Friday, September 1, 2017

Eastern States 100: The Call Of The Pennsylvania Wilds

[This is Part II of my Eastern States experience. Part I is about the injury and recovery leading up to it and can is found here.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artists, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter. - Jack London, Call of the Wild. 

It was way back in January that I heeded the call of The Wilds and pulled the trigger on Eastern States 100. I could hear those mountains howling my name, taunting me, daring me to commit to this monster of a trail race with 20,000 feet of gain and loss over the steep and rocky trails, historically horrendous weather, and a three-year average finishing rate of something like 33 percent. Upon reading the course description for the umpteenth time, I defiantly left-clicked the mouse, not without an air of bravado, bringing a sense of finality to the question "Am I really stupid enough to pay for an entire weekend of mid-August masochism?" I imagine Jack London was rolling in his grave at that very moment, as his protagonists fared worse than this daily just to survive. Two days later, Eastern States 100 was sold out.

Eastern States has no official affiliation with the Western States 100 other than serving as one of the latter's qualifying races. The top man and top woman each receive an engraved, fully functional wood axe as a prize. 2017 was the fourth year of the race, and interest in the event has been growing annually. I think it's the single-loop format and the overall rugged nature of the course that have made it a hit with ultrarunners. The 103-mile loop traverses the rough and rocky terrain of the PA Wilds—a conglomerate of state-managed parks, forests, and game lands in
north-central Pennsylvania, plus the Allegheny National Forest in the northwest. Altogether, the region is home to many hundreds of miles of trails, most of them very remote. The course has tons of steep ascents and descents, most of the them without switchbacks. It's not a true mountain race, as it never exceeds 2,100 feet in elevation. However, the constant ups and downs make it one of the tougher hundos in the U.S.

Race week rolled around, and I was still without any pacers or crew. I had something lined up, but that all changed after I got injured and resigned to the fact that I wouldn't be starting Eastern States at all. After a month of no running, the injury somehow went away and the sports medicine physician I'd been to said I should be okay to start the race. His caveat was that I had to adjust my goal appropriately and be able to manage some easy, pain-free running during the two weeks before race day. I quickly obliged, happy that I'd at least have a chance at finishing, even if it took the full 36 hours. Everything felt A-okay after a 19-mile run. Twelve days out, and I finally committed to at least starting the race.

At this stage, finding a pacer seemed near impossible. My friend Rob Seltzer, who'd DNF'ed Eastern the year before and was returning this year for redemption, basically told me I was digging my own grave. With no crew or pacer, no trekking poles, the recent injury and lost training, and having never set foot on the course, I was already at a huge disadvantage.

That is, until my friend Amelia Kaufman texted me out of the blue three days before the race, saying she heard I didn't have a pacer and was free that weekend if I still needed someone. I was on a family vacation in the Adirondacks at the time, but we managed to work out details and logistics. Three days later, I found myself at the starting line at Little Pine State Park in Pennsylvania, full of anticipation and nervous energy, with Amelia prepared to pace for the final 40 miles. Just three weeks earlier I was certain I wouldn't be running at all. Somehow everything had fallen perfectly into place.

We arrived Friday night in a heavy rain storm that stopped just in time to check in, grab my swag, and set up camp. The race provided free camping for runners and crew right near the starting line, and as a result, the tent area was pretty full by nightfall. As per usual on the eve of a race, I got an awful night's sleep before getting up at 3:30 for the 5:00 a.m. start. I had tried to bank sleep throughput the week during the Adirondack vacation to avoid crippling fatigue while running through the night. I felt pretty well rested throughout the week, so the intermittent three hours I got in the tent didn't worry me all that much.

The view from the starting area, just after the rain let up the night before.
***

Despite the early morning darkness and a few miles of jagged rocks, the first four miles were pretty easy going. The humidity, though, immediately became a problem—it didn't take long until I looked like I'd just come out of the shower. The race is known for it's hot and humid weather, and by 5:30 a.m. it seemed 2017 would be no exception. One guy who'd run the race in 2016 told me how he was chased and stung by a swarm of bees by mile 3, and how the stings smarted all the way to the finish line. Great—add killer bees to the hazard list, along with the bears, rattlesnakes, nettles, poison ivy, and ankle-busting rocks.

Right at mile 4 the first major climb hit us in the face like a ton of bricks. The otherwise silent forest became a cacophony of labored breathing and a steady click-clacking of a hundred pairs of trekking poles as we toiled up 1,200 vertical feet in a mile without a single switchback. Switchbacks are for babies, right? At least the perceived humidity was lower at the top of the 2,000-foot hill, where we were greeted by a cool morning breeze.

Around mile 9, I spotted a not-quite-fully-grown black bear racing through the woods toward some runners behind me. Just as I yelled out to warn them, the bear took a sharp turn and went uphill away from the trail and I never saw it again. Despite running somewhat regularly in bear country, this was the first time I'd seen one during a run or hike.

30 minutes until the gun!
I kept trying to make a conscious effort to take it easy on the runnable sections and on the steep, rocky climbs and descents. I ran based on perceived exertion and an estimated heart rate, even if it meant walking hills at a 22-minute pace. This brought me to the first crew-accessible aid station, Lower Pine Bottom, at mile 17. Amelia caught a ride to Lower Pine and rolled in just as I was walking up the road to the AS. Amelia would be joining as my pacer at Slate Run, mile 63. She took the headlamp I'd borrowed from my friend Aaron to use during the first hour of darkness. I made my way through the gauntlet of crew members and spectators that lined the quarter-mile stretch of road. So many random strangers were yelling positive things my way, I truly felt like a rock star. The on-course support from volunteers and other runners' crews was incredible throughout the entire race.

As far as fueling goes, I pretty much ate and drank all the same stuff I'd normally consume at shorter ultras. It's common in 100-mile races for people to take in as many calories as they can stomach in whatever form tastes good, but I stuck with the basics and it worked. That meant aid station food like watermelon, oranges, strawberries, pickles, salt potatoes, and Tailwind. I especially loved the fruit, since it provides calories without being overly sweet, plus added benefit of hydration. I carried with me a bunch of Honey Stinger and Huma gels and Honey Stinger Waffles. These all taste waaaayyy better than the straight up sugar found in most other gels. Of course I got my fructose fix when I went to the soda early on. I rarely drink soda in real life, but it seemed to do the drink all day and night at this race. I probably drank at least a two liter between Coke and Mountain Dew combined. I can't imagine any other situation where I'd enjoy downing two liters of soda in a day. I also carried some Mas Korima korimalitas, which are basically pre-packaged pinole cookies. (Yeah, that stuff the Rarámuri eat that you read about in Born to Run.) I won a box of these from Ian Sharman on a random drawing via Twitter. They were pretty tasty in the early miles, but then began to dry my mouth out later in the day, the same way Oreos and pretzels do, so I had to give them up after five or six hours.

Around mile 20 we ran alongside a fenced-in area for awhile. According to the race website, "This is a Bigfoot pen. If you are lucky you may see one, but it is unlikely since hallucinations generally don’t occur until much later in the race." I saw neither bigfoot nor yeti nor sasquatch, but was looking forward to Hallucination Hour when I'd see some crazy-ass shit. Maybe a mothman, Beorn the skin-changer, Nessie, and a few giant squid.

The first sign of any trouble began not long after I left Lower Pine Bottom. I think it was the humidity, rather than creek crossings or wet grass, that caused my feet to get water-logged way too early in the race. I reached my first drop bag at Brown's Run, mile 25, sat down for a sock change, and found that my feet were already shriveling and prone to blisters. The guy in the chair next to me was kind enough to hand over some extra talcum powder to dry my feet. I knew this was a temporary fix, like putting a Band Aid on an ankle sprain, and that I'd be paying the price in blisters eight to ten hours from now. Yet it was better than nothing and I was grateful for camaraderie. Nearly everyone I'd spoken to who run the race previously told me the first quarter was the worst. Here at mile 25 I was really hoping it was true.

Much of the next few sections were pretty runnable—rolling hills over grassy trails with some dirt roads here and there. I hit the Happy Dutchman AS at the 50k point, and then BOOM! A thunderstorm hit us out of nowhere. I didn't notice any lightning, but the thunder was unsettling. At least the hour of steady rain cooled things down noticeably. The miles continued to click by, and the rain ceased around the same time I caught up to Cory West—a runner from Horseheads, NY, whom I knew from various things around Ithaca. Cory dropped at mile 80 last year and, like Rob, was seeking redemption. We ran together through Hyner Run at mile 43, where I told him I'd be awhile and to not wait around. I took way too long at Hyner Run, mostly because I changed socks again. Cory's wife, Jen, was kind enough to grab me some food and fill my bottles before moving on to meet Cory at the next crew point. I wouldn't see Cory again until the finish.

The next major stop would be Slate Run, 20 miles later. I kept up a slow and steady pace from Hyner to Slate Run, the whole time looking forward to more fresh socks and finally having Amelia on as a pacer. We came to another "Bigfoot pen," and this time had to open the gate to run through it for a few hundred meters and exit on the other side. As with last year's run at Oil Creek, I failed to witness any legendary monsters, paranormal activity, or miscellaneous Unsolved Mysteries evidence. Bummer, dude. Instead we had the pleasure of negotiating a few short climbs and descents at about 40 percent grade. Devoid of switchbacks, these hills were the steepest on the course, but at least they were pretty short. I soon arrived at Dry Run, the halfway aid station at mile 51.1, in 13:14 elapsed. That put me on pace for a 26:40 finishing time, with most of the tougher sections already behind me.

The only mid-race picture I took, from an overlook on Big Trail Scenic Road,
mile 57, just before unset.

I finally made it to Slate Run a few hours after dark, right around 10 p.m. The cumulative fatigue was definitely becoming a factor. I knew the Eastern States course would wear me down and I'd eventually have to grind it out or bust. Fortunately Amelia was ready to go, so the last 40 miles wouldn't be a solo death march. There were like a bazillion people at Slate Run with all kinds of lights and a huge buffet table. It was like the French plantation scene in Apocalypse Now Redux—a small piece of paradise surrounded by an immense and horrible hell. After another sock change, it was extremely difficult to leave the party and head back out into the abyss.

Amelia's job as a pacer was to keep me entertained. She told me all about her two-month long, west coast cycling tour, which she'd returned from only a week and a half earlier. She's also run a bunch of ultras, including a sub-24-hour finish at Rocky Raccoon earlier in the year. She was interested in the adventure aspect of pacing at a race like Eastern, and the camping, ride sharing, and volunteering aspects were all part of the experience. Needless to say, I was very thankful to have her on as a pacer and did my best not act like a whiny and ungrateful curmudgeon as I suffered through the miles.

The low point of the race came suddenly and unexpectedly. Somewhere around mile 70, I think—this part was just a miserable blur—I had to pick my way gingerly over a bunch of sharp, awkward rocks for a few miles. It was hard to see enough to focus on my footing, and I was growing increasingly frustrated as I stumbled and fumbled all over the trail. My legs were just too beat up to maintain any balance while stepping around thousands of rocks and trying not to fall from the off-cambered trail into an adjacent ravine. We ambled slowly past a few other runners and their pacers, and were passed by a few more. The forlorn, rocky stretch of trail appeared to be the crux for us all. I asked Amelia for some quiet time to focus and regain some composure before things fell apart completely.

The pain of the beating was dull and distant, just as the things their eyes saw and their ears heard seemed dull and distant. They were not half living, or quarter living. They were simply so many bags of bones in which sparks of life fluttered faintly. When a halt was made, they dropped down in the traces like dead dogs, and the spark dimmed and paled and seemed to go out. And when the club or whip fell upon them, the spark fluttered feebly up, and they tottered to their feet and staggered on. - Jack London, Call of the Wild. 

Stagger on we did. At Long Branch, mile 75, I learned that I was in 40th place and only 22 minutes behind Cory. I was surprised I hadn't caught him yet, and fully expected to before the finish line. Located at mile 80, Blackwell would be my last major aid station stop—the last where I would have a drop bag with fresh socks. The scene at Blackwell, with all the volunteers and crews, gave me a much needed energy boost. Of course, it helped that the terrain had become much more forgiving over the last mile before Blackwell. Upon leaving the aid station, it was refreshing to think how we had less than a marathon to go. It was surreal following flags through a residential neighborhood to the trailhead at 4:00 a.m. I remember seeing a cat sitting on the side of the road. It may or may not have actually existed.

A seemingly endless climb brought us up to Skytop. The path leading to the aid station was illuminated like an airport runway in the middle of the night. We arrived just before dawn, moved through quickly, and prepared for a long, eight-mile section to Barrens, the next stop and the last aid station with crew access. The Skytop volunteers, who'd probably been out there all night, were super cheerful and wanted to help me as much as they could. I was pretty burnt out mentally after 84 miles and almost 25 hours. At this point, designating tasks to Amelia and different volunteers was way more than I could handle—it just took too much energy I didn't have. I simply filled my own bottles and grabbed a bunch of fruit and potatoes while refusing to sit down. I did remember to thank everyone, but definitely did not feel overly sociable, and for that I apologize.

Shortly after Skytop, the course follows several miles of smooth, wide, logging roads on a very gradual uphill grade. Easily runnable on most days, but day two of the ES100 is not like most days. I fell back into a sulky mood and couldn't bring myself to run. The excuse was that the road was just steep enough to warrant walking, but really I was just too mentally exhausted. Nothing Amelia said could get me moving any faster, and it was disheartening to look at my watch and learn that I'd fallen behind 30-hour pace. My feet were destroyed and every step was agony.

Deep in the heart of the PA Wilds, fully immersed in the infinitely vast pain cave, I was reminded of the Cherokee parable of the two wolves:

One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “my son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace love, hope serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “the one that you feed.”

At this point, feeding the good wolf was critical in ensuring I'd finish the race. I thought hard about how lucky I was for the chance to be in this place, with a healthy body capable of doing what is unimaginable for many. Lucky that I'm not a victim of any of the many injustices and evils that exist in many corners of the world. Things could have been much worse. I hadn't yet felt a twinge from my healed stress fracture. I tried hard to feed the good wolf with every bit of mental strength I had left.

Finally, the logging road sloped into a gentle downhill. As it did, an old rusty switch was flipped somewhere deep in the annals of my brain. I began to run. The 13-minute-per-mile pace was like the shuffle of a lion's wounded prey, but it was still more than a walk. I kept it up, with the realization that running like this was no more painful than walking and didn't feel like any additional work. My main thought was that running in this manner meant less time until I could finish and tear off my socks and shoes, putting to an end the agonizing pain in my feet.

The pain. By now I'd grown so accustomed to bearing weight on the raw skin of my forefoot, bilaterally, that the pain was nothing more than a wash of white noise, noticeable and inconvenient, but with no ill effect on my forward progress. The same can be said about every other aching muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, and joint in my body. I'd simply grown numb to the pain.

The only thing that mattered was moving forward along the race course. Nothing existed outside of what was directly in front of me. Every fiber of my being was born to carry my sorry mass of flesh from one trail marker to the next. There were no other runners, no finish line awaiting with a belt buckle, no food, no sleep, no rest, but also a complete lack of want for any of the above. My universe consisted of a trail and whatever obstacles lay upon it, and my pacer who had become quiet while dealing with heavy fatigue of her own. There was no beginning and no end. Strange how the mind can simplify things in such an extreme situation.

The 13 to 14 minute-per-mile shuffling was enough to bring a sub-30 finish back within reach. I was repeatedly looking at my watch to ensure that I was below the requisite 17:30 average pace needed for a 30-hour finish. Two days earlier, I thought the absolute best-case scenario would have me finishing in 30-hours, while 32 to 33 seemed more realistic. Now here I was at mile 90. Sub-30 was attainable, but I'd actually have to work for it. That meant running all the runnable sections and not wasting too much time at the two remaining aid stations. I rushed through Barrens at mile 92, ran for awhile, and suffered on a few steep hills over the next 10k.

***

At the final aid station at mile 99, I'm still ahead of pace and can finally smell the barn. We are told it's only 3.8 miles to the finish, and nearly all downhill. For an "all downhill" section there's a lot of uphill. Things are looking great until suddenly they aren't. Now I'm staring down a sharp drop off the final ridgeline, over a bunch of ledges and small, loose rocks. Wait, what!!? Yep, the course is marked this way. My body is already destroyed in every way, shape, and form, and now I'm trying to haul ass down this Devil's Path-type scramble to meet some arbitrary goal. I swear we dropp about 1,000 feet in a mile. Then a hiker on her way up tells us "it's just another mile and a half to the finish. Took me about 30 minutes to get this far." We look down the slope on both sides of the narrow ridge, at this point unsure which side the finish is on. It still looks like we're 2,000 feet above ground level, which isn't even possible. A steady barrage of echoing gunshots from a nearby shooting range only increases my anxiety. All of the fiery pain returns to my mangled feet, and stepping down a series of three-foot rock ledges brings all the pain back to every minuscule muscle in my body. At least I'm unaware of the trailside rattlesnake den that I'd find out about later.

The minutes continue to tick by and I feel like I'm about ready to crack. So close to the end. I picture myself as the only person in history to ever DNF a 100-mile race at mile 101.5. My toes are jamming into the front of my shoes as I manage to slide down a skree-covered, 25 percent grade. 29:56 elapsed, and counting. No possible way...

...and then I'm running on flat ground through a very small bed of pines, a couple of women telling me "Cross the road, turn right, almost there!" The pain and suffering dissipates immediately as I tear across the asphalt over for last 400 meters, basking in the late morning sun, towards dozens of onlookers with a raucous round of applause. "This ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive." I get a brief hug from Amelia just before I finish. Finally it's over.

***

The finishing rate for the 2017 Eastern States 100 was right around 60 percent—almost double the rate from the first three years. This probably had something to do with relatively good weather this year, as well as the event's increasing popularity. My "best case scenario" came to fruiting, with an official time of 29:57:24, an average pace of 17:28 per mile. (Full results here, and my sections splits here.)

Immediately upon finishing, I learned Cory had seized the day and finished less than five minutes before me. Had I known he was so close and been able to catch him, we might have been able to push each other to a faster finish. As it happened, I never saw another runner after the logging road climb around mile 86, just past Skytop. My Ithaca friend Scott Ulrich crushed it in his first attempt, coming in as I was passed out in the grass right next to the finish. Rob also pushed through and earned his buckle during the final hour. Eastern States is by no means an easy 100, and anyone who attempts it has got to be tough as nails. Congrats to these guys and all the other runners who were able to grind it out to the end. (Here's a good race report from men's winner Jayson Kolb, who crushed it with the second fastest time ever run at this race.)

RD Dave Walker and his volunteer crew really went all out at this one. The single course's loop format means that 103 miles of trail had to be cleared and marked. Some of the aid stations were pretty remote, but all were well staffed and stocked. The overall remoteness of the course also meant no cell signal or internet, so most communication was done by ham radio. Despite all of this the race production seemed flawless. Everything was very well marked, the volunteers were super helpful and encouraging, the food was plentiful, and the course was challenging but beautiful. A handshake goes out to each and every person who gave up some of their time to make Eastern States possible.

I also couldn't have done this without Amelia pulling through at the 25th hour to jump on board as a pacer. She definitely kept me moving when things got dark, literally and figuratively, and running/hiking 40 miles on this course is no small feat in itself.

A truckload of top-notch swag. Not pictured: 2 tickets
for the 2018 Western States lottery.





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