I’ve been a runner all my life, or more correctly; was a runner for about 47 plus years. During that time, I ran a number of sanctioned races and covered many miles chasing those elusive goals of staying healthy and feeding my soul.
My one goal or obsession during those many years was always to run the Western States 100, the premier one hundred mile run in Central California. I have no idea why. It seemed to fit a pattern of seemingly romantic (picturesque) romps around the world I had envisioned in my head.
I would put it on par with other fantasies like traveling around the world on a tramp steamer, retracing the old Route 66 highway from Chicago to the West Coast and crossing the country on my bicycle. All of them lofty aspirations that crashed on the shores of reality early in my life.
While working in Maryland in the mid-seventies, I did try to run the JFK 50-miler. It’s still around today and is as challenging now as it was years ago. Their web site describes the course this way:
‘The first 5.5 miles (starting on road surface and joining the Appalachian Trail at 2.5 miles) gains 1,172 feet in elevation. The course from 2.5 to 15.5 miles is on the Appalachian Trail (except for two miles of paved road between 3.5 and 5.5 miles). This section of the AT is very rocky in sections as it rolls across the mountain ridge. At approximately 14.5 miles the course drops over 1,000 feet in a series of steep “switchbacks” that then crosses under Rt. 340 and connects with the C&O Canal towpath. The “Canal” section of the JFK 50 Mile is 26.3 miles (from 15.5-41.8 miles) of almost totally flat unpaved dirt/gravel surface that is free of all automotive vehicle traffic. The JFK 50 Mile route leaves the C&O Canal towpath at Dam #4 and proceeds to follow gently rolling paved country roads the last 8.4 miles to the finish. The Boonsboro start is at an elevation of 570 feet. The Williamsport finish is at 452 feet above sea level.’
I had never run fifty miles before but felt my daily runs at a local high school track would put me in good shape to cover the distance. What a mistake.
It was a wonderful leisurely run at first, climbing the rugged hills and dancing down the rock-sown slopes on the other side. Then, gradually, time on the trail and a steady 30-degree rain began to wear me down.
I had grabbed a plastic garbage bag for protection (that’s all we had back in the early 70’s). When I began to sweat profusely, I took off the plastic wrapping and promptly began to get hypothermia. In the end, I only completed 22 miles before hypothermia, crippling chills, and nausea brought me to a standstill.
There is nothing so liberating, so freeing as trail running.
During that time, I began reading books about running long distances. It became a bit of an obsession with me. Unfortunately, I never did attempt the Western States or any other ultra-distance runs. Life moved on and I continued my weekly runs, now much calmer at four to five miles a day. Finally, after running for some 47 years, I began to confine my running to a tread mill at home or LA Fitness.
I thought I might try to return to trail running this summer and would just start up jogging the hills and dales of Lebanon Hills Regional Park nearby.
Unfortunately, my first attempt at jogging on an incline at the gym proved to be my last. My knees wouldn’t let me do it. And I’m not about to risk surgery on my knees just to prove a point. So now, I still get to re-read my running books, watch my running videos and fantasize about hitting the trail once again. While it’s never going to happen, I still have my memories to fuel those grand illusions of races not won and trails to conquer.