hadn't met them before, but, having heard Brian speak warmly of them throughout the weekend, I easily recognized them as the lead characters in his stories and felt so honored to have accompanied Brian at Hellgate and to have returned him safe and sound to the loving arms of his family...all the way from Hell to Heaven in one very long day.



Thanksgiving is over and for many thoughts have turned to the next big day.

No, not Christmas.  Sooner.

On Saturday morning, Placer High School in Auburn, California will play host to the annual lottery for the Western States Endurance Run.  Thousands of applicants, having completed at least one of the official qualifying 50 mile, 100 kilometer or 100 mile (or some distance between those three) races in 2013, will wait expectantly, fingers crossed that theirs will be one of just 400 (or so) names drawn to take part in the storied race in June of 2014.

This past year has been by far my favorite year of running but I didn't actually do much racing and what racing I did do was rather forgettable from a competitive standpoint.  The posted results were pretty underwhelming and there were even a couple of DNFs along the way.  It wasn't until late October that an official Western States qualifier was eked out with a sub-11 hour finish at the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 mile race near State College, Pennsylvania.

Each consecutive year that an entrant fails to have his or her name drawn in the lottery, she or he is assured of a second "ball" in the next lottery so long as a qualifying race is again completed in the preceding calendar year.  Such was the case for me in not having been drawn last December, so the finish at Tussey increased my odds from poor to slightly less poor.

All I had to do was complete the registration.

Back in early November, I logged into Ultra Signup and found myself staring at the monitor, fingers hovering over the keyboard, thinking about the path that had led me there.

Back in 2009, I ran my first ultra, the New River 50K in southern Virginia.  At the time, I hadn't actually met anyone who had run that far at one shot.  For the life of me, I can't recall what made me think that I could nor can I remember how that race had been chosen as my first.  The start of a bad habit never really broken, I ran too fast early and faltered late...but I did finish and obviously have continued to come back for more.

As I suspect happens to many people who get hooked on long-distance trail running, I started seeking out races all over the country and, upon learning about the race and its history, immediately moved Western States to the top of my must-do list.

The increasing popularity of trail running and ultra racing has made Western States more and more exclusive.  The number of applicants jumps exponentially each year without further expansion of the field due to caps put in place in 1984 with the enacting of the California Wilderness Act.  That act helped to create the Granite Chief Wilderness through which the course passes as well as many other wilderness areas in the state of California and that same act continues to protect these areas today.

I, for one, am a huge proponent of the race cap even if it means that many runners must wait years to get into Western States and some will never get in at all.  It will become even harder next year as 50-mile qualifying races are eliminated entirely and folks scramble to register for the longer events that will be the only way to earn entry into the lottery.

All of which was rattling around in my head as I sat in front of my computer.  I wanted in, but so did many, many others.  Why should I be allowed in over anyone else?  Was it really MY dream, THE race that I simply had to do over all others?  Did I really want to toe the line MORE than anyone else?

"This past year has been by far my favorite year of running...."

It's been my favorite year of RUNNING, but that doesn't necessarily have much or anything to do with racing.  My done-in-a-day run of the Black Forest Trail in May was an incredible experience and I've revisited that day in my head, in storytelling and in writing many times.  
A couple of morning runs with friends in and around Boulder in July stand out in far greater detail than most of the organized events in which I participated.  So too do so many solitary runs here at home as well as numerous small group outings with friends on the nearby Horseshoe, Conestoga and Mason-Dixon trails.

I had a blast for the second year in a row at TransRockies this past August but, honestly, my favorite moments at TRR consist not of the race but of minutes of the days and nights spent there in conversation with friends on and off the course.

Pacing for my dear friend Kelly at the Leadville 100 was another experience that will remain vivid for the rest of my years, but I was there for him, not for me, not even for the race itself.  I was there with a friend, trying to help him achieve his dream and that was what made it so meaningful.  It's a cherished memory, but the race itself wasn't and isn't one I ever need to do myself.

Sugar Pie, my four-legged companion, arrived late in the year and has transformed every outing into something special.  A late season through-run of the Old Loggers Path with her and a handful of new friends confirmed that I would take that type of adventure over an organized event any and every day.

I dream of running, not of racing.

And it isn't all I dream of...not nearly.  In fact, much of what I dream of doesn't involve running at all.

Yes, I would love to run Western States and may yet one day, but, honestly, I would be lying if said I actually dream of it.  But I know others do and sitting in front of my monitor I realized that I needed to leave those dreams to others until or unless the race becomes that for me, especially if my bowing out increases the chances of someone else's dream coming true.

On Saturday morning, Placer High School in Auburn, California will play host to the annual lottery for the Western States Endurance Run...you can bet I'll be paying close attention to who "wins" their way in even though I've removed myself from the running by deciding against registering.  I'm excited to send congratulations to all who see their dream come true and can't wait to see how those dreams continue to take shape between now and next June.

I'll keep dreaming too, but of other things.

And, holiday or not, I'm going to keep on giving thanks as well.  Giving thanks and hoping for the future.  I have much reason for both.

I am thankful, immensely, for my wife and hopeful that she and I will both still be drawing breath together decades from now and hopeful too that every now and again her hand will reach out to me or squeeze back when I reach out to take her hand in mine.

I am thankful, boundlessly, for my daughters and hopeful that they will never let what they know (or think they know) or all that they've experienced get in the way of striving for what they don't know and have yet to experience.  I am hopeful that they are never unaware of the love and faith in their abilities that their parents have for them.

I am thankful for my immediate, extended and adopted families for shaping me, accepting me and reshaping me anew when necessary (often) into a me that I too am able to accept.  I am hopeful that together we grow, flourish and continue to celebrate the myriad of ways in which we are different and the same.

I am joyfully thankful for this planet for both possessing natural, untrammeled wonders and for hosting the triumphs of civilization.  I remain cautiously hopeful that distinction and balance can be made between the two and that the failures of civilization aren't mistaken for triumphs and allowed to render nature extinct, not in my lifetime nor the lifetime of any creature that comes after.

I am thankful for hope.  Real hope.  Not sloganeering, not wouldn't-that-be-nice daydreaming, not wishful thinking without effort made toward realization.  Real hope with real effort.

I am thankful for dreams and hopeful for dreams, realized or simply sought after.

Dream on.


old bloggers path.

Sugar Pie (Mamie, when formally introduced) was quite antsy as we crept along the old unpaved roads leading from Ralston deep into the Loyalsock State Forest.  The sun had set long ago and we had already ventured down one set of rural, wooded roads without the payoff of a run for the dog when two hours prior we had dropped Lily and Piper off at a Juniata cabin with their grandparents.  By now Sugar Pie had waited long enough and her four fidgety legs delivered her from one side of the backseat to the other as she surveyed the fringes of the shadowy forest outside the windows.

On the off chance that Suge could translate my slangy English to Dog, not a word was uttered to explain that we would not actually run a single step until morning or before we managed a few hours of in-the-car sleep.

We reached the end of our road (for the night) at the State Forest sign that calls out the former location of Masten, a long abandoned logging town that has been housing nothing but ghosts since 1941.  A single still-standing fireplace and its chimney were landmarks enough to confirm that we'd reached the site of a handful of DCNR primitive campsites situated right atop the crumbled foundations of the former mill and its once surrounding lodging.

This also meant that the traditional starting point of the 27+ mile Old Loggers Path stood somewhere nearby.  There, a few hours later, Sugar Pie would get her chance to run.  But first, ghosts or no ghosts, we needed to catch some shut eye.  Suge took me for a short walk so I could pee and then we crawled back into the car and were soon, fittingly, sawing logs.

From what little history I've been able to turn up, many, many logs were sawed during the roughly three decades during which Masten was founded and thrived before operations were abandoned in September of 1930.  The Civilian Conservation Corp established a camp on the site in 1933 but, less than 10 years later, the last family moved away, leaving Masten completely uninhabited.

In its heyday, the town, in addition to the mill and a tannery, consisted of over 90 homes, a boarding house, a hotel, a barbershop, a pool room and a dance hall.  Grainy photos reveal the large structures of the mill itself and the old Susquehanna and New York railroad station.

Those photographs are now completely disconnected from the the ongoing natural reclamation project that has reforested the hills and encroached upon beds and grades where rails once lay.  It is along those very contours that the Old Loggers Path wends its way and watchful eyes can find remnants of rails, old wooden ties and man-made this-or-that but these glimpses are brief and other than periodic crossings of logging and fire roads, the route feels worlds away from civilization, old or new.

It was in great anticipation of wandering out into that remote, abandoned landscape that Sugar Pie and I awoke.  Jeff Calvert, one of the organizers of our little group outing, was already up and tending an inviting fire.  The three of us made our introductions and the dog set about exploring while I heated up some coffee and oatmeal and pondered how much clothing was just enough for a cool, crisp day in the woods.

We were soon joined by the final three members of our party, Thomas McNerney (Jeff's co-organizer), David Walker and Roth Reason.  David and I had met a few times in passing, but didn't know each other well and I had never met Jeff, Tom or Roth.  As is so often the case amongst trail runners, that unfamiliarity didn't seem to matter one bit.  Within just a few moments, it was obvious that I was in good company and the day became just that much more full of promise. 

Our intent was to travel the entire misshapen loop of the OLP, traversing first north and then south by following the trail in a counter-clockwise fashion.  Being early November, a week after the clock fell back, and getting off to a not-all-that-earlybird 8:00 AM start, we would have roughly 9 hours of daylight to make the circumnavigation and we expected to be able to accomplish the task in less time than that.

The trail climbs immediately and Jeff set a healthy pace with the rest of us strung out behind him.  At the rear, Roth and I were busy producing steady streams of snot, he from a nasty cold that he was just getting over and me from one just settling in.  This wouldn't prove to be an issue for either of us, but, at the start of our long run, it left us both wondering how the day would go.

Sugar Pie just grunted from the couch behind me as I type this, I suspect to remind me that it was actually she who was out in front of the pack, but, be that as it may, it was Jeff who made sure we followed the proper orange blazes.  It was also Jeff, not Suge, who did the proper thing and recorded our presence in the trail register that greeted us within the first mile-and-a-half.

After topping out and running the ridgeline for a short time, we began dropping down toward Rock Run, one of the loveliest creeks I've stumbled upon in this state or any other with its in-cut banks, overhanging mountain laurel and deep, clear pools.  It was beside one of these large natural bowls that we made one of our first brief stops of the day to investigate the ways in which water had carved the spectacular ravine into which we'd descended.

The landscape was so serene and the lullaby of moving water so soothing, it took effort to pull ourselves away and get back to work.  And work lay just ahead, as one of the few really relentless climbs of the route began immediately as the trail hooked a hard left away from Rock Run and shot straight up the ridge.  For the first time, our running changed to hiking but we continued to make steady progress, soon reaching Yellow Dog Road and Tom's parked car/aid station.  We'd reached it too early in the morning to break open the cold beers stashed there, but it was nice to sneak some water without having to dip into the little water that we each were carrying.

It was there that I remembered reading about the Molnick brothers (though I couldn't recall their last name at the time) who somewhere in those hills had run a successful still as the lumbermen of Masten couldn't score any booze in the "dry" company town.  Apparently, business wasn't good enough to keep the Molnicks from brazenly stealing the Masten safe only to be captured and jailed for the offense shortly thereafter.  I suspect their restless spirits were out there somewhere and would probably have loved to have hoisted one of those beers to their thirsty lips.

Time for that later.  For we runners, if not the Molnicks.

The climb continued but soon leveled and revealed the first of several sweeping views of the gap cut by Rock Run looking out over the McIntyre Wild Area and, off to the northwest, the hidden-by-trees town of Ralston.

The trail continued to track across the ridgetop and soon began bending south.  There were many rocky outcrops that we all agreed were pleasantly devoid of rattlers thanks only to our not having attempted the route earlier in the season.  We were making good time and moving at a healthy pace across the slightly rolling terrain that topped the ridge.

At least we were before Sugar Pie, who had continued to pinball between the front of the line and sidetrack ventures to chase sounds and scents to which the less-sensitive bipeds were impervious, showed sudden signs of distress.  Though not one other member of the group witnessed the encounter or heard even a whimper from Mamie, she'd managed to jump her first porcupine and suffered the inevitable consequences.

Quills protruded from the end of her snout, her upper lip and, most disconcertingly, the roof of her mouth.  A full-fledged pitb...what's that, Mamie...oh, American Bulldog, she has a jaw not easily unclenched without her accord.  Initially confused and upset, the dog wouldn't allow us access to the inside of her mouth, but I held her in my lap and the other guys gathered round to help calm her.  She slowly let me get her jaws opened more widely so we could do our best to remove the quills lodged there.

While we did our best, I'm not sure we would have accomplished the job right there on the spot were it not for the two backpackers who happened upon us, the only people we actually saw all day if I'm not mistaken (earlier, we saw three packs leaning against a tree but spotted no backpackers to match to them), and kindly lent a Leatherman multi-tool to the affair.  

With all quills removed and the bleeding stopped, the wag of Sugar Pie's tail instantly returned and she was again ready to move.

I thought I was too, but the minutes spent cradling the dog (and stressing about her condition, perhaps) on the heels of our first 14 miles of running found my troublesome back acting up when we got back on our feet and headed on our way.  There were some wonderfully runnable downhills and I grit my teeth and hoped that I'd shake out the stiffness and my back would settle back down. That wishful thinking didn't prove out and by 17-18 miles into our day, I was laboring to keep up.

Sugar Pie seemed to sense that I was flagging and began halting in mid-trail to let me catch up which wouldn't have been as problematic if she hadn't first placed herself just ahead of whichever human was at the front of the line.  I tried to talk her into sticking with me as a duo of a caboose but as soon as I would catch up and offer a word of encouragement, she would again reclaim her spot as the engine of the train only to repeat the brake-and-wait process anew.

Thankfully, for both she and I, we were with a most patient and understanding group of fellow runners.

Reaching one of the most southern points on the trail, the Sharp Top Vista served up an incredible view of ridges stacked one upon the next, jostling for position in the lowering afternoon sun.  Had the entire trail been a bust, this view alone would have been worth the effort.

 It was beautiful, but whipping winds, taking advantage of all that open space, brought a biting cold that we'd been spared most of the day and persuaded us to head back to the shelter of the woods.

We settled into a mile of downhilling and I managed, stiffly, to run a bit of it before a sustained uphill reminded me that my back was very much on the fritz.  We reached a spur trail that led to another high overlook and I lay flat to regroup while David and Roth sought out the advertised rocky vantage point.  After a few minutes of rest, I decided to begin hiking to cover whatever distance I could before the group caught up again, as I knew it would, in hopes that this tact would keep us on track for our time goal.

The first teammate to catch me, not surprisingly, was Sugar Pie, who couldn't initially resist getting a peek at the overlook with David and Roth.  She came upon me at a dead sprint but then peeked back over her muscular shoulders to make sure that the others were coming too.  It seemed like a good opportunity to get a photo of each of them on the run.




Putting the camera away, I tried to give chase but, with little more than 3 miles to go, I was likely going to be hiking the remainder of the Old Loggers Path.  I found the group, including Suge, waiting for me several hundred yards later, but I urged them all on their way comfortable in my ability to follow the blazes home before the sun set.

While I would have loved to still be running, walking those next few miles was nearly as invigorating.  The OLP had again dropped into one of the second growth wooded valleys that seem the signature of the Pennsylvania wilds.  The trail itself was smooth and forgiving and the yellows, oranges, reds and browns of late Fall were enthralling.  I had a bit of solitude to replay the wonderful shared moments of earlier in the day while enjoying some quiet, reflective time alone with my thoughts.  Not feeling the need to push the pace and being able to ease off the throttle, I could give my back a chance to relax.  Taking a little bit of edge off that pain reopened my eyes to the beauty of the landscape in which we had played all day long.

David, Roth and Sugar Pie dueled to the very end and I wasn't there to see who closed the Old Loggers loop first.  I happened upon Jeff and Tom with about a mile to go as they had paused at a hard left intersection to make sure that they were headed the right direction.  The three of us jogged to the trailhead from which we'd started some 7:43 minutes earlier.

Sugar Pie saw us coming and darted over to welcome us home.  According to my Suunto, Jeff, Tom, David, Roth and I had covered 27.6 miles and I wish we had outfitted Suge with her own GPS so we could see how many extra miles she had on us.  Whatever the final tally, she earned the crash that came after the adventure.

Before parting ways at Masten, we cracked open a couple of cold beers to wash down the effort of the day.  I knew my back would tighten up on the drive back to Juniata, but right then, right there, I felt fantastic, having made new friends and together enjoyed nearly every second of the day's available light on the move along another incredible Pennsylvania trail.

I mulled over Masten, loving that it and all its history had "been" but also thrilled that it was no more.  The idea of the wild woods that we had just passed through being razed and the hills stripped bare was appalling but the testament of restoration that had occurred by man simply vacating the premises was truly inspiring.

This area of Pennsylvania is very much threatened again, this time by the encroachment of natural gas drilling.  It's weathered many a storm, at least one of them man-made, and here's hoping it isn't forced to withstand one more.  With one inspirational story already written, we don't need another.*

I tipped a beer toward the approaching darkness and wished the Molnicks well before heading back down the lonely road that had brought me and Sugar Pie there.

*If you're interested in joining the chorus of voices urging current PA Governor Tom Corbett to disallow further drilling in the Loyalsock State Forest, check out the following Penn Environment link:

Tell Gov. Corbett: Protect the Old Loggers Path

If you have greater interest in Masten or other abandonded settlements in the Keystone state check out Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past by Susan Hutchison Tassin. Most of what I've learned of Masten came directly from her book.


end of the road.

“All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” 

- T.K. Whipple

Gonna drive myself to the end of one of those wilderness roads tomorrow, survey the crumbling remnants of vacated monuments to progress, and then vanish into the forest with a handful of fellow dreamers.


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.