Celebrating a victory
The past few weeks have been incredibly hectic for me. I spent two weeks in Denver preparing ice-core samples (and climbing 14ers), which was then immediately followed by the Leadville Trail 100. When I got back, I had approximately two weeks to process mountains of ice-core data, make sciency-sense of it all, put together pretty plots and figures, and create a respectable scientific poster for a conference I'm headed out to in San Diego at this very moment (yes I am in fact writing this on the plane). On top of all of this, I have quick stopover in Houston directly from San Diego (which then subsequently entails a deliciously devious and debauchery-filled road-trip back to State College --- ooh very exciting…but I've already said too much), followed by another very big science meeting/conference in Southern France. Yes the real France…not France, New Jersey (is there such a place?). This meeting means I have even more important data to present, and to an audience of really important, potentially future-hiring post-doc supervisors. Thankfully I am presenting from the same data set as the San Diego meeting and so will only have to update my presentation, and not create a new one.
Blah blah blah….I know. Who cares. Back to the race report.
My point was that I have been, shall we say, a wee bit stressed as of late. And we all know what helps to alleviate my stress. Running and/or hiking very long distances. Earlier last week I began thinking of my last official ultra of the season in October, the Oil Creek 100. It got me excited, but also a bit sad and nervous. Sad, because I always hate to see a good ultra-season come to an end before heading back down to the frozen Antarctic expanse, and nervous because it made me start worrying that I needed a good "long run" or race before to keep me in prime shape. I will be in France during what would have been my 4th go at the Vermont 50 (still my favorite 50 miler). So….enter the Pine Creek Challenge. I was looking for something roughly 50 miles in length, on pretty easy terrain. I didn't want to go crazy. I did a quick search on Ultrasignup and found two races in the area over the weekend. The Punxsatawny 50k, and the Pine Creek Challenge 100k/100m. I decided 50k wasn't enough, and the Pine Creek Challenge was an almost entirely flat run along the Pine Creek rail-trail through the Pennsylvania "Grand Canyon". How could I resist? So, I literally signed up on the last day of registration, 1 hour before it closed. My goal for the race, being that it was almost entirely flat, would be to see if I could run the entire race without walking (except in and out of aid stations). I opted for the 100k as I didn't want to run through the night and 100 miles was just too long between Leadville and Oil Creek.
Ok so here's the crazy part….
I showed up Saturday morning after the 2-hour drive, and the impending forecast of NASTY weather. I picked up my number, lined up at some orange cones with about 25 other runners, and the race director shouted "GO!". About 50 meters down from the parking-lot start line, before even getting to the rail-trail yet, I took the lead almost half-jokingly….
……and then never lost it. I led the race for the entire 100 kilometers. It was an incredibly new and surreal experience for me, and one that I'm not entirely sure how I feel about just yet . Within a few miles I was far enough ahead (running about 8:20 min/miles), that I could no longer see anyone behind me. The rail trail makes enough turns where it doesn't take too long to lose sight of people in front or behind. It was then, that the uncomfortable feeling set in. That feeling of never knowing how much your lead is. Are they 5 minutes back, or 50 minutes back? Is someone getting a second wind and will catch up to me? If I walk through this aid station, will someone gain on me? It was mind-numbingly exhausting….yet somehow exhilarating. I've read many race reports from top runners, and have always been fascinated by stories of the mental games that go on in the leaders' heads during a race. The worrying, the wondering, the panic. I got to experience a small taste of that, albeit at a fairly inconsequential and obscure local race. Still, it was a race. The one saving grace was that the course was a 50k out-and-back. This meant that at the turn-around, I'd get to see first hand what my lead was. I knew if I made it to the turnaround and didn't see another runner for a few miles on the return leg, I'd probably be ok. But, if I saw a runner right as I turned around, I'd probably not hold the lead.
I ran along the winding trail for several miles, ticking-off the moderately-spaced aid stations at regular intervals. I was running steady and level at about 8:30min/mile pace for over 20 miles. Every time I glanced over my shoulder, and every time I stopped at an aid station, I never saw even a hint that anyone was closing in on me. So I tried not to let it weigh on my mind, yet instinctively I found myself peeking every few minutes just to double check. It had been raining on and off for most of the morning, but it was a warmer, softer rain. At about mile 25 though, this changed. A massive front pushed through and dumped about a half an inch of cold rain in about 20 minutes. It was torrential and life-sapping. It took a lot of vigor out of my steps, but I could only assume it did the same to everyone else too. As I approached the turn-around aid station at mile around mile 31, I glared at my watch: 4:40. Woo…not bad for a 50k I thought. But then, I experienced some interesting confusion with the volunteers. I, of course, am extremely grateful for anyone who volunteers their time to help out at a race….but at the turn-around, the folks at the station weren't sure if I turned around at the station, or if I went on for a few more miles and then turned around. I had never really checked the specifics of this on the race website (my idiotic mistake), and I had just assumed there'd be signage or instructions at the start (which wasn't mentioned and no one asked about). I also didn't anticipate I'd be in first place and need to figure it out. As I sat taking in food, eager to turn around and size-up my lead for the first time in almost 5 hours, the volunteers radioed other race staff to try to get a solid answer. They kept coming back telling me I had to run another 10 miles before turning around. I kept politely telling them that this couldn't be right and had to be for the 100-milers. I had already run 31 miles according to my GPS and the rail-trail mile markers (which were marked every single mile). Finally after about 10 minutes, word came down from on high that I was supposed to turn around at the station. I quickly thanked them all for checking and bolted up the gravel back to the rail trail to finally assess my lead. My clock now read 4:55. I had just lost over 10 minutes that the other runners would surely not lose now that the procedures were officially established. At this point I was sure my lead had all but fizzled.
…And I was basically right.
When I first hit the rail trail 50 meters up the feeder road from the aid station, I nervously looked up ahead as far as I could see. No one. I let out a big sigh of relief and was just about to settle into some nice moderately-paced jogging, when I saw the faint red shirt in the distance. Very quickly it approached. Damn. When we met, I told him briefly that the turnaround was at the upcoming aid station and that I'd probably see him again. I looked at my GPS and I had only come a half mile from the station….meaning I was only about 1 mile ahead. While a mile is decent amount, there was still 31 miles left and that lead could (and probably would) very easily dissolve; frighteningly fast. It wasn't much longer that I passed the 3rd, 4th, and 5th place runners as well. They were only about another half-mile behind number 2…and they all looked strong. If I were to win it, it wasn't going to be easy. My thought process at this point was simple: Just keep running…and don't walk. If I could maintain somewhere in the 9 to 10 min pace on the second half, I'd probably be able to hold everyone off, as they'd all likely be slowing too. So I just kept running. I hit the mile 36 aid station and saw no one. I was in and out very fast and even a good mile up past the station I couldn't see anyone behind me. I kept running, although slower, until the mile 42 aid station. Again I was in and out and saw no one. Despite the decent likelihood that someone might actually catch and pass me, I was somehow very content knowing that I led the race for over 40 miles. I guess at this point I figured that even if I did lose the lead, I didn't really care that much anymore. This is when I stopped caring all that much about the lead, and tried to enjoy the lovely geology of the PA Grand Canyon Gorge. It is truly a remarkable place. At mile 50 I looked at my time and saw that I was at 7:55. This was nearly the same pace that I ran my 50-mile PR at Tussey Mountain last year. Not too shabby I thought. I decided it was time slow up a bit. I was tired and didn't care all that much about the win anymore. At about mile 57, just before the last aid station, I went through the heart of the Canyon and watched as an honest-to-god real bald eagle flew over my head along the creek. I've never seen one in flight before. Truly, I can't make this stuff up. The clouds had all but gone, the sun was just beginning to get low on the horizon, and the air was cool. It had turned out to be a wonderfully picturesque and calming evening.
I hit the last aid station a mile later, and the 2nd shift volunteers were a bit shocked. They weren't even entirely set up yet and told me that they were not expecting to see anyone for at least another half-hour. We laughed about it, I grabbed some delicious home-baked blueberry muffins (best aid station food EVER), and set out to finish up the last 3+ miles. Still no one in sight behind me.
I slowed to a shuffle and tried desperately not to walk…but had a few moments of weakness where I found I just needed to stroll for a bit. I probably lost several minutes time in those last three miles, but I truly didn't care. When I hit the last mile marker, with no one still in sight behind me, I knew I had it locked up. I was going to win my first race. Despite keeping it out of my mind over the past 20 miles or so, I couldn't help but put in a slight smile, at the thought of this new realization.
I hit the road that leads to the parking lot a couple hundred meters short of the finish line and made the turn up to the lit-up finish clock. A few spectators happily cheered for me and offered me hearty congratulations. Several very kind comments were made and it was all quite humbling. This is what it feels like to win a race. Huh. Cool.
I crossed the line in 10 hrs 20 minutes while it was still light out…but just as the sun was beginning to set behind the mountain ridges. I had managed to run over 61 of the 62 miles. I had slowed significantly on the second half, yet no one caught me. I immediately looked back at the trail turn off expecting to see my chasers that had been bearing down on me, but there was no one. 20 minutes passed before another runner finally came up around that corner to finish. Numbers 3 and 4 were not far behind.
I ate a bunch of hot food cooked up by the volunteers and chatted with the other finishers as I waited for my drop bag to make it back from the far aid station. To my surprise, the third place finisher told me that at the mile 42 aid station, he actually saw me leaving. He had more-or-less caught up to me, but then ran out of gas. I never saw him, and in a way I'm glad I didn't…as this was right about the time that I was glad to have stopped caring where other runners were.
So that was my first 100k race, and my first outright victory. More importantly though, it was my first jaunt along the beautiful PA Grand Canyon Gorge. I can't wait to get back there with my bike or while hiking along the Mid-State Trail.
That's it. Get out there people. The world is beautiful...(and pretty darn fun too!)
A blurry finish photo. The clock read 13:21:55 which equates to a 10:21:55 finish.
(The 100 milers started 3 hours earlier than the 100k'ers) (Photo: S. Hanes)
The Pine Creek Rail Trail