“So what hurts?” “Everything. Everything hurts… Ah, there’s a lot of blood!”
This was a big race for many reasons: my season officially kicked off with Pine Creek, it was a perfect tune-up for both Tussey and Philly, and (most importantly) MY PARENTS FLEW OUT TO CREW/PACE/LISTEN TO ME COMPLAIN! My parents had never seen me race an ultra (despite their requests to come to Kettle), so needless to say, I was very excited to run this race with them and for them, and hopefully do as best as I could.
And speaking about doing the best that I could, that goal was kinda secondary in what I wanted to accomplish for this race: I wanted to set a course record. This course was on the Pine Creek Rail Trail, which meant that it was going to be really flat, really fast, and probably really painful. Little did I know that it was going to be as painful as it was (more on that later), but I was very excited to race this. Gary’s brother, Travis, had the male CR for this course, so I thought it would be cool to be able to break this on a course that I really felt was designed for me, somebody with a track background who is still doing speed work religiously (although it’s Rosh Hashana, I still feel like I can say that).
My parents flew out on Friday, and with skipping the non-race related stuff, it was a perfect day: mid-70s and not a cloud in the sky. However, looking at the weather report, we knew that this weather was probably not going to hold up. So after a great dinner at Spats Cafe and Speakeasy (Hot Pepper Pasta w/ Crab and Crawfish: on fleek), I dropped them off at their hotel and went back to the house to do some work and go to bed. I fell asleep around 10 pretty easily and actually slept pretty fitfully. I had no stress dreams, and as this is now becoming a much more common theme before races, I feel like this may start becoming the norm.
I woke up at 4:30 the next morning and quickly made myself a filling breakfast of chicken on corn with some buffalo sauce. Geoff Roes says that he tried to eat at least 800 calories for breakfast before races, but I find that I start to top at around 500 to 600, and I even have to spread that out. After wolfing that down and showering, I picked them up at the hotel, and after making sure that the pace bike was secured on the back of the car, we were off, jamming out Billy Joel while my parents were conked out (even though they will both claim they didn’t fall asleep).
The drive was pretty uneventful, but also just pretty. We got to drive into the sunrise while more and more clouds came in and ushered in the rain that we were all sure was going to eventually fall on us during the race. I held out hope that they were going to somehow miss out on the Pine Creek Gorge, but as will be evident from pictures, this was 100% not the case. Before we even got to the start/finish line to check-in, it was raining with more than a drizzle on the way.
We arrived at the USGS building in Wellsboro which was being used as the start/finish. Gary had just gotten back from a 6 mile jaunt with Sierra, so I introduced him and his son to my parents, and as they chatted, I checked in as it started to rain harder. It was only about 7:45 at this point, and the race didn’t start til 9, so since my parents hadn’t had breakfast, we drove to the McDonald’s in town for their breakfast, and we stopped at a gas station on the way back so I could pick a Clif Bar and a Snickers to complete my breakfast.
We got back to the USGS building we I was able to take care of business in the (surprising clean) porta-john, and just like that, it was 20 minutes until go-time. I went back to the car to change into my race gear and read a super-awesome pump-up note that was written by an equally super-awesome friend that actually got me more pumped up than I thought it would. I finished getting ready and headed to the start line, still not really accepting the fact that I was going to run 62.2 miles in less than 10 minutes. I was honestly struggling to get focused on this race and actually treat it like a race rather than a long run. I don’t know if it was the rain or the fact that this wasn’t going to be ‘A’ race for the year, or even if it would just not compare to how jacked I was for Kettle. Regardless, when the clock struck 00:00:00, my mind was still not in the race.
Regardless of my mind, the race started, and definitely started too quickly for my pleasure. The racer who Gary warned me about, Doug, started off in what felt like a sprint out of the gate on the concrete. I decided that we was going too fast for me at the beginning, and I was just going to let him burn himself out. That plan lasted all of 30 second. When we made the turn onto the rail trail after the quarter mile on the concrete, I decided that I didn’t want to lose contact with him and just end up racing by myself, so I decided to bite the bullet and start the race a little faster than I comfortable with. It turned out that this was the second best decision I made all day.
We ran together in silence (he had his headphones in) for the first 3.5 miles of the race. As was on par for the majority of the race, there was really nothing much of note anywhere. It was a super flat, super smooth rail trail. It was strong-medium raining, so the trail was a little soft, but it was pretty comfortable at this point. The views were gorgeous, as there were 1,500′ hills (mountains?) on either side of us and the creek (river?). I enjoyed the views while I tried to catch my breath and make sure that I wasn’t going out too fast.
We came up to the 3.5 mile aid station must faster than I expected (~25 minutes). Doug just ran through the aid station, but I exchanged my two water bottles with my parents, took a swig of Gatorade, and I was off. At this point in the race, I was still trying to eat a cube of the Clif Shot Bloks every 10 to 15 minutes, so I didn’t need to replenish them. It didn’t dawn of me that I wouldn’t see me parents for another 15.5 miles, but that’s another story for another time.
We left the aid station, and Doug removed his headphones and asked what our pace was. I don’t know what it is about my watch, but everyone assumes it’s a GPS watch (it’s not). I said that I guessed it was around 8 min/mile since we came in at about 25 minutes. He didn’t seem fazed by that pace, which in turn fazed me a bit. We talked for a little more about running and training. Eventually, I realized I was almost talking behind myself to him and it seemed like he was working harder and harder to keep up. At around mile 6, I dropped him, and then promptly realized that this meant that I was going to be doing the next 13 miles by myself.
And here, about mile 6, began a very strange feeling for me. At Kettle, my body began struggling early while my mind was able to keep me going. Here, however, my body felt as strong as ever, but my mind just didn’t want to run anymore. I don’t know whether it was because it was super repetitive or not on real trails or because I was doing it by myself at this point or what, but I just hated it. I could not wait to pick up my parents on the bike at mile 19.5. I made it through the Tiadaghton (I still don’t know how to say that), a non-crew accessible aid station, still averaging around 8 min/mile and feeling good in the legs. I grabbed some Coke and kept on going. My Shot Bloks were still going well, and my water in my belt was still keeping well, and I wanted to put as much as space between me and the field that I could while I was feeling good, since the mantra for ultras, as it is with life, is that if it’s going good, it will soon be going bad, and if it’s going bad, it will soon be going good.
The run in between Tiadaghton and Blackwell, the second crew-accessible aid station was, again uneventful. I still didn’t really want to keep running, but my legs kept on churning out great miles. There were mile markers on the side of the road that almost perfectly corresponded to 5 miles more than the mile I was at (at my mile 10, these mile markers read “15”). This meant that I was able to get my splits pretty accurately, and although I didn’t do the math for each split, I was still doing what I thought were about ~8s.
I knew going into Blackwell (18.5 miles) that I was going to have to pick my dad up on the bike since I was still mentally not with it. I came into Blackwell seeing my dad running around getting the Red Bull and Snickers while my mom was standing there taking pictures (imagine that). As I was coming in, I yelled for my dad to get the bike so that he could start with me. As he was sprinting to the car to get the bike from the bike rack, I downed the Red Bull, more so to get me mentally into the race rather than actually needing the physical caffeine boost as I downed the Snickers bar in like 3 bites (I have found my new race bar). Gary was there with his son, so he padded my ego by telling me that I looked good (of course I did) and I was going fast (of course I was). I finished the Snickers and started jogging off with my dad right on my heels and second place no where to be seen.
Picking up my dad on the bike was one of the things that definitely saved me during the say. Combined with the Red Bull, I was finally able to get mentally engaged in the race. I was still feeling pretty good, so we chatted for a while about nothing. I told him the story of Gordy Ainsleigh and the creation of the Western States 100 mile run and the modern trail ultramarathons along with other running and lady-friend specific things. One of the things that I’ve found during running is that as long as I’m feeling good, I should enjoy it as much as I can, and talking while running definitely is a part of that.
We came into Cedar Run (24.8 miles) going pretty quickly (he had me going at ~9 min/mile, but I was thinking I was going ~8; more on this later), and I didn’t need any refills, so I checked in and quickly made my way back out. My dad and I were still going at a pretty quick clip, and I didn’t realize quite how fast we were going until we passed the mile 31 marker (mile 26 in the race), and I glanced down at my watch to see that it read “3:14.” If there was one thing that I didn’t want to do in this race, it was to go out too fast, and I would definitely consider running a 3:15 marathon (7:25 min/mile) to start a 100k as going out a little too fast. My legs still felt good, though, and I was really struggling with reeling the pace back in, so I just took this in stride and kept on plugging.
The turnaround at State Run came a little quicker than I thought, both in terms of effort and time. Gary and his son were manning the aid station, and even though their shift wasn’t supposed to start until 1pm, since I was still running too fast, I came in at 12:56 (3:56 100k, 7:36 min/mile), but luckily, them, my mom, and Travis, Gary’s brother and the co-RD were all there. I had some Gatorade and a snickers, got a refill on water and Shot Bloks, changed my shirt, and was told that I was still looking good (well, no duh) and then I left with my mom now on the bike so my dad could take a break.
And this is where things started to go downhill… Even before I got back to Cedar Run, things started to fall apart. I started to get irritable, I started to chafe (I brought my petroleum jelly for the race, but stupidly forgot to put it on, and with the rain, it was terrible), the rain seemed to come down harder, and I started to get nauseous. I stopped talking, but very much enjoyed my mom continuing to talk (I really don’t remember anything she was saying; I just kinda needed someone to talk) and my eating and drinking became a lot more forced. I had never experienced nausea during a race before, so this was a little concerning, but at this point, I was still able to eat and drink, so it was okay.
We got into Cedar Run with me really feeling bad (but still continuously running), made the water and Shot Blok exchange, I walked for about 200 feet to finish eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I grabbed there, and then we were off again. This time, however, I realized that I would have to change something for the rest of the race; there was no way that I was going to finish the last 24.8 miles without walking. So, and this turned out to be the best decision of the day, I decided to run for 5 minutes and walk for 1 minute. I knew that this was going to cost me some time (it turns out that, per mile, 1 minute of walking adds 15 to 30 seconds onto the running pace), but I new that I had a 32 minute lead leaving the 31.1 mile turnaround, so I had some time to play with if I was smart.
We continued this (with me not talking and my mom slowly and slowly talking less as my bad mood really became a downer) through Blackwell, where I was to pickup my dad. I came into Blackwell (42.7 miles) still feeling nauseous and being able to eat even less. The belt that I was wearing also was putting pressure onto my stomach that I felt wasn’t helping, so, despite the requests from my parents, I took off the belt, which meant that I would be running the last 19.5 miles of the race with only 2 more aid stations and no on-course hydration and nutrition. While possibly not the best decision, I felt like I needed to do that at the time.
My dad and I left Blackwell knowing that we would only have two more aid stations to go before the finish. I will still religiously keeping to my 5 minutes on, 1 minute off method of running, and since I couldn’t see anybody behind me, I figured it was working pretty well. We plugged along like this in near silence for a couple miles, with the only things being said were my times at miles so my dad could tell me the pace (in between 8:45s and 9:45s) and me telling him when we would walk and run. That was, however, until with about 14 miles to go when I had to pee. I’ve mastered the art of peeing while walking forward, so during a walk minute, I pulled down the front of my waistband and went. However, once I was done, I could feel a unique chafing feeling. I’ve chafed before in my groin, but this felt different. I looked down into my shorts, and all of a sudden…
“Oh my god, dad, f—, I’m bleeding.”
“Like just blood or like flowing blood.”
“Yeah, this is flowing.”
The entire inside of my right upper thigh had been rubbed raw by the built in underwear of my shorts and it had completely taken off all of the skin, so blood was freely flowing down my leg. While this was certainly not the most painful part of the run (my legs were killing me at this point because they had been doing the same thing for 6 or 7 hours at this point), this new development in my groin was a major inconvenience. However, according to my mom, she could see some blood in my shorts at the 31.1 mile turnaround, so apparently this had been happening for a lot longer than it was a nuisance. Wanting even more to get this race finished, I put my head down and kept doing 5 minutes on, 1 minute off.
My dad and I came to the non-crew accessible aid station at Tiadaghton, where I grabbed a couple cups of Coke and the little bit of Swedish Fish that still seemed to taste good to me. While I was still nauseous, I knew that if I needed to drop my pace later if somebody came up on me, I would have to avoid bonking. Although in the back of my head, I knew that if somebody was going fast enough to catch me from behind, there was no way that I was going to pick my pace up fast enough to catch them. We ran together in more silence, slowly counting down the miles until the last aid station at Darling, with me periodically yelling in pain during the walk minutes with a side stitch that was miserable. I was wet, I was bleeding, my side hurt, I was losing nutrients and getting dehydrated, and I just wanted to be done. This was one of the lowest I’ve ever felt in a race.
When my dad and I past the 9 mile marker (4 miles to go), we could just see the top of the aid tent at Darling. We kept jogging (well, him jogging on his bike) through that last half mile until we came to the aid station. My mom, Travis, and a few other aid volunteers were there. As I downed my Red Bull and tried to force some peanuts into my mouth, Travis asked if I wanted to know how far ahead I was. I was a little nervous of the answer, but replied anyway, “Uh, sure…” He radioed that question to the other volunteers to which he got back “First is ahead by 52 minutes,” which meant that I had come through Blackwell 52 minutes before whoever was in second place. While this was great news to me, I wasn’t entirely sure that they hadn’t missed somebody in between me and whoever they thought was in second, so I still wasn’t completely comfortable. Travis said something along the lines of “You could pretty much walk this in,” but me, not being completely comfortable and really wanting to be done and finish sub-9, responded with, “Haha, yeah, I just wanna be done with this.” After getting a pity chuckle out of my mom and the rest of the aid station volunteers, I said goodbye and thanks and started the last 3.5 miles with my dad.
Even though I knew that I had essentially an insurmountable lead, I still kept to the tried and true 5 minutes on, 1 minute off strategy that I had been doing for hours. If it ain’t broke in ultras, don’t even attempt to fix it. With my spirits rising, we slowly clicked off the miles. Three left… two left… one left… My dad wanted me to run the last 2 miles, but there was no way that was happening. I kept to the strategy, and when we could see the porta-potty at the turnoff for the USGS building and the finish line, I had one last walk. During the walk, I held my dad’s hand while he was on the bike and squeezed my eyes shut. I had done it. I had finished the race, with a huge win and an even bigger course record. I blew my expectations out of the water, and most importantly, I was able to do this with my parents there.
As I started to run around the corner, my dad respectfully have me the road for me to have essentially the victory lap to myself. I pumped my arms a couple times coming into the finish, still in disbelief at how amazing this journey had been. As I rounded the last corner, I say my mom, Travis and the rest of the volunteers smiling, taking pictures and shaking cowbells at the finish. I gave my legs on last push, pointed my index fingers in the air and crossed the finish line with a time of 8:46:50.
I stopped running, got congrats from the volunteers, and gave my mom and dad a huge hug. I definitely could not have done it without them. Once I got everything in the shorts taken care of, I enjoyed a delicious grilled cheese and burrito with some Gatorade and some conversation with the other volunteers and race directors as we waited for 2nd place to come in. It just felt good to get off my feet and finally be happy again. We waited for 54 minutes for Neela D’Souza to come in, looking much fresher than me, as she very humbly crossed the line and for second place and broke the women’s record by a couple minutes.
Overall, this was probably the toughest race I’ve done; pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did: it was raining, I went out too fast, I had nobody to run with, my legs started hurting too early, I became nauseous, and I bled everywhere. But because it was this difficult, it also was one of the sweetest finishes: not only was I able to overcome these internal demons, but I was also able to do it in front of my parents and show them what this sport means to me. I was able to do it while running a 50k PR (3:55), and not even dropping that much time in the second half (4:49). This is a great confidence booster for Tussey and for Philly, and I will more likely than not come back next year and do it again. The RDs were great, the volunteers and aid stations were organized and friendly, and it was a ridiculously quick course. While I didn’t enjoy the majority of the race, it was a terrific experience, and hey, coming out with a win and a course record is always a plus too.