The Weekend: October 1st and 2nd. A hike and a run.

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October 1, 2016. Mid State Trail. The rocky climb from Smith Gap in Bald Eagle State Forest.

The first weekend in October saw both some hiking and running. I hiked in Bald Eagle State Forest and then stayed closer to home the next day to run in Rothrock State Forest.

After last weekend’s introduction to Bald Eagle, I decided to return and explore some more. This time south on the Mid State Trail (MST). Parking at the Sand Mountain Trail Head on Sand Mountain Rd., I walked south on Stillhouse Hallow Rd., into Smith Gap. The road quickly became quite narrow much more trail-like than passable for a car. The Mid State Trail intersects at a gate and the Laurel Creek  before the creek spills out into Coxes Valley and eventually into the Laurel Creek Reservoir, which is part of the Lewistown Water Authority.

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October 1, 2016. Laurel Creek in Smith Gap. Bald Eagle State Forest. My hike started here.

After the gradual descent via Stillhouse Hallow Rd., the MST takes a sharp turn to the right and becomes steep and rocky. The blazes have faded in many areas and despite beginning relatively easily accessible, the trail looks like it doesn’t see much use. My Purple Lizard map shows a vista to along this section and I wanted to find it on this outing.

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October 1, 2016. Mid State Trail. Bald Eagle State Forest. The fall color hasn’t made its way to my part of Central PA yet. PA DCNR expected the fall color to peak the week of October 14th to the 24th. 

The climb to the top (which I think is Long Mountain) gains about 500 feet in less than a half mile. It’s strenuous, no doubt, and I want to return to run this section. But once on the top, the trail flattens out and is real pleasant to walk.

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October 1, 2016. Bald Eagle State Forest. The flat section.

About 3 miles or so from the trailhead is the vista. I wasn’t excepting too much of a view because of the dense fog and cloud cover. And as you can see below, I wasn’t disappointed either. There was no view today.

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October 1, 2016. Unfortunately, the cloud cover and fog obscured any view.

Although the vista was less than spectacular, I was happy to be out hiking in the forest, exploring an area that I’d not been to. Always appreciative of that.

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October 2, 2016. A bridge over Greenlee Run off Greenlee Rd. marking the start of the Sand Knob Trail and the ascent up Greenlee Mountain.

The next day, on Sunday, I decided to head out to Rothrock State Forest for a 13 mile run. I’m in a down mode regarding my running and have only been going out once a week or so. When the weather cools a bit more I’ll be out more often.

Parking off Bear Gap Rd., near Keith Spring, the plan was to head down Greenlee Rd. for about 2.5 miles before taking a right onto Sand Knob Trail and running up and over Greenlee Mountain. The run to the top of the mountain where the path crosses near the top at 1,911 feet rises 595 feet in 0.4 miles. Slopes range from 13%-43%. Pretty good climb. Keep this one in mind for Eastern States prep.

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October 2, 2016. A misty descent down Sand Knob Trail on the northwest side of Greenlee Mountain.

After coming down Greenlee Mountain, the plan was to follow Pine Swamp Trail up and over Rudy Ridge. Maybe due to little use, the trail was impossible to locate. I searched for a bit before finding a trail behind an outhouse off the road, but before long the trail disappeared and I was left to bush whack the entire ascent and descent: 0.8 miles up with a gain of 955 feet. Most of the climb was over huge rocks and thick shrubbery. I made a note to myself to please, please, update my map.

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October 2, 2016. Bush whacking up and over Rudy Ridge. Pine Swamp Trail was nowhere to be found.

I ended the run with 13.1 miles, and 2,812 feet of elevation gain. Decent climbing for a half marathon. 

Such a fun weekend to be outside. Still waiting for the fall colors!

This coming weekend, my daughter and I will be returning to Oil Creek State Park where I ran my first ultra in 2011. I haven’t been back since 2013! I’m not running, but I will be volunteering over Saturday night into Sunday morning at Aid Station 3. Come through if you’re running the 100 miler!

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Photos from January and February 2016 Trail Running

This morning, as the temperature fell and rain and clouds covered State College leaving a grey covering, I was reminded about fall and winter running. Our surrounding forests look just as spectacular during the cold months as they do in the summer. To reminisce, I took a stroll through some old photographs from last January and February when I started seriously running again. All of these images were captured in Rothrock State Forest which comprises of over 96,000 acres in Huntingdon, Centre and Mifflin counties in central Pennsylvania. I thought I’d share a few here and link the photos to my routes on Strava.

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January 31, 2016. Heavy snow and ice made for a 3 hour, 15 mile run. Taken from the Wampler Road vista in Rothrock State Forest, the first vista I fell in love with. Although the leaves are gone and the colors have left us for the season, the beauty of the forest remains, a different, more unguarded beauty.

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February 6, 2016. 14 mile out and back mostly along the Mid State Trail. Nittany Mountain can be seen quite well from this view at the Roman Tower on the Mid State. Lemont and State College are to the left. The next three photos are from the same outing.

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February 6, 2016. Rocky outcropping along the Mid State Trail.

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February 6, 2016. I love running along the Tussey Mountain ridge line. The trial is beautiful complete with vistas and overlooks. And the trail flows like a soft ribbon.

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February 14, 2016. I remember this run. 10 miles from Jo Hays Vista via the Mid State and Jackson Trails. Snow, ice, rocks and one the coldest days in an otherwise mild winter. If I can remember correctly, the high was around 10-12 degrees.

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February 23, 2016. I think the solitude of winter trail running is reflected in this image. Even the trees appear to be minding themselves. Animals are hidden, birds are silent. Just me and the mountain.

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February 27, 2016. An 18 mile day incorporating Lonberger Path, Kettle Trail and the Mid State Trail. This is Tussey Mountain Trail. In 2006 a wild fire scarred this section of the mountain and the results are still visible.

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February 27, 2016. Mid State Trail. Taking it all in.

Early Fall Outing to Bald Eagle State Forest

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The climb up Poe Mountain via the Loggers Path, September 25, 2016

With the chill just staring to settle in, our running group left Rothrock for a morning of exploration in Bald Eagle State Forest on September 25, 2016. Temperatures were hovering the 40s as we parked at the Sand Mountain Trail Head, a staging area for ATVs. I wished I brought gloves for what for sure the coldest morning of the season.

I sketched out about 17.5 miles of running as a introduction to Bald Eagle. We’d head down Stillhouse Rd and hook up with the the Mid State Trail (where that section is called Greens Valley Trail) before linking with the Loggers Path and finally connecting with the various ATV trails taking us back to the trail head.

The biggest surprise was the climb out of Big Poe Valley from Poe Valley Rd up Loggers Path which ascended 672 feet in a half mile with grades of almost 50% in some sections.

Hoping to head back this weekend to catch some of the fall color along the MST. Unfortunately, we were a bit early to experience it fully.

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Climbing along the Mid State Trail, September 25, 2016

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Beautiful decent along the MST, September 25, 2016

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Almost at the top of Poe Mountain with Spruce Mountain in the distance, September 25, 2016

Eastern States and Taking Inventory

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Greenwood Furnace State Park, September 18, 2016

The Eastern States 100 came and went and I didn’t finish. I dropped at 55 miles. My body was prepared. My mind was not. I made all of the mental mistakes you can make during an ultra race. I allowed self-doubt to stake its claim. I counted the miles until the end of the race. I counted the hours to finish those miles. I let my anxiety and obsessive tendencies sabotage my day (and night). I complained, a little.

I’ve taken a preliminary inventory of my errors and have thought seriously about what I need to do to complete that race.

Most importantly, I need to prepare my mind. The 100 mile distance demands mental preparation well beyond a 50 mile or 100 kilometer race but I largely neglected it. Like many, I thought simply going out on long runs was be sufficient. For some, maybe it is, but not for me. I understand and respect that now.

I’ve be mainly taking a rest from running since Eastern States, going out once or twice a week. Autumn running is my favorite so I’ll pick it back up as the weather chills. Until then, I’m hitting the books, not the trails to prepare for my next 100 mile attempt.

Worlds End 100k: A Renewed Beauty

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The view from High Knob aid station, mile 36. May 2016.

The Worlds End 100k course is a work of unrestrained natural beauty. An aqua, flora, cathedral-esque, rugged elegance whose stoic poise waits only to ambush in deliberate and indiscriminate attacks. It seeks to lull, at times, one into accepting relative safety before launching its feral trickery once again, testing one’s belief in a celestial purpose.

In the miles before arriving at the sanctuary perched at High Knob aid station, 36 miles into the day’s engagement, I truthfully reflected on my drive to continue. I studied the balance of the course, considered the coming climbs and my commitment. I had heard that the 40s were difficult, but tolerable, and if I could reach Aid Station 11, The Gate, victory would be inevitable. Fuzzy math revealed that the next 20 miles would stand as a challenge but if I arrived at mile 55 with all my faculties, I could finish.

My wife, in great haste, rushed me through High Knob with a reassuring smile, fresh water and a few vomitous gel packets. In a nod to my original plan, she branded, saber-like, borrowed trekking poles, placed them in my hands, and wished me “good luck” in the most resolved manner she could. I had no time to disclose my reservations to her.

In complete isolation, the descent from High Knob was steep and treacherous before becoming more hospitable. But the alleviation was short-lived as the course turned upwards and another climb would commence.

It was here, ironically, where my devotion renewed. The sight of my children, who would be waiting for me at the end, pushed me on. I continued to break the course down into segments, identifying distances between aid stations and committing only to those distances before thinking broader.

Once arriving at aid station 10, mile 50, Brunnerdale, my spirits were lifted. I understood that there were two additional climbs before the course leveled out and past the final aid station at mile 58 there would be some welcome road and fire road running. There I planned to compensate for the slower trail portions.

Night was starting to close in as I left the aid station and a soft fog had sunk into the mountains blurring the trail. I remained alone in the forest aside from the occasional runner who would pass me or whom I would pass. Rain appeared. I switched on my headlamp.

Aid Station 12 at mile 58 was a welcome sight. Having lost tracking and timing ability when my watch battery failed at mile 55, I asked for the time. “9:10,” someone said. “You could crawl the the rest of the way and make the [midnight] cut-off.” I actually wasn’t sure if that was intended to be encouraging or a reflection of my appearance. But then my wife said I looked good, which was the conclusion I needed.

I didn’t crawl through the remainder of the race. Much of it was on wide trails and forest access roads. The passing rains and lingering moisture had left their mark on the ground turing the dirt into ankle deep mud, each step a resilient suction. The reflective tape signaling the trail pulled runners home to the finish. I imagined each step as a claw drawing me closer to completion.

Entering the final descent along Worlds End Trail, I could hear the echoing finish at the Cliff Pavilion. People welcomed other 100k runners with smiles even as the hours grew late and the weather cold and damp. My own children had fallen asleep a few hours ago, I would learn, and were dreaming in their car seats. I kissed them each when we were rejoined after settling back into our sleeping bags and tent.

2014 and 2015 were a difficult years for my family. We suffered the miscarriage of our second child resulting in a our decision to begin living our lives with increased purpose, hope, love and presence. We sold our home in Philadelphia and purchased one in Central Pennsylvania. Neither of us had jobs in our new town, but instead of living where work was, we decided no more would we place middle-class safety before bliss. We would live where we wanted and put our family’s happiness first. Running was put to the side for the time. We spent our weekends home searching and carving out a life without the clutter of modern living. After not running at all in the 2015, Worlds End became that much more special of an achivement and a welcome return to long distance running and, in essence, a new life.

In exhaustion, and after 11PM, I ate a beans and rice burrito and drank some water following a campground shower. I was satisfied with my 18:00 finish. I lay down on my thin backpacking sleeping pad before being soothed to slumber by the breathing of my kids as they drew in the untainted Pennsylvania mountain air.

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Waterfalls abound along the 100k course. This one is at Dry Run aid station, mile 42. May 2016.

Squamish 50: August 2014 Edition

A little more than a year ago, I ran 50 miles along an unrelenting mountain path in Squamish, British Columbia. Although from the east coast, I fell in love with the Coast Mountains and the inspiration they invoked. I also fell for the exhaustion, destruction, and consequential rebuilding of my body resulting from the run. That day, unspoiled views revealing glaciered peaks and blue skies hooked me in. A few months later, I found myself registering for my second Squamish 50. I couldn’t say no.

The Squamish 50. The location, the people, and the course all join to make this a true destination event. The race is thoughtful and punishingly technical. The texture of rocks, roots, and slick mountain bike descents make the course one of Canada’s hardest trail runs.

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Porteau Cove Provincial Park and Howe Sound, August 2014

After a night on the shores of Porteau Cove Provincial Park, race morning arrives. My daughter, Kikue, is between Christine and me in our tent. The same tent, on the very same spot, that we slept in the year before. The same tent we’re building memories in. Recently, as we return from outings, Kikue calls it “home.”

I lie in my sleeping bag, warm from the tent air. The bottom section is vented to allow my legs and feet volume to breathe. I’m nervous. Anxious, actually. But not so much as the inaugural year. It’s four o’clock in the morning and the race begins at five thirty. I tell myself to get up at four fifteen. My alarm is set for that time anyway. The waves of Howe Sound lap at the shore to my right. To my left, Kikue is soundly sleeping. Her eyes closed in a worriless slumber that I can only wish for lately. She only has the concerns of a child. In a couple of days, she’ll be turing five. She talks of My Little Pony and tells elaborate stories for our enjoyment. Sometimes, I can’t help but think she’s more unguarded than other children. She has no brothers or sisters and spends most of her time with us. She doesn’t have a TV to watch and influence her. When she starts kindergarten this year her influences may change, but for now, I find comfort in her innocent view of our world and know that in the simplest of childhood pleasures our purpose can be found. Purpose beyond self-created responsibilities of meaningless process. Repetition that finds no progress, only more repetition without the enjoyment to encourage continuing.

My head lamp goes on my head and I unzip the tent letting in the cooler coastal air. I slip out. It’s black outside. I flip on the beam of light and walk over to a small camp bench. Placing a bag of race items on it, I take out a water bottle. I pour some powder, add water and have breakfast. Christine comes out to join me. Still sleepy, she asks if I need anything. Sensing her exhaustion, and noting the hour, I tell her no and put on my race clothes. Kikue stirs and at last wakes up. She’s quiet but fully understands what’s happening. Though she’s young, she’s risen to these early hour race mornings often. We find our way to the car. It’s about 20 km to the race start on the Squamish oceanfront. Customarily, I tell Christine that I’m nervous and she reassures me. I finish off a caffeinated gel and question my abilities silently to myself, passing street lights and mountains that I can’t see in the darkness.

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The starting line is bustling as runners finish last minute race preparations. I watch people fill water bottles, chat with friends and family, and boast a bit. The commotion is startling since leaving the silence of our camp. But I embrace it. The sun has yet to rise, but the energy of other runners suggests mid afternoon. As I secure my vest around my body, I poke my mind for memories of last year’s race, trying to recall specific sections, climbs, and even trees. I have a surprising ability to remember small attributes of the trails I run, even if it’s only once and a year before. I think the event makes such a strong impression on me that my mind naturally maps the course.

The pre-race announcements are concluding as I place my drop bag in the proper truck to take it to the Alice Lake Aid Station. I fumble with my headlamp, find an empty slot about a third of the way back from the frontrunners in the starting corral and we’re off. Just like that.

Almost immediately, I feel my thoughts begin to wander. Although I’m over 3,000 miles away from home, my mind reverts to the concerns that I hoped I left behind. The stress of my job and the limbo that is our current living situation bubble up until I begin talking to other runners to distract myself. I start to feel more relaxed and assured. I chat with a friend made during last year’s race. It really would be a shame to waste my time here worrying about things that I have absolutely no power to change.

3.

I look up and the trail has suddenly become beautiful. Green moss and lichen beautiful. British Columbia beautiful. My chatting and worry caused a slight time loss until the landscapes reorients me back to the moment. I find myself bouncing over the soft ground, pivoting on comforting roots and balancing on jutting rocks. I went out stronger and quicker than last year, but my pace was sustainable.

The first bit of climbing arrives and I slow to a hike. Pulling myself up, I think about how privileged I am to be running this race. To be in this part of the world. I’ve written about privilege and trail running elsewhere, highlighting the social structures that allow me to do it. I recognize all that has to be in place, both my own doings and things that I have no influence on, allowing me to run this race. And to travel abroad, of all things, to do it. I feel a tinge of guilt.

4.

The most difficult section of the course begins around mile 21. Here is where the longest and highest climb looms. My own Strava measurements show that the ascension to Galactic Scheisse tops out at 3,267 feet. The lowest point, just before the climb, is 665 feet. In the next 6 miles there is over 2,600 feet of vertical gain, with grades of up to 45%. It was on this section last year, trudging at a snail’s pace and feeling lightheaded, where I sincerely questioned my ability to finish.

I take the climb quicker and more deliberate than last year. No dizziness or thoughts of failure threaten to sabotage me this time.

A few weeks before the race, my wife and I experienced the pain and guilt of a miscarriage. Indescribable agony and remorse consumed our days. We almost didn’t make the trip. The timing of the death aligned with serious reconsiderations of our life and responsibilities. We accepted this as a sign of sorts. Later that week, Christine took the bold step of quitting her job. I’m proud of her for that and I wish she did it earlier.

As I ascend to Galactic Scheisse my mind turns to the child I lost. I do fuzzy calculations and determine what her age, in utero, would be today. My eyes swell. I shift to think about the child who is waiting for me a few miles away at the Quest University Aid Station. I see her readying my water, using two small hands, and setting out fresh socks. On the descent, I’m physically moved by her kindness. I don’t feel the rocks below me or note that I passed other runners. I set a firm agenda to arrive at Quest strong. I want my daughter to see her father committed to the race and a notable achievement. I want to inspire her to attempt impossible feats and resolve not to live a life of indifference and idleness. That’s the reason, after all, we pressed on with the trip.

5.

At the finish line with my daughter. Squamish, BC. August 2014.

At the finish line with my daughter. Squamish, BC. August 2014. Photo courtesy of Brian McCurdy.

“What are you running from?” is scrawled on the sidewalk of a popular road running route in Philadelphia. It always seemed trite to me; like it was written by a snide non-runner and directed at the pretty “workout” runners that often pass it. As my own running matures, however, I’m confident that I run “from” things as well as “to” things. From doubt. From weakness. From indolence. To comprehension. To completion. To capacity.

At mile 43, I miss my wife and daughter at the final aid station. Christine later tells me she got lost on the mountain roads and was forced to turn around. There, I sit for the first time of the day to apply tape to a nagging blister. I eat a slice of watermelon. I’m motivated to finish the final 7 miles like no other race. I move up the next few climbs before the final descent returning to town. A few folks who are bouldering give me a thumbs up the closer I get. There’s a race photographer taking pictures and I show him a big smile. The final mile and a half fells euphoric. The sight of my daughter near the finish as she runs to join me for the final metres tops off the day. We hold hands and pass under the arch, where co-race director, Gary Robbins, waits to give us both high fives and hugs. A weighty finisher’s medal is hung over my head as I meet Christine. Famished, I think of nothing but eating the left over Indian food from our dinner the night before.

An hour or so later, after cheering other runners to completion, I’m back in the car returning to camp. My stomach is full of samosas. In the late afternoon light, driving along Highway 99, I can see the full spectacle of the Coast Mountains that were invisible in the morning’s darkness. They were there the whole time. My legs have tightened since finishing and I stumble through a shower and hobble back to the tent. That’s where I find Christine and Kikue preparing for sleep. Our tent, to me, looks perfect. Just like, “home.”

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Trail Running, Diversity and Privilege

Back in March, I came across an article describing the experience of trail running in Israel. It described the county as small but having “incredibly diverse geography” and a thriving night life in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. I learned of Israel’s “well-maintained” trails complete with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea. Because of my own experience visiting the region ten years ago this month, I won’t deny its natural beauty; I traveled it freely with a U.S. passport. I would, however, hesitate to write such a broad brushed flattering article about Israel’s aesthetics without mentioning that much of its native Palestinian population is forbidden access to the rugged beauty described.

As trail runners of a certain background, we think little of our unobstructed access to some of the most beautiful places on earth. We plan and execute elaborate excursions and dream of ultrarunning’s most coveted races in the most remote of locales. We come and go as we please and rarely acknowledge how our appearance, race, place of birth or ethnicity defines the broad scope of our travel options. This privilege doesn’t exist for Palestinians living within Israel’s occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I think the article’s author missed a wonderful opportunity to recognize our advantages. Being Palestinian, and living under Israeli jurisdiction, defines your physical access to space and land, and for no other reason than being Palestinian. For decades, Israel has controlled access to and from the Palestinian territories. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, found over 90 checkpoints restricting movement within the West Bank. Dozens more exist to limit passage from the West Bank into Israel. Keep in mind that many of the Palestinians denied passage are refugees of the very land for which they are restricted from visiting.

The irony that a foreigner can come to Israel and, without delay, enjoy its full natural beauty while much of its indigenous population cannot was lost on some readers. Dissident thoughts were expressed in the forum below the article, but they fell on deaf ears or were aggressively dismissed. I was disappointed to read as fellow trail runners, those who embrace the natural world, shouted down valid critiques using distracting statements like this not being the place for this discussion and that “politics” were not relevant. One was so bold as to proclaim, in the face of such an obvious contradiction, that trail running is a great uniter and we should focus on the solidarity it creates. The irony, of course, is that if you can’t get to the run because of your ethnicity, what union are we talking about? Truthfully, the union referenced only concerns people like us. Palestinian runners can be left outside the group without disrupting “our” union.

Our community can be quite insular and when we are among our “own” we can forget about our privilege and take opportunities for granted. Detachment only removes us from the issues facing marginalized members of our community. For trail running to become more “diverse” we need a deep examination of our privilege. We should learn to recognize that the right to movement and travel, something sacred to the trail runner’s creed, is all too often withheld from fellow runners (and would-be runners). We assume that our experiences are universal at our own peril. With an open and critical examination, empathy can emerge and we can finally start to be the big tent community I know many of us want.

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Notebook: Spring Photos

Our long east coast winter this year finally started to crack in April. Area trails began to come alive as the spring sun warmed the forest floor sprouting promising new growth. I’m including some photos from the past couple of months’ trail runs. Most of these were taken in Wissahickon Valley Park, unless noted. The trees, in some, are still bare, even as late as May, testifying to the frigid winter. Enjoy!

 

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Patapsco Valley State Park, Ellicott City, MD

 

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Patapsco Valley State Park, Ellicott City, MD

 

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Notebook: Intentionality, Clarity

 

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My descent into the valley pushes the air past my arms, legs, and face. The metronome that is my pace and breath quickens, then settles. My arms swing, not effortlessly, but at least intentionally. The ground is moist from an early spring snow, and soft. The last flakes fall onto my shoulders. I scramble from rock to root avoiding the suction of the mud. The contours of the trail rise and fall, timidly at first, before it intends on challenging my body, shortly.

On ascents, I straighten my back, push my hips forward and align my posture to the ground. My eyes move from hazard to obstacle sending warnings and advisement to my legs. My thinking migrates away from the initial exhilaration of my run and reverts to the created concerns of the day. But they’re just thoughts.

I return to my run considering the livability of what we now call the natural world; how it inspires achievement, progression, and thoroughness. How it will take advantage of the mistakes we make but reward us with a sparkling, if only momentarily, vision of clarity and purpose.

Notebook: Increasing Vertical, Photos of the Week

This season, I decided that my running emphasis would be elevation gain. I would learn to love hills. Get strong running them. Seek them out. I’ll look forward to one more climb at the end of a long run on a hot Saturday. Given a choice between distance and vertical, this year, I’m choosing vertical.

How much? We’ll see. My limitations are evident living in Philadelphia where my home sits at 300 feet; it’s essentially sea level. But I’m just about at 25,000 feet so far. Not bad for a mid-Atlantic state. It’ll be a challenge for sure, but it’ll be worth it!

On to the photos of the week! All of these were taken in Wissahickon Valley Park in Northwest Philadelphia.

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Silly Selfie. 3/22/2014

Silly Selfie. 3/22/2014