THE NIGHT OF THE SHEEHAN’S
I really did not know what to expect.
I have seen pictures of one climb, a fell scramble up to the top of hill and that there was going to be another hill near the end of the course.
That was the extent of my knowledge of the Chilly Cheeks Trail Race. However this accounted for only half a mile in a seven mile race.
On this adventure I traveled east to Reading, PA from the mountains of Central PA. I was expecting more park walkways than singletrack trails. Since the Chilly Cheeks course is on a hill above the city of Reading, I was lulled into thinking that it would be an easy run. Admittedly, I wasn’t in the best of shape from all the holiday food and reduced hours training. I was looking forward to spending a weekend away from home and not being cooped up from the bitter cold that had held firm during this month of January of 2014.

View of Reading from the Pagoda.

View of Reading from the Pagoda.

Saturday afternoon on the last weekend of that month, Tim Sheehan – the Altoona PA Runners patriarch – had invited me to join him in running the Chilly Cheeks Trail Race in Reading. The plan was to spend the night at Sheehan’s niece’s townhouse near Camp Hill, PA, have dinner there along with a few of Sheehan’s sisters and their families, then drive the additional 90 minutes from Camp Hill to Reading the next morning. The race, at 11am, made for a relaxing schedule without the early morning hustle and bustle typical of most races.
We made it to Camp Hill earlier than expected and caught our hosts, Jennifer and her husband John attempting to burn down their house after a pie went thermonuclear in the oven. We didn’t stay too long before one of Sheehan’s thirty-nine sisters showed up. Sheehan, one of his sisters and I got into the car. As Sheehan and his sister went to evening mass I opted to “go to hell” and they dropped me off at Appalachian Brewery a block from the church.
After downing an eight glass sampler of their brews in 70 minutes, they picked me up and we drove back to Sheehan’s nieces house, now packed with family. I think there were four or five of Sheehan’s sisters there – maybe about a fifth of Sheehan’s siblings. The next day driving back home, I asked Sheehan a little bit about his family. From what I can gather, Sheehan’s father had been busy pumping out the baby batter over a sixty year span from when his dad was perhaps 12 years of age to almost in his eighties. (Don’t hold me to that figure since my baby math could be off.)
The rest of the evening was spent wining and dining with Cabernet and pasta with turkey meatballs. I didn’t overindulge on the alcohol but I had more than my usual single glass of beer in the evening prior to the race. It was nice knowing that we did not have to rush early the next morning or run fighting a hang over. More races should start this late in the morning!

“READING” TO GO

John and I (with my beard) walking to the start.

John and I (with my beard) walking to the start.

It wasn’t until 8:30am when we left their house for Reading. We took John’s Jeep Cherokee. Inside was Sheehan, Jennifer, John, and Jennifer’s friend Kirsten, who I kept calling her Michigan throughout the day. I rode in the backseat with Jennifer and Kirsten. I was half listening as Jennifer and Kirsten caught up with each other while I just enjoyed the drive. It was Sheehan and Jennifer’s forth or fifth Chilly Cheeks and a second or third race for Kirsten and John. During the ride over, Sheehan said that the trail was mostly singletrack and if wanted to race, I need to get ahead of the pack before the scramble up the hill at around 0.4 miles. Jennifer and Kirsten said there was a long uphill grade hill in the middle of the race that was deceptive and discouraging. Still undaunted, I decided during the trip that I wanted to have a mildly aggressive race. On one hand I haven’t done any speed or pace work for months and this was my first short race in years. I wondered if I had any fast-twitch muscles in me. I was also eight to ten pounds heavier than the past summer. But on a positive note, I figured my trail pedigree from the Alleghenies would give me a bonus. I decided right then and there that I would be very pleased with a top 10 male finisher in my age group and in the top 100 finishers overall. Normally this race has around 700 participants.
Approaching the city from the south on Route 222, I looked past the city trying to see the park on the hill.
“All I can see is a fricken mountain” I thought. I then noticed that the mountain was up against the city.
“Wait. Is that the park?” as I tried to get a better look from the back seat. On the eastern of town, a ridge rises as much as 600 feet at this summit. I was a bit surprised to see the ridge but I convinced myself that the race must be below the ridge. I would be proven wrong.

John, Jennifer and Kirsten at the start.

John, Jennifer and Kirsten at the start.

We drove through Reading and made it to the Liederkranz, a German social club that served as the registration/check-in and the post-race celebration. Shaped like a donut, one end had a large square bar in the middle of the room and the other end had a stage and dance floor. There were authentic German beers on tap as well as German faire on the menu. Though a bit cramped, I was told that the crowd seemed less this year according to Sheehan and Jennifer than in previous years. The cold – predicted to be in the mid-teens – might have discouraged some of the other racers. We got our bibs and tech shirts for the race and opted to pin our bibs while inside the Liederkranz instead of outside. I decided to wear my thick compression shirt and a red Avalanche jacket. Having dressed the same under similar weather conditions, I thought I was making a good choice. The race director would later make the announcement that if you are not cold at the start, then you overdressed. I also opted to wear my knobby Salomon Speedcross shoes to help me get traction on the snow. Reading had more snow than Altoona from the previous storm – about 6 to 8 inches of snow was on the ground. I also wore my beared hat which Sheehan said that made me look like Ghengis Khan.
As we got close to the starting time, we walked from the Liederkranz and down a hill on a paved road. Along the way, I realized I was still wearing my warmup pants. Telling the rest of my party that I’d catch up, I bent over to slip my pant leg past my shoe. As I tugged on my pants, I could feel the muscles in my shoulders pull. Argh! That hurt! After I awkwardly got both of my legs out of my pants, I lifted my back straight only to have my shoulder muscles burn on the way up. I haven’t even started the race and I am already injured! I caught up to Sheehan, Jen, John and Kirsten before they made it to the starting line as I tried to find a place to stow away my pants. I left them hanging on a chain fence near the start unsure if I ever will see them again.
I decided to join the runners near the front as Sheehan and his kin opted to start further in the back. Each with various reasons, they were going to take it easy. It was ten minutes after the official start time, I and my fellow runners stood there impatiently and shivering as we waited for the race director to arrive from the Liederkranz. I was warned by Sheehan that the race director, Ron Horn, likes to tell off-color jokes at the beginning of the race. But today when he showed, he just sticked to the race basics like course conditions and markings before we were off. I was about seventy people deep at the start. The temperture was 18 degrees with a windchill of 8.

Map, elevation profile and pace for the race.

Map, elevation profile and pace for the race.

THE BIZARRO-WORLD RACE

The start of the race.

The start of the race.

We ran down the paved road we had earlier walked down for about 100 feet before making a right down a snowy lane. As soon as I got on the snow, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I was expecting to be running in fresh eight inches of powder. However, it had been very cold and sunny the last couple of days and the snow was granular and had the consistency of sand. With all of those runners ahead of me, the snow was already chewed up and bumpy, the uneven surface seemed to force my landings and toe-off’s to be in different directions except moving me forward. My feet were all over the place! Also on the onset of the race, I could feel my leg muscles ask my brain why I was running so fast and why it was so cold. I should have warmed up prior to the race.

The Fell Climb near the Start

The Fell Climb near the Start

It wasn’t even three minutes into the run when we reached the hill scramble. The hill scramble is much like a European fellcross climb: no trail… just a free-for-all climb up a wooden slope with logs, vines and anything else nature decides to impede your progress. I’ve seen video from past years of this section, runners bushwacking to the top in a wide marching army about 30 yards wide. However this year with the snow, the climb was a little bit more orderly with perhaps six to eight paths at the bottom of the hill. All these paths eventually funneled into one trail. I was hoping that it was like it usually would be – a mass of humanity charging to the top – and I would use my experience in fell running to leap ahead of the crowd. But today I found myself behind a group of runners and it was not until almost halfway up the hill as the trails combined to one singletrack before I got the primal urge to “take the road less traveled”. I leaped through the snow like a bouncing whitetail and passed about ten runners stuck on the trail in single file like “reserve lemmings”. (Reverse lemmings march uphill unlike true lemmings who march downhill toward cliffs and precipices.)

I'm in Red (Left) just after the fell climb.

I’m in Red (Left) just after the fell climb.

I am not sure how he did it but Ron Horn was at the top of the hill taunting and chattering at the runners. We crossed a field past a photographer and then run onto a paved road which looked a lot like one of the streets between Highland Park and Ruskin Drive in Altoona. The road was short lived and we were soon on a double-track trail with the famous Reading Pagoda high above us. I was running this section rather hard – my breathing and heart rate in the red zone. We ran along the tail of the ridge until the traill narrowed to a singletrack and, to my surprise, we came to a steep downhill. I anticipated that the course would run flat along the ridge so this downhill was unexpected. I was also surprised to find it to be technical with jagged rocks sticking up from underneath the snow.
The summary from mile 1 to mile 4 as we ran north along the ridge: Instead of running flat along the slide to the ridge, there were six short yet steep and technical downhills followed by slow, long and gradual uphills. It was a Bizarro World race for me since this run was lopsided from my usual running style. On the downhill when I usually run downhill conservatively, this time I was gonzo on the downhills running like my friend Tim Stessney who runs downhill like a mogul skier. I would choose a straight line down the mountain but knees bent into the hill, digging the edges of my shoes into the snow like skis with rocks as a stand in for moguls. Downhill, I passed crowds of people as I leaped down the hill.
On the other hand – on the uphill where I usually excel – I found myself struggling, my shoes fighting to find traction. I was tried, fatigued and unable to pass or shake off any runner who happen to be behind me. I was passed by anywhere from two to four runners on each uphill making any gains I made on the downhill few. For every three people I passed on the downhill, one would catch up and pass me on the uphill.

Sheehan and John took some extra time at the beer stop. Cheers!

Sheehan and John took some extra time at the beer stop. Cheers!

It seemed like I have been running north for a long time knowing that at some point I had to be making a turn to the east and then toward the south back to the finish. Running north, and the west wind blowing from the northwest would blow the yarn of my beard into my mouth. I slowly started to turn to the east as I climbed up to a wide bench along the ridge just below the crest of the ridge. I finally made it the beer stop at mile 4.5. I had a quick chug of Yuengling and then continue on, now finally running to the south. Ahead was a long rolling section about a mile long and it seemed like it wasn’t until here that my legs felt normal and I was able to pick up the pace, catch up and then pass a few of the runners that had passed me on the uphill.
I was more than a little put off by the attitude of the other runners. Most of the trail races I been to everyone announces their intentions if they wanted to pass or be ready for a runner behind them to bypass. When pased by runners in most races, the slower runner gives the other some encouraging words like “good job!”, “go get’em”, and the like. Here, no one signaled their intentions or yielded to the side when they were about to be passed. It was all business and there was also at times some nudging and elbowing. I mentioned this to Sheehan after the race – he theorized that most of the runners hefe were road runners and unaccustomed to basic trail etiquette. There was only one person I talked to during the race and it was here in this rolling section but the conversation was short-lived as I slowly slipped away.
Next was Mount Whdafug. Whadafug wasn’t as bad as it sounds but unlike all the other uphills that were long and gradual, this climb was steep and rocky. At times it was steep enough that I needed a tree or branch to help me clammer up to the top. As a last insult I had a scale a waist-high stone wall before reaching a road at the top of the ridge.
After scaling the wall, I ran along a road next to a tower before making a final descent toward the Liederkranz. This was the longest downhill of the race and I took it on with reckless abandon, perhaps passing about a dozen surprised runners who thought I lost my mind. The terrain was about as steep and rocky as parts of the downhill on the first year of the Rock ‘N The Knob five-mile course. Foot placement was more an exercise of wishful thinking – hoping that I landed on a flat spot. Soon, I crossed a hard road then a secon hard road – the same road where I started the race and a short section of trail where I first criticized the snow before taking a detour to the left, up a bank, and to the parking lot of the Leiderkranz and the finish line. I was in a race with about four runners behind me. As I approached the finish, a guy with a lot more left in his tank was able to sprint around me.
“And here comes Ghengis Khan!” said a race official just before I crossed the line.
I finished in one hour and 18 minutes, good enough for a 62nd place finish. I was hoping for, at best a top 100 finish and under tenth overall in my age group. I finished 11th in my division.

POST RACE TRADITIONS
I did not stick around the finish too long and I walked to John’s Jeep in search of dry clothes. Despite wearing clothes that were normally comfortable at these temperatures, the extra excretion cause me to build up a good sweat and I was soaked. I changed into a dry shirt and jacket but I forgot to take a pair of dry socks for me to change into after the race. Not too long after changing, I walked to the end of the parking lot to watch the remaining runners scale the last climb as I saw Kirsten making her way to the finish.
“Go Michigan!” I yelled.
She slowly looked at me with sour sneer on her face.

John and I inside the Liederkranz thinking about the race, perhaps?

John and I inside the Liederkranz thinking about the race, perhaps?

After she crossed I went to greet her inside the finishers tent. She said that Jennifer was not too far behind her. Kirsten said she couldn’t stand be held up a person in a Teletubbie costume that was causing a traffic jam on the course and she sprinted ahead. Not to far behind the Telebubbie, Jennifer came across the finish. Kristen, Jennifer and I went back to the Jeep as they dropped off some of their items and then we went back into the Liederkranz to reserve our seats and waited for Sheehan and John. We did not have to wait too long before they showed up. I got a pitcher of German Ayinger Brau-Weisse, a Hefweizen which I shared with Sheehan while all of us partaked on the free breakfast of eggs and pancakes with an assortment of bagels and candies.
“Would you like your Twizzlers on top of your pancakes or on-the-side?”, said someone jokingly as I stood in line.

Sheehan, me, Jennifer, Kirsten, and John at the Pagoda.

Sheehan, me, Jennifer, Kirsten, and John at the Pagoda.

After Liederkranz and the award ceremony, we drove to the start to find my warmuup pants in the same spot that I left them on a fence post next to the road. Keeping up with their traditions, we went to the Pagoda that was erected above the city and had our picture taken. We went to a Mexican restaurant next to a shopping mall that they always frequented after each race. I secretly hoped we would have went to a more authentic Mexican restaurant (The Reading area one of the highest Hispanic populations per capita in the Mid-Atlantic) instead of the chain restaurant we visted. Many years ago I worked on series of ESL videos for the PA Department of Education and ate at many outstanding family restaurants hidden in the city.
Toward the end of our late lunch even Sheehan had to ask himself, “why do we come here? We need to find a better tradition!”
After our mid-afternoon lunch, we headed back to Harrisburg and Camp Hill to Jennifer and John’s place. Before leaving, Sheehan had set up John with a Google+ account to post pictures on Picasa. We were on the road by 6pm and had returned home at around 8:30pm.

Jennifer and I sporting our race shirts.

Jennifer and I sporting our race shirts.

FINAL WORDS
In summary, I had a great weekeend and made some new friends. (Ask me in person what they call a fast runner that waits for slower runners so the slower runners don’t get lost on the course during a group run.) It was a chance to leave town on a cold weekend and to explore some new trails and a race that turned to be more satisfying and challenging than expected. It was a good weekend. Thanks Tim Sheehan for asking me to tag along!