A Bargain

The 2004 Hinte Anderson Trail Run
By John Prohira

Weeks before my 50th birthday I come to the conclusion that there is indeed no free lunch as we move through this life. There are costs and then there are costs. Some things are more expensive than others but the savvy buyer usually gets what he pays for. Bargains can be found. Payment must be made and in many forms, not all monetary. Sacrifice, time or attention can be required to attain that which is deemed valuable. It is a big world we pass through and there are many ways to live life. But the clock ticks. We do not have forever. There is a finite amount of time given us to find and take what we will . . . . . . and pay for it.

John Prohira at MMT 2002Thoughts careening between my ears before the start of this year’s Hinte-Anderson Trail (HAT) 50K involved the costs of what I hold dear. I love this part of our country, just south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Visiting and running in northern Maryland in the early spring is a treat for this western New Yorker who in late March often leaves snow behind. The sight of daffodils in bloom is reason enough to travel 700 miles round trip but there are many more. I left Rochester on Friday, March 26th at noon and arrived at my destination in Aberdeen before dark. The HAT is always my first east coast race of the year and I grew excited moving through southern Pennsylvania as the world outside my van began to take on a gentler appearance. Trees were beginning to leaf and green up and tulips, hyacinths and other spring annuals bloomed as if to smile at spring’s warm glow. I watched Amish farmers working their fields; heavy plows being pulled behind teams of horses. I speculated about the cost of farming they accept in order to remain true to their culture. Can their land produce as much as those farmed using modern technique and technology? If the appearance of their homes were indicators of success then I would say that they were doing well. I have never seen more meticulously cared for houses, dooryards and livestock. I saw young boys I believed to be Amish or Mennonite riding bicycles along the highway, returning home after school, their wide brimmed hats on handlebars and wondered whether they were subjected to ridicule by school mates over their clothing and way of life. After coming of age young people of these communities are allowed to venture into the larger world, deciding for themselves whether or not to choose the life of their forefathers. Many if not most do return to the land and an uncomplicated world. They are prepared to pay what is demanded of their society, theirs is a choice of the simpler life.

I’d sent my entry to Phil Anderson in time to take advantage of the early entry fee, fair enough payment for 31 miles of race and the hours of attention given the runner before, during and after the event. I tell my road racing buddies that ultrarunning is the best dollar per mile value available. The hours driving the to race was time well spent, allowing for thought while the afternoon unfolded and the sun moved west. Traffic flowed nicely until Harrisburg, Pa. where all lanes in every direction stopped for 45 minutes. I never did discover why we halted, saw no accidents being cleaned up or road construction, perhaps this was the cost of everyone wanting to enjoy that spring day at the same time. Gasoline was cheaper in Pennsylvania. The evening before the race was warm and humid. I knew that if the morrow arrived without a weather change extra care would have to be paid and closer attention given to hydration and bodily function. But sometime during the night the rain came taking humidity from the air and putting in on the ground. As the 16th annual HAT began temperatures had cooled and the air felt comfortable, the price for that being muddy trails and wet grass – a bargain.

It is always great seeing friends and acquaintances milling about before the start, many of them I only see at events like this. 418 men and woman began the run at 9 AM, starting atop a knoll at the Steppingstone Museum where the once working Harford County Farm exhibits the trades and craft of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There can be found a "smithy" working at his forge, woodworking and cooper shops, weaving rooms, and carriages houses and shops filled with vintage farm equipment and garden tools. The Museum is located in the Susquehanna State Park along the banks of the river bearing that name. It would be within the park’s boundaries that the 15-mile course was run, twice. Those loops and a mile of asphalt at the beginning added up to 50K. That first mile did a good job of thinning out the crowd before entering the trail system. The rest of the race is over meadow, some of which is in the tracks of farm equipment and mowers, on single-track dirt (read muddy) trail through the woods and some pavement that was gloriously downhill.

I moved on the trail comfortably and helped by knowledge gained from running this event many times before. The first water crossing came two miles into the run with stream steppingstones offered to those hoping to keep their feet dry. Rather than risk slipping off a rock in dangerous fashion and getting wet anyway I chose to run through the water that was no more than mid calf deep. Soon after during a gentle climb I sensed déjà vu. I had been in this exact situation before. On this part of the course the trail twists back upon itself almost encircling a section of the woods. This year as in the past deer were caught in that circle and panicked. I knew they would break through the line of runners and yelled a warning ahead. I am not sure whether those words were heeded or not but the frightened animals blasted out and through our procession slightly grazing the shirts of runners just ahead of me. A runner-deer collision would have been a nasty price to pay for a day in the Maryland woods and I know all were relieved that that did not happen.

The trails were sloppy and greasy but runable. I’ve been on worse. About 10 minutes after the deer sightings unexpected and painful payment was demanded of me. While on a downhill, running with a big and easy stride I turned my right ankle. No big deal. I righted myself but twisted my left ankle in the process. That twist took my left leg out with it while I remained upright and ouch! It felt as if my leg were being pulled from its socket. The pain was exquisite and I wiped tears from my eyes as my stride drastically shortened. I felt it from my hip down to my toes. I continued to hobble on hoping that any damage done was minimal and temporary and thinking the movement would help and that stretching was the answer. I did not want to stop. Perhaps that would have been the wiser thing to do but then Mrs. Prohira’s boy Johnny is not the brightest crayon in the box. The pain seemed to center in my glut and run down my hamstring. I decided that I would at least finish one loop and see what happened. It did hurt and my stride was off but I was moving forward and a couple of people I asked told me that I was not visibly limping or favoring that side of my body. That was just what I wanted to hear and reason enough to continue. A finish would require some discomfort . . . . . a fair enough trade. I understood that my flow of consciousness and the resulting thoughts of the day would take on a different feel, again fair enough.

But why continue? Ego has a lot to do with it. That and wanting to finish what I have told others and myself I would. There was a time in my life when I would allow the difficulty to dictate whether a task was completed or not, often leaving the painful or hard endeavor undone. The hours spent on the trail have offered me lessons, some accepted and learned from. Understanding the rewards of and relishing a completed act is but one. Besides how can one savor pleasure without knowing pain, self confidence without experiencing doubt, strength without understanding the lack of it? I wanted to see what would happen.

So I would play it out and try to finish, willing to pay with the coin demanded of me. What I’d purchase would be the chance to continue looking about this little piece of the mighty world along the river and share the trail and the experience of the day with my fellow runners. That was what I came south to do. I wanted to continue feeling what they were feeling, sucking wind on the uphills with them and feeling the reprieve from effort the downhills offer. I wanted to continue being part of the trail chitchat and encouragement given and received. And to anticipate the finish when the communal endorphin glow fills us. I promised myself that I would remember the day as it was and not bitch about it.

I was but one of many trail runners. Those ahead me formed a line that in the distance that looked like a waving ribbon or a thread being woven into the canopy and onto the meadow. We moved with common purpose. That commonality and the camaraderie I immerse myself during the ultra intoxicates me. I like being with these people who value what I value, those willing to pay for what they take with effort and sacrifice and yes, pain. The Susquehanna River is very wide here near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay but its breath could not be gauged on this day for thick fog blanketed the water. I knew it was there and heard the geese landing on it. The fog near the water did not dampen my spirits but instead reminded me that treasure is often hidden. The sun faint-heartedly showed its face a couple of times but retreated quickly. I grew accustomed to being passed by others as we moved through the woods. I ran reasonably well on the uphills and on the flats but found myself hesitating and moving timidly on the downs, where my strength usually lay. I feared a misstep and the resulting twist of my leg. I ran with caution and watched the trail as never before, feeling the mud on my shoes as I gingerly danced over and around the rocks.

During my second loop of the race rain began but not in earnest, just enough to help wash the salt from my face. Entering the trail system for the second time I took note of the extent of winter’s storm damage and the great effort had been taken to keep the trails open. There were many downed trees and freshly cut and stacked piles wood off the side of the trail next to tree stumps. I like the rhythm found on the long stretches of single-track. At the bottom of one steep trail just before the 10 and 25-mile aid station a water powered gristmill stood along the river. One year after the race I had stopped in for a demonstration of 19th century milling of corn and was so impressed with the simple engineering of the mill. Soon after when leaving a wooded section of the course the race’s end could be heard and seen. The finish line was only ¼ mile away as the crow flies but two miles as dictated by Hinte-Anderson. Here the trail twisted back and away from the noisy celebration. The last couple of miles of the loop were the most technical of the day with trail uneven and littered with rocks . . . . . . had I mentioned the mud? It was interesting to step through a rotting log on this back section of trail that I have watched decompose over the last seven years. Last year I still had to jump over the downed tree’s remains. Next March it may be more trail fodder than log. It had played its role and was near the end of its journey.

My tour over the HAT course was near completed coming out of trail system and onto and over the final meadow. Then up the asphalt incline to the accolades of those waiting, many who had finished long ago. I was happy to be done and glad to have persevered. It was the right choice for me and well worth it. Before the afternoon was over 329 runners would cross the finish line. There were hot dogs and chili and other refreshments to be enjoyed and of course excellent conversation full of witticism. I say it again; I like these people, their spirit and their gentle nature. A deep pull or a strain of a glut muscle or a pain in my ass was a bargain price to pay for this day in northern Maryland.

Before the race began a friend gave me a copy of Johnny Cash’s last CD. He thought I might like it and I did. It is bittersweet and somewhat dark. The Man in Black knew that his time on earth was ending as he completed this final effort. The gift inspired me to listen to other songs written by Cash, stuff performed by him and others. My favorite to date was written with Randy Scruggs and sung along with Joan Osborne. It’s called Passin’ Thru. I understand its message . . . . about the impermanence of life and the analogy that we are only passing through this world. Keeping that thought close helps me appreciate the important things in life, things worth striving for, that worth paying for. I know that the easier and softer way is not always best. Ultrarunning is only a small part of that mighty world I’m passin thru but I allow it to represent the struggle for better things in life. It’s the vehicle I use to meditate and think. The time spent in that physical mediation allows for thought to flow and for me to glimpse a better part of me. A bargain if I ever found one!

The Hinte-Anderson Trail Run is a class act from start to finish. I was rewarded for the completion of the run with my HAT hat and more memories to store away, memories available whenever needed.

I sign off with lyrics and a quotation, the words of Cash, Scruggs and Emerson. I think Emerson would not have minded that company.

Happy Trails,
John (passin’ thru)

I have stood upon the mountain
I have seen the other side
I have wrestled with the devil
I have wrestled with my pride
I have been down in the valley
I have stood out in the rain
I have seen my love forsaken
Felt the pleasure and the pain

There's one thing that's for certain
One chord that rings true
It's a mighty world we live in
But the truth is, we're only passin' thru

From Passin Thru – Johnny Cash and Randy Scruggs


"God said, take what you will, but pay of it." - Emerson

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