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The GAP Trestles Marathon – The story of my first 26.2

I started running in 2016.  It was a desperate attempt to get into shape, and I expected to hate every step.  But, as I explained in my Office Chair to Half Marathon post, things changed after I had run regularly for about a month.  Running became something I enjoyed and looked forward to, but I didn’t really plan to take it any further than short races like 5ks and 10ks.

Then, later in 2016, I watched a movie called Spirit of the Marathon, which is a story of six different people as they prepare for the Chicago Marathon. If you’re a runner and don’t want to run a Marathon, don’t watch that movie, because it might just change your mind.  When the movie was over, I knew I had to run a marathon.  And so the journey began.

I originally hoped to run a marathon in the spring of 2017 with my brother Ty from Kentucky.  However, he had signed up for a 50k trail run in the spring, so we couldn’t find a suitable marathon that worked for both of our schedules. I was tentatively planning to just run by myself at the Garden Spot Village Marathon in New Holland, PA. It was fairly close to home, and looked like a nice run.  I would ramp up training throughout the winter, run the Chambersburg Half in March as a training run, and then be ready to go for the marathon in April. Things were going well until I misstepped during a snowy run in December and injured my knee. As a result, I was not able to run during the Month of January, and I knew it was foolish to ramp up my training in time for a spring marathon.  I did run the Chambersburg Half, but then I concentrated on the local 5ks for the summer.

Around mid-summer, my brother and I began searching, and we found the GAP Trestles Marathon, a small marathon in Meyersdale, PA.  There was a lot to like about the marathon.  It suited both of our schedules, it was about an hour and half from my house, and it looked like a scenic run.  We signed up and started to ramp up the training.

My training was going well until July.  My long runs each week were up to 15 miles. I was planning to drive over to Meyersdale and scout out the course, which is a bike trail, and put in a 17 mile run in the process.  But the day before, I manage to stub my toe on a piece of furniture in my living room.  I ended up taking the family and scouting the marathon course by bike. An x-ray the following week confirmed my fears:  the toe was fractured and I would not be able to run for three weeks. By August I was back into the training, but I had to ramp it up slow to be sure I didn’t re-injure my toe.  When it was said and done, I had lost a month of training that I could ill-afford to do without.

There was no turning back now.  I was able to work up to a single 18 mile run and another of 20 miles three weeks before race day.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was going to have to work.

I went into race-day with three goals.  In order of importance, they were:

  1. To finish the race
  2. To run the whole way (no stopping or walk breaks)
  3. To finish in under 4 hours.

I knew the last one was a bit ambitious, but a few of the race calculators out there said I could do it.  I would need to run at a pace of 9:09 a mile or less.  I had run the half marathon at exactly 9 minutes per mile, so I told myself that with the additional fitness I gained over the summer, I could do a marathon at that pace.

The starting line of the race was the Meyersdale Area Historical Society, a historic train station. The runners would head east on the Great Allegheny Passage for about 2 miles.  The trail had a hardly noticeable downgrade in this direction.  After crossing the 1900 foot Salisbury Viaduct, the runners would turn around and head west on the GAP for a slightly uphill 6.55 miles, passing the starting area and crossing two other trestle bridges before again turning around and going back to the starting area for a total of 13.1 miles.  For the half marathon runners, the journey would end there.  Those running the full marathon would repeat the course to get to 26.2 miles.

A nice feature of the course was that we would pass the starting area three times during the race, at miles 4, 13, and 17.  This allowed my family to supply me with fuel on the way through.  I supplied them with three bottles of water mixed with TailWind Endurance powder, and also three small bags, each containing a few pretzels and half a banana.  Each time through, I would take one of the drinks and one of the bags of food.

Ty and I started the race running at an 8:50 pace.  We felt great and everything went well for a time.  Kelsey and Cole, Ty’s children who were running the half, fell behind us slightly over the first few miles. The downhill grade was hardly noticeable, but when we made the turn-around 2 miles out, we could tell it got a bit harder for the 6.55 mile uphill stretch.

My Garmin Forerunner 15 can display only average pace or current pace, but not both.  On longer races, I typically set it to show average pace. By the half way point, it showed we were averaging 8:52 per mile.  I was still feeling great and optimistic that I’d meet our four-hour goal. After the turn-around at mile 15, we slowed a bit as we headed east on the final uphill stretch. By the time we passed the start/finish area at mile 17, our average pace was showing about 8:55, but we were still ahead of the game.

At that point, things started to get rough.  My appetite was gone, and I didn’t think my stomach could take any more pretzels.  I nibbled on the banana for a mile or two, and finally discarded the last bite.   My last bottle of tailwind drink was about gone, and I was glad because I was having trouble taking that as well.  Now I was craving water, and that was all my stomach would handle.

Ty started to move away from me a bit as our average pace started creeping up.  By mile 19 it was about 9:05, which meant our current pace had slowed considerably,  and I knew I was in trouble. Ty was about 150 feet ahead of me and I yelled to him to go on without me. I hoped that somehow I would be able to keep my average below the target 9:09 until the turn around at mile 21.5, and then I’d have the downhill grade to help me. But it wasn’t going to happen.

I had heard that late in a marathon, the challenge is more mental than physical, and now I was experiencing that firsthand.  My heart rate seemed fine.  I wasn’t out of breath.  There really wasn’t anything physically holding me back from keeping the pace except the severe pain in my legs. My body was screaming at me to slow down or stop, and my mind was starting to give in.

At mile 20 I let go of my goal of finishing in under four hours. Meeting two of three goals wasn’t too bad, I told myself, and I could be satisfied with that.  As I approached the turn around, I met Ty coming back the other way.  I glanced at my watch. “You’re in good shape for a 4 hour finish”, I said as he passed.  It read 9:12 average pace, and he was well ahead of me.  “They have Coke at the next aid station”, he called over his shoulder.

The downhill grade after the turnaround was too little, too late.  My current pace picked up slightly, but my average kept slipping. Ty had told me that Coke was “rocket fuel” late in the race, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I grabbed one on the way through next aid station, but could only drink about two swallows.  My stomach was in no shape for rocket fuel.

I was all alone now, except for occasionally passing runners going the other direction.  Somewhere along the way I passed a small group of people running together.  One of them had the name “Larry” printed on his shirt, and the words “1900 marathons and counting”.  I later learned he was the famous “Larry the Marathon Maniac“, who has indeed completed almost 2000 marathons and has been featured by ESPN  and several times in Runner’s World.

At the next water station I grabbed two cups of water.  I guzzled most of both, and then poured the rest over my head in effort to stay cool. I was suffering now, and the mental battle was getting worse. Why was I stupid enough to sign up for this? What’s the point of running 26.2 miles, anyway?  I wanted so badly to walk a few steps, but my stubbornness would not allow it.  I had suffered this far, and I wasn’t going to give up on the second of my three goals.

I started to mumble a hymn to myself as I ran, something that has helped me through some hard patches during training runs. Somehow the hymns that came to mind seemed to fit well with my situation:

O land of rest for thee I sigh!
When will the moment come
When I shall lay my armor by
And dwell in peace at home?

I had lost track of the miles now.  I knew my watch could tell me if I pressed the button on the side to flip to the next screen of data, but I didn’t want to know. All I could do is just continue to put one foot in front of the other.

I knew there was one more water station, and I desperately needed water.  But there was a slight dilemma:  the last water station was unmanned, meaning that if I wanted water I’d have to stop and fill up my cup myself.   To this point, I had never stopped.  I had always grabbed what I needed on the run.  I would either have to finish without more water, or let go of goal #2, which was to run all the way.

As it turned out, there was a third option: as I approached the water station, a familiar figure was there, pouring water over his head. Ty had been well ahead of me, so he must have ran into trouble.  “Hey, pour me two cups of water”, I yelled ahead.  “I am going to die!”, I shouted, jokingly referring to stage 5 of the 8 Stages of Marathon Running. I swiped the water off the table as I ran past, and asked him if he was OK.  “Got some severe cramps, but I’ll finish”, he said.

My watch beeped, and this time I allowed myself to look down. Mile 25. I was going to make it.  I kept looking back, thinking Ty was surely going to overtake me, but he was nowhere to be seen. He must be hurting bad, I thought. If it was humanly possible, he would be giving me some competition. It’s not often his office-dwelling brother has an opportunity to beat him at a sporting event.

My watched beeped again and the finish line came into view. A much-needed surge of adrenaline allowed me to break into a sprint for the last 50 yards. The time was 4 hours, 12 minutes and 45 seconds.  Ten minutes later, Ty walked gingerly across the finish line as well. The year-long journey was over.

Final Notes & related links

In addition to Larry the Marathon Maniac, we also shared the course with a woman who is attempting to run 52 marathons in 52 weeks in 52 states/districts/territories.

GAP Trestles Marathon Info
GAP Trestles Marathon 2017 results
Meyersdale Area Historical Society
Great Allegheny Passage

Backpacking in the Otter Creek Wilderness Area

The boys and I have been wanting to try backpacking for the last year or two, but we have been slow in getting it done.  The main reason for that was the cost of all of the necessary equipment. We had plenty of camping gear, but none of it was small and light enough for backpacking. But this year Landry’s school teacher invited all of the boys in the class and their fathers on a three day, two night backpacking trip.  So that was the motivation I needed to spend the money and get geared up.  Sometime in a future post I’ll give you a run-down of all the equipment I purchased.

A test run

Being new to backpacking, I decided to take a short one-night backpacking trip just to test my equipment in preparation for the longer trip.  I took all three of my sons on a 1.5 mile trip into the state forest near our house and we camped for one night.  My friend and his son also went along.

Everything went well, except that our 2-3 man tent was very cramped with myself and my three boys.  But that was to be expected.  Only Landry and I were going on the longer trip, so we knew tent space wouldn’t be a problem.

Day 1

About a week after our test backpacking trip, we arrived at the parking lot for Otter Creek Wilderness Area to start our three-day, two-night adventure.   The trail started by crossing Otter creek on a suspended bridge.  Then it was a rugged hike for a short distance until we got to what appeared to be an old railroad bed running along Otter creek.  The trail was relatively flat, but muddy in places and there were a few small streams to cross that flowed into Otter Creek.  When we reached the first creek crossing, I removed my Altra Lone Peak trail running shoes and wore my Crocs for the remainder of the day.  They were not the most comfortable shoes to walk in, but thankfully we had only planned to go 3.2 miles on the first day.

Our campsite was a flat, dry area on the banks of Otter Creek.  We reached it around lunchtime, so we had plenty of time to hang out and explore.

As far as scenery goes, Otter Creek was the highlight of the trip. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, except perhaps in some Montana trout fishing videos.  It was one waterfall or white-water area after another, with water crashing over huge boulders.  Some deep pools in-between looked like perfect places to hold trout. Several of our group who were under 16 (no fishing licenses needed) fished for a time, but we didn’t have any success.

Day 2

We packed up camp after breakfast and resumed our trek along Otter Creek.  The trail was a slight uphill grade and followed Otter Creek for about 6 miles.  There were several large waterfalls along the way. We forded the creek a total of four times.  One crossing was a little treacherous, and I wouldn’t have wanted the water to be any higher.

Somewhere around mile nine the trail left Otter Creek and headed up the mountain.  I was glad to finally be able to put on some dry socks and shoes and be able to keep them dry for a while.

The trail flattened out when we reached the top of the mountain, and we had an easy hike through the hemlocks to our campsite beside a spring at mile 12.

We hung-out for a couple of hours and had a good supper, and then escaped to our tents at dusk just in time to escape the rain that continued into the night.

Day 3

The rain stopped sometime during the night, and day three was another great day to hike.  It started with several miles of hiking a slight downgrade on the top of the mountain, so I assumed it would be reasonably dry in spite of the rain.  I was proven wrong when we slogged through mud again and again.  The thick rhododendron was nearly overgrowing the path and was wet from the rain.  Add in a few rocks and roots to trip over, and it made for some treacherous hiking.  It was especially difficult for the two younger boys.  For them much of the rhododendron was head level, making it difficult to watch for obstacles.  Landry fell at least five times, but thankfully didn’t have any injuries.  I was relieved when the trail opened up and then headed sharply downhill.

At around mile 16, we rejoined the trail along Otter Creek that we had started on, completing a loop.  From there we retraced our steps about four more miles to get back to the vehicle by early afternoon.

Lessons learned

Here are a few things we learned on our first multi-day backpacking trip

  • Blue jeans get really heavy when they are wet.
    For this trip I wore lightweight hiking pants that I was very happy with. Landry, on the other hand, wore blue jeans. Everything was OK until we crossed the creek a few times and he got wet up to his waist. At that point the denim got heavy and began to chaff his legs. Thankfully, we had an extra pair of pants for him. Next time, denim clothes will be left at home.
  • Paracord and carabiners are very handy for all sorts of things.
    Take some of both along when you go backpacking.
  • Take extra socks.
    An couple extra pairs of socks take up very little space and you will be glad for them if the trail is wet and muddy.
  • Bacon & Cheddar Cheez-it crackers are a very tasty trail snack

All-in-all, we had a great time.  Our equipment worked well, in spite of the fact that we were pretty frugal in the products we selected. Luke and Jared did a good job of planning the trip as well.  The hike was difficult and long enough to be an adventure, but not so much to cause many aching muscles.

Steelhead Fishing in Erie, PA

Bicentennial Tower in Erie, PA

Bicentennial Tower in Erie, PA

Each of the past two years I have traveled to Erie, PA with some fishing buddies to fish for steelhead.  This year, Crystal and I decided to change things up a little and take the whole family.  We have three sons ages four, six, and eight who love to fish; and I wanted them to have  chance to hook into a steelhead.  I went into this knowing that it would be challenging.  Steelhead fishing is something that can require a good bit of patience.  I’ve fished as long as two days straight without catching anything, and with the family along I knew fishing time would be much more limited.  So we went on the trip hoping to have some family fun with a chance of a bonus fish or two.

Day 1

We traveled up in the early morning hours of Wednesday, December 16.  We arrived in Erie around 8 am and started the day with a trip to Poor Richard’s Bait and Tackle, which is always our first stop.  The guys there can give you some general advice about where to look for fish and what they are likely to bite on.

Next we did some scouting to find some good fishing spots.  We first went down to Trout Run to show the boys the steelhead that are typically stacked up in the creek near the mouth.  We hoped to do a bit of fishing in the lake there (trout run itself is off-limits for fishing), but there were probably 20 anglers already standing in the lake and nobody seem to be catching, so we moved on.

Our next stop was at Elk Creek.  We hiked over the ridge and down to the mouth of the creek.  I did some fishing while the boys looked for sea shells and other treasures along the shoreline.  The water was low and clear and there were no fish to be found.

Raccoon Park

Raccoon Park

From there we checked out Crooked Creek and Raccoon Creek. There were some anglers fishing the riffles upstream from the no-fishing area in Crooked Creek and reportedly were catching a few. However, the terrain was not family-friendly at all so I decided it was as spot for me to try later by myself.  We ate a picnic lunch at Raccoon creek and was surprised to find a few fish in the creek near the mouth.  However, they didn’t seem to be hungry for anything I threw at them.

Boys with SteelheadAfter lunch we headed to Homewood Suites at the Millcreek Mall complex where we had reserved a room.   I left Crystal and our four-year-old son there and left with the older two boys to check out spots on Elk and Walnut.   We found some fish and Landry and Camden each were able to pull in a steelhead by the time the day was over.  Both fish were caught on egg sacks.

Day 2

The weather was unseasonably warm the next day just as it had been the day before.   I took the whole family down to the creek and by lunchtime Crystal and Landry each were able to land a steelhead.  Four-year-old Cullen had one on as well, but had to hand the rod off to me when his arms got tired.  All three fish were caught on skein.

Tom Ridge Environmental CtrAfter lunch we headed down to the Tom Ridge Environmental Center for some educational time.  We watched a video about Presque Isle and climbed the tower to have a better look at the area.  We then drove out on the peninsula to get some views of the bay and Lake Erie.

Day 3

steelhead on the fly rodThe weather turned colder on day three.  I took the older two boys out in the morning.  By 9 o’clock they each had caught one fish and were ready to get out of the cold.  I dropped them at the hotel and fished myself until just after lunch, landing two more, one of those on the fly rod.

In the evening we spent a few hours at the Splash Lagoon indoor water park.  It was a great experience for the whole family that we won’t forget anytime soon.

Day 4

Steelhead fishing in the snowBy morning some lake-effect squalls had blanketed the ground with 2-4 inches of snow.  I got to the creek just as it got light and never saw another angler.  It’s hard to remember when I had a more enjoyable time fishing.  I fished until 9:30, landing six fish and losing several more.   After landing four on single eggs, I switched to the fly rod and landed two more on a nymph.

After lunch we made a very cold and windy visit to the top of the Bicentennial Tower before heading for home.

Equipment Used

Rod: Okuma Connoisseur CQ-S-862M-1 Steelhead Rod
Reel: Quantum Optix 20 Spinning Reel
Line: 6 lb. Berkley Vanish Fluorocarbon

Fly fishing outfit: Wild Water 5/6 Starter Package


Rarely is a fishing trip successful without help from others, and this time was no exception.  As usual, the guys at Poor Richard’s Bait and Tackle were helpful in deciding what to use for bait.  Jack York’s web site and video channel contain great information for anybody trying to learn more about steelhead fishing.  Last but not least, thanks to the fly fisherman who gave us the tip to look for fish farther upstream, and also the one who shared a nymph and some fly fishing tips.  You made our trip a great one!