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.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Round and Round at Montour 24 (12 hour)

Montour is a timed event something completely foreign and new to me. I love single loop trail races or point to point type races. Multiple loops on a track or otherwise scare me. I guess it's the fear of boredom or something. Looped courses just seem mentally harder due to the ease of simply stopping. But on the plus side there is no DNF and you are always so close to supplies and bathrooms. It's about convenience I suppose. So since my A race for the year is Oil Creek 100 in October I decided early on the year that the more looped type races I would sign up for the better. OC100 is a looped course with three 50k loops and one 7.7 mile mini loop.

Signing up for this race was sort of a last minute deal. I was stalking the race but just couldn't get myself to hit the enter button. Until of course I ran Worlds End 50K back in May. That race put on by the same RD David Walker was nothing short of spectacular. I floundered in that race due to the high humidity on race day but the feel and vibe of that race coupled with the jaw dropping beauty of the course and the aid stations and many friends I made there had me all but destined to sign up for the 12 hour day race. It was perfectly set up for a nice training run to work on nutrition and my speed walking skills. I didn't feel I needed the 24 hour event as I didn't need anything over 50 miles. I also had several friends, Ryan and Casey, doing the 24 hour event and Destrie doing the 12 hour night race so I would have plenty of friends there. So off to Danville I went, just a short two hour drive from home.

Casey and the BRCC crew all set up.

I set up my chair and supplies with Casey and his BRCC crew Ken and Dan who came up from Maryland. They were all doing the 24 hour event. I chatted with them while setting up and found Ryan and Lauren set up over near the start. Ryan introduced Lauren a newly transplanted Floridian from Orlando but originally from Chicago who now lives in Philly. This was her first Northeast race and more importantly first PA race. As we stood there chatting we realized the race was about to start and all of a sudden we were off along the wet grass and in to the woods for the first 1.5 mile loop. We chatted some as we jogged along the creek. The course was well shaded, super easy to run, and flat. There was one little hill to climb each loop but it took maybe a minute to climb it each time. Just enough to break it up I thought but I prefer more climbing then more flat running. Before you know it you are back at the start crossing the mat.

I could do this I thought. This won't be so bad as long as it didn't get overly hot and humid. My goal was to run 50 miles. My previous 50 miler at Dirty German in Philly was sort of a mess really. I mean I finished it but it was ugly. That race was unbearably humid and I cramped badly and overheated. This race was to see if I could avoid that fiasco and finish on a somewhat more upbeat note. So that was my simple plan. I would rely on Tailwind and whatever fruit and things would be at the aid station. To my surprise they had single pack servings of Tailwind at the aid station! That was a huge score cause I didn't need to fumble around with scooping it out of my drop box bag. They also had ice cold Tang which rules by the way and fresh brewed ice tea and various cold watermelon and cantaloupe.

Lap after lap went by and I finally glanced at my watch and I was at mile 10 already and running comfortably at an almost tempo pace. I was running too quickly. I knew it and even told Ryan and Lauren I was running too fast. But did I slow down? No not really. Somewhere around this time the heat was creeping in and I suddenly needed to go to the bathroom. This never happens to me. I never use the bathroom in the middle of a run unless I ate something odd. Luckily the bathroom is only 1.5 miles away at worst so again that was nice. That break pretty much killed my running flow and cost me at least 10 minutes but nothing you can do. I did feel better after though and continued the lapfest. I was having a good time passing some folks then they would pass me then I would pass them again. It was Groundhog Day. Every runner was so great cause we would all say hello or give a thumbs up.

Mile 20 came and went and I decided to start the music flowing to keep my mind from focusing on another 30 miles. I was starting to speed walk a little more on the flats and was completely content with that and mixing in running when I felt like it. I was still managing 12-13 minute miles which was plenty fast to get 50 miles in 12 hours. Lauren and Ryan came up to me at one point and Ryan was running strong and went ahead. Lauren convinced me to start jogging with her instead of walking which I did. She had the quote of the day for me, she said "fake run." Apparently her coach who worked with her to finish Ancient Oaks 100 miler gave her that idea. Ya know just fake run which is really faster then a walk but somewhat slower then a jog. I loved it cause I'm not fast at all and have no official track background so I'm a natural in the phony running department. And sure enough to my surprise it worked. I was trying so hard at this point to keep my heart rate in zone 2 and not let it spike like I let it the first 10 miles and the "fake run" idea was keeping it low. She went ahead shortly after that as I slowed down again but that tip was perfect for me and I would use that idea the rest of the way.

That space between a 50k and 50 miles is like a dead zone. Or better yet more like a chasm. It really is fairly wide and you just have to not think about another 19 or so miles. But I was of course. Run walk run walk run walk over and over. The fun part of doing a 1.5 mile loop is that before you can really start feeling sorry for yourself you are crossing the mat again and staring at the aid station again. Then you tell yourself "hey it's only another 1.5 miles, I mean really who can't do that right?" I told my brain this a few times around lap 23 through 26. It was pretty hot and I was almost chugging a mixture of Tailwind, Tang, and Brewed Tea constantly. I was careful not to give myself the dreaded "sloshy belly" but I think I was starting to really get close. Onward I went and almost always walked from the start to the woods line then jogged to and across the planked stream crossing, walked the hill, and walked half of the straightaway then ran the footbridge section and walked a portion of the rooty trail then ran to the finish. I really tried to adhere to this because I needed to keep my mind engaged in some sort of diversion plan once it was clear I had to move to a half speed walk/half jog approach. I also had to make sure my heart rate stayed in zone 2. This after all is 100 mile training and not a race.

I met Bill who is 66 years young sometime in the mile thirties for me. Because of his walking I passed him at least one time each lap.  He didn't run at all ever. He limp walked which resulted in a slow pace. He looked like he was in pain but I'm not sure if he was or not. He didn't appear to be in pain but I could be wrong on this of course. It was rather amazing that he was out here for 12 hours and managed a total of 15 laps. It was nothing short of inspirational. I asked him how he was and he chuckled in a very upbeat tone "kinda slow!" I gave him encouragement and shook his hand introducing myself. Another runner ran by and gave him some love also. This moment right here sums up ultra running for me. The grit and determination this guy had was top notch. I didn't know his life story or why he was out here but it didn't matter because he was doing it. I wished him well and walked away while choking back some tears. I felt really emotional after speaking with him and his gutty performance gave me a lift. I went on the pass him several more times and shouted out to him a few times when I went by and he would raise his arm signaling he was fighting onward. One of the highlights for me during this race was meeting Bill.

Bill getting it done!

Onward and round and round I went. But around mile 40 I simultaneously started to feel a chafing issue coming on along with several blisters on the bottom of my left foot and pinkie toe. The blisters I ignored figuring I'm not going to tend to my feet when I'm almost done. The chafing was really bothersome however and it was in a spot I have never experienced before. Let's just say a very private spot that only my gender has. A spot I failed to apply lube or glide. I ignored it as well for some reason thinking I could block it out. I finished that lap and did another then another then on my thirtieth lap I felt raw and stinging and my mind quit at that point. My mind took control and I was to end on this lap. I strolled across the mat at mile 45 and walked into the aid station and told David I was done. I then proceeded to tell him how much I enjoyed the event and how surprisingly fun it was. I got a bowl of chili, sat down, and ate.
Ryan high on life at mile 40!

I still had 1:26 on the clock when I finished which made me feel really good. It doesn't really matter that I missed my goal by 5 miles. 50 miles is simply a number. I didn't have to prove to myself I could run 50 miles I've already done that. This run was more about feeling better after running such a long distance and I felt pretty darn good, which is good because I had a solo 2 hour drive home. And honestly with almost 90 minutes left on the clock if I really had to I could have cleaned up and gone back out for the extra 5 miles. But 45 is a great training day in my book plus I got to hang out with Destrie, a fellow TrailWhippass teammate, and cheer on Ryan and Casey and his crew for a little bit. It was great day in Danville for sure and I hope to return for the full 24 hour event next year.

Done and happily eating chili.

A few takeaways from this event.

1. I felt pretty good except my hip flexors were really starting to tighten up sometime after the 50k distance and I wasn't used to that. Because of this my stride became short and I really could tell I was starting to shuffle. In hindsight maybe I should have taken a few moments to stretch out or whatever but I foolishly didn't. That will be something to watch for at Labor Pains 12 hour in September.

2. Way to much "lounging" at the aid station. Can't do that in a 100 miler for sure. I should have taken a baggie and filled it then left and ate on the walk to the tree line. But kudos to David and his wife and the volunteers for having such a fantastic aid station where ravenous runners like me didn't want to leave.

3. I need to eat more protein and fat during a long event. I lived on Tailwind and fruit which is fine but toward the 10 hour mark I was craving fatty protein rich foods and I did not address that craving which I should have. The body knows what it wants. Again something to work on.

4. I enjoyed the looped course way more then I originally thought I would. Lucky for me I have another 12 hour event coming up and a 6 hour event. And my fellow runners where so great and fun to cheer on. The convenience of the aid and bathrooms and personal stuff right along the course was huge.

Montour 24 is truly a big gem in a small town in Central Pennsylvania.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Into The Wild at World's End

The PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources describes Word's End State Park as "virtually in a class by itself, this wild, rugged and rustic area seems almost untamed". After spending more then ten hours and running thirty four miles within this park and surrounding Loyalsock Forest in a single day, I cannot agree more. Up until I signed up for this inaugural event I had never even heard of this park and I have lived in Southeastern Pennsylvania my entire life. The area that the park resides is referred to as the Endless Mountains which is part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. The park is almost entirely surrounded by the Loyalsock State Forest. The ecology is diverse and wild, almost unworldly here. The term "Jurassic park" like was used by some runners. I have run trails in a variety of forests in the Northeast but never have I seen a place as magical as this, and it's only a little over two hours from my doorstep.

Ryan gunning for the age group awards!

Ready to hit the forest.

The RD David Walker gave us our instructions wished us well and rang the cow bell and off we went up the park service road.

Photo by Robert Stoudt.

 It was muggy and humid at 7 am. I started the race with two fellow TWA members Ryan and Jes. That lasted for about a mile at best as they are much faster then me. As soon as we left the blacktop and into the woods I was on my own. There was maybe 70 runners or so for the 50K. The 100K folks went out two hours earlier at 5 am.

Miles 0-3.35 High Rock Aid Station

We did the paved park campground loop passing some cabins and campers just waking up and coming out to cheer us on. The air was clammy, heavy and humid as we crossed the bridge overtop the Loyalsock Creek. You could hear the runners feet and rushing water underneath. The air was also saturated with the previous nights campfires as they smoldered away. About a half mile in we started a small climb around the campground then another climb into the forest. It was only a few hundred feet climb but rocky and fun. We then ran about a mile down hill to the first aid station at mile 3.35. These first three plus miles ticked off quickly. I was already almost drenched in sweat so when I saw the oranges at the first aid station it was so nice to inhale several chunks. Fresh cut fruit is the #1 best thing at any aid station. Your body absorbs it instantly, it's refreshing, and it quenches the thirst.

Miles 3.35-10.79 Sones Pond Aid Station

As I started the first real climb out of High Rock it seemed I was alone already. The race field is small and the course diverse so that often will spread the field out very quickly. This was maybe an 800 ft hike up the mountain. I was sipping my usual Tailwind and downed two saltstick tabs. The plan was to avoid the vice lock calf cramps I had at the Dirty German 50 miler two weeks prior. I finished that 50 miler but it was a painful slog on the last loop. I could not allow the same thing to happen on a course with vert. Every hour two salt tabs. The heat and humidity were really creeping in but I felt confident with the plan.
This section was a good 7 miles to the next aid station. As I made my way down to a small waterfall I was already having a difficult time picking up the small orange flags. Maybe that's because they were above my head scaling a boulder climb. This was reminiscent of the Breakneck cliff climb I had done at the inaugural race in the Hudson Highlands. Of course on a much much smaller scale and not as steep and deadly. The benefit of doing super difficult races such as Breakneck is that is makes climbs such as these a little more bearable and mentally manageable. It was still however a hard and beautiful climb on a very humid morning. Due to climbs and terrain such as this I had a hard time settling into anykind of flow. The trail was rocky but runnable but it was fairly technical. I had rolled my left ankle at Ironmaster's Challenge and at TNF Bear Mountain and I didn't want to do it here and hobble the rest of the way so I was picking my spots on when to walk short rocky sections or run them. This resulted in a stop and start for several miles. Then I slipped on a flat exposed wet piece of slate and down I went on my left hip. Thankfully it was flat rock and not a sharp rocky section. I'm used to falling on my hip as a skateboarder back in my youth. I used to do it all the time and would get massive bruises. We called them "hippers" back in the day. No biggie my chiropractor will adjust my hip when I get home. I resumed running and then my friend Ryan and a women came up behind me and said they got lost and took a wrong turn with a bunch of others. Ryan ran ahead and the women and I started talking. Her name was Helene and she seemed to be having the same issues as I was. We both were searching for our running rhythm. So we talked about her experience last year at Eastern States and how we both are doing Oil Creek 100 in October. She has done JFK50 for many years and was running really well here but we both had a hard time finding that groove. This section was beautiful however, rocky technical singletrack then soft wet pine needle covered track. The forest smelled sweet here and that was calming in a way. As we chatted we came upon a pond and saw the aid station in the distance. What a relief, as that was a long seven miles!

Helene and I rollin into Sones Pond aid station.

Miles 10.79-16.34 Cold Run Aid Station

Once again the volunteers here were wonderful. The women there filled my bottle and said "why don't you eat something." I was fumbling with my Tailwind single pack serving and the women said "I'll take care of that you should eat." That sort of kindness always leaves a lasting impression and that cannot be taught to a volunteer. That is genuine and so appreciated. The watermelon was a godsend. It tasted so good I could of eaten the entire bowl. I thanked them and off we went up the road. I met up with Helen here again and we both took another wrong turn to the right into a clearing. Not sure why we did it I think there was a trail with fresh matted down grass that we assumed was the right way. After several minutes we noticed other runners going past and up the road. We quickly backtracked and followed them further up the road and back into the forest. Helene pulled away at this point and I caught up with the four guys from Maryland representing VHTRC. These guys were great. I knew Paul Encarnacion from IG and FB and finally met him at the start and I recognized Gilbert Gray who also did Zion 100 with Paul. Paul made a wonderful GoPro video of their adventure out in Zion and I highly recommend checking that out on YouTube (see here) Jeff and Eric were the other guys with them. Eric was doing his first ultra which was shocking to hear he would choose this monster as his first. Jeff is a very accomplished ultra runner having done all four Oil Creek races which includes the year they offered a 50 miler. That is rare company and pretty cool. These guys also happened to be doing basically the same pace as me so I latched onto them like a sucker fish. Hopefully I wasn't overly annoying. Sometimes you meet folks during a race and you just seem to click. I felt really good hanging with these guys.

After the steel bridge we ran along the beautiful Loyalsock Creek on some really soft and beautiful track. I was so hot I actually walked down the embankment to the creek to dunk my head in that cold water. I really didn't want to leave this creek, but I had a long way to go. I ran and caught up with the group at 154, shuffled along the road for a bit, and then darted back into the woods for more climbing. Up and down we went. Paul and I talked about his Oil Creek race last year and the issues he had during the race. I just love discussing other races with runners. I could talk about running all day long. It makes the miles go by. Then sure enough we came up to the Cold Run aid station for much needed break.

Miles 16.34-19.73 World's End Aid Station

More watermelon, honedew, and cantaloupe. It tasted amazing. Other races need to take notice of this. On hot days fresh cut melon is what's for breakfast, lunch and dinner! It's the only food I craved and wanted. Also the Tang was fantastic! It really quenched the thirst more so then my Tailwind. We thanked everyone and crossed the road and dove back into the abyss. This section was known as The Devil's Garden, which had really cool rock outcroppings. We then came upon a ominous eight foot high chicken wire like fence which the trail followed right alongside of it. I have to confess it was somewhat creepy. What was this fence keeping in or out for that matter? The vegetation inside the fence was really thick. We didn't hang around and moved quickly along the fence and darted back into the forest. Eric seemed to take off at this point and Paul went after him. I hung back with Gil and Jeff. We made our way back down into the park area near the finish, along the creek side cliff walk section and into the aid station at the park. We checked in and we probably spent close to five minutes here refueling and cooling off. The next aid station was Canyon Vista a mere three miles away but we had some heavy climbs to get there.

Gil descending to the center of the earth!

Miles 19.73- 29.24 Coal Mine Aid Station

We checked in with the volunteers with our bib numbers and one volunteer was telling us the next section was one of the prettiest we will encounter. We will see multiple waterfalls and vistas. We thanked them and Jeff, Gil and I started the climb up from the valley. It was only about a 350 ft climb but it was steep and it was so damn humid and hard to breath so the difficulty of the climb becomes super magnified. Once at the top it was a nice little short section then a downhill back down to 154 which was throwing me off a bit. I turned around and asked Gil if this was the right way. I had made so many wrong turns my trail confidence was faltering on if I was going the right direction or not. We were now in the waterfall portion. It was breathtaking and that water looked so inviting it was cruel. I could have jumped in but I didn't want to give anymore time away as my pace was painfully slow and getting worse. So I just rinsed off my neck, head and face. I was really gassed here and Gil being the pro he was said we only have about a mile to the Canyon Vista aid station. He had a nice little laminated chart with aid locations and elevation profile. He wisely told me to get ice in my hat and something to eat when we get there. I was definitely starting to massively overheat just like at the DG50. It's that overheating feeling where you start to feel slightly dizzy, weak, and nauseas. The last thing on earth you want to do is start a big climb feeling like that. But that's what was on the menu and the nice prolonged grinding climb up to Canyon Vista commenced. Honestly I followed Gil and just simply put one foot in front of the other. Because that's really the only choice. The predator of doubt was on the attack and the DNF was lingering. Doubt is the ultrarunner's adversary. It is always there lingering in the darkness and if you let it consume you and come out into the light you will suffer more then necessary and most likely drop. As the ultra saying goes "its you against you." The mental game was on for me. I just needed to watch Gil's footsteps and follow. I knew in time this will pass and sure enough it did.

The aid and volunteers here were nothing short of fantastic as usual. I immediately recognized Bob and Janine whom I met in Philly at the Dirty German. Boy was I happy as hell to see them. They grabbed my bottles and got me ice in my hat. They were so helpful! My spirits were immediately lifted and right there my race switched back to a more hopeful tone. The emotional roller coaster was rockin. At the bottom of this climb at the waterfalls I was at a lowpoint and at the top of this mountain I was feeling energized. We grabbed some more melon thanked Bob and Janine and off we went. The ice in my hat was already cooling me off and working nicely. This next few miles was about as easy running as you could ask for. We did a powerwalk/run combo here as we chatted away. I was really enjoying my time with Gil. He could have left me at the aid station easily. I wouldn't have blamed him at all but he didn't'. He helped me almost in a pacer like way. It actually turned out he has paced many friends in 100 milers over the years from Hurt in Hawaii to Wasatch in Utah to Oil Creek right here in PA. So maybe in a strange way his pacer instincts kicked in when he saw me struggling. Either way I felt gratitude towards my new friend. I asked him so many questions as we went along on his training and how he approaches his 100 milers. Turns out this race was really his last long run prior to Big Horn out in Wyoming two weeks later. So of course like a child this perked up my interest on his races. I asked what was his favorite hundred. His response was Western States. How awesome is that! The crown jewel of ultra's. He said his name was pulled the first time he entered. Amazing! So we talked WS, we talked pacing Tom Green at Wasatch, we talked Eastern States, we talked Oil Creek which will be my first this October. He talked nighttime running troubles and the 2 am sleepiness hurdle he says is tough to get over. All fantastic insight into the mind of a fellow distance runner. The miles just melted away and before we knew it we were running on the stone road heading towards the last aid station.

Still smiling! Photo by Tania Lezak

Tania the course photographer was smiling and snapping a few pictures of us. She was so upbeat and that is always uplifting. It was here Gil and I mistook the beer in the cups as tea. Classic! I quickly downed three of those cups of beer and it tasted so good. Four miles from the finish and we're standing there slamming beer. That's trail running and more specifically that's ultra running for the mid and back of the packers like us. The cutoff is the enemy and the finish is the prize. Don't get me wrong I can get super competitive in the moment but only when the condition warrants. For me in this inaugural race in the heat it was about surviving and enjoying the day in this amazing park and not getting carted away in a ambulance.

Just before we left the aid station a women who we were leap frogging for hours ran up and grabbed some of the beer as well. It turns out this is a big race for her as she was returning from major ACL surgery on both legs. What an inspiration! She said exercise actually makes it feel better and when she doesn't exercise it will hurt more. I was in total awe. She had a big smile and seemed so happy to be out in the forest and she was running great. Just another fantastic storyline that you hear out on the trail. Stories of survival and perseverance. It's about not giving up and challenging yourself. It's in these moments you get reminded time and time again that life is so fleeting and you need to make the best of our very short time here.

Mile 29.24 - Finish

With our new found energy from beer and epic comebacks we made our way back into the now very windy and dark forest. I actually made a comment to Gil that the woods here are really dark. It's just so much thicker then were I live. Also there was an ominous dark cloud above which helped a little. The forest creaked as the trees swayed back and forth. It was the sound of an old wooden pirate ship. It was somewhat eerie. Only four miles to go. It was here as we climbed a few smaller inclines that I actually felt like we were going to finish. Not that I had doubt but I tend not to let that creep in until I am really close. I don't like to ever assume something is a done deal and let my guard down. I didn't need to be complacent and trip on a rock and snap my ankle a few miles from the finish and wreck my season. As my mind raced I heard a large crack off to the right of the trail. I kept thinking it was a bear. Maybe it was or wasn't I don't know. I kept thinking about how the 100K folks were doing in this heat and that it was going to get dark in a few hours. Random thoughts would come and go. My feet felt like pickled prunes sloshing around in my socks in a pool of sweat and dirt. I hadn't checked on them all race and I'm sure it would be ugly when I eventually take off my shoes and socks.

Gil and I made our way along a very pedestrian portion of the trail that appeared to be an old service type road or logging road. Talk about easy pickins here. However looking off to the left was a tremendous drop off down into the hollow which is where we needed to eventually arrive at. So at some point a massive downhill was coming. We finally came up on it and it was precarious. It was a cantered trail running along the mountain with an impressive drop off. It would hurt really bad if you slipped off and slid down that to the bottom. On tired legs it made concentrating really important. This was a cruel downhill to put in this spot. My quads were already really tired now I'm extending them for braking all the way down. It made reaching the bottom so much more sweet. We ran past where the mile 19 aid station was and I looked at Gil and said "we gotta run across the finish." Gil said "we're doing it together right?" I said "hell yea we're finishing it together!!"

We crossed the finish together at 10 hours and 12 minutes. My longest 50K by far. My 50K PR is 4 hours less then that! But it didn't matter. Not today. Today was a day where I learned and listened and shared beautiful trail miles with some amazing people. Collecting memories..yea that's what it is all about.

Finish line joy. Photo courtesy of Alfonso Ong

From left to right, Paul, Gil, myself, Ryan and Jes. Photo courtsey of Alfonso Ong.