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By Alan Gowen

At 6:00 am on June 17, 2006, Pam and I, along with our friends John and Chris jogged across the start line of the Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run.  After 15 minutes or so, Chris and I began to move ahead.

Chris and I have run hundreds and hundreds of miles together.  We've run fast and free.  We've limped home, broken and spent.  And everything in between.  The subjects of our continuing discourse have been varied indeed, and we seldom disagree.  As years have gone by, time running on you might say, one of the topics that continues to intrigue is reward.  That is to say that the true reward is in direct proportion to the true effort. 

Alan and Chris at Highlands Sky. Photo courtesy of IPlayOutside, which has many more Highland Sky photos

A wonderful clear day in March several years ago.  Chris and I were together, running. Blue skies, 50 degrees, patchy snow on the ground, hope in the air.  Flat out we ran on the Tuscorora Trail, friends together, two old guys boys again and simply flying on that ragged edge of control down, down toward Elizabeth Furnace.  Massanutten Mountains, rugged and rocky, but the trail here was smooth and beckoning, urging foolishness.   Running hard.  Running fast.  Hearts pounding.  Running free.  Somewhere amidst the sanctity of our bliss, we were told by those wheezing with burdens shackled to their backs, stiff hard boots and hands heavy with poles to slow down and enjoy ourselves.

Some people don't get it, and I guess that's OK.  Let them have their way.  Let them though, keep it to themselves. 

There's a difference between passing through and being part of.  Many times we are just passing through.  But sometimes true effort put forth rewards us in direct proportion when we're transported to a different level, becoming an integral part of the natural world.  We become part of it all, and we're merely passing through no more.

This was my third time at Highlands Sky, but this was the first time I'd seen this course basking in brilliant sunshine.  I'll leave it to the poets to portray the beauty found.  Agreeing once again, Chris and I knew we were in a special place at a special time.  True effort transforming us.  Highlands Sky extracts a different type of effort from its runners.  But Ah!  The reward!

Sweat pouring out, temples pounding pulse.  Chris snapped my photo as we stopped momentarily on a rocky outcrop; red spruce, azaleas, crystal blue sky with peaks in the background, just before the 1700' plunge back down into the dark, dank, thick woodlands as we made our way along the remarkable Highlands Sky course. Being transformed, excited as kids, we both said it, out loud, in agreement yet again.  Big effort bringing big rewards.

5:00 am bus ride through the darkness to the start with windows fogging up.  How old are those buses anyway? Running through twilight parallel to sunrise, the promise of the day to come.  True effort beginning with the sun rising in a crystalline blue sky; bodies marching up, steeper and steeper, nettles like tiny razors, 2300 ft. up and up then down and up again.  There are really only two significant climbs in this race, but they take their toll early, leaving runners more tired than planned with more than half of the race yet to go.  That wonderful sun was hot on this day, and for 20 miles or so, no shade to be found, it baked us.  A rare treat though, as the color of the sky was deep dark blue all the way to the horizon.  No haze today at this elevation.

If you've been there you know what that 7 miles of arrow-straight dusty, gravel road is like.  If you haven't experienced it there's no point in me wasting more words here Old friends, Chris and I shuffle along dying in the heat, born into the beauty of the day.  That miserable road finally gives way to the most visually spectacular part of the course.  Memories of alpine meadows high in Colorado as we make our way, picking up the pace, thankfully once again on trails.  Chris is a natural athlete, able to parley minimal training into impressive results.  His lack of conditioning finally makes itself known, and after 27 miles or so, with confidence and respect borne of familiarity, we part ways.  I love this place, and I feel good.  The last four miles of this course are on paved roads beneath a hot sun.  I'm jogging and running and walking and soon the finish line is mine. The only cloud to be found on this spectacular day is waiting on the other side.

Friend John is standing there, off to the side.  John had started the race with us and his being at the finish before me meant only one thing.  Indeed as we'd feared just might happen, he'd timed out arriving 7 minutes past the cut-off after 26.3 miles of true effort.  Reality shaped by desire had convinced me that somehow he'd make it.  Chris arrives only 10 minutes behind me, no worse for wear.  We begin to visit and enjoy our lies, when from the scoring table, more bad news.  Pam has dropped at the 32-mile aid station.  She had enough time left to simply walk the final eight miles.  She was in too much pain. Brilliant late afternoon blue skies above.  Clouds at the finish line.

Pam soon appears, having hitched a ride back, but she's still in pain.  In two days we find out it's a kidney stone that's caused her to suffer mightily out there amongst all that beauty, but for now her true effort has delivered a DNF.  John, Chris, Pam and I had all begun our day running four abreast with high expectations.  Half of us, true effort aside, hadn't accomplished what we'd desired.   Reward in direct proportion to the effort?   Not today for all of us.  But the effort was mighty and now it's money in the bank. Compound interest to pay dividends next time around.  And Chris had a very good day considering his lack of training.  He only got extremely grouchy near the finish.  Glad we went our separate ways when we did.

I had a pretty good day.  I finished this hard race feeling good.  Chris and I had our moments of big reward from big effort; two friends running together.  And we had moments when we were really part of it. Something those just passing through will never understand.

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