One of God's greatest miracles is to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
~ Author unknown
The day was like so many other East Coast summer days. Even with the dawn of the new day, the oppressive heat could be felt and would continue to build with every passing moment. The cock-a-doodle-doo of the roosters would sound muffled in the heaviness of the early morning air. The combined effect of heat and humidity would make it feel as if there was a monster on your chest, fighting you for every breath and stealing away your energy. The newscasts warned people of the heat, encouraging inside activity and discouraging long exposures to the elements. Seeking to protect them, even dogs and cats would be given refuge inside air-conditioned walls by their owners. Those traveling the highways would do so in climate-controlled vehicles. Local ice cream and soda shops would do a booming business on this day. Tempers would easily be ignited by even the smallest of irritations. Children would beg their mamas to turn on the hose or go to the local pool. Mothers, too hot and tired to argue, would agree. Productivity in the work-a-day world would have to be guarded since motivation is inversely proportional to the rising temperatures. Farmers would consider postponing their chores until evening, choosing rather to pass the time at a local diner discussing the price of corn. But off in the distance, a small band of runners would be seen, stretched out along Route 30 in rural Pennsylvania and making their way ever closer to New York City.
To most of those ten runners, today would be just like so many days before and many days that would follow. They would start running before dawn, unreasonably hopeful that the sun's rising would be somehow postponed if only for the day. They would forge on ahead, barely pausing every two miles when food and refreshment would be offered to them. They would don hats and sunglasses to provide a buffer from the sun. They would douse themselves with water and place ice cubes under their hats to externally cool themselves. Day's end would find them 47.1 miles further from Huntington Beach, California and 47.1 miles closer to finishing their transcontinental crossing in New York City. Their steps, though weary from the millions taken before, would move unfalteringly forward toward the goal. They would not move to the right or to the left. No deviation from the prescribed course would be taken, for this would mean wasted energy. They would reach today's finish line, shower, eat, rest, and prepare themselves for more of the same before the rising of the next sun. But to one runner, today would be forever set apart from the other 63 days of the race. Today he would find himself at the intersection of his dreams, forcing him to pause from the relentless pursuit down the highway to ponder his life's choices. As the tractor-trailers roared by, this lone runner would seek the refuge of another trail, another journey, if only for a moment.
The date was August 14, 1995. The race was the Trans-America Footrace, the modern equivalent to the trans-continental Bunion Derbies of 1928 and 1929. The runner was David Horton, experienced and celebrated in his sport of ultra-running. The day had begun at 3:55 a.m., just as 58 previous days had begun. Horton turned off his alarm clock, hurriedly donned his shorts and singlet, pulled on his socks that had been washed out the night before, slipped on his running shoes and sought to break the fast with cereal, coffee, and a donut. By the stroke of 5:00 a.m., Horton and the other runners were on the start line, listening for and perhaps even dreading the word "go". In fact, many of the runners likened the start to a funeral; an event they had to attend but didn't have a clue how they could again survive. But the soon vacated start area in the parking lot of an old, fly infested, and unairconditioned gymnasium in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, was a clear sign that each of the runners, including Horton, had accepted yet another challenge that the race offered. The trials and triumphs of previous days found Dusan Mravlje, a Slovenian "soldier" whose job it was to train and race, to be in first place overall. In second place was Florida's Raymond Bell, who had won the race in 1993. David Horton found himself solidly in third place overall, closing in on a weakening Bell but being chased by Australian Patrick Farmer (also a Trans-Am veteran and second place finisher in '93) and the small but mighty Japanese runner from New York City, Nobuaki Koyago.
The day's stage required that the runners traverse and conquer 47.1 miles within the required time of 15.7 hours. Failure to do so would negate the previously run 2627 miles and would force retirement from the race. There would be no exceptions to the rule. The course, marked by flour arrows at turns, would follow along Route 30 in Pennsylvania. So, the runners ran 100 yards down a gradual slope before turning right at the arrow to begin a three-mile, 14% grade climb. The heaviness of the air due to a torrential downpour during the night made the climb even more formidable. Horton, uncharacteristically running halfway up the incline, was caught by Koyago, Mravlje and Farmer when he finally decided to begin power walking. The Slovenian threw verbal barbs at Koyago, the winner of the previous three stages; "Hey, don't you think the pace is a little slow? This hill is child's play!" Whether the sarcasm had any impact on the Japanese runner is unknown, but the crest of the mountain saw Nobuaki Koyago in the lead, running like a man possessed. He proceeded to build a one-mile lead on the next runner, Patrick Farmer, by mile 14. At day's end, Koyago would cross the finish line with a full three-mile lead.
Meanwhile, Horton would struggle. Cautiously running down the backside of that first mountain, the professor from Liberty University would be passed for the first time ever by the runner in eighth place overall. The effect of being passed served as a mental cattle prod. Horton gained ground, regained his position and was running steadily. With the humidity remaining high and the temperatures climbing with the rising sun, all ten runners pressed on. Horton did enjoy posing momentarily at mile 30 for a photo with some running friends from his hometown of Lynchburg. But after another half mile of running, Horton took his first five-minute break of the entire race. It was at the 30.5 mile point of this day's stage that intersected the 2144-mile Appalachian Trail.
"Here I stand at the crossroads of life", stated Horton into the video camera. After a brief 30-yard run into the coolness of the forest, this runner returned to the shoulder of Route 30 to record his thoughts on videotape. Although drowned out at times by the roar of the semi-tractor trailers, David began to recall the moment 4 years prior when he passed this exact spot. It was in the spring of 1991 that he found himself standing atop Springer Mountain in Georgia, at the beginning of his AT adventure. In pursuit of the speed record on this south/north continuous trail, he ran day after day in the quietness and solitude that the trail affords. Over mountains, through valleys, across grassy meadows he went. Few were the encounters with the mainstream of humanity. And, little did he realize that when he followed the trail out of the woods, across Rt. 30 and reentered the woods on the other side, that he would have a déjà-vu experience when his west to east Trans-Am race would intersect his route.
Two races. Two challenges. Both grueling but both very different. The first was a race against time in terms of days, the elements, and the roughness of the terrain. The second was a race against time in terms of hours and minutes, against other competitors and the redundancy of thousands of miles of pavement. However, there was a common foundation to the two events. Both were incredibly difficult. Both required conquering the severe bouts of depression that invaded the mind of this endurance athlete. Both required conquering the mentally debilitating and physically crippling injuries associated with running mile after mile, day after day. Both required the mental toughness and fortitude that so few in our society possess. And both require an unquenchable quest for adventure.
Horton did conquer the Appalachian Trail in 1991 and set a speed record yet to be broken. On this particular day in 1995, Horton would continue his Trans-Am run within five minutes of his encounter with the A.T. He would finish in the heat, humidity and peak of the tourist season in Gettysburg, only to prepare himself for the next day of racing. And on the fifth day hence, he would cross the finish line of all finish lines in New York City with the third fastest time ever recorded in the world.
This is the story of those quests.
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