“Why are there so many hills!?! WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PEOPLE!?!?!”
My first “real” (aka cost money, had too many people, and had actual timing) 50k of the season unfortunately took place over Blue-White weekend at Penn State. This meant that not only would I be missing out on the early morning tailgating for the spring game on Saturday, but I would having to reign in my, um, imbibing on Friday night. While I slightly (okay, substantially) disappointed on this front, I knew that I needed this 50k and I also had a chance at winning. So at 4:30am on Saturday morning, I was driving an hour north to frolic in the woods for five hours.
Just like always, I didn’t do the recon that I should have done for the race. I knew that the combined gain and drop for the course was over 15,000 feet and that people described it as “fairly technical.” To me, this meant that the “average” runner thought the course was hard. Of course, I didn’t heed these warnings or suggestions, and I plunged into the event without knowing what I was getting myself into.
I arrived about an hour before the 50k went off. There was both a 50k and a 25k, which meant that at some point, the 50k leaders would be passing the slower 25k runners, something that I was not looking forward to. I was one of the early comers, so I checked in without hassle, grabbed my bag and went back to my car to drink my energy drink and read the super interesting snippet of Ultrarunning Magazine that we got in our grab bag. With about twenty minutes to go, I got out of the car and was greeted by a TON of people. It appeared the 25k people had showed up early because there was a zoo of people by the start line. I met up with Ian, my weekend running partner and who I wanted to run with today.
He introduced me to a few of his acquaintances who he met at previous races, and after the RD gave his quick speech (I never remember what they saw during these), Ian and I inched our way up to the front of the pack. Just like that, the gun went off and we zipped forward at about 7:30 pace on the road. After about two minutes, another runner, Adam Russel (who bore a striking resemblance to Kilian Jornet from the back) kept pushing the pace up front, so Ian and I were content to sit about 15 meters behind him. After about a mile on the road, we hit the trails, and then all of a sudden, we started climbing. And just.. never… stopped.
This climbed seem to go on FOREVER. I found out later that it was a 1200′ climb. We started below fog, and after about ten minutes, we entered fog so dense that you couldn’t see fifty feet in front of you. About the time that we entered the dense fog, I decided that I would try to go out and catch Adam on the climb. Every time that I would get close to him, he would pull ahead of me. Once I realized I wasn’t going to catch him, I stepped back into my “power hike with optional jog” speed. As Ian is a quicker hiker than me, he caught up to me just as we were beginning to break the fog at the top. I knew as soon as he passed me that I was not going to see him until the finish. It was at this point in the race that I realized I may be in a battle for third rather than a battle for first.
Both he and Adam got to the top within about thirty seconds of each other, and then I followed behind by about a minute. Even though I felt like I was slapped in the face with that climb, the view at the top was breathtaking. I could see for miles and miles about the clouds with other peaks, smaller than the one I was at, breaking them sporadically. It was the best view I’ve ever had on a run. Unfortunately, I couldn’t spend too much time looking at the view because I had to get some quick nutrition (Gatorade and some weird kind of energy jelly bean that I never had before but I LOVED) and then start down the hill.
As I started down the hill, I knew that I was about sixty to ninety seconds behind the leaders. I tried to make up time going down the hill, but I knew that I just was not going fast enough to be able to catch them within the next couple miles. So instead, I took a bit of a chill pill and decided to save me legs if I needed them later. I meandered down the hill and got to a sort of canyon or valley between two peaks… where I immediately encountered my first (of waaaaay too many) stream crossings. As my feet were still dry at this point, I kind of lightly bounced across the rocks as to not submerge my shoes. I thought I wouldn’t see this stream again for a while, but then about 30 seconds later, BOOM! There it was again. And again. And again…
Eventually, I got out (of what I hoped to be the end) of the stream and started a rather “easy” climb. It was neither as steep nor as far as the previous climb, but I felt like it sucked just as much. This climb was on some strangely technical, mushy grass, and, just like the first climb, just never seemed to end. After passing a tractor(?), I was at the top and stumbled upon an aid station. At this point, since I wasn’t craving salt or nuts or something substantial, I felt like I was doing well. I grabbed some more of those delicious jelly beans and Gatorade, and the aid station volunteers told me that I was about five minutes behind the leaders, which meant that I had lost a pretty good amount of time since the last aid station.
I left this aid station and the trail took us along the top of this peak for a while through some grassy areas that I actually enjoyed since they weren’t a climb nor a decent. I was able to set my mind on cruise control and move through the easy trails. From my memory, I knew that we had about a 15k more from these prairies (there’s not really prairies, I just decided to call them that) before we returned to the obscene amounts of trail crossings. I thought that this meant that I would be running on easy trails like what I was on that whole time, but as soon as the course took a sharp downhill to another valley, I knew that I was wrong. 100%
What was at the bottom of the hill but more creek crossings. Except this time, instead of crossing the creek, we were essentially running upstream and not crossing it. Strings of expletives spewed forth from my mouth for a good half an hour as I was getting my feet soaked and running up rocks. At this point, I blamed everything and everybody. I blamed the RD for having us do something dangerous like running up a stream; I blamed myself for not working on my upstream running technique; I blamed my mom for not having my birth in a river so that I would be used to this (just kidding about the last one). It was at this point that I decided two things: 1) I don’t like races that I can’t run the vast majority of them, and 2) I will always be #teamWesternStates rather than team Hardrock because of this reason.
After a fairly reasonable (but long) climb, and some gentle ups and downs atop the hill (peak, mountain, foothill? I don’t know what to call these things), I reached the last aid station before rejoining the 25k runner. Remember how I talked about not craving nuts or salt at one of the previous aid stations? That was definitely not the case at this one. I grabbed a couple shot glass-sized containers of peanuts, Gatorade and an off brand PowerBar before continuing. The volunteers told me that I was about 5 minutes back of the leaders, which meant that I wasn’t really losing any pace on them. I had been running by myself for about two and a half hours at this point, but the fact that I was continuing to try to catch up made it not seem as long. I departed the aid station, got told that I looked like I “had seen better days” by a spectator and plunged down a hill to rejoin the main 25k course. As I came down the hill, I was greeted by a parade of walkers on the trail looking like the Israelites leaving Egypt. Going very slowly. And taking up the whole trail.
This was the most aggravating part of the entire day. Every five seconds, I had to say “on your left” to the hikers, with varying degrees of success. Some had the headphones in and didn’t listen to me, some took this as a cue to go faster and try to prevent me from passing, and some just didn’t get off the trail. To be fair, the majority of them got off the trail perfectly fine, but I was not the most happy person in the world at this point. Oh yeah, I forgot to add that we were also walking up a stream again. My shoes were soaked, I was walking, and there were lots and lots of people around so I couldn’t break out into my cacophony of choice curse words that I can do by myself.
En mass, we moved up to the top of the hill to be greeted by the most active aid station I’ve ever seen, which, of course, was covered with 25k hikers. Luckily, they still had Gatorade there (although not in yellow flavor), but I didn’t want to spend the time to find the food, so I grabbed my beverage and skedaddled. I tried to sprint out of there, but there were even more 25k hikers (I was told they were capped at 1000, but I’m pretty sure that they repopulated themselves on the trail). Fortunately, since I was bombing down the hill, the hikers took one look at me bellowing “ON YOUR LEFT” that they got off the trail. I always try to be respectful when I pass people, and I think I generally do a pretty good job at that, but I was so livid that either everyone thought that I was crazy or that I was an asshole. Or both.
After the bottom of the hill was (wait for it) ANOTHER GIANT CLIMB. This one was kind of a half walk/half slow job hill… at least until about 200 feet from the top. All of a sudden, the pace on the trail stopped. I was jogging at this point, so I went on the high side of the trail (some random 25k dude followed me; more on this later) to see what was up. I was greeted by about 150 feet of trail so steep that people were going hand over foot to the top. This topped of my “unhappiness” tank, so I quickly got on all fours and clamored up the top of the hill, being careful to not start a landslide by accidentally touching a rock. I got to the top, grabbed a blue Gatorade at another packed aid station (still didn’t want food), and started off.
I introduced myself to the dude who crawled up the hill with me. Abraham, or Abe, was graduating State College High next month and was enlisting in the Marines, and felt like doing this course was a great way to prepare. While he didn’t run in high school, he swam, so he was in decent shape. I spent a year during college at the Military Academy at West Point, so I offered my (EXTREMELY limited) sharing of what my summer was like. We jogged together through the fairly wide trails together chatting the whole time. It was great to finally run and talk with someone, although I didn’t feel like I needed it before I met up with him. We started going down the hill at a reasonable clip, and were just about to hit the road (~1.5 miles left) when all of a sudden, I heard “on your left.” I had been saying this for the last hour and a half, so it was strange to have someone say that to me. I turned around, and, lo and behold, it was the 4th place 50k runner. Uh-oh…
After realizing that there, indeed, people racing behind me, I decided there was no way that I was not going to get 3rd. I sprinted for like ten steps and told Abe that it was time to start kicking it. We hit road about 30 seconds later, and I knew that we were less than 1.5 from the finish. We started kicking, and we REALLY started kicking it. Soon, I was passing Abe, along with twenty or thirty 25k hikers. I looked back and noticed that the 4th place guy was still trailing me, but not with the same vigor that he tried to pass me with. I kept on churning, and finally started thinking about the finish. I was told that there was a “slight” uphill to the finish, and was intrigued what the RD’s opinion of slight was. After kicking the pace for about ten minutes, I finally realized it.
The finish was about 100 yards or decently steep trail going into the finish. Acting as a nail in the coffin for my opinion of the race, I sprinted up this last trail (knowing already that I was going to finish third), turned the last corner, saw the finish line… and cramped. I had never cramped before in a race, and this pain was excruciating (see pictures below). I was not going to stop and walk right before the finish, so I grimaced, frowned, yelled, grimaced again, kept running, and then crossed the line and collapsed for a time for 5:12.08. And then grimaced, frowned and yelled some more.
I waited for Abe to finish (he finished about 2 minutes behind me), gave him a huge hug for running with me, wished him good luck next year, and went off to find Ian. I found him sitting down by the picnic tables. He finished 2nd, about five minutes behind Adam and ten minutes in front of me, and had just about the opposite opinion of the day than me. Per his recollection, the course was very runnable without that bad of trail crossings. Needless to say, I discovered that we have different views on what preferable ultra courses are. I congratulated him, grabbed a Sprite (diet, of course), and made the 45 minute drive back to State College so I could join in the tailgating festivities. See the above Seth Rogan gif.
All in all, this race was a great experience. It was very, VERY well run, especially with 1200+ runners between the 25 and 50k races. The trail was pretty well maintained, and despite the numerous creek crossings, it was a very fair course. The only reason I got so irritated during the race was because I was not prepared for the 15000+ feet of gain and drop (combined) and the technicality of the trails. I was glad that I was able to experience a race like this where I really didn’t enjoy myself the entire time so I knew what it was like to run irritated, because I’m sure this will happen again. My time was over a half hour slower than what I ran 3 weeks ago, but I felt like I ran a better race this time with how difficult of a course it was. However, I’m glad that this race is always on Boston Marathon weekend, so I will always have an excuse to not do it.