NOTE: I have written pieces of this on and off over the past few months, but am finally publishing (despite it being nearly a year since the event). Enjoy!
Whoever said that running 100 miles would be easy was either delusional or just telling a lie. This was a time where I felt truly challenged, and didn't know what the outcome would be, even when I was a mere 25 miles from the finish. It was a battle, and my body wasn't cooperating for a majority of the race, all while overcoming the challenges the course threw at me; but I finished and earned the title of being a finisher for the Triple Crown.
As was my goal this whole year, I planned on finishing the Pennsylvania Triple Crown. Easier said than done. I finished the first two races in the series (Hyner Trail Challenge 50k and Worlds End Ultramarathon 100k), but the prospect of running 100 miles through the PA wilds was daunting, to say the least. With the thought of my DNF at Run Rabbit Run the year before, I wasn't confident that my body would hold up for the entirety of Eastern States, especially considering how things seemed to go poorly at Worlds End 100k.
Prior to competing in the Worlds End Ultra (WEU), I opted to hiring a coach instead of going with my haphazard training plan. While I feel I have a good understanding of training and a workout's effect on my body, putting in the time required for an effective training program was time consuming and difficult to do effectively. Coach Joseph Cavaretta with APEX Coaching was my man. He knows what he's doing, and pushes me, and it also helps that he's a friend of mine too.
We focused on the 6-weeks after Worlds End, leading into Eastern States, to really lay down the hammer and improve my fitness and workload. Let me tell you, those were some good solid chunks of training.
To help my body recover after Worlds End, my fiancée and I took a wonderful bike touring trip from Pittsburgh to DC along the Great Allegheny Passage (Pittsburgh, PA --> Cumberland, MD) and the C&O Canal Towpath (Cumberland, MD --> Washington, D.C.). It was an awesome trip, and I definitely recommend taking some time to do this for those that like bikes, extended trips, history, old canal paths, rails to trails, and meeting cool people. We covered the 330 miles in 5 days.
After the bike trip, I kicked my training up a notch from what it had been before WEU. I've been asked what training looks like for a 100-miler. First of all, I never ran close to 100 miles in a day; far from that actually. Second, I run a lot during the week, with lots of hills, and sometimes the stair climber. Usually, a full week would have between 5 and 8 miles a day, and then pick it up on the weekends with a longer run of between 15-25 miles.
This led me on an adventure to explore part of the race course around Slate Run (mile 63 of ES100) and climb one of the tough stretch on the course. Here's a short video of it.
An important piece of the puzzle for 100 mile races is food. I experimented with some different fueling, and ultimately settled on medjool dates for "solid food" and GU roctane powder as an additive in my water bottles. Both options seemed to sit well with my stomach while never letting me drop too much in energy.
For shoes, I own multiple pairs that are adequate for different situations, but have never found one pair of shoes that is perfect. I wanted something with some decent padding, not too much of a heel drop, some good lugs, decent drainage, and toe and foot protection. I eventually settled on my primary shoe being the LaSportiva Akasha. They had done me well before. As backups, I packed a pair of shoes that didn't necessarily fit all the requirements (namely none), but I had run a lot of miles in and really trusted them to do me well - Merrel All Out Crush.
I had been running in some Mammut shorts that I took a liking to. An unfortunate oversight: I did not have adequate testing on distances over 25 miles. In the middle of the race (~ mile 50), I had some really bad chaffing and had to change shorts, and needed a bottle of A&D diaper rash cream. A future solution will be to cut out the liners and get some compression shorts.
We got to the race course in the valley of Little Pine Creek in a deluge. As we arrived and saw the banners, I kept repeating to myself, "I'm actually doing this..." The hills climb quickly on both sides of the creek, covered in lush green trees with mist covering the whole valley. This would be my home for the next 2 days.
Once I was checked in, I experienced part of what makes the trail running community so great. I ran in to a friend, Mike, who invited us over to his yurt to hang out for a pre-race meal. Here's a guy that I had met once previously, and now Meghan and I got to share a nice meal with him, and eventually part of his crew, while having some good conversation. After soaking up the carbs, sugar, and water, it was time for a short sleep and getting on with the adventure!
Seeing the different runners don their hydration vests, kiss loved ones goodbye, and turn on their headlamps solidified the fact that there was an extremely long day ahead and there was no turning back. I couldn't shake the fact that in 24 hours' time, I would still be out on the course moving towards the finish.
We all gathered at the start line where Dave Walker (RD) told us to watch out for snakes, bears, and mountain lions, then spoke a few more words and said "GO!" We were off.
One challenge for a race of this distance is to figure out the proper speed so as not to burn too hot and still have enough energy after 80 miles. There was a bit of jockeying for position at the start, but over the next 10 miles a group of us settled into a good pace. I got a chance to run with the eventual women's Triple Crown winner, Desarae Clark. I've been on pace with her at both Hyner and Worlds End, so I decided to keep up with her for a little since she seemed to be quite consistent.
I moved through the climbs and descents of the first 18 miles quickly, which I later found out are some of the more challenging miles of the course. This likely played a bigger role than I realized as by finishing this section with relative ease, I gave myself a buffer when things wouldn't go quite as smoothly later on in the race.
Coming into the first crew access aid station (AS), I had a huge smile and was feeling good! My crew chief/fiancée (now wife) was there to take care of me, see what I needed, give me a kiss, and push me back on the trail. Knowing that I reached the Lower Pine Bottom AS (mile 17.8) quickly and full of energy, I had full confidence I would not only finish, but the remaining miles would be easy.
There was a nice gradual climb coming out of Lower Pine Bottom before it turned into a much steeper set of ups and downs. I was consistently doing self-checks, "Feet? Good. Chaffing? Not bad. Calories? I just ate." I remember starting to feel a bit of fatigue prior to the descent that leads into Browns Run AS (mile 25.8). There was a long downhill with some dirt mounds every 200 feet or so, probably to help with erosion, where my joints (not muscles) began hurting.
Just as I reached Browns Run AS, I felt a sharp pain on the outside of my left knee, and knew my IT band was lashing out its fury at me. I had this pain come up during training, so it wasn't new, and I was confident I could fight through it. It wasn't bad at first but I now had an issue to be cognizant of so I was going to have to suck it up, whatever pain it caused.
The trail out of Browns Run up to Happy Dutchman AS was a terrible experience. The pain from my IT band worsened significantly with every step. I was walking, or resting while trying to massage my leg, or trying to hobble and run. Everyone who passed me looked at me like I was a dying animal, and sometimes asked if I was ok. The pain reached a level that felt unsustainable; I was unsure I could fight it for another 75 miles. It was along this stretch, around mile 28, I knew what I had to do: I was going to drop from the race at the next aid station (mile 31.6). The only problem was Meghan wasn't there. She was at the next AS at mile 38.5... It would be terribly disappointing to take a shuttle to her at Richie Rd when I could probably just hobble my way there.
When I strolled in to the Flying Dutchman AS, I ran into my friend Jason, who was in a lot of pain himself, after gashing his shin open earlier. He told me I looked pretty rough, and the volunteer at the aid station, unprovoked, decided I looked like I could use some Advil... I figured I must not have been hiding my discomfort all that well. I took the Advil, and hobbled out of there.
The pain beat me down and brought me to a low point, but once I collected my nerves and the ibuprofen kicked in, the negativity sharpened my focus: I knew I had to fight through and keep going.
I made it to Richie Road AS, and my spirits were lifted by seeing Meghan and Todd (my eventual pacer), and my hiking poles. I grabbed my fuel along with some encouragement and headed off for a steamy and hot afternoon stroll.
At this point in the race, I was feeling OK at best. My knees were hurting, my legs were chaffed, my muscles ached like having done 1000 squats, and my feet felt like I had taken a sledgehammer to them over and over again.
I met Meghan and Todd at mile 54.6, Halfway House AS, with Todd stoked to jump in as my pacer. The uplift from having a friend is unmeasurable. I went from jogging and walking with a grudge, to jogging and walking with a grudge and a smile. The important part being I was still moving forward.
Todd was my mental strength, and root in sanity.
Things started off well with Todd as we ran a fair amount. We must not have been going too fast though, as we were being passed by others. I'd see them disappear over the next hill, knowing I would never catch them. The terrain had taken even more of a toll on my body than the miles had. My feet were feeling torn up, and I was relying on my poles to traverse the rocky hollows and ascend the rooty footpaths up the mountains. Todd was my mental strength, and root in sanity, as everything else seemed to bring me down.
We slowly chipped away at the course as the sky slowly turned the color of the dried blood under my toes, and the stars and Perseid meteor shower took over the sky. I was mixing in running when I could, while hiking the uphills always. My eyes begin getting heavy and my mind couldn't hold on to reality. I never truly hallucinated, but everything seemed to have a haze about it; Todd's stories began blending into a dream, and I learned it was possible to run and fall asleep at the same time.
I decided a nap was necessary at the 75 mile aid station (Algerines). It was the middle of the night, yet it seemed odd to want to sleep at 3 AM. I put my timer on for 20 minutes, grabbed a blanket, and promptly passed out.
I didn't have any trouble waking up in 20 minutes, and I felt somewhat refreshed. Todd and I got back on the trail through the dark forest.
I wish there was a way to convey the joy I felt when we arrived at Blackwell at mile 80. The feeling was of awe at reaching the morning and overjoyed at seeing Meghan, and excited knowing I made it into the morning. Todd had enough of me and decided to head home (he actually had to get some sleep before work). He got me through the last 25 miles in 10 hours, with only 20 miles remaining. It was time to keep rolling towards the finish.
This was a hard stretch, as one might imagine. Despite the earlier issues my body was having, my body seemed to hurt so much, it was all a dull ache at this point. Running was tough, but doable, I just felt like the effort required to actually run was equivalent to sprinting.
I ended up coming across a pacer and another runner that was going about the same pace I was. I joined their dynamic duo as the pacer was funny when needed, and motivating at other points. He forced the racer (Jason) to run, which consequently forced me to run since I didn't want to lose the company. I held on long enough to make it to the last crew-accessible aid station at mile 92.8 (exactly 10 miles from the finish).
Finally, I knew I could finish. I saw Meghan standing at the entrance to the AS, and I had to quickly turn away because I was pretty much a hot mess of emotion, and couldn't control my tears. Needless to say, I was grateful to see her. This may not have been my quickest aid station stop, but I felt like I was in and out in a flash... I wanted to finish!
The remainder of the race was just a long march to victory. 10 miles of it. There was enough time in there to stub my toe a few more times, make sure my GI system was still working, see if I could get my feet wetter, and practice cursing some more.
I saw the finish and sprinted towards it. I later learned that I was actually hobbling and not really moving that fast. I was so grateful to finish! I earned a hug from the RD, Dave Walker, and a kiss from Meghan, a belt buckle, and the greatest feeling of accomplishment I have ever experienced. I crossed the line at 33:48:51, with 105 miles on the watch and +20,000 feet of ascent and descent.
I ended up losing 6 toenails, along with some nerve damage to my feet to where the toes and feet would tingle for the next 3 months. Remember those other shoes that didn't check any of the boxes in terms of protection? I wore those for 60 miles of the race... Note to self: don't do that again.
When I look back at this race, I get chills and a filling sense of joy and pride. I loved doing this race. This challenged me to the core, but I persevered and did it. I was so grateful to share the experience with Meghan, and run it with Todd. My first 100, and it wasn't easy, by any stretch of the imagination.