I ran my 2nd 100-mile race this weekend. It was the hardest race I’ve yet run, and in some ways, gave me a new appreciation for ultrarunning. I’d read a lot about some of the most difficult, trying parts of long races, but hadn’t really experienced the full extent of real challenges ultrarunners face until this race.
Last year, Will and I ran something like seven road marathons. Road marathons aren’t my favorite; they’re usually painful due to the speed at which you have to run them and the pounding of the pavement, and they aren’t very scenic, especially in comparison to trail runs. I was getting burnt out on road marathons.
I convinced Will to sign up for a trail 100 with me. He suggested the Pine Creek Challenge, which he’d run as his first 100. This race was a good fit for several reasons. It’s located in Pennsylvania, so it would be a good way to see a part of the state I hadn’t seen before and probably wouldn’t have the chance to see again for a while. It was also after summer (yet before classes really got going), so we’d have ample opportunity to train.
Leading up to the race, I ran lots of solo 30-mile unsupported training runs, as well as a 12-hour race and a 50-miler trail race. These were all great experiences, especially because they represented the best part of running to me – the adventure of trying something new. Also, none of them were road marathons.
After our internships ended, Will and I visited several national parks. We took on a lot of the more challenging, iconic hikes and runs, including Angel’s Landing in Zion, hiking from the Grand Canyon Rim to the Colorado River and back in a single day, and Half Dome, all in the name of training. We may have overdone it here – we probably should have left more time for lazy tapering in preparation for the 100 – but these opportunities and the scenery were too good to miss.
Leading up to the race, I felt I’d trained well, especially given the long work hours at my summer internship and the erratic travel schedule afterwards. I’d logged more than 1,200 miles in the six months leading up to the race, including ten marathon-or-longer distances. While I wasn’t “pumped up” for this 100, I felt ready.
Pine Creek Challenge is a 100 mile race on relatively flat, wide gravel trail in upstate Pennsylvania. The first 20 miles consisted of a five-mile stretch, which we ran out and back twice, finishing that portion at the start line. The next 80 miles were one long, 40-mile out-and-back – again, ending at the same place we started.
The weather forecast was questionable for the week leading up to the race, alternating between ridiculously humid and largely rainy with possible thunderstorms. I wasn’t concerned about the rain, as my last 100 took place almost exclusively during a deluge. I wasn’t concerned about the humidity either, as New York City had been pretty brutal to train in over the summer.
Part One – The Beginning
The start line (photo credit: Will)
We arrived at the start line around 5:15 in the morning. It was humid enough outside that I put on a bit of bug spray, and warm enough that I didn’t need a jacket. That should have been my first warning sign; the best weather conditions for races are ones where the temperature is just a bit below comfortable.
Will and I arranged our drop bags, which contained our gear that we could pick up at different aid stations, and headed to the start line. The race itself had 62 registered runners, which is pretty small, even for a 100.
As a result, the start line felt very informal and not at all crowded. A few people were sitting on the ground adjusting their shoes. When they played the national anthem, we all turned towards the flag; someone had inconveniently placed the port-o-potties between the start line and the flagpole, so runners would come out of the restroom, see everyone staring in their direction, get confused, then turn around and face the flag once they realized what was going on. Nobody was toeing the line; thirty seconds here was not going to make or break anyone’s race, and it’s very foolish to start out too strong on an ultra; you’ll burn out quick.
At about 6am, we started off. Will and I together for the first five miles; he was planning to hold back a bit so he didn’t burn out too early. I was aiming for a sub-24 finish, but didn’t really have any strategy other than run at my usual pace for as much as I could.
The first five miles were mostly in the pre-dawn light. Some runners had headlamps. I opted not to wear mine, instead enjoying the tranquility of the morning.
As the sun came up, we were able to appreciate the beauty of the scenery. A light mist covered lush, green farms on either side; we’d occasionally run past cows or a mossy pond. When the mist lifted, the early morning sunlight pierced through the clouds, turning the whole landscape a dewey golden yellow color.
Part of the fun of out-and-back sections is seeing where other runners are along the course and how they’re doing. I was excited to see that three of the top five runners were female. It was fun seeing Will after he took off, too.
By mile 17 or so, I’d seen the same scenery three times and was ready for a change. I made it through the start-line aid station around mile 21, and at this point, I felt like the real race was beginning.
Part Two – Things I don’t Really Remember and Early Challenges
Somewhere on the course – it was pretty! (Photo credit: Will)
I’d be lying if I said I could accurately describe the next 8-10 miles and my state of mind. I know the scenery was pretty, because the trail had lots of trees making pretty tree arches and because I ran it on the way back. I know there was an aid station around mile 24, but I don’t remember it. I know the next aid station after that was 7.7 miles away, which was pretty far. I saw two horse-drawn covered wagons along the way, as well as several very happy Amish women on bicycles. This bridge fits in somehow, and it was very pretty.
A bridge we ran across. It looked a lot creepier at night. (Photo credit: Will)
I do remember being pretty happy to be in such a gorgeous area. The trees and the river nearby were really just beautiful.
After those 7.7 miles, we had another long stretch – 8.3 until the next aid station. I fell in with another runner from Philadelphia – he’d completed an Ironman (!) and was an all-around excellent athlete. We paced each other through that long stretch to mile 40.7 before splitting up. He looked like he was doing well, but said he was struggling; I think he dropped out at some point.
We were reaching the early afternoon, and the hottest part of the day. This is the first time I really started struggling, for two reasons: my GPS watch and, as mentioned, the heat.
One: I’d been relying on my GPS watch to determine my walk breaks. I soon realized I was getting grumpy, because the watch was demoralizing; seeing the distance kept reminding me how far I still had to go. I decided to change my strategy and take my walk breaks based on a technique I’d learned from one of my ultrarunning friends: counting your breaths. I would run for 100 breaths (about 400 steps) then walk for 20 breaths (about 80 steps), repeating as necessary and adding either to the run or walk portion if I wanted to. This allowed me to disconnect myself from the watch and be more in-tune with my body and with nature. Studies show that the fastest runners are not the ones who focus on their distance or their own bodies, but the scenery around them. Additionally, part of the reason I like trail running is the experience of immersing myself in my surroundings; it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly staring at a digital screen.
Two: the heat came in fast. I recognized what was happening before it fully hit; I’d experienced the same thing at the 12-hour race I ran in New York. That didn’t make it easier to handle. By mile 43, I was getting dizzy during my walk breaks; I didn’t get dizzy during the running parts, but I couldn’t just run through the heat – that would be disastrous.
At one point, I think around mile 44, I reached a man on a chair; I think he was taking race bib numbers, but it wasn’t really clear what his role was. He said something horrible: “You’re almost at half way!” I muttered “Thanks” and kept going. There’s really nothing worse than being reminded how much further you have to go.
About a minute later, I couldn’t take the heat anymore. I remembered reading the article about Tim Olsen, an elite ultrarunner who struggled at the Hardrock 100; at one point, he decided that laying down on a mattress in a pile of trash was a really excellent choice for taking a break. I took a page of out his book and just collapsed on the side of the trail, back to the gravel. It felt great.
Another runner passed me asking if I was okay – I was, and she seemed to believe me, so she continued on. I was up just a few moments later.
Around mile 45, it started pouring – torrential downpour. My kind of challenge. I was ecstatic. I felt revived, revitalized, and excited to be alive. I was happy to be running again. I felt strong.
Mile 46 brought an aid station, along with a lot of runners huddling under it. I grabbed a trash bag for rain protection (I ended up not using it, because it was till warm) and took off again.
The rain subsided pretty quickly, but the happiness I’d felt during it lasted for a few more miles.
I also knew that my pacers would be meeting me at mile 53; that thought buoyed me through the next stretch.
Part 3 – Running with Friends
When I saw my two pacers at the next crew station, I was so happy I almost started crying. I couldn’t believe I had friends who loved me so much that they’d drive four hours on their weekend to run in the middle of a forest – probably in the dark, and slowly – while I was most likely (read: definitely) a terrible conversationalist. I felt so honored and humbled – and I was really, really looking forward to running with them.
Christina joined me first. She initially was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with me for the 16 miles we’d talked about, but was quickly dissuaded of that notion when she saw how slowly I was going (I was probably running 13-14 minute miles at this point, which actually isn’t that bad for a 100 … but is very slow for any other time). She took me to the turnaround and back to mile 68. We had some pretty deep conversations – the kind you have when you’re out in the forest at stupid-o-clock in the dark and nobody is around.
Jess would pace me for the next 12 miles, up through about 80.5. These were really hard miles for me, and Jess was so supportive, even though it definitely could not have been fun for her. I was still awake and moving, but I was moving very slowly. I was starting to feel the effects of the earlier humidity, and I repeated my earlier trick of starfishing out on the gravel.
At my last 100, I’d almost run out of batteries for my headlamp a few times, which would have left me completely in the dark. After that experience, I developed a weird pathology about light, and Jess had to put up with my constant worrying about whether or not the flashlight we had would run out of batteries. I probably mentioned it something like 20 times. We found more batteries for the flashlight at an aid station, and at mile 80 I’d also have my headlamp – but on reflection, I realize this fixation was definitely symptomatic of having run 70+ miles.
I was terrified of what would happen at mile 80. Mile 80 was the start of some long, solo stretches (remember the 8.3 + 7.7?). It was going to be dark, and I was tired, and I’d be alone. I was really nervous about it.
Part 4 – The Darkest Part of the Race
Jess and Christina left at mile 80.5. I was so happy to have had friends on the trail with me for so long – it was so motivating. The rest was up to me.
I downed about 12 ounces of Diet Coke to wake me up and grabbed my jacket, extra headlamp batteries, and my iPod, and charged into the darkness. It was me, the forest, the trail, and the night.
The next three miles were amazing. I felt like I was running downhill, and I ran most of them with very few walk breaks. I was listening to really upbeat Australian folk music about dingos and emus, so I was pretty happy. Then I had to pee three times in thirty minutes, the caffeine wore off, and I was exhausted again. This is when it got bad.
At this point, I couldn’t even walk straight. I was zigzagging back and forth on my little rut of the trail, and I was I was resting on the gravel every two miles or so. Literally, that gravel was the most comfortable bed I could imagine. A woman on a bike pacing another runner passed me while I was on the ground – she somehow looked like an underwater octopus.
I got up after one rest, and behind me I saw a shadow. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but it was, in fact, another runner – he just wasn’t wearing his headlamp. He and I somehow fell into step together and made it to the next aid station.
From there, we only had 11 miles to go. We shambled back onto the trail.
I can’t begin to describe how hard the next 4 miles were. I was exhausted. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’m sure I was sleep walking at some point. I had my first real hallucinatory experience; I saw 10-foot long shoes (they were trees), a two-story apartment complex (also trees), a huge covered bridge (still trees), a bunch of miniature footballs on the trail (leaves), a pile of white index cards that someone had drawn smiley faces on with red pen (leaves), and even the new iPhone 6, which wasn’t announced yet (leaves). The strangest part was seeing these things and knowing they weren’t real, but my body thinking they were. I gingerly stepped over the iPhone 6 so as not to crush it, even as I told my subconscious mind to make the vision go away.
I was also borderline hypothermic. I was wearing a long-sleeve jacket, but not a very heavy one. If we stopped for more than a few moments, I’d start shivering uncontrollably.
The last half-hour before the sun came up was the most miserable half-hour of running I have ever experienced. I am so, so thankful to have found this other runner; I know he was in just as bad of shape as I was, and I think we both felt better that we could look out for each other.
Physically, I wasn’t in any particular pain. My feet were fine, and my muscles and joints felt fine. I was just generally fatigued, and my body was confused that it still had to be awake.
When the sky finally lightened, my new running friend and I could not have been more thrilled.
I woke up immediately. My body felt like a new day had begun, and mentally, I felt awake and alert. Basic math skills returned somewhat (they’d literally been nonexistent earlier – we couldn’t do things like add 0.9 to 8.3. That was challenging).
We reached the final aid station at mile 96.5, and I was ready to take on those next 3.5 miles. My runner friend and I parted ways, and I took off.
I was thinking about just a few things over those last few miles:
- How outrageously hard this race had been, and how I didn’t yet feel any sense of pride for having finished it, even though I knew at that point I would finish it. It had just been hard and miserable.
- That Will was waiting for me at the finish line, and the faster I got there, the faster I could see him.
- How fortunate I was to get to be immersed in nature on this adventure (and survive).
- Bed and sleeping.
The same yellow glow from more than 24 hours ago was filling the farm valley. As I saw people beginning their Sunday morning, I thought about the fact that they’d had a whole cycle of life since the last time I’d passed through there – eating, drinking, seeing friends, sleeping, and waking up again – and I’d just been running the whole time.
The final turn back into the parking lot was surreal. It was simultaneously overwhelmingly emotional and also starkly apocalyptic. The 0.1 mile driveway to the finish line seemed long and empty. There was a car sharing the driveway with me, which was weird and anticlimactic after being on a trail for so long. Will was in our rental relaxing (he’d finished a few hours before me) – he waved out the window as I passed, then got out of the car to follow me to the finish line.
There were only about eight people at the finish line – all race coordinators who I didn’t know – and they seemed wholly separate from the experience I was going through as I crossed under the finishing arch. I was just happy to be done. They clapped and waved cowbells, but I didn’t really know them and they didn’t really know me, and it seemed sort of hollow.
I thanked them and smiled and turned around, limping back to Will, who hugged me. The race was over. I began shivering again as we walked back to the car.
Will and I at the finish line, just after I crossed it
It took me a couple of hours to write this, but it took a few days to really think and digest my thoughts about the race. I obviously struggled a lot during this race, and I’ll probably go back later and add more color about just how hard it was. I thought about dropping out basically nonstop, and, the weird part was, I didn’t think I’d even care that I hadn’t finished the race; I’d just be happy that the pain was over. I’d never felt that apathetic before.
But, you can only make the decision to drop out at aid stations, and somehow, whenever I was there, the thought didn’t even cross my mind.
62 people registered to run the 100-mile distance. 54 showed up at the start line. Only 37 finished (possibly less – that was the count when I arrived, and there were many people still on the course behind me).
I know I want to do another 100-mile race, and I know it may be as mentally challenging as this one. That scares me a little bit.
For now, I’m just enjoying relaxing and thinking about the shorter races I have coming up.