On October 13, 2012 I completed my first 100K trail race at the Oil Creek 100 Trail Races in Titusville, PA. (It was that long ago, and I’m just now getting around to writing a little note about it.) Cool weather, beautiful autumn colors, bright, open vistas and a superbly organized race made the run an absolute joy for the 16 hours it took me to complete the course!
First, the basics. The Oil Creek Races consist of three races run concurrently: a 50K, a 100K, and a 100 miler. All races use the same 50K loop in Oil Creek State Park in northwest Pennsylvania. After the third loop, the 100 mile competitors finish with a 7 mile “coming home” spur before finishing. The 100K I attempted dishes out some 11,026 feet of elevation gain, primarily on runnable singletrack.
I’d run this course once before in 2011 when I completed the 50K version as my inaugural ultra race. I finished with a time of 7:08:36, which was good enough to place me in the top third.
That first ultra experience was awesome! The challenge of the distance, camaraderie with other runners and the beauty of the course got me stoked on trail running. For much of the race I ran with the same couple of guys of equal ability. We chatted on a range of topics, none of us killing ourselves, and stayed pretty much together until I pulled away in the final 10 kilometers.
The day before the race, with my sights on the 100K for 2012, I drove up from Philadelphia to Titusville with my wife, daughter and good friend who was attempting the 100 mile distance. I’d met my buddy while we were both undergrads at Penn State and our drive would take us through State College, PA, the home of the University. More importantly, State College is the home of India Pavilion, the first place any of us, as young vegans, tasted Indian food. The lunch buffet is fabulous and always has impressive vegan options. A stop was a must, both for nostalgia and logistics!
After lunch we pressed on for Titusville, driving through the Pennsylvania mountains and the colors of the changing trees. Pennsylvania is my home and its natural beauty always touches me. Autumn in central PA will forever remind me of being outside in the chill taking in its state parks and forests.
Upon arrival that evening, we set up our gear in the gym of the Titusville Middle School which serves as the race headquarters and an impromptu campground. We claimed some space on the floor, rolled out our sleeping bags and went to look for the pre-race dinner. We ate pasta (with specified vegan sauce!), salad, bread, and leftovers from our dinner the night before. Despite my nerves, I was hungry and finished all the food that I took.
After a quick trip to the supermarket to pick up some yerba mate and bananas for breakfast, we made our way back to the gym floor and our sleeping bags for the night.
The 100k race started, just outside the middle school, precisely at 6:00 am, not that ultra runners are type-As or anything. Headlamps flashed and folks bounced in anticipation. The air was cool, (some would say cold). I started off with a strong hiking pace which was faster then some folk’s warm up jog. One runner looked over at me and remarked, “It’s not fair that you can walk as fast as I can run.” I figured I would keep this pace for about 15 minutes or until the start of the trail, which wasn’t too far from the school.
Once the trail began, it moved at a slight incline. I decided to pick up my pace a bit and settle in. Forward progress. My feet skipped over the moist roots and stones and it was at this point that my excitement for the race transformed into stark reality as I accepted the fact that I would run this course for the next 16 hours. I looked to the left and saw an awesome sight. The sun was beginning to peek out. Beautiful Pennsylvania. This mental approach was key to me finishing the distance. I had to realize that I’d be out there a long time, embrace it, and enjoy the wonderment of the forest.
The course loop has four full aid stations staffed with awesome volunteers! Options at the aid stations? Wide! Plenty of vegan things, healthy things, and not healthy things. Not one to be shy when it comes to food, I ate it all. PB&J, gels, potatoes and salt, potato chips and Hammer Heed. Goodness, the Pringles ruled. I was able to see my wife and daughter at the two aid stations accessible to crew and family: Petroleum Centre at miles 13.9 and 44.9 and the middle school at the beginning, mile 31.1, and the finish. The sight of them was a nice little mental boost and was a goal to strive for. As many ultra runners know too well, training can take you away from your family for long periods and, therefore, its unacceptable to fail when your family has sacrificed so much time without you. You don’t want it to be all for nothing.
After I left my wife and daughter at the halfway point and started my second, and final, loop of the course, the weather cooled and I knew the sun would set in a few hours. I had to make it to Petroleum Centre before dark to pick up my headlamp and jacket. Barring an injury, I was confident that would happen.
The course became more barren and I didn’t see other runners for a while. The forest was quiet and slightly breezy. This was the farthest I’d ever run. I broke the 50K distance with a time of 7:30.30. About two hours later, and 38 miles into the run, I crossed the Wolfkill Run aid station.
I pulled into Petroleum Centre at mile 44.9 and saw my daughter. I was in great spirits and felt good. I had about 18 miles to go, but knew a finish was in my future. I don’t remember what I ate. Maybe a PB&J, a gel, some oranges.
Then it happened. A few miles past Petroleum Centre (maybe mile 50?) stomach issues struck. Too many peanut butter and jellies! I kept running until the pain was too much to ignore. I slowed to a brisk hike taking intentional and slow breaths to try and calm the discomfort. I never had stomach issues on long runs, so I did the only thing I could. I stopped at the first porta potty I spotted. I was in there for about 15 minutes!
The relief made me a new man! A bit of a second wind took hold and I carried on. I even caught up with the runner I was pacing with before my pit stop.
Miller Farm at mile 53.6 was the final full aid station before my finish. I was tired and ready to finish this thing. I didn’t note the time, but it was dark and cold. I sipped a coffee, had some fruit and reapplied some petroleum jelly. I took off my shoes to stretch my toes and emptied the small rocks. I even sat for a minute. Leaving Miller Farm was all up hill, (and passed by a cemetery) and I wanted to pace myself in the final 9 miles.
Around 8 pm the rain started. It wasn’t too bad but made for damp running and I was glad I had a jacket. At 10 pm, it was a full down pour! My finish was only minutes away. As I approached the end, 100 mile runners were leaving and beginning their final loop. I was in awe of them. Many headed out with fresh and excited pacers. I was exhausted, finished and couldn’t imagine completing one more loop. I could see the lights of the middle school through the dark. I made the final left towards the finish and trotted up the drive to the end. My wife peeked out, all smiles, from the right and she ran with me the final few dozen yards. I did it.
Yeah, I was tired and really hungry. My awesome wife had gone to the supermarket and picked me up a frozen Indian dinner. I devoured it.
We hung out a bit longer at the school. I sat on a hallway floor leaning against the cinder block wall. My body began tightening up almost immediately. I had trouble getting up from the ground without some help. Once we got back to the hotel and I took my shoes off I noticed just how swollen my ankles had become. I’m a skinny guy and these things were like tree trunks.
After my shower, I cuddled into bed with my wife and daughter. My little girl was asleep and it was nice to cozy up next to her in total exhaustion. I had this race on my schedule for months and for it to be completed gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. I’d finished in my target time, and aside from brief stomach pains, experienced nothing injurious.
I don’t consider myself an athlete at all. I do get a bit of a fitness benefit from this type of running, and it does help me keep an eye on how I eat, but that’s not why I run. I run for the outdoor experience, the solitude and to show my daughter that things that seem impossible are not. Eventually, I hope she’s inspired to do “impossible” things as well.