Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Eastern States Pendulum

It's been a long while since I wrote a blog. But after my second failed attempt at Eastern States 100 I just found that I had way too many things floating around in my tired brain. I needed to get them out. I will keep it short and sweet and hope my thoughts can and will help other mid to back of the pack runners tackle this race in the future. As for me, I will not return to run next year. Maybe to help out and pace, I don't know. Not because I don't like the race or the RD or the trails. I love them all! But because I don't see much changing for me there. Yup, the ole definition of insanity routine.

My Maryland buddies Casey and Don spent the weekend driving me around and helping me out and for that I cannot thank them enough. I feel I let them down more then I let myself down. It is very hard for me to convey that to them. I feel they know it though. I got as far as I did because of their help. I only got to mile 32 however and like Don comically pointed out to me "hey you got three times further then last year!" Which made me chuckle at how absurd that is considering I only completed 30% of the race!

As the sun was setting on our way home and we hit the PA turnpike southbound I kept trying to come up with how to describe this race and this course. How would you explain it to folks who have never run here. How do I explain the course to my wife who does not run and asks seemingly very simple straightforward questions such as "So what happened?" or "What makes it so hard?" Insert my blank stare. Great questions but I am almost at a loss but I know exactly what the answers are but I just can't spit it out. Frustrating really. So the next morning it hit me.

I think of Eastern States like Edgar Allan Poe's Pit And The Pendulum. It's exactly the same. It's terror. It's torture and torment. It's a long drawn out nightmare. You almost at times welcome your demise. The course eats at you. It picks at you. Looking for a way to get in. Swinging slowly and slowly as the blade gets closer and closer all the time while you watch it getting closer and closer and there isn't a fucking thing you can do about it. Your body is getting cut and bruised and banged around and the oppressive humidity wears on you sapping your leg strength and raising your heart rate to anaerobic levels but yet you are moving so damn slow. "How is this possible?" "I have trained here I have run these trails I know this course why is this happening?!!" I have finished Massanutten 100 twice I did the 2016 Grindstone 100 where it rained for thirty straight cold hours. And yet I can't move on this course. I am completely immobilized for the second straight year.

A slow and painful demise. Source Google.

And here is the beauty of it. Other races have longer climbs, rockier trails, more mud blah blah blah. But so far from what I see no other east coast 100 miler (excluding Barkley, of course) has what this course can throw at you. They talk about the Western States Killing Machine. It's a great read and can be found here. This course has an eerily similar character trait. The first thirty miles are simply some of the most ruthless and nasty trails you will find. Survive that and manage those miles well and you will then be able to start actually running at mile thirty three. Easier said then done. The classic problem is your pace. You look down and see your overall pace at eighteen minute miles. It's shocking and tough to swallow at first.You are fresh but slowing as the miles tick off so you push and risk blowing up. Or you stay really chill and try to just hike and not go hard and you risk blowing time and not making the initial Hyner cutoff. It's funny, you look at the elevation profile and it looks tough sure but until you actually have experienced those trails you just don't know. My plan this year was to really take it easy during those first thirty. Save myself for the running that is coming up. Problem is the cutoffs are the tightest during the first third of the race. It's a catch twenty two. I found myself scolding myself in my head! "News flash, you can't take it easy you stupid idiot!"

Mile 9 vista. Taken during our training run there in July.

The heat.

So the starting temperature I think was 71 or something. Nice right? Sure if you are sitting in a lounge chair by the pool. The dew point was climbing into the seventies however and the humidity was rising. Once we entered the forest canopy it was stagnant, stale, and windless. And that is one of the really sneaky aspects of this race. The canyons there and the surrounding thick forest seems to trap the heat from the days before. No wind reaches these areas. So the air just sits there and the moisture from the thick mossy soil and many creeks moisten that air. Couple that with the already increasing high dew point and you are faced with your first puzzle to solve. These hollows are what you run in and out of all day and each climb starts in a hollow where you face these temperatures and conditions each time. I thought about this for twelve hours over thirty miles. I kept asking myself "Why is it so damn hot at the start of each climb then when you get to the top it's a little cooler? Doesn't heat rise? What is this some sort of alternate universe the cold air rises and hot air sinks?" It took me all day to figure it out. I think it's a unique local phenominon. It's only here where I experienced that trapped air. "Why is my heart rate spiking so high right now?" "I can't be working that hard can I?" Confusion sets in. You increase your effort and pace. You burn up calories twice as fast as you normally would. You create an early caloric deficit. You find yourself sweating buckets. The Western States article talks about the buzzsaw, but here at this race, it's the pendulum that has started it's swing.

Leaving mile 18 Lower Pine Bottom in shaky shape. Pic Jim Blandford

Those trails.

I'm from PA born and raised. I train on the AT. I know rocks. I love rocks and they love me. I'm at home there. Mountains and rocks and PA trails. The trails in and around Waterville are not like the AT or the Massanuttens or the Tuscarora. This is loose slate and when it's wet its like ice. Mud pumps up in between the tree roots. The loose slate pieces are almost leftover from logging or mining. Seemingly just dumped here with little care. Then the trails built on top. Sometimes when you step in between two pieces the jagged edges pierce the sides of your shoes grazing the sides of your macerated and softened feet. As you pick your way down the descents, you hear the sound of the smaller pieces tumbling behind you and repositioning themselves for the next poor soul. When you kick a rock it follows you, end over end and often times hits you a second time, bouncing off the outside of your ankle or again on the side of the foot. It's as if the rocks don't even like you here. "The rocks are against me?" "Why is this happening?" Whoosh...Whoosh as the pendulum continues it's descent.

The climbs.

I'm a climber or at least until I run here then I'm a pathetic child. It's seems the exertion that I put out to climb up those mountains puts my heart rate at redline. You see the climbs I do well at are the long slow grinding type where you can get into a rhythm. The climbs down in Virgina are that type. Long but not super steep. The climbs here are short and very very steep. And it just repeats over and over for the first thirty miles. I find that I just can't get into any kind of groove on these climbs. Add the mud, the rocks, the humidity and that so called short climb turns into a death slog where you find yourself sitting on a rotten log a third of the way up catching your breath. And the clock is ticking. On a training run I would never think to sit down on a climb. During a race of course not. But here I sat down more times then I can remember. Thirty seconds here a minute there really adds up. I used that time wisely however. I ate and drank. The fact is if you have to sit down anywhere on trail here you will not finish. Unless of course you are late in the race and are hours ahead of any cutoff. By all means relax and take a breather. Climbing a 30% slope is much different the climbing a 20% slope. It's huge and you legs will feel it. I really struggle pushing 25% or greater. I could also stand to loose a few pounds. I'm sure that contributes to my struggles in some form.

The clock.

As I said I am a mid pack to back of the pack runner. Meaning I finish in the fifty percentile range of entrants. So I am not fast nor super slow but average I suppose. I have never felt threatened in any race by cutoffs. Never. Not once. But here for some reason they seem to be right over my shoulder. And honestly, that wears on you mentally. I'm not use to it and to be blunt I really don't like it. I have enough fucking things to worry about and the clock adds another layer of burden. But tough shit, that's the way it is so deal with it. On Saturday I covered the first 32 miles in twelve hours. Yes twelve hours. I have to say that out loud. TWELVE hours.. When I ran Manitou's Revenge in June several weeks after MMT100 in very similar weather conditions I covered the first 31 miles in exactly ten hours. What? I dropped at Manitou as well. And Manitou is arguably, mile per mile, the hardest 50 miler in the country. It took me almost two hours longer at Eastern States to cover basically the same distance. If this was last year I would not have made it past the mile 25 aid station as I did not make the cutoff that was imposed there from the year prior. This is what I am currently trying to dissect and analyze. The old saying about 100 milers is to start slow and go slower. That doesn't work here. I actually tried to do just that. Save myself for the middle sections. The sweepers caught up to me sitting on a moss covered rock in the middle of an ice cold stream with my feet and calves submerged in the water. Talk about pathetic ending to a race. My response to them when I saw them was "what took you so long?" I was almost glad. As my pacer Casey often says, "sometimes you eat the miles and sometimes the miles eat you."

The bugs.

Actually they weren't so bad until the Browns Run Climb. A six mile ascent along, well, Browns Run. The trail crisscrossed the creek back and forth and the gnats just suffocated your face. As if I needed any more misery. Inhaling gnats for six miles was just lovely. There was also the mosquitoes that would buzz in and out of you ear. Bugs have never bothered me before in a race. But of course here they loved me.

Eastern States. So you want to run it? It truly is a great event. One of country's most badass 100 milers just on the finisher rate alone. A truly wild and remote wilderness experience. It's not a race that you can typically just sandwich in between others as a fill in. It's not a race you can just get by on undertrained legs and squeak out a finish. It's an event that when you go into it you can't have any lingering injuries or issues otherwise the course will expose them. Your mental game must be as sharp as your physical one. Course management and taking care of self is a big deal in any 100 miler but really important here. Graduate level race? Without question. The race should 100% be a Hardrock qualifier. But that will be up to the RD Dave Walker to apply for it and for the Hardrock board to approve it. From what I was told the board did not approve the request last year. I scratch my head at that. After four years of this event, I think it's pretty clear that this east coast 100 miler is certainly worthy of a Hardrock ticket. I finished Grindstone last year and this race is much harder then that one and Grindstone, of course, is one of the great 100 milers in the east and the Northeast's only Hardrock qualifier. So what are you waiting for? Sign up and come on out to Pennsyltucky! But don't hesitate because this race sells out fast and at some point very soon I predict will need to go to a lottery.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Living in Darkness. The Grindstone 100

Once again I was entombed in the blackness. My pacer Kiran and I had just finally crested the top of an arduous climb called Crawford mountain and into the cold embrace of a very blustery north wind. It was a little after 10 pm Saturday night and the rain had finally subsided for a bit. The second night had fallen upon us. I was pretty much reduced to a moaning shuffle from here on in as each foot fall would bring me to winch as I envisioned the detached layers of skin shifting like tectonic plates on the bottoms of my macerated feet. As we shuffled along my demons shuffled along with us in the inky blackness just outside my peripheral vision. They had made their presence known, I knew they were there waiting for the right moment. I thought of dropping at the next aid station, Dry Branch Gap mile 87. I was fighting that decision. "Yes, yes I'll drop!" I thought. "But no no no I can't, I have come all this way!" I did a quick assessment on my systems and I determined that I was not injured in any way and my stomach was in good shape so then I asked myself again "How can you drop if you are ok?" I had no legitimate reason to drop. Our pace was painfully slow. My legs long since blown from the muddy and slick seven mile descent on the Wild Oak Trail down into North River Gap. My brain was in a fog and simple thoughts were becoming harder to process. My eyelids were finally succumbing to the weight of two nights of running. Then it hit me! I need to sleep. Yes I would do what I always said I would never do. Just 20 minutes or maybe 30. I will sleep at Dry Branch aid station but I won't tell Kiran until we get there. I will beg the volunteers to let me sleep. We stumbled into the Dry Branch aid station a little before 11 pm I sat down in front of a warm campfire head back and eyes shut. Lights out.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rainand back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
-Robert Frost

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Worlds End 100K - The Empty One

"To try and fail is every bit as valuable as success so long as you push your own margin and thus gain knowledge." - Cory Richards

The view of the start and the same view at the finish.

Seven day after finishing MMT100 I found myself standing at 5 am at the starting line at Worlds End 100K up in Forksville Pennsylvania. I can't really recall if I signed up for this one first or MMT but I think it was this one. I hadn't run all week since MMT as upon finishing that race I had some edema in the lower legs which I also experienced following Oil Creek 100. My left shin was also very tender to the touch. It was sore almost like a shin splint type of soreness. I would not label any of this injury it's just the way it is after you put your body through the rigors of a technical mountain 100 mile foot race lasting close to 33 hours. So I rested all week and ate and rested and ate some more. The puffiness in my feet and ankles subsided by Thursday and the shin tenderness was all but gone by the time I started running at 5 am.  This was my first 100k race so I really didn't have any idea how to approach it other then to survive. I almost thought of it as another 100 miler. I knew about 45 miles of the course having done the 50k last year and a training run or two over winter. This is not a race that compares even close to a 50 miler so my only thought was to treat it like a hundred. I felt mentally I was in a good place but physically I had no idea on earth what my body was going to do.

Respect. I know some folks may be thinking that I went into this race with a lack of respect for the distance and terrain. But actually it would be the opposite. Why would someone want to run a very challenging 100k race a week after a very challenging 100 miler? My answer is simply why the hell not! I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to be challenged and pushed almost to the breaking point. I knew failure was hiding behind every tree and bush at Worlds End. It was in the air. I could see it reflecting in the pools at the base of the many waterfalls when I looked down. I was running from it. If I dropped or missed a cutoff well then so be it, I would then know my limitations. Because let's cut the shit here isn't that why we all do this? To see if we can finish or tackle a distance that we never have thought possible before? That's the whole damn point of ultra running. The point is to push our limits, to do the unthinkable. At least that's how I view it. There are many "easier" races out there just waiting for your next cushy PR or age group award. Those races are not for me and do not appeal to my sense of adventure.

Something happened in this race. During those long 65 miles out in the forest something that I have never experienced went down. I was given a choice somewhere around mile 10 or so. I could drop or head back out on the course towards a state of mind that was all new. I felt pretty good physically and mentally for the first ten miles. But after that I was drained. I had nothing left to give. It was almost as if during the week I filled the reservoir back up from being empty but with only enough for about ten miles worth of running. What was I going to do for the next fifty some odd miles? It was all a blur. I would run with a few friends and we would merrily run along chit chatting at times and other times in silence. We would run/walk the technical stuff and hike the climbs. We would run the downs the best we could. It was strange. I just kept going fueled on... nothing. My legs were killing me, my wet feet blistered, my mind was almost blank. I would play the same music in my ear over and over mile after mile.

The scenery was fantastic, the trail a dizzyingly array of color and texture of sounds and smells. The air was grey and moist then rain then cold then dark. I was all alone in the dark along a fence and along a mud socked trail around mile sixty pushing 11 pm.. My trail friends whom I ran with were no longer behind me. They had fallen back and succumbed to this place. I thought I was lost. I could see the reflective markers lit up by my headlamp but soon realized I had been here in this exact same spot a 50K ago, it was the coal mine clearing. And as I stood there not understanding I was supposed to be here I let out a scream in frustration at the top of my lungs. It was dead silent afterwards. It was utterly soundless in that clearing and in that forest. The mist lingered in the air as my headlamp reflected off the dew. I was confused as to my placement on course. Was I still on course? What is happening?? I immediately was overcome with a foreboding feeling. I paced back and forth in the most frantic state. I was loosing it. Panic was coming. I had to make a choice. Go back for some reason, stay there and hope someone was behind me or follow the reflective flags. My mind was not in any shape to make such a call. So my gut stepped in and it choose the correct route.

I had been running flag to flag for the last fifty miles. I had been running in slow motion. Running as if in a quagmire. It wasn't the same run as MMT. It was not the same feeling. My legs and hips throbbed with a tightness and with a pain never experienced but yet I blocked it out. My blisters on the bottoms of my feet would warm as they burst then cool but I felt nothing. My head throbbed with exhaustion but I wasn't yet tired. I was grinding. I was running on sheer will to finish. I cared not of consequence to the body or of placement of position. Buckles or material things had no meaning. I needed to finish. I wanted to finish. And finish I did. I finished with another runner named Dave. We were fourteen minutes passed the deadline. A finish line cutoff that was not met. A finish line DNF (did not finish). Even so I wanted to shake the race director's hand. He was not to be found. Later I had learned he was sweeping the course as the person who was supposed to be doing it was having trouble. I saw Don and many other friends at the finish. I sat down at a picnic table with no real feeling at all to express. I sat there staring at the many dark shadows and figures trying to eat. Some talked to me or looked at me but I was blank. Don was talking to me but I was not understanding. I saw Sam finish a few minutes after us with the same look on his face as I felt inside. I hobbled over and congratulated him as he stood there off to the side as if lost. I shock his hand and patted him on the shoulder. There was nothing else to say or do. In the end I had found what I was looking for. I set out and did what I came to do. I completed the course and I unexpectedly stumbled right to the edge and came face to face with my breaking point. But I did not break.

Worlds is a phenomenal race. It's magnificent in it's beauty. It's a race not to be missed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Massanutten 100 - It Was Just My Imagination

It was now 1:30 in the morning. I have been on the MMT course for over 21 hours. The cold and bitter wind was howling from the northeast with a winter's fury. We could see the lights way down below in the town of New Market, Virginia. It looked like a place that I wanted to be. I knew there was warmth and comfort down below. I yearned to be down there. But I was up here on the infamous Kerns Mountain ridge and I was freezing cold, physically exhausted and mentally broken.

The Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Miler is a classic spring time race held each year in the beautiful Virginia mountains of Shenandoah. I have had this race on my radar for over a year, even before Oil Creek. I read a slew of race reports and studied the website. But I knew last year I was not trained for a mountain race like MMT. I was running on the Appalachian Trail occasionally but most of my long trail runs were on hilly trails like those found at Oil Creek. After studying and trying to pick the perfect first 100 miler for me personally I felt Oil Creek was a better fit logistically and with the way I was training so I went with it and completed my first 100 mile finish. It was such a great experience. OC is a magical race and so well done and I know I will return to best my inaugural finish time at some point. But I often would daydream of something really hard and mountainous. A race that will push me back or more importantly punch me back on my ass and force me to decide on how to respond. So I signed up for MMT lotto and got in.

My training post Oil Creek ramped up almost immediately. I slowly started doing more long runs on the AT and on Mt. Tammany. All winter long I would do mountain repeats almost weekly. 1,200 foot climbs up and down for hours. I was even able to get a full Buzzards run in out in Harrisburg which is an old marathon fatass race course that has some burly climbs and descents in and around the AT. I love signing up for trail races as training runs as well. So I did Tammany 10 (ouch), Hyner 50k, and Breakneck 42K as quad thrashing long runs. I ran Bull Run Run 50 miler as well to get some more long running miles in as well so I was forced to actually run. Those races were all so fun! I also kept doing short speed work during the work week on roads. The weekends were for climbing and technical trails. I would go out to Hamburg Pa a lot by myself and run Hawk Mountain and the reservoir where the AT runs through. Occasionally I would go out and run with Jimmy Blandford and company in Port Clinton and he would take us on guided tours of all the beautiful trails in his back yard. Well, I would try to keep up anyway he did win MMT and BRR so he's kinda fast. He's so great because he would wait for us at intersections and backtrack to make sure we weren't completely lost out there. I had a great six month training block with no injuries and felt rested and ready.

I would be paced by Casey Fisher at MMT who also paced me beautifully at Oil Creek. I drove down to his house outside of Baltimore and he drove the rest of the way. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Woodstock on recommendations from Jimmy and that was a great call. I'm just not a camper and the hundred or so dollars spent for a nice bed is a worth while investment for me personally. I am high maintenance I suppose. We did packet pickup then shot over to the Woodstock Brew House and had lots of beer and bbq. I was basically half intoxicated when I left. Oops..But most importantly I was relaxed and in a good mental state. I was not worried or very anxious about what was about to go down in those mountains. All you can do is show up and start running and see what happens.

All smiles at packet pickup.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Mt. Tammany 10! - Did Not Finish

On Saturday March 19th 2016 I ran the Mt. Tammany 10 right on the Delaware River across from East Stroudsburg PA on the New Jersey side of the river. The term “run” is used here to describe the race but it’s more of an endurance event or more aptly "who can block out the most discomfort race event." It’s around 38 miles with roughly 13,000 ft of vertical gain and each participant is really supposed to be able to complete it in 10 hours or less. The course is simply 10 loops of the 3.8 or so mile loop of Mt Tammany. You climb up 1,200 ft then back down 1,200 ft and repeat until you finish or have had enough. We are not talking buffed out trails here or forest roads. It is uber technical. I'm not overstating it either. It's not for the novice trail runner. 
The ascent is a tad on the technical side. (photo I took during the DWG 50K in Oct.)

And here is a small portion of the descent looking up. Yea one mistake and your done.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Turn Out The Stars - My Running of the 2015 Oil Creek 100

"A 100 miles is not that far." - Karl Meltzer

Yes it is. Oh yes it is.

In a blink we were jogging across the bridge and heading for the 1.5 mile bike path section to the trailhead. It was cold, dark, and quiet minus the fiew locals standing along the sidewalk clapping for the runners. You could see your breath. You could feel the nerves in the air. It was surreal. I have trained for a year for this moment, and that moment had come. I was running into the abyss. Running straight for it, staring down the barrel of a loaded weapon. I was face to face with my first 100 miler. There really is nothing like it. I remember toeing the line to my first marathon, 50K, 50 miler. But my god this was far beyond what your mind can really handle in that moment. So I tried not to dwell on it. But as we hit the trail head and started that slow conga line and first climb I thought about all the past inspiring videos of runners finishing Hardrock or Western States or even this race and all my friends who have dug deep to reach their goals. I thought about all those podcasts I have listened to. One  especially with Luis Escobar who in retrospect summed up 100 milers perfectly. He was referring to Hurt 100 in Hawaii but I think it can fit with any. He basically said that you train so hard and build up your fitness and strength and then come race day you step in front of a bus.

Loop #1 31.1 miles time 7:42 96th place 

Rolling into Petroleum Center Aid Station mile 14.

The first 14 miles flew by and I found myself sitting at AS #2 changing my shoes and regretting my initial choice of the Hoka Stinson Lites. Yes I know they are road shoes but I have run countless trail races in them namely a 45 miler and a 40 miler and was confident they would work for at least the first 40 or so miles. However the rain the day prior had me slipping more then once and dissolved my confidence in them so off they went and on went a tired pair of Brooks Cascadia's. They would get me back to the middle school main aid station and from there I could go to my work horse, the Hoka Stinson's ATR's.

I was running the race with my running buddy Kourtney and we had a small crew consisting of my wife Deb, Kourtney's boyfriend Joe, and Casey and Don who drove up from Maryland to crew us and pace us both through the night. We made quick work changing shoes and shirts, grabbing food and off we went up a fairly short climb called Heisman Trophy Hill to a more runnable section of trail. I felt good but did not feel great. It was strange in a way. The shoe thing bothered me a bit. But ultra running is about problem solving and when the problems come, and they can come on quick, you must focus on solving them and moving on. It's a constant anticipate and react and fix over and over. You assess and reassess your solutions and hope they work. However you cannot dwell on your decisions, you must turn the page. To me that is the allure of the sport. It's a 100 mile moving puzzle and you your brain and your body are smack dab in the middle of it.

The early miles ticked off and I could feel those tired Cascadia's on my legs. They had great trail feel but the cushion was just not there. I would need to go 17 miles in these and I needed to not dwell on that. So I focused my efforts on the trail and how each section brought back memories from our one time recon loop back in July. The trail was even more beautiful now with the fall colors and in great shape. The air was super cooled and moist. The fog just sat in the hollows and seemed to linger in the trees but not so much to hinder visibility.

Swallowed by the fog in the dawn on loop 1.

 I quickly forgot about the shoes and focused on how magical this trail really is. Each section had its own feel and smell. From soft and mossy hemlock to sweet maple sugar from trickling streams and sweeping overlooks. It's a trail runners trail. If this trail had a personality it would be of quiet confidence. It new how good it was and it didn't need to boast. This was a hidden gem tucked away in an unassuming town in the northwestern part of the state. 

We pulled up to a water only station a few miles from the finishing the first loop. As I filled my bottle I recognized Karey Elliot cruisin right on by. She and I are Instagram friends and I was hoping to finally get to meet her. She is an awesome runner and a local rock star at this race. So I yelled out to her and wished her good luck. I probably startled her but she said the same to me and off we went. The miles here just floated along and we popped out of the woods, ran the one mile Drake loop, and rolled into the school and across the timing mat for the end of loop one. 

Loop #2 62.2 miles time 17:13 93rd place

One 31 mile loop down and still trying to find that flow.

What a pick me up seeing my wife, Casey and Don. They were so encouraging and attentive to our needs. I changed into a dry shirt, changed shoes, and ate three perogies and a grilled cheese sandwich. Casey filled my bottle up with Tailwind as I grumbled again about my shoes. What's done is done though and we still have 70 miles left.

It was here that I made arguably the most important chess move I have made in any of my races. I decided to use poles from here on out. I'm really not sure what prompted this but I have a hunch that maybe it was the one women who flew past me smiling with poles on the climb out of AS #2. She looked like she was really in a great groove running up that hill. Subconsciously maybe that vision stewed in the recesses of my brain and now I wanted to be smiling and cruising as well. Now the kicker is I have never used poles ever, even though I carried them in my pack the entire first loop. This would be new territory for me. I did ski a lot as a small child for whatever that's worth. I was planning on only really using them for the night if I needed them. Thankfully my pacer Casey brought an extra set for me to use. So off we went to the trailhead a mile and half away. I stood at the trailhead, wrapped the straps around my wrist, and up I went skiing up the trail. I know I remarked to Kourtney how easy that short little climb seemed. The trail then flattens out for a bit and then continues to climb. On that short flat stretch I immediately started the same stride pattern as the smiling women who passed me twenty miles before. Click click click click... as I synced up the poles strikes with my cadence. Click click click click.. I was smiling from ear to ear. I immediately relaxed and fell into a syncopated rhythm. Like a metronome. Being a music major in college it was a natural fit that my brain was already wired for it. I was now able to zone in on the poles and mastering their use which allowed me to completely take my mind of the distance left to go. Game changer.

The next twelve miles were a blur. Kourtney and I clicked along without a care enjoying the day as the sun started to slowly drop over the mountains. The field was spread out so there were not as many folks now. I didn't talk much probably to the dismay of Kourtney but sometimes I like quiet and this was one of those times. This loop was going to be tough. We would not finish it until well into darkness so I was trying to not dwell on that. We cruised along and made it smoothly into AS #1 which was arguably the best aid station I have ever seen in any race I have done. The Christmas lights strung well out ahead on the trail was such a nice touch. It was like a lone beacon in the night. A refuge to seek a few moments of peace. The food selection and the volunteers were money. They were pro. They didn't give out fake compliments like "ooh you look so good" and "you are almost there" or any other bullshit. That's amateur and I don't need it. This was my kind of station, in control and all business. Piping hot homemade mashed potatoes with cheese, soups, ramen and broth, sweet and savory selections galore. They took my bottle and immediately asked what I wanted. Textbook aid station the way it should be, and I couldn't thank them enough! The women served me the mashed potatoes and cheese and said just drop the trash on the switchbacks as they will pick it up shortly so we didn't have to waste time standing and eating. I hate dropping trash on a trail it just never seems right but she was in command and serious and I believed her so off we went eating and climbing.

Kourtney and I made quick work of the switchback climb right out the aid station and off we went with our sights set on Petroleum Center. We were pacing beautifully here and I felt like we were really getting into a nice steady flow. My heart rate was in zone two, I was fueling well and hydrating well, and I generally just felt good. All those really tough runs over the season going back to May were really paying off. Blowing up on the oppressively humid day at The Dirty German 50 miler and gutting it out, blowing up at Worlds End 50K and gutting that one out, the brutal climbs and descents of Call of The Wilds Mountain Marathon, the 45 miles at Montour 12 hour, the 40 miles at Labor Pains 12 hour, the suck fest that was the Lehigh Via Marathon, and capping off with a great run at The Dam Full Trail Marathon. I learned valuable information in everyone of those long runs. Those runs were all coming together and paying dividends right now. Kourtney and I were cruising beautifully and a few miles from PC we caught up to our friend Ryan from Nazareth. He appeared hurt and was shuffling with a noticeable limp. We chatted a bit and he had rolled his ankle and was struggling. We both chuckled that the course seemed harder then it was when we came out in July and did a loop. He did just run 100 miles a few weeks prior at the Pine Creek Challenge so the fact he was out here was very impressive. We were moving well so we continued on, popped out onto Old Petroleum Center Road, down a ways over the steel bridge and into AS #2 at Petroleum Center.

Coming back into AS #2, late afternoon with darkness looming.

The plan was to arrive here before it got dark so we were ahead of schedule crossing the mat at 4:49 p.m. This was great because we still had roughly another two plus hours of daylight to run in and if we ran well could probably get to the Miller Farm Rd aid station in time for darkness. That would leave only 5.5 miles left of trail to run in the dark before we came out of the woods and onto the 2.5 mile stretch of open Drake Museum grass loop and bike path. But first we needed to fuel up, change shirts, and get psyched up for the darkness that was coming. I also started to feel some blisters that needed attention. Our pacers Casey and Don were great here as they went to work fixing our feet and taping them up. This was huge as I didn't really know what to do or was I prepared for blisters because I just never get them. 

Dry and fueled up we headed out to the trailhead for The Heisman Trophy Hill climb. Once at the top we started the cruise again. This is the longest stretch in between aid stations and can play with your mind. There is an ultra running phenomenon known as "the aid station drift." That is the when the stations seem to extend their distances in between one another, they drift further and further apart. It can really play with your mind and I have only experienced that maybe twice before. This course however was really prone for that. Even though they had water only stops in between actual aid stations it didn't matter. Water doesn't satisfy when your hungry, tired, and want to see volunteers. This section was a long 8.8 miles in between aid and on this second lap seemed longer. "The Drift" was creeping into the subconscience. Focus was needed here and the goal of just reaching Miller Farm Rd was all that mattered. I was able to push away the looming dark thoughts and after some teetering miles we shot out of the woods and onto that beautiful hard packed road. Just another small victory to savior before running that last 8 miles to finish off the 100k.

As we rolled up into the AS #3 the sun was all but gone, darkness was upon us and the night was making it's presence known. This was the moment I had to embrace. The night can either make you feel alive or drain every last ounce of hope from you. I was determined not to allow the latter to happen. At the aid station I downed Coke and ramen and filled up with more Tailwind. We thanked the volunteers and off we went up to Cemetery Hill and straight into evening's cold embrace. As we hiked the hill I just thought of only needing 5.5 miles of woods to run then we exit out at the Drake Museum into the open and civilization. We could do that, no problem. Small baby steps. Chip away. A few miles into it however I found myself starting to feel very sleepy. It was super dark and I just stared at my headlight beam on the ground. The light would bounce off rotting tree stumps and logs casting awkward shadows out of the corner of my eyes. I wasn't hallucinating per se it was more my eyes starting to get lazy and making out shapes in the shadows and dim light. It was the night trying to get inside my head. It was the darkness begging to be my friend and luring me in. I had to push it away and remind myself this was normal and this is what I paid for. This was new to me and I simply had to fight it. Oddly though it was only a little after 8 pm so I thought it was kinda funny I was so sleepy so early. I knew however to just keep pressing on and it would eventually pass and it did. It was close to 10 pm when we exited the forest and onto the Drake Museum entrance, and sometime around 10:30 when we came into the school and the 100k.

Pacer time! 62 miles down only 38.8 left!

Loop #3 93.3 miles time 27:48 64th place

Casey and Don were dressed and ready to go. We however had to do the usual change socks and shirts and we opted to put on running tights. It was clearly now in the low 40's and threatening to go down into the high 30's overnight. The air seemed super chilled and damp so opting for the tights I felt was a smart move. I changed into a heavy long sleeve tech shirt and nothing else but carried a light jacket just in case. The body sometimes can have issues regulating it's temperature after such a long endurance run so hypothermia was a real threat. Normally I wouldn't be wearing winter tights with the temperatures above freezing. I also was very diligent in reapplying chafing cream to the important areas. I had to remind myself of this and thankfully remembered because the accumulating salty sweat from 17 hours of trail running was building up. We ate some grilled cheese again and I chugged a Starbucks double shot with protein that I had in my drop bags. That was money. A little protein and good dose of caffeine would hopefully propel me to AS #1 at Wolfkiel Run a mere 7 miles away.

Off we went hiking into the darkness. Casey and Don were clearly stoked to finally be able to get out onto the trail and do what they were there to do which was to pace. It was lighthearted and fun as they interjected a great vibe and confidence into getting us through this dark loop. As we hit the trail head we chit chatted and hiked up the first real climb. Casey and I decided to pull ahead and off we went into the cold night.

Everything seems like it's in slow motion at night. Time speeds up and distances lengthen. Miles seem extended..aid stations drift aimlessly further apart as if lost at sea. The forest compresses and closes in on you. My senses became heightened. I was loving it! It's quiet and cold and I stared at the beam of light on the ground as my breath condensed in the cold air. The forest took on a different feel, it came alive. We could hear mice and other small woodland creatures scurrying about under the leaves on the forest floor. I felt good and was moving well. The sleepiness was gone and my mood completely shifted from a survival mode to attack mode. The night gave me my second wind and then some. I felt confident and I felt like the biggest and baddest thing in the woods.

Casey and I cruised along at a nice comfortable pace clicking off the miles. I found myself talking more then I usually do. I think that was the double shot espresso I downed at the school. Either way it was great having an accomplished 100 mile runner behind me pacing and keeping me company. We made our way down to AS#1 along the creek and it was busy and filled with other runners. We grabbed what we needed and quickly took off up the switchbacks. I did not want to get caught lounging at the aid stations. The allure was growing and they were getting inviting so onward we moved. We started running when we got to the top and running well. But there ahead of us was a fat little porcupine waddling down the trail. We chuckled and followed it for a bit then it did a sideways roll right off the trail into a ditch to let us pass. That was probably the strangest thing I have ever seen on a trail run. I didn't remember yelling "on your right" but he let us go by. The miles ticked off and I just concentrated on sipping my half water half mountain dew mix I had in one of my bottles and keeping a nice steady pace with the aid of the trusty poles. Cover the most distance with the least amount of energy expended is always the objective. We exited onto Old Petroleum Road, over the bridge and onward to AS #2. The aid station was hopping with activity for 2 am or so. There was noticeable carnage here. Runners were sprawled out everywhere. Some were getting their legs worked on, some were sitting slumped while friends were giving pep talks, while others were bundled up in blankets just sitting and staring. I was not interested in a blanket or sweet nothings I simply wanted to refill and fuel, change my shirt and get out of dodge. I slammed another one of those Starbucks Double Shot's with protein I had in my drop bag and wow did it taste good. Several minutes later we were out of there and heading to Heisman Trophy Hill. The hardest 17 mile stretch of the race lay before us with only one real aid station to aim for. It was a sobering thought as we climbed and I tried to just block it out.

Once at the top we resumed our run/shuffle or whatever you would call what I was doing. Casey remarked several times that I was moving really well and looking strong but honestly I thought he was just trying to make me feel better. But then we quickly caught up to a group of three runners who were just slowly walking and we basically blew past them like they were tourists. And trust me I was maybe doing fourteen or fifteen minute miles here so it was no speed session. Further down the trail we caught up with a few more, then a few more. Rinse repeat. We kept catching other folks who seemed either lost or out of it or sleepwalking. I was shocked. Casey was right after all, I was moving well, at least compared to some of the others around me. Then we came up on another fellow all alone. He was walking really slow with his head down. I asked him if he was ok and there was a really long pause and then he quietly said "this just never ends...this just never ends does it?" I really felt bad for him cause he was obviously in a bad place. I looked at my watch and amazingly we were only three or so miles out from Miller Farm Rd and AS #3. So I told him you got three miles to go to the aid station. He didn't respond. He actually might have been sleep walking I don't know. A little further up the trail we ran into another girl all alone sleeping on one of the benches for a vista overlook. She sat up looking really confused and we asked her if she was ok and her response was "I don't know why I'm so tired." I have to admit I kind of chuckled at that. I mean it is 4 am and we all have been running for 23 hours now so that may have something to do with it. I am certain if I laid down on a bench I would be snoring in 30 seconds. Anyway we told her about the close proximity of the aid station and off we went. We continued on and at one point we came to a clearing and I turned off my head light for a moment and just stared at the night sky and all the stars. It was so crisp and clear. The starry sky was spectacular. It was just a quick reminder of how lucky we are to be able to do this. It seemed strange I was out here running but I know I wasn't dreaming. Onward we ran.

Off in the distance we could see a runner coming towards us. That was odd I thought. She seemed young and fit and smiling. I wasn't sure if she was a local or race participant or what but she passed by us and said "only a little over a mile to the next aid station". Oh good we thought. Then a mile came and went. Then another mile. "Why would she say that?" I said to Casey as we were climbing Ida Tarbell's Wrath and not realizing it. Rule number one is to NEVER say how far to a runner..NEVER! Especially if you have no idea! And just like that I entered a bad place. Even Casey was confused as to where we were and why we haven't reached the road. The hill just kept going and going and no sign of the road. I was mad. I was pissed off and mad as hell that she said that. I shouldn't have been and I should have just brushed it off but in that state it's tough. Those few miles were my lowest point in the race and all because of a simple phrase muttered by someone. I expended a lot of negative energy in those miles that I should not have. I really tried to clear my mind. I was thinking back to some podcasts I listened to a few months back. I recalled listening to an interview with Nickademus Hollon discussing his running of Tor De Geants, a mountain race in Europe covering 200 miles and 78,000 ft of gain. He discussed the power of the mind and how you need to switch your thinking when it sucks to smiling and actually talking to yourself and saying things like "this is good, this is what it's supposed to feel like at this point in the race." Simply talking to yourself out loud in a positive way when the going gets tough will pull you out of that dark place. Smiling also, you need to smile. So I started to try it. I was almost arguing with myself. "This sucks this no no this is good..this is knew this was coming and here it is just keep smiling cause you will never need to do this section again!" Try to find one positive thing. I deployed this tactic over and over on these 2 or 3 miles and have to say it was working. It still sucked to a degree but just sucked considerably less. I just kept mumbling to myself positive things. And sure enough we heard a car and saw the road. A car was just sitting here with it's lights on which we thought was strange but the more light the better I guess. We popped out onto the road and jogged down into AS#3.

Casey had to take care of some business in the men's room so I decided to sit in a chair one of the nice volunteers pulled over for me. I said "no way I'm sitting in front of that blazing fire." They had a nice roaring fire going and sitting all around it were people slumped over snoring away. I didn't want any part of that but I did want to just sit for a bit while I waited for Casey so I sat in the cold over in front of the water fill up at the table. The kind volunteers got me black coffee and ramen and broth. The coffee was incredible. It just tasted so good as it is. No cream or sugar needed. The ramen was good as was the broth. It was just hard to eat I have to say. I wasn't feeling it but I ate the ramen. I sat there staring into space. The sun was going to come up wihin the next hour and half or so it was that time in the very early morning where you start to get really sleepy. Sitting here for five minutes was really nice as I could gear up for the next 5.5 miles of woods to get to the Drake museum. I thought to myself I could do that. Casey came out and off we went up Cemetery Hill in a much better mood then the last few miles. We made quick work and just kept shuffling along. It was still foggy so as the sun came out it just slowly became less dark but still foggy and the mountains obscured any real sunrise. It didn't matter anyway. That was a long five miles to the museum but it was sunny out when we popped out off the trail and around the frosted grass mile and up the bike path to cross the mat at mile 93.

Mile close to being done but another 2.5 hrs to go ..ugh.

Final Coming Home Loop 100.8 miles 30:33 64th place

Almost done. Almost. I sat in my chair and ate a little and Dave Walker came over and was grilling me. So good to see him as he was upbeat and smiling as usual. He said things like "isn't that bike path horrible?" I laughed and smiled and agreed. He responded that the "next 7 miles are easy, no problem!" It was great humor that was hilarious and the way he said it was like don't worry about it piece of cake. He knew the deal. So up we went and he walked with us to the entrance road and wished us well. As we went down the neighborhood road and entered the bike path we got to see so many friends coming up the home stretch to finish off the race. It was so awesome. I saw Lori and Dean Johnson, Janine and Bob Gusztaw and Paul Encarnacion gunning for the finish. It made me happy to see familiar faces about to cross the finish line. So up the trail head we went for the two miles to the split. I was pretty slow but moving consistently slow at least with the poles. These two miles took an eternity. The sun was shining through the trees and I realized I had been out here for over 28 hours. It was sobering. We finally reached the split and again it felt odd to go left after always going right. I kept checking with Casey to see if we had enough time left and he assured me we did. I could not think for myself other then to move forward. We passed by the remnants of the Acid Works factory and you could smell the chemicals drifting up from the soil. We ran along a flat grassy section that again seemed to take a month and a day and finally came to a cool suspension bridge. Crossing the bridge you came up to the Hill of Truth. It was a series of switchbacks that climbed and met back up with the final two miles or so of trail before exiting at the Drake Museum. The climb wasn't so bad really it was the two miles after that seemed to once again drag on for hours. We managed to get those two miles done and around the guiderail and across the bridge. As we entered the bike path from the Jersey Bridge I finally realized I was actually going to finish this race. I just ran 100 miles! A year ago I just ran my first 50K. This is total madness. As we crossed the bridge leading up to the school I ran ahead, turned the corner to the straightway and crossed that finish line to a round of applause. Wow what a nice round of cheers to receive from strangers and other runners. It was really special. My wife was crying and said "you did it you did it!' Tom Jennings was smiling and clapping and I shook his hand and thanked him for a hard but beautiful course. He handed me the buckle and sticker and it was now official. I ran my first 100 miles in 30 hours 33 minutes and 33 seconds. A new PR.

Buckle in hand, sharing a laugh with RD Tom Jennings. And yes those poles are holding me up.

When can I do it again!!
A few thoughts.

 1. Pacers are huge. Casey and Don were amazing with how they crewed and paced and were a huge part of the success of this race.

 2. I really enjoyed the overnight running and I never thought I would. 

 3. I ran the race of my life. I paced about as good as I could ever have asked, for my ability level. I took salt every hour, I drank Tailwind consistently while mixing in real food. I only really hit one low point but managed to pull out of it with some self help talking tricks.

4. I need to pack my drop bags with a little more thought.

5. I should have packed my Pearl Izumi M2 trail shoes. I would have wore them for sure at some point instead of the tired Cascadia's'

6. My training was solid coming into this race with an emphasis on mountain running and climbing on the weekends and road speed work during the week. But to finish MMT,  Eastern States and/or Grindstone I will need to train with more elevation gain. Which means more trips to the AT.. Bring it!!

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Ghost and The Upstairs Room - Running The Call of The Wilds Mountain Marathon

When I was six my father remarried and we moved into my step mother's very large and old three story home over on Church Road in Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia. The house had what seemed like thirty rooms. There were three rooms and a full bathroom on the third floor. This is where my room was. The staircase leading up from the first floor was steep and would climb forever and I hated that I had to climb so many steps to go to bed each night. I also didn't like the fact that I was alone up there and so far away from the front door exit and my father and sister's on the second floor. But I wasn't really alone. Something else was there but at the time I didn't really understand it. That bathroom was a place to avoid. Something was wrong with it and as a six year old I could instinctually feel it. To this day my two older sisters would silently nod their head with enlarged eyes if I bring it up. Years later my father would tell us of him being routinely woken up in the middle of the night by a crying baby. He would walk the house and check on us and find we were all fast asleep. There was no infant in the house. At other times you could hear the large 1980's style stereo playing way off in the distance up on the third floor. There was no one upstairs so we would make the long hike up from the first floor to turn it off. Hours later it would be on again and not a soul was up there. I disliked that house and those stairs and that climb. There was buried fear there. There were demons there in all sense. Where am I going with all this? I have no idea, but I'm sure I'll figure it all out at some point! So fast forward to when I started running two years ago. Like most new road runners I hated to climb I hated hills. I would avoid them. Like the stairs and like that bathroom on the third floor. Then something clicked. I can't actually put my finger on it but I began to enjoy them. It was shortly after I discovered the pure joy of trail running. I wanted to climb more and more and higher and higher. I wasn't scared anymore. I confronted the avoidance. Then I saw this race last year and I knew I just had to run it but I had to wait an entire year to do so. The wait was well worth it.

The Torbert Trail climb at mile 24 was and is the defining section of this race. It was specially set aside just for the marathoners. This climb was purposely placed here at this point in the race I believe to get you to dig deep, real deep. You were forced to confront your fears or turn around and give up. The RD wants to leave you with a lasting impression and remind you that free lunches are not given away here. There is no other explanation. It was genius! I wish I could have shaken his hand at the finish! The 100 mile folks did not have to do this section. They were spread out and lost in their own world along multiple other ridge lines. So it was here on this mountainside you discovered just how badly you really wanted it. You either left your crumbling will on that climb or you embraced the lactic acid pulsing in your quads and calves. I was forewarned of this particular section of trail by David Walker in an exchange we had regarding the race a week prior. David of course is behind the masterfully beautiful Worlds End 50k and 100k in Forksville as well as Montour 24 in Danville. Two races I did and loved. He knows these trails pretty well. Here is his simple but direct response to me asking about that final big climb at Call of the Wilds.

"No breaks in the climb. After coming down Gleason... 1,000 ft or so technical descent in .4 miles...Torbert will murder you."

My eyes lit up with joy upon reading this. I mean no clear headed ultrarunner in their right mind would steer away from that. That comment is like a moth to a flame. However if there was one tiny little thing that was somewhat overlooked on my part was that those descents would slowly over the course of the previous 24 miles grind down my legs like a buzzsaw. I love descending, I fancy myself an above average runner on technical downhills. I enjoy them. I've trained and concentrated trying to better my technique over the last year on climbing and descending on rocky and rooty steep trails. 1,000 foot climbs and 1,000 foot descents on the Appalachian Trail over and over again. However those rocks on the AT don't move. Those rocks stay put and you can float over them if you have the foot speed and the guts to do so. But here in Waterville Pennsylvania I was about to find out that these particular climbs, but more shockingly the descents, were a different animal. These rocks moved and wobbled and tilted and were smeared with the darkest and blackest forest floor loam that made them as slick as if they were smeared with bacon grease. The trails were dry but the surrounding forest floor rocks and moss seemed to be locked in a suspended state of dampness. It's hard to describe and you just have to experience it firsthand to really understand.

So there I was waking up at 2:30 am for the 170 mile drive up the Pa Turnpike, across Route 80, and up to Waterville.  I don't mind driving the morning of a race. I have a whole ritual and kinda enjoy those dark miles on the highway to mentally prepare for what I know will be a tough day. The drive is almost always uneventful. However upon exiting from 220 and onto Route 44 as I made the right hand turn I was face to face with an imposing mountain side shrouded in mist. It was stunning seeing the mountains block out the sunrise. It was one of those "oh wow" moments that adds to the excitement. As I made the drive along the mountains I followed four other cars clearly going to the same location as me. We had a little caravan of cars that mimicked those small caravans you wind up in on the trail during a race. All of us were going too fast of course desperately wanting to arrive at our location and get ready. Arrive we did and the sun was trying to peak between the mountain tops.

The energy was in the air. This will be fun!
As I got ready at my car I saw Dylan and Paul and the fun began. They came over and we talked and laughed and discussed our super loose strategies for the race which is basically "Ummm yea let's run this monster and try not to get hurt or blow up." Well, that was my strategy at least.

Dylan and Paul before lift off. Dylan would later go on to take 2nd place and almost win the damn thing.

 I then I saw Mick whom I met on the Oil Creek trail a few weeks back when a few of us went out for a recon loop there. Checking the watch we realized it was almost go time so we strolled over to the start area and man I think I recognized another 20 runners or so. It was incredible. It was like a reunion. Jes Haslund "The Danish Assassin" aka "The Copenhagen Clubber" showed up and was ready to run despite his phantom bad back (more on that later). Jes is from Denmark and is also a member of TrailWhippass.

Jes in obvious pain at the start and your's truly 5 minutes before takeoff.

I then saw Brian Crownover, Ron Kappus, Gilbert Gray, and Paul introduced me to John Johnson who won WE100K and is one of PA's elite. I was literally talking to John about The Dam Full Marathon (which he won last year) coming up in September and how we both love the race and how surprising not many people are aware of this little gem. I was in mid sentence when all of a sudden the crowd was off and up the road we went.

Miles 0-9 to The View

The first mile was over before I could blink. It was on the blacktop road and I chatted with Jes and Paul as we slowly warmed up. We then turned into the main campground site, ran down the main road and then up in to the woods on some nice benign single track. It was here I found myself running behind Laurie who I'm friends with on social media but actually never met. How funny it was to finally meet her and shake her hand while we ran down the trail. We chatted away and laughed as we ran and Paul was in front and remarked how high up we were already. It was rather high, as we looked down over the edge. I was actually wondering how in the hell did we get so high up and it seemed like we were running on a flat trail. We crossed a little creek and up over Dam Run Road and met our first climb of five for the day. I took it slow and easy and felt strong on the climb. It was around 1,000 vertical feet which is what I'm used to so not a huge deal. The loose rocks were slick however and that took a bit more concentration to manage. But about halfway up Jes, who was behind me I'm sure limping those first four miles from his intense back pain, slapped me on the backside and passed me on the left (on a 30% slope mind you). He darted up the remaining portion of that climb as if running to a Claus Meyer book signing with all you can eat smørrebrød. That was the last I saw of Jes until about eight hours later when we was lounging shirtless at the finish line.

After cresting the top of the first climb it was a fun few miles heading downward where we crossed Ramsey Run on a little wooden foot bridge. It was Paul, Laurie and I chatting away about Laurel Highlands and MMT and various other races. It's the part of running these races that really is so special, the sharing of miles with good people with a few laughs mixed in. After the foot bridge we began another climb of around 800 feet that would lead us right up to one of the signature views of the area, aptly name The View.

A runner smartly using poles for the second climb.

The Pine Creek Gorge. Appreciate the gift and don't take it for granted.
We actually had to leave the course and take a short spur trail to get to the vista but it was well worth the five or so minutes that it took. A few other runners running the race came down and we snapped some pictures of each other and took that view in. Funny thing about that view, is that the time it took to see it in the end cost me a sub nine hour finish which is what I was gunning for from the start. However running past that view and not stopping just to gain a few minutes on my final time would have been worse. Life is too short not to appreciate what running gives us and that vista reminded me of that.

Miles 9 to 25 Jersey Mills Aid Station

Mile ten came and went and Paul and I were running together and running well. We then hit another 1,000 ft mile long gnarly descent down to the Ramsey aid station at the Pine Creek rail trail and iron bridge. Ramsey was another fantastic aid station and a volunteer immediately offered up ice and water and whatever I needed. She took my bottle and went to work. That is a great volunteer and I thanked her several times over.

Paul all smiles before a big climb.

Off I went down the rail trail to the bridge and Paul was telling the story of the attacking porcupine that went after him last year during the night at the Pine Creek Challenge. I was laughing because that visual was hilarious, Paul with his poles on a lonely rail trail at 2 am going to blows and fending off a rabid porcupine. That laugh was needed for me at least as we jogged off the ease of the rail trail and starting climb number three. This side of the mountain was hot and suffocating as we started the nearly three mile climb up to Ramsey Vista Road. The heat of the late morning was creeping in and it was closing in on noontime. The humidity lingered here under the canopy. I lost Paul here momentarily as he seemed to just float up the mountain and I was struggling a bit with my heart rate and the heat. That three miles took me an hour. I never stopped but the slow hands on knees hike up and steady power walk in between took some time. These climbs did however make you feel alive. The course was swinging and landing some punches but you take them in stride and continue on. I wait for my heart rate to drop take some fluids maybe a Gu and start the jog down through the rhododendron lined ridge line trail. As soon as I start to run it then becomes apparent we are dropping down on yet another two mile long descent heading into aid station three at Lower Pine Bottom. I catch up to Paul again as he's filming runners with his GoPro as they ran past and down the steep switch backs. Initially this descent was steep and rough but then maybe the last half mile became super runnable and I was bombing it big time. It felt really good to open up my stride and I was running at a tempo pace which is so fun on the side of a mountain with the Pine Creek flowing below. I was able to pass several runners on this stretch who were walking, reaffirming to me that my simple race strategy of running with the course instead of against it was in full motion.

At the bottom of the mountain we popped out onto Route 44 and hung a left up the paved entrance to the DCNR Management Offices where the aid station was. This paved entrance was totally exposed to the noonday sun as we hiked up the long road. The heat bounced off the blacktop and hit you in the face. I jogged through the parking lot and immediately saw Mel Lancet who was working the aid station. Also there was Ron Kappus and Bob B. They were smiling and just lounging about cheering on their friends. I was somewhat envious to a degree. I wanted to be in flip flops just lounging in the shade cheering on friends. As I filled my bottles and stuffed my face Ron mentioned to me that I had another short climb coming up. I'll have to thank him for that when I see him again because that climb wasn't short. Leaving the aid station I was alone once again. Leaving this station you ran downhill through a wooded area, across the box culvert, and onto the side of the road where you ran across the bridge and onto the rail trail before quickly darting back up towards the mountain again. At this point you were faced with a one mile climb of around 1,100 ft up switchbacks. This mile took me thirty minutes but even so I swiftly passed another runner halfway up whom I never saw again. It was a little after noon and the sun was pounding on this side of the mountain. Once you finished the switchbacks the climb looked over but it was not. You then had a long steady climb up an old logging type road. This climb was the hardest yet but once you reached the top there was some nice running to be had and nice views. Unfortunately that nice running lasted a little less then a mile. On top of this ridge I passed another runner who was walking. I asked him how he was and he said he's been better. I wished him well and began the 1,100 ft descent back down towards Pine Creek. I descended this all alone and it was rough. By rough I mean descending on slopes of thirty to forty percent on loose slick rocks. It was slow and I was all alone but I was determined to move as quickly as my abilities would allow. Once at the bottom it was a two and half mile section of very runnable logging road that traveled above the rail trail below it. It was mostly shaded and very easy going. Again it was here you needed to hammer down what was given to you. I didn't exactly have much of a hammer left more like a rubber mallet but I did manage to pass two more runners and catch up with Paul and his buddy Julius. We now had a little train of three going and managed to quickly pass a pack of about four runners as we rolled into Jersey Mills, the final aid station just shy of mile twenty five.

Mile 25 to mile 30 and the finish

Jersey Mills was an oasis and bustling with activity as we rolled in. The volunteers here were tremendous and very attentive in getting us all ice and watermelon. The heat and humidity was really blazing here at this point. It was just after 2 pm as we started the long and slow slog up the Torbert Trail. Paul and Julius quickly passed me only about three tenths of a mile in and another runner also passed me whom I will call "Timmy." Now when Timmy passed me he told me the story from last year of how on this very climb several runners basically bailed on this mountain and jogged back down and quit the race outright. As I was panting and sweating profusely I was only able to mumble a "wow." All I could think of was this climb can't be that bad. But then I looked up and all I could see was a never ending tunnel that appeared to get steeper the further off you looked. What made it worse was that way way off in the distance I could see a distant runner who looked as small as a toy doll slowly climbing into infinity. At this point I stopped to catch my breath as did Timmy above me and Julius and Paul further up. The way to climb this sucker without poles was simple, head down and hands on knees and grind. Grind like you have never before and then rest at one of the trees seemingly strategically planted many years ago every fifty feet or so up the trail. So that's how I approached it. And sure enough I started gaining ground on Timmy. I looked up at one point Timmy was actually sitting down on that hill, right in the middle of the trail. Closer and closer I got to Timmy and then I passed him almost as if in slow motion. He graciously said nice job to me and upward I marched. Julius was almost at the top and he just stood there resting. I patted him on the back and went passed. At the top of that climb were two other runners just siting there. I recognized Mick from the run we did out at Oil Creek. He seemed fine but apparently he was cramping up. I was hellbent on finishing at that point so I had tunnel vision.

A short stretch of seemingly flat trail had me in a run/walk pattern after Torbert. I was trying to bring my heartrate down and calm myself for the final push to the finish. Then I saw the trail was littered with bear scat. Then I came up on some more. Then I heard a loud snap just off the trail. I stopped and listened and realized again I was totally alone. I started running. But then I was thinking your not supposed to run away from a bear. I was chuckling to myself as my mind was swimming in thoughts of bear shit and future maulings. At one point I actually looked over my shoulder to see if one was behind me. I told myself to snap out of it. And there it was, a bandit water station. Thank god for them. I grabbed some water here and passed another runner. I then saw Paul fixing his pack and off we went to tackle a very tough and long descent. This one was only about a 900 ft but on ground up quads it was slow going. I had to brake on long sections of this drop. Of course using your quads as brakes minces them and is fatal in a long race but for this distance there really was no choice. Its funny how time speeds up and distance slows the further you go. Why is this descent taking so long I thought to myself. My god is there a bottom to this I mumbled. It was comical. Finally at the bottom we crossed a small bridge over a stream and came up on a hunting cabin. We started the long hike up this slow moving hill and realized this was the final climb. Paul graciously shared some more water with me as I made a silly mistake and did not fill up at the bandit station. As we started to climb up The Love Run trail, Paul floated away up that hill and I struggled. I deployed the same tactic as on Torbert. Head down and grind. Ain't nobody got time for complaining I thought. Once at the top I actually caught up to Paul again. Up and over and down along Panther run we went. He sprinted ahead like a gazelle and I tried to keep up as we bombed along. We passed a few tricky sections that were slow going on tired legs but once passed it was a sprint to the finish. That feeling of pure joy as you touch down on blacktop, turn left, and tempo style through the grass across the finish. All done at 9 hours and 1 minute. Now where is that beer stand.

Loving life. Photo by Bo Hagaman

Some random thoughts.

1. One of the things that I have learned to do over the past year is to take what the course gives you. Like the saying goes "don't be a pig, pig's get slaughtered." This particular course had very runnable sections believe it or not and especially along the ridges however and for me I needed to conserve my energy and legs for those sections. Some of the trail was super soft almost spongy and springy single track. This seems to happen in hemlock and pine groves sections where decades of dropped needles slowly decompose in the rich forest floor soil. This course had many stretches like that as do many of the Central Pa races. That is what you had to take when it was presented.

2. The climbs. Oh I loved them. I learned a very valuable lesson at Breakneck Point Marathon last April. I was not prepared at all for that level of climbing and I left that course up in Beacon NY a whipped pup. Since then I have trained for climbs such as that and it really payed off. I felt strong on all of them except the last smaller one on The Love Run trail. Months of hard work does pay off and I will continue to work at it heading into Oil Creek and next year for the Triple Crown. I'm not afraid anymore to go upstairs.

3. The trail community and especially the ultra community in the Mid Atlantic and Northeast just rocks. Plain and simple. So many friends and so much fun can be had. Next year I will hopefully toe the line at the big dance here. I have a year to get ready.