Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eastern States 100: A Race Report

 
The Eastern States course is mean. It's designed by nature to be mean-and that's what I like about it. There are courses where challenges are created and then there are challenging courses. And this race definitely falls into the latter category. The mountains are majestic, rugged and inhospitable. With their cambered trails that run for miles at a wicked angle you are constantly at risk of sliding off into the dense dark woods below you. The descents are brutally steep and littered with angry rocks that attack with painful precision. The climbs can be long and lonely and the "miles of endless nowhere" promised by the directors of this inaugural 100 mile event are delivered in full. The course did seem endless. And often nowhere. But it had a way of swallowing you up in it's deep green leaves and making you forget that there is a world outside of it. So you had no choice but to hang on tight, roll with the punches and enjoy the incredible experience of being the first runners to circumnavigate Pine Creek Gorge and the miles of rocky hills that surround it.





Elevation profile


The notion of staging a single loop course that snakes up and down these mountain trails for one hundred miles is admirable and sort of unbelievable. Part of the reason that I run trail ultras is to experience as much of these remote and beautiful places as I possibly can. The supportive infrastructure of a race makes these adventures possible. And with each step forward being a brand new step into the Pennsylvania Wilds the event immediately felt less like a race and more like a collective journey into the unknown.

It was in the fall of 2012 that I ran my first 100 mile race. My experience at Virgil Crest was everything that I hoped it would be and I decided to focus my training on the one hundred mile distance from that point on. I had no idea at the time that it would be almost two years before I toed the line at another 100.

Just as I was getting to know my amazing partner and future wife Jes I was deep in training for the Grindstone 100 in Swoope, VA. I take my training seriously and when the offer to serve as a campground host at Bradbury Mountain State Park presented itself during the summer of 2013 I looked at it as the opportunity of a lifetime. I spent three months living in a small tent and running in the mountains every chance that I got. Jes, who was not as big a fan of mosquitoes, lukewarm meals cooked on a suffocating fire on rainy nights and month after month of sleeping on the ground joined me in this experience regardless.

The memories that we made were worth every one of the challenges that we faced -and ultimately
overcame- together. Unfortunately, the race was cancelled at the last minute due to the government shutdown and we packed up our tent with an incredible experience under our belts but no finish line, no belt buckle and no big finale to our summer of camping and race training.


Training for the Beast
We moved into our new home in September and I signed up for the Beast of Burden 100 which takes place in January. Unfortunately after a very sold block of training I ended up dropping down to the 50 mile distance prior to the race due to illness.






Rocking Jes's snow shoes on Old Speck
With a lack of local races in mid to late winter I shifted my focus away from going after my next belt buckle and on to big adventures in the mountains. This opened up a whole new door for me as a runner and I'm grateful that it happened. I spent the winter on snowshoes visiting the highest peaks that I could find and exploring new trails with one of my closest friends. I bought a set of Black Diamond Z-Poles which I use on all of my big mountain runs and really enjoy. I also started collecting maps of local long distance trails and putting together a list of solo runs that I've since done or hope to accomplish within the next year-while learning more and more about what it takes to stay safe and strong in the backwoods.

In early May as the snow fell from the trails and the "race" season unofficially began I entered a rugged 43 mile trail race in MA and came home with my sites set on a spring or summer 100. The very next week I received a surprise e-mail from some folks in PA. I'd put my name on the waiting list for a first year event called the Eastern States 100 and apparently I had just gotten in. With a name like Eastern States it was clear that the organizers were out to do something big. And with their history of directing quality trail races in the area it seemed like their interest was coming from a place of passion. Finally, with 20,000 feet of elevation gain/loss on the tough trails of "Rocksylvania" it seemed like it was going to be the real deal. I hadn't felt this excited about a race since signing up for Grindstone and I jumped at the chance to be part of the inaugural event.

Pine Creek Gorge

Training:

With two and half months to shift my training towards Eastern States I began crossing some big runs off of my list. The first was the Grafton Loop Trail which is 39+ miles and boasts 12,000 ft. of gain and loss. I've wanted to do this for years and the run was nothing short of amazing. Next was a planned trip to the Whites to run a Presidential Traverse but some car issues forced me to hit the roads for a local run. I ran a set of "triples" beginning with a ten mile hill run in the morning followed by a ten mile tempo run in the afternoon and finally a ten miler in the evening. I'd never done this before and I found that it worked really well allowing me to get in a 30 mile day at a faster cumulative pace than I would have been able to sustain on a 50k run. It also reminded me that when you question whether you have any fast miles left in your legs on a given day the answer is usually yes.

Next up was a Pemi Loop with my friend Joe who was also running Eastern States and a self supported 43 mile run on the Wapack trail with him as well. As always, I kept my focus on pretty minimal mileage (60-70 per week) with an emphasis on quality and race specificity while incorporating a ton of box jumps, burpees, kettle bell swings, rowing, deadlifts and back squats into my training regimen.

Gratitude:

Let me say that training, travelling and racing with Joe meant a lot to me as this entire Eastern States experience unfolded. He is a mentor and an inspiration to so many of us who run trails here in New England. No one is as tough as Iron Joe and it was an honor to share this experience with him.

Words cannot express the gratitude that I feel towards my fiancĂ© Jes. She has seen me at my strongest and at moments where I'm not so strong. She's never left my side and I will never leave hers. I am incredibly lucky to have her as a training partner, lover and friend.

Road Trip:

My taper went well and race weekend soon approached. With Jes and Joe ready to rock and roll and the car packed up full of gear we headed out for PA at about 6am on Friday morning. The drive down was full of good tunes, good conversation and a couple of really bad sandwiches. Fortunately, we found an awesome little coffee shop close to the race start and got pretty caffeinated. I'll take good coffee over good food anytime.

We set up our tents near the start finish, chowed down on the pasta dinner and got to bed at around 9. I slept surprisingly well and when the alarm went off at 2:50 I was ready to rise and ready to run. Despite a small incident (I freaked out in the shower when I thought I'd forgotten my deodorant at home. I can't imagine running a 100 mile race without deodorant-for some reason) the morning was as relaxing as can be. It turns out that Jes packed the deodorant and the race was on after all;)


Ready to rock
I made a fresh cup of my favorite roast from Coffee by Design and ate a breakfast of granola and half of a bagel with peanut butter and honey. Soon we were driving to the start for a pre-race weigh in and to pick-up our bibs. I can't describe the feeling at the start of a 100 mile run but I love it and just cant get enough of it.

Before long I was giving Jes a goodbye kiss and lining up with the 165 others who were ready to kick off the first ever Eastern States 100. The air was cool and the energy was awesome as the Race Director counted us down.



Soon we were running down the 1 mile stretch of pavement leading to the trailhead and the first big climb of the day. It seemed like everyone wanted to take advantage of the smooth road and beautiful pre-dawn weather and we ended up starting off at a pretty good clip. We quickly reached a tight and winding staircase that led to our first taste of vertical trail. Some of the runners were pushy trying to skirt around each other to advance a position or two but most were just enjoying a mellow start to what was sure to be a long day for us all. The roughly 1,800 foot climb took place in a fog and a slight drizzle leaving us to wonder if the forecast for the day had changed. I felt strong and relaxed as we climbed. I was happy that our adventure was underway and I was looking forward to a big day in the mountains.

One thing that stood out once we reached the top was the strangely slanted trail. It's not really comparable to anything that I've run on here in New England. Hard rocks imbedded in soft dirt and snaking around the side of a mountain at a wicked angle makes for an interesting running experience. The trail itself leaned so strongly to the left that you could easily slip and slide right off of it winding up in a pile of rocks and trees hundreds of feet below. I was grateful that I had on my Inov-8 Roclite 315's for this sketchy stuff -but this would change as we began the first of many brutally rocky descents.

As I began the first major descent I couldn't help but notice that the trail dropped straight down. Like straight down. I run a lot in the White Mountains and am used to tough and technical descents but this was different, The path down the mountain is long, steep and full of these gnarly Pennsylvania rocks. They're not big enough or level enough to hop on and they're not small enough to just skirt over. They're medium sized, oddly shaped and very good at breaking your stride and bashing your feet if you're not careful. By the time I made it to the section of road leading to mile 17.5 and my first opportunity to see Jes my feet were banged up and burning in the spots were I typically develop blisters. I decided to switch into my Hoka Stinson ATR's early and grab my poles for good measure. I pulled into the aid station to see Jes smiling with her camera and it felt great to give her a kiss before running to my bag to take care of business. I told her before the race that I wanted to be cool, collected and conversational at all of the 4 aid stations where we would meet. I have yet to invest in a heart rate monitor but always pay close attention to not fall into a state of stress where sloppy decisions can affect my race. I was a little worked up from starting out so fast and she noticed. I relaxed and got reorganized. Taping my feet for the first time I changed into dry socks and put on my Hoka's. Feeling much better I kissed her again and took off down the winding driveway leading back to the road. We had a bit of a climb on the smooth gravel before heading back onto the trails and I took advantage of my poles syncing them up easily with my stride. Once we were back on trail things leveled out for a bit and I found myself running smoothly and without effort. Soon we were climbing again and I was enjoying myself enough to begin pushing the pace once again....

Patience:

At Virgil Crest I went out hard and was able to maintain a solid pace for the majority of the race. And then the wheels fell off the wagon. I pretty much ran as hard as I could until mile 73 and was forced to hike for the last 27 miles. I actually finished the race in a pair of Timberland hiking boots. This happened to work out pretty well for me as I finished in 7th place with a time of 27:48. The difference is that aside from a few short dips in energy here in there I felt super strong and had no real issues for most of those 70+ plus miles. Now, as I plowed my way through the climbs and descents of these first 20 miles with the same intensity that I brought to Virgil I felt the effects of my efforts almost immediately. My body still felt strong but the burning in my feet was very noticeable despite my shoe change and my heart was pounding hard simply due to the non-stop up's and down's. I was working at a pace that felt aggressive and potentially unsustainable on feet that were screaming at me to stop before I'd really even started. I'm not usually too conservative in races finding that I can muscle forward at a pretty decent pace even when I'm not able to run as well as I'd like to. But unlike Virgil Crest there were several variables at play that made this an exceptionally risky proposition. First, this would be my first attempt at a 100 miler without the support of a pacer. I wouldn't have crew after mile 60 either. If I fell apart there would be no friends or teammates to help put me back together, Second, no one knew what the rest of course actually looked like. Virgil used a double out-and-back course so by mile 25 I had seen the whole thing. Here in PA I knew that we had monster climbs, tons of rock and a long night ahead and it wasn't even close to noon. I made the decision then and there to prioritize patience at this event just as much as I had prioritized aggression at Virgil Crest. I would regain my composure, slow my pace down a few notches and take care of issues before they became problems. I would run this race with my head just as much as my heart. I began to focus on two things: being present and open to the experiences that the next 20+ hours would present me with and mapping out a successful path to the finish line. I wanted to appreciate all of the little things that made this run so special. And I wanted to cross that finish line on Sunday.

Suddenly my race took on a different feel. I enjoyed myself as I ran across piles of slick rocks that led us across small and quiet streams. I ran at a smooth and measured pace on the many flat sections that we encountered. I felt happy and light with my poles clicking quietly on the trail below my feet. I felt absolutely awesome until I reached back into my Ultimate Direction Race Vest to grab a bottle and found the one of the two 20 oz. bottles had fallen out somewhere on the trail. I've run with this vest for over a year and this has never happened. It also happened to be the full bottle leaving me with only a few sips of water until the next aid station. Even still, the weather was cool and I had no doubt that I could make it through this little setback unaffected. I ran into Joe at the mile 30 aid station and he looked super strong as he passed me. From our training runs I had gotten very used to seeing Joe from behind as he disappeared into the trail ahead of me. I was glad that he was having a good day and didn't expect to see any more of him until we finished.

Before long I reached mile 40 and my second chance to see Jes. Unfortunately, I got into a little argument with some race officials who were making runners take off their shoes and packs to weigh-in. This was not supposed to be happening according to both the race website and the RD and it distracted me as I was trying to resupply myself and give Jes an update on my progress and my needs at the next station. I left hastily and although I didn't find myself in need of any extra food or gear I still regretted what could have been a major mistake on my part. I suddenly ran into a pretty fast dude who I'd shared some earlier miles with and we resumed our conversation like nothing had happened. But it wasn't long before I had to let him go on ahead-I was really careful not to get pulled into someone else's pace or someone else's race. (This guy happened to be Dave Walker who earned the nickname "Twinkle Toes" for his technical running prowess and who ended up placing 15th in a time of 27-ish hours. He is also the RD for the Montour 24-an ultra with gourmet coffee at the aid stations that I'll have to check out one of these years. This was Dave's first 100. Congrats to a really nice guy and a very talented runner. )

I ducked to the side of the trail and dunked my head in a cold stream. I felt awesome as I reemerged and enjoyed the remaining miles leading to the halfway point at mile 50. I ran into Joe around mile 44 and saw that he was having some stomach troubles. We talked for a bit and I wished him well having no doubt that he'd come flying by me again if and the issues resolved. Unfortunately they didn't but Joe continued to kick ass for another long stretch of trail before having to end his day.




Pulling into mile 51
I reached mile 51 feeling strong. I was glad to access my bag and looked forward to making a few changes that would prepare me for a full night of running. I grabbed a quick snack at the aid station and hooked up with Jes. She knew that this and mile 60 would be my two major stops. I would spend roughly ten minutes at each which is much longer than I would typically allow myself. But with no crew access after 60 and a long night ahead I wanted to make sure than I was prepared for whatever challenges the course presented. I used this stop to change into a different pair of compression shorts, put on a new shirt and tape my feet again. At mile 60 I would switch into my Ultimate Direction Pack and have something more substantial to eat. I would also drink a little bit of coffee before heading into the night.

Miles 51 to 60 flew by finding me running alone at dusk and taking in all of the sights and sounds of these gorgeous mountain trails. My only wildlife sighting all day and night was a cool salamander but as I ran I envisioned the bear and the deer hanging out in the backwoods. I ran light and I ran well. I didn't feel pressure to catch another runner or afraid of being caught. I felt at peace and tried to take in as much of the land as I could before the sun went down.

At some point between mile 55 and 60 darkness set in and I ran alone with the familiar glow of my headlamp lighting the path before me. Soon I heard the clapping and the cow-bells of the mile 60 aid station and after a long descent on a paved road I found myself holding Jes in my arms again. She put some coffee on the stove as I scoured the aid station for dinner. They had lukewarm pierogies and that was more than enough for me. I drank my freshly brewed organic french roast from home, kissed Jes goodnight and headed back into the trail to begin my first full night of solo running.

This section begins with a 8-9 foot water crossing that is almost knee deep. I decided to take my shoes off to avoid facing the night with cold wet Hoka's that could further aggravate the blisters. My feet were burning pretty badly at this point and the pain intensified with each passing step. I held onto my shoes and poles tightly realizing that if I dropped them in the swiftly moving water it could mark the end of my race. The cold water felt good on my feet and the slippery rocks forced me to move slowly and deliberately until I reached the trail. I dried off with a bandana, put my shoes back on and prepared for some vertical miles.

The climb following this water crossing was one of the toughest of the race. This section of the Black Forest Trail rises about 1,400 feet before topping out on runnable trail again but I felt so strong climbing that I barely noticed. It was the descents that were beating up my feet and slowing me down at this point so I really tried to take advantage of the areas where I felt strong. The next 13 or so miles are a blur of ups and down at least in terms of terrain. My spirits were super high and I ended up running into someone I'd talked to earlier in the race who seemed to be moving along at a compatible pace. We joked and talked and took turns leading the way as he told me about his previous races and his plans to run Badwater next year. I shared some stories and some goals of my own and soon we were running quietly and softly through the woods in sync with one another and it felt like a big adventure run with a friend. I mentioned hoping that they would have pancakes in the morning and within a few miles we saw a sign promising pancakes at the next aid-station 1.5 miles away. Sweet. We got to the station and as I snacked on a small plate of pancakes I made the decision to re-tape my feet which were causing me a lot of pain at this point. Unfortunately I did a sloppy job with a roll of ducktape and would seriously pay for it over the next several miles as it cut into my the tops of my feet leaving them a bloody mess. The next aid station wasn't far but the terrain was rough and the running was slow. And the second that we reached it the skies began to POUR. The cold rain came down in torrents dripping through the tent and onto the food. We huddled up with a few other runners, grateful to not be caught in it and watched a few people drop from the race right there. Knowing that it might not stop for a while and that we could only wait so long we began to gear up. I put on a pair of gloves, my Salomon rain shell and a light hat while my running partner put on a garbage back from the aid station. As soon as the rain slowed a little we were back on the trail. The night had turned foggy and cold, the rocks were slick and the drops on our headlamps obscured our vision.

We ran hard regardless trying to stay warm and trying to make up time. This was not a ton of fun as it was happening but as I sit and write this almost a week later I can recognize it as one of the standout moments from this race. It had another advantage for us as well-as tough as the miles before the storm had been and as brutal as some of the final miles would come to be it was now "not raining anymore" So at least we had that. We pressed on.

Pulling into Blackwell aid station at Mile 78 I was anxious to get the duck tape off of my feet and get some legitimate foot care. As a medic taped me up and addressed some serious blisters and cuts I felt oblivious to the pain and grateful to be at this stage in the race. I'd visualized this point all day long and anticipated it being the defining moment where I knew that I would finish. I also heard from a runner who helped mark course that the trail really leveled out after Blackwell....

The long climb out of Blackwell and up to Gillespie Point found me pushing hard while focused on my goal of getting to mile 80 before sunrise. A facebook post a few weeks prior suggested that most of the field would reach 80 in the daylight and this provoked some serious chatter on the page. It seemed like a bold statement but it was clearly true. I was in roughly 43rd place at this point out of 165 starters and I knew that almost 70 had dropped. Reaching mile 80 before the sun rose was going to require me to push and it was here that I lost my running partner as I pressed hard up the climb and turned around to see that the glow of his headlamp was nowhere in sight. I reached the summit in the dark and was immediately overwhelmed by the enormous shadows of the surrounding mountains and the outline of a the view that I suppose I'll never see. It almost would have made reaching this place at sunrise well worth it. But thankfully there are photos and I was very glad to have reached this point before the sun rose.


View from mile 80 (from website)

I bounded down the trail and worked my way to the next station as quickly as my blistered and beaten feet would let me. What I felt at this point was comparable only to the final miles of Vigril Crest when I could have sworn that I was stepping on shards of flaming broken glass. Time slowed down here and the run from 80 to 82 felt endless. When I did reach the Sky Top aid station I noticed something strange. The crew there were super friendly but they seemed overly concerned with how much water, food and salt I had on me for the next section. I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about since it was only 8 miles of comparatively "easy" trail. After snagging a few more peirogies and a York Pepperment Patty I headed out across a sun streaked meadow and down into the trails. I went down and then down some more. And then I went up, and up, and up. And up. I remember climbing what seemed like a grassy ski-slope at a mild but never-ending grade. Two things happened to me here that have never happened during a run or race, First, I began to fall asleep on my feet. I was suddenly exhausted and would lean on my poles and press forward with all of my strength but my vision was wavering and the realization that I might legitimately drop at any second hit me with full force. Second, I started seeing some interesting things-none of which were real. I came across a quiet photographer crouched alongside the trail. Unfortunately he turned right back into the log that he was when I waved at him. A small crowd appeared at several of the trail crossings and I wondered why they weren't ringing a cow bell. I was disappointed to learn that they were only bushes and that I was all alone. A couple of old gazebos poked out from the treeline and the road seemed to be running alongside the trail leaving me to believe that I was close to being done with this never ending nightmare section and close to the Mile 91 aid-station. But they disappeared as I approached and all that was left was a sea of endless green. Pre-dawn was a weird time for me and as I climbed this never ending hill that I estimated to be about 13 miles long I hoped that my running buddy would catch up to me or that I would catch another runner. No luck. It took me close to 3 hours to navigate this crazy section by myself.

Still battling exhaustion I developed an emergency plan to keep moving forward at a reasonable pace. I realized that if I ran hard on the blisters and cuts that had slowed me to a hiking pace over the past several miles the fresh pain would jar me enough to keep me awake. This worked well enough and soon the sun was out in full force and it was officially daytime. I felt renewed and at around 9:30 am I finally approached the second to last aid station.

At mile 91 I received a huge welcome and when I told them what a beautiful course I thought this was they seemed legitimately surprised. I think that they were expecting an angry dude to emerge from the trails. They immediately asked whether I needed my feet cared for and referenced the number of runners who had stopped here to treat blisters and get fresh tape. There was a runner in a chair having his feet worked on and it looked too tempting to pass up. Plus, my legs were still feeling really strong and the fast yet painful miles that brought me to this aid station left me feeling confident that I could run the next 6 miles of smoother trail at a decent clip. Limping out of the aid station I waited for those first awkward steps to smooth out and soon I was moving well and enjoying my run again. These miles were as close to enjoyable as you're going to get this late in 100 mile race and I ran pretty much all of them. I knew that the last 3.5 miles to the finish were tough and straight downhill. I prepared myself for the fact that I would likely lose a few positions here as this had been the case on all of the longer descents since my foot issues started at around mile 15.


When I reached the final aid station I bypassed it and hit the trail as hard as I could taking advantage of every mile that wasn't too gnarly or too steep to run. At this point my ankle was swelling up and my feet were screaming at me again. Knowing that the road to the finish line was going to be a tough one I resolved to run it as smoothly and evenly as I could without risking any major blowouts this close to the end.

When the first runner actually passed me I was accepted it in full and pushed ahead just as I had been. When the second runner passed me I just said screw it and bombed down the trail with all of the force and power that I could muster. Again, these long races don't feel that much like races to me-they are just too big and too personal to reduce to the level of competition. I was glad to see
these runners cruising down to the finish line in style. The motive to run hard came from my personal desire to leave everything on the course. Not to "couch it in" as a close friend said to me while pacing me in my first 50 miler. It got me moving then and it got me moving now. I passed by a hiker who was upward bound as I was dropping down the trail and he told me that I had a mile to go. Sweet. I then passed a race volunteer who told me that I had only two miles to go. Man...

I reminded myself to enjoy these final miles because it's here that so many of the best memories are made.

Soon I could hear the crowd cheering on the road below and I pushed beyond the pain in my feet digging my trekking poles into the soft earth while flying down the steepest portion of the trail. I hit the road, turned sharply to the right and came up to the large field where this amazing journey had begun roughly 32 and half hours ago. Crossing the finish line was simply unforgettable.


Every night spent in that little tent at Bradbury Mountain with the rain seeping in from a dozen small leaks and Jes and I lying in each others arms long after the novelty of camping had worn off led to this very moment.


I was handed my finsher's buckle and finishers jacket just as Jes wrapped her arms around my waist and Joe reached his hand out to say congratulations. An unbelievable moment that I will never forget.









And these big and wild adventures, the ones that start before sunrise and stretch into nightfall only to see the sun rise again are defined by a series of moments. Whether alone on a summit with miles and miles to go, at a finish line surrounded by friends or in that magic span of time just after completing a huge run when all that's left to do is eat, drink good coffee and celebrate our accomplishments we are reminded of the reasons that we do this to ourselves. Or more accurately, for ourselves. I wouldn't be who I am without my running. It keeps me focused, inspired and ready to push beyond my comfort zone both on and off the trails. Few experiences in our lives can truly be classified as adventures. Falling in love is an adventure, starting off on a new life path and redefining who we are and who we want to be is an adventure. And these big runs through the mountains and through the night are always an adventure.

I'm grateful for every one of them and for all of the amazing people that I get to share them with.

A huge thank you to my Trail Monster Running team. Thank you to my daughters Amella and Nikyla. Thanks again to Jes for her endless love and support and thanks to all of the countless volunteers who say just the right thing at an aid station in the middle of the night. Extra special thanks to the organizers of this event for being crazy enough to dream it up and solid enough to pull it off. This is a truly amazing community and I'm very lucky to be a part of it.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you on the trails.




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3 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing. So glad it was an experience that helps define who you are and have worked so hard to become. I loved that pain kept you awake and moving forward while it usually stops and defeats others.

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  2. Gator, you have come so freakin far in a relatively short time. Badass! And a great report. Glad you wrote it. Here's to a whole lot more. Rest up and grow some skin back on those feet and hope to see you around soon!!

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  3. Thanks so much. I feel like in a long race like this you have to view everything as a potential tool-pain included. Plus, a little pain seems like a fair trade for such an awesome experience. I think of it as the price of admission:) Thanks again for the kind words and for taking the time to read this report. See you on the trails!

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