Ultrarunners Go 'round the Outside -- The Presque Isle 12 Hour

By John Prohira

"I don't know what you call what you do on those trails for hours on end John but I've got to tell you. . . .it ain't running." - an unnamed road running acquaintance.

The 12 hours spent along the shores of Lake Erie on October 19th did involve running but not the type I've grown accustomed to. On this particular Saturday I signed on to run the Personal Endurance Classic a very low-key event described as providing a comfortable, relaxed and friendly atmosphere with the promotion of cardiovascular fitness its prime purpose. The sponsors of this event invite participants to run/walk a distance beyond that which they have previously run/walked. There are 12 hours in which to establish one's own Personal Endurance Record. This was an offer of a reasonable and civilized approach to running and walking; there could be something here for everyone, a noble goal in my humble opinion. I was curious about this venue and that was reason enough to try. And of course it became a race, against the clock, against the distance and because I could see him from time to time, against the lead runner.

In order to reach Presque Isle State Park where this fun took place in time for the start I left my house in LeRoy, N.Y. at 3AM. It is about a 150-mile ride to Erie, Pa. That was made more interesting by sleep deprivation and torrential rain. I rode with Dan Lapata and the music he brought along, the perfect traveling companions. We met another Rochester runner, Barry Ericson there. We checked in around 6ish and were asked about our goals for the day. Remaining vertical is always an important one for me, but what they wanted was our distance target. We were each given a card with our names and the numbers 1 through 50 (only 50?) printed along its edges. After the completion of each one-mile loop around the outside rim of the waterworks area of the park a hole punched on the card recorded the effort.

The course was described as being absolutely flat. Was this an attempt at soothing apprehensions about running long distance or was it a warning? For this ultrarunner it should have been the later. I've never run more than the standard marathon on road before, reason enough to embrace the challenge. It's said that if you want something you've never had then you must do something you've never done. I don't know exactly what it was I wanted other than a long run with people of like mind. I got that and a little bit more.

Our loop began in front of Pavilion #3 promptly at 6:38AM in the dark and in the rain. Water would continue to fall from the sky off and on for the next 5-6 hours. Gray dawn came during the second loop and I began to look about me and memorize that which would comprise my world until dusk. Moving away from the pavilion a dirt road brought us quickly to a mile stretch of concrete road. I longingly looked at the grassy border along side of this lane, wishing that I was running there where small ponds had formed because morning's rainfall was slow to sink into ground. After this cement and until 50 yards from the check-in back at the pavilion it was asphalt surface offered our feet, knees and legs. That section felt soft in comparison. Here was the perfect example of a relative view of life. When I was a kid I worked on an apple orchard year around. During the winter we would prune the sleeping trees. This was cold work done at times in temperatures near zero. There was a cold storage barn on this farm where the apples from the harvest were kept. The optimum conditions for keeping apples is at 33 degrees Fahrenheit. We would leave the trees and take our coffee and cigarette breaks in the cooler, where it was warm. This was my first glimpse of the relative nature of the world. It wasn't an Einstein-type revelation, just an observation. Memories of the relatively warm cold storage barn comforted me and help me appreciate and welcome the asphalt.

As the morning turned towards afternoon the rain stopped and the world brightened but the winds from off Lake Erie continued. But it wasn't cold and the wind in our face when along the lake offered what the terrain couldn't, the opportunity for a change in gait and effort while running. This modification in tread and movement turned out to be a welcome break from endless repetitive motion. I've learned to take little rewards where I can find them. I did and was grateful, (note to self, look for hidden rewards during real life). The Lake was big, windswept and looked very intimidating and at times I felt very small beside it. That was OK and not a bad thing. Large trees lined the road along the shoreline and broke the fullest force of the wind. Because this is a public park people other than runners were seen and I liked that. Teens played touch football, the aroma of different BBQ's driven by breezes teased our noses, kids on bicycles and others being pushed in strollers helped remind me that I was still connected and a part of the larger world. Only momentarily removed from it by choice not circumstance.

Many in attendance were beginning their endurance race late. Many moved at a leisurely pace. Some raced around and around, covering laps at breakneck speeds then resting. Others moved the entire time as pedestrians and walked around and around the outside. As promised there was something for everyone! Because of the looped nature of the day I could see the leaders and had some idea of where I was in terms of position. An unusual and novel place to find myself. About noontime I noticed that the front runner looked a bit rough, I thought I detected signs of a struggle in him, some growing difficulty with his running. I told a companion that I'd get 'em! Ah, self assurance coupled with bravado! A concept ripe for a stiff dose of humility which eventually came. When I declared that I'd catch and beat that fellow ahead of me he already was 2 miles out in front. 11 hours and 30 minutes into the event he passed me for the last time finishing the day with 5 miles more than I. Appearances can be deceiving and I'll try to remember that one can be much more capable and stronger than one might appear. So that was the lesson of the day, fair enough. I'd gotten my money's worth!

Added to my ultrarunning education and experience was knowledge that flat is not necessarily easy. After the rain stopped I kept to the side of the roads running in as much grass and dirt as I could find. This course challenged me in many ways. I've mentioned the folly of chasing front runners. Add to that at day's end I was more stressed, sore and beat up than I've felt after many 100 mile trail runs. This was fast in a relative sense and my legs told me that, my knees hurt as did my Achilles tendon. I was able to record my fastest 50K, 50 Mile and 100K distances all in one day and during one race. But more importantly I added to my experience and memory respect for long distance road racers and timed event runners who work their magic on road and track. This endurance event was every bit a worthwhile and difficult challenge and so very much a head game. Every 10-12 minutes the finish area was offered. There was the warm pavilion and the car containing dry clothes. On this particular Saturday the finish line was not a place but a time. As I approached the pavilion over and over later in the day I had to remind myself that it's not here, or here again, or here again. Not Yet, not yet.

It ain't trail running but it's running was worthy of attention. My hat is off to those from the Erie, Pennsylvania running community who made this event possible. Upon completion of this race I knew the entrance fee of five dollars had been well spent. The type of distance I enjoy and the running I embrace is often viewed as something on the outside of the mainstream. I thought about that while running around the park that day, on the roads on the outside of the grassy areas filled with picnickers and others playing on this autumn day. I may have been on the outside but that was the perfect place to view what surrounded me. The best place from which to watch and think about my companions, Lake Erie, the weather, the effort involved and it's value. Maybe that's the charm that keeps pulling me into what might appear to be obscenely long runs, perhaps is being able to remove myself from real life for a while so as to better observe, ponder and appreciate what surrounds me. Maybe. I will have to think about it.

A couple of closing quotations and

Happy Trails,

When you are required to exhibit strength, it comes.
Joseph Campbell
When I grow up I want to be a little boy.
Joseph Heller

Virginia Happy Trails Running Club
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