I had aspirations of really pushing myself on this race and testing out what my legs could do. I found out that they couldn't handle the speed of being at the front, nor the rocky terrain the course offered.
The Black Forest Trail is a challenging 44-mile backpacking loop around the Little Pine Creek Gorge of Pennsylvania. The ultramarathon adds on a 10-mile lollipop start/finish, to give the race just about 64 miles, in theory. Dave Walker, Race Director (RD), began taking soul donations for those crazy enough to attempt his idea of a race - that meant it was time for me to sign up.
The course promised to be relentless and technical. It's not something I thought was too ridiculous though, considering I finished Eastern States 100 and Worlds End 100k.
At one point during my training, I was able to run along the start of the course. Usually this would be a benefit for race day, but I may have inflated my capabilities due to setting a cool KOM record on the Donut Hole Trail out of Hyner Run - I beat Mike Wardian by nearly 3 minutes.
As the weeks went on, training seemed to pile up on my legs, and I was feeling beat up but strong. My training volume was moderate, topping out at around 50 miles a week; however, I had a good endurance base from my consistent training this year. Coach Joe Cavaretta had me dialed in. The only part of training I was sick of was always being covered in sweat - my runs usually were in the hot afternoons and humid evenings. I suppose this turned out to be fine as the weather wasn't much different during the race... we'll get there.
The meat of my training, outside of long trail runs, consisted of hill intervals, sprinting up an 8% hill for 30-60s, once a week for multiple weeks on end. This, along with some strength work at my Crossfit gym (Arsenal Strength), rounded out my training.
I've done race plans before and have previously detailed the exact vertical gain and loss in each section, my approximate time into each aid station, and estimated finish - all based on my training performance. For this race, I decided to throw all that out the window. I planned out the race with my coach, going over some of the difficulties to look out for, what to manage, and what to just wing.
This wasn't a normal race though. Not like making us travel through the woods to find book pages, but enough changes to make me think a little:
Out of the 30 people that signed up for the race, I think 26 people started. The race started like a whisper in the night. Mr. RD said, "Well it's midnight, so you should go," and to little fanfare, we were off.
When planning the race, I had no intention to be in the lead, but I was feeling confident and got off to a quick start. I was a little out of my comfort zone, but made the best of it by sharing some miles with Josh Gavitt and Blake Cohen as we blazed our way into the darkness of the Donut Hole trail.
By the end of the first climb, I couldn't catch my breath despite my effort feeling controlled, conversational even. When I slowed down, my breathing remained heavy as though I had been sprinting, and my nerves were so jittery that my hands were shaking. Perhaps an effect of being in the lead, or only getting a few hours of sleep prior to the race? I did eventually calm my nerves and slow down, just not totally relaxed.
I kept up near the front as I got to aid station 1... 8 miles down, 4 aid stations left. 10 miles to the next one. Feeling better, just have to eat and drink, slow climbs, smooth descents. Boom! Aid station 2, 18 miles down, 3 aid stations left. Huge climb after huge descent... can my legs take it? Aid station 3 is just in the distance, or so it seems. 10 miles. That's it.
By mile 18 (aid station 2), I was feeling strong on the downhills and passed Alex Papadopolous for the lead. Despite my edge on the downhills, I lacked the climbing speed to hold him off for long. Out of aid station 2, Alex passed me, as expected. I didn't like being in the lead, and I relaxed into a better flow instead of racing. Run, eat, drink, poop, run, eat, drink, repeat... My body was starting to feel a bit ragged at this point, but I was close to 20 miles in and 6500 feet of vertical ascent conquered.
When going through my self-checklist, I desperately wanted to change socks to alleviate some discomfort with my feet, but I wasn't sure how to remedy my nausea aside from not eating. Fueling was a necessity, yet I struggled forcing down my dates and GU roctane. My only relief would come when I reached the "Hill of Difficulty" aid station at mile 28. According to my watch I was already at mile 30 though? Why do they play these games with us? I would have to keep moving like a lemming whose lost their way, yet determined to find where the leader went and go over the edge.
The downhill into Slate Run was strewn with rocks covered in a fine mist from the fog, making it a slow and challenging downhill. Eventually the rocks turned to smooth trail. Running this stretch in the morning light, after the long darkness and 10 of the most grueling miles I've ever run, I got a glorious second wind. I saw the Manor at Slate Run feeling ready to race again and even take the lead back.
Into Slate Run (Aid Station 3), I was an hour later than I was expecting. I don't think I could've gone any faster, especially in retrospect of my outcome, but the time delay was greater than I had planned. The volunteers here (really, for this whole race) were just awesome. I had no crew, but I felt a bond with the whole gang trying to feed me jello shots and making fun of my heart rate monitor, while they changed my socks, and made me laugh. I was excited when they informed me I was only 10 minutes behind Alex. There was still a chance to contend for the lead!
As I was heading out of the aid station to conquer the "Hill of Difficulty", I saw Rhoda Smoker rolling in. Despite my small lead in front of her, she wasted no time catching me on the 1300 foot climb once she got through the aid station. So much for catching the leader... now I have two people to catch. By the time I made it to the top, my legs were like jello shots after sitting out in the sun for a few hours. I tried to run, but I could barely muster the energy to gallop. This went on for the remaining 10 miles of this section, and I only got slower and less mobile. Talking with my coach afterwards, this was probably the accumulation of the lack of fuel to support a fast effort on a tough course. I should've been eating more to keep up with the demands I was putting on my body early on.
I hobbled in to the Damn Hollow aid station (#4) with about 30 minutes to spare on the cutoff. Of course my watch didn't match the 41 miles this aid station was supposed to be at. The actual distance recorded was 45 miles with over 12,000 feet of climbing. At least no one was lying about this being a flat course.
I left the 4th aid station fueled by hot food and lies from Will. He assured me that I would make it to the next aid station within the time limit. I had a little less than 4 hours to cover 13 miles. Supposedly, the course had no more hills and was actually all downhill, so to continue seemed simple. Thanks Will... liar.
Endurance is the struggle to continue against amounting desire to stop
- Alex Hutchinson
Thanks to the deception, I attempted to make it to the next aid station. In retrospect, I am grateful to have been kicked out of the aid station and given a chance to keep going. Eventually, the sweeper snuck up behind me and told me I was the last one on the course. Rats. I was continuing to slow, and there were, of course, hills left to climb. I was a wreck at this point, barely able to move faster than 2 miles per hour (3.5 mph was needed to make the cutoff). This was a death march, with my feet in a ton of pain, my hips tighter than an overtorqued lugnut, and my legs feeling like I just downed 6 jello shots (I'm regretting not taking them earlier).
I didn't make the cutoff. I caught a ride back to start/finish, took a nap, hung out with those that were remaining, and collectively commiserated with the DNFers (most of us), and applauded the finishers, those tough souls! I stayed for "the purge" where Dave Walker went through each of the participants that didn't finish, and burned their name while offering a thought about them. Lovely.
In the end, the race was beautiful and grueling, just as advertised. I think I was a little ambitious to start, and tried to maintain that effort throughout, when I should've pulled the reins a little. I could've trained harder, descended slower, eaten more, and pooped less. Lessons were learned. I loved being there, and taking on the challenge. A wonderful test of my capabilities, and knowing where my limits are. 54 miles and close to 13,000 feet of climbing on a very technical course. A good day!