“Gary, do you hear jingle bells?” I asked this of my pacer Gary Twoey as we ran deep within the pitch-black woods of north-central PA during the inaugural Eastern States 100. I signed up for this grueling event just under a year before I actually ran it, so it was a long time coming. Perhaps foolishly, I chose this race as my first 100 miler. I had heard stories of people becoming disoriented and delusional in hundreds, but I figured I would probably be fine. Well, just so long as you call phantom jingle bells resonating in your ear canals while running in the woods in the dark just fine. Considering the course I faced, it could have been a whole lot worse.
I have been slowly (sort of) increasing the distances of my races, so after a couple of 50’s I figured I should try a hundred and Eastern States seemed perfect. I just had to see what would happen. I knew going in that this would be a well-put together and well-supported race. The RDs and the volunteers would be the same as a bunch of the central PA races I cherish: friendly and helpful as could be. I could count on winding single track along streams, paths through the forests, and….a bunch of grueling, ass-kicking hills and jagged, rocky hills. Eastern States boasted a boatload of elevation gain and some really tough trails. Then again Dorothy, we aren’t in Kansas anymore; these are the PA Wilds. Somehow, they were able to do all of this as one giant loop (a great description is here).
My plan: survive and finish, but the “secondary” plan was to do well. In the months leading up to the race, all the way until race morning, it was a roller coaster of “Oh, #$%@”, I’m screwed,” followed by feeling prepared and ready to knock it out and do well. I had talked with my friends David and Ashley Lister about finishing times that could be expected going in given I couldn’t look up any previous results. They knew the course to some degree and know way more than I do (basically zip) about hundreds. They predicted the leaders would go under 24 hours, but they just didn’t know how far. So, I figured 24-26 hours would be a good target and that is what I told my non-running friends who asked, “So, how long is this going to take you?”, followed by “are you going to sleep?” While naps were not planned, I did know I would need to stay on top my food, water, and salts (S-Caps) to survive.
For my crew, I was counting on my wife Christy to take care of anything I needed during the race. You know, first aid, extra clothes, shoes, splints, crutches, shot of adrenaline to the jugular at 1 in the morning and so forth. She thankfully decided to go on this little adventure. I think it is a combination of being supportive and being there for me as well as enjoying watching me suffer. In reality, I tend not to need too much during races and go through aid stations pretty quickly, but I didn’t know what would pop up during this race. My parents came to watch as well as one of Christy’s friends. I figured between them and all of the Central PA trail folks, I would be seeing lots of friendly faces out there.
To pace myself, I was planning to stick with David and Ashley at least for the first 40-60 miles, then see what happened later in the race. If I was feeling rough, I would drop back. If I felt better, I would pull ahead. I was lucky to have two good running friends that had said “yes” to my requests for pacing. Well, in reality, Gary, who paced me the last 22 volunteered to take the job at the post-race festivities at Hyner. I had been running a bit with him since we both live in State College. In contrast, I hadn’t run with, or seen, my other pacer, Dan Kane, in a long time and I was looking forward to catching up with him from mile 61 to 78.
I have read many recommendations for running ultras that say make sure you get a good night’s sleep. I am pretty sure that the most experienced and laid-back runners write these things because a multitude of forces usually scheme against me to prevent anything close to eight hours of sleep. The evening before the race, we arrived at Little Pine State Park at a reasonable time. I quickly ate my pasta and salad dinner that was included with my ticket at Happy Acres (not bad, but I was glad we had ordered take-out Thai for my parents and Christy before we left), went to the pre-race meeting, and then headed back to our yurt to lay gear out and head to bed. I got everything organized in an attempt to prevent race-morning craziness and cursing, and then headed to bed and a slightly late, but still respectable, 9:30. I then proceeded to toss and turn and carefully monitor the clock, worried I might successfully fall asleep and miss the oh-so-fun opportunity to watch the minutes of potential sleep slowly slip away.
And, fantastic. My alarm jolted me awake at 3:15. I was hit by a weird combination of wanting to go back to bed and a general feeling of excitement. I ate some breakfast, drank some coffee, and headed down to the start to get checked in. After a quick check- and weigh-in, and a little bit of bouncing around nervously, I found Ashley and David and got ready to go.
An ultra is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Scratch that, it is a bunch of marathons. I tried to keep this in mind heading out in the dark, but in reality, I just stuck with David and Ashley as we ran up the road, with most people apparently content with the somewhat speedy clip. Then again, maybe the dumb were just leading the dumb. I left the start in a tank top and arm warmers, trying to avoid cold-induced yellow fingers.
We had to pound out some road time before we could hit the trails. The beauty of Eastern States is that it’s run on a whole lot of trails, and not a whole lot of road, almost none of it paved. Striding up the road, I chatted with a few people, including another PA trail runner, Travis Twoey. A bunch of us looked back and witnessed one of the most breathtaking sights of the race. Don’t get me wrong, I was looking forward to the spectacular views promised by the RDs. However, this was my first night start, and the view of 150+ headlights bouncing around behind us was simply brilliant.
They had given us instructions to stay to the right if we saw a car, but in all the excitement some people seemed to forget this. This resulted in the entire column of headlight-adorned runners flowing around a car that had been unfortunate enough to drive against the race’s flow. He didn’t look like he was part of the race, and I still wonder what he was thinking.
Basically like this, plus headlamps
We ran through the campground at Little Pine State Park, were wished good luck by the campground host and her dog, and then started up the trail. Just like Rothrock (race report here), the RDs didn’t wait to throw the tough bits at us. While the very first part of the trail was more or less flat, it was studded with those mid-size, somewhat loose rocks that PA is renowned for and which make loosening up and gliding along impossible. Plus, the trail was a bit off-camber. I was leading our little conga line at this point and got behind an older guy that was really struggling on the rocks, which seemed a bit concerning, especially given that he was up towards the front from the get-go. We slipped by him, but not before the people in front of us had disappeared off into the darkness.
A clear goal on this rough type of trail is to not injure yourself. Given that both David and I are used to the rocks, you would think we would run smart and achieve this goal, at least for the first hour or two, but it was not to be so. David managed to bash his knee into a rock. I looked back and he was limping along. I thought to myself, “Seriously David?!?! You injure yourself this early? I was counting on you as a running buddy.” In all honesty, I was actually concerned. I didn’t want to see him knock himself out of the race before we had even seen the sun crest the horizon the first time. He reassured me he was fine, and gradually the shock of the impact went away.
The first climb slowed us all down, and it was hands-on-the-quads hiking time. I would repeat this many times throughout the day. I felt pretty good though, just excited to finally be off on this adventure and running with friends. I looked back and saw lights snaking their way up the hill behind us. Normally, I count the hills in races, but I knew I couldn’t start that this early. On a shorter race, I could tick off the three to five hills I had to conquer, but I was going to face a lot more here. The sun soon rose and I thankfully stopped using my headlamp. It was nice to be able to see where I was running and to see the texture of the ground I was traversing. It made me feel a bit more confident. The morning was foggy and the light in the trees was incredible.
Running through some open forest at the top of that first climb, I heard a familiar voice start chatting with David behind me. It took me a split second, but I realized Adam Russell had joined us, probably getting ready to blow by all of us. I had a feeling he was going to run fast, and I was looking forward to seeing what he was going to do. We caught him again as he dropped some liquid off-trail, but he passed us in a hurry on the first descent of the race, emitting a puff of white smoke as his hydration powder escaped out of his pockets. I first thought it was some kind of crazy smoke screen technique, meant to confuse us and throw us off.
Maybe he was trying to scare us off the trails?
So, remember how I mentioned that David and I tried to hurt ourselves? Yup, I managed to upend myself on that first downhill. It was one of those falls where you catch a foot, realize you aren’t going to be able to shift your lower body under your upper body that is cruising towards the ground, and roll to the ground in slow motion to try and soften the inevitable fall. Unfortunately, I had tripped on a rock, and the rest of its rock family was there to greet me as I landed. I perplexingly ended up on my back in the middle of the trail, awkwardly resting on pointy rocks with my feet pointed uphill. Try as I might, I couldn’t get up, and not because I broke something. I had to apologize to the guy that had been closely following me since he was just standing there, waiting for me to get things moving again. Luckily he had been following me and joking for a while, so it wasn’t too much of an issue.
As we continued on, the field opened up a bit, although there were plenty of people around to keep the social-racer in me happy. David and Ashley ran with me and we were passed and passed a number of other people. I was really just trying to enjoy myself, run what felt like a comfortable pace, and not worry too much about the mileage until I was AT LEAST halfway. I wanted to keep moving with a good pace, but minimize the wear and tear on my body. Travis joined us on top of the mountain around mile 9 or so, creating a little pack of PA runners. With all this great company, it was easy to forget about the ups, forget about the downs, and forget about the miles. Instead, I just relished the opportunity to run with some friends in some awesome woods. We dropped downhill to Ramsey and its aid station, crossed the highway to get to the aid station, and grabbed some water and sustenance. I was planning to use a Ziploc bag to store food in to snack on outside the aid station. For some reason I ignored this plan during the whole race and I left Ramsey with a handful of peach gummy rings and granulated sugar quickly coated my hands. Ugh. We crossed Pine Creek and were greeted with a scenic view up the waterway.
That next hill was a doozie, hiking time. As we hiked up the hill, I ended up behind a guy from Ohio named Harland. One of his first remarks was “Haven’t the trail builders heard of switchbacks?” I laughed. That just isn’t how we do it in PA trail races. I think the trail builders only revert to switchbacks when they want to make sure mountain bikers can power up the hills on their bikes. Apparently he wasn’t the only one with this thought, as Ashley pointed out in her race report. I had a great time hiking and chatting with Harland, although his experience with 100s and ultras made me feel woefully green. Well, I was (and still am). My plan had been to stick with David (or maybe Ashley), but David was now nowhere in sight and somewhere behind me, while Ashley had sped out ahead. I already needed to go to the bathroom, so as we ran along the top of the hill, I said “goodbye” to Harland and hopped into the bushes. I emerged from the bushes and saw David running up the trail towards me. He later told me I looked like Bigfoot emerging out of the foggy forest. I took it as a compliment. At this point, a thick blanket of fog still smothered the woods, although rays of sunlight soon began to filter through. I ran for several minutes by myself before David thankfully caught up. We ran together eventually coming up behind Ashley. Our chattiness apparently alerted her to the fact we were just out of view but within earshot behind her.
Yup, misty mountains.
Going into the aid station at LPB (mile 17.5) was a little odd because there was counter-flow of runners coming up the gravel road we ran down before heading up to the aid station. I managed to completely forget that Ashley told me we had to turn left off the gravel road. It must have been the 30 seconds that had passed. I even managed to forget the instructions given me by the race marshal. It could have been the three seconds it took for me to reach him after he gave me directions. We popped out of the woods and then hiked up the trail below an embankment. My parents were perched on top taking pictures, and I hollered “hello.”
David and I were amazed at how many people were at that first aid station (mile 17.5). In retrospect, it made sense given that nearly everybody that was crewing from the start was there, but it was still a great show of support and I will just pretend they were all their to support me. Cars and people lined the parking lot of the DCNR building and I ran all the way through to get to the table with food, where I found Christy waiting. I ditched the arm warmers and headlamp and glanced around to see how many PA people I could see as I shoved food in my face. I saw a few people, including Gary Twoey who I would be seeing later when he started pacing.
I was a little unsure what to do exiting the aid station. I saw Ashley head out the end of the aid station, and because I had already grabbed the food and water I needed, I decided to follower her out. However, I didn’t see David when I glanced back on the run, which meant that he was still lounging around in the aid station (or something like that). I took off after Ashley, figuring he would catch up, and followed her at a distance in the shoulder of a paved road that looped us around back to the gravel road.
I remained in this weird no-man’s-land in between them for a bit, but David caught me on the gravel road. We didn’t spend much time on the road and soon returned to trail. We caught up to Ashley and the three of us ran along together for awhile. We went uphill and then on the next downhill we ended up with a little clump of five people, including another PA runner David and Ashley know, Derek Schultz. I was perfectly happy taking the locomotive role of our little train and tried to keep a smooth pace running downhill. It was a long slow downhill and the footing was sure, so it was easy to click off the miles.
Our group broke up and the three of us ended up alone again following a bizarre, twisty, banked road. It was certainly interesting to run on as it twisted back and forth. This transitioned into a downhill to the aid station, and the trail infuriated me (well, maybe a little anger). We were on an old logging road, but there were bumps every 100 ft or so for water diversion that we had to run up and over. They were easily several feet high and after one or two, I decided to hit them at an angle. I probably looked weird, but it made the experience much less jolting; I was going to do whatever it takes.
We passed through the aid station at Browns Run (mile 24.7) and I grabbed some PB&J sandwiches. I still hadn’t seen much in the way of soda, especially Coke (i.e. sugar+caffeine), so I was hoping that would eventually change. I figured it would at the later aid stations. I continued with my gel strategy, which was to grab at least one gel (Carb Boom), shove it in my race vest (Ultimate Direction SJ vest) and then eat it between aid stations. The volunteers let us know our places going into the aid station, so I knew we were somewhere in the mid to high teens, which I was more than happy with. I was just hoping we hadn’t gone out too fast.
We ran along the next section of trail, which ran right beside Browns Run for a long, slow climb. Really long. Luckily, we had a little group tackling the uphill. At first, the trail was precariously cut into the steep hillside that dropped right into the stream. I found myself walking on grades that I could easily run because I was unsure of the footing and whether or not I would fall downhill into the stream. We crisscrossed the stream several times, with the crossings sometimes within a crazily short amount of time. I guess that happens when the stream rebounds back and forth within its steep banks. The trail has to go wherever is easiest. This wasn’t the first stream we crossed and it definitely wouldn’t be our last. As usual, I tried my hardest to keep my precious little footsies dry and danced across the rocks.
The whole time, David and I played a salt tab game. We helped each other remember to take our S-Caps, calling out, “David (or Ian)! S-Cap time!” We started taking them on the hour, so one of us would call out on the hour. Moving out of the aid stations, David lagged a bit behind. I couldn’t see him, but saw that my watch was seconds away from turning to a new hour. I was thinking whether or not I should yell backwards and remind David to take his pill, when his voice boomed behind me. He beat me to the punch.
We slowly reeled in a guy running with trekking poles up ahead of us. I was leading us on the uphill grind, aiming to keep a steady pace, running the flatter parts and hiking as soon as the incline ticked up a bit. The runner, Mark, ended up running with us for awhile, chatting with David and Ashley about Oil Creek and some other races. He eventually bid us good luck and we slowly pulled away from him.
There was a nice long gap before we saw our crew again at the Ritchie Rd. aid station (mile 36.5). We were all still in good spirits and just enjoying our time running together and the awesome trails.
After a quick stop at the aid station, we headed out and entered a massive powerline cut. Wide open, with the sun beating down on us, and the road we were following along one edge of the cut seemed to go on forever. Every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of a runner way off in the distance, which told me, “No, you will not be heading into the woods anytime soon.” The wide open spaces were good for taking a pee break. The topic of urination came up David, Ashley and I and we quickly came to a group consensus that, yes, that was the right course of action to take. Group pee. Well, peeing separately as a group. We were able to look way back and see we weren’t in any danger of other runners stumbling upon any of us. Oh, the things that make your race interesting.
I pulled away a bit from David and Ashley going down into the Hyner Run aid station (mile 40.9). While it should have been at 40.9, at this point I knew we had already run at least an extra mile over what the course description said we should have run. No worries, just running aid station to aid station! I decided to run my own race and to just run what was comfortable. I certainly wanted to stick with them to have good company, but I didn’t want to hold back at all on my pace when I felt pretty good. I was hoping that if I ran what was comfortable, I would be most efficient. Who knows, maybe they would catch me pretty soon. A gravel road wound into the Hyner Run aid station, and my dad was out waiting for me along the road.
I went through Hyner Run quickly, but a bit slower than the earlier ones since I changed shoes. I had noticed before 36.5 that my Saucony Kinvara Trails, while protective enough, comfy, and quick, just weren’t quite durable enough for these trails. They had developed a hole on the inner side from rubbing against the many rocks I had run over. PA trails are great for destroying shoes. I decided I would just wait until Hyner to deal with my shoes, which ended up being a good choice because the medical staff wanted us to remove our shoes to get weighed in. I learned later this was a mistake and probably shouldn’t have happened, but it ended up not making much of a difference to me because I already wanted to switch shoes. Those new, dry socks felt sooooooo good. David and Ashley caught up to me while I was there, but I was ready to leave before them and headed off alone to power up the next climb.
Miles 40-60 I was alone, which stunk. I like running with people and being out by myself makes the miles tick by so much slower. It was going to be a long 20 miles before I could pick up my first pacer (Dan). I started to see reflective flags and I took a little solace in the fact that I still had plenty of daylight left to knock out some miles before I had to switch to night running. I wasn’t completely alone. I eventually caught up to Harland. However, by caught up, I mean “within eyesight,” which just isn’t quite the same for making conversation. I was pretty tired and my mental energy was sapped, so I didn’t have it in me to chase him down. He didn’t seem to want to slow down for the company, so I resigned myself to following 100 meters behind him for a while. The trail was super straight through here and included some really open woods on top of a ridge top, a narrow trail cutting through a fern covered field, and at least two awkward trips through rectangular holes in a deer fence. One of them was manned by a DCNR (?) guy; it was nice to see somebody out there.
I was pleasantly surprised by bean and ham soup at the next aid station (Dry Run, 48 mi.). It seemed like a good idea at the time and it WAS a good idea. Most memorable food from the whole race.
It took a bit of time, but I finally passed Harland, who had been somewhere in front of me for awhile. I slowly gained on him and eventually passed him. Not 30 seconds after I had passed him, I heard noises behind me. “Yeargh! Hur-yar!” Was he yelling at an animal? I stopped running and looked back. Was there a bear on the side of the trail? Three seconds later, I heard retching sounds, which solved that mystery. He said he was fine, so I moved on.
Running ultras tests your mental toughness. These miles were especially hard because I had only whatever random thoughts were bouncing around in my head. And trees. And rocks. But they didn’t provide the company that David and Ashley had. I don’t think Einstein had any theories about how ultras warp the dimensionality of time, but those first 40 miles had zipped by at the speed of light, while these miles were only crawling by like a drugged snail in molasses. It was going to take hours, literally hours, and really slow ones and that, before I got to pick up Dan at mile 60.
Running trails with friends makes the miles melt away, disappearing with each passing story. I had a great time chatting and running with Dan and catching up on things since I had last seen him at a race. It had been too long. I was glad to be distracted as we clicked off the miles going into the next aid station, Slate Run. We knocked out some elevation change and it hardly phased me. I was too busy having fun.
We popped out on a road along Pine Creek and ran by some houses on our way to Slate Run, switching from rough trails to a little bit of pavement. The juxtaposition of PA Wilds and the humanity of these little towns was a little amusing. We ran into Slate Run and, perplexingly, I saw David waving to me. Given that David is an upstanding runner, I was assuming he wasn’t waiting to continue on with me after he had secretly hopped into car and skipped ahead. I read his cheerful demeanor as a sign that while he was no longer running, nothing too extreme had happened, e.g. fell off a cliff or so on. Then again, he looked pretty clean and blood-free, so it didn’t look like he had been chewed up by the woods. I definitely wanted him to be racing instead, but it was nevertheless nice to see him again.
Our friend Amey convinced me that changing shirts would be a good idea, and I swapped out my old one for a new one. The freshness felt nice. The kind woman volunteering at the aid station tried to feed me everything she had laid out in her buffet. I took her up on a few things, including strawberries. I remember her handing me a damp washcloth and puzzled, not knowing what to do with it, I lightly wiped my fingers on it. Not sure if that was her plan.
Now, to get my feet wet. Dan had told me earlier about the stream crossing immediately after Slate Run. I wasn’t looking forward to wet feet and as we approached the stream, I jokingly whined, “Ugh, we have to cross that don’t we…Piggy back time?” He unfortunately declined, perhaps because he didn’t want to run afoul of the rules or perhaps just because he thought it weird, and I plodded like an ornery water buffalo through the stream. I thought to myself “soggy feet for miles” as we began the long climb out of Slate Run.
Towards the top, we got some company when Ashley and her pacer, Bryce Gavitt, (a young up-and-coming central PA trail runner, although that would mean he hadn’t already been tearing it up) joined us. Bryce’s dad Josh also joined us, trailing his runner (Harland), whom he had just jumped in to pace. Another little central PA posse formed up.
I ran without my headlamp until the dimming light made it difficult to see the rocks, roots, and bumps in the trail. I flicked on my headlamp and….nothing happened. Completely dead. After a brief moment of panic, I realized that I was carrying my knuckle lights, so I just used switched to those. Running with just Dan’s headlamp would have been interesting.
Going into the Algerines aid station (66.7) I was pleasantly surprised by a friendly face. Jeff Smucker had told me he would be manning that aid station, but running for the better part of a day can do funny things to your memory and I forgot he would be there. He was flipping some mean pancakes, so I figured I would have to give them a try. While they tasted great, I promptly started choking on their bready goodness and had to chase them down with water.
The next uphill was brutally rough and crisscrossed back and forth across the stream we were following straight up the ravine. Ashley and Bryce were still with us, and the four of us searched for each reflective flag or piece of orange flagging as we scrambled up the rocks. This would have been tough going in the dark, but the hand-over-hand climbing coupled with route finding in the dark made it incredibly difficult. That, and I kept shining my knuckle lights in my eyes as I climbed up the rocks. Headlamp would have been handy for spotting course marking further ahead. The markings would seemingly disappear, only to reappear on the other side of the small creek, forcing us to pick our way across. Dan and I slowly pulled away from Ashley and Bryce on the next downhill, and their bouncing lights slowly faded away into the darkness. However, I was just waiting for Ashley to sneak up on me, although I guessed she would probably bide her time until the end and pacing herself well.
At Blackwell (78.2, but to be clear, who knows what mileage we are actually at), I said “farewell” to Dan and picked up Gary. Also nice was a working headlamp. I started off with Gary and he made sure we stayed on track as we followed the paved road to the trail.
I was going deeper into the unknown. I was plenty chipper and happy, but I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Running a race length you never have before careens you into the depths of uncharted territory. I am convinced that with enough training, the miles of the ultra should be physically manageable just as long as problems with injuries, nutrition, hydration, etc. don’t rear their ugly heads. The mental part is a whole different ballgame. At least for me, it blew my mind to think about the distance already travelled (nearly 80 miles), but more worryingly, the distance still to come. Conquering those miles (and hours) was the challenge and I was unsure how that would play out.
I was tired, but was nevertheless having a great time and was just enjoying time on the trails. The next stop would be the Skytop aid station, run by David’s parents and friends. Knowing the people behind this aid station and hearing how jazzed they were about it going in, I knew that this would be the aid station to end all aid stations. Well, until they did it again the next year anyways. Jeff Lister (David’s dad) had made sure every single runner knew that Skytop was coming up. Unfortunately, he also decided to point out there were only 70 miles or so to go on the sign. He did however let us runners know we could look forward to ultra delicacies such as raccoon stew, spicy snake shishkabobs, and grouse goulash (OK, I think he only mentioned the first one). I like having set goals when racing, so Skytop was going to be my next checkpoint and it was going to be a doozie of one (in a good way).
During this next leg, the mental wheels decided to start to fall off a bit, and at the very least, wobble around on the axle between my years. I tend not to overthink racing, and focus on running from point A to B, B to C, and so on, all while staying relaxed and try to have a good time. That is why we do this right? However, I do like to know what to expect during races. I am not particular enough that I actually show up beforehand and run the course, but I do like to print out an elevation profile map and add the aid stations so I know where I am mile-wise and know what to expect in terms of hills. At this point in the race, there was some snafu, either caused by me, or by the fact that the listed mileage superimposed on the posted elevation profile, or the mileages listed for the aid stations, weren’t quite right. Basically, I expected to go from Blackwell, go up and down two hills, and then come into Skytop at mile 82.5 at a low point on the course. Oh….not the case. As I should have known (at it occurred to me on the final uphill) the “Skytop” camp was not in a gully but was up on top of a hill, you know, the top of a hill…touching sky. This whole thing meant my little map that I had been relying on to keep me sane and to keep me pushing forward was now a bit unreliable. I definitely wasn’t going to be able to do the mental math to piece together where the aid stations actually were rather than where I marked them on the map. I still haven’t figured out exactly what went wrong.
Climbing up to Skytop, we were eerily surrounded by some wildlife in the form of some strange yipping noises. When I first talked with Gary about the noises, I didn’t call them yips because we could not figure out what they were, other than some sort of animal. It got a little spookier when I realized they were coyotes with several of them scattered around us and yipping to each other, which while pretty much harmless, have more formidable teeth than bunnies or other vegetarian woodland creature. I took solace in the fact we had at least a few pounds on them and kept moving up the creek. We simply followed the trail, which took us away from the coyotes, ending this little episode. Experiences like this helped keep the night interesting.
With legs that felt like they were fading, I pushed up the last climb to Skytop. We were greeted by another one of Jeff’s signs before seeing the lights and hearing the gentle rumbling of a generator that signaled we were almost there. A generator? For Christmas lights, duh! Jeff wanted to make sure all of us runners knew we were headed into Skytop and had created landing strip-like paths bordered by lights leading into the aid station. It was amazing.
It was great seeing familiar, friendly faces and having lights other than our own lights illuminate our surroundings, but we didn’t dawdle. I grabbed some food, drank some soda, took a couple Carb Boom gels for the road, and made sure my bottles were full. Somebody said something about bacon, but I didn’t bite. Skytop was definitely a beacon in the night and I regained a lot of mental energy at this stop, although who knew how long that would last.
This is what I expect for next year. I think it will wake the runners up even more. Skip to 5:04 for what I really want to see.
Leaving Skytop, I felt pretty good physically, but mentally, it was becoming a bit of a grind. Gary was great and humored me by running ahead to check for flags when I began to doubt my route finding abilities (David and I had decided to get lost and run the 100K version of Manitou’s Revenge in June, a creation of our own, so I doubted myself). We were still on fairly obvious trails or on roads where it would have been reasonably hard to miss things, but that far in and in the dead of night, who knew what would happen. As we ran along, we chatted, but there were also long stretches of silence as we trudged along.
Running up a road, we saw two teacup-diameter circles staring back at us from up in a tree, the reflection glinting in our headlamps. I instantly realized this was a wee bit big to be an owl or a raccoon. I still couldn’t figure out what the heck it was until I ran by and was able to illuminate it from close up with my headlamp. Turns out that somebody had turned a branch of a tree into an alligator or snake by adding a bit of paint and some reflective eyes. Well that was weird. I love singletrack, but I loved the road sections at this point. It was easy to powerwalk and to maintain a decent pace jogging.
I still felt decent physically, but it was becoming more and more of a slog. I really didn’t know exactly how long I would be running between aid stations or where we were on the course, which was driving me insane. I remember cursing and complaining a bit, but I thought most of it was had a jesting tone. Gary seems to remember a little more anger, so let’s just agree on something in the middle. I think we were both pretty tired. Rain began to trickle down through the canopy and while I was still plenty warm and it wasn’t a bone-soaking downpour, it certainly didn’t improve conditions. I heard the sound of bells filtering through the woods and told Gary that we must be getting close to the aid station. We ran for a few minutes longer through some pines and I really couldn’t tell if we were getting closer or not. At this point, I decided to ask Gary again if he was hearing bells. Turns out the answer was “no.” I don’t know what exactly caused, it, but something about the exhaustion and the silence of night had made my ears ring. It was a good bit later when the Barrens aid station (mile 91, but I am doubtful that was correct) finally emerged from the inky blackness, the dangling icicle lights beckoning me in. I was so happy to see that aid station. One of my first thoughts was “these poor people!” Gary and I hadn’t seen anybody for a long time, so I knew that just as we felt pretty alone out in the woods, these saintly volunteers must be tired and immensely bored. Hopefully they had a better time than I thought they might be having.
I stumbled, cursed, and slowly maneuvered over many a moss-covered rock on the next stretch. I yearned to be able to cruise along, even at an 8-9 minute mile pace, and while I thought my legs were up to the challenge, on this terrain, they definitely were not. We made our way through the rocks and then had some “fun” finding the trail in some pine forest. The reflective markers were far enough apart (or apparently destroyed by animals) that we couldn’t run from reflective flag to reflective flag and had to look for orange ribbons, which are mighty hard to find in the dark. We also resorted to finding the blazes on the trees marking the trail or searching for the cut end of a log that told us we were still on the trail. All of the ground looked the same, trail or not, a monotonous carpet of twigs and pine needles. I could tell the cut logs must make the trail completely obvious in the sunlight, but to our tired eyes, the trail seemed to disappear and then reappear. But man was I happy when we would catch the glint of a reflective flag in the distance.
Dangling glow sticks led us into the final aid station (Hacketts), which was a very nice touch. I really just like glowing things and lights and I REALLY like them when I am exhausted and tired and want to be done running. The aid station as run by local members of Team Red White and Blue (link). We briefly chatted with the volunteers, I ate and drank because I felt like I should, and then we waved them goodbye to make the final push. I had created a somewhat arbitrary goal, which was to finish under 24 hours. We had to get going if we were going to make it, so we plunged over the edge of the road and back into blackness.
I think this is when I truly started complaining and cursing. On my little map, which I should have known was sort of useless by now, I had the final aid station perched right at the cusp of the last downhill, meaning I was expecting a 3 mile downhill cruise to the finish. Nice and easy. Unfortunately, we actually still had another uphill, so Gary got to hear me repeat “aren’t we supposed to be going downhill?!?!?” laced with a few expletives I am sure. The trail leveled off for a bit, I complained some more because it wasn’t down before the trail finally started downhill, but still rolling up here and there. Was this the final descent? The trail meandered down a rocky spine, requiring me to lower myself down in between some rocks.
And then…finally…the trail headed straight down. I opened up knowing the end was nigh, and just a bit later, I caught lights twinkling through the trees. A wave of euphoria passed over me. I still had some road to run to the finish, but I didn’t care because I knew I was so close, and there was no way I would make my time goal.
Gary and I finally came within sight of the finish and he told me that he would peel off and let me cross the race by myself since it was my race. I told him, “you can’t be serious; you are crossing that line with me.” And with that, our journey ended, with 17 minutes to spare before my completely arbitrary goal.
Numbers: 23:43:00, 7th
Somehow, my crew was still awake and was waiting for me at the finish, all too eager to take pictures of a tired runner. We went back to the yurt, and after a quick shower, I felt pretty good. I thought I should eat some food, so I tried to eat some leftover Thai food. I ended up with my head on the table, half asleep, with only about a third of the pad thai gone. With that, I decided it was time to go to bed. It was nearly morning, but at least it was still dark.
The Eastern States web page calls this first year “a huge success” and I couldn’t agree more. This race was top-notch, with an amazing course and a great group of people getting together to propel as many runners as they could across the finish line. I was extremely glad I had taken the plunge with this race. Who knows where the trails will lead for Eastern States in the coming years, but I can’t imagine that this won’t become a soul-crushing staple of the East coast ultra scene in addition to its sadistic little brother, the Call of the Wilds Marathon . I am excited to see what happens.