Friday, October 29, 2010

The Elephant and the Rider

Susquehanna Super Hike and Trail Run (SSH)

My friends know I subscribe to the motto, “Go big or go home”. If that is so, then why no blog posts or races all summer? Well. . a two week Alaska cruise boat trip to celebrate my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary threw off my July/August race planning, not to mention adherence to any kind of diet!

Even though I did manage a 15 miler along the coastline of Anchorage, an 8 mile trail run above Skagway, and a few runs around the ship deck track, I could not pretend to possess running fitness to offset my cruise induced body fat entering the month of September.

However, my cousin’s September 11th wedding in Towson, MD opened up a Saturday prompting me to investigate any nearby races, and therefore I discovered the “SSH”. The website read, “For 28.4 miles the Susquehanna Super Hike & Ultra Trail Run course follows the blue-blazed Mason Dixon Trail on the west shore of the Susquehanna River and the orange-blazed Conestoga Trail on the east shore. The trails in this area are renowned for their beautiful scenery and their strenuousness.

Hhmmnnn, the rider in my head convinced the elephant that is my body that this was an opportunity not to be missed. As I registered on the website, I reviewed some finishing times from the prior year. Six hours on average, not too scary, however, what I did not know was that those times were before the course was lengthened from 25 to 28.4 miles this year to qualify as an “ultra” not to mention add in climbs the last 10K.

But “Go big or go home”, noted my elephant rider in my brain, so I adopted the plan that worked at GEER 2009, run the flats and the downhills and walk hike the ups. With a 7am start and a 5pm wedding in Towson, MD, 75 minutes south, I figured I had to leave the finish for Towson no later than 2:30 to drive south 75 minutes per MapQuest, rehydrate, check into my hotel, hobble into a shower and s suit and find the church by 5pm. Therefore my math stated I had to finish by 2pm or seven hours from the start. My rider chortled that for 28.4 miles, or just 2 miles more than a marathon, even with an out of shape elephant body how tough could this be?

Friday September, 10, Pre-race
So, Friday September 10th, I secured the family at LBI for a weekend at the shore house. After a solid dinner at Kubels in Barnegat Light, I set off for the 3 hour drive to Carroll Manor north of Baltimore to crib up at the house of my GEER pacer, Paul. Arriving at 10pm, I caught up with Paul and Jen who I learned is pregnant with twins. Wow! Before I knew it, the 4:30am wakeup call and a 75 minute drive to the Pequa Campground in Pequa, PA found me at 6am on the shores of the Susquehanna River just north of RT 1 and the Holtwood Dam. From there my plan dictated to park and take a shuttle 30 minutes to the race start on the western side of the river, so my car would be ready for me at the finish line.

On the shuttle bus, I met an ultra hiker Carol Javes from Philly. She was nervous about finishing the course having hiked ten miles of the course the month before with a guided group. Her attestations of the difficulty of the trail prompted me to respect the distance and appreciate the challenges just to finish. As you know, I have never not finished a race! (As it turns out, darkness at 7pm prompts Carol to drop within 2 miles of the finish.)

In the 6:30 am near dawn we arrive at the Otter Creek Campground for the start. As the sun rose, it signaled the start of a glorious day to be out on the trails. The rider in my head reveled in the euphoric feeling that anything is possible today. My rider trumpeted with the other riders what a wonderful feeling we are sharing forcing so many other elephants all out here in the dawn half light. This is WORTH the pain to come, and how silly it would have been to stay buried under covers in a warm bed!

I am nervous, but excited, and full of energy not knowing what the day will bring out in the woods. Looking around, the field is solidly half trail runners and half hikers. Runners were dressed in shorts, and technical shirts, some with Moomba arm sleeves and all with hand held water bottles or hydration systems. The hikers sported light weight tops, pocked khaki shorts, walking sticks, and Camelbacks. With the temps to reach 80 degrees, fuel and water is as critical as stamina. I sported a 24 oz perpetuem bottle, and a 24 oz water/Gatorade bottle, one in each hand, and yes my 2xu compression tri shorts and calf guards.

Whether runner or hiker, the 12 hour time limit or 7pm would govern all entrants. I caught snippets from other runners that the first half was “runnable” and the second half was not runnable, and in training runs parts of the trail is not even hikeable. What? What does not hikeable even mean? Yes, you are traversing boulders and descending chutes to creeks! Yikes! My elephant is not amused.

Start (Otter Creek Campground) to Checkpoint 1 (SGL 181), 0-9.5 miles
The start of the course circled the camp then ascended an old logging road through the State Game Lands. Crossing the bridge over Otter Creek we followed Kline Road for a half mile, and then found the blue-blazed Mason-Dixon Trail. We followed the contour of the hill before descending to the Otter Creek. With many trail intersections crossing the Mason Dixon Trail, not getting lost and increasing your distance would be vitally important all day!! Thus, I attached myself to a string of younger runners as the trail descended through the woods across Otter Creek and then climbs steeply uphill by large switchbacks. Back across Rt. 425 we followed another logging road to ascend to the Urey Overlook and a beautiful vista of the Susquehanna. This would become the Groundhog Day cycle of the journey we would climb to a beautiful vista, and then violently descend by switchbacks, to cross streams. Then like Bill Murray each morning, repeat the process, over and over and over.

But as of now, all system were go, I was in my running zone, breathing the clean woodsy air, feeling good, keeping up with the group, but holding back. The uphills were walked briskly, while some of the others chewed up their legs running up. Our string is led by two young girls in their 20s, Lauren and Caitlin. Both had recently finished the York, PA marathon and were undertaking their first “trail” run. Their pace was surprisingly quick. I had to decide whether to stick with them for ego or let them go ahead and assume they would blow up later. The egos of the other young bucks were also being tested. Male egos prevailed and we continued jamming the downhills, stream crossing, and up the switchbacks.

The girls kept up the pace and I knew we were well ahead of my schedule of a 7 hour finish. The trail blazes were decent, but the fear of being lost or off trail was omni-present as I did not want to endure any extra climbing. I had 5pm scheduled nuptials to attend!! We crossed the creek (on a bridge for once) and then passed back through the Otter Creek Campground at mile 5. The girls led the group out of the way to the left and I took a shortcut to pass them all and descend to Sawmill Run. At the stream cross I spied a runner on the far shore climbing up boulders. I short cut off the trail and streamed across the water and straight up the boulders to rejoin the trail, saving perhaps 100 yards or so of rocky trail to climb. As I scrambled up and over the rocks, I looked back down and saw the string just entering the crossing. I hit the gas to disappear from the group up the trail until of course the switchbacks up to Sawmill Run Road slowed me to a walk

After the trail climbed out of the hollow, I got slightly lost before hitting the roads. As I got reoriented on the road, the string took advantage of my poor trailblazing to close the gap and on pavement many of the youngsters just took off, including the girls. I reeled several back in on the downhill of Posey Road, and I knew we were close to the first checkpoint at 9.9 miles. No watch timing for me, but was told it was 8:40am or 100 minutes in, 9:35 pace and I was in 50th place overall. Solid, with the walks factored in.

Checkpoint 1 (SGL 181 Lot) to Checkpoint 2 (Lock 12), 9.5-15.5 miles
I prepared a new Perpetuem fuel bottle, had my water bottle refilled, and noshed on some pretzels. I observed the bloody arms and legs belonging to one of the girls, Caitlin Pettit. She was getting bandaged up, but her rider firmly in charge of her elephant, determined to carry on. Gotta respect that! Not a lot I could do, so I hustled out of aid #1 ahead of most of the string and down a long grassy stretch of land mirroring the scene out of Little House on the Prairie as Laura romps down the grassland with her dog.

Entering Oakland Run the sun shadows of midmorning accentuated the natural beauty of the stream. I soaked it in as I ascended to a large rock outcrop. The steepness of the climb followed by a mean descent (again!) was forgiven due to the sights and sounds created by the cascades and deep pools along the run which was a highlight of the day.

Following the river through lowland trails and roads the views of the Holtwood Dam were equally powerful. Just beyond the dam, I ran right through the foundation of an old hotel and gradually climbed up to a power line vista with even better views of the river and Holtwood Dam. Up, up, up the steep switchbacks to the top of the ridge. Here I spied the remnants of our string of runners below that I had left behind at aid #1. Just 12 miles in, my legs were already severely beaten up. My rider knowing full well that mental toughness and focus with proper nutrition and hydration are the keys to success still managed my elephant that would prefer to stop, rest, and recover in the shade with a cold drink and a ride to the finish. My rider also knows this is where my Ironman and trail experience evidenced itself. “Hey Tim!” No time to gloat now! Let’s move this elephant!

So after the wicked climb, I hurried down the trail descended steeply by switchbacks to Mill Creek. I followed downstream to River Road passing a nice waterfall along the way. Man the scenery is incredible! Circling behind a large mill foundation I followed a towpath for the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal to the restored Lock 12 to permit boats to navigate the rocks upriver to York, and Harrisburg. Then across a small bridge I arrived at Checkpoint 2 at 15.5 miles, over halfway home in three hours flat.

Checkpoint 2 (Lock 12) Checkpoint 3 (Pinnacle Overlook), 15.5-21.5 miles
Stopping to regroup, I was told I was in 55th place. However, the day was getting hot, my legs were trashed, and from what I had been told the “runnable trail portion of SSH was behind me. As I exited from Checkpoint 2, my rider was still in charge and I admired a bandaged Caitlin and Lauren entering aid 2. These trail girls are tough! I ran onto the Rt. 372 Norman Wood Bridge over the Susquehanna River to head upriver to the Pequa finish 13 miles away. Ok, four hours to run 13 miles? My half marathon PR in Philly nine years ago was just over 90 minutes. And I have four hours to make it!? And pavement running? It’s a lock! Cake baby! However, as I ran/shuffled onto the bridge, my trashed legs forced my rider to reconsider the folly of continuing this insanity. Within the provided directions, (that had sweat deteriorated in my pocket btw), “stay on the left side of the bridge and run/walk in single file.” Walk on a paved road? Maybe for wussies, says my rider, but when it is mile 16 and the road is basically two miles straight uphill my elephant wins and Okayed my body to power walk.

Five seasoned trail runners came up on me during this stretch, but I stuck to my elephantine walk, steeling myself for the trail and bouldering that I had been warned about. A left on Crystal Drive (uphill!) and then I entered the Holtwood Recreation Park looking for orange blazes. With only park going families, I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt. Just beyond the bathrooms, I found an orange blaze and the entrance to the Kelly's Run Trail and the descent to Kelly's Run, another highlight featuring water, rocks, hemlocks and rhododendron.

A long hill up to an unsightly gas pipeline was tempered by views across the river. I got lost AGAIN!@,. but backtracked 400 yards and rejoined two young guys from the Otter Creek string up a narrow ridge trail my elephant convienently ignored. As we continue hiking to top of hill to join an old wagon road, I was out of water and ready for aid #3. One of the string guys I came upon looked pale, and I offered him food. He said no, he needed water with it and had not in fact eaten in miles due to lack of water. He was in a full fuel bonk and his elephant decided to suddenly stop, bend over, and dry heave. I encouraged him to walk with me as aid was near. He looked up glassy eyed and sat down, I knew better than to try and move a seated elephant. I did promise to send someone back from Aid #3 with water and food.

Sure enough within 300 yards, I reached Pinnacle Vista with stunning views of the river and Checkpoint 3. After notifying aid to assist the fallen runner, I refueled, readying myself for the final leg, but not before pausing to revel in the view back up the river to all the shoreline I had traversed in the last 4.5 hours. This is what feeling alive is! The clipboard lady told me I was in 59th place of 400 starters. Solid. Surely I could go 7.7 miles in two and a half hours to meet my seven hour goal, right, elephant?

Checkpoint 3 (Pinnacle Overlook) to Finish (Pequea), 21.5-28.4 miles
On the shuttle bus, several runners warned me that the segment between Pinnacle Overlook and Wind Cave is the most strenuous but most rewarding of the SSH. Just below Pinnacle Overlook, I passed Lower Rock Vista with incredible views of the Susquehanna and then descended so steeply I had to grab branches and roots to avoid pin wheeling. My rider was dealing with quads that were shot, and now my left hamstring joined in the complaining so badly I had to straddle to cross a fallen tree. Going downhill, I resorted to descending crablike sideways, a mild compromise to my quads and hammys.

Eventually passing a rock overhang, and I heard several runners coming up my back door. Why it’s none other than Caitlin and Lauren. My rider perked up and convinced my elephant to march. We three reached the railroad tracks and turned right up the gorgeous Tucquan Creek, a nature preserve and another jewel of the SSH. The trail eventually climbed out of Tucquan Run, then descended to Reed Run. Up and down, up and down we climbed, out of Reed Run and descended to Brubaker Run. Climbing up my heart rate would max out to the point I had to all but stop and sit down, then we would scream down the next descend, hanging on to roots, rocks, branches to avoid falling or worse pinwheels off trail into the river. Why am I doing this again rider? The three of us stayed close together, with the girls outrunning me down the hills, and me catching them on the ups as Lauren would stop to regroup.

At the House Rock Vista we had to actually climb up over rock formations, and jump rock to rock for a descent to House Rock Run. My body screamed to my brain “This has to end!” My brain would convince my body that at the bottom of this hill the trail will flatten out along the creek for a spell. But every time at the bottom, no rest was afforded as the trail then climb even steeper than before to the next top. Then only to once again descend, insanely repeating the same outcome while my brasin desperately clung to the hope that this time would be different.

Finally we descended to the entrance to Wind Cave, one of the largest tectonic caves (formed by the movement of masses of bedrock) in the east US. Everything hurt, my legs were cramping, and the elephant swore to NEVER, EVER, do this race again. Finishing in seven hours did not matter. In fact, who cares about finishing . . .the only thing keeping me moving was knowing the only way out was to follow the trail. My physical self hurt to the core. I was wet, out of water, out of breath, cramped up and down my legs. However, my rider would note that everyone was suffering in their own SSH hell. I actually passed several stopped runners and even though I was moving several passed me by.

Near the top of a hill, I came upon Lauren stopped and bent over and dry heaving. I encouraged her and expected to see glass. However, as she looked at me in the eyes. I saw the fire was still burning. My rider commanded hers to get up and move, and her elephant did. Up ahead on the trail waiting for her, I spied Caitlin, bandages and all. As Lauren rose and moved, Caitlin pranced off like a gazelle. Her friend was still in the game. Damn those young gazelle legs!@ noted my old elephant ones.

In supreme survival mode after more than six hours + on the trails, I finally crossed a stream at an old springhouse and began a short climb not knowing it would be the last one. But at the top two local walkers told me that it was all downhill and paved from here in. I told them if they were lying I would find where they live, but they were right! I crossed two paved roads and continued through woods searching for the village of Pequea. Here I came across a concerned man asking if I had seen a girl named Lauren. Lauren’s boyfriend, who after seeing Caitlin rip by, was desperate to shepherd Lauren home. I assured him Lauren was close behind and in return he provided me crucial directions.

For, at the next intersection, I now knew to search for a sharp right turn towards a bridge but not over it., but right onto a small unpaved road at the Pequea Boat Club. Many runners including Caitlin missed this turn, allowing me to finish several spots ahead. Imagine the despair being lost at mile 27 after the hell we have endured!

Finish (Pequea Campground) 28.4 miles
I followed the unpaved road along Pequea Creek, lined with cottages for just under a mile. As I entered the Pequea Creek Campground, my elephant ears heard the applause ahead harkening my arrival. The clock read 6:53:55, and I came in 62nd out of 327 finishers and over 400 starters. Sub seven hours. I had made it. I stumbled around looking for my car I had parked in the dark 8 hours ago. After driving to Towson, rush checking into my hotel, suiting up and walking into the wedding, my rider signaled the elephant to smile. I saw my mom, sister, and brother in law and saw my dad check his watch. It read 4:50pm. In my pew with ten minutes to spare. Man I was so hungry I could eat an elephant!

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