Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Oil Creek 100 Course Scouting

With the Oil Creek 100 on the horizon, I decided to hunker down and get serious about preparing for the race in order to set myself up for a sub-24 hour finish. Two weekends ago, with t-minus four weeks until game time, I drove out to the course to get familiar with it. I'd never been to Oil Creek State Park in Western Pennsylvania, and only knew the course as it is presented on the race website. With Hayley out of town and me with no other commitments, it seemed like an opportune moment to get a few long runs in on the course during the peak of my training.

The Oil Creek 100 consists of three 50K loops around the park. Each loop starts and ends at Titusville Middle School. Runners follow a mile and a half of paved roads and bike paths to the trailhead, traverse the park loop comprised of mostly rolling singletrack, then finish the loop following the bike path and roads back to the school. Three such loops total only 93 miles, so runners then must complete the seven mile "Going Home Loop" to finish the distance. This mini loop follows the same bike path as before, plus five new miles of singletrack. The event also boasts a single loop 50K race and a two-loop 100K. The 100 mile race is a Western States qualifier, and serves as the RRCA 100 Mile Championship race for the state
of Pennsylvania.

I left Ithaca mid-morning on Saturday, September 10, for the four hour drive to Titusville, PA. Everything went well camping out for two nights at Manitous Revenge, so I decided to camp again for a night at the park. I'd save on the cost of a hotel and be able to reserve a site right along the trail I'd be running.

At 6,250 acres, Oil Creek State Park is pretty big, and I couldn't find any GPS coordinates for the campsite I'd reserved at the Cow Run Shelter Area. That meant following a map to the site, which of course resulted in getting lost on some sketchy dirt roads and wasting a bunch of time. Eventually I found the Cow Run parking area, hiked a mile down the trail to the campsite with all my stuff, and then set everything up. The Cow Run campsite has no electricity or running water, but there is a compost bathroom and a spout with potable water. Time to turn the rustic-o-meter up another step. By the time I hiked out and drove back up the the middle school where the race starts, it was already after 3:00 p.m. and 85 degrees with high humidity.

I started at the school and followed the bike path to the Jersey Bridge canoe launch parking lot, where the course swings a right onto the Gerard Hiking Trail. The GHT is a yellow blazed, 36 mile loop that goes down one side of Oil Creek and up the other within the boundaries of Oil Creek State Park and the Drake Well Museum property. There are access trails every few miles for those who wish to hike part of the GHT without covering the full loop. The trail is named for the late Ray Gerard, who developed the trail and helped maintain it for many years.

One loop of the Oil Creek 100 course covers about 28 miles of the GHT's main trail. The race website splits the loop into four sections, making it easier to break down the mileage into more manageable chunks. Along the course, runners pass old, historic farms and drilling sites from the mid-19th century oil rush. There are also several smallish waterfalls and a few scenic overlooks along the trail.

Section 1 is mostly rolling singletrack similar to the Finger Lakes Trail in the Ithaca area, but somewhat more rocky and technical. It's not anything too crazy, but I made a mental note to be wary of the potential ankle-twisters when I'm out there on the third loop in the dark around mile 65. The rest of the loop is pretty easy going, without any major climbs or highly technical terrain. Just before Petroleum Centre and the Egbert Farm aid station at the park's southwest end, near end of Section 2, runners pass by what was once Beninghoff Farm. Here, the trail is lined by a group of 35-foot tall replicas of the oil derricks used by drillers in the mid-1800s. According to the OC 100 website, this scene is the inspiration for the race logo and the design engraved on the finishers awards.

At Petroleum Centre, runners leave the GHT for a dirt road and pass a train station on the left. The station was very busy during the area's oil boom in the 1860s and 1870s, and remains active today. After passing the station and crossing over Oil Creek on a single-lane steel bridge, runners arrive at Egbert Farm, the aid station that marks the halfway point of the loop. We then hop back onto the GHT and follow it along the southeast side of the creek back the the middle school. After a climb uphill from Egbert Farm, Section 3 has several miles of wide ski trails that are pretty flat and easily runable.

During my full loop traverse, I was midway through Section 3 when I had to flip on my headlamp. I started the run later than I was planning to, and knew I'd be out for at least an hour after dark. What I didn't expect was a torrential downpour as soon as it got dark. As a result, I got soaked to the bone while running through ankle deep water on the trail. I could barely see ten feet ahead and kept second guessing myself about whether or not I was still on the yellow-blazed trail. I did see eerie, glowing pairs of eyes staring at me through the trees and thought of Wayne Knight's character in Jurassic Park and his miserable demise. That was just a movie, and, uh, the dilophosaurus has been extinct for awhile, right?

Eventually I completed the loop and made it off the trail. Because of the rain and limited visibility, I got lost for awhile in a residential neighborhood before finding the bike path that led back to the car. I finished the run around 10:00 p.m., soaking wet. No way in Hell was I staying in that wet, miserable campsite tonight. I drove into town where I checked into a hotel, chomped a bag of Chex Mix in bed at 11:30, and had a warm and dry night's sleep.

The next morning, I drove back out to the park to hike in and grab my tent. Amazingly, the inside of the tent was completely dry. Sunday was significantly cooler after a full night of rain, the sun was out, and there wasn't even much mud. After packing up, I headed back down to Petroleum Centre to run sections 2 and 3 of the course again. This was the peak of my 100 mile training, and the perfect timing for some back-to-back longs runs. I met a handful of other runners out there training for the 100 miler, and they were nice enough to offer me some extra water. By the end of the run, I'd covered 50 miles over the two days. I'd seen all but six miles of the course. (I didn't have time to run the five mile Acid Works Going Home Loop or the one mile Drake Well Museum Loop, which is part of the main 50K loop.) I'd also seen about 10-12 miles of the course in the dark.

The race website lists the 100 miler as having 17,785 feet of gain and loss, but it didn't feel like nearly that much. (I got 3,634 feet for the full loop on Strava.) I think the actual total gain is closer to 13,000-14,000 feet. That seems about right, given the men's winning time is historically in the 17-18 hour range. While I don't expect the 100 to be easy by any means, it does look like a much easier course than Virgil Crest. Having experienced a hundred miles once already, and improving on my base fitness fitness from last year, I feel pretty confident about breaking 24 hours at Oil Creek.

Oil derrick replicas at Beninghoff farm.

Here's the same derricks from an overlook on the southeast side of Oil Creek.

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