Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Eastern States Pendulum

It's been a long while since I wrote a blog. But after my second failed attempt at Eastern States 100 I just found that I had way too many things floating around in my tired brain. I needed to get them out. I will keep it short and sweet and hope my thoughts can and will help other mid to back of the pack runners tackle this race in the future. As for me, I will not return to run next year. Maybe to help out and pace, I don't know. Not because I don't like the race or the RD or the trails. I love them all! But because I don't see much changing for me there. Yup, the ole definition of insanity routine.

My Maryland buddies Casey and Don spent the weekend driving me around and helping me out and for that I cannot thank them enough. I feel I let them down more then I let myself down. It is very hard for me to convey that to them. I feel they know it though. I got as far as I did because of their help. I only got to mile 32 however and like Don comically pointed out to me "hey you got three times further then last year!" Which made me chuckle at how absurd that is considering I only completed 30% of the race!

As the sun was setting on our way home and we hit the PA turnpike southbound I kept trying to come up with how to describe this race and this course. How would you explain it to folks who have never run here. How do I explain the course to my wife who does not run and asks seemingly very simple straightforward questions such as "So what happened?" or "What makes it so hard?" Insert my blank stare. Great questions but I am almost at a loss but I know exactly what the answers are but I just can't spit it out. Frustrating really. So the next morning it hit me.

I think of Eastern States like Edgar Allan Poe's Pit And The Pendulum. It's exactly the same. It's terror. It's torture and torment. It's a long drawn out nightmare. You almost at times welcome your demise. The course eats at you. It picks at you. Looking for a way to get in. Swinging slowly and slowly as the blade gets closer and closer all the time while you watch it getting closer and closer and there isn't a fucking thing you can do about it. Your body is getting cut and bruised and banged around and the oppressive humidity wears on you sapping your leg strength and raising your heart rate to anaerobic levels but yet you are moving so damn slow. "How is this possible?" "I have trained here I have run these trails I know this course why is this happening?!!" I have finished Massanutten 100 twice I did the 2016 Grindstone 100 where it rained for thirty straight cold hours. And yet I can't move on this course. I am completely immobilized for the second straight year.

A slow and painful demise. Source Google.

And here is the beauty of it. Other races have longer climbs, rockier trails, more mud blah blah blah. But so far from what I see no other east coast 100 miler (excluding Barkley, of course) has what this course can throw at you. They talk about the Western States Killing Machine. It's a great read and can be found here. This course has an eerily similar character trait. The first thirty miles are simply some of the most ruthless and nasty trails you will find. Survive that and manage those miles well and you will then be able to start actually running at mile thirty three. Easier said then done. The classic problem is your pace. You look down and see your overall pace at eighteen minute miles. It's shocking and tough to swallow at first.You are fresh but slowing as the miles tick off so you push and risk blowing up. Or you stay really chill and try to just hike and not go hard and you risk blowing time and not making the initial Hyner cutoff. It's funny, you look at the elevation profile and it looks tough sure but until you actually have experienced those trails you just don't know. My plan this year was to really take it easy during those first thirty. Save myself for the running that is coming up. Problem is the cutoffs are the tightest during the first third of the race. It's a catch twenty two. I found myself scolding myself in my head! "News flash, you can't take it easy you stupid idiot!"

Mile 9 vista. Taken during our training run there in July.

The heat.

So the starting temperature I think was 71 or something. Nice right? Sure if you are sitting in a lounge chair by the pool. The dew point was climbing into the seventies however and the humidity was rising. Once we entered the forest canopy it was stagnant, stale, and windless. And that is one of the really sneaky aspects of this race. The canyons there and the surrounding thick forest seems to trap the heat from the days before. No wind reaches these areas. So the air just sits there and the moisture from the thick mossy soil and many creeks moisten that air. Couple that with the already increasing high dew point and you are faced with your first puzzle to solve. These hollows are what you run in and out of all day and each climb starts in a hollow where you face these temperatures and conditions each time. I thought about this for twelve hours over thirty miles. I kept asking myself "Why is it so damn hot at the start of each climb then when you get to the top it's a little cooler? Doesn't heat rise? What is this some sort of alternate universe the cold air rises and hot air sinks?" It took me all day to figure it out. I think it's a unique local phenominon. It's only here where I experienced that trapped air. "Why is my heart rate spiking so high right now?" "I can't be working that hard can I?" Confusion sets in. You increase your effort and pace. You burn up calories twice as fast as you normally would. You create an early caloric deficit. You find yourself sweating buckets. The Western States article talks about the buzzsaw, but here at this race, it's the pendulum that has started it's swing.

Leaving mile 18 Lower Pine Bottom in shaky shape. Pic Jim Blandford

Those trails.

I'm from PA born and raised. I train on the AT. I know rocks. I love rocks and they love me. I'm at home there. Mountains and rocks and PA trails. The trails in and around Waterville are not like the AT or the Massanuttens or the Tuscarora. This is loose slate and when it's wet its like ice. Mud pumps up in between the tree roots. The loose slate pieces are almost leftover from logging or mining. Seemingly just dumped here with little care. Then the trails built on top. Sometimes when you step in between two pieces the jagged edges pierce the sides of your shoes grazing the sides of your macerated and softened feet. As you pick your way down the descents, you hear the sound of the smaller pieces tumbling behind you and repositioning themselves for the next poor soul. When you kick a rock it follows you, end over end and often times hits you a second time, bouncing off the outside of your ankle or again on the side of the foot. It's as if the rocks don't even like you here. "The rocks are against me?" "Why is this happening?" Whoosh...Whoosh as the pendulum continues it's descent.

The climbs.

I'm a climber or at least until I run here then I'm a pathetic child. It's seems the exertion that I put out to climb up those mountains puts my heart rate at redline. You see the climbs I do well at are the long slow grinding type where you can get into a rhythm. The climbs down in Virgina are that type. Long but not super steep. The climbs here are short and very very steep. And it just repeats over and over for the first thirty miles. I find that I just can't get into any kind of groove on these climbs. Add the mud, the rocks, the humidity and that so called short climb turns into a death slog where you find yourself sitting on a rotten log a third of the way up catching your breath. And the clock is ticking. On a training run I would never think to sit down on a climb. During a race of course not. But here I sat down more times then I can remember. Thirty seconds here a minute there really adds up. I used that time wisely however. I ate and drank. The fact is if you have to sit down anywhere on trail here you will not finish. Unless of course you are late in the race and are hours ahead of any cutoff. By all means relax and take a breather. Climbing a 30% slope is much different the climbing a 20% slope. It's huge and you legs will feel it. I really struggle pushing 25% or greater. I could also stand to loose a few pounds. I'm sure that contributes to my struggles in some form.

The clock.

As I said I am a mid pack to back of the pack runner. Meaning I finish in the fifty percentile range of entrants. So I am not fast nor super slow but average I suppose. I have never felt threatened in any race by cutoffs. Never. Not once. But here for some reason they seem to be right over my shoulder. And honestly, that wears on you mentally. I'm not use to it and to be blunt I really don't like it. I have enough fucking things to worry about and the clock adds another layer of burden. But tough shit, that's the way it is so deal with it. On Saturday I covered the first 32 miles in twelve hours. Yes twelve hours. I have to say that out loud. TWELVE hours.. When I ran Manitou's Revenge in June several weeks after MMT100 in very similar weather conditions I covered the first 31 miles in exactly ten hours. What? I dropped at Manitou as well. And Manitou is arguably, mile per mile, the hardest 50 miler in the country. It took me almost two hours longer at Eastern States to cover basically the same distance. If this was last year I would not have made it past the mile 25 aid station as I did not make the cutoff that was imposed there from the year prior. This is what I am currently trying to dissect and analyze. The old saying about 100 milers is to start slow and go slower. That doesn't work here. I actually tried to do just that. Save myself for the middle sections. The sweepers caught up to me sitting on a moss covered rock in the middle of an ice cold stream with my feet and calves submerged in the water. Talk about pathetic ending to a race. My response to them when I saw them was "what took you so long?" I was almost glad. As my pacer Casey often says, "sometimes you eat the miles and sometimes the miles eat you."

The bugs.

Actually they weren't so bad until the Browns Run Climb. A six mile ascent along, well, Browns Run. The trail crisscrossed the creek back and forth and the gnats just suffocated your face. As if I needed any more misery. Inhaling gnats for six miles was just lovely. There was also the mosquitoes that would buzz in and out of you ear. Bugs have never bothered me before in a race. But of course here they loved me.

Eastern States. So you want to run it? It truly is a great event. One of country's most badass 100 milers just on the finisher rate alone. A truly wild and remote wilderness experience. It's not a race that you can typically just sandwich in between others as a fill in. It's not a race you can just get by on undertrained legs and squeak out a finish. It's an event that when you go into it you can't have any lingering injuries or issues otherwise the course will expose them. Your mental game must be as sharp as your physical one. Course management and taking care of self is a big deal in any 100 miler but really important here. Graduate level race? Without question. The race should 100% be a Hardrock qualifier. But that will be up to the RD Dave Walker to apply for it and for the Hardrock board to approve it. From what I was told the board did not approve the request last year. I scratch my head at that. After four years of this event, I think it's pretty clear that this east coast 100 miler is certainly worthy of a Hardrock ticket. I finished Grindstone last year and this race is much harder then that one and Grindstone, of course, is one of the great 100 milers in the east and the Northeast's only Hardrock qualifier. So what are you waiting for? Sign up and come on out to Pennsyltucky! But don't hesitate because this race sells out fast and at some point very soon I predict will need to go to a lottery.


  1. Great report Bryan! I really enjoyed your report and your thoughts.

  2. You are very Inspiring to so many Bryan, you gave it your all. I enjoyed reading your race report. I hope to meet you at Oil Creek this year, Happy Trails ;)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. "So I am not fast nor super slow but average I suppose." What does average mean weighed against over 95% of the population who would neither comprehend nor undertake such a feat? You're not average, my friend, not in the least. Congrats for getting out there to tackle that beast.

  5. Thank you Rick that is very kind of you to say. Thanks for reading!

  6. Hi Bryan - I found your blog looking for Grindstone 100 race reports. I have run Massanutten 100 and am curious your opinion: how would you compare the course technicality of MMT100 with Grndstone 100? Thank you!

    1. Seth, MMT is way more rocky and technical compared to Grindstone. GS is more runnable overall but has more vertical gain. But don't be fooled, GS has some very technical rock strewn trail it's just MMT has more of it. The killer thing about GS is that upwards of 70% of your miles there will be in the dark. So you have to embrace the night.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Thanks for your thoughts Bryan - I appreciate it! Grindstone is a strong consideration for me, sounds like fun :). Best wishes with your races in 2018.