The more things stay the same, the more they change

November 22, 2007|by CURT HORNBECKER

After completing five JFK 50 Mile races, traversing the same route through the Appalachian Trail and running the same monotonous stretch of the C&O Canal towpath, what could possibly be different about a sixth trip?

As it turns out, plenty.

Starting at 5 a.m. for the first time accounted for much of the difference.

The first three miles were no sweat. I had driven to the top of South Mountain on the National Pike after dark many times. But entering the Appalachian Trail in the dark - OK, I had a small halogen lamp strapped to my head - was a unique experience. It's difficult enough to run on rocks covered with wet leaves in broad daylight; I wouldn't recommend trying it in the dark. So, for the most part I didn't. My strategy: Play it safe and walk.

Once I reached the paved fire station road, the darkness proved to be an advantage. Unlike running this 1.5-mile, uphill stretch during the day, this time I couldn't see that the road seems to rise forever.



Natural light began to take over shortly after reaching the summit of that climb, so the rest of the trip on the AT was business as usual - tripping over rocks, turning ankles and exchanging comments with other runners with virtually no one else around.

I reached the towpath at about 8:35 a.m., only five minutes slower than I had planned, ready to take on the mentally challenging portion of the journey.

With the Potomac River on the left and the waterless C&O Canal on the right, this 26-mile segment is normally void of visual stimulation.

But this year was different. From beginning to end, the stunning fall foliage, still clinging to their branches, reminded me why some people find this area so beautiful. The view across the rippling waters of the Potomac and the canopy of leaves over the canal were simply breathtaking.

I felt more energized on the towpath this year than I recall feeling in the past, and the colors likely had something to do with that.

In the past, I started the race well behind the leaders, stayed well behind the leaders and finished well behind the leaders. Starting two hours earlier, however, the leaders started passing me on the towpath - like speeding cars on an interstate highway. And I still finished well behind the leaders.

Meanwhile, I shuffled along, focused solely on finishing. What struck me, though, were the number of frontrunners who provided words of encouragement as they sped past: "Keep going" or "You're looking good" made a big difference for me. They didn't have to say anything.

For years I've had a love-hate relationship with the roads from Dam 4 to Williamsport. Traveling that stretch after dark is normally the coldest part of the race. This year, I finished during the day.

Again: Sweet!

So, I reached the final aid station with about 14 minutes to go to set a personal best time. Should I try to run the rest of the way in, or gather some fuel and be happy about finishing with a satisfying time? That decision might be my only regret of the day. I missed a personal best by less than three minutes, but I finished.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention this one constant - from Gathland State Park to the bottom of the switchbacks at Weverton, all along the towpath and certainly at the finish line - the applause and words of encouragement from the people who volunteer at the aid stations, show up to assist other runners or simply watch is, as MasterCard would say: Priceless.

Curt Hornbecker is a staff correspondent for The Herald-Mail.

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