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.
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
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 sucks...no no no this is good..this is perfect..you 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 93..so 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!!