While running on the trails of Addison County still makes up the bulk of my posts, readers will notice that I also enjoy sharing my discoveries when I get the opportunity to run in other locales, sometimes on the trails, sometimes not. Trailrunning is indeed among my favorite ways to set myself up for adventure, but experiencing new places or new running events, and sharing them here, is also something I find quite rewarding. With this in mind, I am going to share a personal first – a short trip, including a commercial airline flight, for the sole purpose of going running. I guess this is the conclusion to the saying “You know when you are getting hardcore when….”
So, last Sunday, very early in the morning , I was milling around with 30,000 of my newest closest friends, awaiting the start of the Philadelphia Marathon. As this was my second marathon this fall, I was in new territory regarding distance events – never before had I done two such road races in such a short period of time. This particular race was of interest to me due to the easy access and inexpensive nature of flights to Philadelphia, combined with a sister who lived in the area, who for some unexplained reason was eager for my company and eager to transport me where I needed to be! Also, there was this little idea I had, about a year ago, when I first learned of the “50 States Marathon Club“, a club which requires that members do at least one marathon in each of the 50 states in order to gain admission. The fine print, however, says that you can get the T-shirt for it after only 10 states, and after all, that is the important part, right? I was further intrigued to hear that there is a local runner (who to the best of my memory I have never met) named John Lent who has actually completed all 50! So – off to Philly I went, working on state number……4. Yeah….a long way to go still for this trailrunner.
In any case, the race information made it quite clear that, in the aftermath of last year’s Boston Marathon incident, there would be an extensive series of security checkpoints before the start of the race, and runners needed to be at the start area by 5 am in order to ensure that they had enough time to clear the inevitable long security lines. Well – there I was in front of the famous Philadelphia Art Museum on the banks of the Schuykill (pronounced “Skookill”, derided as “Sure-kill” on the adjacent expressway) River, with about 20 other runners, who walked into the start area without so much as a check over from the bleary-eyed security forces standing around. Comforting. Having two hours to blow before the race start was actually kind of fun however, as it gave ample time to walk around, and strike up short impromptu conversations with other racers. I could offer my sage advice to those running their first ever marathon, as well as comment and learn from those runners who were clearly far more experienced than I.
The race went off without any real hitches, however! The last time I ran in such a large race was the NY Marathon, in 1992, and during that race it seemed as if there was no room to run until the race was more than halfway done due to the crowds. At that time, when the gun went off – the race started for everyone – if you were a few hundred yards behind the start line, it was more or less tough luck. As a result, all the runners crowded the startline as much as they could, and were more than happy to trample each other to get underway, with resulting crowding that took many miles to disperse. The advent of chip technology, where a microchip embedded in your race number ensured that your own clock didn’t start ticking until you crossed the start line led to a much more genteel start to the race, and people were far more willing to let things spread out. So, while the first few miles were pretty dense with runners, I never felt like my pace was dictated by the pace of nearby runners.
The first half of the race went through a series of neighborhoods in downtown Philly. We passed by the art museums, into the downtown business district, through Philly’s Chinatown, alongside the Delaware and Schuykill River, and through numerous residential districts. Other than brief slowdowns to grab water or Gatorade, the only stops I made were to take a picture of Independence Hall as all the other runners sped by, and find relief in a porta-potty. I had grown accustomed to long races in far more rural settings, and there weren’t exactly a lot of discretely wooded sections along the way in the course of this race! Frustratingly, this particular pit stop was complicated by the fact that the occupancy of each individual porta-potty was indicated by a small red or green sign by the door handle, and my red-green colorblindness forced me to try doors until I found an empty one, as other runners zoomed in on the correct choices much more readily.
The second half of the race was a long “out and back” along a city parkway road adjacent to the river. Just as I was leaving town, I saw the fastest athlete – a wheelchair para-athlete wheeling his way back into the finish area, and not long after that, I saw the first of several fleet-footed men of African, presumably Kenyan descent sprinting towards the finish line at a pace I could not match for one mile, let alone 26.2. The race course turned around in the formerly gritty factory town of Manyunk, which now is apparently quite gentrified. Curiously, despite the fact that I was wearing a Middlebury track singlet for the race, it gathered no recognition from the crowds of onlookers who lined the course until I hit Manyunk, where it garnered me many “shout-outs”. Must be a lot of former Midd-kids who are now yuppies living there!
I usually don’t care to talk explicitly about my running pace when authoring this blog, as it is primarily about sharing the joys of running and the out of doors, rather than as an online training log. And besides, my times are not that impressive, as befitting my age and modest training relative to most people who run longer distances. That said, I was very pleased with my performance in this race, in that I started off appropriately slowly, and accelerated throughout the race, finishing my final 10 Km at a pace which was pretty close to the pace at which I usually run a normal 10 Km race! Finishing a long race like this strongly is also one of the most empowering feelings in running. I might even call this my best marathon ever, with the aster-isk that it was the best I had ever performed relative to my age group, and frankly only a few minutes slower than a few marathons I did as a much younger man in my early 30’s. Yup- it felt good!
Finally – one of my goals for this race was to have someone get a picture of me running up the famous “Rocky Steps” of the Philly Art Museum, to post in this blog. Before the race, well it was just too dark! When I passed by these steps at the half way point, I realized that I was putting in a good time, and didn’t want to stop and mess around with a picture. By the finish, well the best I could muster was to stand in the foreground of the steps, raise my arms in victory, and let them frame this famous building, maybe with a little hop in my tired, sore legs. Of course, with the finish, my day was not yet complete – after a few hours of recovery, including a shower, nap, and a good meal at my sister’s house in the suburbs, I had to complete the short flight back from Philly and seemingly endless ride home from the Burlington airport before fluffing my pillows and collapsing to get a little sleep in before classes the next day.
While most residents of northern New England mention mud season as the most challenging time of the year to live here, the almost equally bleak month of November, less well-known as “stick season” also has it’s challenges. It has the same bare trees and overcast sky, but never quite brings out the worst in us like mud season. Perhaps we are all still feeling good after a great fall foliage season, and are anticipating the excitement of the first snows of the season? Perhaps it is because…well…it just isn’t as muddy, and the trails are arguably at their best for running, with soft leaves underfoot, and great views through the surrounding forest? In any case, I got together with two other local runners, Josh and Ben, early on a Saturday morning to do the grand loop around Middlebury, our own beloved TAM. Bits and pieces of this convenient and scenic gem have been the frequent subject of blog posts, but it has been a few years since I last described a complete circumnavigation of the village, and that was much earlier in the fall, prior to the peak of foliage season. We met up shortly before sunrise at the parking lot by Batelle/Means Woods on Quarry Road (at about 3 o’clock on the loop shown in the Google Earth projection included below), just east of town, and I convinced my running partners that we should take the loop counterclockwise to put the most challenging part of the run, the 300+ foot ascent of Chipman Hill, early in the run. We also had the additional benefit of catching a great sunrise over the mountains from the east side of Middlebury’s downtown summit! While most of the leaves were long gone from the limbs of the deciduous trees on the flanks of the hill, I was touched by the stubbornness with which a few trees clung to their leaves and to life when other sources of warmth and the ephemeral beauty of autumn was fading.
Continuing on down the west side of Chipman Hill, we wove through the village streets for a few minutes before heading north through Wright Park, and the longest contiguous section of trail not intercepted by roads. When we reached the northern suspension bridge crossing over Otter Creek, instead of taking the section of the TAM heading due west, we decided instead to take the last short loop to the north, heading into the gorge, and adding a mile or two of extra running to our proposed loop. The thick green moss alongside one particular section of trail led for Josh to christen this short passage “The Shire”. After a short section along the creek, the trail started its gradual loop back to the west, and then the south, emerging back into a meadow just to the west of Morgan Horse Farm Rd, where I managed to grab a quick photo of my fellow runners before they disappeared in the distance, forcing me to pick the pace after grabbing a photo, if I wanted to stay with them. That, and they also waited for me!
Crossing over Morgan Horse Farm Road, and veering south through another meadow and pond, we briefly considered leaving the TAM to seek out the entrance to the nearby Weybridge Cave on Cave Road, but decided against it on this day, as all of us confessed to having seeked out the cave’s entrance in the past, and all had failed. Someday we have to invite a runner who knows where exactly it is to show us. Any takers? Eventually, our counterclockwise circumnavigation brought us to the most civilized section of trail, the part circling the Middlebury College Championship Golf Course, where the TAM also serves as the running course for the college cross country races. The morning was getting a little later at this point, and we started to see other runners and walkers out for their Saturday morning strolls. The last few miles brought us back to the Batelle Woods, where I let my partners for almost 3 hours pull ahead, and I took a shot which I think exemplifies November running – grey skies, the trail softened by falling leaves, and of course, muddy sneakers.
As we returned to the parking lot where my car was, we high fived on a good long (almost 18 miles!) training run, we commented on how fast the time flew by. This almost 3 hour run seemed rather timeless due to the good company, and fun terrain. As my fellow (much younger) runners headed home, on foot, I sat my tired butt down in my car, and made a beeline to Middlebury Bagel where I treated myself to a cup of coffee…..and the most sugar- encrusted donut left on their shelves.