Sometimes you see something that makes you rethink what is possible.  In the world of sport, moments like these aren't uncommon, but some stand out more than others.  I wasn't yet walking the earth, but Bob Beamon's long jump in Mexico City, I'm assuming, fell into the stratospheric category.  Usain Bolt's shattering of the 100-meter record just a few short years ago certainly hit the mark.  In both of these instances, the sheer athleticism was staggering and evident to any who bore witness.

What really impacts me, however, are not these singular moments, these small windows in time.  For me, it's demanding feats of utter endurance, arguably of survival, that hit me the hardest.  This week provided at least two of these examples (feel free to inform me of others), the first of which came from the unlikely arena of tennis.

At Wimbledon, the relatively unheralded John Isner and Nicholas Mahut carved out their respective places in history with a tennis match that carried on for over 11 hours and resulted in more games played than I can bring myself to type.  I'd attempt to go into greater detail, but I couldn't dare do the match justice AND Ross Tucker of the blog The Science of Sport has gotten as close as possible to capturing the scope of the athletes' achievement: 

A few days later in the High Sierras of California, runners toed the line at the start of the 37th Annual Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile event that should garner respect for anyone who dares attempt much less complete it.  The field for the event was jam-packed with the brightest stars of ultra-running but the sheer demands of the course (absurd amounts of elevation gain, the thin altitude of 8700+ foot mountain passes, and highly-technical terrain) made Scott Jurek's course record time of 15:36:27 a daunting goal.

Right from the start, a blistering pace was set by four favorites, Colorado's Anton Krupicka, Alaskan Geoff Roes, Spaniard Killian Jornet Burgada and two-time defending champion Hal Koerner.

Ultra-running is traditionally a sport for those in their mid/late 30's and 40's, perhaps requiring the long, slow build of endurance and a psychological development to withstand the suffering.  Not only had Anton and Killian never competed in Western States, the dates on their birth certificates (26 and 22, respectively) seemed to suggest that they were at a disadvantage. At 34 years of age, Hal and Geoff better fit the template for ultra-running success.

Nevertheless, Anton and Killian pulled away from the pack prior to the middle of the race and kept adding to their shared lead, trading places at the front but hitting most of aid stations in tandem.  This continued through the 79.8 mile aid station which found them still maintaining a sub 9-minute mile pace.  Hal had bowed out of the race while Geoff lingered about 15 minutes behind.

Summoning astonishing reserves, Geoff began reeling in the leaders and, as Killian finally began to flag, he had only Anton to catch.  Over the last few checkpoints, Geoff drew within sight and eventually passed by Anton to cross the line in 15:07:04 nearly a half hour ahead of Jurek's former record!  Anton finished just 6 minutes back and still well ahead of Jurek's best time.

It's unlikely that either man could have covered the distance without the other driving him on.  Every poet needs a muse and here's hoping that Usain Bolt finds one in the next year or two, so we can see what he's really got!

Again, my understanding of human endurance has been redefined.

on (and right back off) the road.

I left the house on Friday morning for my first non-race run in (gasp) two weeks.  My leg of the Laurel Highlands Ultra 50K relay definitely took some gas out of my tank and I purposely had planned a couple of rest days to follow.  A couple of days transformed into a few days and suddenly the Smith's Challenge was right on top of me.  That race also proved to be a tough one and, between fatigue and life in general throwing some obstacles in the way, another week got away from me.

On the bright side, I was hungry for miles and excited to be back on the move.  At least I was for the first mile-and-a-half.  My calves felt strained and my feet were aching.  I'd expected to be a bit stiff and out of practice, but I was disappointed at the level of my discomfort.

I made it to work and wondered throughout the day about the wisdom of planning to run home again that evening, but as 5:30 crept closer, I did a bit of self-examining and decided I really couldn't identify any specific pain or immediate cause for concern.  Unfortunately, the same story wrote itself on the way home.  Strain and ache again seemed the appropriate descriptions for what I was experiencing.

While playing back the last few weeks in my head, I was suddenly struck by something.  I'd spent much (most) of the month prior running more trails and spending less time on paved surfaces.  I grew convinced that my runs earlier that day weren't revealing any issues other than the fact that (get ready for the "duh" moment) roads are unforgiving.  While there is far more decisioning to be done on trails, the terrain actually softens each blow far more than any macadam or concrete sidewalk.

I needed to get back on the trail and test my theory and hopefully rebolster confidence that my body wasn't just breaking down.  Lindsay and Lily were off to a princess-themed birthday party on Saturday morning.  I looked Piper right in the eye and swear I saw a gleam that confirmed her want to "run".

We consulted our checklist.

Dad's water?  Check.

Pipe's water?  Check.

Pipe's Cheerios?  Check.

With all our essentials accounted for we headed off down the local rails-to-trail. My legs felt great. My lungs felt great. My hear, fickle beast, felt great. Piper squealed at every robin, oriole and darting chipmunk. Though not audibly, I squealed too.  Despite the heat, the tree cover politely kept us cool and splintered the sunlight into dappled beauty.  We perched for a moment above the passing creek, refilled Pipe's snack tray and wordlessly drank in the day.

Certainly there's a possibility that my legs had just warmed to the task after an initial jolt the day before.  Regardless, the soft cinders of the trail were far more accommodating than Mt. Joy Road, a track for which I suspect I'll struggle to muster enthusiasm on Monday morning.

As a homeowner, a father of two and an equal partner in marriage, I'll be hard-pressed to forsake the road entirely.  Being able to walk out the door and immediately be in motion gives the road a distinct advantage over the trail when time is limited.  But, when the clock allows, you can bet I'll be looking for technical terrain.

I just can't wait to get off the road again.  I only wish our stroller could tackle single track.


no wimps?

I've been hearing about Smith's Challenge for as long as I've been running but have had prior engagements, been nursing injuries or have simply spaced it entirely year after year.  Sounds like I've been avoiding the event, but really (and sadly), I think I've just taken it for granted and nearly did so until it was too late.

Counting today, Smith's Challenge has taken place each and every Father's Day morning for the last 22 years.  It's a 10K trail race for men only (don't worry, ladies, Mrs. Smith's Challenge happens every Mother's Day) that rolls its way around Lancaster County Park, finding itself a surprising number of hills and technical stretches for what one would consider a fairly tame municipal park.  It definitely lives up to its name, especially on a punishingly hot day like today.  There wouldn't be a "tomorrow", however, as this was to be the final installment of the long-running classic (cross your fingers that this proves a false alarm).

I'm not going to bore you (this time) with a point-to-point race report, but I will own up to the fact that I didn't exactly set the course on fire.  Yes, this was the first time that I'd actually managed a run since the Laurel Highlands Ultra the weekend prior and, yes, I was battling a pretty nasty warm weather cold all week long.  But even with those excuses in hand, I really think my "problem" today was that it was one of those mornings that I was truly content just stretching my legs, embracing the effort and not finding any extra motivation to do anything more than enjoy myself.

The run was one of the most satisfying that I've had in as long as I can remember in a timed "official" event.  I had no idea what kind of pace I was managing to maintain and I really couldn't have cared less.  I thought about my father.  I thought about my being a father.  I thought about my kids.  I thought about my wife.  And I also did a good bit of not thinking about any damn thing except the shared efforts of the other runners and how much I appreciated cold cups of water being handed over every so often by the only women on the course.

Moments after crossing the finished line, I looked up at some of the arriving finishers and recognized a face I don't believe I've seen anywhere but in publicity photos for the book he's written.  Christopher McDougall is the author of Born to Run, a fascinating account of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's Copper Canyons and their culture of running, a scientific look at the mechanics of the human body and the love-hate relationship of modern footwear AND most importantly just a beautiful, inspirational celebration of the allure of running.

It just so happens that Mr. McDougall is also a Lancaster County local who knows a good trail run when he sees one.  He also happens, like the rest of us hacks, to need a cold drink after navigating 6.2 miles and I wasn't about to stand in his way.  I couldn't help myself, however, from extending a hand (while leaving a clear path to the water table) and thanking him for writing and publishing Born to Run.

I know full well that books aren't written for individual readers, but the best books, I firmly believe, make the reader think that they are.  I'm glad I got the chance to express that idea to the author who left me thinking that this one might have been penned for me.

Clambering into the car for the drive home, I knew I'd already had one heck of a Father's Day and hadn't even seen the family yet.  The rest of the day was a joy, catching a bit of the World Cup, playing with the girls and enjoying a cookout in my mother's and stepfather's lovely backyard.

The icing on the cake was having Lily hand-color my race bib. 


team building exercise

I burst (sort of) through the trees, up over one last little rise and stumbled upon the aid station and road crossing.  Before bothering to find out how many hours, minutes (days?) had passed since I'd left the starting line, I looked, left, right, left again for Taylor to offer an apology and then send him off on the second leg of our 50K relay.  Not seeing him or Tim (our third runner), I swung back to the friendly faces of the aid station to ask about the clock.  The good and shocking news was that it was only 10:36 which not only erased my need to apologize but actually put me way ahead of the pace I'd realistically hoped to achieve before the race began at 8:00 AM.  The bad news?  Another look left, right, left confirmed that reinforcements were nowhere to be found.

The afternoon prior, Tim, Taylor and I piled into our packed vehicle and left Manheim for Ohiopyle to take part in the Laurel Highlands Ultra.  The Ultra is steeped in tradition and is one of the toughest 70+ mile events in the Northeast.  In the past several years, a 70-mile team relay and 50K event have also been added to the festivities.  This year a 50K team relay had been added, opening the door for participation by mere mortals and serving as the siren call we'd decided to answer.

Relying on Youghiogheny paddling memories, I knew that there was a budget-friendly spot to crash and pitch tents in Confluence, leaving us just a 20-minute drive in the morning to check-in, grab our race numbers and receive final instructions.

Though I did recall that the "campground" was positioned right next to railroad tracks, I didn't recall trains running past the site repeatedly throughout the night.  Chalk up that minor (but significant) memory lapse to the deep slumber brought on by post-paddling drinking binges.  Long story short, we didn't get too restful a night's sleep and I knew all too well who's shoulders were going to be carrying the blame if that made race day miserable.

Despite the restless night, spirits were high as we steered into the parking lot in Ohiopyle.  There'd been some individual rough patches and shakings of confidence leading up to the weekend, but that all seemed to be past tense amidst the hustle and bustle of race day.  As the first man up, I was definitely ready to see if my training and preparation had paid off.  I hadn't been on the trail itself, but having frequently pored over the 11+ mile first leg's elevation profile, I knew I was looking at some serious uphill and downhill work.

Because the individual 50K and team relay participants were all starting together, I'd decided to position near the front of the pack in hopes that I could pace with the fleeter-footed individual racers who had to conserve a bit to eventually cover far more ground than me.  This plan worked nicely as it helped avoid any log jamming at the early changeover to stone steps as the climb was underway.  Surely there were leaders who were long gone, but four or five of us stayed tightly grouped for the first 3-5 miles, alternating between hard running and swift hiking.  The gain was intimidating but I'm sure the others were just as aware as I was (maybe more so) of the massive climb to come a few miles later.  I really, really enjoyed that first stretch, especially the extremely quick, technical downhills.

Somewhere between miles 7 and 8, however, I was feeling the pain and wondering if the incline would ever end.  Switchbacks were non-existent and the humidity had increased dramatically.  I'd lost touch with my pack and was alone with my flagging willpower.

Finally topping out after mile 8, I found myself doubled-over.  Not only was the course eating my lunch, it had coaxed breakfast back out into the open air.  Note to self: do not substitute your normal morning coffee with a milk-based caffeinated drink and then attempt to tackle a demanding trail run.  My stomach actually hadn't bothered me until that very moment and, if anything, I felt slightly rejuvenated after the expulsion was over.

I picked my feet back up and got back to work.  The final 3 miles of my leg was mostly flat with little climb and a fair bit of sustained, gentle downhill, but still my pace had diminished considerably from those earliest miles and I did alternate between running and hiking.  As I neared the 11 mile marker, I was nursing leg cramps and looking forward to handing off the figurative baton.

No member of our team had ever attempted an event of this magnitude before.  I've finished a 50K but it paled in comparison to the demands of the terrain, elevation change, heat and humidity offered up by the Laurel Highlands.  Tim has finished half marathons, but, again, those events were of a different variety.  We'd timidly speculated on the times we hoped to achieve, but knew we were to untested to really be sure.  I'd freely admitted that any strategic errors on my part could add a crushing amount of minutes to my time.

So, there I stood without anyone to "tag in" thinking that I'd inspired so little confidence that Tim and Taylor didn't even see any reason to be at the transfer with only a little over 2 and a half hours gone.  At first I was frustrated, but as the moments passed I grew pretty certain that something else was going on.  It took me a couple of minutes to realize that I'd tossed my cellphone into my hydration pack.  I turned it on and was surprised to find that I had one small but stubborn bar available with which to make a phone call.

"Taylor, where are you?"

"We're at the first aid station."

"No, I'm at the first aid station."

Turns out they were at the first aid station...for the 70-mile.  It also turns out that while that station was 8 trail miles removed, it was also somewhere in the vicinity of 50 minutes of rural driving away from where I stood waiting.

I didn't remain standing long, however, as both of my calves and my left thigh were suffering debilitating cramps.  I was blessed enough to have a ridiculously kind wife-of-another-runner/physical therapist attend to my agony.  I bestow the title of angel on few and do so only in silence, but the word was echoing away in my head as I lay on my back trying not to retrigger any spasms.

All but one of the remaining relay teams passed through while I waited but at least my cramps had subsided by the time a familiar green Honda Element crested the hill.  Twin looks of disgust leaped from the vehicle and Taylor vanished down the trail while Tim explained how they'd received very specific directions to the "first" aid station and were wondering when my face would appear amongst the other folks checking in.  They just didn't realize that the faces that were there had begun moving in that direction two-and-a-half hours before I'd toed the starting line.

The remainder of the day saw Taylor (despite suffering a knee injury during his run) and Tim channel the morning setback into strong runs.  Each of us minded the heat and the terrain and suffered the mixed emotions of witnessing the many DNF's, cramps and struggles of others that weren't satisfying in anyway but confirmed that conditions were indeed brutal.  In fact, after Taylor returned to the aid station he'd waited at that morning and sent Tim off on his leg, he and I volunteered to transport a guy to the finish who'd been completely overwhelmed by the heat.  On the drive, he told us that he'd finished the 50K on a few other occasions but had nearly suffered a complete shutdown on this day.  We'll probably never know if he ever ended up getting the IV he surely needed.

Team Backcountry Edge will return to the office on Monday without a trophy (as expected), but I suspect we'll each be able to hold our head high and wonder what might have been.  With any luck, it'll motivate us to try again next year.  Unless I can talk myself into trying the whole damn thing.

Postscript:  Sunday morning brought with it temperatures in the upper 80's and mind-altering humidity.  While we truly did have less than ideal conditions yesterday, we dodged a serious bullet in not having race day fall today.  Funny how everything really is relative.