With the help of a few good people, I managed to survive a race that is considered by many trail runners to be the toughest 100 miler in the Eastern US. That’s hard to quantify, but there’s a few considerations in support of the argument. First, it’s longer than 100 miles at 103+ miles. Second, there’s about 20,000 feet of climbing matched by an equivalent amount of descending. Third, there are many rocks and roots that want to hurt you (and they will succeed). Fourth, it’s August in PA so there’s bound to be some humidity and heat. Fifth, rattlesnakes. Sixth, Sasquatch. Seventh, the course is closely monitored by a violent drug cartel known as The Fuzzy Friends Club.
I think I executed it well as a 90 miler. Which, according to my Monday-after arithmetic, leaves about 13 miles of tough terrain to suck it up and go into survival mode. Not knowing the course, I knew I was running in a way that was taking a chance, chasing a time goal on terrain I’d never seen, hoping that the elevation profile and talk of the elevation changes being more forgiving in the later stages would pay off. Well that didn’t quite work. I would have been better off trying to run this like it was 115 miles, but it was still memorable and awesome.
It fascinates me how quickly events like this can go by. Anyone crewing or pacing would probably disagree, but for the runner, it’s crazy how such an intense focus allows time to slip past. The whole experience became so robotic that it’s impossible for me to remember the order of some locations and various events. But I was told by crew captain Anne that it’s like childbirth and if I don’t quickly write something down about the events, I’ll really forget what happened. The one and only obvious difference is that after 30 hours of labor I gave birth to a finisher medal and finisher jacket that will never require swaddling, changing, or feedings in the middle of the night.
After getting to bed way too late and struggling to fall asleep on Friday night, I awoke at 3:50 AM to shovel in more of the sweet potato and bacon hash from dinner’s leftovers. Staying at Happy Acres Resort made for an easy one-mile commute to the start line at Little Pine State Park. I basically hopped out of the truck and walked to the start line to hear the pre-race meeting and took off at precisely 5:00 AM.
Starting with a paved road mile, of course people haul ass. I held way back and still ran an 8:30 mile. Eventually we enter the woods within the campground and of course the climbing begins up the Mid-State Trail and didn’t seem to let up until day was breaking atop the first mountain, at around five miles, with a couple hermit thrush performing their daily ritual. Very steep. Unusually steep? Shades of what was to become a theme. I was able to briefly chat with my future pacer, Aaron Watkins, volunteering at the Ramsey Road aid station (mile 5.8).
I ran a lot of this first section with eventual women’s winner Meg Burke, who seemed to be in great spirits, and I wondered then if she wouldn’t eventually take the win. We bombed one of the next descents where I just about ended my day early by rolling my left ankle slightly on a “sexy because it’s barely-there” strip of off-camber singletrack. That would have been sad. Alas, I carried onward, too dumb to care and too stupid to quit.
At Ramsey aid station (11.3 miles) I could still think straight and chatted with the race director briefly about his champagne-laden aid station at another great race, Rock ‘N The Knob, last year. A brief, two minute jaunt up the rail trail results in access to more trails that go straight up the mountainsides, soon connecting onto the Tiadaghton Trail. Several more minutes of hiking and more lovely, non-technical ridge running followed.
During the next long descent, Meg and I were fooled into thinking we could hear people yelling but realized shortly thereafter that it was just a rooster crowing on the opposite side of Pine Creek. We eventually reached Lower Pine Bottom (mile 17.8), which felt like an accomplishment unto itself. This was the first crew accessible point, so I did a little strip tease for the spectators to make a couple of quick bucks, changed into some fresher clothes, took a couple minutes to eat and headed on back to a nice gravel climb up Lower Pine Bottom Road. That nice climb had to end, of course, as we then traversed the always steep, never flat Wolf Path. Didn’t see any wolves, so I want my money back. Clearly no one has ever taught the local trailbuilders about the concept of switchbacks. This one sucked a little out of me. I didn’t see any Sasquatch in the designated Sasquatch pen at the top of the climb either.
I gained a new running partner for a bit, cruised through a couple more ups and downs, and had the unfortunate chance to watch my partner take a hard digger into the dirt on one of the descents. Chunks of this section are ATV trails, though I saw no recent evidence of ATVs. I tried to eat like crazy upon entering the Brown’s Run aid (mile 25.8) because I knew there was a long climb coming. If only I had received lessons in effort dispersal. Browns Run was nice to cross occasionally for a dip of the hat or a splash of the face, but it also became mildly annoying after the fifth or sixth crossing.
While the Dutchman might have been happy at aid station 5 (mile 31.6), I was not. Because I had the stupidity to believe that the more runnable 5.8 mile climb up the Browns Run creek ravine should actually be run. That’s probably why I was getting annoyed at the creek. I hung at the aid station additional time to make sure I was un-bonking, started walking, and took a couple bites of a pierogi, which immediately and violently came back up with one big heave. Something about that squishy, doughy, jellyfish-body texture really didn’t agree with me at that moment. Welcome to the Vomiting Dutchman, may I take your order, please? On second thought, you can shove your order where the sun doesn’t shine. I hate you. Go away and stop eating fast food because it’s horrible for you...
OK... any who… where was I? So I’m going to need to shift to frequent but tiny amounts of food for a while because I doubt large quantities of anything will sit well. I nursed an energy gel as I shuffled along the grassy snowmobile trails, trying to stay in sight of the eight to ten runners who had come into the aid station just behind me. I was thankful and surprised that this was more of a plateau, because it allowed me to recover but still get in a few miles without taking too many more forceful punches to the stomach.
The Ritchie Road aid (mile 38.5) had some wonderful ramen noodles and grilled cheese, which the volunteers swore wouldn’t make me vomit, and did indeed become safe options the rest of the race, along with my standby bananas. There’s a great view just past the aid station if my memory serves me correctly. I really enjoyed my time in the powerline section, listening to the comforting snaps and crackles that accompany the highest voltages. Race directors put these kinds of sections in to mess with people so now I’ll return the favor. The electrical field must have messed with my brain’s neural connectivity because I had visions of taking a selfie with two Pringles chips perched on my lips to make “ducky lips” but I forgot to take the photo so you’ll have to imagine it or use Photoshop. I soon caught a couple folks as I exited the woods and we chatted about the Oregon Trail video game, rattlesnakes, and deadly jellyfish down the next section of gravel road.
Gliding into Hyner Run (43.2 miles) was really great. There must have been a hundred spectators at the crewing area. What wasn’t great was the climb out of that ravine. Wow. Brutal. Rocky. Technical. Still no Sasquatch sightings in the next Bigfoot pen but that’s okay because I’m getting my money back for the lack of wolves earlier. May have smelled one though, just not sure because this was my first visit into a Bigfoot pen. Very positive I saw one of those giant, interwoven ground nests that Sasquatch fabricate as an indication of their highly intelligent capabilities.
I believe it was prior to Halfway House (mile 54.7) I saw a gun on the ground and had to go back to make sure it wasn’t real. It wasn’t. Then there was an unopened can of beer on a log, and shortly after a terrifying collection of stuffed animals known as the Fuzzy Friends Club. Rumor was a guy was sitting there playing a harpsichord/Autoharp for the folks behind me but I missed that spectacle. Not sure if I should be sad as it was plenty creepy enough?
Another notable, long, and technical climb precedes the unmanned Callahan Run aid station at 59.4 miles. The sun was getting lower now, which looked beautiful through the trees. I was looking forward to Slate Run to pick up my pacer. Before descending I envied the man who had set up camp for the night at this awesome overlook, the Hemlock Mountain Vista.
First up to pace me from Slate Run (mile 63.8) would be Aaron, fresh off his finish at Laurel Highlands Ultra, which also has some steep climbs. I tried to keep things interesting for the volunteers (and myself) by threatening to throw bacon slices at a uniformed Air Force member that was hassling me. Aaron and I couldn’t exactly start out running because the next section begins with a 3-mile uphill grind. We were so close to seeing the sunset at a couple of the overlooks on the way up but our timing was off by maybe 10 minutes. Still daylight but no sun. Nice pics at least, and it was still beautiful to look upstream and across the Slate Run ravine in the orange glow.
Not that it was crazy hot all day, but it was plenty humid and warm enough that I welcomed the cooler temperatures as night fell. Aaron and I ran frequently through the Algerine Wild Area because a lot of it is a plateau. I told him I noticed a theme to the course: 1) crazy steep climb for 30 minutes, 2) go across a plateau that’s surprisingly runnable, 3) descend something that’s half runnable and half steep back down to a road, 4) repeat.
I lost my bottle of quick pick-me-up Coca-Cola while crawling under a fallen tree. Fortunately, Aaron gave me one of his bottles to fill with Coke at the next aid station. Great pacer move! There did seem to be a few more downed trees on the latter half of the course, or it’s just that I was noticing them because I was getting more tired and it took more work to get over or around them.
During Aaron’s final descent, 20 hours into this adventure, on a narrow cut of mountainside singletrack above Blackwell, we came upon a 2-foot wide, freshly crafted wooden bridge with no handrails spanning a 10-foot eroded gap. I was too curious and peered over the edge to see a good 30-40 foot drop. Without handrails and having questionable legs, it kept things exciting at 1:00 AM. Must have been why the race notes said, “Watch your step or you could make a big splash in Pine Creek.”
Upon rolling into Blackwell, themed in pirate paraphernalia, I chugged about 10 ounces of EHQ Endure Fuel, cold brew, restocked my vest with food, and performed another seductive disposal of my sweat saturated clothing. Next up to pace would be Mark Sutyak, who is apparently a glutton for punishment and I assume came along to sample the aid station cuisine because there sure wasn’t much running going on through the middle of the night.
We spent much of the next 10 hours hiking, and my running was probably still his hiking. My estimation that the final portions of the course would have more runnable sections was about 33% correct. Much of it was still too steep to run, up or down, even on fresh legs, but I really think I had just gotten too far behind on my calorie intake.
Somewhere in here a racer and his pacer passed us up a shallow climb and within the next few seconds I heard them yelling and sticks breaking. I glanced up to see the backend of a large porcupine running up the trail. But then it would stop a few yards away, still on the trail, requiring those guys to throw and bang sticks to scare it, although it clearly wasn’t scared. This went on for about 100 yards. Cocky little thing with all those sharp quills. I’m not sad the other runners came to it before me. I’ve encountered lots of unusual animals in the wild but this was the first porcupine.
I love my Petzl Nao headlamp. It’s like a car’s headlight coming through the woods. I’d left it on the most intense setting, which was fantastic for maybe 5 hours. The headlamp was giving me it’s warning flash and quickly dimmed around mile 84, indicating that it was going into power saving mode (kinda like my brain had done since mile 50). No big deal, that’s why I have the second lamp, although it’s not as awesome at lighting the way.
An older gentleman volunteering at the Skytop aid station (84.8 miles) informed us that the next 8.1 miles would be very runnable. And that if we didn’t think so, we were welcome to run back to call him a liar. Totally reasonable. It’s not nice to play mean tricks on tired runners, sir. But seriously, so many of these folks at the aid stations were super pleasant, experienced, and helpful. It was becoming cold enough on this ridge now that I needed arm warmers and began to shiver from stopping. The heavy dew covered grass rubbing my feet and legs wasn’t helping.
We continued our shuffle toward Barrens aid station (mile 92.8). We scurried down a technical stream with waterfalls and sometimes non-existent trail. I really enjoyed the next long climb on the smooth, grassy forest service road, mostly because I didn’t have to think, just move. You could actually relax a little on the less threatening surface. I decided to take care of some increasingly present lower butt chafing issues as we summited, so I pulled my shorts slightly down to lube those sensitive inferior gluteal regions, trying not to break what little stride I had, now around mile 89. But I had forgotten that I had tucked my phone in my waistband, despite having a perfectly good vestpack on my body. And in that process I apparently dropped said phone. We kept on going until I realized my mistake, at which point we turned around and were promptly greeted by a few different packs of runners. I was amazed that so many people were still so close together at this point. Now I really wished I’d had the brighter light still going to find that phone.
Then an oncoming woman cut me off and threatened to tackle me if I kept going back up the hill because her friend was apparently taking a potty break in the middle of the service road. Here’s a useful tip ladies: if you don’t like even the slightest chance of your butt being spot lit by a random headlamp at 2 AM in the woods, MOVE OFF THE TRAIL WHEN YOU PEE. NEWSFLASH: EVERYBODY PEES IN THE WOODS, EVEN THE SASQUATCH SNEAKING UP BEHIND YOU! I wish I had said that, but I was too tired. So, finally, the pee pee police permitted our passage and we were able to continue on upward, continuing to ask runners if they’ve seen my dropped phone as I spoke mostly in profanities. It didn’t take too long before I encountered a couple of the runners I’d chatted with earlier, Neal and Megan, who’d found the phone. Yay. It’s a damn Eastern States miracle. Oddly enough, I was upset at the potential for losing the pictures I’d taken all day, not the phone itself.
The legs and brain struggled from Barrens to the Hacketts aid station (99.1). Yes, there’s not much change on the elevation profile but it was not an easy walk in the forest, especially when you don’t eat much. I think it was in this section where there was a pine forest trail with an erratic habit of suddenly appearing up or down the hill from where we were standing at any instant. For a while it sorta paralleled the creek and there were helpful blazes on the trees, but without the reflective flags it would have been extra tough. Seemed like a great place for a dirt nap.
As we hit the final aid station (mile 99.1), now in the daylight and beyond my initial time goals, I was hoping that most of the beating was over and had long ago stopped caring about the actual finish time. Upon hitting 100 miles on my GPS, I asked Mark where my buckle and finish line was. In the valley that I can’t even see yet, of course. I tried to run more the next couple miles but the hemorrhage of time wouldn’t clot without calories. The most ridiculous downhill greets us around mile 101.5-103. It’s hard because of every reason, ever. It’s steep. When it’s not steep, it’s rock drop-offs so that’s still actually a way of being steep. You have to use your upper body sometimes. Thank goodness for the trekking poles. Midway down there was a family of eastern rattlesnake viewers taking in my shuffle technique, reminding us to keep our distance.
The downhill finally gave up surely because I did not, we popped out next to a field at Little Pine State Park and I was greeted again by Aaron for the final couple hundred meters of walking and chatting. Can I have that Eastern States buckle now, please?
You can get a little idea of the course from this video.
Anne’s crewing notes:
One may assume that as someone who is a trained researcher and spends much of the day reading and conducting research studies that I would apply this analytical framework to other aspects of my life. This assumption would be patently false. In preparation for crewing, I think I read (skimmed) two articles of questionable provenance. One may have been from Runner’s World, a somewhat dubious source for accurate information about anything, particularly ultramarathons and trail running. I think I avoided doing any prep work because the task seemed so incredibly complicated and arduous that I preferred not to think about it at all. Given all of this, I don’t think I did too badly. On doing some searches post-crewing, I realize that there are a lot of great resources out there. So to avoid attempting to reinvent the wheel, this list is brief and not at all comprehensive.
You are crewing. Therefore, none of the amenities of the race are available to you. You must prepare accordingly. Bring at least one healthy food item that you will haul around for the weekend and then dump, uneaten and likely mashed or broken, into your compost tumbler when you get home. For me, this was a bag of clementines.
Make sure that you have a full tank of gas on race morning. Otherwise you may find yourself with a near empty tank at 9:05 pm, 16 hours into the race. The only gas station within 25 miles closed at 9 pm. You now must speed out of the mountains to get to a Sheetz 40 minutes away and hope you can make it to the next crew spot in time. And you will have to wait until after the race to chastise the runner for leaving you with an insufficient amount of gas in his truck because it would not be fair to unload on them at mile 63. Even though you really want to. (*Note from the editor: The truck had nearly a half tank of gas, thank you very much.)
If you are preparing food that requires any preparation, bring your own kitchen tools. Otherwise you will find yourself hacking away at a raw sweet potato with a bent serrated knife on a peeling melamine plate from the cabin’s tiny kitchen. But you will persist because your runner asked you to prepare sweet potato hash the night before his race so he doesn’t get tummy troubles, and you are way too nice of a human being to refuse him.
Ask your runner about different scenarios and contingency plans associated with each. The night before the race I thought, “I should ask Derek what to do if he’s barfing.” I realized the next day that I had forgotten to ask him that question. Luckily for me (and Derek), there was no barfing.
Ask your runner what you should not say to them when you see them. For Derek, he does not want me to ask him how he’s feeling. What’s the one question I always want to ask him? Yes. It’s that question.
In one of the two articles I skimmed pre-race, they mentioned that some runners like to have a magic or “safe” word that means, “I actually want to quit now.” I asked Derek what he wanted his to be, and he laughed for a very long time. I guess this makes sense as Derek is a person who Means What He Says And Says What He Means and does not throw around the idea of quitting lightly. But, uh, if ever in a dissociative fugue I decide to run 100 miles, I may need a magic word.
Don’t take anything personally. Runners lose their social niceties, like 35 miles in, so you just have to take it in stride. This one is very hard for me. Derek once lightly tossed a bottle to me with a slight frown on his face at an aid station at Highlands Sky several years ago and I’m still recovering.
Bring your dogs and then regret bringing your dogs when you’re trying to do anything. But then be happy the dogs are there at 2 AM in an otherwise empty cabin in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
Prepare for no phone signal or wifi. For me, this meant downloading podcasts and reviving my love of the New York Times crossword app (I was like four clues from a completed Thursday by the end of the weekend! It was an easy Thursday). Avoid anything true crime because you may be spending a lot of time driving alone on windy country roads at night.
Alternate between marveling at the strength and determination occurring all around you and questioning whether it’s all just a time-consuming narcissistic exercise. Settle somewhere in the middle.