“Ah, I was only kidding. Nothing came out – it was just gas.”
After struggling with the decision of whether or not I wanted to run a small, loosely organized race two hours away in the middle of what would probably be snow, I realized that it was probably best to get used to racing on not well maintained trails in weather that I hated (aka, anything but sunshine). With this in mind, I emailed Don Halke, the RD of the Tuscarora Trail 50k and told him I was interested. And with that, I was registered.
I drove down to Tuscarora State Forest, about a half hour outside of Harrisburg, while it was 100% still dark on Saturday morning with Ian Grettenberger, my new-found long run partner, and Matt Pennock, my friend on the Penn State Club XC team who was interested in trying his first ultra. It made it a lot easier to drive down with two other people of similar talent. We talked about anything and everything during our 2 hour drive down there. During our drive down, it started to snow, making this cold morning so much better.
After having no idea where to park, we got settled in and walked to the start line to join the 40 or so other runners at the start. Or course, I immediately started to size up the competition and realized that Ian and Matt would probably be my biggest competitors. As much as I hate thinking that during ultras about friends, my competitiveness always shines through. After Don gave a pre-race speech (wearing a bright pink and purple floral vest), he counted down and we were off. And immediately, I realized that my concerns about the trails being less than well maintained were right. While they were not necessarily bad, I was having problems seeing the trails with all of the leaves on them. We were pretty lucky though: it was about 20 degrees and the trails had frozen; had they not frozen, it would have been a complete swamp.
We passed the first aid station at about mile 2.5 (there were no markings). The course was essentially set up like a three-leaved clover and we had just run the stem. We traversed some more half frozen/half slush. Just before crossing one of the bridges, I lost a shoe in the slush. Ian picked it up, handed it to me, and as I slipped it back on, I told myself that I probably needed to tie my shoes a bit tighter. The three of us continued to run through the woods together with Ian and I generally switching off the lead. We quickly came to our second aid station (I would guess at about mile 7). After grabbing some Gatorade and frozen Swedish Fish, we continued on, but not before some dude, without stopping at the aid station at all, passed us and quickly put about 100 meters of space between. We all exchanged surprised looks and followed him. Pretty quickly, he was out of site, but we were okay to let him go and see what happened after that.
We continued to run at a pretty good clip before we reached our first big climb. It was going up one of the large hills/small mountains in central PA. Using a nice mix of slowly running and quickly hiking, we reached the top, but not after Matt commented how good our calves would probably look if we were wearing shorts instead of tights. It was a pretty arduous fifteen to twenty minute climb, but once we got to the top, it was about a mile and half of downhill on fire roads (we flew) to the center aid station again. We had just completed the first cloverleaf. I grabbed some Gatorade and Swedish fish and we began the second cloverleaf.
This leaf started with a climb nearly immediately. As it began less steep than the previous one, we moved up it at a jog. That is, until we got to a four-way intersection. The course was marked with pink flags secured to trees with clothespins, and we thought we saw on the left branch of this intersection, so we set off that way. After going through increasingly difficult terrain, we saw the guy who was in the lead stopped ahead of us where the trail clearly ended. “Yeah, I don’t think this is the correct way,” he said. I’m pretty sure I agreed with him. We started our way back to the intersection, and we noticed that instead of using clothespins, these pink flags were tied to the trees. While this should have been our first clue that we went the wrong way, we definitely missed this the first time through.
After coming back to the four-way intersection, each of us picked a different way to go to see which was the correct way. Matt went up the hill, saw that there were the correct markings, came back down, and told us to go up. At this point, two other runners had come up behind us, so now the six of us started up the hill.
During this climb, Ian, Matt, and I quickly put distance between us and the three other runner. Matt and Ian alternated between power hiking and running, but since I was able to run all the way to the top, I reached there about 50 meters ahead of the other two. And what I saw up there was depressing: it was snowing. While it was not coming down particularly intensely, it was still not the best thing I’ve ever seen in the midst of a run.
We ran along the ridge for about 20 minutes, and during this time, I felt my stomach start to do the pre-bathroom gurgle. Knowing that I still probably had half the race to go, I had a feeling that I was going to have to stop at some point soon to relieve this pressure. While on the top of the mountain, Matt passed Ian and I and put a good 20 meters between us. Ian and I locked eyes with a surprised look, and sped up a bit to catch him before we started the decent on the same side of the mountain that we climbed.
The decent was decently technical and slippery, so about halfway down, I chose to relieve myself on the side of the trail. My legs weren’t feeling good up til this point in the race, and I was hoping this kind of rejuvenation would help them feel better. I hopped off the side of the trail, pulled the backside of my pants down, and… lots and lots of methane came out. With nothing more.
Realizing that I nothing was coming out, I pulled up my pants, hopped onto the trail, and started to increase my pace to find Matt and Ian. They had really taken off after they left me on the side of trail. My whole gaseous escapade had taken about sixty seconds, but the other two were nowhere to be seen. I spent five minutes of hard running to see them, and then another five minutes of harder running to catch up. While I was slightly out of breath, my legs felt great. The little sprint that I did put enough “umph” back into my legs so that I was feeling better now than at any other point in the race. And on top of that, we reached the center aid station shortly after catching up. I grabbed my (surprise) Gatorade and Swedish fish, and we started out on the third cloverleaf. (At this point, Ian estimated that we were 21 miles in).
This leaf started on the same long fire road climb that we came down at the end of the first leaf. Knowing that it was a good mile and half up actually gave me confidence. Matt and Ian began to start dropping back on this climb since they were alternating hiking with running. I was able to put some good distance in between us. Well, that is until we reached where the trail split again. The only flags we saw were going back down the hill that we climbed about 15 miles earlier, while the fire road continued to go up. After pondering for about 30 seconds, Ian and Matt caught up to me. Luckily for all of us, Ian brought a map of the course. After consulting it (we were all clearly not Eagle Scouts) for about 10 minutes, we decided that continuing up the fire road was the correct path. And after after about a minute of climbing, we saw the familiar flag with the clothespin, telling us we were going the correct way.
Our climb continued for another twenty minutes or so. During this time, we dropped Matt as he started some slower hiking, and Ian and I began pushing the pace a bit. We crested the hill and started a decent that neither of us really had any idea how long it was. After about ten minutes of this decent, two things happened: 1) I realized that Ian was talking much less than he was before. This was the first point that I “smelled blood” and thought that I could win this race. While I felt a little bad that I was now thinking about trying to outkick my training partner, my competitive nature started to take over and I wanted a win. The second thing that happened was a side stitch. Somewhere back in my past, I found that the best way to get rid of a side stitch was to talk, but since Ian wasn’t talking, I decided that I would sing. After the first two verses of “Come Sail Away” by Styx (one of my all-time favorite songs), I lost my side stitch and put a bit of distance between Ian and myself.
I got into the (somewhat surprise) aid station at the bottom of the hill, grabbed some half frozen Gatorade and Swedish Fish and began what I anticipated was the last climb on the course. I got the to the top and took a brief look behind me. I couldn’t see Ian anywhere, so I anticipated that I was putting some good distance between us. At this point, I thought back to a quote from Unbreakable, the best running movie ever, when Scott Jurek says something along the lines of “if I can just execute for the next 15 miles, this race is mine” in reference to one of his Western States victories. This was how I felt.
I decided that it was time to kick, so I started to run faster, thinking that I wasn’t far from the finish. And I kept on going… and going… and going… I was start to think that I had grossly underestimated the amount that I had to the finish when a car pulled up in front and, out of all people, Don hopped out and started snapping pictures. I grunted out “how much longer to the finish,” to which he responded “about a mile… maybe a mile and a half… eh, it’s probably about two.”
Based on how long everything seemed at that point (that’s what she said), I decided that I was probably two miles from the finish. Shortly after seeing Don, I came we moved from the fire road to the trail, and I felt like I could smell the finish (figuratively). After going back and forth through the trail for about 5 minutes, all of a sudden, I stumbled out where we started. There were two people standing there tending to the chili who just kind of stared at me. Not entirely sure if I was done, I said, “uh, is this, uh, the finish,” to which they kind of gave me a weird look and said, “yeah, congrats…?” as if they weren’t sure what I was doing. (Note – as this was a free event, there was no official time system nor race bibs).
Since I had just finished, I stopped my watch right at 4:40:00, which was good enough for a win and a course record. Ian came in seven minutes later, and Matt about a half hour after that. We ate chili and hot-dogs and enjoyed sitting around the fire at the finish before heading back.
Despite getting lost essentially twice, I enjoyed this race. It was run well, especially for being a free one, and the trails weren’t too bad. It was great running with people, and it was almost even better being able to win. I enjoyed that it was a race rather than just a run and I was able to come back from feeling kind of sluggish after the first 15 miles. I was pretty impressed with my kick, and it pointed out to me that I needed to work on my climbs a bit more.