Old Turnpike Half, Breezeway/Waterfall PA, Saturday May 22. Half #187 is in the books!I had heard of an old turnpike with tunnels that had a Half Marathon. Some of my running friends from Mississippi were actually planning to attend End of the Road Half in October, which uses the same course! I was in DC to run Spring Georgetown, a Bishop race, with Pam Slay Pitts and Meg Mizell on Sunday so I was looking for a Saturday race… never pass up a double if you don’t have to! And I found Old Turnpike Half in Breezewood/Waterfall PA!
Now known as the Abandoned PA Turnpike, it was built in 1940. By the 60s, congestion at the tunnels forced the state to build a bypass and this 13 mile stretch was closed in 1968. It comprised of two tunnels and has not been used for traffic in over 50 years!There are three things to remember about this race: the road is rough, you must wear a head lamp for the tunnels and there is plenty of graffiti in the tunnels. There is an age limit of 17, not for physical reasons but because some of the graffiti includes words that your mother would wash out your mouth for and rather graphic paintings of certain male appendages in various sizes!
The Half Marathon uses a 7 mile stretch that encompasses the two tunnels. The divided roadway is definitely in disrepair with broken chunks of asphalt and potholes. Some of it is so worn it is gravel. While it sounds unsafe, it is actually easy to maneuver through the course… not worse than an easy trail run. The smoothest part is in the tunnels which is probably due to the fact it is protected from the harsh winter and summer weather. Today was rather warm on the course but both tunnels were a consistent 55 degrees! But, it is dark… thus the headlamps!!The start and finish is located just off of Pumping Station Road near Breezewood PA. After numerous turns on county roads, you arrive at the Cove Valley Travel Plaza parking lot. While the Truck Stop buildings are no longer there, it makes for a great staging area for the race. Following Covid-19 protocols, the start of the race was a 30 minute rolling start beginning at 8:00 a.m.
The first tunnel is 1.25 miles long and completely dark. You get to it about 3/4 of a mile into the race. It is really awesome to see it ahead of you and enter the mouth of the tunnel. I had heard that there would be trash in the tunnels and be careful where you stepped but it looked like the race officials cleaned it up. Most of the road in the tunnels was damp but I did not find it to be slick.The second tunnel was 1 kilometer long and right at the six mile mark. You still needed the headlamp even though you can see a faint glow of the other end. As you get closer to the end, the opening gets bigger and brighter. Since this is an out and back you come upon the turnaround just outside the second tunnel and back in you go! And, as you come to the end of the first original tunnel and see the “light at the end of the tunnel” with less than a mile left, you wonder if the inviting light is a freight train heading your way! (That’s for David and one of his favorite songs: Metallica’s No Leaf Clover).
The course between the two tunnels is just beautiful!! It is lined with gorgeous flowers, bushes and lush green trees! It has gradual rolling hills so I would not consider it flat. You had a choice of which side you wanted to run since it was a divided road. One side had more shade but the road surface was rougher. Aid stations were every two miles… three stations that doubled for the out and back. They were not manned but had plenty of bottles of water and Gatorade. Each site also had a first aid kit.The other runners were also excited about this race. There was a group of ladies who got to know each other through virtual races during the pandemic! This was the first live race where they all got together meeting each other for the first time. They wore colorful outfits and tutus with flashing lights on them! Awesome in the tunnels! They even had an equivalent to our 0.0 Cowbell Guy. His name was Steve Heady! Instead of a cowbell, he had a small megaphone and he was a hoot!! We have to get David and Steve together!
While the Abandoned PA Turnpike is not an official state site it is accessible to the public and it does draw tourists and locals. There were a number of cyclists and even a couple of Boy Scout troops on the turnpike today. The only negative I really had was apparently there was a race official that was using a car on the course to get around. She would stop now and then. It was just annoying to have to avoid it. Perhaps they could use a golf cart or Gator instead.Packet pickup was at the host hotel, Holiday Inn Express in Breezewood. The intersection at the main highway in Breezewood consists of 6 truck stops with Arby’s, Pizza Hut, etc in them, a stand alone Drive Thru McDonald’s and a Bob Evens Restaurant! They also had packet pick up at the start. You got a burlap drawstring back pack with a headlamp, shirt, padded tote bag with handles and the finisher’s medal.It is not often you can recon a race ahead of time. Overall, I really enjoyed the outing! I would definitely recommend it as a destination kind of race due to its uniqueness! While the race in October is the same course, it is with a different race company. I am going back in the fall with David in tow. Come and join us then!!+22
Photo and story credit Jennifer Clark