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.