So the United States is closed. In the spirit of things, I decided to forego competition in one of two big events going on this weekend. Either ultra trail run would’ve required an overnight stay somewhere hundreds of miles away and besides, I had some local futzing to take care of, so I folded the hundreds of dollars I would’ve spent on America and put the dollars back in my mattress for America. I decided I would follow the river, open my senses to the possibility of new hope, and run, run a Shutdown 50K for god damnit sakes.
I started off early in the morning at 8:45 am after a light breakfast and half a pot of coffee. I’d been up since 3 am with the baby and needed a zen moment for, like, all day.
So, being very vague about plans, I gathered my gear, packing pretty light: 1.5 L water in hydro pack with inline charcoal filter, 3 energy gels, and a mini bag of fruit gummies. I also packed a small microfiber towel in case my planet were to be destroyed and I needed to travel. I wasn’t sure if my heart was up to this. I’d run 14 miles the day before at a pretty hale and hearty pace, so a long run today would be a good, albeit painful way to train for the upcoming Fire on the Mountain 50K put on by the Potomac Highlands Distance Club. I felt pretty strong. I’d never wrapped a weekend with a 50K. I usually would do that on a Saturday and do a baby run on Sunday to shake out the DOMS. Ultimately, it would not be my fastest 50K, but it would be enjoyable. The most miles I’d ever run on any weekend was 44, so I was going for a PB by 1.8 miles or so.
Yesterday the temps were about 80F to 81F. Today would be hotter, and I’d be doing the return run in the hottest part of the day. The unseasonably warm temps could have been attributed to a confluence of different atmospheric currents, or I could blame it on the shutdown. Dear America, it has become clear to me that the temps have gone up. It’s weird hot because of the shutdown, caused by the GOP. Global warming is caused by Republicans. And that’s the Gospel truth. Straight from the horse’s shutdown.
I designed my course so that I could finish, but I’d also have a hard time the whole way. I love fell running and trail running, just running wild, and on the weekends I like to explore this rural SW Pennsylvania territory via ATV tracks, gas line roads, deer trail, horse paths and surprisingly, a good bit of cross-country track on the grassy hills around a local state college. I never see runners anywhere. I just take off on the faintest of trails and see where they go. But today, I would need to concentrate on running at least five hours. In the heat.
I saw a runner this morning. I’ve seen three people run Brownsville in the course of a year. I waved and smiled. She waved and smiled. The circle was complete: there is now an official running community in Brownsville, PA. Totally stoked, I felt lifted and readied for the hours of running looming ahead. I would take to the roads on the way to Charleroi. I would follow the river. Upon reaching my destination, I would refuel, avoid the junkies, and return via the railroad sliding along the river. Charleroi has heroin like the 1980s had crack cocaine. It’s really shocking. On the jog up along 88 I’d be jumping more than just groundhog carcasses. There were needles, needles and spoons.
So I crossed the Monongahela River and began my northward assault upon the roads and rails stitching its west bank. I passed through California, swallowing a couple of 300-400 foot climbs, then passed Coal Center. Took another couple of big tasty hills before I reached the lowland townships of Elco and Roscoe, so I kept my flow slow, fo sho. Legs already going all Bambi. Legs think they’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but actually don’t even grace the ad section of The Pennsylvania Jogger quarterly. That’s because it doesn’t exist, something else I could blame on the shutdown.
The Mon River undulates like a lazy ribbon, wavy like a blue pubic hair. Shutdown hair. I carried a stick because of some possible dog encounters, but the dogs were chill. I took the big drop down to Elco. The temp started to climb. I focused on making Charleroi soon. The town was crawling with junkies. In between California and Charleroi, stippled along the narrow road were a handful of little villages. Avoiding cars is part of the thrill of this course. In a few places I would have to leave the road entirely to avoid being clipped by a passing panel truck. Twice I jumped a guard rail and and mucked about in the brambles. Avoiding junkies is part of the thrill of this 50K. The other exciting thing is shutdown, sorry.
I make Charleroi and decide to run through town. I was looking for a local coffee shop. Instead, I found Skatechair gallery. You are looking at downtown Charleroi at noon. Almost everything is closed. I hit a pharmacy for an energy drink and some water.
In the mid-Mon valley, little towns like Charleroi are stuck in the past. You go a block off the main road and you see the window dressing completely gone. Everything is crumbling, and the Baby Boomers are not effectively moving the towns forward. Young folks don’t have any money, and there’s a permanent underclass of underemployed, unemployed and the unemployable seem to be trending.
I saw a few junkies. Compared to anywhere else I’ve ever been – aside from Bankhead Hwy in Atlanta – this is the busiest looking junky area I’ve ever seen. It’s like rush hour. Cars pulling over, exchanges made with people who seem to ooze out of doorways, from behind bushes, appearing and disappearing like cigarette smoke. I popped a squat next to a locked community market space and watched the illegitimate economy continue to chug along. The DEA never sleeps. They can’t because of places like Charleroi.
And some other fantastic shutdowns. Sometimes I get really excited about living in SW Pennsylvania because I love ruinporn. It’s like the Disneyworld of 20th century decay. Here I may skip and gambol through dozens and dozens of structures. And then sometimes I have anxiety attacks knowing I’m probably not ever going to get a decent dish of Pad Thai within thirty miles of this plastic chicken.
Didn’t find anything resembling coffee. Decided to chill on the I-70 bridge over the river. Every time one of those 18-wheelers thundered by, a blast of hot gasoline air pushed me toward the sheer 60 foot drop from the buttress I was standing on. I was thinking of crossing the bridge, but there was absolutely no shoulder, and these trucks blasted by me every few seconds. It was terrifying.
I headed home along the railroad. Got tired, got real thirsty. Nothing but railroad ties, heat, and good times. I would drink nearly 4 liters of fluids on the way home, such was the heat. The wind blew in my face most of way back. A couple of times I went down to the riverbank to soak my head so I could run wet. I thought about going in all the way, but I didn’t know how long I’d linger. The shallows squirmed with mosquito larvae. I stopped off three times to get water. I drank/doused myself with over a gallon. My waterpak is outfitted with a state-of-the-art water filter that allows me to pull from polluted water sources. I cut it inline. You can’t buy one.
Running the rails takes me mile after glorious mile through places where I don’t see much of civilization. I have the sturdy tracks beneath my feet, a constant reminder that I’m inexorably moving forward, despite what the immovable objects upon the near horizon tell me. The cross ties blur into each other. I stop worrying about where my feet will strike. I come to accept every step requires a slight sacrifice, a repostioning, a sway. In Japan, structures are built to sway with earthquakes. I’m a Japanese skyscraper swaying on the restless earth. The very grounds of the railroad track encourage movement.
I pass signs that mean absolutely nothing. Colors, numbers, letters, all codes for a railroad language I don’t understand. The cinders are littered with bolts, screws, spikes, buckles, cleats, chunks of coal, splintered tree branches, carcasses of various animals. Sometimes the trains are moving along at 30 mph, fast enough to confuse birds and rodents and marsupials.
The rails are quiet, though. I don’t use music when I run. I like the quiet, the low rasp of the wind in my ears, the twittering of birds in the trees and whatnot. I like to think when I run out of town I also leave the last century. I’m running somewhere in 19th century America, in a land blessedly removed from the annihilation of Civil War and the Reconstruction. I passed a train that had “Steely Dan” written on the side of a car. I didn’t know if someone was referencing the 70s music band or the dildo the band was named after, but it certainly left an impression. It’s hard to totally remove pop culture references from oneself, which is firmly rooted in my landscape like a 70s jazz dildo. Flare collars and spare dollars: Steely Shutdown.
The heat was merciless. The candy in my pocket I picked up in Charleroi was not. I hit the sugar crack with an hour to go.
I spotted a couple of people on the railroad tracks, an old guy and a young woman just south of Elco. I espied them from about a half mile away. I got closer. The man wouldn’t look at me. He was carrying a tripod and other camera equipment, wearing jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. She was wearing a miniskirt and a blouse. I was wondering why they would be tromping out on the cinders so far from town, and then I noticed they were walking away from a marvelous little autumnal shady spot. There was a rope swing and a couple of rocks perched precariously upon exposed roots in lieu of someplace to sit down. They were not dressed for hiking. The woman gave me a sexytime smile. I don’t know, maybe they were filming a porno? Maybe an R-rated railroad company’s sexist 2014 pin-up calender being created right before me. I stopped to catch some shade. I found a bunch of discarded track shorts around this rope swing. Clothing shutdown. The clothes were near this rope. I descended the sharp slope of skree to the hunkering rocks on the riverside and let five minutes of shade do its magic. I felt better, a little more clear-headed. It was about 84F, very windy. I headed back out onto the tracks bone dry, sluggish at first.
Even though I ran about seven miles total on the railroad tracks, I didn’t feel all that tired. I’d been running rails for a few months now. Dealing with those cinders is a good way to strengthen the old ankles. I rolled my left one outside Roscoe on the return, right before Elco and the porno hobos. I roll ankles everyday on the railroad tracks. I once had a gig as a zombie on The Walking Dead and did some background work walking on my ankles, really nasty looking stuff.
Anyways, with the molten steel and the glistening tar rising up, washed in heat, perfumed by the old creosote in the cross ties, I glided like chrome death down the tracks, a junky in my own rights, looking for miles, for the vanishing point. My tracks were under my feet instead of up and down my arms. I think anything you choose to do to yourself that involves a degree of discomfort should involve ice cream. My destiny would not be denied this day. Pancreatic shutdown.
The temp had climbed to 86F. I was so happy to get home and start eating like a pig. I collapsed in the yard for a few minutes. I was experiencing some serious hygiene shutdown. I should’ve used more anti-chaff. I didn’t know that until I hit the shower. Fire down below. It’s okay, soon there would be Fire on the Mountain!