Monday, October 17, 2016

Strike Oil or Move On: The Oil Creek 100

Prologue


"Strike oil or move on." In those five short words, the race slogan sums up nicely what the Oil Creek 100 is all about. Just like the region's oil barons of the 1860's, you either make it happen now or keep going forward until you do. No excuses. No whining.

The 100 mile route is three laps around Oil Creek State Park on the Gerard Hiking Trail. Each loop is 50k. After the third loop, runners complete the Boughton Acid Works Going Home Loop to make it 100.6 miles. A single loop 50k race and a two loop 100k race take place concurrently, with each starting time separated by an hour. The 100-miler is a Western States qualifier and serves as the RRCA 100 Mile Championship for the state of Pennsylvania. Runners have 32 hours to cover the 100 miles, with intermediary cutoff times at specified checkpoints throughout.

The 5:00 a.m. start for the 100 mile race felt like anything but a 5:00 a.m. start. An all around jovial mood and lack of nervous air kept the atmosphere light. I figured I was suffering from either a severe case of hyperconfidence or hypopreparation.1 Whatever the reason, the starting line felt more like a turkey trot with 170 of my best friends than the beginning of 100 off-road miles over the next 20 to 30 hours.

LED strobe lights lined the street behind Titusville Middle School. Any unsuspecting, low flying helicopter pilot would have spotted a hoard of headlamps bouncing down an illuminated runway just after 5:00 on that Saturday morning. There's no oil here, so let's get moving. And just like that, the first few physical steps toward a second belt buckle were now behind me.


I.


The first mile and a half of each loop runs through a residential neighborhood on paved roads and a bike path, before hitting the rocky, narrow singletrack of the Gerard Hiking Trail. Having learned the course a month prior to race day really helped with my pacing. I ran the asphalt section comfortably and reached the singletrack with only a few dozen runners ahead
of me. It prevented me from having to slow too much for the inevitable conga line, but with runners in front of me I was deterred from going out too hard.

The rocky, rolling trails ultimately give way to more runnable terrain, and the group picked up the pace accordingly. We knew the first aid station was close when we came across a giant birthday card - "Happy Birthday! Oil Creek turns 8." Next to the card was a wrapped gift box. As we made our way down the tortuous trail, we came across calendars for all twelve months, with each runner's birthday written out - a nice little surprise from the volunteer team!

Lanterns and party lights illuminated the Wolfkiel Run aid station in the predawn fog. I didn't need to stop so early in the race, so I blew right through Wolfkiel and immediately began the long climb up Switchback Mountain. In reality, the "mountain" is a hill that tops out around 1,500 feet, ascending something like 400 feet in under a mile. Fortunately I still had my climbing legs leftover from Breakneck Point and Manitou's Revenge, so even the toughest climbs on this course felt pretty easy.

Over the next 6.8 mile section, my mind wandered quite a bit and I began to think a lot about other regional races that weekend. I tried to picture where other runners were at that given moment. John Donaldson and Tommy Hayward, a couple friends from Ithaca, were somewhere behind me. Both had trained long and hard for Oil Creek and both were gunning for their first 100 mile finish. Jason Mintz was some miles ahead, likely running for a podium spot. I thought of the Red Newt/Mountain Peak Fitness runners at Grindstone, now over 13 hours into their own 100 mile slugfest deep in the Virginia mountains. I thought of all the runners I knew who were, at that very moment, dealing with their own pre-race nerves at Red Newt's Watergap 50k. But mostly, I imagined Hayley in a sea of 13,000 as the crowd swelled through the starting line at the Rock 'n' Roll Brooklyn Half Marathon.

Yes, that same morning, Hayley was running her second half marathon as a member of the Saint Jude's fundraising team for the Brooklyn road race. She recruited a few friends and family members to join the team and together they raised a bunch of money for the charity. As much as I would have liked her to be present for my big race, I couldn't help but feeling so proud that she not only raised money for a good cause, but also trained hard and was prepared to suffer in her own challenge.

As the miles and minutes ticked off one by one, I moved steadily along the trails and through Benninghoff Farm. As described in the post about my preview run, Benninghoff is the site of several 35-foot oil derrick replicas. The derricks help to recreate the scene of the a local farmer's discovery of oil in the hillside in 1865, and his subsequent foray into the Texas tea trade. Upon his discovery, landowner John Benninghoff began leasing his land in small lots and was immediately raking in about $6,000 daily - a considerable sum today, and even more so 150 years ago! 2



Not long after Benninghoff, the trail spits us out onto Petroleum Centre Road. We cross a single-lane, grated metal bridge to arrive at the Petroleum Centre aid station. At mile 14 of 31, this is the "halfway point" of the 50k loop. Petroleum Centre was packed with volunteers, crew, and buffet tables. I opted to leave quickly rather than get sucked into the madness and kill too much time.

Coming into Petroleum Centre at mile 14. PC: David Potts/Tografi

The next section takes runners up something called Heisman Trophy Hill - eponymously named for legendary football coach John Heisman, who was born in Titusville. Maybe his teams' success derived from being forced to do hill repeats on this climb. Who knows? After the hill, the course turns onto several miles of cross country ski trails. This stretch is flat and not at all technical, making it easy to run and make up some time. I began to feel soreness throughout both legs, particularly the muscles around my ankles. It was nothing terrible, but it started to come on earlier than expected. All I could do was hope it wasn't a harbinger of some immense suffering yet to come.

Scenic overlook atop Heisman Trophy Hill.

My top goal for the race was go under 24 hours. I thought I had a reasonable shot based on my training. Failing that, I wanted to beat my Virgil Crest time of 29:25 and attain a 100 mile PR. The third goal was just to finish in the allotted 32 hours. I carried a pace chart with split times needed for a 24 and 30 hour finish. The chart wasn't too accurate in that the splits assumed even pacing all day, failing to account for the guaranteed drop in pace later in the race. At each aid station, I'd look at the split for 24 hour pace and determine by how many minute I was ahead. On the first loop, I was gaining significant time by each aid station.

The fueling strategy was to eat real food often and early. This meant Justin's Nut Butter, Honey Stinger Waffles, Huma gels, and fruit from the aid stations. I wanted to minimize the calorie deficit later on. With the addition of Tailwind and salt potatoes, in the second loop, I pretty much ate all the same stuff the entire race without any GI issues. (See notes below for further details on the food.)

I made my way past the camp at Cow Run where a Boy Scout troop took up residence for the weekend, then through the Miller Farm aid station, and ultimately back to the middle school at the end of the first 50k. I still felt really strong despite the earlier soreness. My buddy Chris O'Brien had come down from Rochester to crew for some friends, and he was kind enough to check up on me while he waited for them. A quick exchange of some gear and food, a change of socks, a new shirt, and I was out in ten minutes. The sock change actually took some time, but ditching the soaking wet ones was absolutely worth an extra few minutes. I took off down the road about 55 minutes ahead of 24 hour pace.


II.


The first half of loop two was a whole different experience than the first pass. Running in daylight, I could see the rocky terrain and the scenic overlooks I'd missed earlier.  I chatted with other runners around me, and a bunch of us talked about other races and places we've run.

Petroleum Centre was once booming with people and commerce, but plagued by heavy violence. Local oil teamsters in the 1860's had a blatant disregard for the law. Muggings, fights, robberies, and shootings were so commonplace that the media would hardly bat an eye. Today, what was once the town is now part of Oil Creek State Park, and is mostly deserted. 2

I kept moving along steadily, walking the steeper climbs and running the rest. I arrived at Petroleum Centre, mile 44.8, still feeling great. There were no fights or stabbings today, but I still didn't care to hang around for long. On the jog out, I checked my pace chart and discovered I'd made up another ten or eleven minutes on 24 hour pace. Instead of slowing down a ton on Loop 2, I was still running faster, on average, than goal pace.

After Petroleum Centre I was mostly on my own for awhile and kept plugging away - up Heisman Hill, down the ski trails, etc, etc. Arriving at the Miller Farm aid station, mile 53.6,  I was now 77 minutes ahead of pace and still felt rock solid. I made the mile climb up from the road and past Miller Farm Cemetery. I'd be passing the graveyard once more, in the dark, and mentally reviewed all I'd heard about reported supernatural activity within the park. As a kid I was really into these types of tales. As an adult I don't believe in any of it. But after sundown, with severe fatigue and sleep deprivation, I'd really have to play mind games to maintain some sanity and prevent every jumping shadow from giving me a heart attack.

There are a few bizarre stories floating around the internet about paranormal activity at Oil Creek State Park. People claim to see an apparition in a white dress walking the graveyard - the ghost of a women who supposedly hung herself from a nearby tree. Some have claimed to see orbs and illuminated tombstones littering the cemetery after dark. Another story tells of an oil well worker carting a load of nitroglycerin. When the cart accidentally exploded, the man's body was blown apart so badly that not a single scrap of his remains was ever found. A few park visitors and locals have claimed to hear unexpected explosions near the spot where the worker met his end, and some even claim his ghost can be seen driving his old cart down the road. 3


If that's not enough, there were reported UFO sightings during the 2009 race, as described by Jimmy Dean Freeman in a recent episode of the Trailrunner Nation Podcast. (I haven't found any other evidence of UFO reports, only what he discusses on the podcast.) According to Freeman, he saw what looked like a UFO and assumed he was hallucinating after running for 90 miles. After the race, people who weren't running also claimed to have seen it. Toss in the occasional hiker's Sasquatch sighting and now we have it all.

The rest of Loop 2 was pretty uneventful. I made it out of the woods with enough daylight to spare. Free of tree cover, the last two and half miles of the loop were still light enough to delay the need for a headlamp. After 60 miles, I was honestly surprised that a 10 minute per mile pace on asphalt still felt comfortable.

I found myself back in the school parking lot, preparing for round three. The 100k point is where 100-mile runners are allowed to pick up their pacers. I looked around and it seemed I was the only one with no pacer and no crew. I began to envy those who had help from their peers, but remembered that this is what I signed up for, and failure to find any crew was my own fault.








III.


The temperature had dropped to around 50 degrees and the sun would be gone in another half hour. I made my way back down the road to the bike bath, and immediately both legs stiffened up and I felt freezing cold all over. Panic set in, as I may have jeopardized my otherwise flawless day by sitting down too long. I pulled my paper-thin Brooks waterproof jacket out of my pack for some warmth, and walked awhile to loosen up the legs.

Crossing the Brown Street Bridge
An hour later it was pitch black, save for the headlamp lumens. In the dark, things started to get pretty eerie. On Loop 3 alone, a saw all of the following: a half dozen bears, a huge deer skull, a dead duck in the middle of the trail, an octopus, and a giant hand coming out of the ground, middle finger fully extended. I  wouldn't call any of it a hallucination since I felt of sound mind. I think it was the way the shadows jumped out of nowhere, turning trees and plants into some pretty macabre imagery. One real scare came when I heard a bear in my vicinity growl loudly, multiple times. Still all alone, I started yelling gruffly to alert it of my presence. I heard the growl a few more times but couldn't spot any bear. It took a few minutes to realize how close I was to a road crossing, and that the growl was actually the sound of a car engine.

A bunch of runners arrived together at Wolfkiel for the last time, mile 68.9. While making my way up Switchback Mountain it dawned on me how great my body actually felt. I'm pretty sure I was climbing this section at the same pace I did on Loop 1, and it didn't even feel like more of an effort. I quickly distanced myself from the other runners hiking the hill behind me. The only somewhat painful moments came during the steeper downhills, as a result of incessantly banging the ol' quads for over 16 hours straight.

I rolled through Petroleum Centre for the third and final time. On the way out, I again felt the legs stiffening up while the core temperature plummeted. The power hike up Heisman Trophy Hill got me feeling good again, and my lightweight rain jacket provided just enough warmth. According to the pace chart, I was still about 67 minutes up on 24 hour pace. Now past the 75 mile point, it seemed like my goal was all but assured. I began to do some additional math. As long as I continued to feel solid, I could keep running and go for sub-23. Or I could really race and shoot for sub-22, which would earn me a top-tier belt buckle. (In many 100 mile race, a top level buckle is award to sub-24 hour finishers. At Oil Creek, this buckle is reserved for those under 22 hours.) Running hard for a 22 hour finish was too risky, so I settled for breaking 23 as long as I didn't have to push too hard. 25 miles was still a long way to go, and a lot could still go wrong.

Over the nine miles to Miller Farm I passed a bunch of people. Many were 100k runners giving it all they had. It never fails to impress me how back-of-the-pack ultrarunners will be out there twice as long as the winner, gutting it out long after most of their peers have finished. I made sure to acknowledge all of them and wish them well.

Amazingly, both my body and mind felt really good even after 85 miles. I assumed a crash and burn would never happen since it hadn't by now. I continued to run any parts of the trail that were runnable, which was pretty much anything that wasn't too technical. Short stretches of rocky and muddy terrain slowed me to a walk since I didn't trust myself to run over it in the dark without tripping or twisting an ankle. Yet I was still floating uphill, effortlessly. After what seemed like an eternity, I came off the trail to run the Drake Well Museum Loop for the last time. This is a one mile loop near the end of each 50k loop, taking runners around the historic Drake Well Museum property.

The museum educates tourists on the area's 1860's oil boom, and is the site of the first commercial oil well in the United States. The property houses a bunch of old oil rig machinery, including a functioning, 15 kW hit-and-miss engine. 4 Every October, the museum proprietors will leave the drilling apparatus running during the entire race weekend. Runners can hear the steady, intermittent banging of metal on metal from miles away. To the sleep deprived runner, the clanging must sound like "the beating of that hideous heart" - enough to drive one mad.

I found myself still able to run a 10 minute pace around the museum loop and then down the bike path to the school and back. At the final aid station, the middle school at mile 93, I rushed through just long enough to fill my bottles and down some watermelon.

A few shots of the museum equipment that the course runs right past.

The hit-and-miss engine we could hear for miles.


Victory Lap


The only thing standing between me and the finish line was the 7.6 mile Boughton Acid Works Headed Home Loop. This mini loop uses a bit of the trails and bike path I'd been running on all day, plus a new section that crosses the creek on a suspension bridge. According to the race website, "All 100 milers making it this far will run past this empty area that looks like the scene of a fire but is really the result of sulfuric acid leaching into the soil. In addition, you will use the suspension bridge over Oil Creek... just like the citizens of Boughton did in the 1860's to return home after a day of labor at the acid works."

In the darkness I couldn't see anything, but the sulfur smell was impossible to miss. As I crossed the suspension bridge, I paused and turned off my headlamp to gaze up at the stars in the blackness. The night was entirely silent and light pollution non-existent. For an instant, I felt so tiny and alone in the infinite universe, but I quickly snapped out of it. "No time for existential musings now. This is a race, dammit!" In reality, I wanted to stick around and just stare upward indefinitely, but I was just too tired to focus on that. I tried to jog across the bridge without any light. With absolutely no sense of direction or balance, I began to sway and bounce this way and that, like Major Tom floating in his flimsy tin can far above the world. Afraid that I might actually plunge overboard into the creek, I flipped my light back on and got moving.

Immediately across the bridge, I realized how helpful it would have been had I previewed the Going Home Loop beforehand. With three miles to go, runners are faced with something called The Hill of Truth. We're forced to climb about 500 feet in under a mile, over the steepest and rockiest part of the course. I stumbled my way up, feeling a 23 hour finish slip away. A mantra manifested itself in my mind. "I eat hills for breakfast." Why? Who knows, but I couldn't get that out of my head. I pictured myself telling RD Tom at the finish line "Hill of Truth? Ha! I got hungry early and ate that hill for breakfast." This kind of attitude kept me from stopping, even as I thought of how gimicky and cartoonish it would sound out loud.

Breaking 23 hours now looked all but impossible. The new plan was to move as quickly as I could to get off the trail. I'd try to set myself up to hit the bike path with a reasonable chance of throwing down an eight or nine minute mile to the finish. If it required anything faster than an eight minute pace I'd just jog it in and savor the moment. Still on the trail, I really focused in on moving as fast as possible in the dark. I powered right past two guys who yelled my name, but I could only grunt in reply. I didn't realize until a few minute later it was Scott and his pacer, Zach - two guys I'd run with for awhile earlier who I thought were far ahead of me. I wasn't fatigued at all, just really dialed in and focused on a single goal.

I tore down the final descent and hit the asphalt running. Looking at my watch, I was hoping 23 hours was impossible. "22:44." Crap, now I'd have to actually run that last mile and a half instead of walk it in. Adrenaline took over and the last mile was easily the fastest of the day. I crossed the Brown Street bridge and rounded the corner to face rows of LED strobe lights lining the runway to the finish, just like at the start nearly a day ago. I finished in 22:57, feeling like I could run another 50k loop. I was still perplexed as to why I felt this good, but so glad to be done.


Epilogue

 

Ultrarunning is a pretty weird sport. The longer the distance, the greater the number of variables and the greater the chance of some minuscule thing ruining your day. On this particular day, everything that could go right did go right. Hang around ultrarunners enough, and you'll hear horrific tales of broken bones and puking, but also common mistakes like dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, GI problems, hallucinations, and wrong turns. I somehow experienced none of these. It was like catching lightning in a bottle. I know what a runner's high feels like, and this wasn't it. Instead of feelings of invincibility interspersed with feelings of doom and despair, it was a constant buzz of general well-being and the ability to focus. Now I need to figure out how to replicate that for whatever race I decide to run next.

I was told at packet pickup that "Oil Creek has the best volunteers you'll ever find at a race." At the time I thought it was just part of the hype, but after a weekend in Titusville I can honestly say it's not far from the truth. Thank you to each and every volunteer who donated his or her time to keep us moving and keep us safe, especially those who stayed out all night in the cold. Congrats to all the other finishers, particularly those I was fortunate enough to spend a few miles with. And thank you to Tom Jennings, the selfless race director who puts it all together year after year.


Mission Accomplished. Now my Virgil Crest buckle has a buddy!





Notes and Errata


I'm often asked what I eat (or don't eat) while running for this long, so here it is. During the race, I opted mostly for real food as opposed to processed sugar. I have no affiliation with any of these companies, but wanted to provide some honest feedback on my experience with all of them during the Oil Creek 100.

Honey Stinger Waffles - These worked great all day. The Organic Strawberry waffles provided a noticeable lift every time I ate one, even though they don't contain caffeine. All the flavors I ate tasted amazing - Strawwberry, Salted Caramel, and Honey - and I kept wishing I had packed more of them.

Huma Gels - As my go-to gels, they tasted great and kept me full longer. They're made from chia seeds and real fruit, and go down easy like any other gel. Some flavors have 25 mg of caffeine, others have none.

Honey Stinger Gels - I ate a few of these. They tasted fine and digested easily. I mostly went with Huma for gels, simply because they worked well from early on.  

Tailwind - I drank a few 20 oz bottles of caffeinated Tailwind, and one bottle with no caffeine. The Tailwind tasted great as always, and the caffeine definitely did its job. In the later stages of the race I had to quit the TW though. My body wasn't absorbing the liquid fast enough so I felt it sloshing around in my stomach. It was impossible to take in enough calories Tailwind as my primary fuel source. 

Justin's Nut Butter - A few individual packets early helped pack in some extra calories. As I learned in training, it takes too long to digest nut butter once I've been running for awhile, plus it makes my mouth too dry and sticky. I only ate these during the first three hours.

Salt Stick FastChews - They're like a roll of Lifesavor candy. The chews taste great when you hold them in your mouth and they provide electrolytes. I ate a bunch of them to keep my mouth from getting dry, and they continued to taste good all day.

Assorted aid station food was mostly fruit - watermelon, strawberries, and blueberries, - salt potatoes, and pickles. I drank a few shots of Coca Cola here and there, remembering the boost it gave me during the Monster Marathon. 

Other - I popped S-Caps every once in awhile, although I'm not if it was necessary. I also choked down an occasional GU for some extra caffeine. After all the Huma and Honey Stinger "real food" the GUs weren't too appetizing.
 

1 A few new "medical" terms I made up on the spot.
  
2 Source - The Oil Creek 100 official website 

3 "9 Spooky Places to Explore in Northwest Pennsylvania." Sabatini, Tambra. October 29, 2015. www.crossadventuring.com/?p=469  

4 From the official website of the Drake Well Museum. www.drakewell.org

2 comments:

  1. Great race, Pete!! Killer time on a challenging course. Hopefully we both get into WS - you never know! And thanks for the mention - I managed to just hang onto that last podium spot.

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    1. Thanks Jason! I know a bunch of other Ithaca runners apply for States also. I hope at least a few of us get in.

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