Running Stories

Pennsylvania Grinder

The 37th annual God’s Country Marathon was scheduled for June 4, 2011. The subtitle to the marathon was “conquer the hill”. After tackling Heartbreak Hill at the Boston Marathon in April, I figured the God’s Country Marathon would be a piece of cake. I was wrong. I looked at the course and discovered there would be several hills similar to Heartbreak or bigger over the first 18 miles. No matter, I took four days off after Boston and started training once again.

Easter Sunday, I slept in and enjoyed another holiday feast provided by Mary. In the late afternoon, I thought I would run some of it off and went out for a solo 8 miles. It was perhaps the fastest 8 miles of my life. I found the “zone” and just ran for the joy of running. I went to bed thinking that I was ready for whatever Pennsylvania had to offer in about 6 weeks.

Maybe 10 days later, I pulled a muscle in my glute/butt/backside working in the yard. I took a couple days off. When I tried to run again, it was like I had a vise grip clamped on my backside. It hurt to get started and was uncomfortable running to say the least. I went to see massage therapist Dan Zemper. He thought it was the sciatic nerve being pinched by the muscle as the pain would move from one side to the other. He showed me some new stretches and sent me on my way.

I battled through the rest of my training leading up to God’s Country. I also think I battled a little bit of burnout. I had never stopped and walked on a training run but did so about 3 different times in the weeks prior to June 4th. I was frustrated with the injury and mentally tired. I had put a lot of pressure and effort into Boston without allowing for much recovery. I think the sciatic issue was just my body’s way of saying, “slow down, rest”. Coincidently, RunnersWorld magazine had an article on burnout about that time. I had several of the warning signs.

I went slower. I stretched and stretched. Most importantly, I tried to rest. Slowly, I felt things getting better physically and mentally but I still had a tightness in my backside prior to leaving home for the marathon. I thought a lot about grinding up the long Pennsylvania hills and what would happen if that vise grip pain clamped down tighter. I had never pulled out of a marathon and the defeat of those failed training runs was on my mind.

We left home on Thursday after lunch with plans of traveling only part of the 620 miles. I had decided to not get a passport because I didn’t think going down to Toledo and skirting Lake Erie would add that much to the trip. As it turns out, we would have saved more than an hour by cutting through Canada. Lesson learned. The drive was uneventful other than going by Progressive Field in Cleveland which was all lit up for an Indians game. We stopped for the night at a Super 8 near Erie, Pennsylvania.

The next morning, our route took us up into New York on the interstate before getting off onto a state highway and entering Pennsylvania on a southerly angle. One of the first little towns we encountered close to the home of the marathon was Shingelhouse. The welcome sign proudly proclaimed the community to be the home of the first Miss America.

A short time later, driving under a banner announcing the marathon, we arrived in Coudersport, the county seat of Potter County Pennsylvania. Potter County was formed March 26, 1804 out of Lycoming County and fully organized in 1835. It was named for revolutionary hero, General James Potter. The town was an early center of the lumbering industries. Coundersport was laid out in 1807 and incorporated in 1848. Today, lumbering was still evident on the trucks passing through town and natural gas exploration was picking up in the area. The finish line of the marathon was located at the historic Potter County Courthouse.

Surrounding the old courthouse on the outside next to the sidewalk, we found a number of benches. Each contained a plaque dedicated to fallen soldiers, town fathers and other community contributors. One in particular brought a smile to my face. It read: Paul B. “Chip” Thompson 1-9-54 to 8-29-98 CHS Class of 1971 – Sat here for hours contemplating stuff. I don’t know the story behind the message but sure wish I did. Every small town has a “character” or two. Apparently, Chip Thompson was in some way very special to Coudersport.

The Hotel Crittenden was on Main Street and within a block of the finish line. We had tried to get a reservation before leaving but had no luck. So, we walked in to see if they had had any last minute cancellations. Lucky for us they didn’t. The office was a mess. The manager searched a pile of papers looking for reservations with no luck. He then asked the guy who was cleaning rooms. After some deliberations about graduation weekend, they came to the conclusion that they had no rooms. Smiling we walked out with the song “Hotel California” playing in my head.

The next stop was where we actually had reservations, the Lindy Motel and Cabins. We found Lindy himself cleaning the units. He took our information, promised us a late check out the next day and handed us a key. I enjoy rural America and certainly didn’t expect much for the $55 price tag. My expectations were met. I am not a deer hunter but have heard countless stories about deer camp. Our “cabin” would fit right in. There was no phone, the TV was old, the wire to one reading lamp was spliced together with electrical tape and the sign on the bathroom door read: “Leave open in cold weather”. The heat from the room was apparently needed in the bathroom to keep the pipes from freezing in the winter. Good for us that it was June and not anywhere close to freezing! It would be only one night and we had stayed in worse.

Lindy recommended Mosch’s Country Tavern for lunch. At high noon, we found ourselves to be the only ones on the café side of the tavern. Looking for a waitress, I wandered over to the bar side and was quickly chased out by the cigarette smoke. Eventually, somebody noticed us and we had a decent lunch albeit alone. I am not sure where the rest of the town eats but it was a slow Friday at Mosch’s.

We lounged around the “cabin” a bit watching Lindy perform his mowing duties the dust from which chased us from the outside picnic table back into the indoor luxuries. In the late afternoon, we drove the course, basically Route 6, to Galeton. It was definitely hilly but I found encouragement in the fact that almost every hill was followed by at least a little bit of a downhill. “Grind out the uphill and let gravity do its thing on the downhill”, I thought to myself. Still hampered a bit by the pain in my backside, it would be tough but doable. I was not here to set any personal records. I simply wanted to live to run another day while checking off state number 18.

While I enjoy visiting with other runners, Kevin and I typically don’t attend the group pasta dinners the night before a marathon. It is usually crowded with long lines and the spaghetti is rarely good. However, at a small town race and anticipating that we would not find an Italian restaurant in rural Pennsylvania, we attended the Friday night pasta dinner at the Coudersport Volunteer Fire Department. It was also the location for packet pickup so a good “two for one” with little else to do on a Friday evening.

We walked into the fire station and standing in front of the trucks and ambulance was an older gentleman wearing a Bayshore Marathon shirt from the race in Traverse City just a week earlier. I recognized the shirt right away as my son Zachary had ran the marathon as well. We quickly learned that the gentleman was Jim Heinz from Las Vegas. At the age of 71, he was in Coudersport to do his second marathon in a week and his 48th overall. We had a great visit over some homemade but routine spaghetti.

Registration was quick and easy. There would be no big city moisture wicking race shirt. It was cotton. The man working the desk commented on my M4K race shirt and how they needed to consider improving the quality of their shirt. I really didn’t care. We didn’t sign up for the big city amenities. Both Kevin and I were looking for a small local race. We had definitely found one and it was fine. The goodie bag was a leftover Trick or Treat Bag courtesy of Mitchell’s Tax Service. Nothing gets tossed out in a small town!

After a slightly chilly night in the cabin (Lindy forgot to light our heater!), we woke up for breakfast before dawn. With no microwave to heat up my traditional pancakes, I would have to survive the day on some donuts and a banana. We caught the 5:45 a.m. bus from the courthouse finishing area to the start at the Galeton Area High School. We were allowed to stay warm in the gymnasium and also use the indoor plumbing which is a rare “treat” during any pre-marathon waiting period.

The starting line in Galeton is at 1,300 feet above sea level. All the references and comments on the race website talked about a “hill”. Well, standing outside in the below 50 degree temps of the early morning, the race director wished everyone good luck climbing the “mountain”. “Mountain? I thought it was a hill.”, I said out loud. I drew a few laughs, a recording of the national anthem was played and the starting gun sent us off. Kevin and I quickly parted company. He was going to attack the course while I hoped only to not rip the muscles and nerves out of my aching backside. “Grind the uphill, roll on the down”, I thought once again.

The early miles involved a quick out and back to the east and then a tour around the beautiful Center Town Lake in Galeton before heading west on Scenic Route 6 which runs through the majestic Susquehannock State Forest. I covered the first 4 miles at an average pace well under 9 minutes per mile. Then, I took the hard left onto Route 6 heading west towards the hill/mountain and home.

Traffic was not stopped on Route 6. Runners ran on the left shoulder facing traffic all day. While rare, it really wasn’t a problem. It was simply like a long training run at home. An open road made it easy for spectators to follow their favorite runner. Many runners had good support with friends and family leap frogging their way down the course.

The course was clearly marked at every mile. I started a countdown to the hill. On every little decline, I would think about how the distance to the peak was getting shorter. Water stations were set up at every mile depending on the safety of the location. Each was well stocked and well manned (actually more volunteers than runners!), especially enjoyable was the abundance of orange slices. I mixed a new bottle at mile 8. The hills were eating away at my time but the pain in my back side seemed to be fading.

In miles 9 through 12, I traded passes with a younger man wearing a bandana and eventually made a permanent pass. I also chatted briefly with a runner from Georgia who was celebrating his 45th wedding anniversary. His loyal wife was driving his support car and wishing him well every couple miles. He was having a good run and I watched him fade into the distance. A younger runner was dealing with cramps so I gave him an electrolyte tablet and left him with words of encouragement. I felt good on the inside as I passed a man wearing a t-shirt that said, “Jerry Boone – 100 Marathons”. Large or small, each marathon becomes a community within itself over the hours of sweat, pain and perseverance. I felt just as good later when Jerry Boone pushed on by me. After all, we were now from the same town! I looked down at my watch, 111 minutes to cover 12 miles wasn’t bad but the worst was up ahead.

I was now well into the grind with more uphill and much, much less downhill. I held steady with a 9:39 and a 9:40 on miles 13 and 14. Mile 15 marks the beginning of “the hill” which continues until the peak at a little point in the road called “Potato City” near the 18 mile mark. Locals call the top Denton Hill. It is 2,424 feet above sea level. I am told that the highest point in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania is 2,480 feet. I really didn’t mind not doing the extra 60 feet. My steady times faded slowly as I posted 10:09, 10:51, 11:58 and finally an 11:10 on mile 18 which mercifully began the decline into the final 8.2 miles of the race.

On mile 19, I felt like a runaway logging truck. It hurt too much to slow down so I did what I had been saying to myself all day, I let it roll on the downhill. The 9:02 would be the fourth fastest mile of the day! Chewing on a few shot blocks and sticking with my Succeed protein drink, the next 5 miles went by rather quickly with each one between 9 and 10 minutes. I was getting tired but my backside was intact and the “wall” had not arrived. I only had 2.2 miles to go!
There was no electronic timing. Volunteers simply checked off runner’s numbers at each water station. As I entered the later parts of the race, volunteers would yell out my name. Shouts of “C’mon Tony! You are doing great, Tony” may seem insignificant but on mile 25 and 26 of a marathon, they are simply a nice hometown piece of motivation which left me feeling a little like this was my town.

Off Route 6 and winding my way through Coudersport on Park Street and Allegany Avenue, a young fireman waved me onto Main Street. I couldn’t hear what he said into his radio but it sounded like, “We have a live one coming.” I was then all alone on the last 2 blocks of the straight away to the finish line shaded by the trees of the courthouse lawn. I heard my name on the loud speaker as I crossed the finish line. I grabbed a bottle of water and an empty bench. The tree lined, Allegheny Mountain, Pennsylvania staircase grinder was done as my watch read 4 hours 16 minutes 54 seconds.

I felt good. The injury was never a real factor during the race. My official results: 63rd overall out of 160 registered runners and 133 total finishers. I ended up 17 of 26 in my 40-49 year old age group. There were 102 male finishers and 31 female finishers. Kevin “Special K” Krause had smoked the course in a blistering 3:53 earning him the first driving shift on the way home!

Finisher medals were not available at the end of the marathon but true to the word of race director Kim Mitchell, I received my medal a couple weeks later. While the medal was of lesser quality than all of my previous marathons, I did receive a very nice finisher’s certificate with the date and my official time. The medal conveys the small town that it was and the certificate says they care enough to give you a little something others don’t.

Was it really God’s country? Every state in the union proclaims to be God’s country so that official designation will remain debatable. I will say it was worth the trip. Big city races are unique while small town races are special. It is sort of like comparing the World Series to a Little League game. Each is special in its own way.