"C'st le Havre" - Another Deposit
By John Prohira
Half way between here and there last Saturday in the midst of the endorphin glow I listened to Garrison Keillor on the car radio keenly describe the residents of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota and talk about memories. His story brought clarity to unanswered questions regarding ultrarunning. His words helped in defining some of the why and it seemed so crystal clear and so obvious! The master storyteller spoke about of couple of the town's women, two sisters who ran off to Alaska for a summer after high school. Such rebels by Lake Wobegon standards! I was jealously captivated by Keillor's story and his skill in telling the tale, charmed by his portrayal of the young women's adventurous trip and the resulting gossip from hometown folk. He felt that the experiences these girls had would always serve them well. Their world was made larger and in later years, when perhaps health and fortune had receded memories of their adventures in the North would be priceless. Memory retrieved from a private vault full of reminiscence and recollection would remind them of better days filled with challenge and the resulting reward. Remembrance can be so sweet and go a long way in keeping spirits strong no matter what hand is dealt in later years.
Into my bank account of running recollections and experiences I deposited the following.
I spent spring's first Saturday as I have for the past four years running close to the Susquehanna River near Havre de Grace, Maryland. As always an event like this is best appreciated when in the company of friends. Some of my favorite people were at the starting line for the 14th annual HAT 50K. Rewards received from ultrarunning are multi-faceted and I've become more receptive, keeping eyes and ears open in anticipation of the obvious and for the more obscure gifts running brings. I never know from what direction they'll come but they always do. One delight the weekend brought was sharing the ride with and the company of Barry Erickson, Oven Door Runner and veteran ultrarunner who was returning to the distance.
This rite of spring just south of the Mason-Dixon Line is hosted and directed by Jeff Hinte (the H) and Phil Anderson (the A in the HAT 50K). It starts and ends atop a hill, near a pavilion in Steppingstone Museum. Here is a collection of a 19th century wooden buildings, including a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, a woodworkers shop, a cooper's shop (I learned that a cooper makes barrels and buckets) and a weaving room full of spinning wheels and looms. Other tools and equipment used on a farm of that day are on display. It reminded me of a scaled-down version of our own Genesee Country Museum. The museum in Susquehanna State Park, close to Havre de Grace, Maryland (originally called Susquehanna Lower Ferry) is located in northeastern Maryland at the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay. I love that little town's exotic name! There are conflicting stories about the name change but the more accepted one is that the French Army Officer, Lafayette; our ally during the Revolution suggested it. He had returned after the war to attend a meeting of the Continental Congress in 1782. He journeyed from Virginia to Philadelphia passing through the region where we ran our race. When he viewed the river and the bay, with the little town nestled on the flats at their junction, he was impressed by its beauty and its resemblance to Le Havre de Grace in France. He evidently saw a bit of home here and is said to have exclaimed, "C'st le Havre" The expression was immediately accepted and the beautiful name of Havre de Grace has graced the city since that day. Another bit of trivia is that this town along water's edge was almost voted the capital of the United States by Congress.
The HAT starts a most civilized hour - 9AM. The morning greeted us with blue skies and cold spring sunshine. It was cooler than I remember in past years, temperatures never climbed out of the low forties and there was a brisk breeze coming off the water helping to put "a spring in my step”. At times during the race when the combination of tailwind and downhill came together on this often-challenging course I felt like a real runner. 320 runners began their journey by running away from the pavilion about ½ mile on road and then looping back from whence they came. This helped spread the crowd out and by the time we entered the first meadow and a gap in the pasture's stonewall our traffic was manageable. The pavilion served as the halfway point at 16 miles and then the finish 15 miles later. The course is a double loop consisting of a mix of grass, dirt road and single-track trail plus a couple miles of paved road gloriously downhill towards the river. 258 people finished the distance before the sun dipped below the western horizon.
As I entered the first wooded trail I looked for a daffodil patch I remember seeing in previous years. Would it be there this year? I wasn't disappointed, yes it was there but this lone display of yellow color was the only flower I saw all day. While crossing the streams the course offered I found it easy to hop from one steppingstone to another, keeping my feet dry. I did see a couple of impatient runners brave the water, splashing their way across to the other side. Much of the single-track trail was muddy, not of the shoe sucking variety but heavy and taxing enough. One positive was that all of the foot traffic dried the ground out and on the second loop the footing was firmer. This trail demands attention and there in lies one of the "rubs” in trail running. I always find the scenery distracting from the task at hand, which I'm told, is moving as fast as possible from start to finish while remaining vertical. Some of the HAT's downhills are steep and rocky. Care had to be taken here but the views of the lazy Susquehanna off in the distance and of the woods beginning to awaken from winter slumber were hard to resist. Hard choices had to be made, watch the trail or the world around me. I compromised as I usually do, paying the price for my sightseeing with a couple of toe-snubbing stumbles and tumbles resulting more in the bruising of ego than body.
Two aid stations on the trail plus the pavilion provided ample aid. We visited one station at miles 6 and 11 and then again at 21 and 26 miles, lots of good stuff there - fruit, drink, candy and cheerful support. A more spartan station came 2 miles from the end of the loop. Here at a meadow's edge was the wife and children of one of the runners filling cups with water and Gatorade, placing them atop a stonewall and encouraging us on. Lots of commotion could be seen and heard at the pavilion off to our right but the course had us veer away back into the woods taking the long way home. Of course!
Race end came with friendly voices calling me in. Barry had passed me an hour earlier and stood waiting for my arrival. Charlie Sabatine, a mere 20 years my senior was taking his time on the course and would come in soon after. It was Charlie who brought me to many of my first ultramarathons and this is one we share every year. I've run three dozen ultras since testing the distance beyond 26.2 miles. Listening to Keillor I realized that I remember each and every long race I've run. I recall the people met there as well as the lay of the land. I remember the long runs and the not so long runs like the HAT. Memory allows me to relive the optimism that comes with running into a sunrise; to again feel the sun's warmth upon my face after the dark night. I recall running fatigue and the melancholy chill that can accompany sunset. Disappointment and redemption come together, the sublime importance of the run and the absolute absurdity of it all. But it's big! It's physical meditation. During physical and mental efforts like these emotions are near, within reach, seemingly just under the skin. I know where to find them and how to use them. These are memories I will always hold dear. I'll count on remembrance keeping me connected to others and somewhat sane should the day come that I no longer move along these trails.
And I'll always remember my unconventional taper leading up to this race without regrets. The week before was spent in New Orleans at a work conference. This city behind the levee on the Mississippi River is a big experience in and of itself. During working hours I cultivated a whole new set of blisters by squeezing my feet into dress shoes and walking the floor of the New Orleans convention hall. After hours I couldn't resist the Cajun food or the pull of live music on Bourbon Street. There I would drink five dollar cokes and listen to Blues. I found that I could protect my delicate sensibilities and lungs from second hand cigarette smoke by buying a "big-ass hand rolled” cigar on the corner and smoking it inside the clubs. It was great! While in New Orleans I didn't run or train but walked and walked through the French quarter, I watched and talked to the people, smelled life on Bourbon and Toulouse Streets, marveled at the pastel colored homes down closer to the river complete with grated balconies and hidden walled gardens. I returned to Rochester from the French influences of Louisiana on Thursday night more than a little tired. On Friday afternoon Barry and I were on our way towards Havre de Grace. When on Saturday I found energy lacking and labored up and down the trails the memories of how my previous nights had been spent were rich enough to sweeten any disappointment I might have with my finishing time. I remembered that on this particular day it really didn't matter that much.
What I found so sad about Keillor's parable was the terminal status of spectators most of the town's people took on. I believe that to be a very dangerous lifestyle. It's not healthy watching others do life. Memories full of regret, of remorse for paths not taken must be cold, lonely and empty. When I think of people living like that I must keep in mind that "they just don't know that they don't know” and that maybe today will be the day they find out. People I love most are those who have a passion for something - be it mountain climbing or their God. Be it returning to school for a career change or nurturing children, a garden, animals or relationships, playing chess, bridge or painting pictures, doing science or writing poetry. Doing something that takes us out of us. Something requiring a bit of work, sweat and effort. . . . doing something rather than watching others do it or worse yet criticizing others for taking chances they are afraid to take. I was a lucky enough man to see the worth in playing in the sun filled woods on Saturday with hundreds of like-minded souls. Lucky in witnessing the return of a talented friend to long distance trail running. That's my passion, it may not be yours. The end result for me was a very full memory deposit slip. I slipped into my bank full aware that life's rewards come in many forms and from many different directions and in many languages. "C'st le Havre!
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