thirty-eight is enough.

Last year, I celebrated my birthday by running my age.

At the time, 37 miles marked the farthest I'd gone at one time and I'd considered making the effort an annual event, thinking maybe I could keep adding a mile each year for another few years at least.

Another trip around the calendar later, I was going to be hard pressed to find the time to squeeze in a run of that length in the middle of a work week, especially while trying to get my handle on the boatload of work that needs done ahead of next week's Summer Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City and TransRockies, gulp, just two weeks after that.

So, I needed a different kind of status check and it made sense that it should be something that doubled as training for the 120 miles that await in Colorado next month.  While I don't have access to any altitude here in Pennsylvania, there are climbs to be had everywhere even if it demands that you go up, down and back up again.

Over and over and over.

I gave Jefferson a ring early in the week to let him know what I was planning and to see if he wanted in.  The idea was to match the elevation gain of the longest stage at TransRockies, 4900 feet, but to condense that climb into a shorter distance.  Basically, I was thinking that I'd try to make up for not being able to train in altitude by upping the severity of the climbing.  Flawed logic, I know, but at least it would be hard work.

I met Jefferson right around 5:00 AM and we hiked in the half mile on the Horseshoe Trail to the top of Molehill.  In my pack, I was hucking a mini aid station consisting of Gatorade, peanut butter, Gu, Honey Stinger waffles, granola bars, Swedish Fish and dog knows what else.  Either as a birthday offering, a reminder for me to keep an eye on my nutrition or as a goal to work towards, Jefferson had also brought a bottle of Mountain Lightning, the mystical knock-off of a certain caffeine-heavy, day-glo-colored carbonated beverage that came to my rescue when all hell had broken loose in my bowels at Laurel Highlands.

I appreciated the gesture but decided not to carry it to the trailhead.

During a couple of hill sessions the week prior, my Suunto had clocked the ascent at Molehill at around 430+ feet in a little over 4 tenths of a mile, so I was looking at something like 12 reps to make it to 4900 feet of climb.  The most laps I'd managed to crank out without switching from running to walking was 4, so I knew that I'd be doing some power hiking before the morning was over. I'd brought along my Black Diamond Z-Poles, thinking it would be a good chance to see if I could finally get the hang of using poles while moving swiftly...or trying to.  To start, though, I'd see how far I could go on the run.

It was still too dark to manage without a light, so the initial hike and the first couple of trips up and down the hill were headlamp lit.  As much as I wanted to barrel the downhills, I knew I'd need my quads to participate throughout the effort and, instead, I concentrated on clean footfalls on the descents.  A storm that had passed through the previous day had littered the trail with debris and Jefferson and I spent some time clearing out downed limbs on our initial trip down to the bottom.

We chatted the entire way down and most of the way up, as we cranked through the first lap.    I headed right back down, knowing that, whatever the reason, my second rep has always proven to be my most sluggish.  This day was no different and I toiled on my second ascent and thought I might end up hiking sooner than I'd anticipated.  I paused at the top to get a quick drink and use the Sharpie I'd brought along to make note of which lap I was on...I'd failed to take that step on past repeat sessions, lost track of the number and ended up doing extra laps to make sure that I covered the ground I'd planned on in the first place.  I had too far to go this morning and too little time before work to afford to lose the count.  Realizing I didn't have any paper with me, I marked two notches on my arm, replaced the cap and jumped back on the course.

The third time up the hill went far better and I was psyched to see Jefferson plugging away too.  He's conquered Molehill several times by now, but hadn't gutted out two on-the-run reps on any prior visits.  Here he was topping out for the third time and he'd get one more before having to part ways to get back home to start his day.

Soon after Jefferson left, I ran up the hill a fifth time and felt like I could manage one more before likely having to resort to hiking.  I snuck a quick peek at my watch, did some quick math (not my strong suit) and suddenly understood that, short of being late for work, I was going to be hard-pressed to log 12 laps in the allotted time.  Had I bothered to do that simple math the day before, I might have started earlier, but it was a little late for that now.

Down and up, down and up, down and up I went.  I wasn't flying by any means (a nearly 21% grade'll have that effect), but damned if I wasn't still running.  Or at least going faster than hiking.  I wouldn't have even thought about continuing to run if this had been an actual race, but this was something different altogether so I just kept at it.

I continued hitting the Gatorade and thieving food from my aid station.  And I was shocked to still be feeling good.  My feet were getting a bit sloppy on the downs but my legs kept chugging on the ups and my heart and lungs managed to keep up too.  I added notches though I was sweating away the earliest of those notches almost as quickly as I was acquiring new ones.

I kept repeating my "make it to the top of the hill on the other side of this hill" mantra, despite the fact that this day was all about just this one brutal hill.

Regardless, the mantra was working.

Eight, nine, ten times I summited Molehill before having to accept the fact that the clock had caught up with me and I was going to have to get off the trail, into the car and off to work.  But not before a quick archival photo of me on my favorite downed log/resting post.

I was thirty-eight, alright.

Maybe halfway home (or further) if you prefer to look at things that way.  I don't, for the record, but regardless of how little or much I've got left, I'm pretty pleased with still feeling frisky and still well in possession of grit teeth and stubborn will.  Guess I could have slept in for my birthday, but not getting up and moving is a gift I'd just as soon not receive.

I hadn't planned appropriately to accomplish exactly what I'd set out to do, but I'd buried my former idea of what I was capable of on that beloved/dogforsaken hill, running every damn step.  And 4495 feet of climb in 8.78 miles is no joke for boy or man (girl or woman).  

No joke at all.

If anything, it was worth a raised glass.  A celebratory drink.

And I had just the thing.


filling dad's shoes.

He [in this case, she] followed in his [her] father's footsteps, but his gait was somewhat erratic.

-Nicolas Bentley

Erratic to say the least, Nic.


the key ingredient.

If pressed for a single trail of residence, I'd certainly have to call the Horseshoe Trail home.

While not a true second home (I'm not made of trail money, after all), the Conestoga is like a cabin returned to season after season with a familiarity that makes it feel like "mine" even though, deep down, I recognize that as soon as I leave the next short term tenant arrives.

I'm also well aware of the fact that some other fellow tribesmen and tribeswomen log enough time on the Stogie to lay fair claim to it being their home.  Like Gary Bowman, for one.  If anyone has the right to roll out a proper welcome mat it's Gary and he did just that on Saturday evening, inviting fellow runners far and wide to tackle the 10-mile Conestoga Trail Run course under the cover of darkness.

A large contingent planned to gather at Pequea Creek Campground after some strategic pre-run shuttling and then switch on the headlamps and flashlights to guide footfalls up and down the many contours of the eastern side of the Susquehanna River from there to Holtwood Park.

A smaller group, consisting of a handful of more-than-able bodies and a dumbass with a braided beard.

Photo courtesy of Stacey Wilson Keener
Having arrived on the scene first, I got to bear witness to the mop-up of a rescue operation that sent emergency professionals down into Kelly's Run to fetch a Bear Grylls wanna-be hiker who'd managed to whack himself in the leg with the machete he'd decided to haul along on his misadventure.  I decided to NOT take that as an omen and quietly thanked the heavens that our scabbards held only water bottles.

As an aside, I'm still waiting on the punchline.  Bear grills...what?  I'd think on that for a bit during the long, hot hours ahead.

There were some strong, strong legs in this group and what was a slow, controlled pace for these guys was a nice, steady clip in my book.  Still, it's all downhill to start and the cruise down into Kelly's Run was good times.  Was it hot?  Yep.  But not nearly so hot down in the ravine as it had been up high.

I fought off the urge to stop and snap pics down in the run as I didn't want to fall off the pace early and we had plenty of ground to cover.  Scott and I discussed his good and my bad days at Laurel and agreed that it's one beauty of a course.  I couldn't help but think "and so is this one."

The clamber up over the slabs directly above Kelly's and the long, grassy slope beyond them led to the Pinnacle and an early opportunity to refill water bottles.  I never tire of this sweeping view and framing it with running partners helps to give it some scope.

On the long run down from there to Tucquan, John made first mention of some gastric issues he was having that were likely tied to an ill-advised meal not long before we'd started combined with the heat and humidity.  He was still running strong but also clearly uncomfortable.

And, when I get to that point, there isn't anything I look forward to more than soaking in a cold creek.  In Tucquan, it's not a matter of finding a pool but rather picking which one you like best.  I found my favorite hole and soaked for a bit before talking Rik and John into posing for this photo.

This little rest stop should have left us miles beyond Scott, Steve and J.J., so we were surprised to see them all again shortly after we'd made it up the next climb.  Turns out, machines that they are, they'd decided to run the full loop at Tucquan to tack on a bit of extra mileage.

Jesse humored me for a stretch, padding along behind me, talking shoes and second growth.  Come to think of it, with the miles he's logged in those river valleys, J.J. can stake a home claim there too.  We caught up with the others at House Rock where they were making small talk with a handful of day hikers.

I was still guzzling water when the crew headed out and it took me a couple of minutes to catch back up.  On the steep haul up to the ridge that fosters Wind Cave, I ran into John who again voiced his discomfort.  We hung together through that stretch and decided to round the corner before Pequea on the road, cutting out the short climb that then ambles down into town.  John made it clear at this point that he was going to try and catch a ride back to Holtwood and, feeling a bit cooked myself and more familiar with some of the runners we'd meet at the campground, I decided I might try and track down keys from someone running to Holtwood and drive John and I back there.  At the time, it didn't sound like a bad idea.

Our short cut allowed us to meet back up with Rik just before hanging the right onto the old trolley bed that leads from the river to the campground along the southern bank of the Pequea creek.  That last mile passed pretty quickly and we found the campground a bustle of activity with balls bouncing, golf carts buzzing and grills (no Bear) blazing.

Rik and I bee-lined for the creek and spent another few minutes soaking.  If not on the trail, look for me in water.  RUNNING water.

We'd arrived well ahead of the 10-mile crew and the longer we waited, the better I began to feel.  The night crew emerged, seemingly out of nowhere and it was full of friendly faces.  Steve and Cassie appeared with their trademark smiles and enthusiasm.  Chris pointed out that we only seem to see each other on this trail and passed me a chia energy bar that, honestly, seemed to add some immediate pep.  I hadn't seen Steve Lougee since we'd logged some time together up on Mole Hill and I threw him a wink.  Aimee grinned with pre-run anticipation.  Lane gave me the quick rundown on his recent immersion in trail running.  The man of the hour, Gary, delivered his customer bear hug.

At that point, I knew I was going back to Holtwood along the Conestoga.  Before I did that, however, I needed to help John find that ride.  J.J. and Monica Joan, who was joining us for the 10 miles back to Holtwood, agreed to turn their keys over to John.  I gave him a hug and we agreed to get in touch and stay in contact.  Just one more instance of translating a few hours together on a trail into a friendship to last.

And then, I suppose, I blinked because everyone was gone.  Once again, I was standing there watching the crew run away.  I scrambled to pull out my headlamp, put my pack back on, gather my bottles and catch up.  Steve and Cassie led the group off of the Conestoga onto Smith's lollipop start and I bagged it to get further out along the trail to set up my little tripod to see if I could get some shots of the group as it passed by.  Something about bobbing headlamps always gets me pumped.

Rik and Stacey came through first, having also cut the lollipop short.  They decided to shoot a couple of photos too and after the bulk of the group went through, we realized that we hadn't seen Gary.  We decided to wait on him and soon discovered that he had Carli and a couple of others with him.

The three of us brought up the rear for a bit before deciding to push out ahead.  We never did catch the others, but we must have put some distance on the four behind us as we never did end up reconnecting.

Over on the York side of the river, there was a pre-4th hootenany going down with a fairly impressive fireworks display and a peculiar concoction of radio-friendly country, hip-hop and pop.  It was pretty surreal, especially after having spent many quiet nights on these same trails with only the musical accompaniment of crickets, birds, far-off farm dogs and the occasional train.  While I prefer the quiet, the goings-on did add a festive air.

Rik, Stacey and I stuck together mile after mile, not pushing too hard but just enjoying a beautiful night out together.  Hard to believe that we only really met back in January and I can't imagine not thinking of the two of them when I think about local trail running.  They are good people and good company.

Once we'd slogged our way up and over the Pinnacle and temperatures had cooled, I was feeling really good.  We made the final water crossing in Kelly's Run and began power-hiking the long, steady climb up to Holtwood Park.  Before I knew it, that power-hiking had turned into shuffling and then full-on running.  I love having a lot of leg late in a run and, especially after having felt pretty legless earlier in the evening, it was really satisfying to be accelerating up the ridge.

I would have been ok with that stretch going on and on were it not for one little concern.  While slugging some water down in Kelly's I discovered that the empty zippered pocket on one of my handheld bottles was completely open.  This was really disconcerting because inspection of the other bottle revealed that it didn't contain my car key and I was about 98% sure that I'd put my key in one of those bottles.

My hope was that I'd arrive at the pavilion at Holtwood and, while basking in the glow of the post-run after party, I'd dig into my pack and find that I had actually stashed the key there.  Or, if the key wasn't there, maybe I'd find it lying next to the car or sitting on the roof, a spot I'd nearly left my key on a number of other occasions.

The after party glow was there waiting.

My key was not.

Once I'd confirmed that fact, I began begging a ride home.  Thankfully, Aimee obliged and I consoled my conscience with the fact that I could jump out of the car at the intersection of Mt Joy and Colebrook roads without ever forcing her to stray from her route home.

Finding Lindsay awake when I got home at 2:30 and learning that she'd been calling and texting and calling again the cell phone that was locked back in the car did not a thing to ease that some conscience.  Ugh.

What I didn't learn until morning was that shortly after Aimee and I left, Gary and Josh had arrived at the pavilion, key in hand.  How or where they found it, I've yet to learn and maybe it should stay that way.  They did me one last favor, alerting the rangers to the fact that my car was going to have to sit there overnight and slipping a "note" through the slight crack I'd left open in the driver's side window.

That's me, the owner who lost his key...

...only to get it (and my car) back today.

For the moment, I'm going to store that key with my new collection of favorite Conestoga Trail memories.  But I may seek out one of those magnetic storage boxes before next time.

Or tie it right into this dumbass beard braid.