Charlie Horse 20K Trail Run:
The Battle of Heat and Hills

BY JOHN ROEMER IV

On Memorial Day I ran the Charlie Horse 20K Trail Run near Reading, Pennsylvania. Unconventional events appeal to me, so I couldn't resist the race flier's warnings, which included, "If you get lost, injured, or romanced along the way, it is your responsibility solely to find your way to the finish area, hopefully before the pool and bar closes. Because of this gut-wrenching responsibility, we cannot allow runners who...have the mental toughness of [doughy actress] Kirstie Alley at a buffet table."

There are other intriguing provisos, but the most astonishing would prove to be the verbal one made by race director Charlie Crowell during my call a week before the race. I made reference to the trail's steep hills, which are evident on USGS topographic maps. In his understated fashion, he simply said, "the hills aren't bad."

With no specific preparation for the distance, and dismayed by the intense daytime heat of the previous two days, I traveled with Eleanor Simonsick to Plowville. I suffer horribly in the heat--nausea, anxiety, delirium, and most alarmingly, rapid slides from sub-6 to 8-minute race miles. While running, 60 degrees feels unpleasantly hot to me, and anything over 75 is almost cause for panic. Now 39, my heat sensitivity continues to worsen.

I knew my self-defined "real trail race" undefeated streak was going to end. I was more concerned about Eleanor's decision to do a trail race. Although foot-sure on the track as a two-time Olympic Trials finalist, on trails she seems to unerringly clobber every stone and root.

About 200 of us were bused from the finish to the start in French Creek State Park; the race wouldn't begin until 10:25. It was about 80 degrees, and I was feeling pretty shrewd for asking the EMTs in the ambulance to reserve a bag of saline I.V. fluid for me at the finish. We started on the narrow berm that impounds Scotts Run Lake. I looked around and figured the racers to worry about had several things in common: no shirt, no water bottle, in their 20s, and male. I was wrong on three counts.

A race official's tiny daughter said "go" into a bullhorn, and we flew down a gravel road, crossed a stream, and promptly climbed 320 feet during the next 0.7 mile. The trail is dicey, definitely a "No Way!" on the typical road runner's trail scale. Like every Pennsylvania park I've visited, these narrow paths are hilly, very stony, covered with roots, and have logs to hurdle and sharp turns to navigate.

I felt terrific, so I blistered the first four miles, figuring no one else would be looney enough to do the risky but often effective (if you don't break your ankle) hell-bent charge down the hills. Wrong again. Local Tyler McCliman, who graduated from college the week prior and was not about to show deference to someone close to his father's age, stayed about 12 inches behind me over the first mountain and into the mile-three water station at a firing range.

I stopped to guzzle/spit-up water and douse my head, while Tyler nearly ran between an archer and a hay-bale target. This may be why he let me re-assume the lead, just as we were joined by another eager racer. We climbed another hill, watched a deer sensibly run a only few yards before stopping in the shade, and went through four miles in 25:40. I wouldn't see another of the eye-level mile markers until #12, because my attention was rarely focused on anything but where my next step would land.

The short, steep, recurrent ups and downs in the next section began to slow our 6:25 pace a bit, and our single-file trio soon was joined by Richard Caro, who looked strong and confident. At about 5.5 miles my solar plexus sent an abbreviated message to my head: "It's 90 degrees--you're toast." I had no alternatives, no argument, and none of Coach Ma's famous turtle soup, so I stepped off the three-foot-wide trail and motioned my three pursuers past.

Caro asked if I was okay, so I relayed the solar-plexus message and fell in behind. Thereafter my conversation was limited mostly to the shameless question asked by all desperate runners who cash it in too early, but still lust for shiny things--in this case, the wonderful, handmade, two-foot-tall wood trophies awarded to age-group winners. Dispensing with polite introduction, I would blurt out "How old are you?"

Next, my assumptions about the serious competition proved false. I glanced over one of my drooping shoulders and saw a figure stronger-looking than the three in front of me. From the ponytail I guessed it was the 30-something guy I sat near on the bus to the start. Wearing a shirt. Definitely over 30. But NOT a male. I got the no-water-bottle part right. Cassy Byrne said something encouraging as she squeezed by and I mumbled thanks. She later told me I really had looked like hell.

I kept these four in sight to the halfway water stop, where I tried to persuade my busted thermostat that swallowing three cups of water was a really good idea, and trundled off in dubious pursuit: 10,000 meters to go.

The water bottle I didn't need or want to carry during the first half would have come in handy from this point on, but I hadn't known where to stash one on the course. I'm certain that seasoned trail runners are sneering at this admission from me, the unprepared heat-sissy novice.

We hit the steepest hill shortly after the water stop. A 200-foot climb in only 1,000 feet. Cassy crested the hill just when Scott Karwacki, edging past on the narrow trail and complaining about a seriously sprained ankle, encouraged me to run with him. I opted for the less dignified but more appealing walking option. Though humbled, I actually gained on a trailing member of the now-diminished lead pack.

I also made a mental note to pointedly ask race directors in the future whether the hills are "long" and "steep," perhaps lessening the subjectivity of "not bad." They will, of course, adhere to the race director's creed, and lie to me.

Miles 7 through 9 were hilly, dry, and for me, slow. It was 95 degrees in the shade.

Unable to secure access from one of four land owners (the 50-year-old Horse-Shoe Trail we were using has always traversed public and private land), we then had to run through a half-mile obstacle course of recently-cut trees. On this road-to-be, Cassy had taken a flesh-shredding fall and probably lost a shot at second overall, and I moved from 6th to 5th. Eleanor would drop from 3rd to 5th female.

Forced then to climb 300 feet on 2.4 miles of fresh, black, 100-degrees-plus asphalt, I acquired a nice tan and dropped to 6th. As he went by, Evan Sandt helpfully responded to my obligatory question that he was 29.

Fading abysmally, I looked back to see the unmistakable body of a 30-something gaining on me. I did my bent-over, water-on-head, half-puking routine to the giggles of the young girls at the 11-mile water station. Then I was off into the rejuvenating shade for a 1.4-mile, mostly-downhill, stream-side screamer in an effort to preserve my hold on the 30-39 age group. Among males, anyway.

Parts of this section of trail looked new--they resembled slightly improved deer paths, really--with hay-bale stream crossings, velodrome-style banked turns, and runny, shoe-sucking mud. After a steady diet of 8:20 miles, a 7:05 felt awful, but it held off hard-charging J. Hinkel. Thirty-six seconds separated him from the coveted Crowell-made trophy, which I am lucky to have resting on my desk.

In a familiar Maryland-resident clash, Eleanor was passed by Bel Air's gutsy Margaret Starnes during the last mile. She then stopped and chatted on the course with Margaret's husband Dave about my perceived condition, and went on to lose the Masters title by 150 yards. A 5K specialist until Sunday, her legs hurt too much to make a last-minute dash.

The race benefits Berks County Special Olympics. The family-oriented postrace party included food, music, and a large spring-fed pool, which I stumbled into after navigating the finish chute. I apologize if my overheated body made it uncomfortably warm for everyone.