the main purpose was always clear: redoubts could serve as a first line of defense in the face of enemy fire or invasion. There was not any uniform way in which to build redoubts, and therefore they tended to be of various shapes, constructions and appearances.
I ran here, 53 miles, my first double-marathon.It ended at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, known as the Forks of the Ohio, in downtown Pittsburgh, on a bright Saturday morning.
I lay on the raked grass. The frost soaked into my legs and back, the sun shone bright, but with no warmth in the ceaseless winds. The temperature was still below freezing. I didn’t know how long I could lay there, how long I should lay there, hollow and confused. I needed to get out of the cold and figure out how to get home.
The Way-Back Machine
Okay, about three days before I got a letter from a local marathon RD that there was no way to buy a transfer bib off anyone wanting to drop out. My legs were really primed for some ridiculous running. I’d been trying for over a year to hit fifty miles. That’s months of training, running nearly everyday. To lose the chance to use all that leg magic seemed a tragic thing. I was sitting at work, reading the marathon R.D. refusal letter, and I thought, screw it, I’m getting my Fifty Miles instead. [Pouty voice: I don’t want to run your marathon, anyways, so nyaaa]
I was like a laser. I plotted a route, studied the topography, planned stops for water, and found a target, one that lay fifty miles beyond my front door. I wrote out the route directions, cut the nav expo into strips, wrapped the strips in packing tape.
The run was self-supported, at night. I would be running along roads for the first 34 miles, then about 17 on crushed limestone and paved bike paths into downtown Pittsburgh. The temperature would be 32 F to start, and would drop to 28 through the night. At my arrival, the temperature would be just rising again. This looked like a challenge, and I really wanted it!
Here’s my gear:
- Nathan water pak
- Sawyer in-line water filter
- six gels
- 1 oz bag of pretzels
- 4 oz. of Heed in a baggie
- 2 electrolyte tablets
- 2 extra band-aids
- Carmex – (last resort anti-chaff)
- phone, ID, emergency contact info, ten in cash
- microfiber towel, small
- two rolls of Smarties
- extra headlamp batteries
- cheapest digital watch possible
I wore a long sleeve shirt underneath a short sleeve shirt, a pair of jersey gloves, a dry fit skull-cap, an ear warmer, shorts, my favorite wool socks and some good trainers.
I would have to pass through areas I was unfamiliar with on a freezing Friday night. I could freeze to death, be hit by a car, attacked by drunken teenagers, cross a wild animal or a startled dog, fall in a hole, get hypothermia (then freeze, naked sitting in a creek and hallucinating) or the worst…I could give up. I didn’t even want to consider it.
So, I hatched the plan on Tuesday. I had prepared the groundwork, but I hesitated to execute the plan. It certainly was daunting. My wife would not go for it, of that I was fucking quite sure, but when she married me she knew I was capable of pursuing unusual hobbies with unyielding verve and focus. Once I planned it, it was basically impossible for me to back out. I keep a posted sign in my car where no one can see it. It has a picture of my son’s wide-eyed little face when he was 4-years old. The speech balloon coming out of his mouth says, “Daddy, will I grow up to be a wuss, too?” Fifty miles was my wussmaker. Once I had committed to that distance goal, every failure pushed me into the glacial purgatory of wussdom, where I woulda-coulda-shoulda linger as long as I wanted to be a wuss. Sure, five years ago I couldn’t run a quarter-mile without lying down ready to puke, but through effort, I’d gotten better. I had a lot of encouragement from phenom runners in my region. And like I said, more than anything, I could attribute my success to the run in my commitment to doing it in the first place. The cold would force me to run, and that would keep me from quitting.
Countdown: The Fifty-Three Miles Out of Wussdom
The kids were getting bathed and put to bed. I left a note on my desk that alluded to something vague about “Going up 88” for a while. I sanitized the water pouch, rinsed it to level 34 OCD specs, dressed, greased myself like a wrestler, packed my gear, turned my stopwatch to zero, went outside into the cold night, hid my keys, pinched my watch and started running. 9:45 pm. ETA in Point State Park, 9:44 am, eleven hours and fifty-nine minutes later.
Up until this point, I’d had a personal best at 40 miles I’d run at a couple of events. That’s a marathon and a half, the radius of wussdom. Everytime I ran it, I only made it back to the heart of wussdom, to the sign in my car with a picture of my kid staring at me. I know I have issues. I don’t care. I want my kid to be inspired by me, some flesh and blood, something he felt was a part of him. I decided to set up a charity for the event. I set a goal of $1,000, and gave myself 48 hours to collect it. I whipped up a website on Crowdrise, named my fundraiser, donated $35 to the American Cancer Society for rebroductive health research and resources, and I was ready. The good karma would protect me from harm, would be my metaphysical shield against self-doubt and erosive shame.
I headed down my neighborhood street, dropping towards the Monongahela River, what locals affectionately call The Mon. When I reached the riverside I felt the temperature drop a few notches. There was a good wind blowing, and I had about an hour before the frost would set. The majority of this run would be along the Mon. But first, I had about a half dozen big hills to contend with. The first was truncated, a two-stage ascent separated by a mile of flat. Then the road dropped down into California, PA, a tiny college town. The main drag was relatively deserted for a Friday night because of the chill weather. Usually it crawled with students. Maybe the wind kept them indoors. I know I rate a level 4 Gump. I’m old, weird-looking, bearded and awkward at most parties. I’m even more awkward on the side of the road dodging drunken drivers and people humming beer cans at my head.
My hands were getting a bit warmer and traffic was light heading out north of town. I hit a port-a-john at mile six or so, right before Coal Center. I’d run this road dozens of times. I knew the potholes, ruts, roadside trash, the spots missing safe roadside space. I had to jump over the guard rail a couple of times. I mistakenly thought I’d passed my turn and lost a mile on a double-back to verify my course.
As a side note to night runners: If you run, you attract mischief. If you run at night, more mischief. If you run with a headlamp and bright clothes, you begin to ascend the Gump scale and will be called out by strangers from different parts of this wondrous and enchanting world. So, when cars approached, people in cars would, I hoped, feel less inclined to harass me and move onward if I walked a moment. I posed as a walker. No one gets worked up about a pedestrian. As soon as they flashed past, I picked it up again.
I found my correct turn and struck off along a road with the occasional farmhouse, and frequent darkness for long stretches. I made sure to make noises while running along dark patches of road to alert the nocturnalia of my presence, a courtesy that, once it was extended, was fairly honored by all manner of animals enjoying their skin. I could hear things skipping, shambling and scurrying before me, an interloper, an intruder unlike any a creature would have encountered. A big smelly creature whooping and growling in the darkness, scanning the roadside with its single blazing eye.
In the weeks leading up to deer season, the nights are quiet. I was running right before the opening. This was another benefit: The night was relatively safe haven for all. I saw a shooting star. I ate a gel at mile 10, steady booty moving. Orion lay on its side, hunting something along the horizon.
The roads leading up to Charleroi got a little busy. I reaffirmed my Gump ratings with a couple of what-the-fucks shouted by passing motorists. The hypo needles and spoons started appearing in the glow of my headlamp. I killed my headlamp as soon as I reached a string of street lamps of an outlying neighborhood, around mile twelve. I ran through town on the main roads at a pretty brisk pace. On the north end of town I grabbed a cup of coffee, a fig bar and another pair of jersey gloves. Frost had descended and I felt the bones chilling. I cooled the coffee with a jigger of milk and slammed it. Friday night, motherscratchers! Rick Flair can suck it. Wooo! My belly was a cauldron of crackalisciousness, my hands were nice and toasty, and I still had almost all of my water. North of California is the last significant slope, and it is brutal. I made slow time going up it. On the flip side I descended down into Monessen. Iseemed to run through a couple of smaller burgs north of here. One was called New Eagle. I stopped to pee somewhere, started out again, saw a second shooting star!
I was heading towards El Rama. The name makes me envision everyone there wearing a brightly colored turban, even the kids and dogs. I don’t know why. I ran through El Rama, then had a few more miles of nothing. Gel number two. I occasionally picked a safe place to stand beside the road as fracking lorries and drunks raced by. I would be dead if I hadn’t been cautious. One idiot passed me riding the shoulder. Luckily, I was pressing myself against an embankment. I saw the glow of Elizabethtown approaching. There I would cross a bridge over the river. The crossing was the halfway point. When I reached the bridge, I took off my pack and sat on a street lamp dias a moment. I love a river at night. Light from town drifted into the flowing waters. I don’t have a good analogy to describe it. I’m not selling the route, I’m just describing it. It looked very pretty, and being alone, feeling strong after capping the first half of the trip in a hair under five hours, I knew I was on schedule. I’d held back enough to pull through. I could feel it. I could feel…nothing in my hands or face, so onward.
I ran through Elizabethtown, a cute little suburb. Traffic was dead. The rest of the run would be along the river, flat, for hours to come. So far I’d been correct in my calculations for time and distance. I was on pace and freezing my arse off. I thought about my wife and two little boys asleep in bed. The baby would be getting up soon, and when my wife woke up, my wife would see that I was gone and wonder where the hell I was, her inconsiderate husband.
The air was thickening with some kind of burning, gritty bullshit. I passed a steel mill. The mill stretched at least a quarter mile long, maybe more, along the hill. There was a great racket coming from conveyor buckets off-loading rubble from barges, loud, clanging, crashing thunder. On the other side of the river, the pollution swirled over the river and settled below the bluff. I ran past nothing but junk yards and industrial buildings and unknown machines. I saw some beady eyes off to my right suddenly, low and close-set, and because of the racket from the mill, didn’t realize they belonged to a SKUNK until it had accidentally almost run into me in a sudden dart back into the road. I took a few moments to start again, but a moment later, I found I now had two skunks in the road before me. I shouted, they didn’t move. I advanced, and they stared at me with their tiny little glowing eyes. I called game and let them wander on for a few minutes while I marked territory. The soot from the mill made my eyelids feel like they were made of sandpaper. I wiped some black sleepies away and headed into Glassport. I spotted a 24-hr gas/convenience mart. I needed to poop. I needed to have a cup of coffee. So, I lost about fifteen minutes gassing out and gassing up. “Du-uuuude!” Said the clerk,”You’ve got to be cold!” I assured him I was cold. I bolted down another coffee, ate a greasy, fluffy muffin and headed out. I wouldn’t need any gels for a while.
If I told my wife I was planning to run fifty miles on a Friday night after work in the freezing cold along 50K of roads, she would try to stop me. And that is why she was not given full detail about my destination “going up 88”. I had a half-intelligent “plan”, and the plan was to answer a very important question. I was just about to leave the quickie mart when my phone rang. I missed the call, got my phone out and saw that it was my wife.
How the Hell Was I Planning on Getting Home?
I wasn’t tough enough to run back home from Pittsburgh, so I was going to need to figure out how to get home. I had a pathetic plan: Pack a change of clothes, trick my wife into driving downtown, then give everyone big hugs when they arrived to rescue me, and then change the subject for a couple of weeks whenever someone broached the topic of my insane long run through the mid-Mon Valley to Pittsburgh. This is where whiskey was born. It aged in casks because it took a while to get where it was needed to be drunk. Herman Melville mentioned whiskey from this area in his book Moby-Dick, or The Whale. For those of yinz interested in etymology, Monongahela originated from a longer, sillier word which meant “falling banks” owing to the soft and unstable geology of the riverside in the valley. So I was running the “Falling Banks” river. I wish all the banks would fall. Then maybe the melting pot would have some rib-sticking wealth to go around. I digress. I was thinking about whiskey when my wife called, something to steady the nerves.
“Where are you? It’s almost five o’clock?” She was half-asleep.
Deep breath. “I’m in Glasstown, almost in Pittsburgh.” I was really excited when I said it, ecstatic. Laser face or death, no regrets.
“I guess you expect me to pick you up.” And I had expected her to pick me up. Because I would mention that the new line of Vera Bradley purses had just come out and she needed to get downtown A-freaking-SAP. She couldn’t argue with Vera Bradley. However, the cloud of dismay associated with the possibility of a two-hour round trip in a car with a couple of small kids seemed to have clouded her judgement. i could hear the dismay in her voice. There would be no interest in a journey to purchase a fancy purse in downtown Pittsburgh. I needed a plan B.
I hadn’t planned how to get home beyond this. Trouble.
“No, darling. I can get home on my own. I’m good.” Whatever that meant, I had no idea.
“How are you getting home?” I was silent. That was a wise question.
My moth started saying words, I don’t know where they came from. “Oh, you know, I’ll just take the bus home. I see buses everywhere.” Laughable and idiotic. See buses everywhere? My wife was happy to dismiss me, told me I was crazy. I told her I knew she would have stepped on me if I had told her my “plan”, so I had to just do it without her knowing. She didn’t run, how could she relate? I ran fifty miles a week all year. And that was that.
I told her my ETA for Pittsburgh and getting home. She hung up. I stowed the phone and went back to the night road. I crossed a bridge at Clairton because my directions called for a bridge crossing on the north side of Glassport. It was the wrong bridge. I crossed over, got lost, ran around a minute, then used the phone GPS to pinpoint my location and then plot my way back to route for Pittsburgh. I lost another couple of miles doing this. Rather than get sad about it, I realized I was stretching the original 50.07 miles to at least 52.5 miles, a DOUBLE MARATHON! Rick Flair for emperor!
Miles = Smiles
I ran along the river opposite Glassport. Eventually I reached and passed the bridge I should have crossed. I ate another gel. My legs were burning. I was dropping speed rather quickly. Around mile 40 I entered Death Shuffle Mode. Anything that required me to jump anything taller than a curb required me to “break my running stride” and step carefully over the obstacle. Light was stealing into the sky, the stars fading. I saw a third falling star and wished the coffee downtown would be hot. I’d been awake now for 24 hours, but I wasn’t all that sleepy.
The last ten miles were all that I’d trained for. I started talking aloud to myself, telling myself I felt good, that this was an awesome special thing, and it was. I had wanted to see the dawn appear downtown while I rested my legs at a cafe’ enjoying a hot breakfast and coffee. I also wanted to be an astronaut. I started sucking water. Dawn pulled the beautiful foliage from the autumnal groves sparsely festooned apace the Great Allegheny Pass through the most shit-ugly industrial parks and rail yards and haul yards you could imagine. I also passed some roller coasters! I had no idea there were roller coasters in Pittsburgh. Kennywood. Thanks, Kenny Rogers, you mid-Mon Valley whiskey-loving Ewok songbird, you.
I passed Homestead, the birthplace of organized labor, the site of the Homestead Strike. I saw the old pump house where the entire town had fought the Pinkerton-lead Frick scabs out of their factory. That gave me the stones, I tell you. I dipped into the pack for the junk food. Sweet fructose, carry me home. I scarfed all the candy and forced the pretzels down. I ran out of water just north of the Sandcastle water park, rounded my final westward approach into downtown. I started passing joggers, walkers and bikers. I waved to everyone. I smiled at everyone. I felt like Ron Burgandy’s luckiest undershirt. And smelled much worse, I imagine.
One more bridge crossing and I was downtown. I could see the indomitable tower of the Cathedral of Learning rising from Schenley Park like a Gothic dildo crushing the modern age. The last two miles seemed absurdly long. I felt like I was going through that weird Michael Jackson Thriller zoom when he first turns into a zombie. I think I was doing the last mile at about one mile an hour. People were hurrying everywhere, city people in the blustery cold cityscape.
I smelled coffee upon the Boulevard of the Allies. I headed west to Point State Park, to Bouquet’s Redoubt. The air had become chilly again, and the wind whipped over the confluence of rivers. Any thought of lingering was snatched away by that wind. I reached the Blockhouse and lay down on the aforementioned grass. People stared at me but no one said anything. I’m lying on frosty leaves, jubilant. People were jogging, walking dogs and palming their hot dog turds in little bags and stuff. City fun. Hand warmers. It was 8:06 am.
It took me 11 hours and 21 minutes to run 53.53 miles. This is the route w/ optional 3D flyover.
I took a couple of pictures of the blockhouse, did a selfie you can see at the top of this report.
That was the end of the run, but my journey was not yet over.
I made it to coffee and a hot breakfast table within fifteen more minutes.
Busses Keep Rollin’
Now that I’d conquered my own doubts and squishy flesh, I had to figure out how to take a bus home. As if that were real. I had no idea how or where buses went.
Hello, My name is Joseph and I don’t know where the buses go.
I walked to a bus stop and asked someone waiting if the bus went to Brownsville. They hadn’t heard of it, but they pointed me to the metro tube. I checked it. According to a map, trains went south towards home. I knew buses keep rolling out from rail, so I would just need to keep rolling south. The metro station had cold aluminum benches. Fingers sluggishly turned the pamphlet pages. Eyes looked, but brain did not comprehend. My head was full of fifty miles. I was so grateful those skunks had not sprayed me. There would be no bussing home smelling like a fresh durian casserole. As it was, I already smelled incredibly bad.
My eyes were raw. I wandered towards the Greyhound bus station and found my queue for my bus. I bought two more cups of coffee, wrapped my arms around me and waited for the my bus to arrive. I spent about a half hour there, but it felt like days. At 10:30 am, I took the first bus back down to Charleroi. The bus driver told me another bus would come along and take me to Brownsville. I disembarked, then stood in the alcove of an abandoned business downtown out of the wind for a half hour to catch the next bus.
Luckily, that bus deposited me just two miles from my house at a store. Since I needed to pick up a few things, I went in, drank a Red Bull, grabbed a couple of things and came back outside. My wife had the kids in the car waiting for me. I can’t describe how happy I was to see them.
I’m in full dad mode 24-7, so when I got home, I showered, made lunch for everyone, fed the baby, then started folding fresh laundry. I was really tired. Every few minutes I zonked out while absent-mindedly holding a burp cloth or pair of socks. I kept drifting in and out momentarily while plodding through the laundry. At some point consciousness eluded me and I drifted beneath the world and into sleep’s embrace, some thirty-six hours since my last sleep.
The next day I wasn’t even sore. In fact, I felt awesome. The next day, too – no DOMS, no probs. I took a 4 mile run at like reverse grandma speed, but I felt good.
I got my fifty miles…and then I caught myself seriously considering a hundred-mile race. Every challenge is respite from oneself, from doubt, from gravity. If I don’t try for it, I’ll have this gnawing emptiness telling me I wasted my chances dreaming about it.
That sign will stay in my car. I suppose I’ll always keep the Sign of Shame in my car. There’s always time to doubt oneself, but there’s only one life in which to expose those doubts for what they are, children of failure. I’m one challenge away from disowning my doubts entirely. I can’t really erase that feeling I let my kids down until I can do the 100-miler. This little face will haunt me. I have to meet my fate with all I can muster. No son, you will not be a wuss.
You will overcome. You will be epic. You will be awesome, because you make me believe I can do more than I think I can.
EDIT: It took me nearly a month to write this because things are so crazy busy around the holidays!