It'd had been five years since I'd run the Paine to Pain, a half-marathon trail run around southern Westchester. At that time, I still lived in Manhattan in an 80-square-ft. apartment next to my good friend "the Pirate." I'd recently started a book project on ultrarunning legend, Al Howie, and wanted to dip my feet into longer distances - into ultras and timed events. The start at Thomas Paine's cottage was poignant. The pre-revolutionary war writer was an English-born American and a proponent of trans-national human rights. That fit the Scottish-born Canadaian Howie to a "T."
The problem was I'd never run anything longer than a 10k.
For my first marathon, I'd chosen the Yonker's 26.2 as it was coming up and easier to get into. Not the best move. It's two loops in what is considered the second hilliest city in the US of A. Also not the best move to sign up for your first half just one week before said marathon. But my wife can attest that is how I often get into things. "Hmm. Let's see what the deep end looks like over here."
The race director at the Paine to Pain described the September conditions like this: "Thunderstorm overnight. Course wet but not muddy. Humidity 100% (feels like 200%). My recollections are that this trail race tee'd me up like a pinata and the Yonker's Marathon bludgeoned me like a sadistic sledgehammer. The temps rose to 90 and the second half of that race was a death march of will. I actually hallucinated "the Pirate" running beside me, keeping me going. "That's it. We go for a little wun. Who cares who wins this thing. That's all Mickey Mouse. WE DO IT. Yes, that's it." His r's always came out as w's and words like "roof" and "ready" turned into "woof" and "weady."
He'd gotten me started on this whole adventure long before the book project came into the picture. He'd started me running in the first place. "Run. That's the key. That's all we have to do. We've lost touch in this modern world with the primitive part of ourselves. We are animals. You've got to move, exercise; you've got to wun." His advice had worked. For over ten years we trekked together through the city on foot, along the Hudson up to dead dog point, or hours and hours around a tiny track on 73rd and Riverside. And, it was he that told me about Howie. But, for him the greatest runs are those that nobody sees. "Out in the woods, among nature."
Most hardcore trail runners would laugh at the idea that Paine to Pain is a "real" trail run. It winds through five parks around New Rochelle, Scarsdale, and Eastchester. It's highest climb is only a 150 ft hill around mile six, but the rolling nature of the course adds up to over 1,000 ft by the time you finish. But for beginners, it's enough. It introduces you to the ground. If you are a road runner, you have to make that connection first. And, yes that means you are going to fall. It's inevitable. But, you'll learn. Your eyes will open and your feet will lighten.
Coming back to it after five years, it's a perfect benchmark: something I can use each year to test my progress in the sport that I found I loved most, trail running. On a perfect Autumn day, I ran wiser and more consistent. I enjoyed it more. And, for me, this race will always mark the start of another stage in my running journey, one where I thought I was looking for someone else (Howie), but actually found myself.