Monday, October 10, 2011

Oil Creek 100 Race Report: Going Solo for 5th Place

The coveted sub-22 hour "golden" buckle!

Somehow my legs had it in them this weekend.  I drove up to Oil Creek State Park Friday night still not sure if I was going to run the 100-miler Saturday.  I have been tired from all the running this year and mentally, I just wasn't feeling it.  I figured I'd pitch my tent, hang out, and wait to see if I got the "vibe".  After a great dinner, and some chatting with other runners, I decided that I'd give it a try.  I quickly went to bed knowing I'd be up in less than 6 hours.

The start - I'm in the white shirt, back and to the right...  (Photo m. henderson)

At 5:00 am we lined up outside the Titusville school, and started running.  My goal for the day, was to simply enjoy myself...much like up in Vermont.  I knew the course was a tough one, and a PR wasn't going to happen...nor did I want it to.  I just wanted to enjoy the wonderful trail.

And so I did.

LAP 1 (miles 0 - 31)
For the early part of the first loop, I simply chatted away with other runners, not caring who passed me or who I passed.  I enjoyed the banter with aid station volunteers, and took in the beautiful trail.  I am quite familiar with the loop as I not only paced a runner in '09, but have hiked the trail several times.  It stayed dark for about two hours, and only began to lighten up as I was running under the wooden oil derricks,  just before the Petroleum Center aid station (~Mile 15).

Oil Derricks near aid station 2 (pic from an '08 hike)

One word to describe the volunteers for this race:  Incredible! Each of the four primary aid stations had the most helpful and understanding volunteers that I've ever dealt with, at any race.  Filling my bottles, making me custom sandwiches, and tending to my needs.  Truly fantastic folks.  As I left aid station 2, I realized I was alone...a situation that would end up being a theme for almost the entire race.  There was no one in sight either in front of, nor behind me.  While I have experienced solo spells during races before, this was different.  I truly felt like I was out in the woods here in State College for a Saturday long run.  There was no concept of a "race".  I just felt like I was out for a weekend jog.  It was quite a strange feeling.  For the next 15 miles it was like this.  I saw one or two other runners as I hit the 3rd aid station, but then was on my own again.  By now, it was early morning and the temps were quite pleasant.  The forecast called for a sunny mid-70's day.  As I exited the trail onto the road, the course went around the historic Drake Well.  I did the short 1-mile loop around the well, listening to the steady thump of the powerhouse.  When I finally pulled into the School a mile later, after the first 31 mile lap was over, I checked my watch:  6 hours exactly.  "Cool!", I thought.  I didn't feel like I was pushing, and in my mind a 6-hour 50k for a casual pace was fantastic.  I took a good 7-8 minutes digging through my bin and resupplying my gummies, shot-blox, and various other supplies.   After a nice mingle with the aid station staff, I began my lap 2 still feeling good.  I had no idea what place I was in, nor did I care.

navigating over a log in loop 1 (photo m. henderson)

rocking the flaming arm sleeves! (photo m. henderson)

The Historic Drake Well

The "Big" 50k full loop (map: Peter Kozlowski)

LAP 2 (miles 31 - 62)
The second lap, in my mind, would be the hardest.  I knew that despite having one lap under my belt, I would still have one more to go.  Also, the entire 2nd lap would be done during the hot part of the day.  I headed out from the school and ran the mile-long bike path back to the trail head with another runner.  It was the first time I had company in over 15 miles.  We headed into the woods together and chatted away for a while.  Somewhere just before the first aid station, the topic of finish goals came up.  He then said something which changed my entire motivation for the day.  He said, "So, did you hear.  You get a specially-engraved GOLD buckle for finishing in under 22 hours?".  I had not heard this...but from the minute he said it, I had one thought in my mind: That sub-22 buckle would be mine.  I had a new sense of purpose and began thinking honestly if it was attainable.  At my current pace it would be close, and would basically take a PR (or damn near it).  This course was decidedly harder than the VT100 course, so the thought of a sub-22, at least on paper, seemed unlikely.  But I wasn't about to give up.  I thought, "let's see how I do on lap 2".  I had one goal for lap 2 and that was to simply get through it as strongly as I could without feeling like I was burning out.  On and off I ran with a few people here and there, but it soon became clear that I would be mostly on my own now for the rest of the race.  A couple of the lead 100k runners did pass me on this loop, and I managed to lap a few of the 50k walkers...but like I said, I went solo for most of it.   As I came into the 2nd aid station (~Mile 47 or so), the staff was cheering wildly for me and there was even a guy dressed up as elvis.  It was awesome....a real morale booster.  Out of curiosity I asked what place I was in, and was told under 15th.  WOW...really?  Cool!  I headed out of the station and soon crossed the half-way point.  I looked at my watch and it read 9hrs 50mins.  At the Vermont 100 in July, I hit the half-way point in 10 hrs, and finished in 21:48.  Damn, this was going to be close.  I kept thinking, "Do I have enough in me to maintain a VT100 pace this late in the race, on a much more difficult course?"  The thought alone seemed monumental, but I just kept thinking short-term goals.  Make it to the next aid station without walking, or finish the loop in under 7 hours so that you have 7:15 for loop 3...etc.  Again I ran the entire 15 miles back to the school by myself, and in the hottest part of the day.  I hit the bike path about a mile out, and noticed my knees were really hurting with the pavement-pounding.  What horrible timing...just as I was about to finish my 2nd lap.  I was beginning to doubt myself and thoughts of dropping with a respectable 100K (62 miles) began creeping in.  No buckle, but still a good run right?  When I got to the aid station I looked at my watch:  6 hours 45 minutes.  Damn, I ran the 2nd loop only 45 minutes slower than the first.  Maybe I could run sub-22.  That was all I needed to head back out.  I quickly resupplied, grabbed my headlamp, and headed out just before 6 pm for my final full loop.

One of the many climbs... (Photo CJ Houpt)

Having fun (Photo CJ Houpt)

Still smiling (Photo LA Reiners)

Afro-Elvis cheering us on! (photo m. henderson)

LAP 3 (miles 62 - 93)
The best part about heading out on the final loop of a multiple-loop ultra, is that you know every step of trail you pass over, is the last time you'll see it.  For this race, this was actually not entirely true.  There is a 7.7 mile final 4th loop that must be done to complete the 100 miler, and this loop uses the first and last 3 miles of the course.  So, as I ran along the first couple miles of Loop 3, I kept thinking that I would still get to see that part of the course one more time.  When I passed the sign indicating where the Loop 4 runners turn, I smiled knowing that I was now running on trail that I would not see again.  Right around this point, it also started getting dark.  I flipped on the headlamp right as I made my way into the first aid station (which was also my favorite on the course - Wolfkiel).  I told the volunteers I was on a mission and couldn't stay long.  I got a fill up and left quickly....still alone.  Leaving the station, the race took on a very different feel.  I was all alone, in the dark, in the fog, guided by only a dim head-lamp.  It was truly surreal.  I absolutely loved it.  Just like I talked about in my Leadville report, there is something about being this late into a race, in the dark, that is just magical.  I weaved my way around the trail for another 7 miles and pulled into the 2nd aid station after about 3 and a half hours. was going to be close for that sub-22.  I again, was in-and-out quickly.  I made the long slow climb up Heisman Trophy Hill to the top of the ridge and trotted my way along the longest section of the trail....about 8.8 miles to aid station 3.  I tried as much as possible to run the entire leg.  I just kept thinking I could "build up" more cushion.  Little did I realize that I was just barely treading water.  I passed by the people camping out at the Cow Run shelters and stood by their campfire for about 15 seconds.  It was great.   Moving on from here was hard and the following stretch dragged on for what seemed like an eternity.  I felt like I was seeing the same turns over and over again.  When I finally did make it to the 3rd station, I was so happy, that I took a minute to enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich.  It was heavenly.  On my way out, still not having seen a single runner in over 25 miles now, I headed up the dreaded "Death March Hill" past the old (and spooky) cemetery.  By this point, I knew I was on the last leg of the last big loop and damn near 90 miles in.  I began running on adrenaline and could think of nothing but finishing the loop and getting out there for that victory "headed home" final 7.7 mile loop.  I passed the point on the trail where the final fourth loop comes in and I thought....I'll be there in two hours....woo hoo!  I came out of the woods, rounded the Drake Well for the last time and ran all the way in to the school, having finished all three loops and 93 miles.  I looked at my watch and it said 7 hours 20 minutes...only about 35 minutes slower than lap 2.  I did the math very quickly and realized that I had 1 hour and 52 minutes to do the final 7.7 mile loop.  What I didn't realize is the awful hill that was waiting for me.

Some trail humor (Photo LA Reiners)

Lovely creek crossing (Photo LA Reiners)

LAP 4 - Headed Home (miles 93 - 100.6):
As I ran into the school at the end of my lap 3, I didn't even stop to go through my supplies.  I simply yelled at the volunteers and said, "I'm going right back out...NOW!"  I didn't want to waste a single moment.  I knew it was going to come down to minutes.  I booked out of there running immediately.  No time for walking.  I forced myself to painfully run the entire paved bike path back to the trail head.  When I started up the first climb, and after nearly 30 miles of solo running, I heard someone yelling, "Hey!  Am I on the trail?!".  I had come up upon Jill Perry who was running a strong first place.  Her headlamp had died and she was relying on a very weak flashlight to help her navigate.  After getting off-trail and having to backtrack a bit, she had convinced herself she was still off-course.  I caught up to her and told her she was ok, and that the turn off for final loop was about 15 minutes ahead.  I assured her that she was going to be ok.  I decided to run with her a bit just to make sure, but I soon realized that we were walking a bit, and I felt the sub-22 slowly slipping away.  I asked if she was going to be ok if I went ahead, and she told me to go for it.  So I graciously stepped ahead.....and turned on the afterburners.  I steamrolled down trail and practically bust out with giddy jubilation when I reached the sign that said "100 Miler Loop 4 runners turn here  --->"  I turned and headed down along the river eventually crossing over a long expansion foot bridge.  When I reached the other side, I saw the sign...the dreaded sign.  It said, "The Hill of Truth".  Dear God was it awful.  I had convinced myself at this point that I was not only going to finish sub-22, but that I would actually PR.  The Hill was awful though.  In retrospect, it probably wasn't that bad, but at mile 97, it was a crusher.  I fought my way up it, hands on my things, panting excessively, teeth showing, strange grunting noises emanating, and plenty of cursing.  I finally reached the top and connected back in with the main trail, only to make my way back down again to the Drake Well.  This time, the course skips the well, and there is just the 1.5 mile bike path and road back into the school.  Right as I connected with the road I caught up to Keith Straw finishing his third loop.  For those of you that don't know, Keith is a 2010 grand slammer and all around great guy.  He is also the guy that often runs ultras in pink shoes and a pink tutu.  Yes...he's that guy.  I looked down at my watch and it read:  21 hours 40 minutes.  I had 1.5 miles left.  There was no way I was going to PR and do it in 8 minutes...but pending some disaster, I was going to get the buckle.   Keith and I chatted it up wonderfully.  It was so nice to share my last mile and half with such good company after running alone nearly all day.  I was really worried how I would fare without a pacer and trying to keep motivated this late in a race.  It definitely was very different, and in general I prefer having a pacer, but it was still ok in its own way (if that makes any sense).  I kept wanting to walk, but Keith kept telling me to keep the jog up and to not make it too much of a close call at that finish line.   Right as we dumped out of the bike path and on to the road, about 3 tenths of a mile before the finish, my clock passed 21:48.  I told Keith..."Well, that was my PR...less than a half a mile from the finish".  He just laughed and said something about how he couldn't imagine a PR on a course like this.  When we rounded the final turn towards the school I saw the sign indicating a turn to the finish line.  I said goodbye to Keith, turned and sprinted in.  Just before crossing the line I looked up at the clock and it said 21 hours 51 minutes 53 seconds.  I crossed the finish line, arms in the air and screaming.  There was no one there.  I looked around for a minute.  "Hello?  Uhhh....I just finished.  Is there anyone here to document this?  Oh crap, is this not the finish yet?"  It was just then that Tom Jennings came out of the back door congratulating me on my great time.  There were all sitting just inside the door with the clock computers to stay warm.  Still, it was a little weird to cross a finish line with no one around.  I shook Tom's hand, walked inside, was awarded my sub-22 custom gold buckle and sat down with a ENORMOUS grin on my face.  Awesome.  

Final "Headed Home" 7.7 mile loop (map: Peter Kozlowski)
 -Note the wonderful "Hill of Truth" climb at mile 4

...and then I was told two little pieces of good news.

First.  The course was actually 100.6 miles long....Meaning technically I DID PR for 100 miles.  I realize it's a technicality, but still, I figure I crossed 100 miles somewhere around 21 hours 46 minutes (or 2 minutes faster than my PR)

and Second:  That I placed 5th.  Overall.  Not 5th in age group, or 5th division....but 5th overall.  Holy crapballs.  I've never placed top 5.  Awesome.  Somehow I went from about 15th place earlier in the race, to 5th.  I didn't remember passing 10 people, but I think several of them may have dropped.  I was also the last person to cross sub-22.  There was a guy hot on my heals, but he crossed the line in 22:04.  Ugh.  Jill Perry did win for the ladies, but finished in 22:10.

So.  A HUGE success this past weekend.  Not only did I run in my 5th 100-miler,  and finish my 5th 100-miler...but I finished right on PR time, and was one of only 5 runners to receive the golden sub-22 buckle.  Today I'm hurting quite a bit, but I feel ok otherwise.  I definitely feel like I can still run Tussey in two weeks and will be looking forward to it.  I really can't believe how good of running-shape I feel like I'm finally in.  It's a little upsetting to think that I'll be heading to Antarctica for two months and will lose a good portion of my fitness. it goes.  I will get to enjoy the amazing majesty of the frozen continent, so it will all be worth it!

As a final note, I just want to say thank you to the amazing race director: Tom Jennings and to all of the aid station volunteers, traffic and police volunteers, and to those that marked the course so wonderfully.  This race had some of, if not THEE best volunteers I've ever come across.  So, sincerely, thank you.  For a race that I participated in completely solo, with no pacer, no crew, and virtually no running companions at all.....I still managed to have fun and finish strong!  Yay for happy endings!!


back of the buckle....yay!

...and for the gear heads and number crunchers:

- Calories burned ~14,000
- Avg heart rate: 142 (peak 170)
- Clothing:  Patagonia nine trails shorts, VT100 race shirt, Brooks cascadia 5 shoes, Darn tough socks, Moeben arm sleeves, bandana, and headsweats hat
- Salts:  S-Caps
- Hydration:  Mostly just water, with a little soda and gatorade.  Quite a bit of ginger ale when stomach was upset a little on lap 3
- Gear: Nathan Mutation X-Trainer belt with extra pocket, polar heart rate monitor RS100
- Carried Food:  Powerbar gummies, Cliff shotblox, ginger chews
- Aid station food: Just about everything!


UltraChris said...

holy crap, john! wow ... just wow! you are amazing. i have to say that was the toughest 100k i have run and you just crushed that 100 miles. nice job. rest well and enjoy tussey; you will do great. if i don't see you before you go to antartica, best of luck, stay safe and healthy and i'll look forward to seeing you back out on the trails when you get back.

Derrick said...

Congrats on a great race and season! Suspect it must have been pretty hot out there. Recover well.

ErieTom said...

Thank you John for a wonderful race report, if you don't mind I'm going to send it to some of the local newspapers! Some of them pick them up and print them in most of their entirety. The electronic timing sensors went off so we knew you were there and had finished and we got outside as quick as we could to see who it was to get the last gold buckle - congratulations!
Tom Jennings

Lakewood said...

Thanks everyone! and Tom, I should be thanking you again for such a great race. I didn't mean anything negative with my comments about the finish, I was just so out of it after 100 miles, I wasn't sure I actually finished :-).