Saturday, December 9, 2017

Wrapping Your Head Around The Unthinkable

I was at mile forty five of the Devil Dog 100 miler when I found out. It was a cold early December late afternoon and I came into the start/finish after my second loop cold, tired, and wanting something hot to eat. It was December 2nd otherwise known as States and Hardrock lottery day. I put in for both but thought nothing of it as the chances of being picked are so small it almost doesn't warrant much attention. I had maybe a 3% chance for WS and a paltry 0.8% for Hardrock. That is when Laura Mooney walked up to me as a sat down to rummage through my drop bag. Here is that conversation.

Laura: Hey how are you doing? I have something exciting I want to tell you! (smiling and pulling out her phone)

Me: Hey Laura, I'm doing ok just tired and wet (mumble mumble grumpy face etc..)

Laura: I have a text I want to show you! (shows me the screen on her phone which read this)

If you see Bryan Slotterbach
 tell him he just got into Hardrock.

Me: Wha? What? How? Huh? What the fuuuuck?? (staring into oblivion)

I did not understand. I did not compute. I was almost halfway through a much tougher 100 miler then I envisioned and I'm being told I just got into arguably the most difficult 100 miler in the world (excluding Barkley which is not technically a 100 miler and is it's own thing). Laura's boyfriend another good friend Mike Yoder came over and said the text was from Tom Chobot and is legit. He would not joke about something like that. I sat there in a daze. Caught between the next 55 miles of the race I was in and trying to process this news. Honestly I was in shock. In my head all I could think about were all those Hardrock youtube videos I had watched over and over. I didn't feel joy but dread. I just kept having conversations to myself in my head that went something like. 

Me in my head : "How can I possibly do this race? It's Hardrock! I am not worthy? I have done a few hard mountain hundreds but they are nothing and I mean nothing compared to the ultimate high altitude mountain run. Dear god what have I done?"

So for the next eighteen hours and three loops of Devil Dog I just tried to wrestle in my head the thought of doing a 100 miles in the San Juan"s. It was motivation to finish let me tell you.

I did finish in 30:08 and it was a great way to finish off my year of running. I had a great spring, a horrible and lousy summer filled with drops and DNF's and a great fall. 

The three and half hour drive home up 95 was filled with tears and emotion. Finishing 100's always leaves me an emotional mess. It's funny that way. It's almost like I feel fragile emotionally. It's clearly the lack of sleep and exhaustion of going 100 miles on foot through the cold night, hitting mental highs and lows, hunger, pain, feelings of I'm not going to make it to feelings of yes I will, and joy and elation. It's here I would also envision for the first time myself coming into Silverton and kissing the rock. My god... Huddled over, tears of joy, seeing the clock with a small amount of time still on it. What would that honestly be like? I start picturing it! And then start balling in my car on the highway. That vision with my current emotional state opens the floodgates. That's when I start laughing at myself and to myself. Hey get yourself together dude. Snap out of it.

It's now December 9th as I type this. A week has gone by and the shock is still there. I have begun the history lesson of this event. It's time to study. Like a mid term paper that is due or a big final exam. Everything and anything must be absorbed and understood. The history must be read to fully understand the core of this run. How the mountains were formed. The history of the district. The mining and the suffering of the miners. How the course flows and why. The altitude and the logistics. The trails and how they were engineered and by whom. An entire encyclopedia of information must be understood before even pinning on that bib. Respect. Before actual physical training begins, one must have a full knowledge of this place. That is how I feel. Otherwise how can you train if you don't know? This is like no other challenge that I have done. I have eight months. And I will be using this blog to catalog my feelings and training. What I do love is sinking my teeth into a goal. And I love the process of training for that goal. I have drawn up an initial training plan which includes more mileage and more vert and more speed work then I have ever done. But I know I can do it. It will require getting back to 4 am runs during the week and possibly some doubles as I hit peak weeks. But I know I can do it. I know I can. But for now I'll relax and enjoy the holidays. Run enough to keep some fitness and then come January, it's on.

Looking northeast into Silverton, Colorado, in 1895. Image taken from the base of Sultan Mountain. Photo courtesy of the San Juan County Historical Society of Silverton, Colorado. Courtesy of iRunfar

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!!