Still a Runner

A Blog by Mary Lou Harris

Archive for Running

End of the Road Half (and that’s not the Half of It)

It was the sweatshirt that drew me in, hooded with both front and back emblazoned with scenes from the long abandoned Pennsylvania turnpike tunnels near Breezewood.

This seemed

The course is an out and back on an unused roadbed and through two separate tunnels, abandoned back in 1968 along with the roadway. I found the surface in the tunnels easiest to navigate as it was not exposed to weather as the concrete and soil surfaces of the roadbeds were. Total race distance in the tunnels is just under four miles.

In addition, it seemed like a fun way to do a non-serious run, a tourist run of sorts. This was an opportunity to get in a half-marathon distance and maybe add in a mile or two on each end amidst these eerily incredible tunnels.

I had a lot of company in my thinking as there were well over 400 participants. As I approached the pre-race group, I spotted my fellow River Runners from Harrisburg, clowning it up in the porta-potty line.

With a starting temperature in the mid-40’s and overcast skies it was perfect running weather.

Just a scenic, fun half-marathon run

The course begins with a slight incline for less than a mile before entering the first of two tunnels. Did I mention that runners were required to bring a headlamp or flashlight? I was wearing a headlamp and as a failsafe wore my newly acquired nuckle lights.

Shortly after the start, I saw someone take a hard fall on the broken cement that had been a Turnpike lane. It was a reminder that this was not a PR course. I reaffirmed with myself to take it easy and enjoy the run.

As we approached the first tunnel I felt my headlamp fall around my shoulder, something that had not happened before. It was simply a matter of resetting the clip, but not easily done on the run. I stuffed it in a pocket and turned on the knuckle lights. This was the inaugural run for the lights and they worked great.

Entering the tunnel, I saw bouncing beams of light in front of other runners, dancing off surfaces in the distance.

Photo Credit: Linda Bain Breck

As we entered and exited tunnels, race volunteers had the volume pumped up on appropriately spooky tunes, from Witchy Woman to Thriller. I don’t recall hearing the Monster Mash but it was probably playing somewhere along the course.

Photo Credit: Linda Bain Breck

Shortly after looping back through the second tunnel, a group of River Runners doing some serious tourist running passed and I hopped in a photo with them.

Photo Credit: Linda Bain Breck

It all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

The fun and games stopped for me at about 9.5 miles when I took a quick, hard fall. Pulling myself up, I could see where my toe made a divot in the gravely soil in front of a chunk of concrete. The race was over for me.

A couple of other runners checked that I was ambulatory and went on their way. I went on my way as well, walking, blood from my scraped hand running over my pretty new blue just-out-of-the-box nuckle lights, and my left arm becoming stiffer.

I pulled off a fast 3.5 mile walk, taking extra water at the water stop to rinse the gravel off my hands and knee. During that three-mile walk, I reconciled with myself that autumn races in the future will be on the road. The slightly goulish photo below is reminiscent of my trail race last year.

Photo courtesy End of the Road Half Marathon

No crazy autumn races in 2020, I promise myself. Happy Hallow’s Eve everyone!

The Final Push – National Senior Games 10K

It’s the final day of competition for me and one of my favorite distances – the 10K.

On a gorgeous New Mexico morning I did my warmup with a balloon circling overhead. The venue is the National Hispanic Cultural Center. The facility itself is beautiful and worth a visit on its own.

Race morning, temperatures were in the low 60’s with the usual low humidity. I felt I was finally making the altitude adjustment as my breathing was closer to normal during my warmup.

At the race start, we transitioned from the parking lot and an access street, over a short walking bridge and onto the Paseo del Bosque Trail. The course was out and back along a canal that parallels the Rio Grande river.

For the first three miles, I felt as though someone had cut the anchor I had been dragging behind me during my New Mexico running. After the turnaround, we had a light cooling headwind. At mile 5, I realized my acclimation was not complete, as my legs were feeling as wobbly as mile 29 of a 50K. Never mind, I hung in there. I lost about 20 seconds off my pace the last two miles, but felt great when I finished.

Mariachi music as we waited for awards ceremony

Looking at initial results, I was surprised to see myself in third place for the age group – finally on the podium. That was short-lived as final results showed a very fast 70-year old added to the age group results. Well, easy come, easy go, race another day for that spot. For today, with 20 women in the 70-74 age group, it’s fourth place for me

In the top 70-74 AG spots, all from Florida, were Danuta Kubelik (54:02), Sue Herscher (56:12) and B.J. King (1:00:23).

Top 8 finishers 70-74 AG 10K – NSGA 2019

Running groups are always friendly, but today seemed even more so. I had the opportunity to meet in person an online writer/blogger I’ve followed for a couple of years and well as meeting people from almost every state I have lived in at various stages of my life.

All is well, It’s time to go home and join friends at a couple of my favorite July 4th weekend races.

Happy 4th weekend and happy running, everyone.

NSGA 5K – running with Icons

With track events in the rearview mirror, the date for the NSGA 5K approached. Early Friday morning brought a smoke alert from NSGA. Wind from a forest fire in Arizona brought smoke into the Albuquerque region. NSGA recommended people with sensitivities take precautions. As I left my hotel to catch a 5:30 shuttle, there was only a faint odor. The difference was in the view of the Sandia Mountains as daylight came clear. The usual crisp outline was muted in a haze.

Never mind. If I can deal with the altitude I will deal with the smoke. We’re off to Balloon Fiesta Park to run a 5K.

After transferring among three shuttles, all running exactly on time, I arrive at the park with enough time to pick up my bib number and have the number “70” attached to my back. There was time for warming up, a couple laps around the parking lot followed by the porta-potty line. Then, it’s time to line up for the start.

It was 66 ℉ at the start, just over 5,000 feet in altitude with minimal wind. My legs, particularly the calves, were still feeling heavy. Later, I heard runners remarking on the difficulty of running the hill around mile two. I was barely aware there was a hill, one of the benefits of training in Pennsylvania. We may be only 300 feet above sea level, but we can’t go far without running hills.

As I completed mile two, I spotted the “70” on the back of another woman. I passed her easily. Then, came a terrible feeling of nausea. To finish with my pride intact, I backed off until I could see the finish line, then picked it up again. Other runners mentioned being struck with nausea during the race and I wondered if the smoke in the air may have been the culprit. My time was 31:03, more than two minutes slower than my recent 5K’s in flatlander country

When awards were called I barely snuck in at eighth place out of 27 women finishers AG 70-74. I was awestruck when running icon Kathrine Switzer was called at fifth place. As several of us gushed around her with praise and thank you’s, her message to us was to keep it moving forward. Yes, Kathrine, we can do that!

Top finisher AG70-74 was Jane Treleven with a time of 22:59, fresh off her record-setting performance in the 800 meters. Nancy Rollins with a 24:53 and Danuta Kubelik with a time of 27:16 filled out the podium.

Overall, although the 5K course itself was not particularly interesting, the race was very well managed. Registration pickup was efficient, results were available almost immediately, bananas, water and even a bagged breakfast (loved the yogurt and the hard-boiled egg) for each runner were provided post-race.

Again, thank you ABQ and NSGA. Next up the final event: 10K Road Race.

Newbie to Track Awestruck by NSGA Record Setters

There is something, maybe a few somethings, to be said about trying new activities. For me, that new activity this year is track. In addition to learning from more experienced athletes, there was also the excitement of participating in several events where new age group (AG) records were set.

I took on track for two reasons. One, if I was going to the senior games in Albuquerque for a 5K and a 10K competition, why not add a day or two of another competition? The other longer term reason was to consider that as I move into my 70’s, what are the chances I will need to cut back on or cut out those ultras, marathons, or perhaps even half marathons. What then? Would running around a track be my fallback?

So, with a week passing since the track competition at the 2019 National Senior Games in New Mexico, I’m finally settled enough to put thoughts in print.

University of New Mexico track with Sandia Mountains in the background

Competing in the national senior games doesn’t start there, but starts the year prior to national games with preparation for successful results that meet with the minimum requirements set by NSGA. For me, that was the Pennsylvania Senior Games in 2018.

In 2018, I qualified for the 1500 meter, 800 meter and 400 meter events. My finish times in ABQ didn’t come anywhere close to the qualifying times of 2018. This was a lesson in how travel, altitude and any number of factors can impact performance.

How not to run the 1500 Meter

48 hours after arriving in ABQ, I was standing on the track with seven other women in the 70-74 AG, ready to run 1500 meter. The USATF official emphasized that as we spread out those of us in the outside lanes could move to the inside so long as we did not hinder anyone else’s place or movement. In hindsight, I could have moved in earlier but was concerned not to make in error on my first time out.

Between that error, and the fact that I felt like I had gallon milk jugs tied to my calves, my fourth place finish time was a full minute slower than my qualifying time from a year earlier.

As I finished I realized they were announcing that first place Colleen Burns of New Mexico had set a new NSGA record for the distance and AG and later announced it was also a USATF record.

How to Crash and Burn in the 400 Meter

That same afternoon a preliminary was scheduled for the 400 meter. I had no high hopes for the 400, since as I did some practice runs on the track the weeks before, I just wasn’t picking up speed fast enough. So, with 98 degree temperature, I flamed out with a time I won’t even mention (but the scoreboard doesn’t lie) and definitely did not make the top eight places needed to move forward to the finals. Again in the preliminaries, Colleen Burns set a NSG record for our age group.

The 800 Meter – Hang in there

Two days later, feeling as though I have gained some knowledge, if not speed, I returned to the track for the 800. And again, this time Jane Treleven of Washington State, set a NSG record for the distance and age group with a 3:03:02 time. As for me, I was again slower than my qualifying time, finishing with a 4:40 and sneaking into 8th place.

So much to learn, so many to learn from

In spite of my newbie status, I did walk away with a fourth place ribbon and an eighth place ribbon. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to be out on the track with record setters. I also appreciate meeting so many women athletes in and around my age group. Chatting before and after events with women who have a lifetime of track experience and willing to share is of incredible value.

So, will I take on the track again? Ask me when it’s time next year to qualify at the State Games.

Albuquerque, Altitude and Aspirations – a Week at the National Senior Games

In short, I went to the 2019 National Senior Games to participate with runners from across the country. I left having fallen in love with Albuquerque (ABQ).

In upcoming posts I will dig into the details of competition, but first permit an overview of this amazing region in New Mexico, different in topography, altitude (varying from 5,000 to 6,000 feet), historic interest, cuisine and overall culture from my region in the Northeast.

Forget the familiar sound of lawnmowers during your evening run. Instead, admire your first sighting of a roadrunner that flits in from nowhere and scurries away as you jog out of the parking lot. Enjoy the beauty of cacti that show their bloom in the morning hours and close up as evening approaches.


Forget the green of forests, other than the cottonwoods that accompany the Rio Grande on its trip south. Instead, tune your eye to the rustic reds of the high desert. Admire the peaks of the Sandia Mountains (orient yourself knowing the mountain chain is to the east).

In my brief stay in ABQ, I learned a few things about thriving in this alluring but very different climate. As an athlete or anyone who spends time outdoors, the drier air and change in altitude may or may not impact you personally. I witnessed athletes who seemed unfazed by those climate changes as they set new age group records. I also saw athletes who were impacted by slower pace, headaches, and other maladies.

Here are some suggestions for thriving in ABQ based on my experience:

Acclimation. Give yourselves at least a couple of days to acclimate to the altitude. I arrived two days early, but I was into Day 7 of my stay before I felt like the ball and chain I was dragging on my runs had disappeared.

White long-sleeved shirt. I threw this item in my duffle at the last moment and am so thankful I did. It served as my morning warmup jacket, make-shift umbrella as I watched track events from the grandstand, an extra layer of sunblock for my arms and neck, and a lightweight coverup in the evening when temperatures began to drop.

Wearing the ubiquitous white long-sleeved shirt serving as post-race sunscreen for shoulders and arms, with Danuta Kubelik, who added 1st Place 10K AG 70-74 to her accomplishments

Lip Balm. Open that drawer where you keep those lip balms you have accumulated from previous race registration bags. Bring them all with you. Your lips will thank you as they chafe in the dry air.

Water. You’ve heard it before, but having a travel water bottle with you and drinking from it on a frequent basis is a necessity.

Next post, I will get down to business with competition details. In the meantime, thank you ABQ and National Senior Games 2019.

Garlic Mustard Pull on the Appalachian Trail

If it is Spring in Pennsylvania, you can be sure the invasive garlic mustard plant is showing off its tiny flowers somewhere near your favorite running trail.

Joining a garlic mustard pull on an evening hike was my opportunity to give a bit of volunteer time to benefit the Appalachian Trail. I don’t see myself shoring up stream banks or carrying in lumber to repair bridges and walkways over swampy areas. I do have extensive experience in weed pulling. There is a volunteer job for everyone and this one suits me.

The Invader

The garlic mustard plant found its way to our shores and doesn’t have any plan to leave voluntarily. It rudely spreads itself in the undergrowth of forests and then becomes the dominant plant, muscling out native species. So, if you are looking for a beneficial but lightweight volunteer gig with your local trails, contact their leadership and ask if they are planning a garlic mustard pull. Then, join in.

Based on my experience, here is a preferred method to go about this task:

Place yourself in or near a full bed of garlic mustard so that you can reach several plants without changing position. Then, do a gentle squat (very beneficial mid-hike). Staying in the squat position, with each of the plants within reach, place your fingers around the base of the plant, then pull straight up. The plant gives way easily, especially if your weed pull is scheduled a day or so after a rain.

Keep pulling until your bag (or bags) are full. If you are near a road intersection, bags can go directly into the car trunk of one of the hikers. Then, good-bye garlic mustard.

Bag everything. Any weeded plant left on the ground is likely to reseed.

What’s for Dinner?

I won’t leave you with the impression that any plant is all bad. A fellow hiker informed me that she eats garlic mustard, adding it in her salad. I checked this out on a couple of sites and in seems that with certain precautions, the garlic mustard will provide a bit of zest to your table.

The most thorough site I found regarding eating this plant is the cleverly titled EAT THE INVADERS.

The article includes other edible options for garlic mustard, including preparation methods for a foods from pestos to stews, and even a cocktail.

The author also offers a reasonable list of safety precautions to consider before using the plant. Most are common sense items, but if you plan to forage, I suggest giving their article a read.

Spring offers wonderful opportunities for running the trails and for trying new things. Do you have experience foraging food? Have you participated in a mustard garlic pull or efforts to remove any other invasive species from our forest floors?

Tracking from Afar the Capital 10-Miler – a run for the Arts

Half a world away, I couldn’t help but rise early and watch first for Facebook posts, followed by results. It’s 3:00 a.m. for me, but the Capital 10-Miler runners in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania are off at a 9 a.m. start, following an 8:15 early start for walkers. They come from seven states, ranging in age from 13 to 79 years.

Runners anticipating the Start

Portions of our existing course are being resurfaced, leaving no choice but to develop an alternative. Race committee members forged out a new course, extending further into the Capital Greenbelt. The alternative course was then shared with local runners in a preview run several weeks before race day. It passed the tough local runner test.

Even with the course changes, the race was a sellout this year, topping off around 620 runners. The alternative course should provide plenty of comfortable space for runners out and back. We’ve limited registration in previous years because of some narrowness to sections of the course. The upside for that course is there are no traffic crossings. In developing a course, there are always pluses and minuses.

For a mid-size race for our area, we have a significant number of competitive runners. Eleven ran the course at under a six-minute pace with Josh Sadlock placing first at 53:26:63. First place female Jenny Yonick finished in 1:05:59. First Masters Clem Aslan finished at 59:33:72 and Billie Jo Hesitant at 1:14:26.

You never know what the Pennsylvania spring whether will throw your way. 2019 brought near perfect temperatures for a 10-miler, 50 degrees at the start with no precipitation. With historic races of wind, sleet and rain in some past years, the kinder temperatures were too kind for some runners who found the warmer temperatures more difficult to deal with.

Portion of new course
Portion of new course

At its inception nine years ago, I served as founding director for Open Stage of Harrisburg along with other participating arts organizations. I missed the seventh due to a scheduled marathon, but finally ran the race myself in its eighth year. I hope to be back for the 10th. We’ll see if our original course is once again available.

Many runners find the Capital 10-Miler to be their Rite of Spring race, to keep them training through the cold days of winter. Those who were not running were volunteering and supporting friends with photography. I plucked photos for this post from various locations. If you are the photographer, let me know and I will add a credit.

Do you have a spring race you look forward to? Let’s hear about it.