A Pine Creek Challenge 100K report

Why write about a race that took over nine hours? Well, if we were at a party, and you asked about it, I might drone on and on for nearly that long, and you might end up wishing you had never asked. Or maybe you did run into me at a party, and you’d like to hear more, or maybe you haven’t run into me at a party, but maybe you are thinking about doing this race, and maybe you might like to hear about my experience there. Or maybe I myself, as an eighty-year-old, might wonder how a much younger me felt about it, and might remember this little corner of the internet in which we occasionally posted. If the latter is the case, Hellooo, 80-year-old-Paul!

In any case, in early September 2019, I ran the Pine Creek Challenge 100K – about 62 miles, about 12 miles farther than I had ever run before. I chose this one largely because we have spent good time on the Pine Creek Gorge rail trail on bikes, and it seemed fun to spend a while running there too. It also seemed low-key and not too large or too expensive. So I got up there the night before and pitched a tent near the starting line. The night was clear, the stars were amazing, many folks were hanging out in chairs by their cars and tents, and I had nice conversation with Paige, a friendly woman whose tent was near mine. What would it be like, I wondered, to live out of a car, driving from race to race, spending nights in the tent and long weekend days on the trail? Well, it might get old, I thought, but this is pretty sweet.

I was up early the next morning for mate and breakfast pizza, which I wanted to have in my stomach an hour or two before race time. I hung around to watch the hundred-milers start off before sunrise. The 100K started an hour later, meaning no headlamp was necessary. I was hoping to do a 10K every hour, meaning I’d be done well before dark. I also planned to take a one-minute walking break every ten minutes, so that when – inevitably – the time when I had to walk came, it wouldn’t feel like a defeat, but part of the grand plan.

There were, I think, a few folks doing a relay, which I only learned later. What I did know is that a few people started off way faster than I was comfortable going, and so I settled into 5th or 6th or 7th place, falling back a bit when, 9 minutes into the race, I took my first minute-long walking break. We did a few out & backs on the upper 5 miles of the rail-trail, and so early on we were met by the 100-milers coming the other way. The front two seemed like they were doing about 7-minute-mile pace, a sign that either they were seriously fast, or that rough times were ahead (or, perhaps, both).

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They take these pictures in the first ten miles, when everyone still looks fresh and cheerful.

The first aid station was a little comical, as I waited about a minute to use a portapot. I left my water-bottle outside when I went in, and then heard a discussion about whose bottle was left behind, and if someone should carry it on. “It’s mine! In here!” I yelled, and the bottle was left alone. Six of my 62 miles took over ten minutes, all of them at aid stations. This was one of those, and even though I knew there were 57 miles to go, I hurried out of the portapot and the aid station quickly, feeling like time was a-wasting. The result was that I ran the next mile in 8:03, the fastest of the day, but soon enough I settled back into regular pace.

And so the miles went by, the walking breaks keeping me from getting carried away by impatience or high energy. I hit 10 miles in 1:30:03, right on schedule. After the aid station in the 16th mile, we were joined by local cross country teams out on a morning run. This was sweet, as some of the kids seemed awed by the distances we were doing. It’s nice to feel impressive to someone. Between 15 and 20 miles I began yo-yoing with Lucas and Brandon, falling back every time I walked and catching up in between breaks. We knew that we were in 2nd-4th, with a younger guy way ahead. We got to 20 miles in 2:59:35, almost exactly the pace of the first ten, but without the minute in the portapot. I didn’t spend much time at the 22.4-mile aid station, walking off with food, waiting for Lucas and Brandon to catch up. Lucas made a comment about us being the lead pack. “What about the young guy?” I asked. “He’s right here”, Lucas said. This was Andrew, who had stopped at the aid station to take care of some blisters.

None of us had ever won an ultramarathon, so there was some joking about us being the elite lead pack. This was ideal: the feeling of being at the front of the race, but not alone looking over your shoulder to see if anyone is catching you. We were all still together at the Darling Run aid station, but Andrew dropped off soon after – with that fast start, I didn’t know if he was going to finish. We went by the marathon distance in about 3:56; it was amazing how easy that felt compared to the 36+ miles still to go. 30 miles came and went in 4:29:40, another ten miles in 90 minutes, like clockwork. Soon after that the 50K mark (halfway!) showed up at 4:40, only a few minutes slower than my 50K PR from 1998 (note to self: set a new 50K PR!). It seemed like doing the second half that fast would be impossible, but going under ten hours was certainly in play.

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Somewhere around halfway, realizing just how far I still have to go.

By now Lucas and Brandon were joining me in my minute-long walking breaks. I could tell by their breathing that they were working harder than I was, and soon after that Lucas dropped back. I was pretty sure I would pull away at some point, but I was not in any hurry to make that happen. At the 33-mile aid station – with 8 miles to the next one – I had extra water and gatorade (I mixed them 50/50 most of the day), pickles, and potatoes and salt. At aid stations, I try to never eat something I don’t eat in regular life – simple and not sweet is always better.

Somewhere around 34.5 miles, Brandon dropped off, and now came the difficult part. The miles had had a way of going by between 8.5 and 9 minutes, even with the minute walking break, but at this point a few of them were starting to creep into the low 9s. From here on, the race felt totally different; just me and my brain and body. Just before the 40 mile mark, I went from 9 minutes running / 1 minute walking to 7 minutes running / 1 minute walking. 40 miles came in 6:02:31 – notice, a little more than 90 minutes for 10 miles. I ran past the aid station in Blackwell, almost missed the turnaround (just a little sign by the side of the trail) and came back for more fluids, more pickles, more salt, and about 8 new potatoes which I put in one of the back pockets of my shirt. I was pulled onward by the idea that Brandon may be catching me (he seemed only about 3 minutes behind at the turnaround), by the encouragement of folks going the other way, and by the idea of a 50 mile PR. At some point I went to 4 minutes running / 1 minute walking, but the miles still went by in around 9 minutes each. 50 miles came in a new PR of 7:38:13 (again, a little slower for these 10), faster than an 8:05 at the much-hillier Tussey Mountainback in 2015.

I walked for 2 or 3 minutes after the 51-mile aid station; mile 51 was in 13:47, the slowest of the day. In my head, I was making projections about potential finish times, seeing how much I could fall apart and still break ten hours, tracking what fraction of the total distance I had covered (math note: Farey sequences with denominators <21), and counting down how long until the next walking break. Each time I started running again was a small victory, and each time I told myself that I only had to run for 4 minutes. Miles before, I had picked up a packet of chocolate-covered espresso beans, and I gave myself one of these every few miles. I was occasionally passing runners from the other races, who all seemed to be going a lot slower than I was.

Even at the Darling Run aid station, with about 3 miles to go, I didn’t feel I was home free. I hit 60 miles in 9:15:21 (even slower for these ten!). Each time the walking break ended, starting to run was more challenging. Really, though, it wasn’t excruciating – evidently I had planned and prepared well, and held the pattern for the last few hours. I finally saw the town of Asaph approach, soon followed by the turn to the USGS station. I tried to speed up a little at the end, and crossed the finish line in 9:37:03, or 9:15 per mile pace. I was congratulated by the race directors, who told me mine was the second fastest time ever run (by a man – the amazing Neela D’Souza has run faster than that twice at Pine Creek) at the 100K. I realize that this wasn’t a terribly competitive race, especially with the talent pool spread out over 50 mile, 100K, and 100 mile distances, but it is nice to put up a time that should stay in the top ten on the ultrasignup results page for at least a few years.

Paige, who I had camped next to the night before, had finished the 50 mile about 10 minutes before, and we chatted with the race directors as I enjoyed lying back in the sun and thoroughly enjoyed the idea that I didn’t have to run another step that day. Brandon came in second, about 48 minutes behind me, and we all ate soup and cheered others as they came in. Andrew and Lucas both eventually finished, 6th and 12th in 12:20 and 13:35, respectively. After races I have often looked ruefully at results, noting folks I was with who finished much better than I did, so there was some satisfaction in holding the pace better than the others in the lead pack.

The winner of the 100-mile race finished in 17:42, meaning that if I had managed to cover 38 more miles in 8:05, I could have won that race. I think, though, about how good it felt to stop after 62 miles, and how, at 50 miles, it would have felt to be only half done instead of 12 miles from the finish. So…I think a 100 mile race is somewhere in my future. Somewhere. For now, though, I will be pleased with this race, one in which everything somehow went according to plan.

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A Last Squatch Standing report

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It’s mile 19 of the Last Squatch Standing. I’m running in third place, just ahead of the first woman in the race, along a trail in South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, NJ, this April. And then, suddenly, I’m not. I’ve caught a toe on a root or a rock and I’m sprawled out so completely flat that there is a scrape on my chest just below my collarbone. The first woman goes by, slowing down to be sure I’m OK. I know time is tight, so I yell “I’m fine. Keep going!” I get up, make sure nothing hurts, and start running again.

Ten steps down the path, I stop. “Crap! Glasses!” I yell.* I don’t have my glasses on anymore, so I head back up the path looking for them. A group of about 8 runners comes by. “Are you OK?”, they ask. “Fine”, I say,  “I just lost my glasses.”

*Crap is not the exact word that I used.

Folks, me looking for my glasses while not wearing glasses is a kind of comedy routine when indoors. My glasses are a now-dull brownish-gold, the same color as the sticks and leaves all around the path. The path, over which a bunch of runners just charged. Maybe now would be a good time to tell you about this race.

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Lap 1 – 54 runners

The Last Squatch Standing is a last-person-standing style race put on by the Sassquad Trail Running group/club. Rules differ race to race, but basically, in a last-person-standing race the competitors run the same loop over and over again until only one can finish it under the time limit. Most famous of these is Big’s Backyard Ultra in Tennessee, where in 2018 it took 68 hours and 283 miles to get to the last person standing. The organizers of this race make sure the race ends on the same day by giving you less time to cover each 1-mile lap. We had 18 minutes to cover the first mile, 17 to cover the second, etc., until the times went down by 30 seconds after mile 7 (12 minutes) and by 15 seconds after mile 11 (10 minutes).

This meant that Zeke and I ran most of the early miles together. Our pattern was to go out fairly quickly across the clearing so that we would be toward the front for the slight uphill. Here the group split into two single-file lines with a few people passing on the outside or in between. There were some wet areas along this trail; you could choose to go through them or leap over the log on the right side of the path. Around the half-mile mark the trail took a right turn, and then a hard right onto a smaller path with more rocks and roots. Zeke and I often took a walk break here with one eye on the watch. With less than a quarter mile to go, we came out onto a larger path which led back into the clearing where we had started.

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Lap 9 – Zeke heads for the front of the pack

With no need to go fast, these early miles were like a party. I picked this race in part because it gave Zeke & me a chance to run together, and others we talked with had the same idea. I was impressed by a group of about ten runners who always managed to cross the line about five seconds ahead of the cutoff. Zeke and I ran/walked most of these early miles in about 12 minutes as the time came down to 16, 15, 14… The intensity increased almost imperceptibly. Zeke and I had gone 5 miles together in training, and we thought that 7 miles would be a good amount for Zeke. After 8 miles, Zeke wanted to try something different – going out faster and walking more. Mile 9 needed to be in under 11 minutes, and I looked ahead to see Zeke leading the pack at the halfway point. In mile 10 (under 10:30) Zeke was starting to tire, and when I caught up, Zeke was trying to pass someone at the side of the trail and crashed into a log. Zeke finished that loop, and we agreed that ten miles was a good amount for the day. Others did too: though 42 runners did ten miles, only 33 completed 11.

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The pack dwindles.

Now the lap times were going down by only 15 seconds per mile. There was a certain deja vu to these laps – we start off with these people, the guy in the red shirt passes us here, we catch up to this couple a little later, I find myself with this group after this turn, I near the finish with these guys…

It was fascinating watching the crowd shrink and see who was working hard and who was taking it easy, who was just under the cutoff by design and who was just making it because they couldn’t go faster. When folks missed the cutoff, they always got a round of applause from the group, who was already assembled at the start line for the next lap. Mile 15 needed to be run in 9 minutes, and now we were down to 23 runners. 20 finished 16 (the 8:45 mile), 18 finished 17 (the 8:30 mile, and the old women’s record), and 16 finished 18.

This brings us back to mile 19, and me on the trail looking for my glasses with all the others ahead of me, feeling the seconds of the 8 minute mile ticking away. I thought about the drive ahead – to a Weber cousin gathering in Lancaster, then home at night. It would be a lot to ask Leticia to drive all of that. And the hassle of getting another pair of glasses…

And then, there they were, right in the middle of the trail, right under where ten others had just run. How were they intact? How much time had I lost? 30 seconds? 45? I picked the glasses up and took off sprinting. As I came out into the clearing, the last of the runners ahead were nearing the finish line, looking back to see if I was there. I made it with 10 seconds to spare.

On the next lap, I ran without glasses, knowing that my ability to see rocks and roots was compromised. I thanked the others for somehow not stepping on them. “I can’t believe you found them,” one guy said. “Everything from here on out is gravy,” I replied. Lap 20 (in 7:45), after the scare of lap 19, was much easier. Twelve of us finished, including Jane Kohlenstein, who set a new women’s record and then just missed the cutoff in lap 21. The intensity continued to ratchet up. Eight of us finished mile 21 (in 7:30), and six of us mile 22 (in 7:15). I was working a lot harder now and paying maximum attention to the roots and rocks of the second half of the loop. Only 5 of us finished mile 23 (in 7:00). I pushed a little at the end to pass Rich Riopel, knowing that if neither of us finished mile 24, this would put me ahead of him in the standings. (I’ll note here that Rich Riopel is on the U.S. team for this year’s 24-hour world championships, having gone 161 miles in a 24-hour race in May.)

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It’s easier to outkick someone when they aren’t kicking.

I told Leticia that I was done, but she gave me enough of a nudge to get me to try lap 24. The five of us took off, Rich and I quickly falling to the back. Partway through, I started to believe that maybe I could do this, and I picked up speed on the back half. Then, another fall – perhaps on the very same root as 5 laps before – and I was flat on my chest. I realized that a 6:45 mile on this trail with the fatigue of 23 miles already in the legs wasn’t going to happen today, and I jogged the rest of the way in, getting the round of applause as I came across the line about 25 seconds too late. Rich didn’t make it either, so I finished fourth overall.

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Lap 24 – the look of someone who’s just run 7:10 when 6:45 was needed.

We stuck around to see two runners finish lap 25, and one of them decide he was done. This left Scott Savage to run lap 26 solo in under 6:15, setting a new record.

I’m largely a purist when it comes to races. I do not want to climb walls or belly-crawl under barbed wire, I don’t need to be spray-painted with various colors, and I don’t need a live band or a dance party afterward. I just want to run. This race, though, was so much fun. There was time to chat during and between the laps. There was food for runners throughout the day – good, because we were there for four hours or so.  People were friendly to all of us. Leticia, who hardly ever comes to races but did on this day, enjoyed cheering, hanging out, talking to runners and friends and families. Zeke ran farther in a day than ever before. I hope to be back next year, perhaps with more friends along for the run. Til then. the Sassquad folks do lots of different runs, almost all with interesting twists. I hope to get to some of those too.

 

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Regular Life

As I skim this blog, it seems like our lives are filled with South American adventures, interspersed with long periods of quiet where nothing happens, except that Paul runs a long race every few months. (Even those don’t all get talked about.) So what has happened since June 2017?

Zeke had a long year of other people trying to figure out why he had swollen joints and how best to treat them. He often used a wheelchair at school for part of the day when walking got too hard. We finally figured out a combination of big dietary changes and some medicine that got him pretty much back to normal. He was walking normally in May 2018, and ran a mile barefoot in 6:23 in September. And then he was a munchkin and a flying monkey and a citizen of Oz in Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble’s Wizard of Oz in November and December.

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This, in early June 2018, was our first walk of over a mile in over a year. That’s Zeke showing his non-swollen knee.

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Zeke represents the Lollipop Guild at Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.

Anna is spending her sophomore and junior years at Sandy Spring Friends School, in Maryland, living with our friends Jordan, Mariana, and Greta. She has run cross-country, been a nun in the Sound of Music, done well in school, and spent as much time in the woods as she can.

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Anna, running cross country for Sandy Spring

Leticia has done all kinds of things at all kinds of places. Here’s one thing she does:

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When it gets cold, Leticia plays with ice.

Paul keeps teaching math, keeps running, keeps playing music. And keeps thinking about the next sabbatical…

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At the King Street Coffeehouse in Sunbury.

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Garden Spot Village Marathon

Hey! I ran another marathon! Training started in earnest in January. It got me out the door in cold and ice and snow and made me a happier person through the dark days of winter. My long runs mostly happened on Tuesday mornings, and almost all were in temperatures in the 20s and 30s, though there were a few in the 40s. So I wasn’t well prepared for the weather for Saturday’s Garden Spot Marathon, where it was nearly 60 at the 8am start and above 80 by the end.

Miles 1-5: 6:54, 7:02, 7:22, 7:09, 7:39; elapsed time 36:05 at 5 miles (7:13 pace)

In the early miles of a marathon you mainly try hard not to put out too much effort. We started out with the half-marathoners, so I couldn’t tell who the other marathoners were. These miles did feel easy, and the variation in mile times comes from the rolling hills. Mile 5 is the slow one there, as we headed up a long gradual hill. Even this early, I noticed sweat running down my face. Not good!

Miles 6-10: 7:11, 7:01, 7:15, 7:21, 7:28; elapsed time 1:12:22 at 10 miles (7:14 pace)

We had a few mostly downhill miles, and at the 7-mile mark the half marathoners turned around. The volunteer in the cow costume yelled “We’ll see you in 13 miles!” and then it got lonely. I realized quickly that I hadn’t been around other marathoners in several miles, and none were around me now. Far ahead I could see another runner, and I could tell it was an Amish guy – they were the only ones wearing long black pants. The water stations came every 2 miles, and they were like oases of human contact as well as water. After mile 8 I made a conscious effort to ease off the pace a little. Bad sign!

Miles 11-15: 7:31, 7:18, 7:17, 7:24, 7:22; elapsed time 1:49:14 at 15 miles (7:17 pace)

The hills continued to roll, the sun continued to shine, the day continued to get warmer, and I continued to sweat. Halfway went by in 1:35:07; there was no hope of running the second half that fast. I thought I would be happy with a 1:45 second half and a 3:20 finish. For miles I continued to see the Amish guy ahead when the road was straight (or one of us was on a hill). When I finally caught him it was just after the 14-mile water stop, and he was walking. I had gone 7 miles without encountering another runner, and I was hoping for some company, but I was feeling better than he was, so on I went.

Miles 16-20: 7:22, 7:23, 7:35, 7:42, 7:52; elapsed time 2:27:26 at 20 miles (7:22 pace)

In the 15th mile the course doubled back on itself, and I was now passing runners going in the opposite direction. I learned I was in 8th place, and I enjoyed the encouragement passed back and forth, as well as the knowledge that, however badly I was suffering, at least I wasn’t 6 (or more) miles farther back on the course. Around mile 20 at a water stop they were calling out “water! gatorade! bananas!” and I asked for water and a banana. Got the water, didn’t manage to get the banana, kept running. A few second later I heard yelling, and turned around to see a heavy-set teenage kid sprinting after me. “Did you want a banana?” he was yelling. So I slowed down and ran backwards for a little bit until he caught me; I thanked him, took the banana, and headed on. Unfortunately the banana wasn’t yet ripe and felt hard and chalky in my mouth. I held onto it until I was out of sight, then chucked it in the ditch. Still, this seems a good moment to note how friendly and how helpful volunteers were all day.

By now I had passed at least two more people. One was a guy that I had been slowly reeling in for a few miles, but he denied me the satisfaction of passing him by ducking into a portapot when he was still 50 yards ahead of me. Another was the guy that had been leading the race at halfway, 15 minutes ahead of me. “At least I’m still running,” I could tell myself.

Miles 21-26.2: 8:29, 9:49, 9:11, 7:42, 9:something, 8:something; finish time 3:22:44 (7:44 pace)

What happened? Well, those hills that we came down in miles 6 and 7 were now much bigger. And it was hot. Did I mention it was hot? I started taking walking breaks, passing a guy and moving into 4th or 5th place while walking. This part was surreal: the feeling that I was falling apart, slowing down terribly, trying not to overheat, and yet moving into the top 5 overall. Everyone I passed was moving much slower than I was, and soon I was passing lots of half marathoners who were still out on the course. My walking breaks were a minute long; every time I would stop to walk my breathing would get really heavy, and usually wasn’t calmed down by the time I started running again. That 7:42 24th mile was downhill, and I ran almost the whole thing. Shortly after that, my Garmin watch ran out of juice, and I shut it off to save the splits that were already there. I tried to start it again, but it didn’t have enough power to get the signal. Now I was passing lots of walking half-marathoners. Still, I was hot, and though I had told myself that surely I could run the last two miles, I couldn’t, and I took walking breaks, even in the last mile. I knew that last year one needed to beat their Boston qualifying time by 3 to 4 minutes to get in, and I knew that that was slipping away. (As it was, I ran a BQ by 2:16, which most likely won’t be quick enough.) But it was hot, and I walked. I did manage to run the last half mile or so, and I finished 4th of 192 finishers, about 50 seconds behind 3rd. First and second were only 6 and 7 minutes ahead, much slower than winning times in past years. Second place was another Amish guy in long black pants – totally impressive, that. I later learned that on the same day the guy who was leading the Commonwealth Games in Australia collapsed from heat exhaustion in the last mile of the race, and I felt reassured in my conservative approach. Goal One, I have often told myself, is Don’t Be the Guy Who Gets Taken to the Hospital. Goal Two is Finish. All told, this went as well as it could have, given the weather.

As if to add insult to injury (well, there was no injury, just sunburn), three days later I’m running in weather 40 degrees colder, wearing tights, two long-sleeve shirts, and a stocking cap, as snow flurries swirl around me. It’s a funny world.

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On Marathons, and Getting Older

I ran marathons in the 1990s, when I was twenty-something. I ran the first one to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 1996 was the 100th running, and it felt like the place to be. I needed to run 3:10 to qualify; I trained reasonably well, and even with a late-race slowdown, I ran 3:09:14 in Columbus, Ohio, and ran Boston the following spring. I qualified and ran Boston in 1997 and 1998 as well, and I thought I might become one of those people they introduce who has run the race every year for 30 or 40 or 50 years.

I didn’t. Three attempts at qualifying in fall and winter 1998 went awry, and I realized that 9 marathons and 4 ultramarathons (ranging from 28 to 50 miles) in just over three years was maybe too much for the body. And then I was defending my thesis and starting a new job and getting married and buying an old house that needed lots of work and hurting my back and having kids and worrying about getting tenure and living in South America and coming back and before I knew it, eight years had gone by without running a race.

I started racing again when I was 39, and ran my first ultramarathon in 16 years just before my 45th birthday. I ran three more, and they all went well. That is, I finished toward the front of the pack, and I didn’t hurt myself. After another year in South America – with lots of (fairly short) runs at altitudes above 10,000 feet – I started thinking about trying to run a fast marathon again. A dangerous thought crept into my head: Maybe I could break three hours in the marathon. I didn’t do it in my twenties – my best was a 3:04 on a hilly course in Kentucky in 1996 – oddly enough, in a race I only decided to do three days before. Sure, I’m twenty years older, the thinking went, but I’m smarter now, I’m eating much better, and I actually weigh a little less.

Years ago a chiropractor told me I would do well to stay off the pavement as much as possible, and I am lucky to have three local routes that do that reasonably well. I signed up for the Abebe Bikila International Peace Day Marathon in September in Washington DC, for various reasons: Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who won the Olympic marathon barefoot in 1960 (and won it wearing shoes in 1964), is a hero of mine; the marathon is entirely on gravel canal towpath; it is fairly near our daughter Anna, who is going to school in Maryland; it is very close to cousins Andy and Jenny; and it seemed like an old-school race – not very expensive, without the frills that some people expect from big-time marathons.

It is also true that it is in September in Washington, which can be hot and humid. I watched the weather forecasts obsessively for the two weeks before, and the predicted high went up as the day got closer. I spent a lovely evening before with Andy & Jenny & Jackson, had a restless night of sleep, ate breakfast and then felt all woogly tummy in the morning, worried I might not get to the race on time. But I got there, and it was a small scene, with almost no line to pick up my shirt and number, a fairly short line for the portapots – this is why I like the small races. Magically, at 7:45, my stomach settled down and my legs felt OK and I was ready.

At 8am we were off, the half-marathoners and marathoners together. I tried hard to stay relaxed, and soon found myself in a group of 4 – me, Matt, Roberto, and Brent. We were all hoping to run 3:10 to 3:15. The early miles went by at 7:15-20 per mile – and it felt easy and good, though even in mile 2 I already had sweat pouring off my head. In retrospect, I wonder how much slowing down even 10 seconds per mile would have affected my temperature. Five miles went by in 36:05 – that would be a 3:09 marathon – and we had already lost Brent. The cups of water and Gatorade which came every 2 miles or so seemed too small. Matt was taking 2, and I followed his lead. We hit the first turnaround for 1/4 of the way – this course was a double out&back, with plenty of chances to see where the other runners were.

On our way back to the start the pace actually picked up (note use of the passive voice) with me doing the leading. We lost Roberto, who I didn’t see again. Matt and I hit the halfway mark – that is, the finish line, before heading out again – in 1:34:30 – and he asked how I was feeling. I said I felt like I was taking it a little hot. He had asked earlier if I was trying for a BQ – a Boston qualifying time – and I said no, at my age it is a 3:25, and I certainly hoped to be well under that. He noted that I had a lot of cushion to work with. In fact, the second half could be 16 minutes slower than the first and I would still qualify.

Mile 14 was a little mystifying, as the watch said 7:03, the fastest of the day, while I already felt like I was slowing. I think that it didn’t recognize the turnaround and gave me credit for about 0.1 miles I didn’t run. I was slowing not because I physically had to, but because it felt like the prudent thing to do. The times were still good, as I went through 17 miles in 2:03, but miles 15, 16, and 17 were slower than average, and I could tell I was heating up. Running slower wasn’t keeping me from getting hotter, and at 2:05 I walked for a minute. I decided to go to a regimen of 4 minutes running, 1 minute walking, and did that for the next 6 miles, which went by at about 8:30 pace. The running was at about the same speed as before, but I needed those rest breaks to keep that up. I hit the 23 mile mark in 2:54 and change, and 8:30 pace for the next 3.2 would get me home in 3:23, slower than hoped but still under 3:25, which was suddenly looking like a nontrivial benchmark. But now the minute of walking wasn’t enough to cool me down or slow my heartbeat, and I still felt like I wasn’t getting enough water. Here for once a handheld water bottle would have been useful. I was in a slow-motion race with a guy ahead of me, as we took turns walking and running. The sun was now directly overhead – it was after 11am – and the temperature above 80.

The 24 mile mark came at 3:03. Surely, I thought, I can run the last two miles. But the heat felt irresistible. My legs weren’t beat up, my energy wasn’t gone, but I felt in danger of overheating badly. So I walked more. 24 and 25 and then 26 went by in 9 minutes and change each, and I hit 26 right at 3:22. Two-tenths more could surely be done in 2 minutes, and I’d be under 3:24. But the Garmin was off, which I had thought might happen, and 26.21875 came and went with the finish line still ahead. I sped up over that last bit, and came across the line in 3:24:46, 14 seconds under the Boston qualifying time for men of my advanced age. The watch said 26.36 miles, but I am inclined to believe the course was correct. The official time came out as 3:24:50, meaning I had a 10-second cushion. But qualifying for Boston doesn’t mean you automatically get in; it has become so popular that folks are let in according to by how much they beat their qualifying time. I didn’t bother registering for Boston, as I’m not yet sure I want to run a huge race again, and also because I was pretty sure my 10 second margin didn’t stand a chance. Sure enough, in the following week came the news that 3 minutes and 23 seconds was the necessary margin.

Could I have run the 3:21:37 in less hot conditions? I’m pretty sure I could have. Matt held it together well and ran 3:10, but he lives in North Carolina, and is much more used to this soupy hot weather. In the days after the race, I thought maybe I should find a December marathon and hold my fitness until then. But that’s a mistake I made when I was 28, and it didn’t end well. There should be a spring marathon, and I’ll have a better mileage base by then.

My friend Brady was running the inaugural Williamsport (PA) marathon three weeks later, and I nearly chastised myself for not waiting for this marathon, farther north and 3 weeks into fall. In the end, temperatures for that were unseasonably hot, perhaps even hotter than in my race, though not as humid. So you pick your race and take your chances. Over the years, hopefully it all comes together a few times.

In the meantime, I’m running, a little less as the semester gets busier, but at a faster pace. I’m thinking about shorter races. The eight years of not running taught me to appreciate the daily run and the luxury (really, the luxury!) of getting out the door, feeling the warm and the cold and the wind and the rain and the snow, and losing myself in the effort for a little while.

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Vilcashuaman

(We find ourselves, suddenly and surprisingly, back in Pennsylvania. But we still have stories to tell from Peru.)
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Vilcashuaman is a small town that used to be 4 or 5 hours from Ayacucho and soon will be two and a half hours from Ayacucho. Right now it’s about three, as they are paving the road as we speak. Vilcashuaman (‘Sacred Falcon’ in Quechua) was an administrative center for the Incas and a crossroads of the Inca road system. It boasts a temple of the sun with a Catholic church built right on top of it and an ushnu, a 5-platform pyramid.

With the coming of the paved road, Vilcashuaman is readying itself for tourism – they have a glossy brochure for tourists, and the guy in the town office on the plaza says people come from all over the world. Still, when we walked around town, people would stare at us and often say “gringo!” – not an insult, just a statement of surprise. We found a place to stay that rented us two rooms at 25 and 20 soles (that’s about $8 and $6) – the more expensive one had a TV (neither had a bathroom).

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This is homeschool in a $6 hotel room.

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Zeke going local – breakfast of rice, chicken, and lentils – at the market in Vilcashuaman.

Off the gringo trail, one needs to get used to eating lots of soup and lots of rice. We ate at the market for breakfasts, bought bread, cheese, and avocado for lunches, and had suppers at a chifa (a chinese place). It was easy to go under budget in Vilcashuaman.

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The mountain in the middle is Pillucho, the goal of our long hike.

We took one of our best long walks of the trip from Vilcashuaman. When we told the guy at the tourism office we liked to walk in the countryside, he took us at our word and told us of a place 10 or 12 kilometers away – Pillucho, where there are some chullpas (burial towers) left by the Chankas, historical enemies of the Incas. We couldn’t get much more information than a general gesture toward a nearby (totally impressive) mountain. And so we set off the next morning, armed with sandwiches, lots of water, and a little chocolate. We asked someone which road out of town to take, asked directions of folks along the way, walked a U in a great deep valley, and eventually found ourselves on the edge of the town, accompanied for a while by a guy who said he was the mayor (and he did know a lot about the town) and asked for a little donation for the work they had done clearing the site (later reading confirmed that it is the locals who cleared the path, and there is no admission charged).

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On the way back. But the mountain Anna and I hiked up is right behind us.

We were told that the road to Pillucho has been accessible by car for less than ten years – before that, it was on the backs of burros, llamas, and people.

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The town of Vilcashuaman from up near Pillucho.

We walked through a pasture with cattle and sheep to the base of the mountain. Zeke decided to stay put and I went around the side to scout, finding only incredible views in various directions.

When I came back Anna had headed up the steep part of the mountain, and so I followed. This got steep, but only scary for about 20 feet, getting past the rocky outcrop just before the top. On top, the mountain was flat and about 50 feet wide, with steep drops on either side, burned trees along the way, and a path going (thankfully) along the middle of the top.

IMG_2217Then, at the far end of the mountain, the chullpas.

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This was one of those places that have a palpable energy to them, like the air itself carries meaning. It made us talk in near-whispers and move slowly and respectfully. Even without the towers, it would have been clear that this was special ground. There were stunning views in every direction. Despite the exposure there was no wind, but instead an intense feeling of calm. If there had been a guy there selling funeral plots, I would have bought one on the spot.

And so we headed back to find Leticia and Zeke and start the walk back. We passed several herds of cattle being driven (or in some cases, just seeming to walk on their own) one way or the other along the road back to Vilcashuaman. By the time we reached town we had walked somewhere between 13 and 15 miles and were ready to attack another big pile of rice.
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Fifteen

A girl turning 15 is a big deal in South America. When the family has the money to spend (and often even if they don’t), there is a party – a quinceanera – that can attain out-of-control-wedding-reception-like proportions. We have been threatening Anna with such a party, noting the most gaudy salones de eventos that we pass.

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Quinceaneras are often held in a Salon de Eventos, a place like this. This one is in El Alto, Bolivia. (Source: pinterest)

She has taking this all gracefully, perhaps knowing that ultimately we would cave in to her wishes for a quiet day, a Leticia-cooked supper, and going out for dessert. And so it was, with the bonus of a visit from the South American-residing grandparents.

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Birthday breakfast on the roof at the Park Hostel, Arequipa.

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And dessert, downtown Arequipa.

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Recent adventures in (in order) Ollantaytambo, near Maras, Salineras, and Vilcashuaman (all in Peru).

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And a bonus: This one from May 2012, the last time Anna was in South America for her birthday. (This is above La Falda, Argentina.)

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Ayacucho

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Kraps are still funny.

IMG_2036IMG_1956IMG_2067Five years ago, it was Ayacucho we were trying to reach (from Huancavelica, to the north) when we had the crash that sent us back to Lima for treatment. We had read that Ayacucho had some kind of magic, largely hidden from foreigners by a few decades of Shining Path activity and by location and bad roads. The Shining Path is gone (or at least less active) and the roads are paved, and this time we were coming from the opposite direction (Andahuaylas), and it felt (to me, at least) that finally seeing Ayacucho was unfinished business.

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Ayacucho is known for its retablos, boxes of varying sizes that open up to show 3D scenes ranging from the birth of Jesus to drunken revelers. Sometimes the shops are painted to look like them as well.

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In the town of Quinua, they make these ceramic churches that people put on their roof. In Ollantaytambo, it’s bulls.

What used to be 10 to 12 hours between Andahuaylas and Ayacucho is now five. The driver, though, did the exact opposite of what Leticia and I both learned in driver’s ed – slow down before the curve, and accelerate out of it – instead accelerating until the last moment, when it became clear he couldn’t hold the curve at that speed, and then braking hard. This meant that any attempts at sleep had to be made while tensing your body to ensure not being thrown out of your seat.

IMG_1899IMG_2056We arrived just after Holy Week, which is such a big deal in Ayacucho that you can’t get a hotel room. There is music in the streets, to me most notably in funeral processions, in which the casket is carried to the cemetery with a marching band following and traffic doing everything it can to get past at any opportunity. There is a certain energy there. But traffic is bad, though partly it seemed that way to us because there were roads closed and traffic diverted to run right in front of our hostel. The sidewalks are narrow and overflowing with people. And the air seemed pretty polluted.

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Carnival rides left from Holy Week.

As I edit this a few weeks later, though, my memories are already changing. Much is made of the (at least) 33 churches in Ayacucho, and many of them have a beautiful energy about them. We followed a parade in with bands (of course) and guys on horseback driving donkeys with bundles of sticks loaded on their backs. One night students from all different departments of Universidad Alas Peruanas, one of the newer private universities with branches all over Peru, paraded through the plaza with marching bands (almost every department had one; those without seemed a bit downhearted in comparison with the sheer glee the others showed), floats (the civil engineers had a working drawbridge on the back of a pickup), and fireworks. From our priviledged spot on the balcony of a restaurant, we could also see beer and shots of something strong appearing from the backs of a few floats. All this was part of the celebration of the 477th anniversary of the founding of Ayacucho, after just a few days relief from the party that was Holy Week. Evidently there is a running of the bulls during Holy Week, too, and rock concerts and all-night dance parties.

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Third Station of the Cross.

The best things about our stay were the Hotel Crillonesa, where Carlos and Alicia (and everyone else) treated us like family, my visit to the Universidad Nacional de San Cristobal de Huamanga, where I was welcomed warmly and listened to patiently, and our brief trip to Vilcashuaman, which I’ll relate in the next post.

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These are the dedicated folks at the Universidad Nacional de San Cristobal de Huamanga that survived 4 hours of math in gringo-Spanish. And the gringo responsible for it.

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And these are (some of) the good folks at Hotel Crillonesa, and the gringos they sheltered.

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Andahuaylas

IMG_1749We are a novelty in Andahuaylas. As we walk the streets, there are whispers, and non-whispers, of “Gringos!” or “Miren a los gringuitos!” (Look at the little gringos!) Some say it as a sort of greeting: “Gringo!” We did catch sight of one fair-skinned person one evening, and we saw two more on the road to Sondor, but there are clearly not many here. One day in the market as Leticia was buying vegetables, the woman at the nieghboring stand said to Zeke “Iman sutiyki?” We’ve taken some Quechua classes, and so Zeke knew this means “What is your name?”, and he answered accordingly. The woman was so surprised that she burst out laughing, got the attention of the woman at the stand next to her, and repeated the question, and Zeke obligingly answered. They were both still laughing as we got out of earshot.

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Andahuaylas, as seen from the courtyard of the Hostal Cruz del Sur

Our seven-year-old copy of Lonely Planet refers to the “long, rough road to Ayacucho” and says this region is for hard-core travelers only. This is less true now than it was in 2010, as the main roads have been paved, and many of the connections take about half the time they used to. Our trip to Andahuaylas took only three hours, but those were three long hours, as our the driver of the van we were in was prone to trying to pass big trucks on blind corners, tailgate small vehicles in attempts to get them to pull over, and generally scare the bejeebers out of us on these twisty roads with hundreds of feet of drop off to the side. Leticia took to asking him (OK, sometimes yelling at him) to slow down, take it easy, and it seemed other passengers were in agreement – one dodgy bit of gamesmanship had the whole van yelling at him. So we arrived, found a hostal, and found our first meal.

We stayed for six days, exhausting most of the eating options in town. The two best things about our time in Andahuaylas were

a) the Hostal Cruz del Sur, a basic place (we paid 60 soles total, about $19, for two double rooms without bathrooms) with a nice courtyard, wonderfully friendly owners, a place to wash and hang laundry, and, importantly, a kitchen we could use, and

b) the trip we made out to Sondor, a complex of ruins left by the Chankas, a group that was defeated and subsumed (sort of) by the Incas in the 1400s. It was a lovely spot.

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Being the only gringos around meant having conversations with lots of people. We came back from a walk to a farther part of the ruins to find Zeke, who had gotten ahead of us, in conversation (mostly in Spanish, but a little in Quechua) with a whole group of folks up for the day. It was Good Friday, and there was a holiday atmosphere. Peruvians, especially in the countryside, have been so friendly. We chatted with so many, some local, some tourists from Lima and other parts of Peru. On the way out, we came up upon a band, a group of dancers, a video cameraman, and Anna already pulled into the dancing. Zeke was shy, but the rest of us all danced, I with a young woman with a “Flor de Pacucha” sash on her dress. We have seen these programs on televisions at markets (where the DVDs are being sold) – there’s usually a band, the dancers, and incredible scenery in the background. It pleases me that soon we may also be seen in the background of one of these.

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There was (almost) a line of people waiting to take pictures with the young gringos

After some good cheap (and vegetarian!) food bought from women sitting outside the ruins, we walked several miles back to Laguna Pacucha, a lovely lake with lots of folks enjoying a day off, and eventually caught a van back to Andahuaylas.

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Laguna Pacucha

We had several other good walks around town. Most fun was the variety of animals met along the road, both in and out of town. Dogs (of course, but not aggressive), a few cats, lots of cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, a few ducks and geese.

And onward to Ayacucho…

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Off the Gringo Trail

IMG_1668We have spent most of the past two months in Ollantaytambo, where most people get on the train to Machu Picchu. That means tons of tourists come through, many for just a few hours. It’s a small town, though, and being around for this long, plus being part of the Casa de Wow community, means that we have become friends with lots of Peruvians. At the same time, there is a constant stream of travelers – most of them English-speaking, and so the U.S. doesn’t seem that far away.
The Plaza de Armas in the center of Cusco is overrun with tourists, mostly also just in town for a few days. They come from all over the world, and are followed around by people trying to sell them hats, shirts, selfie sticks, keychains, weavings, paintings, and all manner of other artisanal goods. Women with llamas (or baby llamas in arms) walk around waiting for you to take their picture for a few soles. On Hatunrumiyoc, the pedestrian-only street with famous Inca walls and a friendly guy portraying Pachacutec, I chatted (in Spanish) with a guy selling paintings. In the middle of the conversation, in English, he said “maybe some weed?” “Como?” I replied. When my mind is running in Spanish, I often have trouble parsing English words as such, especially in a Peruvian accent. “It’s good Inca weed, very natural.” So yes, we have spent most of our time on – or close to – the Gringo Trail.

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On the road to Abancay

In early April, though, we left Cusco for Abancay, stepping quickly off the Trail. In the bus terminals, you’ll often hear people calling out destinations, and sometimes they will come over to you, ask where you are going, and try to get you on their bus. But we haven’t experienced anything like what happened when we left Cusco. We came in the doors, loaded front and back with our little and big packs, and a few people yelled destinations at us. Perhaps it was a mistake to say “Abancay”, for then we had two guys and a woman all trying to pull us to their offices. I went with the woman, who promised (falsely, it turned out) a bus leaving 30 to 60 minutes before the others. When I came back to share information with Leticia, the other guys were back too, and we had five different companies bidding for our business. This meant that the price came down from 20 soles per person to 15, then 14, then 13, and then they were all bidding 13, saying that their bus was newer, the seats were more comfortable, that driver over there was a drunk, and probably more we didn’t catch. In the end we rode with Ampay, which left ten minutes after the Bredde bus, and evidently before the others.

We had travelled the road between Cusco and Abancay once before, in February 2012 on the twenty-hour ride from Lima to Cusco, but we did it in the middle of the night, so the sights were all new. The drive starts like the drive down to the Sacred Valley, but at some point around Anta you head west instead of north. After a bit in the valley, we crested a pass and started our way down, the kind of descent where you can see the bottom of the valley, but don’t get there for half an hour. The bus was equipped with a sign displaying the current speed, and this never got above 70km/hour, spending a lot of time between 30 and 50 km/h. The bus assistant came through stamping tickets, reminding everyone that the bathroom in the back of the bus was just for pee. Once in the valley we rolled through Limatambo, even hitting 90 km/hour on a straight section, the fastest I saw all day. Near Limatambo we joined a rushing creek filled to bursting with red water. This eventually joined a much larger, cleaner (up until the junction) river that had to be the Apurimac, the largest river in the region. We followed the Apurimac for a while, then left it, heading up the south side of the valley. To the north were impressive snow-capped mountains, peeking between the clouds, and also between the curtains, the non-working (thankfully) televisions, the emergency hammer, and the head of the sleeping people across the aisle (hence no photos of the snow-capped mountains). Twice we went back down to river level and then hundreds of feet above it when the canyon narrowed, and finally we started up the far end of the valley, past Curahuasi, which looked like a fun small town to explore, past Sahuite, where there is a great carved stone, and past the turnoff for Cachora, where a French couple, the only other foreigners on the bus, got off, presumably to trek to Choquequirao, some impressive Inca ruins accessible only by two days of walking. Can you be mobbed by three people? From the window it seemed that they were, in fact, mobbed by three cab drivers, all wanting to take them the 15km to Cachora. With all the flooding in the north and on the coast, tourism is way down in Peru, which perhaps explains the frantic competition for any business at all.
At the far end of the valley we could look back and see the switchbacks we had come down over two hours before. There is a part of me that still holds the landscape of my childhood – the flat streets of Indianapolis and the cornfields of northern Indiana – as what the world is like, and it rebels at the verticality of this landscape. It seems…unnatural.

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Street scene, Abancay

Not long after that we were over another pass, heading down toward a big-looking place that had to be – and was – Abancay. Our seven-year-old Lonely Planet says there are only 14,000 people in Abancay, but it has to be larger than that. We found a taxi, and found a hotel. After Cusco, which is overrun with hotels and hostels catering to foreigners, it is startling to find no hostels with kitchens, common areas, book exchanges and the sort of things foreigners like. Our hotel seemed mostly geared for business travelers and party-goers.

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Math at Hotel Saywa

Because Abancay is a party town. The road up and down the hostel was lined with restaurants, bars, nightclubs with strobe lights on as we walked to find supper, ice cream shops, a casino, liquor stores, and tons of pharmacies. It is about 3000 feet lower than Cusco, and so a lot warmer. We saw hardly anyone in traditional indigenous dress, and even a few tank tops and shorts. We went to sleep to a symphony of thumping beats and car alarms. We saw no gringos in two days there and none at the bus station on our way out.

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And so we headed on, toward Andahauylas…

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