It’s been almost 6 months since I completed my first 100-mile race in Wellsboro, PA. Maybe it’s a bit late to be writing a race report, but on the other hand, these past 6 months have given me plenty of time to recuperate and reflect on my overall race experience.
Signing up for the 100-mile distance seemed like a natural progression in my running career. I had previously completed races at the 26.2, 50k (31mi), and 50mi distances, so a 100 didn’t seem too far fetched. Even though this race would effectively double any previous distance I had run, how hard could it be? After the first 50, it’s all zen anyway. At least that’s what I was convinced going into the race. I soon learned that 100 miles is a very, very, very, long way. But, nonetheless, I finished, and now I can without doubt count myself into the ultra-marathoner community (some don’t consider a 50 miler a true ultra, as it doesn’t factor in sleep deprivation). I didn’t do it alone though, and I don’t think I could have finished without the support of my “crew”. I was accompanied by Emily and Kyle, who helped me out at aid stations and paced me for much of the second half of the race. Here’s my report:
I have nothing but good things to say about the race itself. The Pine Creek Challenge is put on by the Tyoga Running Club, and I must say they did a splendid job. The volunteers were all awesome, and I encountered nothing but friendly runners. It’s a very new and small race, even as ultras go- 2014 was only its third year- so there was a very relaxed and non-competitive atmosphere. The food at the aid stations was also surprisingly good. Highlights included hot coffee and hot vegetable soup late into the night.
Kyle working hard.
I should begin with a brief description of the course. It takes place in Northern Pennsylvania in an area nicknamed the “Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.” Despite the name, the course is entirely flat, and actually meanders within the “canyon’s” valley. I think the total elevation change was around 1000 feet, which is barely noticeable over 100 miles. The trail’s surface is crushed gravel. I thought this flat course would work to my favor for my first 100, but I’m not sure if this was the case. The first 20 miles was two 10-mile out-and-backs. The race started at 6:00AM Saturday morning, so after around 4 hours of running, I was right back where I started. The first 20 felt great and I kept a pretty strong pace. Nothing much to report here other than that the scenery was beautiful- green marshes and streams covered in a light morning mist as the sun rose- my favorite section of the course.
Although I started to tire out a bit after my first marathon, there was nothing during these miles that I was unprepared for. After having already completed a 50-miler and several 30-40 mile runs, I knew what to expect physically and mentally during these miles. Anyone who’s run a marathon can tell you all about the infamous “wall”. A marathoner hits the wall usually between miles 18 and 20. Mentally, this is where demotivating thoughts starts creeping in. The body is nearing the end of its glycogen deposits and is reaching into its fat stores for energy, causing physical and mental stress. In an ultra, hopefully no one is reaching the end of their glycogen stores, as they should be continuously consuming fats and sugars (fast to break down), carbohydrates (slow to break down), and proteins (very slow to break down). However, for one reason or another, these walls still present themselves many times throughout the race. Between miles 20 and 50, I typically hit several walls. These miles can most readily be described as an emotional roller coaster, as stints of lethargy are often followed by feelings of utter exuberance. This, I was prepared for, and I pushed through them.
Heading out after the mile 69 aid station.
As soon as I broke 50 miles, I was testing new ground. I had no experience with this distance, and I had no idea how my body would react. Miles 50-75 were fraught with emotional and physical stress. Thankfully, somewhere around 50 Emily and Kyle began taking turns pacing me, and would stick with me for most of the second half of the race. This was a huge help to keep me moving. By now, my speed in the first 20 was coming back to bite me and I was slowing down rapidly. I ran the first 50 in about 8 1/2 hours. The second… in 17. Over the section, I had a couple spells of complete break down. At about 60 miles in, I laid down on the trail and started crying. It’s hard to describe what your body feels like after running 60 miles, especially while knowing you’ve got 40 to go. However, after a quick pep talk by Emily, I managed to get up and start moving (moving, not running). By the time I made it to the aid station at mile 69, my condition was rapidly deteriorating. I felt completely beat, and I had a pain in my knee that was slowing me down. I sat down, half in tears, and for thirty minutes refused to get back up. It just sounded too painful. Coming up was a 5 mile stretch between aid stations followed by a 22 mile stretch. I didn’t think it was possible to keep going. Somehow Emily and Kyle used their jedi mind tricks to get me to attempt the next section. They told me I needed to finish this last 5 miles, then I could quit there if I wanted to. Sure. While walking back to the trail, a volunteer took one look at me and said “You’re fine. My first 100 I walked the last 40 miles. You’re 70 miles in and you’ve got 17 hours before the cut-off. Get going.” This was the push I needed.
Handmade finishers mugs.
Even though I had been determined to quit once I arrived at the mile 75 aid station, I was now in good spirits and decided to keep going. I was terrified about this next 22-mile section, but knew that if I could get through this, I would finish. Thankfully, I had Kyle alongside me. We started off fairly strong, alternating walking a mile, then running a mile, but soon this gave way to knee pain that kept me from lifting my leg beyond a brisk walk. We eventually paired up with a couple older veteran runners who kept us moving. Ten minutes run, six minutes walk. At this point, I was starting to have vision issues, probably from having to focus on the dim beam of my headlamp, so I was thankful to be able to turn my headlamp off and run by their lights. Finally, at around 6:00AM on Sunday we pulled into the last aid station. Here, Kyle switched off with Emily, and Emily and I began our 3-mile walk to the finish-line. By now, I was in enough pain that I could only manage a hobble, so this last section took us 1 1/2 hours. I walked across the finish line at 7:19AM after a 25h19 race. I took my pick of the hand-crafted finisher’s mugs (above), laid down, and fell asleep for a quick nap before our car ride home.
Asleep at the finish line.
It’s been almost 6-months since the race. I’ve recovered from what turned out to be an ITBS injury (this is when your iliotibial band gets inflamed from overuse, probably exacerbated by 100 miles of flat terrain, which produced the exact same stride again and again, and again, and again), which led to a couple months of forced time off, and am now steadily working my mileage back up. Admittedly, though, this is tough when there’s snow and ice and single digit temperatures outside. The inevitable question remains, would I do it again? This is the question I most struggle with. It seems almost masochistic to sign up for another 100 after knowing the pain that it involves. However, I feel that with better preparation and more respect for the distance, I could do it again. I want to prove to myself that I can tackle this massive distance. However, I expect my next 100 to not be for a while down the road. I’m planning on jumping back to the 50-miler and 100k distances for a while before I’m ready to take the plunge back to the 100.