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.

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