November 28, 2010
I had been looking forward to this day for almost three months, and now that it had finally arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. After my previous run, I had declared the work in this six-month-long project as “done”, and thought of the run today as nothing more than a victory lap around the stadium. And so it was…. 🙂
But when I thought about the culmination of a six-month-long project, I realized that it would have to be ceremonious, especially given that this was what I considered to be the first unique athletic achievement of my 48+ years. Being the social person that I am, the grandest form of ceremony I could think of was a party with all of my closest and most enthusiastic running friends. And as any runner knows, the best way to plan a party for runners is to invite them to a challenging run that will have food and drink afterward. Do that, and they most certainly will come. And it also didn’t hurt that since I had been blogging about my adventures in the woods for almost three months now, many of my friends were keenly aware of my undertaking, and delighted in the idea of being a small part of the exciting achievement that would conclude on this late-Fall morning.
I had used Facebook’s “Event” module to set up the event on my page, and I sent an invitation to all of my Facebook friends who run (over 100 in all), and even a few who didn’t. I also sent a similar invite to all the runners whose email addresses I had in my email Contacts list. I asked everyone to RSVP so that I would know how many to expect. After all, I would be providing food and refreshments, so I wanted to be sure I would be making enough for everyone.
Well, within two weeks time, over 25 people responded telling me that they would plan to attend. Needless to say, I was tickled pink with the thought that this would be just the party that I hoped it would be! Based on the R.S.V.P. list, my weekend run group – the 7:19 Club of Blooming Grove , headed up these days by my close friend Bill Braine – would represent well. Especially nice was that my friends Todd Van Sickle, Joe Falcon, Rich D’Ambrosio, Tom Stratton and Joe Marchesano would be coming. All of these great people had run with me during this project, and we would reprise our runs together today. In fact, Todd and Joe F. had run with me the day I ran the full length of the Suffern-Bear Mountain Trail in September, with Todd running the whole 25 miles with me. Todd and I have been running trails together for a couple of years now, and to describe Todd’s philosophy in one sentence would simply be to say that he has never met a trail he didn’t like! Among all my closest running friends, Todd is the one who seems to have the greatest passion for the mountains, and also a deep commitment to finding new challenges. I see bigger things ahead for Todd and I on these trails in the years ahead.
But in addition to just my local friends, folks were coming from New York City, too. And from Westchester County, and Connecticut, and even Albany! That’s right, 4 or 5 of my friends from the Albany Running Exchange (ARE) would also be a part of the day. And as if the day wasn’t already shaping up to be perfect, the weather report was calling for an absolutely glorious day of (relative) warmth and sunshine. As this final day had neared, I could feel my emotions going into overdrive with the thought of all of these positive things.
I arrived at the Elk Pen at about 9:15am, with my two boys Conor and Brett and my amazing girlfriend Catherine in my company. Although currently laying off of running due to injury, Catherine had promised to make the trip up from New York City to support this final run as a “spectator.” But knowing her as I do, I knew that she would be much more than just that. Catherine is one of the most giving people I have ever met in my life, and she has shown me time and time again what giving from the heart is all about. The lessons I have learned from her are many, and I know that for as long as I have the courage to follow my own heart, she will follow it too. She is that kind of person, and I am very blessed to be a part of her life.
I had spent a major part of last night cooking pasta for the folks who would come out to run today. Six half trays of penne ala vodka with broccoli were in the trunk of the car and ready for the hungry trail runners. I also bought 5 or 6 six-packs of beer, and for those of my friends who know me well, they could be sure that it was of the craft variety, and not one of the ubiquitous BudMillCoors flavors that will ruin a person’s palate in less than the time it takes to say Rumpelstiltskin. Catherine and my friend Carolyn Negrycz had agreed to work together setting up the pasta on sterno racks to keep it warm while we were all out on the trails. Catherine would also attend to Conor and Brett, which would amount to very little work actually, as my boys are pretty interested in handheld video games, so could keep themselves busy for hours on end.
When I pulled into the parking area, I noted that several other runners had already arrived, including my best bud Rich D’Ambrosio, and fellow Orange Runners Club(ORC) member Ken Wilson. Ken is a great story in himself. I had become acquainted with him for the first time earlier in the year at a club social event, and I came to learn that not only was he a long-timer in the Hudson Valley running scene, but he was (or had been) a very avid and accomplished ultrarunner some years back. Ken has stories galore about how he and some of the other big local names had done long training runs in Harriman State Park in preparation for 50K, 50-mile, and even 100-mile races. These days, he is a ketelbell instructor and personal trainer in Middletown, and runs a lot less than he did back in his heyday. But Ken is one of those gems you run across every now and then if you’re paying close enough attention, and it was my very good fortune to have him here with us today.
Over the next 15 or 20 minutes, car after car pulled into the lot, and with each arriving runner, my outward smile and my inner excitement continued to grow. With only a couple of exceptions, everyone who had expressed interest in doing the run with me today showed up. And to my surprise and delight, there were 4 or 5 runners who showed up without announcing their intentions to me beforehand. I had made mention of the run in a general email I’d sent out to the ORC, and these people had all come out to run as a result. I was definitely feeling the love. 🙂 But beyond just that, I was already starting to get the idea that these folks had come out to experience something new and different. As I would learn in just a couple of hours time, this feeling of mine was right on the mark.
The run start was scheduled for 10:00am, but practically speaking, I wanted to allow at least an extra 15 minutes for people who might be running late, especially those who were coming from farther afield. My friend Tom Stratton had texted me while I was on my way, telling me that he was running a bit late, so I let him know that we would give him time to arrive (foolishly, I would kinda forget that promise, but more on that later). But happily, most of those who had traveled far to participate were already here. My friend Paul from the Albany Running Exchange had been visiting family in Rockland County for the Thanksgiving weekend, and stayed downstate an extra day so he could participate. My friends Jess, Brian and Steve, also of the ARE, had carpooled down from Albany together. My long-time running friends Emmy and Frank had arrived from Connecticut and Westchester County, respectively, and had picked up my new friend Lucimar (from New York City, who I met this Spring in Central Park) along the way. Also with us this morning was my friend Josh Merlis, President of the ARE, and one of the most free-spirited people I know. Josh had been attending a school reunion in New York City, and stopped here to do the run “on his way back” to Albany. That sums up Josh’s spirit in a nutshell. I have personal stories I could tell about him, but I could go on and on, so I’ll save that for another day. Suffice it to say that Josh is a high-energy guy that most people are naturally drawn to.
A few of the true surprise faces here this morning were my Orange Runners Club friends Dane, Brendan, Dave, Patty and Jaime, as I had never run trails with any of them before. Well, to be sure, Jaime had been expressing interest earlier in the project in running with me, so it wasn’t totally unexpected to see him today. But I hadn’t expected to see his wife Patty along with him, and it was great to see her. And I knew my friend Dave was an erstwhile trail runner, but I hadn’t seen him running very much in the past year or so, and I could only suppose that it was his deep love of the trails that had brought him out today to run with us. And Brendan – a very dedicated runner and terrific road racer – had shown up on a lark, as it turned out. He confessed to never having run trails before, so I had to take my hat off to him and his intrepid spirit. 🙂 My good friend Ralph showed up, and although that wasn’t a surprise (he and I have been running together for years), he had brought along his friend James, and I was grateful to meet a new fellow trail enthusiast.
The most interesting story was about a guy who I had never met prior to today. As I had been blogging about the trail project throughout the Fall, I managed to catch the attention of a runner from Putnam Valley named Patrick Callum. He and I had connected when he read and made comment on a blog entry about the run I did with my friend Joe Marchesano on October 12th. Several weeks later, he commented on the blog again, asking me how the project was coming along. I responded immediately letting him know that my ‘Completion Run’ was tomorrow (meaning today), and that he was welcome to join us at Elk Pen. And lo and behold, here he was with us this morning, a tall, athletic and very affable guy who wore his joy for trail running on his sleeve. I had a feeling that this wouldn’t be the last time that I would run with Patrick. 🙂 And then adding another element of interest to Patrick’s appearance here today is that I come to find out that my friends Frank and Emmy know him! It seems that with each step I take into the woods, I learn not only how small our community truly is, but also how much affinity all of these trail and ultra runners have for one another. Wonderful surprises lie around nearly every corner here in the mountains!
And so, the time was approaching to begin the run, and much as I hated to interrupt all the wonderful conversation that was going on amongst the runners, I reluctantly called out for everybody’s attention so that I could make the necessary pre-run announcements. Thing One was to thank everybody for coming. I know that for most everyone here, they came because they love running in the outdoors, so it was a pleasure for them just as much as it was a show of support for me. But they could certainly have done that anywhere, on any day, and with anyone else. Today they had chosen to run with me, and for that I was deeply grateful. The second thing to do was to give everybody what I’ll call the “lay of the land.” As far as I knew, only one or two others had even run these particular trails before, so I needed to make sure everybody knew where they were going, especially the faster runners, who would no doubt want to run ahead at their natural pace. I had printed maps of the route, and offered them up to anyone who felt they would need one to stay on course. After that was all done, I turned and started the slow jog across the open field that would get this party started!
By the time we reached the woods 150 yards later, the group had begun to string itself out into somewhat of a pecking order, with faster runners taking to the front, and slower runners assuming their places in the back of the pack. Jess & Brian had stated their intention to just hike today rather than run, and as it was, Lucimar, who was recovering from a series of recent long runs, decided to join them, and took her place in the back with them. The first third of the run today was on the Appalachian Trail, from Elk Pen up to the Lemon Squeezer, just below High Meadow. And our first order of business was to climb the 600-foot rise that is Green Pond Mountain. Josh, Paul, Todd, my friends Micah & Doug, and a couple of the other faster runners set the pace going up the mountain. I had decided that for today, I would plan to run in the middle of the pack, giving me the opportunity to enjoy and chat with as many of my friends as possible along the way.
As we trudged up the mountain, I felt a sense of energy and excitement that I can only describe as “electric.” I know that’s very cliché, but it’s the most accurate way to define the vibe that was going on between all the runners. I think everybody knew that this was something special that was happening today, but I probably felt it more than anyone else. By the time I got to the top, at least six of the lead runners had already dropped the rest of us. I decided to ‘take a pause’ here, and stopped to sit down on my favorite rock atop this ever-so-familiar mountain here in the park. As I sat, I pulled out my camera and snapped some pictures of runners who were coming up from behind me. I smiled broadly with each runner who approached. How could I not?? The weather was perfect, almost made-to-order in fact, and only 20 minutes into it, I was already having one of the most amazing runs of my life. Top Hollywood writers couldn’t have scripted a better scene.
I got off my duff, packed the camera away, and rejoined the run, falling into formation a little bit behind my friend John Finnigan. I followed him down the other side of the mountain, and then just before we bottomed out near where the trail reached Island Pond, I watched John “bottom out” in front of me, catching a fanny full of gravel as his feet went out from under him. Ugh! Well, he picked himself up, declared himself to be OK (upon my asking), and he and I ran together for a short while from there. As we neared the access road that serves Island Pond’s boat launch, we came upon my friend Todd, who was sitting there on a rock, ready to take a picture of John and I. John screwed on a pained smile as we passed Todd, but I knew that his bottom was hurting from the fall he had just taken.
Todd got up and started running again, but I decided to sit down here and take some more pictures of the oncoming runners. Among the group that came through next were my friends Dave, Bill, Joe F., Rich, Joe M., Lee, Eric, Fast Bob, and Emmy. The latter six folks in this list were all more or less running together, and as they passed, I got back up and joined them for the next segment. From here at Island Pond, I would run with them to the Lemon Squeezer. The terrain was rolling at this point, and we were in no hurry, so Emmy asked that we stop again in front of the lake for some more pictures. I swear, we were devoting more energy to picture taking than we were to running, but who was I to argue with that!
When we reached the Squeezer, it was yet another occasion to stop and take pictures, and we took quite a few, thanks to Frank and Emmy, who, in addition to being amazing ultrarunners, are also major shutterbugs. 🙂 But there was also the matter of negotiating our first turn of the day, onto the Arden-Surebridge Trail (A-S). I had explained to everyone back at Elk Pen that the junction of the A-S trail was here at the Squeezer, but that there were two turns, a hard right and a soft right. Our route today, as I further detailed for the group, was to take the hard right. As we milled about this locally-famous rock formation, I wondered aloud whether the groups in front of us had made this turn properly. I had a sneaking feeling that they hadn’t. And no sooner had I said the words than who did we see but a group of perhaps 12 of the runners running back toward us! They had missed the hard right turn, made the soft right instead, and had gone I-don’t-know-how-far before one of them must have realized they had gone astray. Lucky for them that someone in the group had convinced everyone to turn around and go back. Not everyone today was so lucky – more on that later. 😉
Anyway, I was glad to see that the group had gotten back on course, and our two groups merged into one rather large group as we headed south now on the Arden-Surebridge Trail. The one notable thing about this turn for me was that I was now on new terrain – the final stretch, in fact, of uncovered ground in my project. Upon reaching the eastern head of this trail, I would be “done” in the grand sense. Naturally, this prospect put a lump in my throat as we proceeded along the next stretch of trail.
Over the course of the next mile or so, there were at least two times that the people I was running with and I missed a trail marker, and found ourselves off trail. This had been happening more and more to me in recent weeks as the leaves had been falling and covering up the trails here in the park, so I was unfazed by such minor occurrences. In fact, in each case, the misstep made for a nice giggle as the runners behind passed us while we stood 25 yards off the trail scratching our heads. 😉
Eventually we made the ridge of Green Pond Mountain again, and just before we did (as I ran with Steve, Frank, Patrick, & Brendan) we saw four large white-tailed deer – all bucks – run right across our path a mere 15 yards in front of us. We were so startled that we all stopped almost dead in our tracks to watch them bound over the rocks and fallen trees. Deer are amazing to watch, and I think that’s what struck us all so strongly and caused us to stop and gawk. While we humans seem to toil heavily in navigating the rugged ground of the woods, deer traverse the terrain with a grace and ease that makes it look so damn easy, and we can’t help but marvel at it.
Well, after our moment of excitement had passed, we moved on, and as we did, the trail became a precipitous and quite technical downhill scamper. Brendan, who, I mentioned earlier, was not experienced in this kind of running, took this next section rather deliberately, while Patrick and I seemed to quietly and politely fight for the lead position in our group as we clambered ever downward. And as we did, I could sense the finish line that was ahead of me with increasing anticipation and excitement. 🙂
Somewhere along this stretch of the run, my phone rang. It was Tom Stratton. Catherine had actually called me a bit earlier in the run to tell me that Tom had arrived late, and that she had given him a map so that he could navigate the course. Knowing Tom as I do, I had every confidence that he would probably catch up to and pass quite a few of the runners out there. And so he had, as he was now telling me on the phone as we spoke. But his call was not to tell me how fast he was running, but rather, because he just wanted to be sure that he had made the appropriate turn at the Lemon Squeezer. After a quick exchange of words, I assured him that he was in good shape, and that I would see him back at the finish at Elk Pen. Tom is such a beautiful guy – as happy a person as you could want to be – and I could tell that even though we had all sorta ditched him at the start and left him to run alone (despite his text to me asking us to wait!), he was still having a great time. He is that kind of guy. We should all be so lucky to have friends like Tom Stratton. 🙂
Upon reaching the junction of some sort of woods road, I stopped, and then kneeled down and kissed the ground. It had occurred to me that although we weren’t through with the run yet, this point represented the actual completion, for me, of all the trails. As I got up and turned around, I announced this to the group I was running with, and was met with many congratulatory words and high fives all around.
Well, as I had discovered many times in my life, it is quite easy to be humbled, especially when one errs, and I would rediscover that concept here. After perhaps one minute of running, I realized that I was mistaken, and that that was not, in fact, the completion of my run. 😦 But the group was good-hearted about it when I revealed my mistake to them, and when we finally did reach the junction of the Stahahe Brook Trail about 10 minutes later, I re-created the scene I had acted out previously, and the kind words and high fives were delivered (and genuinely) all over again by Steve, Frank, Brendan and Patrick.
Now we were in the home stretch, and as we traversed this flat and very non-technical woods road, I could feel my pace increasing and my excitement building, knowing that it would reach a crescendo as we popped out of the woods and into the meadow of Elk Pen. As we did, my running comrades let me run ahead solo, soaking in the deep feeling of accomplishment that was filling my heart and soul. As I neared the parking area, I saw Catherine waving and smiling at me, and my pace quickened into almost a dead sprint. I could feel the smile on my own face growing broader with each step, and in a moment, I was done. Phew…………..
Carolyn was there alongside Catherine, and somewhere, Conor and Brett were apparently occupying themselves, oblivious (for good or for bad) to all this emotional madness that was consuming me. I didn’t stop running until I was in Catherine’s arms, sharing the hug with her that I had been longing for for months. She had been my champion during this wonderful project, instilling encouragement and positivity in me before each of my appointments into the woods. And this was a hug that she deserved (and perhaps wanted) just as much as I did. 🙂
We did this. She and I.
Catherine had showed me the way by the virtue of her graceful hand of support, and all I had done was follow the path that her hand had laid out for me. And now we celebrated this together. 🙂
And with thirty of my best and most adventurous running friends too, of course…. 😉
Well, as I stopped to look around, I discovered – to my surprise – that I was the first one back. Almost. Ken had apparently turned around at the Lemon Squeezer, and had beat the rest of us back to Elk Pen. But what puzzled me was that no one from the lead group had returned. Todd, Josh, Micah, Paul, Doug, James, Ralph and my friend Mike; none of them were here. And to be sure, I didn’t have to guess why. It was immediately clear that they must have made the wrong turn at the Lemon Squeezer, and kept going. But how far, and how long before they would find their way back? Would we have to send out the dogs for them?
The answers to my questions would not be long in coming. Moments after I began wondering about them, I saw Todd, Ralph, and I think Doug, come walking down the access road to the parking lot. After a quick Q & A with Todd, I learned that not only had they gotten lost, but they had gone so far afield that they didn’t even try to run back. Word was, they had run all the way to Lake Skannatati on the Arden-Surebridge trail. This comprised about 6 or 7 miles of running, and I think they all realized that they should seek out the quickest way back possible. And so, the group had apparently come upon a hiker in the Lake Skannatati parking lot and asked for a ride. Well, there were eight of them, and they certainly couldn’t all ride back in one car. So the hiker kindly drove 3 of them back to Elk Pen, and then they hopped in their own cars and headed back to Skannatati to pick up the others. But Todd didn’t explain all of this to me at first. It wasn’t until they all got back about 20 minutes later that the story as to what had happened all came together. But the short of it was that they had missed the hard right turn onto the Arden-Surebridge, and after a stop at the Lemon Squeezer and some ensuing discussion, followed the soft right and just kept going. The group of eight lead runners in my Completion Run is now known fondly to all of us as “The Lost Boys.” 🙂
During all this time that the lost group was making their way back from Lake Skannatati, most of the other runners had come out of the woods and across the meadow to join in the celebration. Carolyn had saved the day by bringing in the sterno water trays that I had forgotten to purchase the night before, and all the food was warmed over and ready to eat. Folks had also brought some food too; donuts, pumpkin pie, cookies, and other goodies. And of course, I hadn’t forgotten the malt beverages that I am such a big fan of, and knew others would be too, despite the fact that it was still before noon on a Sunday. My friends Patty and Jaime had even been kind enough to bring me a bottle of brut champagne, but upon thanking Patty for the sweet gesture, I explained that Catherine and I would probably partake in that later on tonight.
So as we all filled our plates with pasta and dug in to the post-run repast, we shared laughs and stories about our adventures on the trail today. Eventually, Jess, Brian and Lucimar all came in. They had been walking the course, but were quite overdue, and the group had started to get concerned about whether they had become lost somewhere out there. But when they arrived, it was with smiles, and I affirmed for them that there was still plenty of food, and a beer or two if they wished to partake.
I had brought my master map along with me to show everybody first-hand what the project looked like on paper, and I had also had enough forethought to bring along a set of red map pins as well. And so with red pins in one hand, I squatted down with a tasty beer in the other hand and proceeded to place the final 12 or 13 pins on the map, closing the book on the project, and filling my heart with a combined sense of pride and melancholy.
It was over. Done. No more new miles to cover.
I suddenly felt an anxiety starting to grow within me. What would I do now with no immediate sense of purpose in front of me? I didn’t like the way this felt. Not at all. It was as if I had been standing on a red carpet at the steps of a grand castle, and the rug had been abruptly ripped out from under me. But I didn’t share this sentiment with the others, because I knew it would pass. I also knew that any feeling of purpose the completion of this project had created was merely a material one. For the finish line was not real. In fact, in truth, it didn’t even really exist. It was simply a target I had created in order to give me something to aim at. And just as easily and quickly as I had created this goal back in May, it had disappeared, and I watched it blow away with the whispering wind here on this beautiful November day.
I learned so many lessons out on these trails over the course of the past 6 months. So much about myself, and about what it means to truly live, and to be conscious. There is a sanctity in trail running, a simplicity that cannot be described in any words that I know. Out here on the trails, there are no board meetings, or bills to pay, or groceries to shop for, or driveways to shovel. There are also no enemies to damn, or wars to worry over, or bosses to please, or politicians to criticize. It is a world of nothingness, and at the same time it is a world that has everything. When you run into the woods, it is just you and the woods – arguably two of the most beautiful of God’s creations. And when you get right down to it, that’s all anyone really needs, at least in my mind.
I will continue to make many trips into the woods in the months and years ahead. For I have discovered something there that does not exist anywhere else I have ever been. And with each of my trips into the woods, I know – with 100% certainty – that I will discover something new about myself, something that will enrich me, and with luck, that I can share and enrich others with as well.
This is just the beginning………………………
Thanks to all of my friends who shared with me in my 2010 experience running in Harriman State Park:
- Lucimar Araujo
- Gary Arne
- Bill Braine
- Patrick Callum
- Doug Carter
- Frank Colella
- Rich D’Ambrosio
- Dave Dacosta
- Brendan Dwyer
- Joe Falcon
- Mike Ferrante
- John Finnigan
- Dane Groszek
- Jessica Hageman
- Micah Hoernig
- Jaime Insignares
- Patty Insignares
- Ellen Chun Kim
- James Louch
- Dave Madden
- Joe Marchesano
- Josh Merlis
- Ralph Miranda
- Paul Mueller
- Carolyn Negrycz
- Eric Nilsestuen
- Lee Nilsestuen
- Bob Nordman
- Brian Northan
- Catherine Petroski
- Emmy Stocker
- Tom Stratton
- Steve Sweeney
- Todd Van Sickle
- Dick Vincent
- Ken Wilson