Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Race Report: Ironmaster's Challenge 50K

I knew very little about Ironmaster’s Challenge 50K when I signed up for it back in the winter. I still knew very little about the day of the race. All I really knew is the location, Pine Grove Furnace State Park and Michaux State Forest in the south-central area of Pennsylvania. Basically I had a two hour drive out past Harrisburg and down to Carlisle. But like so many of my recent races it was merely set up to be a nice slow long run in the woods to get time on my feet and get the miles in. It’s a very small race and I don’t think it’s very well known so much outside the general Central PA region. I think this is partly because they don’t use and it just sort of gets lost in the plethora of springtime marathons and ultras. The race is put together by The Central Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club “with all proceeds from the race going to support organizational programs and operations, including the Ironmaster’s Mansion” the location of the finish line. So it’s a not for profit race which is always a bonus. 

Pavillion area at start.
Almost ready.


Mile 0-3.7 aid station

It was sunny with blue skies and a forecasted highs around the low 60’s. Perfect for trail running. Bib pickup was a breeze and they even had a nice little spread of bagels, cream cheese, peanut butter, muffins and coffee. It’s always a great idea to give trail runners food before a race starts. When you finish the race you get your tech shirt and pint glass but only if you finish. I kind of liked that, you had to earn your swag. There was only 128 finishers of the 50K but it felt like maybe only half that at the starting line when we took off up Old Shippenburg Rd for three tenths of a mile then hung a left on Old Orchard Road to the start of the first major climb of the day up towards Little Rocky Ridge. This climb was your typical central PA wobbly rock climb up a 20% grade. Then it was down a steep trail quickly followed by more climbing but this time it was boulder hopping around steep drop offs.  The vista’s here already were beautiful and vast. I was running this with Kourtney and let’s just say she was not thrilled about this part. It didn’t bother me so much as long as it didn’t continue for miles on end. What did bother me were the runners who thought it was a smart decision to pass people on the boulder scramble. That was not cool and totally bad trail etiquette. The course is 31.7 miles long and passing at the most dangerous part of the course 1.5 miles in is ridiculous. I told Kourtney to step aside and let three runners jump past us and loudly told her in an irritated tone that we will pass them much later. But you shake it off and keep moving forward at your own pace. The boulder scramble was over and down the ridge we went on some nice bit of trail. We then started another rocky steep climb that was runnable but very steep so we mostly hiked this section. Once at the top it was more beautiful and large boulder features right off the trail mixed within a dense grove of trees. This was part of the Tumbling Gun Game Preserve.  We pulled into the first small aid station at the top of a stone road.  The first 3.5 miles took us exactly 60 minutes to complete. It was shaping up to be a really long day in the woods.
Tried to capture boulder section but failed!
Climbing, she gave me the finger right after this photo.

Miles 3.5-11.2

Right after the aid station were given a nice and long stone road to bomb down. It was actually very nice because it gave the runners a chance to open up their stride and stretch out on some easy given miles.  It was here we met a few friendly runners Katie, Brian and Paul. It turns out Katie and Paul were just running the race to run it alongside their friend Brian. They were basically acting as pacers for their friend. All three of them were so friendly and they were tossing pretzels at each other while we ran. They quickly lightened the mood and we had great conversation with them for a few miles. At the bottom of the stone road we hung a right and back into the rolling singletrack mixed with wild rhododendron groves and another large 800 ft climb. At the top of this climb was yet another great vista to gaze out on.
Rugged and Beautiful!
Kourtney smiling after a hard climb.


This course was taking haymaker swings at us and landing a few of those punches. So far it was climbs and rocks and more climbs with very small runnable sections to get you excited and then snatch your excitement from you. It was awesome I have to admit. I’m not sure if Kourtney was digging it yet as she was awfully quiet. The following 2.5 miles or so of decent down in Dead Women’s Hollow Rd was lush but nasty. It was very rocky and wet as we picked our way down along a fast flowing creek with moss lined rocks and ferns. Back and forth we crisscrossed that stream. All you could hear was the water. It was cool and moist but slow going. The trail markings were difficult to pick up here as many runners kept back tracking and stopping along the way to check. But we made it through and out onto the strangely named Dead Women’s Hollow Rd. This area must be super creepy at night as I am sure there is a story that goes with the name of the road. Up the road a bit then into a very steep but small climb onto the top of a open ridge line for a really awesome section of running. This short section was probably one of my favorite parts of the course.  It was only about 1.5 miles long but you were exposed on an open ridge line with mountains on either side.

My favorite stretch, the open ridge run.

11.2-19.4 pavilion checkpoint

From the open ridge line we ran back down, across Pine Grove Road and darted back into the woods and ran along a rooty but very soft creek side trail. This was rolling and wet for miles but also very runnable so we just simply chugged along.  I don’t really remember much from this stretch other then rolling my ankle on a rock. That started a chain reaction and I wound up rolling my ankle another four times. Once you roll it, you are now weak on that foot and it always seems to open up the flood gates. But I’m fairly limber and I was able to still run at the same pace. You just have to embrace that suckage, that’s part of trail running. I knew it wasn’t rolled badly enough to stop and actually felt better as I kept going. Those small little rocks the poke up out from under the leaves kept catching my left foot on an angle and it just kept rolling. This section also seemed to disorient me for a while. It was weavy back and forth up and down and it was stuffy in the forest. The sun was shining bright casting half shadows in the forest and it hard for me to get my bearings. This was probably the lowest point for me in this race. It felt like I was getting dizzy almost like on a merry go round. I loath that feeling of being disoriented  and just wanted to get out of this section and was so thankful to pop out at a clearing to re-orientate my brain.  We finally made it to the pavilion aid station and checkpoint where they had lots of food and fluids and many other runners resting for the next long push. It was here we ran back into Katie, Brian and Paul.

Mile 19.4-31.7 finish at mansion

Off we went with our new friends Katie and crew and a few others. The run to the next big climb was on a cinder rail trail for about a half a mile and what lay ahead was the back portion of the Pole Steeple climb on a different trail then what most use. This was interesting because we wound up climbing only about 500 ft but it was slow going then we popped out at the base of Pole Steeple and were not required to climb to the very top. It was here we ran into a lot of tourists and day trip hikers making the conventional climb up. As soon as we got to the top it was bombs away back down to the very bottom using the highly used trail. Many of these folks we passed clapped their hands and wished us well as we skipped down. This part was really fun. It seemed to go on for awhile and the rocks were like steps and you could just skip down them and really have a blast. One hiker clapped as we ran by and said she really admired that we were doing this race. That always helps the pain go away when others can really appreciate how hard this kind of thing really is. We were at mile 20 and 5.5 hours into this race and we were all bombing down a very steep trail laughing, chatting up a storm amongst us, and carrying on. I was leading the way down and periodically would stop just briefly to turn around and just watch the other three coming down the mountain smiling. That is what trail running is, it was captured in that moment of joy. All four of us were like four kids playing in a playground. At the bottom we reached Pine Grove Road again and I stopped to wait for Kourtney and our new friends ran off ahead. We ran along this road for a bit and up to the Laurel Lake aid station. The lake was beautiful and serene and the one volunteer said they were watching a bald eagle for the past hour until it flew off. Then is was across the road and back into the forest.  

From here we ran along an old dirt road called Mountain Creek Rd. I’m not sure but it looked like an old railroad bed or logging or quarry road. It was flat and we cruised along trying to make a little time up the best we could. We actually passed a younger guy on this stretch as he was walking. This road was about a two mile stretch, then it was off back into the woods for yet another hardnosed 800 ft climb. This climb seemed especially tough but there’s nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other and just do it. At the top it leveled off and sloped back down for about three miles to a creek called Sage Run. Here we were running along the soggy and wet hollow for a bit and met another runner Scott from Bristol. He was a physics teacher I believe and had written several books on Pennsylvania waterfalls in the Worlds End region as well as the area we were in. You always meet the nicest folks while trail racing, it never fails. He was telling us about running Laurel Highlands 70.5 a few years back and talking to Kourtney about teaching since they both are teachers. Down along this creek he pointed out bear droppings along the trail. That freaked us both out but he mentioned he has come across many black bear out in the wild and they are babies and run away when they see you. I was still unnerved about it but we carried on zig zagging across the creek. The course markings in this area were difficult to find and we stopped several times trying to figure out the route. Scott had run this race last year and he even had difficulty.  We then came to another climb. This was a small one maybe 300 ft or so but after over seven hours on the trail the climbs always get longer and steeper. Scott continued to walk a bit and Kourtney and I pulled away and ran the long two plus miles down hill back towards the mansion and the finish. That long downhill to the finish seemed like it took a month. As we ran across the finish the guy collected our tabs from our bibs and let Kourtney know that she was 1st place in her age division. What a nice surprise for her. We crossed the finish line together and our times were 8 hours 8 minutes good for 66th and 67th place out of 128 runners.  Katie and crew were standing there clapping for us and cheering us on. They were awesome. We got our beer and food and sat down to chill and cheer on the other finishers as they came in. That is when we saw the few people who passed us on the boulder scramble way back at mile 2 come running in across the finish. We clapped for them of course but I smiled and turned to Kourtney and whispered “told ya we pass em.”
Always better with beer!
If you live within driving distance of this race it's a must do. It supports a good cause and the finish line beer, good folks and volunteers and picnic were well worth it.

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