It's amazing how fitting the opening line to A Tale of Two Cities is to the last weekend in September and the first weekend of October. After COVID-19 derailed a few races, most of my planned training (amongst other things... 2020), I was hopeful that the Black Forest Ultra would persist. I wasn't entirely sure how Worlds End Ultra would be scheduled or if it would survive.. and when it did survive, I raced both races on back-to-back weekends. Maybe I was looking for a new challenge or a way of getting back at a year full of hurdles and disappointment? Maybe I was being lazy and didn't defer my entry into Worlds End Ultra when I had the chance? Bingo.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...
- Charles Dickens"
- David Walker (probably)
Dave Walker has a set of races that he directs around the PA Wilds and showcases some amazing scenery. While Worlds End Ultra and Black Forest Ultra (both 100 km races) are in the Northeast part of PA and run through similar mountainous topography, the two races are distinct in the race format and the challenge of the terrain. Usually scheduled about 5 months apart, COVID found a way of bringing these races to be separated by 8 days. I was excited for the challenge, yet less excited for the training in an odd year.
A main theme for the year was to constantly readjust to how the world was shifting based on updated mandates and controls put in place to diffuse the spread of COVID-19. This included a big shift for me starting to work from home and simultaneously taking care of my 6-month old, cancelling plans for travels and races, and figure out how to stay motivated for a potential race with a contingent date.
My training started at the beginning of the year. I ramped up mileage, then hit a wall in March; April training was a joke, but lots of weights; COVID adjustments were made: weight lifting and work-from-home parenting became the new norm; running was non-existent; fun runs and FKTs were the spotlights on Strava (I kudoed in awe, while doing nothing); I pursued a random solo-50k (FOMO), then helped a friend in the midst of his own personal challenge (double Rachel Carson Trail - 90ish miles), then another fun 50k on Laurel Highlands; training in earnest began mid-July; early AM runs followed by noon runs and desk lunches was the daily schedule with solo-long runs on the weekends... and not much else.
Gotta Pay the Machines to Enjoy the Rides
Throughout my training, my goal was to build up stress on my body to the point that I could recover quickly from a long run, that way, in theory, I would be able to recover quickly from Worlds End and run Black Forest with just a days worth of recovery. I am not a coach nor a physiologist, so I'm not actually sure if my training achieved the goal I was after, but it made sense to me. I structured my training to build mileage over 12 weeks towards two weeks totaling 70 miles. I broke up the training into blocks: 4 weeks of building base (steady state runs all the time), 1 week of recovery, 3 weeks with a focus on speed work, 3 works with a focus on getting as much vert as possible, and 2 weeks of taper before the race.
Now that I've got hindsight into my training and racing, I can say my training worked. I'm not sure how well it translated since my racing could've been better, but, spoiler alert, my body help up and I finished both races.
Trial 1 - Worlds End Ultra
My wife, recall Crew Chief (CC), and my daughter, Crew Support (CS), rented a tent site nearby for the race as our base camp. This was our first time doing a race with little CS in tow as she was 5 months old at the start of COVID and 11 months at the race. CC was going to be in charge of taking care of me at the different aid stations across the course, while taking care of CS in the interim - she was going to have her hands full. We utilized my handy-dandy prediction tool of mine to come up with estimated arrival times into the aid stations and help CC manage time on her end while I tried my best to be as steady as possible.
I've done this race before, so I knew what the terrain was going to throw at me. Rocks... lots of rocks! Even though my typical training surface was pavement, I felt comfortable that my fitness was good enough that I would be durable enough to handle the course and the copious amounts of rocks to dodge with my feet.
At the onset of Worlds End, I knew my friend Aaron would be there, and I was so looking forward to seeing so many trail running buddies. Even though the time elapsed between previous face-to-face encounters may have spanned many months (or years even), a year of misery and miles of tortuous labor awaiting helped to erase the past and make it easy to make friends quickly.
There was a bit of shuffling and awkwardness at the start, but by the time Dave told us to start, the fast folks at the front took off, and the rest of us followed behind like bandits following a stage coach. I know there were less people that started the race, but it sure felt like the real deal with the energy surging at the start. Maybe that's just the nature of one of the first races during an odd year?
As we got started, Aaron found me quickly (I'm still not sure how, it was dark and all). We pretty much stayed together for half the race, and I was extremely grateful for his company. It was wonderful to share some miles talk about... well, pretty much everything. While we were both running our own race, we'd stick together, separate a little, then join back up - just the nature of a race like this. I knew I had to keep my pace controlled and not get too excited lest I over-stress my body then ruin the race the following weekend. Aaron helped me keep that in check.
The beginning of the Worlds End course is beautiful. It breathed new life into me - being in the middle of a race enjoying the crisp trail air was absolutely refreshing and invigorating. The course couldn't beat me down, not with its many short and punchy ups and downs nor with the plethora of rocks that slowly ground away my legs and feet; I was out racing and enjoying every minute this wild area featured. I felt confident with my training and knowledge of the course and just went with the rhythm of my feet. In hindsight, I may have gone a tad too hard (maybe...), but I think I (for once) I gauged my effort fairly well at the beginning.
By the time I made it to mile 20, I was happy to see CC and CS (although CS was a little grumpy from not having a full nap). She was excited to play in the leaves and see all the runners go by! I said hello to the crew, got some food, and rolled out - much more efficient than usual. Even though I was moving well, I could already tell that I was beginning to fatigue faster that I should at mile 20. The climbs and rocks were sucking energy out of my legs.
As I moved on, I was starting to get worn out. There's a stretch between mile 25 and 37 (roughly) that goes through some gnarly terrain: lots of waterfalls, running along creek shores, and a ladder to traverse out of a rocky hollow. It was at this point Aaron decided he would show off and leave me in his dust while I tried to take out my phone to get a picture of him on the ladder (I missed it).
I continued on to mile 37, saw the crew again, and back to the trail. Prior to this point, I wasn't entirely sure how the race would go or how I would feel throughout, or begin to understand how I would recover quick enough for another 100 km race. By mile 37, I knew my body and how I was feeling well enough to know that I would finish the race, but the final miles, with the longer climbs and darkness setting in, would require a significant amount of grit to make it to the finish. My energy level was dropping, my feet hurt, and I was just ready for the race to be over.
The miles ticked by slowly. I ran with different people when I could match their speed. I saw my crew 3 more times, each time a bit wearier; CC was still smiling and happy to see me, and CS was doing her own thing, either eating or sleeping. CS was eating her dinner from her little camp chair, and made an impression on enough folks that some runners and/or pacers somehow knew that I was her runner. That was certainly a highlight.
By the time I made it to the finish, it was already well into the dark. My goal time of 7:42 PM was long gone, and at this point I was shooting for 9:30 PM. As I was nearing the finish, I couldn't help but think how CC and CS were doing, and if I'd see them at the finish or if CS was sleeping? The last time I did this race, I felt so wrecked that I could hardly walk for a couple days after... would that happen again?
I crossed the finish in 16:35! I was happy for the finish and I got to see CC and a sleepy CS. We both grabbed some food, said hi to a few friends at the finish, including Aaron (he crushed it!) and Don (he had a tough day!) and begin the speedy recovery process.
The weekend was a total success and so much fun to be back in a race with so many good folks, surrounded by an awesome park and beautiful nature. CS camped great and seemed to love being part of the crew.
Trial 2 - Black Forest Ultra
I took my rest week between the two races seriously! I did nothing... except run once to test the legs. Guiltless relaxation! It only took 12 weeks of intense training and a 100 km race to earn it.
The Black Forest Ultra was the race I was targeting. Of my 2 DNFs, this one bothered me the most - on my last attempt, I was physically ready for the challenge, but I underestimated the course and I attacked it all wrong and ended up paying for it with some dead legs and a ticket on the purge list. I couldn't help but wonder, did I prepare for it in all the right ways this time except for a huge mistake with Worlds End right before this?
The crew (CC and CS) wouldn't be able to do any crewing or spectating at this race due to its solo nature, but we were able to spend some quality time together before the race in a truly spectacular area of the state and country! The midnight start on a Sunday gives the day before an ominous feel - I'm not sure if I should be sleeping or eating all day or when to show up to the start? The crew and I spent the day biking and hiking, had our meals, put CS to bed, and I met up with my friend Jason as we embarked to the start.
By shear luck, I brought an extra long sleeve baselayer and figured it was chilly enough to bring with me. As Jason and I arrived at the start, the temperature began dipping into the mid-30s; a cold that I was not quite prepared for. The pre-race jitters were much higher here, and chatting with all the participants had me feeling anxious and excited to be part of this unique race.
Once more into the darkness
As Mr. Walker bid us farewell, all 40 of us took off bathed in each others' headlamps, surrounded by the echo of crickets, and the tiniest of cowbell jingling. The air was frigid and only cooled more as we climbed. I'm not fond of night running especially alone in some sasquatch + Eastern mountain lion infested woods (I think both are equally rare, but the latter has more sightings)... luckily, I had Jason to keep me company. He's great to run with, and just like at Massanutten, he keeps a solid pace that I can rock with.
Unlike Worlds End, the beginning of this race does, in fact, feature lots of large climbs and numerous very large rocks. I knew this to be the case and just went along at the pace I knew to be sustainable without holding too much back; this just so happened to be Jason's pace too. We chatted with another participant who was also tackling the "David Walker Double" (Worlds End + Black Forest) - Kathleen Cusick; turns out, I'm not the only dumb one out here. A wild year demands a different approach and unprecedented self-challenges. To add the loony list was Jason, running No Business 100 in 2 weeks time; it would seem I was in good company.
With the aid-stations being at least 8 miles apart, this course required self-sufficiency and planning ahead to what you'll need in a drop bag. The odd training that 2020 brought helped prepare me for this more than I realized - with mostly solo long runs, and having done 2 solo-50 km efforts with 1 car stop, I was practicing self-sufficiency all year.
On the out section of the lollipop, crossing By-Path Meadow was a simple stop letting us all know we had 4 aid stations and 57 miles remaining, but not a real need to pick up any extra food (not yet, at least). From this point, we climbed some more, descended onto the Black Forest and the real fun begin.
Even in the darkness, you could see the vastness offered at the top of the climbs. At one point in the night, we knew we were in a good spot when the sides of the trail were littered with tents with those anticipating a beautiful sunrise. Alas, no time to wait, back down the hill so we could climb again.
The climbs made me suck wind and burned my quads while the descents became more and more treacherous as the course seemed to be gaining large boulders. Jason and I left Giant Despair (mile ~20) together, then Jason sped off before Hill of Difficulty (mile ~31) and climbed that together in the sunrise before he took off for good at the top. I got to see some friends at the Hill of Difficulty AS (AS3) which has a way of making me smile even if I feel like crap. There was a lot more to smile about at the top of the climb: only 2 AS left, 50 km already covered, and 9000' climbed!
The good news of passing AS3, including the sunlight, brought renewed life to my tired legs... just not much. It was nice not needing the headlamp anymore and knowing there would be no other physical darkness to endure. The 13 mile stretch that traverses the backside of the Black Forest Trail was arduous but rewarding with some of the scenery. My knees and legs were feeling the effects of the accumulated miles over the last two weeks, and the rocky descents only became trickier. I trudged on as best I could using a single pole to assist me on climbs (one of my poles snapped early on in the race).
Upon reaching Damn Hollow (AS4 at mile 45), I felt like I was out of gas and ready to call it a day. I was hopeful to catch up to Jason at this aid station (didn't happen) and I was excited to see some friendly faces. The gang here cheered me up with their enthusiastic energy - they were awesome! I wished I could've hung out with them all day there, but that would mean another DNF... and no way was Will letting that happen (see caption below).
The miles continued to click by as I settled into my new shuffle for the last 20 miles. I knew my body was going to make it to the finish and I was not at risk of any cutoffs, I was actually more concerned that I was going to finish sooner than when I told CC the night before! I was hopeful she would be there and wondering how her day with CS was going.
I ticked off mile 50 on my watch, passed some hikers, enjoyed the open meadows of the trail, mile 55, more hikers, time to down some food, finally to mile 60 - where's that aid station!? They were excited for me as I approached the final AS; meanwhile, I was overjoyed to reach this point. Just a few meager miles to the finish. I regret not capitalizing on the fireball offered so I had to keep going with regular 'ol sugar water (boring).
The return section of a lollipop course is a great way to bring about excitement over things you've already seen knowing that the end is near, also a gentle reminder that your memory is terrible. I can't remember if I sprinted it in or crawled, but I made it to the finish full of excitement and relief! I finished 10 minutes to 4 PM, making my time 15:49:50!
CC and CS barely missed me at the finish, but I got to see them shortly after. We enjoyed hanging out with the folks at the finish, had some food, chatted with friends, shared some stories, and took a few pictures. What a day, and what a week! It was time to sleep, eat, and recover. I survived the David Walker Double, and can't believe what an awesome challenge it was.
Now that a few months have passed since the races, I can say those two weekends of racing brought much fulfillment to an otherwise drab year. I had difficulty motivating myself to run after the race was over, but did eventually bring myself to run again. To briefly compare the two races - Worlds End Ultra is probably the more taxing race with a large crowd and closer aid stations (as Dave Walker would say, it's "cushier"), while Black Forest Ultra requires a lot of variables to be accounted for with larger climbs. As I described it to myself, Worlds End Ultra is like death by a thousand small cuts versus Black Forest Ultra which is like death by getting your legs chopped off and then getting beat to death with them.