The sign from the Pasta Shoppe. Like them on Faceboo?

IT IS A FRIDAY EVENING, JUNE 8TH, 2012 AND I AM seated with the Try-Chips folks at the race briefing and pasta dinner at the Pasta Shoppe on Scalp Ave. in Johnstown. That day, I was celebrating SPA-ghetti Day, a nod to Charlie Kelly and carbo-loading. The race director goes over some of rules and the course as I shove a plate of pasta with my food rake. There is nothing new that I did not know from the website or discussions from race veterans. After the director finished, I sent most of the time chatting with the gang from Tri-Chips and wondering when Matt Lindsey, Danny Bowers and John Weaver were showing up. I figured they’d be here at 5:30 from the last phone call I had with Matt. But now it is approaching 6:15 P.M. and I concerned they were lost. You’d think a police officer would have a better sense of navigation.
Matt, Danny, and John finally did show up but missed the entire briefing. I told them they did not miss that much and that according to the race director, after mile 57 the race was a piece of cake. Matt rolled his eyes. I also told him to be wary of the train that might delay the start at Ohiopyle. What is it with Matt and trains? He hallucinated seeing a train on the trail in the Oil Creek 100 and I suspected perhaps it was more of an out-of-body premonition than a hallucination.

Google Map of the Trail. I would be running the first two sections. The 70.5 mile runners, the entire trail.

I waited for Matt, Danny, and John to eat and I helped myself to a second plate. Matt and Danny were doing the 70.5 miler while John and I were to do the 50k. Both started at the same place, the 70 miler two hours before the 50k and both are point-to-point. John also had the double duty of dropping Matt and Danny at the start, driving to the finish of the 50k, riding the bus to the start, running the 50k, then driving to the finish of the 70.5 miler to pick up Matt and John. Wow! Thinking about that made more more tired that thinking about the race!
I got in my car and drove for an hour to Steve and Jeria’s McKnight’s “Mountain House” near Mount Pleasant, less than 30 minutes from finish. I am so lucky to have a place to “crash”. I didn’t have much time to stay up and chat since I was in bed by 9:30 or so. I really did not have a good night sleep. A half hour here, a half hour there. I could not stop thinking about the race which is very unusual for me. I’m typically a good pre-race sleeper. Though I do get annoyed when I don’t sleep, I have had several good nights in the days before so having a sleepless night before race day isn’t that too much of a big deal. All night, one of the McKnight’s dogs, a dachshund, insisted in sleeping with me the entire night. Though it was kind of neat that Maximillian Lager Bruder Boy wanted to curl up against me under the covers, I could not forget the story of the “death cat” that lived at a nursing home which I read about several months ago. Perhaps the dog knew something I didn’t?

Some of the food and stuff I will be taking with me.

The finish area. I would park at the “Additional Parking” area on the left along Fire Tower Road. It is about a half mile to the finish area art the bottom of the map.

THE BUZZER WOKE ME UP AT 5AM and I got up, inhaled a bagel and Nutella, drank some coffee and headed out the door. I mentioned my nutrition and fluid plan in my last blog entry but it is important to go over it again now. I will be catching a bus from the finish line to the start. On the bus I would have 32 ounces of Gatorade and some trail mix. With me, I had two 20-ounce bottles of water with a packet of Hammer Perpetuem divided between the two, two more packets of Perpetuem for later in the race, 8 or so PowerBar gels, four Cliff Mini’s, four Cliff Bars, and 15 to 20 Hammer Electrolyte tabs. I also carried a banana. These I would packed in my Ultimate Direction Navati belt pack. Then, I stuffed about four Cliff Mini’s and four gels and about a half dozen electrolyte tabs in my trail racing shorts. These race shorts have four discrete pockets in the back at the waist. I keep thinking that I am carrying too much weight/food. The pack is heavy with all this stuff! It felt like I was carrying a full-course dinner with me. But I decided it was better to be safe than sorry. Also I would be carrying a belt pack instead of a backpack. My plan is to alternate from having either a gel or Cliff-mini or half of a Cliff Bar every thirty minutes. I would take anywhere from one to three electrolyte tabs an hour. I would drink any chance I get, probably going through six bottles of water/Perpetuem and at each aid station.
I got into the car and raced up the mountain to the finish area. I was running behind my timetable and I almost missed the turn into the parking lot even though I scouted the area the evening before on my way to the ‘Mountain House’. The finish area was on a hill about 0.3 miles from the main highway. I thought about parking here the morning of the race but there were few parking spaces and it was fourth-tenths of a mile walk to the bus on the other side of the highway. I opted to park at an another lot nearest the highway. Pulling into the lot, John Weaver was just about to walk to the bus. He kindly waited for me to get my gear together and we both walked across the highway, up another road to where the bus was waiting. On the bus, we sat on opposite ends and we both ended on “the hump” over top the wheel well. The bus slowly filled and I scooted over to accommodate another runner. I was seated with a woman from New Jersey who had done this race before but DNF. She had some unfinished business to do. She was in her late forties and pretty much spends every weekend going from race to race. Her husband was doing the 70 miler and she also had to drive to the end of the 70 mile race after she did her 50k. Trail running and especially the ultra running community is small and very tight knit. Chances are someone you talk to knows someone else you might know. Even though she was from New Jersey, she is good friends with crew from Tri-Chips. Since she races almost every weekend, she was familiar with or ran in many regional races, some of which I was interested in running myself someday. She said that this is the toughest 50k. I just finished my first marathon just a little more a month ago. “What did I sign myself up to?” Though it was brief and would I shake myself out of the funk by the time I left the bus, it was the first time I was overcome by self-doubt.

Whitewater at Ohiopyle? No one told me that there was a waterfall nearby…

The trip to Ohiopyle seemed quick and we had about 30 to 45 minutes to check in, go to the bathroom, and contemplate the challenge ahead. I ran into Patrick and Mary Ann Hanlon. She was dropping off Patrick here and then driving to the first aid station at mile 11 and then she would run the remaining 20 miles to the finish. They opted to do the relay since both, but especially Patrick, admitted that they did not train that much as they should for the race. About 15 minutes before the race, the Amtrak from Pittsburgh to DC rolled by, passengers peered out the windows wondering what was going on in this little town. I never been to Ohiopyle but it is one of those places I always wanted to go. It was smaller that I thought but it is considered a mecca for bicyclists, whitewater rafters and hikers.
The race director then announced to the racers to gather while I chatted with Mary Ann. We lined up and waited for the signal to go. I looked around and noticed my large belt pack of food while most had one water bottle or a Camelback. Again, did I pack too much? Do these people know that this trail was not as bad as I thought? Or am I the one more better prepared, able to glean more from what I read from past race reports and Google Maps. I was kinda hoping for the later. Back in junior high, I represented my school, in of all things, a regional cartography competition. (Nerd Alert!) I can read a map, for damn sure. My approach has always been to respect the trail and it was best to be prepared.
I stood quietly among the runners. I am about half-way in the crowd. I lost track of John then I see him at my 2 o’clock on the right. We nodded, then I touched my temple then pointed ahead, a salute, wishing him good luck and good race, without saying a word. The race director counted down and we were off! Immediately ahead of me for the first 8 miles was which a series of dramatic climbs and descents. I wanted to take this section conservatively despite the rush and exhilaration I always feel when the clock begins to count.

This pic is linked from another blog. This is at the very beginning of the very first climb. And this was the easy part!

IN THE EVENINGS BEFORE THE RACE, I would send my time online reviewing split times for the 70 mile race. (There aren’t any splits on the website for the 50k race.) For the most part, a four and a half hour first leg (19 miles) and a 3 hour second leg (12 miles) should put me somewhere in the middle of the final results. A finish at 7 hours and 15 minutes is a time that I would be proud to accomplish. At every mile, there is a concrete mile marker to keep track of the mileage. The Laurel Highlands Ultra began as the “ultra challenge” in the late 1970’s when brothers Joe and Paul Butchko discovered the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. The trail had just been completed by the State of Pennsylvania as a permanently marked hiking trail along the Laurel Ridge in the Southwestern corner of the state. The two brothers began running sections of the trail and soon decided to try and run the entire length in one day. So they invited a few friends to join them and the race was born.
That first attempt proved a true challenge, as none of the runners made it past fifty-seven miles that day. The first official run was held the following year (1980) with seven starters. Four of the runners made it to the finish line in Seward. Joe Butchko was one of those finishers. His brother Paul served as the official timer, and has remained as the race timer to this day. The race began at the southern terminus of the trail, running north for seventy miles. Each mile is permanently marked with small concrete monuments. The first two editions of the race, 1980 and 1981, were seventy miles long. In 1982 the starting line was moved back, next to the falls in Ohiopyle State Park, thus adding the extra mileage that now makes the course 70.5 miles long. The next big change was the addition of a fifty kilometer race in 2006. The 50k race is also a point-to-point race, beginning in Ohiopyle and ending at the trailhead near Route 31. The course is one of the more difficult 50k’s in the country as it climbs out of the Youghiogheny River Gorge before traversing the terrain around the area ski resorts.

The climb(s) out of the gorge from mile 1 to 7. The red marks my path.

IT WAS NOT EVEN TWO-TENTHS OF A mile before the dirt road narrowed into single track. It would remain single track until I would reach Seven Springs 26 miles away. Not yet seeing the first concrete marker, the trail was already lively. There was a lot of jockeying for position. I passed about a dozen runners and about half dozen or more passed me so I did not have a very large net gain nor loss. I wasn’t going to push myself too much on these first eight miles — I just wanted to get myself in a comfortable rhythm — running when I can and power hiking when the trail got too steep. At 1.5 miles into the race came the first climb, a 700 foot ascent along the side of the ridge. A 700 foot climb in just three-quarters of a mile is nothing to take lightly. To compare it locally, it is about the same elevation change from the underpass at the Muleshoe to the Summit Exit on top of the mountain on old Route 22, but in a distance from the Lemon House to the Route 22 exit. That said, when the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail was blazed, this is not one switchback on any of the uphill climbs traveling out of the gorge. (There are many switchbacks on the downhill, though).
Nevertheless, at that moment and looking back, that climb was not as bad as I thought it was going to be. I recalled slowing down at a walking pace only twice for less a fifty yards or so and the rest I was able to either power hike or even lightly jog up the first hill. This uphill section, including the next two climbs, were all at a conversational pace, which is exactly what I did.

I didn’t stop to take pic but here is what I would have seen if I stopped.

One of the cool things about trail races is that most of the runners are friendly and laid back. When the going gets slow and you have other runners around you, talking is a great way to pass the time. Then when pace quickens and it does become a race, especially on longer race, there is always words of encouragement like “good job” or “looking good, keep it up” and the like. Here on the first major climb, there were five of us who tackled this section all about the same pace. Then as the hill got progressively steeper, we all started to spread out. I hear a young woman from behind me say to me “looks like you done this before.” I admitted that this was my first time on this trail. There was only two times for the entire 31 miles that I dared to look behind me. This wasn’t one of those times. So there I was having a conversation with a woman who I can’t see as we climbed the steepest part of the first big climb. She said this was her second time running this race and that she was from Pittsburgh and also did the marathon a few weeks back. Then I looked over to my right and saw the Yough Gourge below the rock outcropping with the valley souped in with fog. I said “look over to your right!” and as soon as I did my toe hits a root and I stumble. I didn’t fall completely and I caught myself before any chance of a face plant. But I was embarrassed. Not only because I stumbled in front of this girl but even before this race I said to myself that I had to pay attention of what is in front of me. I set out on this race knowing that I needed to keep my foot placement perfect as long as I can and keep my feet up as much as possible. Looking back now, I think it needed that mistake to shake me up. That small error was enough of a wake-up call to drab me by the collar, shake me up and scream “pay attention Bozo!” I am glad to say that for the next twenty-eight miles or so to the finish, only twice did my foot land on a rock a little funny – almost rolling my ankle; and twice I tripped but both times I was able to catch myself from falling. Looking back at the entire race, I am rather proud of that my form and foot placement has greatly improved.

AFTER THE CLIMB, WITH two more to go, there was a nice flat section before the downhill. The girl who was behind me, managed to go around me when I stumbled, then took a sudden detour into the woods to pee. She would catch up later on the second hill and pass.
I continued on to the first downhill, a very rocky, feet of fury drop of about 500 feet in less than a quarter mile. Again, reading from blogs and talking to race veterans before the race, many said to take the downhills easy to prevent crushing your quads -at best- or face planting into a tree or perhaps worse. I was in a group of about eight runners, all being very careful with each foot placement, yet still clamoring down the hill at a good pace, when suddenly it sounded like an avalanche was churning behind me.
“Passing on your left!” said someone.
A runner behind me yells, “Look out! Look out! Someone coming down fast!”
A blur of green with bleached hair passes me. Holy shit! It’s Patrick Hanlon, Mary Ann’s brother. I passed him earlier on the first big climb and now on this downhill, he passed me and about a dozen other runners in one kamikaze act. Everyone in our group were either amazed or disgusted at his near suicidal descent. “That guy must have one big set of cajones to pull that off!” I thought.
At the next hill, I catch up to him, “What the hell are you thinking?” I said.
“Ahh. It’s fun!”, he replied.
I shook my head. It is a bad place to brake an ankle, I thought.

THE SECOND CLIMB, EXCEPT for a short section at the very beginning, was actually runnable. I climbed about 464 feet in 0.92 miles. Then came the second and last downhill. This was an awesome downhill! It was just an exhilarating run down into Lick Run. I was giddy, making squealing brake noises as I went around the switchbacks as I and about a half dozen runners make a very fast descent. Then came the big uphill. There was four of us that took on this section. It is a 1300 foot climb in less than a mile and a half! (1297 ft in 1.43 miles) As we scaled the hill, we all made good progress and did it in a conversational pace. As we climbed we talked out other races and where each of us were from until the one runner, who wasn’t wearing compression calves sleeves, asked the others and I if they helped. That was a good five minute conversation about compression wear and other trail running equipment. Finally we make it just before the summit at the top of the hill. Three runners charged ahead while two of us held back. I was still reluctant to push myself too soon. It seemed like many of the runners liked to bolt as soon as they crested a hill. I backed off for a couple tenths of a mile to get my breathing and heart rate down from the stress of the climb. I did not want to go out too fast too early. Soon, I and the other runner that held ourselves back, were passing the three and many other runners who took off and now found themselves struggling.

What does the trail look like? A lot of this…

After eight miles of 3000 feet of gain and 1300 feet of drop, I am now at the top of the ridge with most of the long climbing behind me. The trail becomes much more rolling and the terrain is more interesting. The single track was crushed top soil with large granite rocks peering out from the dirt. Occasionally the rocks would become technical but it was all runnable yet I still had to look down for the rocks. I don’t remember diverting my attention from what was right in front of me for more than a second or two. Also, there wasn’t a 30 foot section that you can run full stride. It was kind of hard to describe. It wasn’t technical enough for you to slow down and hone your focus but it was fast enough to get moving at times in a good pace. Still, I had to constantly change my stride and adjust my cadence – for the next 20 miles or so and for many more hours. Endurance trail running, especially when the pain sets in, is a much of a mental game as it is taxing on your body.
With the so-called “hard work” over, I cranked up the pace. The next four miles I was running about a 10:30 mile a minute pace through the forest and at times doing a a 9 minute pace is some section of the faster sections. Here, it was endless ferns and open forest with the occasional clusters of mountain laurel glades and mature pines.

…and this…

Around mile 9, I saw what looks like a few overlooks to my left. Earlier that day, I promised myself to take some quick snapshots of the trail. I missed the first couple of opportunities as I climbed out of the Yough Valley. Now, it was kind of surreal. I would see some blue sky against some rock outcroppings about 15 feet off the trail, quite possibly offering a stunning view. But instead of stopping, I continued running. It is funny what comes to mind during a race but as I passed the overlooks all I can think of is Bill Harshman is going to be so disappointed in me in not stopping “to smell the roses” and not taking in the scenery.
But I was in a race and granted I was still taking in some great sights without leaving the trail. I weaved endlessly through the forest, sometimes coming down a small crest of a hill and cross a stream on the many dozens of footbridges made of bisected tree trucks that crosses craggy mountain brooks. I really want to come back some day and do a leisurely hike. Then I came to the first of many rock dens, a prehistoric nest of rocks often as big as houses. The trail would wind directly into the boulders, sometimes you needed to do a couple of side steps to fit between an ancient fracture. It was way cool!

…and this. 31 miles of great trail.

Nearly mile eleven, the race came up along one of these dens when a couple of signs alerted that there was an aid station ahead. Just a half a mile before the aid station, there were a smattering of spectators cheering me on. It was very great to see on a trail run when you been in the middle of nowhere for 11 miles. A girl running in front of me, a relay runner, yells ahead “I’m coming Missy! Get ready.” Then about 100 yards before the aid station I see John Weaver.
I got to the station, asked John how his knee was doing. He said they were good – not great – but good. He jacked it up at Rothrock just a week before. Also at the aid station was Mary Ann waiting her brother. I told her that she needed to lecture him on the proper way run to down a hill.
She sighed. “Yeah. He does that all the time.” Mary Ann then asked me “So, how are you feeling?”
I kind of looked at her for a second, thinking, and realizing I had not asked myself that question. “Umm.. Good. Great, in fact.” I recounted to her the climb out of the gorge. Then I told her that her description of the scenery on the trail that she gave me weeks before didn’t do it justice. She said that the next section has just as much if not more to offer.
I filled out my two water bottles and then added the Perpetuem. I should have added the Perpetuem first and then the water. What a rookie mistake!? I also had two small cups of Gatorade, a wedge of peanut butter/jelly sandwich and some fruit. Then I remembered my banana I had in my pack. Now, I will admit this again that I was worried that I was packing too much. As it turned out having the belt pack wasn’t that much of a discomfort, but I will admit to one thing… it was loud as fuck!! As soon as I started the race way back in Ohiopyle, I heard it. Everybody heard it. It sounded like there was a horse carrying a sack of billiard balls following me for 11miles! The pack has a large cargo area and everything in it jumped around with every step. Now back to the banana: I looked in the pack and the entire banana was pulverized into a gray goo. It was a disgusting mess. It was like an alien exploded in my pack.
I tightened my shoes. They felt a little loose coming up the mountain and I could feel my feet sliding a tad but I was able to catch it before any hot spots or blisters appeared. (It is also amazing to note I left the race without one single blister, hot spot, or black toe!) Next time, I should wear my padded Thorolo’s instead of the Nike compression arched socks. I think I was at this aid station for five, maybe 7 minutes before I was off and running again. About a half mile in and into a set of pines, I ran into John. We asked each other how we were doing. After a few minutes, I started to talk to him about the trail but no answer. For the first time in the race I turned around and he wasn’t behind me. Where did he go? I felt bad since I was wondering if he expected to be pacing each other. I pressed on ahead.

THE SCENERY WAS SO IMPRESSIVE I can not mention it enough about how much of a beautiful course it is and with 31 miles, it is a lot of ground to chew. I was making good time and passing about three people for every person that passed me. But at that point in the race I wasn’t too concerned about how many people I passed or upset when passed by someone. I was out here for myself, for my own reasons. Endurance running is perhaps one of the only big things in my life that I am in charge of my own outcome and is one of the only things in my life that I can control in an otherwise chaotic life- a life that often is seemed to be controlled by sheer luck or fate. I read a comment someone else made that explains things more accurately:

There’s no secret recipe for success. no shortcuts, no gimmicks, no faking it, and no easy way out…. It all boils down to YOU, your training, your perseverance, your passion, and your ability to overcome obstacles, pain, and self-doubt. You are the reason for your success or failure.

I was running my own race and today my goal was to finish at a respectable time, in one of the most challenging 50k’s around. My goal is seared in my brain: 7 hours and 15 minutes. The miles and markers keep flying by…. 13 miles…. 14 miles…. 15 miles…. I run up and down so many hallows and cross over so many headwaters on this ridge like Cranberry Glade Run… May Apple Run… Harabaugh Run… Sandy Run…. They all fly by as I made good time. For many miles, there is no one in sight. I could be the only one on earth for all I knew. It is these moments like this as to why I trail run. It is just you, your abilities and the trail ahead. I was almost euphoric. I was happy.

One of many rock dens along the trail.

Every several miles, I would come to another den of rocks. Again, I would weave in and out of these large, house-sized monoliths. I imagined I was Hawkeye in the Last of the Mochicans or a Union soldier ducking fire at Devil’s Den in Gettsyburg. Approaching one of these rock dens, I tripped for the second time. As I lurched forward, I fell toward a rock sticking about 4 feet off the ground. I was able to get my hands in front of me and push off the rock like I was an offensive linesman and remain on my feet. If I had a handheld water bottle, I would have met my face with a boulder.

AT MILE 18, I CAME TO A SHORT yet steep climb up to Route 653. For a few minutes I slowed to a crawl until I soon climbed out of the hallow, across the top, over Route 653 and then it was a short distance through the woods to the aid station. It is good time to mention that the volunteers for this event were some of the best I ever encountered. They immediately asked me what I needed and what they could do to help. I snacked while a volunteer filled my bottle with water for me. As I write this race report, I am trying to remember what I did right and what I did wrong. Here, it is important to note that I ran 8 miles from the last aid station, drinking one 20 ounce bottle of water with a half of a packet of Pertetuem. I still had a second bottle of Pertetuem that I had yet to drink. I would fill one bottle with water as backup and begin drinking the other bottle of water/Pertetuem. At the time, it was going according to plan. In hindsight, I should have drank more than the 20 ounces during the previous section. Usually I would think that 20 oz. over 8 miles would be more than plenty but I did not account for the terrain and time spent running. Next time, I should base my fluid intake on the amount of time running rather than the miles I ran.
It was also late morning and the temperature was climbing. This aid station was also a check point. Runners had to arrive here within 6 hours from the start and leave by 1:30pm. It is funny but I never asked what time it was or paid attention to the running time my iSmoothRun app shouted out at every mile. But what I did notice was that my app wasn’t in sync with the mile markers on the trail. At this point my app was about a mile under – it claimed I was at mile 18 and not 19. I figured the mile markers were more accurate, assuming they were measured using an wheel and clicker while my app used points on the maps and drew a straight line between them, probably missing a lot of the minor turns and slight nuances in the trail. (My iSmoothRun recorded 3624 track points or a track point every 42 feet.)
Also what I didn’t know was that I was making great time. I estimated it would take me four hours and 30 seconds to get to this checkpoint. In this first section, 19 miles, I did it in three hours and 45 minutes give or take 10 minutes! I am ahead by about 45 minutes!
Also at the aid station was Pat Hanlon who exchanged running duties with Mary Ann and drove ahead to this station. I told him my criticism of his heroics on the downhill and we contemplated how long it would be until Mary Ann passes. They were doing a two-person relay, Pat would do the first 11 and Mary Ann would do the remaining 20. Team relay runners can have as many as four runners.
I was at this station for about ten minutes or so before I was ready to go. Not to far past from the aid station, I passed a group of seven to nine hikers, all in their teens, all female, led by a guy in robe, long-beard and a walking staff. He looked like he was auditioning for the next Hobbit movie. “I think that was a cult”, I thought. I did not look back, however. My attention was on the trail ahead.
At mile 21, it started to happen. I considered it payback for the virtually pain-free marathon I did in Pittsburgh. It began with a cramp in my lower calf and it slowly climbed my leg. Experimenting with my pace, if I ran too slow I would begin to cramp up. If I ran too fast I was then running at an unsustainable rate. Finally I found a sweet spot where my legs become just a minor annoyance. At times, when the trail demanded me to slow, cramping would travel up and down my legs but it was never enough to affect my gait or cadence. I was pushing through this pretty well. To keep up the best pace, my concentration locked down to an area ten feet in front of me, always finding the best place to plant my feet, and the best line over the constantly changing terrain.
Mile 24, as I crested Grindle Ridge, I heard shotgun fire. During the race-briefing, we were informed that there was a shooting range at Seven Springs and we would be safe as long as we stayed on the trail. I wasn’t surprised about hearing the gunshots; I was surprised that I heard it so soon. “Maybe the next aid station is on the other side of the resort and not before?”, I second guessed.
I ran and ran and it turned out that the shooting range was three miles before the resort. After hearing the range, it was a lively downhill into Blue Hole Creek that I thoroughly enjoyed and did not expect. But as the old adage goes: What goes up, must come down. I was faced with a steep uphill prior to the resort. When I looked at the elevation profile before the race, they were these tiny, almost imperceptible blips on the chart as compared to the climbs early in the race. But Ethan and Mary Kowalski warned about these hills. They are quite steep and they held down my pace to a halt. Here, at one track point, I was moving at the slowest pace for the entire race – a 30 minute mile!
Fortunately the hill was short, maybe several hundred yards. Coming over the crest, there was a middle-aged oriental woman, a middle-aged male and an older man. They looked like they were the walking dead. As I passed them and I looked at their faces for the briefest second, I noticed the blank 100-yard stare, their facial muscles loose and tired with their jaws agape. Before this trio, everyone I saw looked fine, healthy, and enjoying themselves. Everyone who I have seen in this race looked like they were all capable and fit enough to do a 50k and they probably knew what they were getting themselves into. But looking at these three, it was the first time I saw someone that looks like they were having the worst day of their lives. I felt really bad for them.

JUST BEFORE THE FOURTH AND FINAL aid station, my iPhone app shouted out, “24 miles. Total time: 5 hours, 7 minutes.”
“What??!! How the hell did I get here so fast?!”
I was stunned! I could not believe it! “Screw 7 minutes and 15 minutes. I can get this done in 6 hours and 15 minutes!”
Again, it is funny what you think or not think about when you any long race. I was not thinking about where I was in the rankings or where I would place. At that moment, I thought was “6 hours and 15 minutes, hell yeah! Suck it, Ethan Imhoff! You did it around 6 hours and 20 minutes and now I got to shot to match your time or even beat you! I am as good of a runner as Ethan Imhoff! Woo Hoo! Go Ben! Go Ben! It’s your birthday! Hell yeah!”
Ethan was one of two to three people that I talked about this race prior to that day. He was the only one I told that my goal was at 7 hours and 15 minutes and he was genuinely impressed with my goal and confident I could do it. He said at that time it would safely put my in the middle of finishers, if not in the top third, and an excellent run for a first time 50k. Ethan is genuinely a nice guy and doesn’t deserved to be the target of my shit talk. But for some reason, I don’t know why, and it seems so ridiculous now, but I was just reveling in the fact that as soon as I finish, I was going to text message him with my awesome time and then type out “in your face, suckha!” as a post script.My ego was in the stratosphere when I hit the final aid station. There was a sign at the aid station that said that the finish was 5.1 miles away.
“5.1 miles? Easy peezy”, I thought.
I was so excited – and didn’t realize it – but I was out of sorts and my hands shook as I tried to pour Perpetuem into my bottles. I probably spilled a third of it onto the ground. I had some candy, Gatorade, and a steamed potato covered in salt. While downing some gummy fish, several runners arrived and several more left.
Then when a runner arrived at the aid station, one of the race officials said, “Congratulations! You are in the top 25!”
“Twenty-five?”, I thought. I immediately started to look around, trying to figure out how many people have left and how many have arrived while I was here. Somehow, without any real true accounting, the number 27 pops in my head. I busted out of the aid station and took off! I was now in chase mode.

The lake at Seven Springs. Fast running surface but no shade as well.

Just 50 yards out, I already see a runner who I passed earlier but took less time to rest at the aid station. I soon overtook him before I hit a road near the some condos at the resort. I crossed the road and up an embankment and I emerged onto a dirt trail encircling a small lake at the resort. This was the only rock-free running surface since Ohiopyle. During the course briefing the evening before, the race director mentioned to be careful and look for yellow survey markers due to the lack of trees. I was running out in the open sun for the first time. It turned out to be a very warm day. I dropped into a small set of trees at the end of the lake and found myself out on top of the ski slopes at the resort. I climbed to the top and then down a dirt service road along the edge of the ridge – all out in the open. I mention about being out in the open only because, a couple of hours earlier Matt Lindsey began to feel nauseous here. If I knew this, I would have taken this section much more conservatively. But with my hopes in the stratosphere that I could finish in a unbelievable great time, I was crushing it.
From here came a good downhill section. I passed two more runners. Am I at 24? Then I realize I could be passing relay runners or maybe perhaps a slow 70.5 mile runner. I had no idea in what place was in. I zoomed past the 28 mile marker and realized I have ran 2 miles further than I did in the marathon. I made another fast descent down toward County Line Road, passing another runner. At the bottom of the hill is Sheets Road. I busted out of the woods to see of all people, the girl from Pittsburgh, who I talked to way back at the first climb. “Hey, you are the girl from Pittsburgh I met earlier. How are things?”
“Good” she said.
We both passed a dude that looked and sounded like Dr. Kutchner from House M.D.. Then came the last quick and sudden uphill. She, looking as fresh as she did back at mile three, steadily widened the distance ahead of me. Then suddenly, I kiss the wall. For about a minute or two, I was hit with a sudden wave of nausea and dizziness. My legs are again cramping. I immediately dialed it back to almost a walking pace. As soon as I slowed down, the physical effects disappeared and the nausea disappeared but I could not shake the mental fatigue. My brain was fried. At the top of the hill I started to run again, but I could only run perhaps 50 to 150 yards before something like the tiniest hill or a rocky technical section that demanded my attention would drag me down. I would see some rocks ahead and I thought “I don’t want to take this (rocks) in my physical and mental state.”
I kept alternating from running and walking. Despite my condition, I was able to pass another runner and then, once again I see the woman from Pittsburgh. Something must be up with her, I thought, because I could not have caught up to her in my state. I also hear footsteps behind me. In front of us is a small hill, a joke of a hill, actually. It could not have been more than 100 yards long and thirty feet high. It was insignificant. First I hear an unmistakable belch from whoever was behind me. Someone threw up. The girl in front speeds up, shaking off whatever she was dealing with but then at the top of the hill, she stops dead cold in her tracks. She is beside the trail, dry heaving and gasping for air. “Are you okay? Do you need some water?”, I said.
“I am fine” she gasped. “Go! Don’t quit.”
A couple of days later, I Googled if there where any other blogs of race reports and out of sheer coincidence I read a blog from someone who wrote some highlights from the race. She wrote as her last note:

– I was remembered by someone as “the girl from Pittsburgh” around mile 25 or so. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has a hard time remembering names and have a much easier time remembering a detail. He was nice enough to make sure I was okay when I was having throat issues leading to nausea on the trail.

It is very nice to be remembered for a small act of kindness.

I SAW THE 30 MILE MARKER. JUST A mile to go. Personally that was the longest mile, again I am alternating between running and walking every 50 yards or so. I saw the hard left off the trail to the finish line. For some reason I still thought I had about a half a mile to go to the finish but I see a crowd about 100 yards ahead and I pull enough together to run the entire way. I passed, which seems so surreal at the time, Patrick Hanlon again, sitting on a log and reading a book. “Hey, Ben!”
“Agrrrrghghhaaa”, I think I said.
“Great job!” said a woman with a clipboard. “Around the parking area – one lap.” I would have been pissed about doing that final lap if it wasn’t for Ethan who warned me about it. I round the corner, head back and crossed the finish line.
“6 hours. 45 minutes. 20 seconds”
“Huh. Did you say “6 hours, 25 minutes?”
“No. 6:45”.
For a second, I was confused. Then I stop my running app and it came to me suddenly. I did not turn off the ‘auto stop’ on my app before I ran. My time was paused every time the GPS and accelerometer sensed that I was stopped at the aid stations or when I was walking slow enough that app thought I was stopped. I glanced at the statistics on the app and it read: 6 hours 17 minutes running time; 6 hours 45 minutes total time.
But I wasn’t mad or disappointed or anything. I knew I placed extremely well for my first 50k and in what I would read later and been told that I did it in one of the toughest 50k’s around. And I did it 30 minutes faster than my goal! I was very relieved and elated.
6:17:19 running time.
6:45:20 official clock time
6426 feet of ascending
-4755 feet of descending
5357 calories burned.

Elevation profile from my iSmoothRun app.

I CONTINUED TO PACE AND walk back and forth to prevent my legs from cramping. My legs were tight. I figured this was payback for what I didn’t feel at Pittsburgh and then some. I drank some fluids, downed some snakes and a half of a pizza. I wanted to stick around to cheer some of the others approaching the finish and for the timer to official post the results and where in the order I finished.
Mary Ann came through the finish about 15 to 20 minutes behind me. John Weaver came in about 30 minutes after me at had a time of 7 hours — minutes. He was a little disappointed since it was 15 minutes under his goal, but he did achieve a personal PR for a 50k and on this trail, with a jacked up ankle, is probably a bigger accomplishment than mine.
I also learned that I did make the top 25 at 24th place out of just over 100 runners who started not including the relay runners. The winner did the race in a mind-blowing 4:34:47.
Other statistics: 7 had sub 6 minutes times. 32 were within the 6 hour mark, 32 in the seven hour mark and the remaining between 8 and the 10 hour cut-off. I wish I knew where I placed in my age group but they never published those details. Surprisingly, but every year the 50k race has a very high finish rate. This year it was 94%. I think this tells more about the ability of the runners rather than the terrain. Just in case if you were wondering, the finish rate for the 70 mile race is about 55% each year.

As I waited for my results, I stopped my pacing to talk to Mary Ann, John and some of the other runners. I could feel my legs tightening up. Then about 40 minutes after the finish came the first of many paralyzing leg cramps. I kind of withdrew from the crowd and found a quiet place to work out the pain. John walked by, asked if I was okay. It told him it was a leg cramp and it would slowly work itself out. To add to this misery, I really had to go to the bathroom… badly. Yes, diarrhea. Luckily I was able to run the entire race without incident. Again, I have had so many GI issues in the past few months with almost every long run, I expected to have problems and I packed toilet paper in my pack. But I had no effects for the entire race but now with the severe leg cramps and now this, I was actually worried I was going to crap my pants. Thank goodness I was able to “keep a tight lid” and after five minutes or so, the cramps subsided and I was able to walk. I walked into the woods (no bathroom facilities) about 75 years away from the crowds, I did my business.
I walked back to the finish, grabbed my things and headed for the car. This would turn out to be one of the worse experiences I have had in a long time. The car was parked about a quarter-mile away and it was all downhill. My legs were stiff as boards as I shuffled down the hill. Every twenty feet or so, I would cramp up and become paralyzed until the spasm passed. Each time, the pain would send adrenaline through my body. I was in dire pain and kind of high from the epinephrine. It turned out to be the longest quarter mile in my life. I think it might have been as long as twenty minutes or so. Finally, I made it to the parking lot. John was still there, changing into some fresh clothes. I sat in my car, waiting for my cramps to settle and an additional 10 minutes beyond that, making sure that they would not cramp up on the way to the “mountain house”. John and I talked about the race and what we experienced. He mentioned seeing an Asian woman, the same woman I saw before the aid station who looked like the walking dead. John said that she was on the side of the trail, balling her eyes out. She said she wanted to quit and John ask why she didn’t. She said that her husband was volunteering at the aid station and ordered her not to quit and keep going. She signed up for the 70 miler. “What a goddamn asshole?” said John. Agreed.

The Mountain House. I was never so happy to see a house that wasn’t my own or owned by a family member.

I felt fine to drive and headed down the road. My legs were still stiff but the cramping had subsided. I made it to the cabin and realized I was going to have some trouble getting out of my car. Somehow, in the process, I spilled an entire bottle of protein recovery drink on me. But I really didn’t care at that point, except when I realized how awful that stuff smells. I shuffled around the deck and greeted by Steve and Jeria as well as friends Kevin and Beth. They congratulated me on the race and were amazed by my accomplishment. All night they would congratulate me and pondered on my accomplishment what seemed like every ten minutes. It almost become annoying. It is not that I can’t take a compliment – it was just that I wanted the day to be over. Nevertheless, they were great in supporting me and pretty much were at my beck and call and served my every need that afternoon and evening. They had me sit in a high chair on the deck which I don’t think I moved from for about 6 hours. In hindsight I should have moved around and tried to get that lactic acid out of my legs. Eventually it came to a point where I had to get up out of the chair, up a set of stairs and into the shower. Actually, it went better that I thought and the shower helped loosen my still stiff legs. Afterward, I checked Facebook, caught up on emails and then joined my friends who by then were enjoying a bonfire in the yard. I stayed up chatting, longer than I thought, until almost 11pm.
The next day, I was still a bit sore but moving around. I wanted to take a long walk and flush more lactic acid out of me but after driving back in the car, having a late lunch, driving to the Windber Hotel for two well-deserved beers, and finally stopping at my parents for dinner, it was getting close to dark and I only had time to walk around the block several times before I called it a day. When I got home, I counted the remaining gels and Cliff bars and it become obvious that I must have skipped too many times when I should have taken a gel, ate a bar, drank some more water. Perhaps that is why I hit the wall and felt crappy the next day. THEN AGAIN, PERHAPS I RAN REALLY FAR THAT DAY. I demanded a lot from my body. I have been running for just three years and I went out and did a challenging 50k as my first ultra, finished in the top third of finishers, thirty minutes under my goal AND finished my first marathon just one month and four days earlier!!! Yeah… perhaps that is why I am SO tired??!!!
Still, by Monday, my running friends started talking about other upcoming races, and I read, and listened with a keen interest. Next…