along my journey.

"Along my journey
through the transitory world,
new year's housecleaning."

The sun was shining brightly this morning and the temperatures crept higher than plausible for the last day of December.  It was as though 2011 was asking forgiveness for all of the sickness, lost loved ones, strained relationships, financial struggles and other hardships of the last 12 months.

Heavy skies and dipping mercury seemed more befitting but the day's offering was too good to pass up.  The air smelled of promise, if only in my hopeful imagination,as it tends to in the context of new year anticipation.

It gave me pause to reflect on the fact that the negativity while ever present hadn't managed to outduel the countering positivity that also coursed throughout the year.  Balance was struck and, in the sieve that is my memory, many of the details were replaced by general impressions of "wasn't that great" or "please, never again."

I revel in blacks, whites and grays and purposely employ them in my journaling.  Beauty rests there and demands that imagination do the coloring should it feel the need.  In the darkest of memories, all remains gray and there arises no temptation to paint anything more.  Those most precious moments, however, easily come to life in the full bloom of color.

And there was color in 2011.  Much color.

Shared experiences with friends old and new.  Celebrations of life lived well and pain escaped.  Births and rebirths.  Invention, reinvention and paths altered.  New connections, reconnections and necessary, healthy disconnections.  Adventure into new landscapes and physical challenges.

The children grew taller and wiser and thirsty for more, more, more of everything.  Of every single thing.  And the momentary quenching of that thirst (thankfully only momentary) was joy and reward unmatched by a paycheck, a bill paid in full, a conscious-clear accounting of one's purpose.

Color, color everywhere.  And more to come.

Photo courtesy of Bianca Cordova Photography

Photo courtesy of Andrew Rebeiro

Photo courtesy of Eric Harvey Brown

Photo courtesy of Jo Weakley Agnew

Photo courtesy of Dan Martzall

Photo courtesy of Dan Martzall

Photo courtesy of Dan Martzall
Photo courtesy of Jack Anderson

Photo courtesy of Mike McMonagle

No need to clean the house (why start now?) at the end of this year.  Sure, it's less than pristine, far less, but it is also surprisingly, comfortingly livable despite its blemishes and imperfections.

Thank you, friends and loved ones (and what joy it is to have the lines blurred between the two!), for the flawed but glorious year that it was.

I could not be more excited for all that lies ahead.

"Happy, happy.  Joy, joy."


binge. purge. (agnew's revenge)

I'd held out as long as I could.  Except for a brief, relatively unsuffocating trip to the mall earlier in the month, I'd managed to steer clear of the mad swirl of Christmasing.

With time slipping away, I was going to have to venture into the fray.  With a focused plan, a map through the maze, I hoped I could get my shopping done in one two hour operation of determined tunnel vision.

I pulled into the Target parking lot, the first stop on my consumerist binge.  I should have laced up my sneaks because the closest parking spot was about a 1/4 mile away from the front doors.

There isn't much to tell of my time behind the wheel of the wobbly cart that greeted me at the front door.  All went relatively well and the shelves kindly peddled many of the things on my list, saving me any need to check it twice.  I didn't get everything I needed at that Target but expected visits to two more retailers addressed all remaining items on my list.

Time to purge.

To distract the girls while I was busy playing Santa, Lindsay had decided on a trip to Dutch Wonderland (a quaint little kid-oriented theme park for you non-Lancastrians) for holiday inspired amusement.

My inspired amusement would come from my beloved Conestoga Trail.

I have written about the Conestoga Trail on many occasions and those of you who read along have likely heard of or have had the pleasure of spending time on the trail.  For those who haven't, the Conestoga begins near the southern end of Lancaster County and meanders roughly due north until intersecting the Horseshoe Trail just below the Lancaster/Lebanon County line.  At its southernmost end, the trail serves up a jaggedy profile of elevation changes as it climbs high points and dips into hollows on the eastern shore of the Susquehanna River.  The terrain is rocky and rooty and the scenery is absolutely stunning, especially considering its close proximity to the ever creeping suburban sprawl of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The aptly (if not terribly creatively) named Conestoga Trail Run takes place here each September, beginning at Pequea Creek Campground and traversing "10 challenging miles" on its way to Holtwood Park.  I love that race and had invited my good friend Kelly to join me there this year only to have him bear a grudge for what proved to be anything but the "totally runnable" course that I'd (admittedly) falsely promised.

What can I say?  My want for Kelly to love the trail as much as I do had totally clouded my recollection of how punishing the Conestoga can be.

Long story short, I now cannot think of the Conestoga without also thinking of Kelly and I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing, considering the unlikelihood that he'll ever set foot on it again.

Anyway...back to my story.

With hours to blissfully while away, I decided to park the car just beyond the small riverside village of Pequea and jump on the trail at a point a couple of miles along the race route.  This allowed me to skip the very short portion of established road and get right onto glorious singletrack.  Before long I'd climbed past the cave (yes, there is a real cave that sits just off of and likely beneath the trail) and up to the vista at House Rock.

The panorama looking south toward Pinnacle, past the few dotted islands and up to the curve in the river before the Holtwood Dam was as lovely as ever.  I progressed at a nice pace in the mid-40 temperatures but also stopped frequently to take in the view, listen to the subdued quiet of the river below and fiddle with the camera.  Honestly, I only wanted to go so fast.

It was nice to see a number of other people on the trail, though all were hiking not running.  As much as I love solitude and am susceptible to having a day downgraded or even ruined by excessive on-trail traffic, I often find it sad to cover mile after mile of trail without crossing anyone else's path and am left wondering how few people appreciate the beauty that while arguably fading is still all around us.
There were still many signs of the beating that the landscape had sustained from the hurricane and violent weather that came through in late summer and early fall, but it was also apparent that nature rolls with the punches and a bit of debris on the trail is of little consequence to the overall health of the forest and its inhabiting creeks.

Tucquan Glen, as usual, was lush and picturesque.  It's a lot of fun to run here but this is also one of those cherished places that cries out for you to stay and it always feels a shame to rush through too quickly.

The long brutal climb up out of Tucquan to Pinnacle is less about lovely scenery and more about doing the work required to just keep moving forward and achieve the high point above.  This is definitely a point during the Conestoga Trail Race, especially on a bad day, where you start to wonder if and when the race will ever end.

Without a clock ticking at the finish line, I was able to enjoy this section more than usual, but did break it into two parts, playing again with the camera at the top of one of the rockiest bits.

I still felt pretty good when topping out at Pinnacle though the circling vultures suggested otherwise.

I've always struggled with the next half mile to a mile of downhill trail after it changes over from the old fire road that departs Pinnacle onto loose scree and slabby rock that drops aggressively toward Kelly's Run below.  The first time I did the Conestoga Trail Race I took a hard fall and bounced on my tailbone.  Back in early September, while running with friends, it took everything in me to not recreate that fall.  Dead legs during this year's Conestoga Trail Race had me unsteady and tentative through this segment.

This day proved no different as downed leaves and fir needles made the rock slabs even more treacherous than usual.  By the time I arrived at the more level trail down  in Kelly's Run, my ankles and shins had taken a pounding.  I climbed well from there to Holtwood Park but knew that I'd lost a lot on the descent from Pinnacle.

It was time to refuel...

...and check my progress.

The food, drink and salt tabs went down well with my stomach giving its approval and my body immediately feeling improved.  Considering the time I'd piddled away not running, I'd covered the "out" section in pretty strong fashion.  I hadn't stopped having fun and everything suggested that the return trip would include more of the same.

Except for one thing.

I nudged the display buttons on the side of the GPS and discovered that it was 4:30 on the afternoon of one of the shortest days of the year.  In other words, I had about 45-60 minutes of daylight remaining, maybe less with the heavy cloud cover, and, while slightly refreshed at the moment, my legs were definitely going to be showing fatigue on the way back.

None of this would've mattered in the slightest if I had been in possession of a headlamp which, aggravatingly, I almost always am when running with a pack.  For whatever reason, I didn't have one with me today.  Those overcast skies were going to ensure that I didn't get any help from the moon or stars, so there was no getting around the fact that sooner or later, I was looking at still being on the trail with little to no visibility.

Somewhere, Kelly Agnew was grinning.  I imagined him the villain in some Scooby Doo-like cartoon, spying me through some far off computer monitor, bellowing out a vengeful cackle and perhaps even shaking a fist in the air.

And I, in my lack of preparedness, deserved it.

Nothing left to do but run and run hard while there was still enough light left to risk it.  I made it back down into Kelly's Run, clambered back up to Pinnacle and pushed to get down into Tucquan Glen before the sun set entirely.  I'd gotten turned around on that descent from Pinnacle on an overnight hiking trip with friends and that was with headlamps, so I was definitely relieved to put that section behind me with light to spare.

There was still light enough to run through Tucquan Glen but by the time I topped out on the next climb, I was alone in the dark.  This didn't immediately prove problematic as even without a light the worn in groove of the trail was followable.  I couldn't see enough to risk running over the technical surface and really injuring myself, but by keeping my strides close to the ground, I was able to power hike pretty briskly.

Eventually tricky water crossings and sections that skirted large rock slabs left me bushwhacking and/or staggering about trying to figure out how I'd literally just been on the trail and now could find no sign of it.  Knowing that the blazes on the trees that are impossible to miss in the daylight hours were lurking invisibly all around me was fairly maddening.

I was frustrated but never panicked, as there was no missing the Susquehanna River off to the left and, so long as I kept within earshot and continued progressing northward, I was going to get where I needed to get.

Just not very quickly.

Though I managed several times to get back on the trail after losing it, I finally lost the track for good on the climb up the ridge that shelters the aforementioned caves.  I'm pretty sure now that I initially climbed too steeply too soon and missed some aggressive  switchbacks that would've taken me higher and also a bit further inland.  My chosen route got me up and over the face of the climb more directly but also put in me in a couple of precarious positions and forced me through thorns and brambles that tore up my shins, knees and upper thighs.  I'd stumbled on several occassions once the sun set but was falling with regularity during this leg of the trip.  Twice I ended up having to do makeshift self arrests to keep me from sustained slides and on one of those flailings I bloodied my hand.

My lesson learned and a note driven with a mental steel spike to ALWAYS have a headlamp, the forest decided to spit me out onto familiar ground a few hundred yards from my car.

As I trudged up the road and fumbled for my keys, I remembered that it was just up the hill from this point back in September where I'd unsuspectingly come upon a nest of bees kicked up by the runner just ahead of me.

Perspective is everything and, wanting to end on a high note that reaffirmed that it had truly been a beautiful day in the woods, I focused on how nice it was to be  returning home without a single sting.

Purge accomplished.


i used to go running.

I used to go running.  I used to write.

Lately, though, I haven't run much and have written less.

Not running has some to do with a busy schedule and some to do with a lack of motivation which may or may not have some to do with a busy schedule.

Not writing has had some to do with a busy schedule but more to do with liking what I'm reading from others far more than I like my own writing.

BUT, I'll come around soon.  I always do (jinx).  Inspiration's out there.

In the meantime, I'm just gonna ponder my next move...and keep reading.

Photo by Ken Trombatore


run of the mill.

"With apprehension that I am summoning a jinx, I have decided to unfurl the map and plot a course that leads towards running my first 50-mile event in late 2011, the Stone Mill 50 Mile Run."

I wrote those words here on the 20th of December and had pondered the jinx through Achilles issues, a gastric meltdown at Laurel Highlands, bee stings at Conestoga and month after month of mileage that fell short of what I'd intended to log in preparation for Stone Mill.

But, on the morning of November 19th, as I stood at the starting line outside of Watkins High School in Gaithersburg, I felt pretty darn good and, at least to start, there was no sign of the jinx.  Of course, there was a lot of hours left in the day and many miles to cover, so the possibility of a sighting remained.

The weather was perfect, cold to start, but not so cold as to require excessive layering for comfort.  I'd brought gloves but felt just warm enough to not need them.  I remembered Kelly's advice to stay conservative at the start and decided to stick to it as headlamps bobbed ahead of me on the trail.

That lasted for about 10 minutes until I realized that I was going to go crazy tucked (and stuck) in formation on a beautiful section of wooded singletrack.  I wanted to stay controlled but 11+ minute miles weren't going to hold my interest and were possibly going to put me in a hole I had no want to climb into as I alternated between what felt like running in place to walking so as not to literally bump into the person in front of me.

Managing to leapfrog past a number of other runners at a couple of strategic widenings of the trail, I was able to move along more swiftly while still remaining mindful of not going too fast.  The course was really runnable with only gentle rises and falls and fairly non-technical footing.  By the time I hit the aid station at mile 11, I'd settled into a very comfortable 10:00 minute mile pace and hoped that it wasn't too much too soon.

I had taken in some water and Gatorade from the handheld bottles I was carrying and had kept down one gel, but otherwise I hadn't refueled.  I wasn't hungry yet, but, knowing that I was going to need more throughout the day, I ate a couple of bites of potato at the aid station.  My stomach didn't fully protest but hinted that it would have preferred that I had left it alone.  "Wait to worry", I vaguely remember telling myself.

The sun had finally crept high enough to cast a beautiful light on the meandering Seneca Creek Greenway Trail.  I couldn't fathom that such sustained sections of unbroken trail were tucked inconspicuously into the wild cracks between the bustling sprawl of Washington D.C. and Montgomery County, Maryland.

I was having an absolute blast, cruising along, splashing through water crossings and waiting for my beard to thaw.

As I started to near 20 miles, I pulled the throttle back just a hair in hopes that I could settle into a pace I could hold all day long.  I even power hiked a couple of the steeper hills to conserve energy even though there wasn't a single section that I couldn't and wouldn't have run in a shorter race.

My pace dropped even further after I decided to take a break.  "Don't you have to go to the bathroom?", I've been asked on numerous occasions when talking about running long races.  Yes is, of course, the answer and, if you're lucky, there's a port-a-potty handy when the need arises.  Call me lucky. 

I left the john behind me and felt better for it.  Moments later I was on the towpath of the C&O canal and my "feeling better" went away.  After miles of trail, the hard-packed towpath surface felt way too much like pavement.

The view, however, was lovely with the mighty Potomac perched on the left.

I snapped a bunch of photos along this stretch, partly because it was so beautiful and partly because it broke up the monotonous pounding of the towpath.  On any random day, I would probably enjoy running on this surface and certainly surrounded by that landscape but, having already come a long way, this was the first time that my feet felt fatigued and the first time that my mind wandered to the many miles ahead.  My resolve weakened and I realized that I hadn't put anything further in my stomach.

A few miles later, the course branched away from the towpath and the ruins of the race's namesake stone mill offered a welcome distraction.

I investigated for a momentbefore hitting up the aid station nestled just a few yards away.  My drop bag was stocked with a change of shirts, a handful of gels, some GU Chomps, a couple of granola bars, some dried dates, salt capsules, some band-aids, a fresh wicking shirt and some ibuprofen.

I opened a gel packet but didn't manage to get much down before deciding that I just didn't want to tempt fate with my cranky gut.  I slipped into the dry shirt and packed my wet shirt and remaining gels back into the drop bag.  I knocked down two ibuprofen and tucked the Chomps and salt caps into my pocket.  The crew at the aid station refilled my bottles and I gave the GPS a quick glance before heading back out onto the trail.

Despite all my dawdling, I was still at a sub-11 minute pace and just 7 tenths of a mile shy of halfway home.  I wasn't feeling my best by any means, but was happy to have the towpath behind me, not suffering from any real physical issues and encouraged at being well ahead of the 12 hour cutoff.

After a short stretch of unpaved road, we were back on trail.  I felt pretty good for a mile or two as the path wound through open, hilly farmland fringed by old, thinned out woods.  Somewhere near mile 27 or 28, I hit a major lowpoint.  Physically, nothing seemed out of order, but I just couldn't muster any enthusiasm.  It was unignorable...I didn't want to be there, didn't want to run any further.  I'd gone further in a number of other races and on other runs and I couldn't understand why I was feeling the way I was, but that just made me more frustrated.  The miles between 27 and 30 seemed absolutely endless and while I wasn't really considering dropping when I reached the next aid station, I was dreading the miles and hours ahead.

For all the enthusiasm and support that lives in trail running aid stations, they can be really depressing places when your stomach isn't cooperating.  I looked at the chips, pretzels, M&Ms, almonds and other snacks with disdain and borderline despair.  I was sitting down, nursing a cup of Coke, staring at nothing and thinking about the same when I overheard a runner ask a volunteer for some chicken soup.  Hearing that request brought on a craving for soup like I've never experienced.  I jumped to my feet and said "make it two", feeling melodramatic but not caring in the least.

To say that that cup of soup saved my life would be...stupid, it would be stupid, but what it did do was give me calories I was sorely lacking and those calories translated into positivity that I'd been without for several miles.  It wasn't the last soup (or cup of Coke) that I would have that day, but it was the one that got my fueling back on track and kept me from a total bonk.  I wouldn't say that I went flying out of the aid station, but I did get back to running with purpose instead of letting pace get away from me entirely.

I kept plugging along, enjoying the babbling creeks, leaf-stripped woodlands and postcard-perfect old barns perched on distant hillsides.  I discovered that I'd covered 40 miles and was creeping toward the possibility of sneaking up on the finish line at just under 11 hours.  I wanted to go faster but also reminded myself to stay smart and forced myself to power-hike now and then to break up some of the repetition on my leg muscles.  The strategy seemed to be working as the Garmin reported that I'd made it to 44 miles.

That's where I was when the gentleman at the next aid station welcomed me to "41 miles".  I gave him a puzzled look as he explained that the next section was an out-and-back consisting of a 1.5 leg to a water stop and then an additional 3.5 miles to the turnaround.  I'm no mathematician and was tired to boot, but that sure sounded like more remaining work than I'd expected.  I mumbled something about the read-out on my wrist and he smiled when he told me that a lot of other runner's GPSs had said the same thing.  Hmmm.

Off I went, but with an admitted deflation.  Even though I felt pretty good, there was something about having thought I was so close only to learn that I wasn't that took a toll.  I slowed noticeably and no longer needed to force myself to hike the "ups".  Shortly after leaving the turnaround and recrossing an icy stream which may have been the motivation for the race directors to send us that way in the first place, the sun passed from low in the sky to gone.  Luckily, I'd kept my headlamp in my pocket instead of throwing it in the drop bag back at the Stone Mill aid station.

A mile further, the light revealed Bobby approaching me on his way out to the turnaround.  Stone Mill was his 11th ultra of 2011 and he'd lined up despite suffering from what he suspected was the start of plantar fasciatis.  Bobby and I had suffered through Laurel Highlands together back in June and forged a fast friendship and an easy camaraderie.  I wanted this to be a great day for him as much I did for myself, but I could tell he was having some difficulty.  He confirmed that his plantar diagnosis was correct and told me of his day.  He'd tried to modify his gait to offset the growing pain in his foot and brought on some knee issues in the process.  He'd gutted things out for hours on end, but, in learning that the course was longer than advertised and not wanting to cause any further damage, he decided to turnaround here and come back with me.  His race was over but he still had a few dark, cold miles ahead to get back to the start.  I was sorry for how his day had gone but happy to again be sharing the trail with him.

With the sun down, the temperatures had dropped considerably and we looked forward to calling it a day.  Having a friend to talk to made those last few miles slip by surprisingly quickly and before long the finish line loomed ahead at the top of one last grassy slope, the steepest of the day.  I bounded up the hill, surprised to find that I still had a little leg, and crossed under the Stone Mill start/finish banner.

I'd finished my first 50-miler and was pleased to feel like I could have gone further.  Well, to be fair, I had gone further.  Four-and-a-half miles further.  I hadn't managed to look down to see where I was at mile 50, but based on my final pace and the slogging that I did on that last out-and-back, I'm guessing it was something a little less than 11 hours.  Maybe.

Despite the unexpected miles, I had a great time and loved the event.  The weather was perfect and the course was totally manageable.  I'd have been hard-pressed to pick a better day and race my first 50.  There was a lot of grumbling about the extended distance and I'm still perplexed as to why the directors were comfortable overshooting by that much.  Wayne, who I'd met the night before, was using Stone Mill as his qualifying race for entering the Western States 100 lottery.  To get in without a 100-miler, he needed a sub-11 hour 50-mile race and, by running strategically throughout the day to hit that comfortably, he ended up just sneaking in under that time because of the extra miles.  His frustration was understandable.  For me, just wanting to get through the distance, I'm hoping that those extra miles will give me a psychological advantage the next time I attempt 50 miles.  Time will tell.

My hope is that the organizers publicize the full distance next year or modify it to be something a little closer to 50 or even add on and make it a 100K.  As cold as it got on Saturday, had there been rain or wind to further complicate things, runners could have found themselves in real danger of hypothermia or exposure.  This, obviously, is always a possibility at any ultra, but with the course being so much longer than advertised, the directors would have had to field some uncomfortable questions that, thankfully, didn't need to be addressed this past weekend.  Outside of that, I have no complaints or suggestions for improvement.

Thanks to all for putting on such a well-supported event with a great vibe.  With a hard to believe $35 entry fee in an era where you're often asked to pay that for a 5K, Stone Mill didn't include a commemorative shirt, but the swag was still pretty sweet and included a nice imprinted drop bag, a mug (for first time Stone Mill runners) and a flashlight.

It probably goes without saying, but my favorite piece of swag was the finisher's medal.